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What I Read in 2023

What I Read in 2023

What follows is a rough stack ranking of the books I read in 2023. There is likely some recency bias. I also moved books that I reread this year into their own section. It wouldn't be right to put a normal book against these heavy weights.

Please tell me what you think of my list and this format. And of course let me know if you have a book recommendation that you think should be on my 2024 list.

Stack Rank

Tomorrow, And Tomorrow, And Tomorrow, Gabrielle Zevin - I really liked this book about love, creativity, technology, and loss. I can imagine re-reading it sometime in the future. I loved the idea of a relationship where you can be creative together is exceedingly rare and it's different than being in love. You can have a deep creative connection with someone. You can have a strong loving connection with someone. These are different things and it may be difficult to do both with one person.

Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America, Barbara Ehrenreich - This book fucked my shit. It is an incredible book where Ehrenreich trades her life as an upper middle class academic for the life of a so-called low skilled laborer. Her intention is to determine if it is possible to support oneself on low wages. Spolier - it is not. And it has only gotten worse since she published this work in 2001. While the book was written over 20 years ago, it still is amazingly powerful. A similar, but more modern book is Evicted, but Nickel and Dimed is even better. I strongly recommend this book for it's deep insights into work, wealth inequality, pride in one's labor, and power in America.

Wastelands: The True Story of Farm Country on Trial, Corban Addison - A true story of the nuisance complaint filed against industrial hog farmers in North Carolina by their mostly black neighbors. Amazingly written, the story is absolutely electric from the first page. One seemingly unimportant tidbit that really stood out to me was that the Chinese pork producer that bought Smithfield did not dispose of hog waste in a similarly nonchalant manner, which I assume is the result of a more collectivist society. Why would we spray toxic hog waste on our neighbors vs. Of course we'd spray toxic hog waste on our neighbors for a profit is everything you need to know about China and America. Highly recommend.

Demon Copperhead, Barbara Kingsolver - This is an incredibly written coming of age story that takes place in the 90s in Southern Appalachia. It's not an easy story, but it is gripping so it is hard to put down. It touches on themes of loss, poverty, exploitation, addiction, economic justice and love.

Poverty, by America, Matthew Desmond - In a follow up to Evicted, Desmond asks, why is there so much poverty in the richest country in the world? His answer is that affluent Americans knowingly and unknowingly keep poor people poor. Desmond is able to put together a concise materialist political analysis that is highly persuasive.

Going Infinite: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon, Michael Lewis - Sam Bankman-Fried sounds like an absolute freak. I love a good Michael Lewis financial thriller, but I wish this one was longer. All the Michael Lewis haters can get wrecked.

The Making of Prince of Persia: Journals 1985-1993, Jordan Mechner - A short set of journal entries covering The Jordan Mechner's life while developing the first two Prince of Persia games. It includes a lot of growing up, searching for one's self, and interesting vignettes about the film and video game industries in the 80s and early 90s.

Musashi, Eiji Yoshikawa - Musashi was a master swordsman during the early years of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The wikipedia entry about him refers to him as a Sword-saint. Obviously a kindred spirit. This is a very long book, but as far as I can tell it is a classic in Japan. It is mostly a lot of weird Japanese stuff interspersed with some occasional very badass Japanese stuff. I enjoyed it a lot - I definitely felt transported to another place and time. But, be warned this is not for everyone.

So Good They Can't Ignore You, Cal Newport - This is not my first self help or career advice rodeo, but it is definitely one of the best books in that genre. It's short and to the point. There are only a few moments where I rolled my eyes, like when Newport wrote about how to become a Hollywood writer all you have to do is get really good at writing. But, the argument that following your passion is a bad strategy resonated so much that I wrote more about it.

The Vaster Wilds, Lauren Groff - A thriller about a girl who flees a 17th century colonial settlement for an unknown reason. This has Island of the Blue Dolphin meets Alone meets The Blair Witch Project vibes. It is short and incredibly well-written. The vibes are very off in the 1600s.

Between Two Fires, Christopher Buehlman - Grimdark horror fantasy. It's not for everyone, but it is for me. I love a story with a used up man of violence. Serious Diablo vibes.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, Atul Gawande - This is challenging because the subject is difficult - it's easier not to contemplate our mortality. But Atul argues that you just have to talk about it. He recommends that we aim to understand hopes, fears, and trade-offs.

Outlive: The Science & Art of Longevity, Peter Attia - Attia makes the case for "Medicine 3.0" that involves a focus on a persons healthspan - the number of years a person is in good health. He draws lessons from the lives of centinarians and proposes a new approach to preventing the diseases that will kill nearly all of us - cancer, heart disease, neurological degeneration and Diabetes. Time to hit the gym.

Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic - And What We Can Do About It, Jennifer Breheny Wallace - I picked this one up at truly the perfect time for me and my family. As a parent it is really hard to not worry about doing everything you can do to set your kids up for success. This book is a wake up call that American materialism and our human drive for status exacerbate these fears in ways that are counter productive. It is also a reminder that lots of parents feel this way. It dragged a bit at the end for me, but certainly the first half was really helpful.

Master and Commander, Patrick O'Brian - Dadcore. Let's go. The language is entertaining enough on it's own. The dialog and narration have a meditative tempo.

Immune: A Journey Into the Mysterious System That Keeps You Alive, Philipp Dettmer - A deep dive into the human body's immune system that is funny, informative, and reminiscent of the most exciting AP Biology classroom (this is a good thing - I had a great AP Bio teacher. What up Mr. Parkinson!). Dettmer is the creator of Youtube channel Kurzgesagt - In a Nutshell and has made his career explaining science to the public. I felt like I was getting a lot of depth, but not so much that I got lost or needed a degree in biochemistry to understand. I walked away from this book with a new appreciation for the scale and complexity of the immune system and a better understanding of why my shoulder hurts after I got my latest covid and flu shots.

Scaling People: Tactics for Management and Company Building, Claire Hughes Johnson - A good book on company building by a Stripe royal. Not gonna lie, Claire seems like an absolute killer.

The Anthropocene Reviewed, John Green - A collection of essays about humanity's relationship with the world in the form of 1 to 5 star reviews. The essays reveal more about Green's neuroses than anything else, but I found Green and his takes pretty compelling. He's a good writer.

Damnation Spring, Ash Davidson - A story of a family scraping by in a 1970s logging town in California that is beautifully written and very sad.

The Great Change (and Other Lies), Joe Abercrombie - A series of short stories set during Abercrombie's latest trilogy. I wish I had read these with the trilogy closer to mind.

Doppelgänger: A Trip into the Mirror World, Naomi Klein - This book covers Klein's experience during the Pandemic and previous decade or two being mistaken online for rightwing anti-vax provocateur Naomi Wolf. She uses this experience to build a metaphor which she calls the mirror world. In the same way that this person acts as her doppelgänger, the conspiracy fueled right is a distorted image of certain aspects of the left. There is a bit of Freudian analysis. There is a bit of Jewish identity and the Israeli Palestinian conflict. One mind blowing idea to me was that Naziism (like the real stuff in the 1930s and 40s) was basically the same thing the rest of Europe had been doing through colonialism and the slave trade for hundreds of years. The difference being Nazis did this to white people in Europe and with industrial technology. The ideas are the same.

The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu with Ken Liu (Translator) - I like this book. I don't love this book. Here's what I like - Cultural Revolution setting, noir-ish cop character, speculative scifi, medieval army turned into a computer, and just general cultural vibes that let me know I'm reading a Chinese translation. I sometimes enjoy the state of not knowing what the hell is going on in a book when executed well and this novel follows that storytelling pattern in a good way. Here's what I didn't like - pacing was a bit off. I think we spent too much time in the early stages of the video game where not a lot happened. It's a short enough book for this not be a huge deal. I didn't really care about the main character, Wang Miao, but I guess he was narratively important. I'd read a spin off about Shi Qiang's backstory as a commando in Vietnam.

The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny, and Murder, David Grann - Yo ho, yo ho a pirate's life for me! Yes, at 40 I've jumped head first into the most dadcore genre possible: History of the Age of Sail. No this is not ironic. Yes this book rules.

Staff Engineer: Leadership Beyond the Management Track, Will Larson - I like this book better than Larson's An Elegant Puzzle: Systems of Engineering Management, but I'm not sure if that says more about me, my software career, and my current work, or about Larson's development as a writer. I particularly enjoyed interviews with folks that I work with (well at the same company). It gives really good insight into the career paths of either people I look up to or the kinds of people I look up to. I might have to go back to An Elegant Puzzle and reevaluate.

Rough Sleepers, Tracy Kidder - About a doctor who works with the chronically unhoused in Boston. A lot of amazing and sad characters. Nearly all chronically unhoused in the book suffered from addiction and incredible childhood trauma. Dr. Jim is a true saint.

Tracers in the Dark, Andy Greenberg - This read like a sequel to Nick Bilton's American Kingpin covering the end of the Silk Road online black market but continuing throughout more recent Bitcoin focused criminal investigations.

When the Heavens Went on Sale, Ashlee Vance - The story of the commercial space flight since SpaceX's Falcon launch. Vance had previously written a complimentary book about an utter freak show (at the time I read it I really liked that book), so this is kind of his attempt to find the next space cowboy. There are a few companies Vance follows in detail. I enjoyed the section on Rocket Lab, which makes small rockets in New Zealand. The founder built a rocket powered bicycle as a youth. Overall, documenting the trend towards smaller, cheaper, more frequent launches that have characterized the commercial space industry for the past decade was really interesting to me.

The Enigma of Clarence Thomas, Corey Robin - An interesting reading of how Thomas's biography informs the unique elements of his jurisprudence. So interesting in fact, I wrote more about it here.

Chip War: The Fight for the World's Most Critical Technology, Chris Miller - I love a good history of Silicon Valley and this does not disappoint. What's unique here is the juxtaposition of the American microprocessor industry against its international competitors in the USSR, China, Japan, and Korea.

The Order of Time, Carlo Rovelli - This is a beautifully written book of which I understood maybe 10%. This is kind of like A Brief History of Space and Time, but prettier. There were definitely moments in the book where my brain just turned inside out trying to understand what time means at incredibly large or small scales. Rovelli is an awesome writer and English is not even his first language!

Blood Sweat & Chrome, Kyle Buchanan - A fun read about the making of Mad Max: Fury Road comprised mostly of interviews with those involved pieced together to make a cool narrative.

G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century, Beverly Gage - This book is a beast. It spans over a hundred years of American History. While Gage is clearly not enamored by the founder of the FBI, she paints the picture of a complicated and conflicted man who had a hand in many of the largest events of the twentieth century. Fundamentally, Gage argues that in order to understand ourselves and American history, we need to know Hoover. I agree - if you love American history you must read about Hoover. I wish Robert Carro did a book on Hoover - he's the king of petty, vindictive, power-hungry twentieth century biographies.

The New China Playbook, Keyu Jin - I'm highly skeptical of the war mongering, racism, and xenophobia that I think characterizes much of what we hear and read about China. Jin attempts to supply an antidote.

The Coming Wave, Mustafa Suleyman & Michael Bhaskar - Mustafa Suleyman is the co-founder of Deepmind. The first half of the book covers the recent history of AI. If you have been reading everything you can about AI recently, you will likely find the first half boring. If you are looking for a good overview of recent AI trends, this might be what you want. But more interestingly, part 3 examines the opportunities and serious challenges AI presents for states. Suleyman isn't quite as optimistic as Andreessen nor as pessimistic as Yudkowsky. Part 4 returns talks about solutions, a lot of which I found self-serving given Suleyman's entrenched position at the top of the AI field backed by powerful funders.

When McKinsey Comes to Town: The Hidden Influence of the World's Most Powerful Consulting Firm, Walt Bogdanich, Michael Forsythe - A suspense thriller that leaves the reader at the edge of their seat waiting to find out if there is a single corporate scandal in the last 100 years that McKinsey was not on the wrong side of. If you thought for a second that McKinsey put frivolities like the environment, public health, democracy, or human rights above profits you'd be mistaken. But, they are a values driven organization.

The Psychology of Money, Morgan Housel - Recommended by a colleague at work, this one discusses how we are irrational with money and how that is rooted in our personal experiences. Some important reminders are to save and plan for uncertainty by building in a risk factor into your finances.

Die Trying, Lee Child - Not the best Jack Reacher novel I've read. Published in 1998 the bad guys who (mild spoiler alert) are conspiracy mongering militiamen feel really quaint compared to what we know is out there today, a quarter century post publication. Honestly, this reads like a B action movie from the 1990s. I love Reacher though.

A Stranger in Your Own City: Travels in the Middle East's Long War, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad - A brutal memoir of the author's life growing up in Iraq under Saddam and living there as a journalist during the Bush Jr. invasion and twenty years of war that followed. The book focuses on themes like sectarianism and corruption while providing an on the ground view of key historical moments like, the various iterations of the Iraqi state, the rise of ISIS and the Battle of Mosul. It was so plain to see what a terrible idea invading Iraq was in 2003. But gaining a glimpse of the lived experiences of everyday Iraqis through Abdul-Ahad's chronicle is worth the pain or re-opening this awful chapter of world history.

Wasteland: The Secret World of Waste and the Urgent Search for a Cleaner Future, Oliver Franklin-Wallis - An investigation into the world of recycling and waste. Individual consumer choices are dwarfed by the scale of industrial waste. The only thing we can do is buy less stuff.

How Bad Do You Want It? Mastering the Psychology of Mind over Muscle, Matt Fitzgerald - I do like a good Matt Fitzgerald book. Fitzgerald makes his bones writing about endurance sports. This one felt particularly timely given my experience this year at CIM. During the last 2 miles of the race my pace slowed by about 10 seconds per mile, but that number belies the mental and physical struggle I remember experiencing. The pain in my legs was overwhelming and terrifying. I also remember thinking about how I do not get to run a marathon everyday and how disappointed I'd be if I didn't keep pushing. At the end of the race I had questions about whether or not I had the mental strength to push even harder. Or was I dealing with a hard physical fitness barrier. Fitzgerald's book looks at cyclists, runners, and triathletes who were able to push past perceived physical barriers. This book is not as prescriptive as some of his more training focused books. Nevertheless I gained some insights into the minds of some particularly gritty athletes.

The Effective Executive, Peter F. Drucker - Written a long time ago, and yet still containing some useful insights. This is a book I wish I would have read earlier in my career as many of its lessons - prioritization, playing to one's strengths, and time management I feel like I've learned the hard way. My biggest take-way is the word "Effectiveness" which in Drucker's mind means to do the right things well.

Good Inside, Becky Kennedy - Dr. Becky argues that we should focus on the relationship with our kids not their behaviors and gives practical examples of how we can do this and where we commonly miss opportunities to do so. This book is great for parents of young kids - most examples seem to involve 3-4 year-olds, but there are examples involving infants, adolescents and teenagers as well. Even though Dr. Becky's approach starts with the premise that parenting is hard every parent makes mistakes, this book did make me feel like I should be doing a way better job. I would recommend this to any parent. Maybe more interestingly though, I'd actually recommend this book to parent-curious folks who aren't sure if they are ready to be parents. Well, take a look at this one and if it feels like something you'd be willing to struggle with, maybe having kids is right for you. Conversely, if the approach feels wrong or you can't empathize with the scenarios that are all quite real, maybe don't.

The Data Detective: Ten Easy Rules to Make sense of statistics - The ten rules are 1. Stop an notice our emotional reactions to claims, rather than accepting or rejecting it because how it makes us feel. 2. We should find ways to combine the bird's eye statistical view with our own worm's eye personal experience. 3. Look at the labels on the data and ask, 'Do I really understand what is being described?' 4. Look for comparisons that can put a claim in context. 5. Look at where the statistics came from. 6. Ask who is missing from the data we are being shown and whether or not our conclusions would change if they were included. 7. Ask questions of algorithms and the data sets that drive them. 8. Pay more attention to official statistics. 9. Be skeptical of infographics. 10. Keep an open mind and ask how we might be mistaken. All of this is summarized by the author with the recommendation to be curious.

The Missing Cryptoqueen: The Billion Dollar Cryptocurrency Con and the Woman Who Got Away with It, Jamie Bartlett - I have a soft spot of the true crime meets technology genre. This book wasn't amazing, but I still ate it up.

Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America A Recent History, Kurt Andersen - Andersen explores why everything is awful in America and decides to take names. Some names are obvious - the Koch brothers - but others are more obscure. Andersen ends with a lusty endorsement of socialist democracy. Overall, not a ton new here, but a good survey of the forces that brought about our current neo-liberal hell.

I Don't Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression, Terrence Real - On the causes, manifestations, and treatment of depression in men.

Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, George Lakoff - Originally published in the dark days of the G. W. Bush presidency, this book explains how Republicans and the right use framing to make their ideas more palatable. It's not a tax cut for the rich, it is tax relief. It's not global warming, it is climate change. It's not the think tank for screwing over labor, it's the Center for Worker Freedom. The book is a bit of a time capsule and very similar to the more recent The Righteous Mind, but more partisan in tone. It's very 'look how good the Republicans are at this, we should be doing this too.' Whereas The Righteous Mind is much more of an analysis of the different lenses right and left view the world with.

Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, Gretchen McCulloch - A lighthearted look at the linguistics of internet communication. It's not that good, but it is also not that long.

The Future, Naomi Alderman - I kind of wish Neal Stephenson wrote this because it's a solid premise. There are themes of survivalism, climate change and pandemic. I liked the exploration of the impact tech billionaires have on the world. But also really didn't care about the main character at all. Execution fell flat for me and a lot of this felt like a slog that was hard to build momentum through.

The Rook, Daniel O'Malley - Authors can approach the fantasy genre with any number of lenses. O'Malley chooses the #girlboss lens to drive this paranormal fantasy set in modern day England. Sort of a Ghostbusters reboot meets James Bond with Bond played by Anna Kendrick. Not really my cup of tea.

A Brief History of Equality, Thomas Piketty - Piketty explores how the richest nations became rich through slavery and colonization. He proposes some policy and structural reforms to improve equality.

Scientific Freedom, Donald W. Braben - A Stripe Press book covering Patrick Collison's hobby - the slowing of scientific discovery. This is a pretty dry book. I have heard from scientist friends and relatives that there are significant problems with the entire research industry. But, as a result of my unfamiliarity with the subject matter it was difficult for me to judge whether or not Braben's ideas are worthwhile. Can't recommend this one unless you share Patrick Collison's hobby.

Realigners: Partisan Hacks, Political Visionaires, and the Struggle to Rule American Democracy, Timothy Shenk - Well the first part of this book, which takes us from the founding of the US through the New Deal is very boring. Twenty years ago I majored in history focusing on antebellum and reconstruction America. I don't think I could do that today. Shenk moves into Civil Rights, Women's Rights and Phyllis Schafly, who Shenk somehow manages to make very dull. Lastly we get what kind of reads like a critical book report on Obama's A Promised Land. While, I agree with Shenk's argument that it takes large majority coalitions to bring about change I found his book uninspiring. I also agree with Shenk's descriptions of Obama's failures, and still I can't recommend this book. I head about this book from a podcast and I'm starting to think I need to read books that I hear about from friends more.

Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, James C. Scott - I think I got this book off the same list that I got Finite and Infinite Games from. I guess seeing like a state means you have to abstract away from reality. You have to use maps, which are by definition inexact. You have to make simplifications and generalizations. When these abstractions are sent back down to the local level in the form of experiments in authoritarian high modernism the inexactitude coupled with hubris becomes a big problem. In conclusion this book was long and boring.

If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future, Jill Lepore - A book on how the early computer industry impacted politics, so you'd think I'd like this a lot. But, sadly this book is extremely boring and misses the opportunity to make any of the discussed historical characters and events compelling. You would think polling, campaign strategy, campaign ads, vote counting, and the prediction of human behavior in Vietnam would be interesting, but again, in this case, it was not.

Chain-Gang All-Stars, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah - I hated this book. I regret not abandoning it. For me, I went in expecting a satire of American sports culture and the prison industrial complex. The book is about a near future where convicted felons can opt out of prison and into a league of gladiator matches to the death that are broadcast to the American public. Sounds incredible. The best satire is very true to life but also absurd and funny. The world that Adjei-Brenyah built was bleak and one note and not at all funny. Characters didn't develop in ways that mattered to me. The idea is solid. But I should have just re-read The Hunger Games.

Finite and Infinite Games, James P. Carse - What did I just listen to? If you are looking for an entire book written in the style of a fortune cookie, look no further.


These books are so good I return to them again and again. It would be unfair to stack rank these against the rest of the books I read this year because these will always be on the top for me - that's why I reread them.

East of Eden, John Steinbeck - What are the books you love so much you re-read them? This is one of those books for me. I love the language. I love the characters. I love the Americana. I love how funny it is. I love that it tells us about a simpler time when people harkened for still simpler times. I love that it feels like you have to have lived a certain number of years to love this book. I first read this seven years ago around the time my kids were born. I loved it then and love it now.

The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck - The grapes of wrath are fruit that is wasted because it cannot turn a profit for an owner. The waste is unjust and angers those without food. This is Steinbeck's manifesto against capitalism where he celebrates the family and honor and decries the consolidation of capital. I love how Steinbeck changes his zoom chapter by chapter from the micro scale of the Joad family to sweeping descriptions of capitalism and industrialization. This is my second read of The Grapes of Wrath. We love this.

Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous and Responsible Individuals, Tyler Cowen - If you would like a full throated argument in favor of trickle down economics, look no further. This is my second read of Tyler's short manifesto. For the uninitiated, Tyler is a pretty smart economist. This book involves a lot of interesting philosophy and reasoning from certain basic principles. Some of this involves back of the envelope style mathematics, which I quite enjoy. While most of his logic I find difficult to refute, I don't necessarily agree with some of the numbers, weights, and starting points that lead Cowen to reason that policies favoring the rich in the long term are best. Still it's a short book and worth a look to better understand the perspective of the accursed Reaganists.

Abandoned Books

Some books I just can't. These are them.

Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders, Jennifer Garvey Berger, Keith Johnston - A business and leadership book in the form of a story. I could not.

Rationality: From AI to Zombies, Eliezer Yudkowsky - Maybe I'll try this one again in the future. I've heard Yudkowsky on a few podcasts re: AI. He's far on the "AI is going to kill us" side of the spectrum. This book is a collection of his blog posts and it's a lot.

Time for Socialism, Thomas Piketty - A collection of published essays written between 2016 and 2021 by the great Thomas Piketty. I just couldn't persist through some of the more technical pieces.

AI 2041, Kai-Fu Lee, Chen Qiufan - Billed as speculative scifi rooted in the authors' decades of AI experience, but I could not make it through the first story about how a girl's AI app was subverting her attempts to date someone in her class in order to minimize insurance premiums for her family. That's a no from me, bro.

The Molecule of More, Daniel Z. Lieberman - No.

Behave, Robert Sapolsky - No.

The WEIRDest People in the World, Joseph Henrich - Nope.