Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Best Books I Read in 2018

From odes to hometowns to considerations of the Benedict Option, it was a good year in reading.
Student reading

Every year, reading becomes a new and fresh experience. Each new volume offers us the opportunity to grow in knowledge, enjoyment, and (hopefully) empathy. As we age, different sorts of books offer different remedies for what ails us: an escape from trouble, perhaps, or a respite from the daily grind. We might crave the adventure of new novel or the insight and wisdom of a history.

At least at my current stage of life, when young children and work seem to consume all my time, reading can feel like a neglected practice, something I never indulge in as much as I want to, or ought to. Every book read represents some chore left undone, some work assignment left untended. Sometimes, after playing with little ones and finishing the laundry, the mental focus and energy required by reading seems impossible.

This is when I am reassured by the promise that reading is a lifetime practice—one that might be interrupted by work and personal mayhem, but that always beckons to us with future promise. We may not be able to read 30 books this year, or even 10. But we always have next year to set resolutions, pick up neglected volumes, and forge ahead once more.

My grandmother often read more than 100 books a year. She read histories and presidential biographies, mysteries and novels. She stocked her bookshelf with stories she thought her grandchildren might like to read or borrow, and read her Bible from cover to cover until the pages were falling out. I am sure there were seasons in her life where books were set aside as she focused on her career, her little ones, and other commitments. But because of her love for the written word, she kept returning to the page.

My grandma often reminds me of the joy and hope associated with reading later in life. When we read as young people, we often seek out books that “feel good.” As college students, we read books the way we eat our veggies: to edify our minds and grades, whether we enjoy it or not. And as adults, it’s easy to fall prey to one instinct or another: to go back to reading for sheer pleasure, seeking out books for escape, or to read (with gritted teeth) books we believe will be “good” for us in some way.

The beauty of my grandmother’s reading was that she cheerfully did both: she read with voracious curiosity and with deep pleasure. She learned how to balance the two. As I cultivate my reading practice in this and future years, I aspire to that same combination of curiosity and delight.

In 2018, I had the pleasure of reading some volumes that were both delightful and edifying. Here are some of my favorites.

Books About Place

These books cover a good deal of ground—but all display a deep love for place. The Art of Loading Brush and Localism in the Mass Age are conservative considerations of rootedness, while The New Localism proffers a more progressive vision of placemaking. Boom Town is a fantastic narrative of Oklahoma City and its idiosyncrasies, while Hollowing Out the Middle tracks the exodus of young people from rural America. Water at the Roots, meanwhile, is the moving biography of a pastor and farmer who gave his life to serve his community.

Books About Home

After reading Sherman Alexie’s memoir this January, I was deeply saddened to hear reports come out of alleged sexual misconduct and harassment on his part. But I feel compelled to include his memoir because it showed me a side of my home state, Idaho, that I’d never seen growing up. It is shocking to consider the hurt, abuse, and mistreatment that Alexie and his family experienced on the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene Indian reservations. I was filled with indignation and sadness as I considered the difference between the affection I felt for my state and the fear and pain he associated with it. Alexie’s relationship with his mother is the star of this volume, but the book also captures the grief and hope associated with leaving home and loved ones behind for greener pastures.

Russo’s book is also a deeply personal memoir about the relationship between a boy and his mother. It considers his complex relationship with Gloversville, the postindustrial town he left behind for Arizona and a successful writing career. The volume captures the sorrow that comes with realizing that those you’ve left behind are hurt and hurting, and the tension and pain associated with homecoming. Russo is a skillful writer, and it was hard to put this book down once I’d started.

Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland was by far one of my favorite books of the year. In it, Smarsh beautifully shares the story of her working-class Kansas family, particularly the experiences of her grandmother and mother. This book is about poverty and farming, single motherhood and family ties—but it also captures Smarsh’s fierce love for her roots and her place.

Books About Practice

Practice, here defined, is a ritual: a “liturgy,” if you will, which guides us into proficiency. These books are about a variety of practices, from the religious to the rudimentary.

Thomas Merton and Carolyn Weber capture the truth that religious practice is fundamentally an exercise of love, an everyday commitment of passion and devotion. Their books were inspiring and convicting. Sally and Sarah Clarkson’s The Lifegiving Home inspired me to embody faith and virtue in everyday rhythms, ones that my little ones will hopefully absorb and love as they grow older. And in Building the Benedict Option, Leah Libresco calls us to a daily practice of hospitality and community-building, making the church a seeable, taste-able reality in the lives of Christians and non-Christians alike.

Wanderlust is a love letter to walking, and another of my favorite books of the year. Solnit is a masterful essayist, and her love of walking—in all its plodding simplicity, eccentricities, and philosophical beauties—makes you itch to get out of the house and onto the trail.

Last but not least, Cræft is an engrossing consideration of old-fashioned artisanship and its virtues. As an archaeologist, farmer, and jack-of-all-trades, Alexander Langlands has a deep historical and personal knowledge of artisanal excellence. His book inspired me to pursue all sorts of new (yet old) practices and studies—from garden hedging to sourdough bread baking to some really fascinating studies on the purposes and excellences of wool.


There were other books—many of them volumes we read aloud with our toddler daughter, such as Winnie the Pooh stories, The Phantom Tollbooth, and a delightful picture book about walking called Tiny, Perfect Things. There was also Lincoln in the Bardo, which was moving, masterful, and funny, and Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower, which offered a painful and thought-provoking consideration of the Plymouth settlement and its legacy.

Adam Alter’s Irresistible was eye-opening and even frightening; I would highly recommend it to any who are grappling with the incessant pull of the smartphone in our era. And finally, I loved re-reading Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Its consideration of love and virtue, independence and loyalty, is striking, even after several reads.

In 2019, I aim to read several more books about farming (surprise), as well as books by Thomas Merton, Rebecca Solnit, and Richard Russo. I want to read more poetry, by Wendell Berry and T.S. Eliot and Mary Oliver and countless others. And I hope to read more works by Annie Dillard, Marilynne Robinson, Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, and Jesmyn Ward.

But regardless of how much I get to read this year, whether it’s five books or 50, I hope to read carefully, empathetically, tenaciously. I hope to grow my love of the written word, and the truths and joys it can communicate. In other words, I hope to read more like my grandmother.

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. She’s written for The WeekNational Review, The Federalist, and The Washington Times, among others.