A few years ago I started writing a late-December (or, ahem, early January) recap of my reading from the previous year. Here are the links to the entries from 2017, 2018, 2019, the first half of 2020, the second half of 2020, 2021, and 2022. If you’re looking for the best of the best, go to my “Great Books” list here. That is the central repository – categorized and sub-categorized by genre – for books that I have read that IMHO are worthy of your valuable time.
Let me start with my normal disclaimer about numbers: tracking and reporting on the number of books we read in a year is somewhat useful, but only “somewhat”. It can give us an idea of our reading progress over the previous year, but becoming overly focused on the number of books we read can lead us away from big books.
In 2023, I read 31 books, down from 36 from the previous year. There were some standouts, 15 of which I highlight below (with some honorable mentions at the bottom). A few of these highlighted titles will make it into my “Great Books” list I referenced above.
As is usually the case with me, these books flex across a range of fiction and non-fiction categories. Unlike my “Great Books” page however, I am not segmenting this list by genre, I have thrown them all into a pile for you to work through. This forces you to read through the list (cue evil laughter) rather than skipping over a genre that you might reflexively dismiss and in so doing miss a great book that you’ll love.
|Same As Ever: A Guide to What Never Changes by Morgan Housel — I highlighted another one of Housel’s books in last year’s recap (The Psychology of Money: Timeless Lessons on Wealth, Greed, and Happiness). In both books (and on his blog) Housel is sharp observer of human behavior. The fact that he applies his observations to the world of personal finance (in “The Psychology of Money”) or the broader concepts of risk, opportunity and fate (“Same as Ever”), gives them a practical focus and – due to his excellent use of stories – are a pleasure to read. To give you a flavor, in one section be talks about enduring or “permanent” information (e.g. “How do people behave when they encounter a risk they hadn’t fathomed?”) versus “expiring” information (e.g. “How much profit did Microsoft earn in the second quarter of 2005?”). He then says “I try to ask when I’m reading: Will I care about this a year from now? Ten years from now? Eighty years from now? It’s fine if the answer is no, even a lot of the time. But if you’re honest with yourself you may begin to steer toward the more enduring bits of information.”
|Trust by Hernan Diaz — A novel set in the “Roaring 20’s” in New York City, the book delves into high finance and wealth creation principally centered on one couple….perhaps. This is the genius of the book’s title, which refers to both a financial instrument as well as the issues arising from different viewpoints.
|Poverty, By America by Matthew Desmond— From the author of the Pulitzer Prize winning “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” comes this broader view of poverty in America and the systems which sustain it. The author doesn’t pull punches as he outlines how, in his view, poverty principally exists because it benefits the sort of people that read a book like this – particularly those of us who live in “…the richest country on earth, with more poverty than any other advanced democracy”. As always with Desmond, I learned a lot and was challenged. The stories he relates is one of the great advantages of reading in that it helped me see a part of society that I do not see every day.
|Your God is Too Small: A Guide for Believers and Skeptics Alike by J.B. Phillips — 20th century theologian Karl Rahner thought that humanity should suspend use of the word “God” for 50 years or so and instead refer to the “Absolute Mystery” so as to better orient ourselves to God’s immensity and mystery. This little book – written in the 1950s by J.B. Phillips, a canon in the Anglican Church – helps readers “find a meaningful constructive God”, by shining a light on common (limiting) metaphors we have about God: “Resident Policeman”, “Parental Hangover”, “Grand Old Man”, “Managing Director” and so on. It is natural for humans to use metaphors to understand that which is beyond human understanding, but as this book shows they can become hardened and limiting.
|Silence by Shūsaku Endō — Perhaps you’re familiar with Martin Scorsese’s blockbuster movie of this book. In recent years I have been trying to grab a previously-read book off the shelf rather than always reading (buying) new books. This was a re-read for me in 2023 and, as is often the case with re-reads, I enjoyed it more – perhaps because I already knew the story so I was more inclined to take my time and enjoy the writing.
|Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver — Winner of the 2023 Pulitzer Prize, this novel by the author of “The Poisonwood Bible” among others is a book that immerses you into a culture you (probably) know very little about. Kingsolver uses Appalachia, and the scourge of the opioid crisis, to set the journey of a troubled adolescent who carries a nickname – and the book’s title – reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ “David Copperfield”. An immersive story, narrated with a compelling voice, and deft symbolism make this both a good read on a “plot only” level but also a work of great literature that likely will be used in Lit classes for years to come.
|Inventing Wine: A New History of One of the World’s Most Ancient Pleasures by Paul Lukacs — If you’re a wine enthusiast like I am, this excellent history of the noble grape is a terrific read. Clear and engaging writing about the path of wine, and how the innovations of yesterday (glass bottles! corks!) have made today’s wine something that would have been unrecognizable to the people from earlier eras who had to temper their sour swill with honey and water just to choke it down.
|Number Go Up: Inside Crypto’s Wild Rise and Staggering Fall by Zeke Faux — In a year of countless stories about the implosion of crypto-exchange FTX and the eventual guilty verdict of it’s founder Sam Bankman-Fried, this book stood out for me. I also read Michael Lewis’s book “Going Infinite” on the same topic which didn’t make this list. Although I’m a huge Michael Lewis fan, if you’re only going to read one book on this topic make it this one by Zeke Faux. Lewis’s book felt rushed to coincide with the trial, and Lewis seemed..mmm…a bit too close to his subject. Faux, on the other hand, takes us on an arc that somehow ties the FTX implosion with the tragedy of human slavery in parts of Asia (the people scamming your grandparents may have been abducted into one of these locations where they are forced to run scams in grueling conditions) and the you-got-to-be-kidding asininity of “Bored Ape” NFT Tokens and the celebrities who got in on the grift (shame on you, Jimmy Fallon).
|How To Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen by David Brooks — I’m a fan of David Brooks’ writing in general, and particularly his public journey over the past several years examining the deeper aspects of humanity and inter-connectedness. This book helped me realize how distracted I am when I’m “listening” to people with multiple priorities and concerns occupying parts of my attention. As Brooks points out, the attention we give people should operate more like an on/off light switch rather than a dimmer. It’s hard to imagine any of us reading a book like this and not emerging with a fresh insight or two, and when I say “fresh insight” I mean either the “I never thought of that before” variety, or the “That’s right – I knew that once but for some reason forgot about it” variety. Both kinds are energizing to me.
|What Do I Know? Essential Essays by Michel de Montaigne (translation by David Coward/Forward by Yiyun Lee) — I enjoy reading thinkers from hundreds of years ago who often blow me away with how on-point their observations are even in our 21st century. None, perhaps, are more fun to read than the guy who invented the concept of the “essay” (in French, “essayer” is the verb “to try”). This new translation of a selection of Montaigne’s essays was a fun read. Montaigne, who was always in on the joke and never above poking fun at himself, provides us with this warning: “And therefore, Reader, I myself am the subject of my book: it is not reasonable that you should employ your leisure on a topic so frivolous and so vain”. Read it anyway.
|The Genesee Diary: Report from a Trappist Monastery by Henri J.M Nouwen— I enjoy first-hand accounts of people who have “gone deep”, and it’s tough to go much deeper than spending seven months in a Trappist Monastery. Nouwen – a Dutch priest who was published extensively during his life and spent his later years living in community with men and women with mental and physical disabilities – was at a dry point in his life (as we all must encounter from time to time). Amid his hectic lecturing/teaching, writing, and public speaking schedules, he needed to tap into something deeper, so arranged time to step away and join this Trappist community in upstate New York. He kept a journal that was open, honest, and after some light editing became this book. I really enjoyed it.
|Absolution by Alice McDermott — The newest novel by one of the most celebrated authors of the current era, this book claimed multiple “best book” type awards, and centers on the lives of the American women – two in particular – whose husbands serve in murky intelligence/military posts as U.S. involvement in Vietnam was ramping up in the early 1960’s. The gender specific roles in that era were still very much still rooted in what we think of when we think “the 1950’s” – for instance the wives’ responsibility to advance their husbands’ career prospects through deft social interaction. The writing is wonderful – as you’d expect from McDermott – and the author opens up a time and place in history you otherwise may be unfamiliar with. “Absolution” is very much in the style of the 1955 classic The Quiet American by Graham Green and – like Greene’s book – reflects the strangeness of Vietnam to Americans of that era and vice versa. From the book: “You have no idea what it was like. For us. The women I mean. The wives.”
|Prophet Song by Paul Lynch — Winner of the 2023 Mann Booker Prize, this book is like a modern-day version of “The Road” from Cormac McCarthy – a dystopian story set in present-day Ireland where an authoritarian government visits the sort of terror on their domestic enemies that authoritarian governments are known for. The recent worldwide move toward authoritarian political figures only serves as a distant backdrop in this novel, and the specifics of what brought this about in Ireland are not explored. But those big questions are outside the immediate interest of the novel’s protagonist, a mother who seeks to keep her family together after her union-organizing husband is “disappeared” and daily life implodes around her. Not an easy read, but it received its slew of awards for a reason.
|Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott — This book, originally published in 1995 is one of the bedrock books for aspiring writers of fiction. While that doesn’t describe me, I enjoyed this book immensely. You will learn a lot about how writers craft their stories and you will pick up some tips/ideas on how to be a better writer yourself. The author manages to do this while being charming and funny throughout. Fans of the recent hit series “Ted Lasso” may recall seeing Coach Beard kicking back in his office chair with this book and occasionally reminding Coach Lasso to take things “bird by bird”.
|Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters by Mark Dunn — This fun but serious novel delivers “A hilarious and moving story of one girl’s fight for freedom of expression, as well as a linguistic tour de force sure to delight word lovers everywhere” (from the Amazon blurb). This is a fun read that celebrates words as well as the importance of the sentence “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog”. Good beach read if you’re looking forward, with hope, to your summer reading list.
Below are some other recommended books I read in 2023 that I didn’t highlight above. I’m not building hyperlinks to save time, but these are all easy to search/find using your awesome technical prowess….
The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester
Weird: The Power of being an Outsider in an Insider World by Olga Khazan
Reinventing Bach by Paul Elie
Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis
Dune by Frank Herbert
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Molokai by Alan Brennert
Outlive: The Science and Art of Longevity by Peter Attia, M.D.
The Angel of Rome (short stories) by Jess Walter
Shoe Dog by Phil Knight
Come Forth by James Martin, S.J.
Going Infinite by Michael Lewis
The Bee Sting by Paul Murray
Note: “The Bee Sting” was very, very well reviewed and landed at the top of some “Best Books in 2023” lists. Don’t let me dissuade you from reading it – the writing is excellent – but keep two things in mind: it is over 650 pages long, and the ending was (for me) frustratingly ambiguous, which might not be a satisfying way for you to end 650+ page effort. Interestingly, this book and “The Prophet Song” (reviewed above) were a) both celebrated, b) both set in Ireland/written by Irish writers, and c) neither of them use quotation marks to mark dialog, thus forcing the reader to exert a bit of extra effort to sift through what is that narrator’s voice and what is dialogue. I mention this because I could see the lack of quotation marks becoming a bit of a trend, just as I assume some poets ditched the capital letters during e.e. cummings’ day. It is a great book however and worthy of the acclaim.
Also published on Medium.