Books I Read in 2023
Years ago a made the New Year’s resolution to “read more books”. I had drifted away from reading books to reading lots of blog posts or listening to jokey podcasts. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with those two activities; but, I wanted to feed my brain something more nourishing. Since books go through the longest process to reach publication, and because books are more wide-reaching than journal articles, my assumption was that books would have the best ideas in them. I don’t believe that to be universally true anymore; but, it still underpins the renewal of my resolution each year.
As I said, my resolution is to “read more books” by which I mean literally more. I achieve the goal by reading one more book than the previous year. Despite suffering through a couple of reading slumps this year, I achieved the goal by reading 20 books in 2023. (Careful readers will notice that only 19 books are listed below. One book is redacted because it’s none of your business.)
I also play fast and loose with the term “read”. In fact, I listen to most of my books as audiobooks. I have a long commute and rather than spend my time with jokey podcasts, I try to read a bit while I drive. I don’t believe that this method of reading is for everyone; but, I can say that I feel like to get just as much out of listening to a book as I do reading it with my eyes. I always own a copy of the book I am listening to so that I can go back to it later.
My tastes tend toward typical “middle-aged male dad”. You know, shipwrecks, ancient Greece and Rome, stoic self-help, etc. I’m pretty basic in that way, I suppose. But, if that’s your mug of mead, dear reader, then crack on!
Date Finished: February 5, 2023
This was a hold-over from 2022 that I finally finished in 2023. This is one of those books that is on every “Best Books” list; so, I decided to give it a try. One take-away nugget comes from a lesson about Tony Dungy’s famous “Tampa 2” defense:
In his job interviews, he [Dungy] would patiently explain his belief that the key to winning was changing players’ habits. He wanted to get players to stop making so many decisions during a game, he said. He wanted them to react automatically, habitually. If he could instill the right habits, his team would win.
As a football fan, I know more about this defensive scheme and the history of it than even Duhigg (it seems). But, the lesson about habitual reaction also felt relevant to teaching a musical instrument. There are certain actions we perform without any conscious thought—you see a pitch on the top space of the treble clef and you put down the correct fingers to play an “e”. By the time students get to college, there’s almost no thought that goes into this action; but, there used to be when they were just starting to learn the instrument. So a lot of what teaching and, especially, practicing accomplishes is the build up of habits that can free the mind for more complex engagements.
★★★☆☆ (3/5)—It’s worth a read; but, it’s not life-altering.
Date Finished: February 22, 2023
I actually started this book before the Duhigg; but, I paused it when Clear wrote that he was influenced by Duhigg in the introduction. So, I came back to it after finishing Duhigg; but, I wish I skipped it. Unlike Duhigg, Clear is not a great writer. Other than the anecdote about his major injury and recovery, there wasn’t much to take from this book. I can see why people who do not practice something such as an instrument might have trouble developing positive habits; but, that’s not me (for the most part).
★★☆☆☆ (2/5)—not recommended.
Date Finished: March 30, 2023
This was an addictive book. It tells the story of the women in Norway who were accused of witchcraft and eventually murdered by the government. Hargrave’s prose is evocative and borderline poetic at times. I did not know much about this story before reading the book and I am glad that this was my introduction to it. The terror the people who lived through it must have been beyond anything modern people can imagine.
★★★★☆ (4/5)—strongly recommended.
Date Finished: April 23, 2023
I read this book by mistake. I intended to read S. C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon; but, well, you can see how I got them mixed up. I very much enjoyed Grann’s The Lost City of Z; but, this one fell flat. (I have not seen Martin Scorsese’s adaptation yet.) Grann continuously shifts the narrator in this book, which I found to be strange, and made his prose sound amateurish. I have no doubt that the film version is fantastic, though.
★★★☆☆ (3/5)—skip the book and watch the film instead.
Date Finished: May 2, 2023
This one is weird for me. I remember enjoying this book a lot; but, then I completely forgot that I read it until I started writing this list. It tells the story of a group of East German refugees, living on the other side of the Berlin wall, and how they dug a tunnel back into East Germany to rescue people trapped in the Soviet controlled territory. The story is wild and Merriman tells it well. I’m glad I decided to write this so that I could remember this book.
★★★★☆ (4/5)—good book! Sorry I forgot about it.
Date Finished: May 18, 2023
This is another one on everyone’s “Books You Must Read” list; but, this one does not disappoint. It tells the story of Ernest Shackleton’s doomed voyage to Antarctica and the struggle to survive when their ship was trapped and crushed by the ice. The men on the voyage endured the most unbelievable hardship. Just when you think there is going to be a reprieve and even a rescue, something else horrible happens to them.
★★★★☆ (4/5)—I agree with everyone else: read this book!
Date Finished: May 29, 2023
Michael Schur is comedy writer who wrote for The Office, and then created Parks and Recreation as well as The Good Place. This book is related to Schur’s thinking and research for The Good Place, which I have not watched. Schur explores several branches of moral philosophy; but, unlike most philosophy books, he makes them funny. Chapter titles include “This Sandwich Is Morally Problematic. But It’s Also Delicious. Can I Still Eat It?”, “Yes, I Bumped into Your Car. But Do You Even Care About Hurricane Katrina?!”, and “Do I Have to Return My Shopping Cart to the Shopping Cart Rack Thingy? I Mean… It’s All the Way Over There.”
★★★☆☆ (3/5)—good book, if you’re interested in moral philosophy; but, not interested enough to read the original texts (🙋♂️).
Date Finished: June 5, 2023
Another shipwreck book?!? Another Grann book?!? Yes. I enjoyed Endurance so much I wanted more. I thought that this newly-released book by Grann would be just the thing. And it was… fine. This time the wreck occurs off the coast of Chile, which is well known to be some of the roughest seas on Earth. Once again, the captain was filled with tremendous hubris; but, this time the sailors are not unified in their fight for survival.
This book is better-written than Killers of the Flower Moon, which made it more enjoyable to read. But, the story didn’t live up to the drama of Endurance. For being such a fan of Grann, I am a tough critic, eh?
★★★☆☆ (3/5)—If you’re going to read one shipwreck book, read Endurance; but, if you’re going to read two, this one is OK.
First Principles: What America’s Founder Learned for the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country
Thomas E. Ricks
Date Finished: June 12, 2023
I liked this book; but, let me stipulate that I already know a lot of the major stories and philosophies from ancient Greece and Rome. If you don’t have at least some idea of what Cicero, Cato, Homer, and Herodotus (among others) wrote about, you feel a little bit lost in this book.
Furthermore, Ricks’s thesis is pretty flimsy. He spends a lot of time writing about the books in the homes of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, etc. along with the ways those men were educated. But, he frames this as if it was something unique to the lives of these specific men when, in reality, it was just normal. If you went to a University such as Harvard (Adams), William & Mary (Jefferson), Princeton (Madison) you read the classics. And, of course, that kind of education would have an influence on their thinking as they established a new nation and system of government. You don’t need to read much about ancient Athens to realize that the American government was created with Athenian democracy in mind. You can just look at The White House or The Capitol Building to see the influence of ancient Roman architecture.
Nevertheless, I did enjoy learning a little more about the specific reading habits of the founders. Having read David McCollugh’s John Adams several years ago, it makes sense that he thought of himself as the American Cicero (even if no one else did). Ricks’s main point is completely obvious; but, the details are worth exploring if you are interested in that kind of thing.
★★★☆☆ (3/5)—If you like classical Greek and Roman history and are interested in the lives of the founders, read this book. Otherwise, it is totally skippable.
Date Finished: June 24, 2023
I read O’Farrell’s Hamnet last year and loved it (★★★★☆ (4/5)). So, I was excited to read her latest book about Lucrezia de’ Medici, a duchess from Florence who married into the Ferranese family. O’Farrell is a wonderful story-teller; but, this story lacked some of the borderline magic-realism of Hamnet. Maybe it was just due to the fact the subject, Lucrezia, was basically a prisoner for her entire life. Maybe I’m being too harsh. I will definitely read O’Farrell’s next book.
★★★☆☆ (3/5)—read Hamnet instead.
Date Finished: August 2, 2023
Woof. Robert Greene is a major influence on Ryan Holiday, whose work I enjoy for the most part. But, unlike Holiday (I think), Greene is a sociopath. Greene achieved his first major success with The 48 Laws of Power and has been riffing on that book ever since. If you want a withering analysis on that book, listen to Michael Hobbes and Peter Shamshiri’s podcast episode about it on their show If Books Could Kill. Pretty much everything they say about 48 Laws applies to The Laws of Human Nature. The book is long, with long-winded anecdotes, mostly derived from ancient history, that are supposed to illuminate one of Greene’s so-called laws. But, they are really shallow anecdotes from which Greene then goes on to try to derive some sort of practical advice. This book sucked.
★☆☆☆☆ (1/5)—I don’t recommend this book or this author to anyone. I won’t be reading any more Greene if I can help it.
Date Finished: August 7, 2023
This was my palate cleanser from the Greene. Say what you will about Malcom Gladwell (and I’d be right there with you on most of it); but, they guy can tell a story. Sure, sometimes those stories are outdated, one-off anecdotes from which he derives some sort of unreasonable thesis. I’m not here for the knowledge, I’m here for the feels.
I think Gladwell has learned from his Outliers days and, perhaps, acquired a better research team with all of that Outliers money. So, as far as I can tell, the stories in The Bomber Mafia are true. We know this because Gladwell uses recordings of the people involved in the book.
“Recordings?” Yes. Gladwell “wrote” this book as an audiobook. The print version is a transcription of the audiobook, which is unique to this book. Most books are created the other way around. Gladwell “reads” the audiobook himself; but, unlike most audiobooks, this one sounds more like a lightly-scripted podcast. I did not read the text of this book; so, I can’t comment on that experience; but, I recommend listening to this book in its intended format.
★★★☆☆ (3/5)—good book if you like WWII stuff and like audiobooks.
Date Finished: August 11, 2023
I was drawn to this book because: 1. It takes place in Oneida, NY, which is near my childhood home and an area I know well, and 2. There was a utopian sex-cult near my house?!? I mean, not really. My house wasn’t built until the 1980s and this story comes from the 1800s. But, still: people from the 1800s were doing some freaky sex stuff in my proverbial backyard! Plus I get a presidential assassination? I’m in.
Now, the connection between these two things is… pretty loose. It feels like Wels had two partial books with a few related characters and she (her publisher?) mashed them together. The title would lead you to believe that the president (James Garfield) was assassinated due to his participation in a sex-cult; but, that is not the case.
★★★☆☆ (3/5)—readable book; but, doesn’t deliver on its title.
Date Finished: August 18, 2023
This book is another one that frequents the “Best Self-Help Books” lists. But, unlike the Greene, it isn’t written by a sociopath. The gist is that the average human lives about 4,000 weeks. That doesn’t seem like a lot. If you really want to see something horrifying, head over to 4kweeks.com to enter your birthday and see how many weeks you have left.
Burkeman’s advice is obvious: stop procrastinating, make a to-do list, focus on the things that matter, stop looking at your phone so much, momento mori, etc.
★★★☆☆ (3/5)—read if you need a bit of a boost to get yourself to your goals.
Molly’s Game: The True Story of the 26-Year-Old Woman Behind the Most Exclusive, High-Stakes Underground Poker Game in the World
Date Finished: September 1, 2023
I enjoyed this book. As the title says, Molly starts out with a pretty normal life (except that one of her brothers is an olympic athlete, and she probably would have been too if not for a medical issue that cut her career short… you know, normal). She moves to LA to “find herself” and due to her charm, good looks, and intelligence she gets involved in high-stakes poker games.
One of the players in the game is Tobey Maguire who turns out to be a manipulative, backstabbing, jerk. Who would have guessed?
Bloom is a good writer and the story moves along well.
David Graeber and David Wengrow
Date Finished: October 25, 2023
My first introduction to Graeber was his book Debt: The First 5000 Years. I thought the book would be a historical account of the monetary systems from antiquity to the present; but, it was so much more than that. I was sad to hear that Graeber died suddenly in 2020. He was an anthropologist who was clearly brilliant; but, faced hardship in his academic career. Just when he was recovering from that and achieving literary success, his life was cut short.
The Dawn of Everything is Graeber’s magnum opus. Graeber and Wengrow attempt to rewrite the accepted narrative about the origins of societies set in place by Jean-Jaques Rousseau (whom they call a “not particularly successful musician”), Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, and other Enlightenment writers. Graber and Wengrow point to indigenous societies in the North America as examples that contradict previously held ideas about the origins of warfare, slavery, and why we started classifying societies based on the ways they gather food. (Why did we do that anyway? They say it’s because it was the easiest way to group societies together without having to go through the trouble of learning anything more about them.)
This book is dense and long. It’s not for everyone.
★★★★☆—I think about this book often.
Date Finished: October 28, 2023
This book has generated ~controversy~ on social media, with some people expressing the opinion that Lewis was too lenient towards Sam Bankman-Fried, the book’s subject. I’m not sure we read the same book. Lewis is fair, attempting to explain some of SBF’s thinking and moral philosophy while also pointing out the ways that SBF failed to adhere to that philosophy. He also exposes the hubris and entitlement-based thinking that led SBF’s arrest and conviction.
My favorite take-away from this book is when Lewis explains the origins of what we now call cryptocurrency. It was conceived in the aftermath of the 2008 housing crash that led to the government bailing out the large banks. The mysterious founders of Bitcoin conceived of a currency that removed trust from the equation (the trust between the public and the government issuing the currency). Since all Bitcoin transactions are recorded on a public ledger, there’s no need for anyone to trust anyone else. The value of a Bitcoin can’t be manipulated by a government. But, what ended up happening was that new types of cryptocurrencies started to be created, which meant that there was a need to a method of exchanging these between each other.
Even more than, say, the New York Stock Exchange, the institutions they created required their customers to trust them. The New York Stock Exchange had regulators. If the New York Stock Exchange stole all your money, its executives would be sent to jail. In any case, the New York Stock Exchange would find it hard to steal all your money, as you didn’t keep your money on the New York Stock Exchange but in a brokerage account, managed by a bank, overseen by other regulators. The new crypto exchanges had no regulators. They acted as both exchange and custodian: they didn’t just enable you to buy bitcoin but also housed the bitcoin you’d bought. […] In traditional finance, founded on principles of trust, no one really had to trust anyone. In crypto finance, founded on a principle of mistrust, people trusted total strangers with vast sums of money.
★★★☆☆—good book; but skippable if you don’t want to read about finance.
Date Finished: November 10, 2023
I read Valliant’s The Tiger last year and I highly recommend it (★★★★☆ (4/5)). I was excited to see that a new book was coming out, and this one didn’t disappoint. Fire Weather describes the massive wildfire that burned most of Fort McMurray, Alberta in 2016. Valliant tells the stories of the firefighters that battled it, the residents who lived through it, the government who managed the response, and industries that made the conditions for such a fire in the first place (fossil fuel companies). Valliant is a wordsmith of the first order, which makes this book enjoyable even with the lack of sympathetic characters. I loved it and I look forward to whatever he does next.
★★★★☆ (4/5)—the only reason to not read this is immediately if you don’t like non-fiction or you are already reading The Tiger.
Date Finished: December 7, 2023
What can I say? I’m a sucker for the ancient myths and I a sucker for Stephen Fry. This is the first book in a series of ancient stories retold by Fry and I will probably read them all. Fry brings all of the Greek mythologies to life; but, without all of the “thee” and “thines” of other, stuffier retellings. Fry clearly enjoys these stories and the characters in them, which makes reading his versions delightful. Some stories I knew and some I did not; but, all of them were fun and occasionally thought provoking.
★★★★☆ (4/5)—I’m in the tank for the Greeks and Fry; but, I think book is objectively good.
Next year I will, once again, attempt to read more books; but, I’m going to be a bit more conscious of which books I choose to read. I’m going to try to work in a little more fiction and explore some authors I haven’t read yet. We’ll see how I do with that after our next journey ‘round the sun. See you then!