My Year in Books: 2023
I have a sensitivity for any ritualized ending that begs retrospection and renewal. Together with major milestone birthdays, there are few better moments than the end of the year. Looking back through the books I read is the lens I find to be the most useful for reflecting on what I’ve learned, the struggles I’ve weathered, and the emotions I experienced. At a little over one book a week, these offer steady bookends to my experiences.
This year I received even more inspiration from friends — exposing myself to an even wider range of fantasy, horror, and philosophy than before. I also returned to my origins with more printed pages than audiobooks. Lucky for me (considering our educational system’s problematic selectivity with the Auditory and Reading / Writing prongs of the VARK model) as a learner who benefits from linguistic approaches, I like keeping a balance of the two.
Unusually, I also started and left, partly finished, more books than ever. In all fairness, I had a few focused obsessions and there were a number of works that required a more attentive version of myself that I am looking forward to resuming.
The following is a rather jumbled accounting of the stories I consumed: part review, part list, part personal reflection. As there is no obligation to read this linearly (or even in its entirety) I’ve organized these by topic. The sequencing or length may not make sense, but I do this for me more than anyone else.
If you are tolerant of having your patience tested and are looking for an avante-garde, horror thriller — one you sometimes have to flip upside down, sideways, and even spin in order to read — do I have a recommendation for you. Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves is an ergodic study in abstraction, obsession, and loss. It’s self-referential, mind-bending satire with a citation complexity that puts David Foster Wallace to shame.
Evolving out of the 1990s underground music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area, the tome (and it is a tome) continues to enjoy a cult following. In a fun moment of personal overlap and creative cross-pollination, I discovered that Haunted, the alt rock / trip hop album I was obsessed with as a sixteen year-old, was composed by the author’s sister as a musical counterpart to the novel. The story goes that Danielewski read a draft of the earlier writing at his father’s hospital bedside and, after a harsh review, tore up the manuscript and threw it into a nearby dumpster. Danielewski’s sister Anne retrieved the pieces and, over the course of two weeks in an act of true filial love, carefully taped them back together.
“Darkness is impossible to remember. Consequently cavers desire to return to those unseen depths where they have just been. It is an addiction. No one is ever satisfied. Darkness never satisfies. Especially if it takes something away which it almost always invariably does.”
― Mark Danielewski
Other perspective-altering fiction I read this year that I will continue to recommend to any and everyone interested in their themes…
R. F. Kuang’s Babel for a magical-light take on imperialism, power, and the lengths we will go to delude ourselves of our complicity in an unjust system — even one that harms those we love most. The secret? Personal profit.
“‘It was so easy to forget,’ he said, ‘the cards it’s built on, I mean, because when you’re at Oxford, in the tower, they are just words, just ideas, but the world is so much bigger than I thought… We forgot the rest of it mattered. We got so good at refusing to see what was right in front of us.'”
— R.F. Kuang
Moth Smoke, by Mohsin Hamid as a devolution story embedded in contemporary Pakistan highlighting class, friendship, fidelity, and self-actualization within social mores. Air conditioning is an especially potent symbol and one I am unlikely to forget anytime soon.
“Secrets make life more interesting. You can be in a crowded room with someone and touch them without touching, just with a look, because they know a part of you no one else knows. And whenever you’re with them, the two of you are alone, because the you they see no one else can.”
― Mohsin Hamid
I’m a Fan, by Sheena Patel for those who can tolerate an irredeemable and unlikeable narrator. The main character has some of the wryest observations on social media, race, misogyny, and celebrity culture — all while becoming entirely intoxicated with the problems she identifies. It’s darkness dressed up as a frolic.
“I have to make a concerted effort to stem the tsunami of fear of being imprisoned by my gender, which now means not having any control over the meaning of myself. The man I want to be with is at an age where he should know better what he wants, but he doesn’t need to. The fact of his being a man means that he is coddled. The world does not demand any self awareness from him… The upper hand men have over women because although women experience the infinite our value is not seen as infinite. Our value is tied to our small window of production. And it is a daily effort to fight the fear we have no value outside the parameters of marriage and children, if it is possible to do this at all. Capitalism stokes the illusion the planet’s resources are never-ending or else that things only have value when they are producing. And if they are not then replace them… There is no shelf life for the man I want to be with like there is for me. There is no cliff face. He can be forever perusing. I have to have had a whole life before I am thirty. Will be deemed old by 35… The validation a relationship bestows upon a woman’s personhood still exists and has to be internally fought off if a union hasn’t been achieved. The world is built for couples. Even unhappy ones.”
— Sheena Patel
In the vein of unreliable narrators, Yellowface, (another entry on my list from R.F. Kuang) on professional envy, friendship, and on who has the right to tell certain stories. Timely and important, not least for white Americans, like me, who are brought up to feel indignant when we encounter any limits on a world we’ve come to expect as made specially for us. In “Yellowface,” we are confronted with how embedded the teacher is within the lesson.
“It’s like pressing a bleeding sore repeatedly, trying to see how far you can go with your tolerance for pain, because if you know the limits of it, you gain some sense of control over it.”
― R.F. Kuang
Adding another, sadly, late entry to my personal Pratchett oeuvre is Good Omens. Sir Terry Pratchett remains one of the most quotable humorists and his partnership with the surrealist fantasy writer Neil Gaiman generates a highly rewarding romp through Old Testament Christianity and musings on the nature of good and evil. (Spoiler Alert: Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, and all the Bachs are in hell.)
“Hell may have all the best composers, but heaven has all the best choreographers.”
― Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman
Shannon Shakriboti’s The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi showed me the disservice I’ve been done, not just for the paucity of first-person stories of muslim, female pirates, but also for my tragically shuttered world of the wild and magical seas of the Indian Ocean in 12th century Yemen. Non-western centered tropes of marid sea monsters, parenting struggles, and Franks abound. I’m looking forward to reading the second book.
“People have this idea of mothers, that we are soft and gentle and sweet. As though the moment my daughter was laid on my breast, the phrase I would do anything did not take on a depth I could have never understood before.”
— Shannon Shakriboti
And lastly, if only in terms of descending recency, Yevegny Zamyatin’s We, or the oft uncredited inspiration behind Orwell’s 1984 and and Huxley’s Brave New World. It is, dare I say, the better dystopian tale. Written the year before the creation of the USSR, the novel is a treatise on the consequences of total conformity and the repression of the individual. In We we have an ostensibly areligious society worshiping the ‘God is man, man became God’ of an all-knowing, benevolent “Benefactor.” (Quite prescient for Stalinist Russia’s soon-to-come totalitarian regime.) Radically, the true heroes in this story are two women, independently introducing the highly regimented narrator D-503 to emotions, chaos, and contumaciousness — profound growth for a man whose nightmares consist entirely of √(-1) and the existence of imaginary numbers.
As someone who often feels split into two irreconcilable selves — a deeply feeling, ever-shifting kaleidoscopic emotional side and a reason-seeking, Euclidean-loving rational side — it was compelling reading Zamyatin’s reification of this division on the page. Outside the ‘best of intentions, utopia gone wrong’ narrative, I quite enjoyed the cautionary tale of what happens when external reasoning is removed in an entirely externalizing society; or, as the doctors of the OneState call the disease of madness, “acquiring a soul.” Disturbing and painfully relevant.
“Rejoice, for henceforth you are perfect. Until this day, your progeny, the machines, have been more perfect than you. How so? Every spark of a dynamo is a spark of the purest reason. Every thrust of a piston an immaculate syllogism. But isn’t that same infallible reason also in you? The philosophy of pumps, presses, and cranes is clear and consummate, like a circle drawn with a compass. But is your philosophy any less perfectly circular? The beauty of a mechanism is in its undeviating and exact pendulum-like rhythm. But aren’t you, who have been reared on Taylorist systems from birth, just as exact as pendulums? The only difference: mechanisms don’t have imaginations… But this isn’t your fault. You’re sick. And the name of this illness is imagination. It is the worm that gnaws black wrinkles into your forehead. The fever that drives you further and further away, even when further begins precisely where happiness ends. It is the final barricade on the path to total happiness.”
— Yevegny Zamyatin
Memoir and Biography
A jumble of coming age, personal reflections, explorer stories, and Heideggerian neologisms; listed in the order they come to me.
Born from the recommendation of a mutual friend, drinking IPAs in a snow-covered hot tub while connecting over books, Hsu Hua’s Stay True left me reevaluating my understanding of friendship. The Nirvana fanboy lines were made palatable by observations such as:
“Derrida remarked that friendship’s driver isn’t the pursuit of someone who is just like you. A friend, he wrote, would ‘choose knowing rather than being known.’ I had always thought it was the other way around.”
— Hsu Hua
Elaine Castillo’s How to Read Now is a jarring and therapeutic tale of a consummate interloper. A female writer of color, Castillo details in agonizingly, self-illuminating detail a litany of pain and anger for her complicity and love with literature that refuses to acknowledge her full humanity.
“Only some bodies are granted the privilege of choice when it comes to politics. Not everyone can tell a story and have it be seen as apolitical.”
— Elaine Castillo
Another unconventional writing entry making its way onto my bookshelf is Água Viva from the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector. In a structureless hypotonic monologue Lispector manages to limn, in novella format, what I imagine emotion to be were it able to write. Her ability to make words take on the shape of abstracting scattered impressions of self-knowledge, longing, and existence makes her stream of consciousness not just a beautiful experiment but somehow, radically, fully coherent.
“All that’s guiding me is a sense of discovery. Beyond what’s beyond thought. Following myself along is really what I’m doing when writing to you… Sometimes I end up giving up. Now I‘m afraid. Because I’m going to tell you something. Wait until the fear passes. It passed. It’s this: dissonance is harmonious to me. Melody sometimes wears me out… I want geometric streaks that cross in the air and form a disharmony that I understand… What I’m telling you is very important. And I work while I sleep: because that is when I move inside the mystery.”
— Clarice Lispector
Endurance by Alfred Lansing is the most remarkable survival and leadership story I have ever read (and I slogged my way through more than one of Jon Krakauer’s terrifying mountaineering accident stories). Lansing unflinchingly catalogs the two year struggles of the twenty-eight man crew of the Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Hell on earth is decidedly below freezing temperatures, constant hunger with awful interludes of butchering your own dogs, and sixteen months of half-awake sleep to be sure the iceberg you are listlessly floating on doesn’t suddenly split right beneath your permanently wet sleeping bag. For anyone fascinated by nineteenth century exploration, navigation on the open sea, and climbing (for the unbelievable final ‘boss battle’ of Shackelton’s hail mary rescue crew) this is a must-read. Side effects include uncontrollable drowning phobias, second-hand nausea whenever seal blubber is mentioned, feeling cozy no matter your sleeping situation, and minimizing your own pain.
“For scientific leadership give me Scott; for swift and efficient travel, Amundsen; but when you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”
― Alfred Lansing
On the explorer biography track, I have to mention Candice Millard’s retelling of two frenemies, Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke, in River of the Gods and their quest to locate the source of the Nile. Millard’s treatment of the British explorers is both celebratory and eviscerating, fair and honest. (Her descriptions of the beetle clawing its way out of Speke’s ear still gives me the heebies.) Speke’s aristocratic entitlement and extrinsic motivations are originally held as a foil to Burton and his achievements — until Burton’s ethnophile character gives way to eugenics. With the typical exaltation of European explorers removed, what is left is recognition for the bare-faced bravery and loyalty shown by their guide, Sidi Mubarak Bombay, and the hundreds of East Africans hired (and often left unpaid) to labor as porters that made their survival possible. Following the expedition, and what Millard insinuates in the epilogue as a consequence of mapping the “undiscovered” interior, seven countries soon would colonize more than 90% of the African continent.
“No one is so unforgiving, I need hardly say, as the man who injures another.”
— Richard Burton
Just shy of 1,000 pages, Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts is set in 1980s India as told through the eyes of an escaped Australian convict. Part autobiography, part fiction, its descriptions — from the Bombay underground to Bollywood and life in the zhopadpatti — make up what is undeniably a grand adventure story. At times heartwrenching, Roberts captures minute intricacies in gesture, language, values of South Indian culture. His skill for noticing is especially on display during along the journey to the village of Sunder: descriptions of the simultaneous politeness and violence inherent in boarding a crowding train and the power of the ‘head wiggle’ stayed with me far longer than any of the excessively romantic coitus bits or semi-tortured theories of ‘entropy as progress’ life philosophy.
“No discovery pleased me more, on that first excursion from the city, than the full translation of the famous Indian head-wiggle. The weeks I’d spent in Bombay with Prabaker had taught me that the shaking or wiggling of the head from side to side — that most characteristic of Indian expressive gestures — was the equivalent of a forward nod of the head, meaning Yes. I’d also discerned the subtler senses of I agree with you, and Yes, I would like that. What I learned, on the train, was that a universal message attached to the gesture… Gradually, I realised that the wiggle of the head was a signal to others that carried an amiable and disarming message: I’m a peaceful man, I don’t mean any harm… It was the first truly Indian expression my body learned, and it was the beginning of a transformation that has ruled my life, in all the long years since that journey of crowded hearts.”
— Gregory David Roberts
Other Noticeable Themes
Patterns made apparent by virtue of hindsight, again in no particular order.
“In a few swift days of a dry summer this ancient cave in central Africa, blackened by centuries of smoke, has become for me my own ancestral place where fifty milleniums ago a creature not so different from myself hunched close to the first fire. A striped swallow that nests under the arch was here before man’s upright troops came through the silent baobabs. And so were the geckos, hornets, and small mice that go about their bright-eyed business undisturbed.”
— Peter Matthiessen
Urban Planning: Must-mentions also include Ben Wilson’s Metropolis and Urban Jungle and Mary Roach’s Fuzz for my recent fascination with the built world and the environmental consequences of human-engineered habitats (those of antiquity as well as modern societies). This is an obsession pit that is definitely stretching forward through 2024.
“The myth of Babylon echoes down the ages: as stunningly successful as they are, cities can crush the individual. For all that is compelling about the metropolis, there is a lot that is monstrous too.”
— Ben Wilson
Mindset and Creativity: Though my brevity here is a complete discredit to the following, I have to include Greg McKeown’s Essentialism. Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks, W. Timothy Gallwey’s The Inner Game of Tennis, Rick Rubin’s The Creative Act, and Deepak Chopra’s Abundance for their guidance on coming to terms with a different, less mechanistic and scarcity-minded approach to time, goals, and personal development. Counter-intuitively, striving and personal productivity hacks are not only fruitless, but feeding the frenzy. As I get older, I am fascinated more and more with the limited time I have on this planet and the importance of achieving balance in performance and in life by focusing on what truly matters. My Type A, perfectionist self melted a little bit. I hope the thaw continues.
“Convenience culture seduces us into imagining that we might find room for everything important by eliminating only life’s tedious tasks. But it’s a lie. You have to choose a few things, sacrifice everything else, and deal with the inevitable sense of loss that results.”
— Oliver Burkeman
Long Distance Running: Alex Hutchinson’s Endure and Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running fed my love-hate passion for endurance sports. The blend between the scientific and the personal represents a new departure in what has always been an entirely interior struggle. Waking up at 5:00 AM to witness a friend’s 30 kilometer trail run may have shaken free a dormant desire to race again. Only time will tell.
“Solitude is, more or less, an inevitable circumstance. Sometimes, however, this sense of isolation, like acid spilling out of a bottle, can unconsciously eat away at a person’s heart and dissolve it. You could see it, too, as a kind of double-edged sword. It protects me, but at the same time steadily cuts away at me from the inside. I think in my own way I’m aware of this danger — probably through experience — and that’s why I’ve had to constantly keep my body in motion, in some cases pushing myself to the limit, in order to heal the loneliness I feel inside and to put it in perspective. Not so much as an intentional act, but as an instinctive reaction.”
― Haruki Murakami
Classic Literature: Since encountering Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s observation in Antifragile, where he proposed prioritizing books that have stood the test of time to delineate truth from sensationalism, I have been deliberately trying to incorporate more classic literature into my reading lists. Imperfect as the heuristic is in absolute terms, I concede that in the midst of overwhelming information and noise, time can be one of the more effective filters. From here, I added to my personal library Doestevsky’s The Idiot, Sartre’s Typhus and No Exit, Chekov’s Three Sisters, Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover, Chandler’s The Big Sleep, and Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching.
“Fill your bowl to the brim, and it will spill. Keep sharpening your knife, and it will blunt. Chase after money and security and your heart will never unclench. Care about people’s approval, and you will be their prisoner. Do your work then step back: the only path to serenity.”
Work and Domestic Life: Ever the evergreen interest, Erin Meyer’s The Culture Map offered a highly practical framework for charting cultural spectra and their impact on collaboration in the workplace. A professor at INSEAD, Meyer’s insights helped me to visualize differences in approaches and draw a superstructure around a few of my own frustrating experiences managing cross-cultural team members and projects. For one thing, despite where I was raised and the education I received, I tend to over-index on the opposite side of Meyer’s Scale 3: Persuading (i.e. Applications-first ←→ Principles-first). This means I struggle to exhibit patience for presentations that exclude any discussion of methodology or jump straight to recommendations without outlining the theory behind them. Hard to admit given I pride myself on my ability to adapt to different points of view or ways of thinking. A few personal and professional conflicts are becoming clearer in hindsight.
Bill Bryson’s At Home provided a humorous counterpoint — using his own home as the venue for a room-by-room tour in historical anecdotes across architecture, food, energy, construction, fashion, disease, and economics. From the fantastically foul things the British used to launder clothes to the psychology of flatware (there’s a Goldilocks number of fork prongs) this book was amusing from its beginning in ‘The Hall’ to its final ‘Attic’ chapters. My favorite room ended up being the Dining Room where Christopher Columbus is described as blundering his way into modern celebrity: never working out Cuba was an island, mistaking the Caribbean for India, loading up on pyrite assuming it was gold, hoarding chili peppers thinking they were peppercorns of Indonesia, and never stepping foot in the country that erects statues to commemorate his “discovery.”
David Graeber’s Debt challenged my admittedly conservative understanding on the nature of money, debt, and credit systems: opening by eviscerating a moral axiom (all debts must be repaid) as a preamble to unpacking the history of markets from bride prices to mercantilism. Graeber’s more recent, and also highly enjoyable, Bullshit Jobs complemented with William Bridges’ Transitions offered philosophical treatises on work, meaning, and impact across two resolutions: the interior of the individual and the systemic. I could not recommend either enough, though I don’t feel prepared to go into more detail at the risk of oversimplified and tangling their messages.
“In our society, there seems a general rule that, the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it. Again, an objective measure is hard to find, but one easy way to get a sense is to ask: what would happen were this entire class of people to simply disappear? Say what you like about nurses, garbage collectors, or mechanics, it’s obvious that were they to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be immediate and catastrophic. A world without teachers or dock-workers would soon be in trouble, and even one without science fiction writers or ska musicians would clearly be a lesser place. It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish. (Many suspect it might markedly improve.) Yet apart from a handful of well-touted exceptions (doctors), the rule holds surprisingly well.”
— David Graeber
Technology and Geopolitics: Leading with the latter lens, Chip War by Chris Miller and Sandworm by Andy Greenberg explored the evolving landscape of technology-driven threats and competition. Meanwhile, Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing (sequenced inexplicably after Seneca’s How to Die) and Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, offered self-help style looks at the ways technology shapes our lives. Where Odell turns political, examining the medium’s impact on economic production, Carr wrestles with its presumed neutrality. Carr is interested in, as he writes, “not our becoming but what we become.” Wherever you personally fall on the Luddite vs Techno-Optimist spectrum, there is an intuitive understanding that technology changes us. Sandwiched between pop-science neurology excerpts and an impressively synthesized history of knowledge transmission, Carr stitches together a weighty moral argument and circles back to his starting rhetorical question on whether these changes are for the better. Although the book was published in 2010, its reflections didn’t strike me as dated as they should be. Even the decade-old writings on AI offer relevance. Overall this was a read that left me questioning the ‘technology is neutral’ stance I’ve internalized as gospel.
“Today, the story of the calculator is often used to support the argument that our growing dependence on online databases is benign, even liberating. In freeing us from the work of remembering, it’s said, the Web allows us to devote more time to creative thought. But the parallel is flawed. The pocket calculator relieved the pressure on our working memory, letting us deploy that critical short-term store for more abstract reasoning. As the experience of math students has shown, the calculator made it easier for the brain to transfer ideas from working memory to long-term memory and encode them in the conceptual schemas that are so important to building knowledge. The Web has a very different effect. It places more pressure on our working memory, not only diverting resources from our higher reasoning faculties but obstructing the consolidation of long-term memories and the development of schemas. The calculator, a powerful but highly specialized tool, turned out to be an aid to memory. The Web is a technology of forgetfulness.”
— Nicholas Carr
That’s a wrap, folks. Even in this nonlinear, semi-stream-of-consciousness format, I didn’t have the room / time / energy to fit in every single book, but I followed this wherever it wanted to go. I think I’m happy with where we ended up.
What new rabbit holes will I find myself in? Will I have the patience to resume (as is one of my goals) reading authors in their original french? We shall see. Perhaps because this is my sixth year of setting a “Reading Challenge,” I’d like to think I’m less caught up in a specific number than the act. The practice of reading everyday is now a firmly ingrained habit. On the train, before bed, during lunch, and in all the other small moments in between I intend to continue allowing myself to be transported by story, protect my mind’s openness and focus, and enrich my understanding and empathy for myself and the world.
Here’s to continuing the lessons in 2024.