Opinion | I read 70 books last year… here are the best five

By Anna Fischer, Senior Staff Columnist

The new year is a time of goal-setting, change-making and resolution-attempting for many. For me, this time of year ushers around my annual reflection on all the reading I’ve done so that I can write recommendations for lovely readers like you.

My 2022 column, “I read 88 books last year… here are the best five,” is chock-full of explanations of the health benefits of reading, so I won’t rehash them for you. If those reasons didn’t quite motivate you to make 2022 your year of reading for pleasure, my next tactic is pure spite. The average American reads 12 books a year. Do you want to be average? Do you want to be less than average? No? I didn’t think so. Then scribble a small addendum to your New Year’s Resolution list — read 13 books. The five recommendations on this list are a great start to meeting that goal.

1. “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” by Ocean Vuong

This is the book I read last year that I recommended to everyone I know, that I bought multiple copies of to give to people and that I simply haven’t stopped thinking about since I read it. It’s a phenomenal exploration of the relationship between a second-generation Vietnamese son and his immigrant mother, but it is so much more than that. 

“On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” is a novel composed of letters that the protagonist, Little Dog, writes to his illiterate mother. This novel dives deep into Asian American identity, queer love and grief. Vuong is a poet, so every line cuts deep into the heart and reminds you how beautiful language is — how powerful it is. I have nothing but good things to say about this novel, so if you pick up only one book from this list, let it be this one.

2. “The Count of Monte Cristo” by Alexandre Dumas

Now, this tome of a story may seem intimidating — 1,300 pages is no small undertaking. But I promise you, it’s worth it. I recommended “The Count of Monte Cristo” to my mom while she attended nursing school, and though it took her a couple of months, she never gave up on it. It ended up being one of her favorite books of the year as well. 

“The Count of Monte Cristo” is a novel about revenge. It’s a novel with mystery and intrigue. But most of all, it’s a masterclass in storytelling. This classic novel will pull you into the characters and their relationships with one another. Set in post-Napoleonic France, the story begins when jealous shipmates and a crooked magistrate imprison the young sailor Edmond Dantes on the night of his wedding for a crime that he didn’t commit. He is taken to the Chateau d’If, where he sits and plots his revenge on his enemies. There is secret buried treasure, treason and love. Best of all, it’s a book that, even after 1,300 pages, you never want to end.

3. “Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy

I’ll admit it — 2022 was my year of long books. But don’t let the length of my recommendations deter you, every single one of these novels is worth the time it takes to read them. In this classic of Russian literature, Tolstoy builds a diorama of the Russian upper class in the 1870s. The novel explores a large cast of characters whose stories weave together in order to explore the nature of human relationships and human psyche. Anna Karenina herself is a complicated and messy character. 

While the novel explores many themes, it primarily focuses on Anna’s love affair with a man named Vronsky which not only upsets their own lives but threatens to upset the entire social order of the Russian upper class. None of the characters are perfect — though Levin is incredibly endearing — and that is precisely what makes the novel so fascinating. If you have any interest in Russian literature and are looking for recommendations outside of the go-to “Crime and Punishment,” I highly recommend Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina.”

4. “The Wasteland and Other Poems” by T.S. Eliot

I wanted to include some poetry on this year’s list because I certainly lacked in poetry recommendations last year. Eliot is a fascinating poet, and incredibly talented. “The Wasteland” is considered one of the greatest poems of all time. Eliot wrote it after having a psychotic break. It’s a dark and pessimistic tour through a dying civilization, the ravings of a man struggling with modernity and never quite able to handle the rapid changes of the world that are taking place around him. Ezra Pound described “The Wasteland” as “the justification of the ‘movement,’ of our modern experiment,” and it is certainly a poem that every person in the modern world should read at least once in their life. 

The edition of “The Wasteland” that I’ve linked includes other earlier works of Eliot’s as well. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” my personal favorite Eliot poem, explores the existential thoughts of aging and the perceptions of others by a deeply insecure little man attending a party. Overall, this collection will only take you a couple of days to read and will draw you into the wonderful world of modernist poetry.

5. “Ulysses”  by James Joyce

Just hear me out. Yes, I know that this book consistently appears on Top 100 Most Difficult Books of All Time lists. I know that this book is the pinnacle of extremely difficult modernist literature. I know that this book has a reputation for being pretentious and at times downright ridiculous. Yet, it was one of the best books I read this year. I’m not going to lie. It’s hard. It took me nearly a month to read and there were frequent moments in the novel where I simply had no idea what was going on. But even during those moments, my confusion didn’t matter much. 

At the heart of the novel, “Ulysses” is a very simple story. It occurs within a single day, and it follows a small cast of characters around the city of Dublin. The main characters, Stephen Daedalus and Leopold Bloom, are living unfulfilled lives and spend much of their day in existential thoughts, hopes and fears. The novel dips in and out of streams of consciousness, playing with language, time and narrative structure. It is, quite simply, like nothing you’ve ever read before. 

If you decide 2023 is the year you’re going to read “Ulysses,” I applaud you. It’s worth it. And here is some advice. First, be okay with not knowing what’s going on all of the time. There will be sections of the novel — if not the entire novel — that feel like a fever dream. Just go with it and know you’ll catch back onto one narrative thread or another at some point. Second, the novel is funny! Don’t be afraid to laugh at it. There’s an entire section where Bloom is seemingly getting stepped on by a gender-fluid dominatrix. That’s funny! Don’t take it too seriously. Finally, just don’t be intimidated. Finishing “Ulysses” is in and of itself an accomplishment, regardless of how much of it you actually understood. If you want to challenge yourself with your reading this year, I highly recommend taking a crack at “Ulysses.” Bottom line, it’s just a good book.

And that’s it! That rounds off all of my recommendations from last year. I hope you were able to find something or other that spoke to you and pick it up for the new year. If you end up reading any of the books I recommended, please email me your thoughts, I would love to hear them. Until next year, dear readers.

Anna Fischer writes about female empowerment, literature and art. She’s really into bagels. Write to her at [email protected].