Mental Floss's 20 Best Books of 2019

Ecco / Hanover Square Press / Amazon
Ecco / Hanover Square Press / Amazon

We read a lot of books here at Mental Floss, and the stacks of titles piled around the office aren't contained to any one genre. So to celebrate the end of 2019, we decided to comb through the dozens of titles we've all come across over the last 12 months and list a few of our absolute favorites.

1. The Sweetest Fruits: A Novel // Monique Truong; $15

Cover of Sweetest Fruits
Viking / Amazon

The Greek-Irish writer Lafcadio Hearn was fearless, eclectic, and deeply imaginative, whether he was writing about ghost stories in Japan, Creole cooking in New Orleans, or murder in Cincinnati. Monique Truong's novel The Sweetest Fruits imagines the lives of three women who knew him: his Greek mother, his African American first wife, and his Japanese second wife. Each has a distinct voice, and the structure makes for an inspired look at one of the most original characters of the 19th century. —Bess Lovejoy, Staff Editor

Buy it: Amazon

2. The Lady From the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick // Mallory O'Meara; $8

The Lady From the Black Lagoon book cover
Hanover Square Press / Amazon

The Lady From the Black Lagoon is a must-read for fans of horror and classic cinema. It recounts the previously untold story of Milicent Patrick, the designer of the titular monster from The Creature From the Black Lagoon. Patrick's work had been falsely credited to her male peers over the decades, but thanks to author Mallory O'Meara's in-depth research and passionate storytelling, Patrick's role in Hollywood history will never again be forgotten. —Michele Debczak, Senior Staff Writer

Buy it: Amazon

3. Because Internet // Gretchen McCulloch; $18

Because Internet book cover
Riverhead Books / Amazon

Spend enough time online and you'll see that the internet has its own language. The use of emojis, abbreviations, and capitalization can provide the same level of nuance to social media posts as you'd get in face-to-face conversations. In her book Because Internet, linguist Gretchen McCulloch treats web speak like a distinct language and traces its rapid evolution. You'll never drop a period from a text or read "lol" in your head the same way again. —M.D.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster // Adam Higginbotham; $19

Midnight in Chernobyl book cover
Simon & Schuster / Amazon

The success of the HBO miniseries Chernobyl renewed interest in the nuclear disaster this year. But a few months before the show premiered, a book on the topic was published. Midnight in Chernobyl by journalist Adam Higginbotham provides a more factual account of the event. The author pulled from letters, recently declassified documents, and hundreds of hours of interviews to reconstruct the accident and the aftermath as it unfolded 33 years ago. —M.D.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Medallion Status: True Stories from Secret Rooms // John Hodgman; $15

Medallion Status book cover
Viking / Amazon

Memoir master John Hodgman returns with another biting collection of first-hand experiences as a touring author and actor-for-hire, digging deep to understand his desire for elite airline status and society's obsession with exclusivity. Any book that makes a cameo from the Property Brothers worthwhile has my support. —Jake Rossen, Senior Staff Writer

Buy it: Amazon

6. Wild and Crazy Guys: How the Comedy Mavericks of the '80s Changed Hollywood Forever // Nick de Semlyen; $18

Wild and Crazy Guys book cover
Crown Archetype / Amazon

The 1980s were a golden age of big-screen comedies, and de Semlyen's book does a masterful job of charting the rise—and fall—of some of the most influential comedy stars of the decade, from Eddie Murphy to Bill Murray. —J.R.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Nothing to See Here // Kevin Wilson; $23

Nothing to See Here book cover
Ecco / Amazon

This hilarious, satirical novel is about a caregiver tasked with babysitting two children—both of whom will spontaneously combust if they get too worked up. Kevin Wilson delivers all the laughs and poignancy of a John Irving classic, with a fantasy twist. —J.R.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Classic Krakauer: Essays on Wilderness and Risk // Jon Krakauer; $14

Classic Krakauer book cover
Anchor / Amazon

Jon Krakauer's best work from Outside and other magazines is collected in one volume, giving readers a taste of his energetic prose and hunger to explore humans' attraction to risk, remoteness, and danger—both physical and psychological. Best known for his books Into Thin Air and Into the Wild, Krakauer here recounts a deadly avalanche on Mount Everest, the possibility of colonizing Mars, a volcanic blast that could swallow the Pacific Northwest, and much more. —Kat Long, Science Editor

Buy it: Amazon

9. The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present // David Treuer; $15

The Heartbear of Wounded Knee book cover
Riverhead Books / Amazon

Ojibwe linguist and writer David Treuer provides a counterpoint to Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the 1970 book that chronicled the destruction of Native Americans by settlers' westward expansion. That bestseller shaped the popular view of Native cultures for the next 50 years—but Treuer argues that it missed the point. Through interviews, research, and his own experiences, he reveals the resilience, adaptability, and pride among Native communities then and now. —K.L.

Buy it: Amazon

10. The Dutch House // Ann Patchett; $17

The Dutch House book
Harper / Amazon

As in previous novels like Commonwealth and The Patron Saint of Liars, Ann Patchett takes a relatively simple plot and uses it as the landscape for a rich, affecting exploration of characters—in The Dutch House, those characters are two siblings who must navigate a new life of poverty after being expelled from their childhood home. —Ellen Gutoskey, Staff Writer

Buy it: Amazon

11. Talking to Strangers: What we Should Know about the People We Don’t Know // Malcolm Gladwell; $16

Talking to Strangers book
Little, Brown and Company / Amazon

With Malcolm Gladwell’s characteristic narrative flair and a wealth of case studies to illustrate his hypothesis (that many of the world’s conflicts arise from our inability to understand people we don’t already know), Talking to Strangers is a riveting read for fiction and nonfiction lovers alike. —E.G.

Buy it: Amazon

12. Inland // Téa Obreht; $14

Inland book
Random House / Amazon

Obreht’s latest is a sweeping tale of the American West that follows a frontierswoman waiting for her family to return and a nomadic outlaw plagued by ghosts. With magical realism, suspense, and plenty of man-versus-man conflict, Inland is the type of novel that’s hard to put down—and even harder to stop thinking about when you do. —E.G.

Buy it: Amazon

13. Daisy Jones & the Six // Taylor Jenkins Reid; $15

Daisy Jones & the Six
Ballantine Books / Amazon

Daisy Jones & the Six, which was selected to be part of Reese’s Book Club, tells the story of the rise and overnight demise of a fictional rock group through a series of interviews with all the band members, producers, and their spouses. It’s an interesting way to weave together a narrative as it shows that sometimes there are many versions of the truth. —Kristen Richard, Associate Editor

Buy it: Amazon

14. Long Bright River // Liz Moore; $23

Long Bright River book
Penguin Publishing Group / Barnes & Noble

I haven’t read many mystery/crime novels, so when I picked up Long Bright River, I wasn’t sure what to expect or if I would even enjoy it. But after finishing the first chapter, I couldn't put it down. This book takes place in a city that’s been shaken by the opioid epidemic, and the story follows two sisters who lost many family members to the crisis. But they’re living two very different lives. Mickey became a cop, while Kacey is living on the streets struggling with addiction. When Kacey goes missing, her sister puts everything on the line to try to find her. But this story is much more than a mystery about a missing person. The book explores the numerous avenues of addiction and how it affects each person differently. —K.R.

Buy it: Barnes & Noble

15. The Little Book of Lost Words // Joe Gillard; $12

The Book of Lost Words
Ten Speed Press / Amazon

This delightful little book, written by the creator of History Hustle, is full of obscure words for almost every situation that are definitely worth bringing back. For example, I think we could all find the occasion to use allotriophagy, a 19th-century medical term for "a strong urge or desire to eat food that is abnormal or unhealthy." —Erin McCarthy, Editor-in-Chief

Buy it: Amazon

16. Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West // H. W. Brands; $27

A History of the American West
Basic Books / Amazon

Beginning with the expedition of Lewis and Clark and moving through major developments like the Oregon Trail, the Alamo, and the Wounded Knee Massacre, the sprawling episodes that author H. W. Brands touches on in Dreams of El Dorado paint a picture of how extreme violence and unprecedented government action helped turn the American West from an untamed frontier into a full-fledged part of a larger society—whether the self-proclaimed rugged individuals wanted to or not. —Jay Serafino, Special Projects Editor

Buy it: Amazon

17. The Green Lantern // Grant Morrison; $14

Green Lantern comic
DC Comics / Amazon

Writer Grant Morrison’s The Green Lantern is a weird one. There are battles with spider pirates, conversations with space cops with volcanoes for heads, and the Earth even gets planet-napped and put up for auction at one point. But the book accomplishes far more than just moments of absurdity. Morrison also manages to weave a complex plot throughout, demanding a bit more care and attention from readers than they may expect. And it’s all punctuated by the art of Liam Sharp, whose visuals always manage to complement Morrison’s wild concepts. —J.S.

Buy it: Amazon

18. Elvis in Vegas: How the King Reinvented the Las Vegas Show // Richard Zoglin; $19

Elvis in Vegas book
Simon & Schuster / Amazon

Before Las Vegas became the capital of kitsch, it was a town where criminal empires were out in the open and the entertainment favored smoke-filled nightclub shows headlined by Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack and other crooners. But for Vegas to survive, it needed to change its tune—it needed to become a bright and colorful vacation spot for tourists and families. It needed its entertainment to become more vibrant and theatrical. Frankly, it needed the King. In Elvis in Vegas, author Richard Zoglin recounts how Elvis Presley helped change the town’s image by putting on bombastic, larger-than-life stage shows for all ages, ushering in an era of corporate-friendly glitz and glamour that continues to this day. —J.S.

Buy it: Amazon

19. Theodore Roosevelt for the Defense: The Courtroom Battle to Save His Legacy // Dan Abrams and David Fisher; $17

Theodore Roosevelt for the Defense book
Hanover Square Press / Amazon

There were few things Theodore Roosevelt hated more than corruption, and he didn't hesitate to call it out when he saw it. In 1914, that got him into trouble with Republican machine boss William Barnes, who ended up suing TR for libel. Naturally, TR didn't take that lying down, and defended himself to the end in a 1915 trial that saw the former president spend more than 30 hours on the stand. This rollicking courtroom tale, told by Dan Abrams and David Fisher, is a must-read for Tedheads, and a page-turner for all. —E.M.

Buy it: Amazon

20. Murder by the Book: The Crime That Shocked Dickens's London // Claire Harman; $13

Crime that Shocked Dicken's London book
Knopf / Amazon

I couldn't put down this book, which covers the murder of Lord William Russell in 1840. The very real crime was inspired by fiction, and the likes of Charles Dickens, William Thackarey, and Queen Victoria all make appearances. Author Claire Harman weaves the story of the murder into the story of the rise of the novel form, making for completely compelling reading. —E.M.

Buy it: Amazon

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The New York Public Library’s 10 Most Checked-Out Books of All Time

Popartic/iStock via Getty Images
Popartic/iStock via Getty Images

To celebrate the 125th anniversary of the New York Public Library’s opening in 1895, a team of library experts decided it was only fitting to highlight the perennially popular books that have contributed to its success.

They pulled the circulation stats on all print and digital formats of books, analyzed factors like length of time in print and presence in the library catalog, and came up with a list of the library’s 10 most checked-out books of all time.

Topping the list was Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day, the charmingly illustrated, timeless tale of a young boy discovering the wintry wonders of a snow day. It’s been in circulation since its publication in 1962, and it’s far from the only children’s book on the list—in fact, six of the top 10 most borrowed books are meant for a young audience, including Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, and Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar. As the library explains, this is partly because shorter books have quicker turnover rates, and partly because certain children’s classics appeal to a wide range of readers.

And, of course, it would hardly be a “top books” list if it didn’t include at least one of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone came in ninth place, with 231,022 checkouts. One children’s book, however, is conspicuously missing: Margaret Wise Brown’s peaceful bedtime story Goodnight Moon, published in 1947 and seemingly read by just about everyone. According to the NYPL, Anne Carroll Moore, an important children’s librarian at the time of the book's publication, despised the story, so the library didn’t add it to the catalog until 1972. (They gave it an “honorable mention” designation on this list.)

Books can also rack up high circulation numbers if they’re often used in school curriculums, like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, or cover themes that appear (and reappear) in current events—which might explain why George Orwell’s 1984 has been checked out a staggering 441,770 times.

See the rest of the top 10 below, and find out which books made the NYPL’s 2019 most checked-out list here.

  1. The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats // 485,583
  1. The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss // 469,650
  1. 1984 by George Orwell // 441,770
  1. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak // 436,016
  1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee // 422,912
  1. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White // 337,948
  1. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury // 316,404
  1. How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie // 284,524
  1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling // 231,022
  2. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle // 189,550

10 Facts About Jane Austen’s Sanditon

Rose Williams as Charlotte Heywood and Theo James as Sidney Parker in Masterpiece's adaptation of Jane Austen's Sanditon (2019).
Rose Williams as Charlotte Heywood and Theo James as Sidney Parker in Masterpiece's adaptation of Jane Austen's Sanditon (2019).
Simon Ridgway/© Red Planet Pictures / ITV 2019

Jane Austen published just four novels before her death in 1817—Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma—but they, along with posthumously published works like Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, have all become classics of the English-language canon, beloved by readers and adapted countless times for the screen and stage.

Just before her death, however, Austen had planned to add another title to her catalog of novels skewering 19th-century British society. In early 1817, she began a book that would eventually be called Sanditon, which tells the story of an up-and-coming English seaside resort town. Sadly, Austen wasn’t able to complete Sanditon before her death in July of that year—but that hasn’t stopped others from trying to finish the book for her.

A number of writers have attempted to complete Austen’s story since she put it aside in the early 1800s. Most recently, it has become the basis for a British miniseries that premiered in the UK in late 2019 and premiered on PBS on January 12, 2020. Before you dive into the miniseries, here are 10 things you should know about Austen’s final, unfinished novel.

1. Sanditon explores some of the same topics as Jane Austen’s previous novels.

Jane Austen is known for her sharp critiques of the world of England’s 19th-century landed gentry, and Sanditon continues that tradition. It centers on a handful of people in Sanditon, a fictional town along the Sussex coast in southeastern England. Mr. Parker is an eccentric, overenthusiastic developer bent on transforming Sanditon from a quiet village into a fashionable seaside tourist destination.

At the beginning of the novel, he and his wife take in Charlotte Heywood, the elder daughter of a country gentleman with a large family in Sussex, as their guest for the summer. They bring her to Sanditon and introduce her to local society, including Parker’s hypochondriac siblings and his business partner in his resort scheme, the wealthy but tightfisted Lady Denham—plus the poor relations who may be vying for her fortune.

Austen casts a critical eye on each of her characters with her typical cutting wit: Parker is described as “generally kind-hearted; liberal; gentlemanlike, easy to please … with more imagination than judgment,” while Mrs. Parker is “equally useless.” Lady Denham, “like a true great lady, talked and talked only of her own concerns,” while her nephew and heir, Sir Edward Denham, is “very much addicted to all the newest-fashioned hard words, had not a very clear brain” and “had read more sentimental novels than agreed with him.”

2. The town of Sanditon was likely based on a real English resort Jane Austen visited.

East Parade from the pier, Worthing, Sussex, early 20th century
A photo of the pier in Worthing, England in the early 19th century.
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

Scholars think that the fictional town of Sanditon was based on a real resort town Austen visited with her family. Austen spent at least a few weeks in Worthing, a seaside town in West Sussex, with her family in 1805, according to the diaries of Austen’s niece Fanny. At the time, Worthing was, like Sanditon, a newly established resort town. According to Antony Edmonds, the author of the 2013 book Jane Austen’s Worthing: The Real Sanditon, Sanditon’s Mr. Parker was probably based on Edward Ogle, a developer who purchased a large estate in Worthing in 1801 and set about turning the small village into a seaside tourist destination. Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra were acquainted with Ogle, and Parker’s home in Sanditon, Trafalgar House, may have been based on Ogle’s estate, Warwick House.

3. Jane Austen didn’t name the novel Sanditon.

Austen herself didn’t title the manuscript that would become known as Sanditon. In the 1871 edition of his biography A Memoir of Jane Austen, Austen’s nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh published a summary and quotations from her unfinished novel for the first time, calling it simply “The Last Work.” But it may have already been known as Sanditon by Austen’s family; Jane’s niece Anna Austen Lefroy, who eventually inherited the manuscript, referred to it by that name in an 1869 letter. That may not have been Jane’s intention, though; another Austen relative said that she planned to call her novel The Brothers. Lefroy went on to write her own continuation of her aunt’s novel, though she, like Jane, never finished it.

4. Jane Austen didn’t get very far into Sandition before her death.

Novelist Jane Austen is depicted in an illustrated portrait
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Austen spent seven weeks working on Sanditon in 1817, beginning on January 27 and ending on March 18, according to the dates she wrote at the beginning and end of her manuscript. During those short weeks, Austen completed just 11 chapters, along with nine pages of a twelfth. The unfinished text is less than 24,000 words long—less than a third of the length of Austen’s shortest completed novel, Northanger Abbey. Austen abandoned the project as her health declined. Only a few days after she set Sanditon aside, she wrote in a letter, “I certainly have not been very well for many weeks, and about a week ago I was very poorly, I have had a good deal of fever at times and indifferent nights ... I must not depend upon being ever very blooming again.” She died only a few months later, on July 18, 1817.

5. Jane Austen’s nephew and biographer wasn’t sure Sanditon should be published.

James Edward Austen-Leigh expressed trepidation over making his aunt’s final manuscript public. But he was persuaded to at least include a summary and a few excerpts from Sanditon in the 1871 edition of his biography of Jane Austen. He prefaced these excerpts with the warning that it was “difficult to judge of the quality of a work so advanced ... there was scarcely any indication of what the course of the story was to be, nor was any heroine yet perceptible, who, like Fanny Price, or Anne Elliot, might draw round her the sympathies of the reader.” Because of this, he did not publish the unfinished text in full. “Such an unfinished fragment cannot be presented to the public, but I am persuaded that some of Jane Austen’s admirers will be glad to learn something about the latest creations which were forming themselves in her mind,” he wrote.

6. The full text of Sanditon wasn’t available until 1925.

The cover of Jane Austen's 'Sanditon'
Scribner via Amazon

Unlike Austen’s other posthumous publications, including Northanger Abbey (1817) and Persuasion (1818), the full text Sanditon wasn't released until more than a century after the author's death, and more than 50 years after Austen-Leigh first made the novel’s existence known to the public in his biography of Austen. It was first published in 1925 thanks to Austen scholar R. W. Chapman, who transcribed the original manuscript and published it as Fragment of a Novel with Notes.

7. Sanditon received mixed reviews.

Though English novelist E.M. Forster described himself as a “Jane Austenite,” he was not impressed by Sanditon upon its publication in 1925, blaming the author’s declining health for what he perceived as a lackluster work. “Sometimes it is even stale, and we realize with pain that we are listening to a slightly tiresome spinster, who has talked too much in the past to be silent unaided. Sanditon is a sad little experience from this point of view,” he wrote in a 1925 review published in The Nation. But more modern writers have seen the novel fragment more positively. In 2017, critic Anthony Lane of The New Yorker wrote that Sanditon “is robust, unsparing, and alert to all the latest fashions in human foolishness. It brims with life.”

8. Several other writers have tried to “finish” Sanditon since Jane Austen's death.

Writers have been trying to continue the story of Sanditon since the 19th century, but many have struggled with the fact that Austen’s start to the novel introduces a number of colorful characters, but doesn’t give the reader a clear sense of where the plot might be going. Anna Austen Lefroy was the first to try her hand at the task of continuing the story. While some scholars have suggested that Jane had discussed her intentions for Sanditon with her niece during her lifetime, Anna also wrote that the “story was too little advanced to enable one to form any idea of the plot.” In any case, she only wrote about 20,000 words of her continuation before abandoning the project. She left her continuation unpublished, and it wasn’t publicly known until the manuscript appeared at an auction in 1977; even then, it didn’t become available to readers until 1983.

In the century-plus since Lefroy attempted to finish her aunt’s novel, numerous writers have published their own continuations, some of which are more faithful to the original text than others. For instance, there is a 2008 mystery novel that is billed as a continuation of Austen’s work which replaces Sanditon with another fictional English town, Sandytown. In 2013, the creators of the "The Lizzie Bennet Diaries" produced an interactive, modernized interpretation and continuation of the novel in a web series set in California. It was also the basis for a rock musical that debuted in the UK in 2014. As for the latest update of the story? The first episode of the new Sanditon miniseries, which first premiered on Britain’s ITV, sticks closely to the plot Austen wrote. But the subsequent seven episodes are almost entirely the invention of Andrew Davies, the Welsh television writer who adapted the story for television. Davies used Austen’s work as a jumping-off point, but created new characters and story lines as well as, in his words, “sexing it up.” (And yes, that includes what a Financial Times reviewer referred to as “a whiff of incest.”)

9. The creator of the Sanditon miniseries has adapted Jane Austen’s work many times before—to great success.

Rose Williams as Charlotte Heywood in Masterpiece's 'Sanditon' (2019)
Rose Williams as Charlotte Heywood in Sanditon (2019).
Simon Ridgway/© Red Planet Pictures / ITV 2019

Sanditon writer Andrew Davies is already well known for his other literary adaptations for the small screen. He has previously adapted a number of classic English novels for television, including Vanity Fair, Middlemarch, several works by Charles Dickens, and three other Jane Austen novels: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey. His widely beloved 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice is credited with catapulting Colin Firth to stardom.

10. The Sandition miniseries’s ending has been divisive for Austen fans ... but the show might be as unfinished as the novel itself.

When the Sanditon miniseries wrapped up its UK run on ITV, some fans were outraged by the show’s finale, which—spoiler alert!—doesn’t feature quite the happy ending that fans of books like Pride and Prejudice might have expected. And how might Jane Austen herself have felt about it? Experts are divided on that, too. “I imagine she’d have switched to Peaky Blinders on BBC after episode one,” Kathryn Sutherland, a Jane Austen scholar at Oxford University, told The Guardian. But Paula Byrne, author of the biography The Real Jane Austen and a literary consultant on the show, told Radio Times that she thinks Austen would have loved it: “I think she would have loved the lavishness and the beauty of the production. I think she would be writing for Hollywood if she was alive today.”

It’s possible that the Sanditon miniseries hasn’t yet reached its conclusion, though. While there hasn’t been official news of a second season of the show, Davies has said that he would love to continue the story. According to Radio Times, he told press in October that “I hope we’ve ended at a point where the audience is going to say: well you can’t end it at that!”