Best Books I Read in 2023 (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Mon, 01 Jan 2024

Best Books I Read in 2023

2023 was a good year for books, especially nonfiction.

I only finished twenty books this year. I think that's mostly because I read a lot more nonfiction than usual (tending toward long books and slower reading), and I had no re-reads. Still, quite a bit lower than past years. I guess I've been pretty busy with other things, and tired and zonking out early instead of reading well into the night.

Here are some of the books I enjoyed most this year. Note that these aren't necessarily new books in 2023 (indeed, at least one is quite old); they're just books I read this year.

Full disclosure: if you buy a book through one of the Amazon links here, I get a small kickback. But no pressure! Most of them are probably available through your local library.

Favorite Nonfiction

In more or less the order I read them:

Like, Literally, Dude: Arguing for the Good in Bad English, by Valerie Fridland is a terrific book about English habits we love to hate, and how a lot of them have roots that go back a lot farther than you think. I reviewed it in June.

Recoding America : why government is failing in the digital age and how we can do better, Jennifer Pahlka is a fascinating look into how the federal government uses computer technology, and why so much of it seems dysfunctional. I reviewed it in July.

An Immense World by Ed Yong. I'd heard some podcasts about this book on animal senses, and was greatly looking forward to it. It didn't disappoint. Yong packs in so much detailed information about each sense that even if you thought you knew something about the topic, you'll still learn a lot. It's a long book, but I didn't want it to end and would happily have kept going.

With Lawrence in Arabia, by Lowell Thomas. I've always loved the movie Lawrence of Arabia. Years ago, I started T. E. Lawrence's autobiography Seven Pillars of Wisdom (also widely available for free on the internet), but bogged down. It's not that it's difficult to read (it's quite readable, not the weighty philosophical tome you might expect from the title), it's just so very long. I do intend to go back and try again.

But in the meantime, Lowell Thomas's book is back in print (for a while it was unavailable). Thomas is the American reporter who wrote about T. E. Lawrence during WWI, spending several weeks with Lawrence shooting video which Thomas turned into a lecture tour after returning to the US.

With Lawrence is very readable (and relatively short!) It includes plenty of background on Lawrence before the war, which is, again, nothing like the movie: I hadn't known that the real Lawrence was trained as an archaeologist, and his familiarity with the Arabs came from experience during archaeological digs before the war started. Neat!

The book also opened my eyes to the tragic fact that the movie I always loved so much is almost entirely fiction: the events aren't real, and while a few of the characters' names are those of real people, the movie characters are nothing like their namesakes. Which is ironic since a lot of the real characters were just as colorful and interesting as the fictional characters in the movie, just in different ways.

So that's very sad. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book. I hope I will still be able to enjoy the movie the next time I watch it, reminding myself that it's a work of fiction. And I do plan to get back to Seven Pillars one of these years.

How Minds Change: The Surprising Science of Belief, Opinion, and Persuasion, by David MvRaney. The author runs a podcast I like called You Are Not So Smart where he examines the science of how we learn, how we communicate, and when and how we change our opinions, the latter being the topic of his latest book. I enjoyed it: I'd heard a lot of the theory already on the podcast, but the book goes into more depth following a few projects aimed at changing (or at least opening) people's minds. As he said on the most recent podcast episode, and I paraphrase: You can't reason someone out of an opinion they didn't reason themselves into. The main trick is to have an honest conversation where you stop talking about your own beliefs and actually listen to the other person explain how they arrived at theirs. It leads them to think about why they think what they do, and meanwhile, you learn something too. Anyway, it's an interesting and worthwhile read.

Is Math Real?, by Eugenia Chang, explores how mathematics education fails students. Chang contrasts the attributes generally rewarded in K-12 math classes, like the ability to memorize times tables, and to compute the right answer following exactly the steps taught by the textbook, to the mindset of actual mathematicians: the curiosity to ask "why" and the drive to try different ways of answering the same question. She begins with a chapter exploring all the cases where 1 + 1 does not equal two, and proceeds from there.

Is Math Real? reminded me of Paul Lockhart's well known and spot-on A Mathematician's Lament: How School Cheats Us Out of Our Most Fascinating and Imaginative Art Form (which is widely available for free on the internet, though I don't know whether any of those free versions are blessed by Lockhart himself, nor what updates might be in Amazon's 2009 edition).

The Hunt for Vulcan: ... And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe, by Thomas Levenson, was sent to me by a friend (thanks, Alison!) after a discussion we had about some of the recent James Webb Space Telescope results, and how it might turn out that gravity works a little differently from our current model. It's an excellent, readable history of the science of gravitation, beginning with Newton's work on gravity as an inverse square law (I never knew that Halley, of comet game, was involved in that), followed by Le Verrier's application of Newton's equations to explain inconsistencies in Uranus' orbit leading to the discovery of Neptune. It then follows Le Verrier's subsequent attempt to explain Mercury's orbital precession by predicting another planet (or perhaps a collection of smaller planetoids), which came to be called Vulcan. Solar eclipse observations made it pretty clear that there was no such planet(s), but a few people clung to the Vulcan explanation until Einstein finally attacked the problem of Mercury and showed that his new general theory of relativity sufficed to explain Mercury's orbit.

I knew some of the story, but there were a lot of details I'd never heard before, and I quite enjoyed the book.

How to Walk on Water and Climb up Walls: Animal Movement and the Robots of the Future by David Hu. Good but spotty. Hu is excellent when describing his own research, like the wonderful chapter on fire ants ("Are Ants a Fluid or a Solid?") He's not quite so good when describing other people's projects: the few figures and plates don't illustrate very clearly, and neither does the text, so I was often left thinking "this sounds fascinating but I don't understand how it works. I wonder if I can find a better description on the internet?" Also, about the title: if there's anything about walking up walls, I couldn't find it. I nevertheless enjoyed the book and recommend it. I particularly loved the chapter on the robot salamander, and how did I live this long without knowing about the sandfish?


I read a lot fewer novels than usual this year, but there are a few I enjoyed, starting with The Road to Roswell by Connie Willis. Connie Willis is one of my favorite authors, so I'm always happy to see any new Willis book. This one is classic Connie: not her best, but it's funny and entertaining and while some aspects are predictable (especially for longtime Connie fans), others may surprise you.

Another Time, Another Place by Jodi Taylor. I first discovered Taylor's Chronicles of St Mary's when I stumbled on a description that sounded so much like some of Connie Willis' books: historians who "investigate major historical events in contemporary time" (at St. Mary's, you're not supposed to call it time travel). That's where the resemblance ends. Willis' time traveling historian stories are usually fairly serious. Taylor's books are comedies of errors, as things always go wrong and our hapless narrator Madeleine "Max" Maxwell has to extemporize. The books are consistently funny and I've been a fan for years. But I'd gotten behind, and Another Time, Another Place< is from last year. Anyway, good reading, but if you're not familiar with the St. Mary's books, go back and start at the beginning with Just One Damned Thing After Another.

The Crane Husband, by Kelly Regan Barnhill. Back in 2019 I read The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness. It was a strange, beautiful and somewhat haunting novel loosely based upon a Japanese folk tale. This year, I spotted The Crane Husband on the library's New Books shelf and couldn't help being intrigued at seeing another author's take on the old tale. Barnhill's Husband wasn't quite as haunting as Ness' Wife, but I still enjoyed it quite a bit. The main character is interesting and the story well crafted. Definitely worth a read.

[ 12:34 Jan 01, 2024    More misc | permalink to this entry | ]

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