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My Favorite Book of the Year
I believe when someone writes a perfect book, it deserves to sell a gazillion copies.
It’s the time of year for best-book lists: and don’t get me wrong, I like a good book list. But there’s a lot of noise. With everyone publishing a list, it’s hard to know what they really thought was good versus what they just want you to know they’ve read. So I’ve narrowed it down to one. The best book I read this year was Trust by Hernan Diaz.
There are books that were more impactful for me personally, ones that I’ve recommended to more people, and ones that I simply liked more. But Diaz’s work stands out as—I’m gonna say it, but please know that I’m not saying it lightly—a work of true genius.
First of all: it’s genuinely fun and engaging. It has all the tension of a murder mystery. The novel is a kind of puzzle. You are given four separate texts. Essentially, four different version of the same story—or maybe the same story, maybe a slightly different one... it can be hard to know whose version of the facts to trust. But what you think is happening in the beginning of the novel is not what ends up happening later on. It’s up to you, as the reader, the put the pieces together.
The main thing, though, is that the novel covers SO MUCH. It’s layered: there’s theme upon theme upon theme, and all of them are substantive and all of them feel urgently fascinating. For example, the book is about the way we tell the story of success in America. But it’s also about the construction of texts! How do we translate events from life itself into our narrative rendering of them? Throughout the four parts of the novel, you see how the contents of one text comes to influence the next one. But there’s so much more as well. For example, it’s also about the role women play in this story, and how they’re often written out of it.
Trust is one of those books that you read and think, “Wow, that was incredible.” Then, after a little while, you start to think about it again and realize it was even more incredible than you first thought. Every time you revisit it, you realize that your previous assessment was a tragic undervaluation and that there’s actually even more to the book when you really think about it. It’s one of those books where you can’t help but ask: How on earth did someone actually create this?!
Another notable thing about the book (and something that Diaz often comments on when talking about the work) is that it deals with the theme of money. Specifically, money. There are shelves and shelves worth of Great American Novels about things like status, wealth, important people, success, and power. But none of them actually talk about money itself. It’s just there in the background, a supporting structure for the larger story. In Trust, the characters actually talk about money: how they made it, what they do with it, that sort of thing. It’s one of those instances where as you’re reading you feel like—okay, how have I never seen this before? It’s at once the most intimate concept in the world, something we all interact with many, many times a day, and yet you’ve never seen it treated in this way. Incredible!
This, in my reading, is the meaning of the title: it is the double entendre of something that refers to both a specific financial instrument and the foundation of all human relationships. Generational wealth, the social fabric of society, the reliability of a story’s narrator, who gets to be the narrator in the first place, money, power, and the emotional bonds between human beings—it’s all connected.
In college, I read a book called “How to be Rich” by J Paul Getty. Back then, I tried to read as many different kinds of books as possible, and this definitely counted as something different. It was a work by a rich guy (the American oil tycoon who endowed the Getty museum in LA, just down the road from where I went to school) not about how to become rich... But, like, once you were rich, how should you act to play it off like it’s no big deal? Lord knows why I felt compelled to read this. But I was extremely gratified to find myself instantly transported back to this Getty text by one of Diaz’s narrators. Diaz absolutely NAILED the voice of a plutocrat trying to make sense of their own success. (Don’t worry, though; the book isn’t solely based on the perspective of rich white men.) And, importantly, it’s not a caricature of that voice, either. It’s a rendering by someone who truly, profoundly understands the perspective and is able to represent it in the strongest, most sympathetic way possible. But unlike Getty’s book itself—and this is where it really gets deconstructed—we get to see this voice juxtaposed to... I won’t give anything away, but let me just call it different sides of the same story.
Diaz’s first novel was In the Distance, a reimagining of the American Western. (If you know me, you know that I’ll read any book with a cowboy in it.) Basically, it was the most significant revitalization of this literary genre since Cormac McCarthy. And I WOULD compare Diaz to McCarthy. The only problem is that Diaz has way more range. It’s not that my man Cormac has no range: All the Pretty Horses is a very different western from Blood Meridian, and The Road is not a western at all (at least not superficially; I have a theory about westerns which would support the claim that it is… but that’s a theory for another day). Though Diaz’s two books both seem to penetrate to the beating heart of the American story, they are worlds apart. Most of McCarthy’s work is set in New Mexico. Diaz is from... Sweden, Argentina, and the US, depending on how you slice it, and his work (especially In The Distance) reflects that. If McCarthy’s native milieu had been Stockholm and Buenos Aires then he could’ve written a very similar book to In the Distance. But he never in a million years could ever have written something like Trust!
Another thing I love about Diaz is that he’s a PhD. Diaz did his degree in literary criticism at NYU. He studied Borges. His first book (non-fiction) was his own highly technical interpretation of this great South American writer. I tried to read it (just out of curiosity). I didn’t get very far. It’s not really meant for someone who isn’t professionally trained as a literary critic. But, in a way, this makes his current work even more special.
As someone who just finished my doctorate, I look to Diaz as a symbol of what’s possible in life post-PhD. His work is as cerebral as you’d expect from an academic in the best case scenario. It is, above all, interesting. But it also has soul. Though it’s not overtly sentimental or emotional, it is real. It seeks to capture something that matters in a way that accounts not just for facts but for the broader human experience.
Ultimately, I’m not 100% confident that I’d recommend this book to everybody. I’m a big believer in the power of the right book for the right person at the right time. If I were going to recommend a book to every human being on the planet, it would be Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir. That’s the most fun you can have while reading (or in my case listening to; I highly recommend the audiobook!) words in the English language. I may not have told every person on earth about it, but I’ve definitely mentioned it to a majority of the ones I’ve personally come in contact with. Anyway, what I am confident in is that if you read the above and thought “that sounds right up my alley!” then you will absolutely, unequivocally be glad you read this book. There’s nothing like it… Trust me. (Sorry.) Honestly, though, now’s the time to get into his work. Hernan Diaz is a name your grandchildren will learn in school.
I hope you find something good for your next read. If you happen to find it through the above links, I get a referral fee. Thanks!!
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