2023 in Books

Sunday January 7, 2024 — Brooklyn, New York

According to Bookwyrm, I read 20 books in 2023. It’s possible that I missed a few, but I think I’ve been pretty thorough. This is less than the goal that I set for myself, but I realized that setting a goal for a number of books to read is extremely silly, since it disincentivizes me from reading long books, which is something I’d like to do more of (and have been doing more of).

Some books that stood out to me in 2023:

Palo Alto by Malcolm Harris

A excellent history of California from its founding to its present. While it’s a bit of a slog, it was very good to get the non-whitewashed version of California history, so different from what I was taught growing up in California.

If you take nothing else from this book, the writing on “The Palo Alto System” (initially for raising racehorses, but continuing on in the operating principles of VC investment in silicon valley today) was incredibly insightful and well stated.

Taoism: The Enduring Tradition by Russell Kirkland

This book is essentially a thorough debunking of various western misconceptions about Daoism, with ample historical detail and discussion about how Daoism changed throughout various eras. I was very glad to have read it, but I can’t recommend it to anyone who isn’t specifically and thoroughly interested in the topic.

Witches, Midwives, and Nurses by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English

A short and incredible book, laying bare the ways that the interlocking systems of gender, race, and class shaped the “professionalization” of medicine. I’ve long been uncomfortable with the way the medical system mistreats people, makes it illegal for anyone outside the gatekept institution of medicine to provide or access any kinds of treatments that actually work, and then turns around and blames the people it just failed for getting taken in by quacks (who only evade jail because their treatments are so ineffective that they don’t even count as “practicing medicine without a license”)

This book also manages to avoid falling into any of the traps that feminist writing of its era tends to fall into, and seems basically as insightful today as it probably did in the 70s.

Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine

Wonderful, meandering poetry. It shows its age, coming up on two decades old, but that isn’t exactly bad.

So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood by Patrick Modiano (trans. by Euan Cameron)

Lovely little novel about memory and childhood and growing old and places changing. Something of a mystery, but becoming one fairly slowly. Picked it up in a bookstore and read the entire thing, a pleasant rarity for me. I learned after reading it that perhaps it’s supposed to be horror, but it didn’t hit that way for me.

The Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins

Answers to all your questions about composting shit, well written, entertaining and informative.

It’s hard to believe that before reading this it seemed completely normal to me that the United States uses billions of gallons of clean drinking water per day just to defecate in.

Stone by Stone by Robert Thorson

I have somewhat mixed feelings about this book, but I do think about it literally every time I see a old stone wall in New England — it summarizes why the glacial geology of New England conspired with the agricultural practices of the colonizers, making the stone walls that we see today inevitable.

It doesn’t make the list since I’m still working through it, but I’ve started reading The Dawn of Everything by Graeber & Wengrow, and it’s excellent, and much more approachable than I was worried about.

Looking back on the books I’ve been reading, one thing that I’m happy about is that many of the books I read this year were both esoteric and interesting. We’re living in a time where it increasingly feels like media is just a mush of Content, pulverized together into some kind of easily extrudable and digestible slurry. In such a environment, it feels important to read books about the geological factors behind stone walls, academic work on the history of Daoism, old feminist pamphlets on medicine, native Wampanoag myths, niche history books, hippie furniture manuals, and other such forgotten artifacts of care. It makes me optimistic that I will be able to become more and more unusual, in a world that seems to be converging more than diverging.