I have just finished my first book of 2024. But before I dive headlong into my next selection (Dune) I thought today was a good time to look back at 2023.
Methodology: I listened to 56 audiobooks in 2023, so choosing my top 23 was a challenge. This year I read fewer political and history texts, read more classic literature and technology texts. I reviewed the full list of 56 and whittled down the list by taking out the least memorable first. Pairing down the first 20-25 was relatively easy, but the last five were tough. So, sorry, Unstoppable Teams, Go Set a Watchman, Prepared, The Big Con, Recoding America, and The Mezcal Rush, you ultimately rated honorable mention status. My remaining audiobooks are presented in no particular order but alphabetized for ease of use.
1. 20th Century Ghosts – Joe Hill Rare is the collection of short stories that can be disturbing at a psychological and physiological level. As one Audible review notes, it’s a “delightful hodgepodge of creepy”. This roller coaster of a short story collection continues to rivet right up until the last page (er, syllable) with Easter eggs in the prologue.
2. Cinema Speculation – Quentin Tarantino Insightful and revelatory into the seventies’ cinema scene and especially Tarantino’s consumption of Blaxploitation and how these experiences influenced his art as a film maker. He does not pull punches here, calling out directorial choices (his own and others) and slinging stories like greasy burgers off a spatula onto a flat top grill. The reminisces are haphazard but altogether enjoyable.
3. Fossil Men: The Quest for the Oldest Skeleton and the Origins of Humankind – Kermit Pattison If your knowledge of paleoanthropologist’s search for hominids does not extend past the Leakeys (or at least not much past) and you have any interest in such things, you’ll find the competition and one-upmanship perhaps broader or more pervasive than expected. (If on the other hand you have spent a lot of time in academia it won’t really come as a shock.) The book traces the search for fossils and the insights gleaned from them in a similar vein, refuting the linear path we have assumed for so long and replacing it with a “tributary approach”. Bonus: Having visited the Cradle of Humankind site (the caves at Sterkfontein), I could really picture and appreciate the settings a bit more.
4. Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing – Matthew Perry As a die-hard FRIENDS fan and a child of the nineties, I have long felt connected to Matthew Perry, despite having obviously never met him. His upbringing, at least as he described it, reminded me to something straight out of a David Foster Wallace novel. But his life just before, during, and after the sitcom that made him a household name, was full of many of the same issues that plague many of us and our families. His understandable insecurities, his substance abuse, and his efforts to love himself are a great reminder that we are all human and that our doubts should never define us. Heartbreaking and poignant, especially in light of his passing. A definite must-read for any FRIENDS fan.
5. Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy – Henry Kissinger Strangely enough, there were several books that I read this year, where either the author or the subject passed away shortly thereafter, such was the case with Mr. Kissinger. What I appreciated about his take on leadership were the examples he cited and how he dove into both the geopolitical factors and his own relationships with these leaders to create a fuller picture. These case studies provide valuable insights for leaders; however, they are, of course, also restrained by the times and the forces at work during those times. A sweeping overview of strategy and politicking that is worthwhile for any political junkie.
6. Long Walk to Freedom – Nelson Mandela In 2018, I had the once in a lifetime opportunity to visit South Africa and I fell in love with the people and the beauty of the country. Before I left, I had read some J.M. Coetzee, some history, and some first-hand accounts of life under apartheid. For whatever reason, I had not previously prioritized Long Walk and I wish I had sooner. I found Mandela’s resolve and his negotiating tactics in his own words and voice provided better insight into why his countrymen loved him. There are few better models for measured resistance than Mandela. His ultimate belief that he would succeed, his realization of all that he had lost in his relationship with Winnie, etc. again embodied that human quality that is often lacking in other explorations of leadership. There is a reason this book is so widely read.
7. Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life – George Eliot This was an early-in-the-year read, and I really did try this year to focus on some more classic and literary fiction. I was reminded of why we read fiction. The interplay between characters, their motivations, and ultimate successes and failures help us understand the world around us better. Tales of loveless marriages are still too far common (if Reddit threads are any indication, they are ubiquitous!) and challenges around money, property, and reputation persist, despite the fact that we live in 2023, not 1823.
8. Mission Economy: A Moonshot Guide to Changing Capitalism – Mariana Mazzucato The work posits public-private partnerships that could be beneficial and rejects the notion that government should only be brought to address problems. Like The Big Con, the author points to the failures of knowledge transfer and continuity of operations between contractors and the governments but seems to offer more hopeful and potentially actionable solutions. Refocusing public-private efforts to focus on our most pernicious problems will be integral to sustaining humanity and solving many of our most urgent problems. The focus on the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change and associated sustainability challenges, etc. make the book accessible and relevant for current readers.
9. Multipliers, Revised and Updated: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter – Liz Wiseman We’ve all experienced leaders who help our ideas flow, problems get solved, and who inspire employees to stretch themselves to deliver results that surpass expectations. Wiseman argues these “multipliers” are needed now more than ever. A brilliant reminder of how important it is to share information with our teams and to extend our own capabilities.
10. Project Zero Trust: A Story About a Strategy for Aligning Security and the Business – George Finney, foreword by John Kindervag I read three books on Zero Trust this year, and this I found to be the best introduction, as it presents the steps in a narrative fashion. The characters and dialogue make the material easier for a novice. If you are truly starting with no background this can be a good introduction.
11. Quantum Supremacy: How the Quantum Computer Revolution Will Change Everything – Michio Kaku While I had hoped for a deeper exploration of technical aspects related to quantum computing and the potential impact on programming, statistics, and models, I did find the implications for quantum computing mind-boggling. Especially in the biological realm, the potential is nearly unlimited.
12. Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia – Christina Thompson This was by far one of my favorite books of 2023. The author investigates much of the history and anthropology of the Pacific islands. Fascinating and incomplete theories about the spread of these cultures have persisted like flotsam and the author does an excellent job piecing together natural history, fables, and anthropological work to create a picture of a people with a deep and abiding history.
13. The Anthropocene Reviewed – John Green Another of my favorite and most memorable books of 2023. In this thin volume, Green rates various cultural artifacts from Disney’s Hall of Presidents to Diet Dr. Pepper. The reflections are sometimes whimsical but retain trace reminders of the effects of human development and consumption on the planet. It’s strange to find a book that reminds us what it is to be human while rating things on a five-point scale but Green’s warmth and humor carry the day.
14. The Book of Eels: Our Enduring Fascination with the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World – Patrik Svensson Stunning and eloquent, from the descriptions of glass eels and Italian eels and the seaweed in which they swim. The book traces the development and use of these fascinating creatures. The author’s exploration of Freud’s work with eels and the “eel question” was especially memorable.
15. The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and the Birth of the People's Economy – Stephanie Kelton If you conceive of the U.S. debt like household debt, debt is a big problem. However, Kelton’s thesis presents another take and relates this to the position America retainers and the generator of fiat currency. It’s an interesting perspective to be sure, and while her work is not entirely convincing to me, I did walk away more convinced that there are alternative solutions to many of our economic woes if we simply look a bit harder.
16. The Devil's Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America's Secret Government – David Talbot Absolutely riveting and a little terrifying. The Nazi influence on aspects of the CIA and the Dulles family connections were unnerving. The book reviews Allen Dulles’ long tenure and relationships in detail ad charts a course for long-term implications on the agency that he helped shape.
17. The End of the World is Just the Beginning: Mapping the Collapse of Globalization – Peter Zeihan Didn’t I say I read less politics and history? Well, I guess, not so much. Although this book is forward-thinking, it does deal with a great bit of history of the Breton-Woods agreement and the ultimate long-term implications of globalization. Definitely recommend it for data/demographics geeks. I walked away from this investigation cautiously optimistic about the United States’ place in the coming decades.
18. The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation – Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn This has been on my reading list for quite some time. As someone with a genuine and long-standing interest in Russian history and politics, I felt it was a must-read and I was not wrong. The abuses of power that occurred need to be seen/heard to be believed and the work does a remarkable job of exposing them. So supremely powerful, and so many aspects of the book will stick with me for some time.
19. The Nine Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court – Jeffrey Toobin I mentioned above that I tended to read books whose author or main subject passed shortly after reading, such, sadly, was the case with The Nine and Justice O’Connor, who was a childhood hero. I found this book remarkable for its exploration of the personality of the justices who served on the Rehnquist court. From Justice Suter’s New England stoicism to O’Connor’s brilliance in keeping other justices on their toes. As someone who has been known to read SCOTUS decisions for fun, I really enjoyed this take on the court.
20. The Price of the Ticket – James Baldwin Full disclosure, I love James Baldwin. However, I discovered last year that I prefer his incisive essays to his meandering fiction. The Price of the Ticket is one of the most thought-provoking compilations, and everyone should read it for Baldwin’s insights on race, art, and the human condition.
21. The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket – Benjamin Lorr One of the first books I read this year, and one of the best. Part history, part sociology, part behavioral economics, and 100% insightful. I found the exploration of when something goes from being a natural resource to a product transformative. Like, when is a chicken a bird and when is it dinner? For most Americans, that transformation occurs behind the scenes as the items are sent from farm to store before ending up on our tables. Worth your time if you have never spent much time thinking about how the things you consume every day make it from their original form into your grocery bag.
22. Why We Can’t Sleep: Women's New Midlife Crisis – Ada Calhoun Interestingly, the last two books here deal with lack of sleep. This one deals with the matter from a more metaphorical perspective. The author maintains that Gen X women have benefited from their feminist foremothers but have also been saddled with an increasing barrage of options and expectations. If you identified with America Ferrera’s Barbie soliloquy, you’ll appreciate this book. Reminder to Gen X women: Stop tying yourself into knots so other people will like you.
23. Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams - Matthew Walker As a chronic insomniac with poor sleep hygiene, this book was a frightening wake up call, especially given the connection between lack of sleep and Alzheimer’s. The book delves into how our age and brain development affect sleep and makes practical recommendations for sleep improvement.