My Hero Books of 2019

It was a great reading year for me. I started tracking my reading this year after seeing this page from Frank Chimero. I also tried remembering the books I read since 2015. My list is incomplete because I forgot a lot of books I read, but it’s near accurate, and it clearly shows I read more books this 2019 than any other year that came before it. James Clear was right: what gets tracked, gets improved.

All-in-all, I read 18 books. I know it’s far from the lists of the likes of Austin Kleon (who reads 100+ books a year!), but I am proud of what I accomplished with my reading habit this year. I don’t really consider myself a fast reader, and I don’t think I want to be one. When I love a book, especially when it’s highly practical, I write a summary of it, which involves going back to each chapter of the book and really analyzing its main points. I remember the book easier that way, and I enjoy the process very much.

This post features the best books I read this year, including the main reasons why I love them so much. The list is arranged in descending order, starting with my most favorite of the year.

Henry David Thoreau: A Life | Laura Dassow Walls

Laura Dassow Wall’s biography of one of the most eclectic writers of all time was my best read of the year. It’s one of the books that are just so immersive. I have an eye for biographies because I was exposed to them in college. I know what good historiography is. But Dassow Walls’ biography was entirely different and unique from all the academic biographies I’ve read. She writes as if she’s in a quest to answer the same questions that Thoreau asked himself—and, actually, she was! She also writes poetically and she has a taste for creative literary tools—there are cliffhangers all over the book creating suspense at the end of sections, making you want to read more of what could’ve been a very boring book.

I felt very, very close to Thoreau while reading this biography. I read it in the morning, then I read it in the evening, and every time I read it, I was spending time with a great master of the art of living. My creative life will never be the same. In Thoreau’s life, I found an affirmation of the things that I have already been doing in my relationship with the material world and my relationship with my art. Thoreau also provides a model for me to follow.

My favorite part of the book was Laura’s description of Thoreau’s final moments. I can still picture in my mind how the dying Thoreau lied down on his porch while passersby—both young and old, even children—came by to pay their respects to a nation’s treasure who is about to breathe his last. It was just powerful writing. I’m currently immersing myself in Thoreau’s journal, reading his entries for each day. If I keep at it, I’ll finish by December next year and his journal will definitely be part of next year’s My Hero Books list.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life | Anne Lamott

This book was probably my first introduction to humorous writing in English. I really liked this style of writing a lot that I’ve begun reading Billy Collins’ collection of poems Sailing Alone in the Room. I’m experimenting with my comedic voice both in my poetry and in recent explorations in drawings. Reading the book made me nostalgic about writers like Bob Ong and Eros Atalia—Filipino humor writers whose books I read in grade school and high school.

What’s most interesting about Anne Lamott’s book is that it was also a book of writing lessons. So, Anne was basically teaching writing but through a comedic voice. It was very effective! If only teachers of all kinds could teach with fun and humor, things will be a lot easier for everyone—students, parents, taxpayers, politicians, even the teachers themselves!

My favorite lesson from Anne was her advice on how to avoid libel when writing about your ex:

If you disguise this person carefully so that he cannot be recognized by the physical or professional facts of his life, you can use him in your work. And the best advice I can give you is to give him a teenie little penis so he will be less likely to come forth.

Haha. Great advice from a great book! I highly recommend Anne’s book.

Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career | Scott H. Young

Ultralearning by Scott H. Young sits right beside James Clear’s Atomic Habits on the shelf of the most practical and actionable books I’ve read. James is a better writer than Scott (and Scott knows this), but his book was something I consulted many times throughout the year. His chapter on meta-learning was most useful to me. Although I’m also experimenting with spontaneous learning like what I’m currently doing with studying how to draw, Scott’s meta-learning process was so useful in identifying the best learning paths to follow in several learning projects I did this year. Another piece of advice from the book which I have already internalized a lot in my life is the principle of directness. I didn’t read a book on how to write poetry, I just wrote poetry. I didn’t read a book on drawing, I just drew. I didn’t use to do this. I would waste a lot of time planning for certain learning projects before engaging with the exact skills, tasks, and actions those projects involves. Today—and I owe some of this from Scott’s book—I tend to dive immediately to an activity I want to do, and I am more comfortable with this.

Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver | Mary Oliver

This is only the second poetry collection book I finished reading. The first collection was the Alon poetry collection What the Water Said. Ever since I started writing poems, I also started reading 1-2 poems every morning. I started this poetry reading habit through Mary Oliver’s Devotions.

Devotions was Mary Oliver’s last book. It is a collection of her best poems which she handpicked herself. This collection inspired me to go out in nature more and write poems while there. I also copied the styles of some of her poems in a few poems of mine, like Tumawa ang Bantay. The book also made me feel closer to one of the human beings I really admire for just the way she lived. I’m hoping to read a biography of Mary Oliver one day.

Belong: Find Your People, Create Community, and Live a More Connected Life | Radha Agrawal

Community, friendship, and relationship are subjects that fascinate me a lot—partly because I think I’m not that good at them and partly because I’m so bothered that too many people are not good at them and seem to be okay with that. They have their phones and social media, anyway.

Early this year, I scoured the Internet for book recommendations on community-building. I decided to pick Radha’s book and invest time in it because of its systematic but not boring approach to community-building.

The book was also filled with a lot of doodles and drawings, which I really love. Interestingly, Radha’s book was the same publisher who publishes Austin Kleon’s drawing-filled books, Workman Publishing. Drawings just make learning so much easier.

Radha’s philosophy of community-building is bullet-proof: 1) Start with yourself. Get to know who you really are and what you really want. 2) Find people who share your values and build your community around them. Without inner work, building a community you actually love is impossible.

Other Great Reads

  • The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. A bit overrated. Steven’s advice can be contradictory sometimes. Plus, the woo-woo element is just too much for my taste.
  • Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. Another overrated book. Or maybe I just read a bad translation by Robin Hard. In general, the book is just too old for our times and will only inspire those who already adhere to stoic ideas. Nevertheless, there definitely are gems of wisdom scattered around the book (and some funny metaphors too!).
  • Influence by Robert Cialdini. I listened to this as an audiobook. Enlightening but a bit overrated (again). The main points can be summarized in one page or even a single paragraph. The stories are fun though and they could help you remember the main points better.
  • The Millionaire Fastlane by MJ DeMarco. I read this after feeling my entrepreneurial itch late this year. Although I do not agree with a lot of MJ’s views, I still think it’s one of the most honest entrepreneurship books around and, therefore, every aspiring entrepreneur must read it.
  • Beyond Morality by Richard Garner. I included this in my hero books last year but I actually finished reading it this year. One of my favorite books of all time.
  • Ignore Everybody by Hugh MacLeod. Hugh’s advice can also be contradictory but his story is a gem. Every aspiring artist and creative must read Hugh’s book.
  • Company of One by Paul Jarvis. I love Paul’s work and I listened to his new book late this year. While Paul’s views are really thought-provoking, unique, and brave, I find his book less practical than other business books. He has a course though that accompanies the book. I guess that’s where you’ll learn the specifics.
  • The Art of Fully Living by Tal Gur. Great kick of inspiration. Tal’s story proves that the path to self-improvement can still (and must!) continue even when very challenging situations come our way.
  • Keep Going by Austin Kleon. Austin’s last book in his trilogy could’ve easily made it to my top five list if only it was as memorable as the other two books. The book just didn’t have the same punch I felt after reading the first two. Nevertheless, I believe Austin’s best work is in his blog anyway, and I’m an avid reader of everything he puts out in his blog.
  • The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. The first novel I’ve read after many years. Tolkien is not very versed in literary techniques but his world-building is genius! I started reading his biography earlier this year (but stopped) and watched the movie version of the book.
  • The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin. While not as comprehensive and practical as Ultralearning, Josh Waitzkin’s life and processes were influential in how I currently view learning, specifically how it transfers across different areas of life.
  • The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Reading a classic and reading it fast was a great confidence booster in my reading habit early this year. I enjoyed the humor, the drawings, and the subtle lessons sprinkled around every sentence of this book.
  • Night by Elie Wiesel. A very gloomy book. I won’t be reading Holocaust books for a while.

That’s it! That’s my reading year this year. I have great books lined up for 2020 and I have begun reading some of them. I’m looking forward to another book-filled year.