As I’ve done the last three years (2020, 2021, 2022), I’m ending the year by creating a list of my top ten (well, ten-ish) books that I read the past year. Release dates are all over the place, so rather than try to narrow down the books that I enjoyed that were released in 2023, I figure it’s easier and more interesting to just look at the books that I read during that year.
As always, I generally don’t review the books I read because I tend to think that when I don’t care for a book, it’s more a reflection on my tastes than the book’s quality, but listing my favorites from the year has always struck me as a good compromise.
So, my Top 10(ish) books of 2023, in no particular order, along with a handful of honorable mentions (photo shows the top “ten” themselves):
- Opium and Absinthe by Lydia Kang—or The Impossible Girl by Lydia Kang, either would have been one of my choices for the same reasons. I first became acquainted with Lydia Kang when I read her Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything last year, and I just assumed it must be a different person with the same name until GoodReads showed both under her profile. I figured she was just branching out, but what I found compelling was the extent to which her medical career/writing pierced her novels as well. The level of medical detail in both books really set them apart from other similar-era mysteries.
- Providence by Max Barry. I enjoyed this one so much I wrote a dedicated post about it. In a nutshell, it touches on a variety of elements that are usually left out of science fiction. I described it as Becky Chambers meets Orson Scott Card, and I think that’s still accurate: like Card, it’s a more tactical science fiction book than many I’ve read, but like Chambers, it’s deeply focused on the human elements.
- The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson (but really, The Well of Ascension and Hero of Ages, too). So much has been written in praise of Sanderson already that it’s trite to try to add anything, except that I’ll say this: based on how much praise I’ve heard for Mistborn over the years, I entered listening to this series with super-high expectations, and it still exceeded them. (And while I’m idolizing Sanderson—my daughter and I listened to Skyward this year together, and it’s just as phenomenal.)
- The Management Style of Supreme Beings by Tom Holt. You could tell me that Terry Pratchett was still alive and had just switched to a pseudonym and I would absolutely believe you. It had that exact same brand of humor, but channeled into a more familiar world.
- Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir (and, to a large extent, Artemis by Andy Weir as well). Like Sanderson, Weir is so popular that it seems silly to add my two cents, except to again note that the book exceeded the high expectations I came into it with. I probably nose Project Hail Mary above Artemis based on Ray Porter’s fantastic narration—it pulled in some mental connections to Bobiverse books that were remarkably compatible. For both books, though, I love how Weir initiates some believable technological rules, and then painstakingly follows them to their logical conclusion. I felt like the entirety of Project Hail Mary was set up in the first few pages in a way that it couldn’t have proceeded any differently save for some believable late twists.
- The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language by Mark Forsyth. I have no idea why it took me so long to read this after adoring Forsyth’s The Horologicon and The Elements of Eloquence. This book was incredibly dense in the best possible way: a single paragraph would have a half-dozen interesting connections and factoids, and every chapter provided an “Aha!” moment about a connection between some pair of words I’d long-wondered about.
- The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino. This was recommended in Games for Your Mind by Jason Rosenhouse, and appropriately so—it’s a mystery built entirely around logical deduction rather than the absurd coincidences and personalities common in others of the genre. It was particularly fascinating to me how the book managed to show things from both sides’ perspectives, but yet still provide a twist at the end.
- Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett. This book was so short that I finished it in a day, but I’ve kept coming back to remind myself of some of the lessons. They’re remarkably well-explained, they hit the perfect balance between surprising and yet obvious, and so many of them are pretty directly relevant to everyday life.
- Hello World: Being Human in the Age of Algorithms by Hannah Fry. I read this immediately after Life 3.0 by Max Tegmark which was so out there it may as well have been science fiction, and I found it to be a perfect companion, both more down to earth and more immediately relevant. What’s fascinating especially is that it was written in 2018, and yet the release of ChatGPT only made it more relevant and current, not obsolete.
- Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language by Gretchen McCulloch. This, along with Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark by Cecelia Watson, have significantly changed—though somehow also reinforced—my views on grammar, writing, and language in the past year. I used to consider grammar and writing a highly structured, rule-driven process, but these books shed light on how arbitrary the rules truly are, and how acceptable it should be to let them evolve. I feel like grammar is sort of like a political map of Europe: it was radically changing for centuries, and then at some point we said “Freeze!” and took the current state as permanent. When that’s about ending wars (as in Europe), that’s great—when that’s about stifling necessary evolution and creativity (as in language), it isn’t. (Sidenote: this is also one of the best read-by-the-author non-autobiographical audiobook I think I’ve listened to.)
And a couple honorable mentions:
- Mind Bullet by Jeremy Robinson. Jeremy Robinson remains one of my favorite authors, and Mind Bullet was my favorite by him this year (I also read the entire Project Nemesis series, as well as Torment, Exo-Hunter, and Tribe)—but it’s gotten a little hard to separate his books enough to put one of them in my top of the year. It’s sort of like including all three Mistborn books, except they’re all so similar in style that either they all deserve to be there or none do… but it’s a consistently entertaining style. Whenever I finish a book I didn’t enjoy, I follow-up with a Jeremy Robinson because I know it’ll at least be engaging.
- The Second Kind of Impossible: The Extraordinary Quest for a New Form of Matter by Paul J. Steinhardt. Similar to Extraterrestrial by Avi Loeb, this book was fascinating as much for the story it told as for the glimpse it gave into how science really gets done in the real world—messy, political, but ultimately aspirational.
- Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. I loved this one, although this is one where its popularity in many ways has taken on a life of its own, and it’s hard to endorse the book without implicitly endorsing some of the decisions that some people have made citing Sapiens as support. But taken solely for its content, I found it as remarkable as many have noted, especially its emphasis on belief in shared fictions and belief in a better future as huge driving factors to the constructs on which modern society is based.
- Several People Are Typing by Calvin Kasulke. The fact that a book could even be written this way (as an entire series of Slack conversations) is an achievement of its own, and the fact that it was able to touch on some deeper questions through that medium is even more remarkable.
- What Works: Gender Equality by Design by Iris Bohnet. I honestly had difficulty comparing this to the other books I read this year because most of my reading is primarily for pleasure: this one was so relevant to my job and the classes I teach that it felt more like reading for work. It’s not only a fantastic book about designing with equality in mind, but it’s a great book on design in general.
- Impromptu by Reid Hoffman. I’ve been an optimist about the positive impact AI can have on society, and this book—with its issues—was an early nice effort to call out some specific benefits we should focus on developing with these new AI tools.
…and I could probably name a bunch of other honorable mentions as well. All Things Aside by Iliza Shlesinger, The Physics of Theism by Jeffrey Koperski, Should Robots Replace Teachers? by Neil Selwyn, A Psalm for the Wild-Built and A Prayer for the Crown-Shy by Becky Chambers, The Delicate Things We Make by Milena McKay, Inheritors of the Earth by Chris D. Thomas, The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen, Run Program by Scott Meyer, and Outland and Earthside by Dennis E. Taylor all come recommended.
My full year in books is available on GoodReads:
Of those 119 books, 88 were audiobooks, 23 were physical books, and 8 were on Kindle. It’s interesting to see that shift: it used to be closer to 1/3rd audiobooks, 2/3rds physical, but the kids growing up has eaten into some times when I used to read a lot—and morning carpool has added around an hour to daily audiobook listening time now that Lucy and I listen to books together.
As always, you can follow all my book reading and writing by adding me on GoodReads!