Top 3 Must-Reads of 2016 (even if they aren’t all published in 2016)

Scroll down for a list of all the books I’ve read this past year!

Shamefully, with a tinge of expected wryness, I admit that this past summer wasn’t incredibly fruitful on the novel-writing front (with bits and pieces jotted down here and there, but little spun into a coherent plot). But at least my love for a good book hasn’t waned, and things have been looking up on the novel-reading end: precious blocks of time spent pouring over a good tome on 7:30am train rides to work, on 7:30pm train rides back from work, in the waiting-room of a clinic (having visited the clinic not once, but four times in the last week due to a terribly persistent bout of tonsillitis), on a long plane ride, on the top bunk of an overnight train from Vienna to Berlin, in the solitude of a rented Airbnb room.

And what good is a good book, if it isn’t shared? So here’s my top  reads of this summer – there’s also a little story to how I ended up with each one of these books this summer, whether recommended by my friends or chanced upon in my travels. I’ve also appended all the books I’ve read in the past year at the bottom of this post, so do enjoy!

1. The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes

Though a fascinating exploration of 20th Century Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, The Noise of Time is admittedly not for everyone. I’d highly suggest listening to Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 and taking in its triumphant cacophony of sounds before embarking on this novel – it would be a difficult read without an appreciation of Shostakovich’s music, and the history that accompanies the composer’s struggles to express himself. The Noise of Time follows much of Shostakovich’s life, from the scathing review of his opera in Pravda (Soviet state-run newspaper of the time), to his implication in an assassination plot, to his tense and sporadic interactions with Stalin and his final acquiescence to join the Communist Party.

Barnes’ writing is as fluid and vivid in its descriptions as in his other novels – The Sense of an Ending is another must-read – which makes Shostakovich’s story more compelling and palatable, but at the same time feel a little less authentic. Having been introduced to Russian literature this past year (Dostoevsky and Gogol), it’s hard to imagine that the neurotic, undeniably Russian composer would’ve expressed his thoughts in a manner so fluid and profound. Yet I found myself falling in love again with Barnes’ beautiful but simple prose; perhaps it’s a little unauthentic to Shostakovich’s nervous disposition and deeply Russian roots, but Barnes’ writing is indeed captivating, lightly humorous, and captures the nuanced emotions of a creative composer living under Soviet rule.

My little backstory: Flashback to May 23 earlier this year, when I was still struggling to stay afloat in the fast-paced waters that was Week 9 of Spring quarter (a.k.a. buckle-down-and-try-not-to-drown-in-work time in college speak). My good friend J had already finished up her freshman year at Harvard and was staying with me at Stanford over the weekend (ours is a crazy friendship – we first met in Oxford whilst interviewing for the same course, yet we both ended up pursuing our undergraduate degrees in the US, albeit on opposite coasts). For a good part of my freshman year, I’d been part of the Structured Liberal Education (SLE) programme, a philosophy and literature course that allows us to engage with a splattering of incredible works and get to meet amazing professors and authors and poets from around the country – and it just so happened that Julian Barnes was in Menlo Park that weekend to promote his latest book (that’s right, The Noise of Time), and one of the wonderful SLE tutors was arranging a trip there. She graciously said that I could bring J along – and there we were, in the middle of a large high-school auditorium, trembling with anticipation as the grand, tense, jarring sounds of Shostakovich’s Symphony No.5 blasted from the speakers. Barnes was as self-deprecating and humourous as I’d expected him to be; cracking jokes about his mother’s despair over his books and reminiscing about his college days (during which one summer he and a couple friends had rented a car for 6 weeks and drove all the way from England to St Petersburg, picking up a few Shostakovich LPs on the journey). He further professes, with a small tremble in his voice, that: “to be vulnerable is to be alive.” Was that small tremor indicative of genuineness, or just over-dramatisation? Where does the line lie between pretension and wisdom? Was his self-effacement ironically a form of pretension? These questions remain unanswerable in my mind, but one thing is for sure: Barnes captivated and intrigued me as much as his books did. And that is how I ended up picking up The Noise of Time three months later in Singapore, having spent an afternoon browsing the shelves of my beloved bookstore Kinokuniya.

2. The Berlin Stories, by Christopher Isherwood

Travelling around Europe (and falling in love with the city of Berlin) inspired a whole host of Berlin-related readings this summer. The Berlin Stories by Isherwood is yet another example of a foreign city or culture seen through the lens of an Englishman – and it’s refreshing. Mr Norris Changes Trains is a simultaneously unsettling and compelling story of the strange friendship between the English narrator William Bradshaw and the shady and endearing character of Arthur Norris. Although largely a fictional narrative, the novel imparts a strong sense of the tense political atmosphere of Berlin in the 1930s. The next story of the two-part series, Goodbye to Berlin, was less captivating and I never ended up reading it.

What I found interesting about Mr Norris Changes Trains is the detachment of the narrator from the rest of the characters. He weaves in and out of their lives and at times gets involved in some of their dangerous (and politically charged) adventures, but remains at a distance from Norris and the other characters. There is, however, a strong theme of homosexuality that runs as an undercurrent beneath the narrative plot that even the narrator Bradshaw exhibits. Perhaps this was a personal exploration for Isherwood; as a gay man living in the 1930s, Isherwood could hardly write openly about his homosexuality. But The Berlin Stories, and unique portrayal of pre-Hitler Berlin and his own personal experience in the city, truly proves to be a fascinating masterpiece.

My little backstory: Earlier in April this year, I’d travelled to Boston for a ballroom competition at MIT and visited J at Harvard (only next door!) She passed me her copy of A Single Man (arguably Isherwood’s most piercing, and most well-known novel) to read on the plane ride back to the West Coast, and I never got round to it during the school year. It was only when summer rolled around that I started on the book, finishing it in time to pass it back to her when I met her in Prague in July (that copy of Isherwood’s book has truly gone around the world!) I later picked up The Berlin Stories in a bookstore in Singapore.

3. The Art of Travel, by Alain de Botton

De Botton has mastered the art of self-introspection: of garnering emotional and spiritual insights without cloying clichés or overly didactic moralising. His aphoristic observations sometimes border on being trite, but he quickly salvages those rare moments by continuing on in his beautiful prose. The use of places, and authors/artists from a time long-past is simply an aid; de Botton uses them as anchors for his overarching discussion of travel, and its reflection of life and the human condition.

The Art of Travel is a little chunky, but it’s split up into bite-sized pieces that can be read separately, which makes it a perfect travel companion. I found one quote particularly riveting; de Botton writes when he arrives on the island of Barbados:

‘I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island’.

That quote aptly summarises de Botton’s masterpiece: he presents a piercing examination of the self, yet often displays a humorous lack of awareness — and all this grounded in different places and “islands”.

My little backstory: During my three days of solo wandering in NYC this summer, I stumbled upon McNally Jackson Books whilst walking back to dinner in Soho from an afternoon on the Brooklyn Bridge and stuffing myself with 生煎包 in Chinatown (yes, I walked all the way from the Brooklyn Bridge to Soho just to avoid having to shell out another USD$2 on the subway – and to get some exercise in). NYC was the first of many stops on my trip, and I felt that a book purchase was justified (despite the fact that I was already carrying three books in my luggage… yup.) The Art of Travel really resonated with me; it was my companion as I embarked on a month of travelling throughout Europe.

Special Mention: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, by Walter Benjamin

What, then, is the aura? A strange tissue of space and time: the unique apparition of a distance, however near it may be. To follow with the eye – while resting on a summer afternoon – a mountain range on the horizon or a branch that casts its shadow on the beholder is to breathe the aura of those mountains, of that branch. In the light of this description, we can readily grasp the social basis of the aura’s present decay. It rests on two circumstances, both linked to the increasing emergence of the masses and the growing intensity of their movements. Namely: the desire of the present-day masses to “get closer” to things, and their equally passionate concern for overcoming each thing’s uniqueness [Oberwindung des Einmaligen jeder Gegebenheit] by assimilating it as a reproduction.

My little backstory: Alright, so I admit I didn’t actually read this for the first time this summer. This work was actually part of our Structured Liberal Education course at Stanford, but as with all things at Stanford, the course was incredibly fast-paced and I wasn’t able to spend as much time mulling over the text as I would’ve liked. I found a beautiful copy of this very, very short, but so very, very interesting work in the Globe Cafe in Prague this summer – and promptly decided that I loved the book cover just as much as the text itself (the cover consists of the book’s spine, repeated over and over again – quite the literal work of art, mechanically reproduced). And I read it again. And again. And again.


Books read over the last year:

Yes, all the glorious texts below were read by yours truly within the last year – the list is a hefty one!!

Texts-I-will-read-over-and-over-again-because-these-are-so great:

  1. A Single Man, Christopher Isherwood
  2. The Berlin Stories/Novels, Christopher Isherwood
  3. Alone in Berlin, Hans Fallada
  4. The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes
  5. Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes
  6. The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton
  7. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera
  8. Terra Incognita, Vladimir Nabokov
  9. Stoner, John Williams
  10. The Marvel of Biographical Bookkeeping, Francis Nenik
  11. To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
  12. This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald
  13. Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Franz Kafka
  14. The Sand Man, E. T. A. Hoffmann
  15. Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt
  16. Good Woman of Szechwan, Bertolt Brecht (Actually, this is a play – I later visited the Berlin Ensemble, where Brecht’s plays were first performed – a German production of Good Woman of Sichuan was on, but alas I don’t speak German… yet.)
  17. Medea, Euripides
  18. We: Variant of a Manifesto, Vertov
  19. First Manifesto of Surrealism, Breton
  20. The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism, Marinetti
  21. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility, Benjamin Walter
  22. Hamlet, Shakespeare
  23. Notes from Underground, Dostoevsky
  24. Madame Bovary, Flaubert (I also read this in high school, but re-read it this year)
  25. If Not, Winter, Sappho (poetry)
  26. Le Petit Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery (read the English version many times as une petite bébé, but read the French this time)
  27. 目送,龙应台

Non-Fiction Must-Reads:

  1. Superforecasting, Philip E. Tetlock & Dan Gardner
  2. The Colder War, by Marin Katusa (read this early last year, but re-read it again this year)
  3. The Impossibility Principle, David Hand
  4. The Innovators, Walter Isaacson
  5. Alibaba, Duncan Clark
  6. Lords of Finance, Liaquat Ahamed
  7. A Concise History of Germany, Fulbrook (which, I admit, I didn’t finish…. And it wasn’t entirely as concise as I had hoped haha)

Philosophy Texts I ABSOLUTELY LOVED:

  1. Zhuang Zi: Essential Writings
  2. Analects of Confucius, selections
  3. Mengzi, selections (I suggest reading these in the original Chinese, if you can)
  4. Existentialism Is a Humanism, Jean Paul Sartre
  5. The Second SexSimone Beauvoir
  6. Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, René Descartes
  7. Discourse on Inequality, Jean-Jacques Rousseau
  8. On Liberty, J.S. Mill
  9. Symposium, Plato

Absolute Classics (but that I took awhile to process/get through):

  1. The Qur’an (definitely worth a read)
  2. Selections of Rumi’s poetry
  3. Hind Swaraj, Gandhi
  4. Inferno, Dante (!! Absolutely love Dali’s illustrations of the cantos)
  5. The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon
  6. Song of Solomon, Tony Morrison
  7. The Odyssey, Homer
  8. Don Quixote, Cervantes
  9. Survival in Auschwitz, Primo Levi
  10. The Wasteland, T.S. Eliot
  11. On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, Friedrich Schleiermacher
  12. On the Genealogy of Morals and The Gay Science, Nietzsche
  13. The Marx-Engels Reader, Marx
  14. The Freud Reader, Freud
  15. Second Treatise of Government, Locke
  16. Apology and Crito, Plato
  17. The Republic, Plato
  18. Nicomachean Ethics and Politics, Aristotle
  19. The Aeneid, Virgil
  20. The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois
  21. The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli
  22. Confessions, St. Augustine
  23. Julian of Norwich
  24. Defense of the Indians, Las Casas
  25. Prologue to Members of the Congregation, Sepulveda
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2 Comments Add yours

  1. junrayhoong says:

    wow impressive! u actually finished Lords of Finance already? wow. Mum

    1. ruruhoong says:

      yup! whether or not i remember most of it is another story altogether though…

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