thomas m wilson

10 Best Books of 2018

December 17th, 2018

The end of the year approaches and I look back at the world of new books….



Each year about this time the newspaper and the commentariat is full of lists of ‘Best Books of 2018’.  I usually have very little overlap with the choices of the journalists and commentators who make these lists (this year the novel The Overstory was on many lists and on mine), so I thought I’d contribute my selection.  I’ve given myself a limit of ten books, and the books have to have been published for the first time in 2018.

Pinker’s book, along with Hans Rosling Factfulness (which was almost on this list and I urge you to read), has made me much more grateful for everything that has been going right in the world.  I read the reviews of Pinker’s book before reading the book and am shocked at how so many reviewers themselves seem prone to the negativity bias that Pinker diganoses amongst the left-leaning intelligentsia.  I don’t agree with every sentence in the book but its still worth attending to.

Hari’s Lost Connections is a good summary of why you might still feel a sense of emptiness even when you’re sitting amongst the fruits of what progress we have achieved in the developed world (or the Level 4 world to use Rosling’s terminology).

Tony Hoagland died this year and we have lost one of contemporary English language poetry’s greatest voices.  Thankfully he left us with this new collection.  Mark Halliday’s book of poems Losers Dream On is also more than worth the price of admission.  Both men speak candidly about love, loss, death and reveal the funnier side of the inanities of contemporary life.

Damasio’s The Strange Order of Things: The closest I’ve read to a theory of life and everything in a while. Damasio demonstrates how feelings are mental representations of how close the inner environment of the viscera and the endocrine system is to the ideal of homeostasis. If the organism is in a state conducive to homeostasis then the feelings are of a pleasant nature. If far then of an unpleasant nature. The interesting thing is that the nature of emotion and affect in accompanying the regulation of homeostasis is new in terms of evolutionary time. Single celled bacteria don’t have feelings, but they do exhibit many of the behaviours that our affect goes along with. Brilliant book – possibly revolutionary.

The Plant Messiah of the title is Carlos Magdalena.  He works at Kew, and this long haired Spaniard takes you into the world of botanical horticulture and critically endangered plants.  Imagine finding a tree on a mountain in Mauritius and realising that there are only two of them left on the planet.   This book along with Richard Powers The Overstory (a novel at which the tree and trees are at the very centre of many different lives) have done a good job at pushing back at the plant blindness to which humans are prone.

The one biography that made my list is about Bruno Manser, the closest that we’ve had in the late twentieth century to a person who has grown up as a Westerner and then completely stepped into the world of traditional hunter-gatherers and taken on their lifeways and their culture.  Powerful and illuminating book, set in Borneo mainly.

Rule Makers Rule Breakers is a summary of recent research in cross-cultural psychology about why some cultures are more socially conservative (tight) and why some are more liberal (loose).  Important book to read if you want to understand the Middle East, amongst other regions.

Jonathan Haidt’s latest is a manual you should have in your pocket if you want to venture onto a university campus today.  Many lessons to take from the book, for example we should be preparing the child for the road, not the road for the child.  This isn’t Haidt’s best book (mainly because some of it is derived from his previous work), but it still makes my list for the significance of its messages.

  1. Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions.   Hari, Johann    (Bloomsbury USA 2018)
  2. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.  Pinker, Steven            (Viking 2018)
  3. Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God: Poems.   Hoagland, Tony   Graywolf Press (2018)
  4. The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures.  Damasio, Antonio         Pantheon (2018)
  5. The Plant Messiah: Adventures in Search of the World’s Rarest Species.  Magdalena, Carlos              Penguin (2018)
  6. The Overstory.   Powers, Richard          William Heinemann (2018)
  7. Losers Dream On (Phoenix Poets).  Halliday, Mark University of Chicago Press (2018), 94 pages
  8. The Last Wild Men of Borneo: A True Story of Death and Treasure.  Hoffman, Carl William Morrow & Company (2018)
  9. Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World.  Gelfand, Michele   Scribner Book Company (2018)
  10. The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.   Haidt, Jonathan, Allen Lane (2018)


And finally, here are the books that almost made my list of 10 Best Books published in 2018.  All of these have also made an impact on me.