🚀 Start Here

# Books I read this year: 2023 edition

📅 Thu, December 28th 2023
series: #books

Another year, another reasonable reading hall. A year reading is a year well spent.

I completed 41 books this year and abandoned 5. That’s a completed book every 8.9 days.

6 of these books were physical, the rest were Kindle or other digital formats.

I’m happy with the time I invested into reading this year, but I tended to focus more on quantity than quality. Next year I’ve set out a clearer path focused on books that I judge to be larger but more valuable time investments, favouring slower, deeper readings. While I’m sure my caprices will steer me off of this proposed path, I hope to prioritise depth over breadth, wherever my eye wanders.

I’ll be taking part in the Hardcore Literature book club, which should satisfy my literary thirst, whilst the companion discussions should help break the wading marmalade into edible apricoty chunks. On the non-fiction side, I have a set of topics I want to study, making the learning objective more important than reading volumetrics.

It’s amusing to look back on the year to follow my moods and interests through the books I was picking, like smelling familiar scents to recall old friends.

Among some travel books, the year started with a collection of mostly terrible locked-in murder mysteries. The concept of this genre is that the victim couldn’t physically have been murdered, constrained typically by 4 walls deterring any assassin. At the top end, And then there were none, an Agatha Christie masterpiece from the Queen of Crime. At the opposite end are most modern attempts, with 1-dimensional characters and a twist that is just about plausible without feeling at all rewarding to the reader. Include among that latter camp most of my crime reads of the early year.

Next was a noticeable finance & fintech phase, including some startup books. I enjoy going deep into topics, and this was a fun opportunity to learn a lot about the financial system, its players and its problems.

After that, there are a couple of concurrent periods. One, triggered I think by the follow-up Amazon book from Brad Stone, was a sequence of reads about large tech companies. Amazon, Netflix, Facebook, Nike. Huge brands that shape our culture, most of which didn’t exist 20 years ago and none of which existed 60 years ago. Understanding their growth and prosperity is key to understanding our times.

Alongside these books, I was polishing off the Ripley series. Tom Ripley is a brilliantly developed, sophisticated character. These latter books share more of his inner morality and his relationships. Less new is happening, but we’re getting to know our protagonist. I was bought into Patricia Highsmith and tried another of hers, The Blunderer. This I liked far more than Strangers on a Train, the last off-Ripley-piste Highsmith I read.

Notable Picks

I was lucky to read some fantastic books this year. Here are a few of particular note.

Roman Mysteries – Caroline Lawrence

The Roman Mysteries are a set of “children’s” books written by Caroline Lawrence, featuring children in 1st Century Rome, running around, solving mysteries and living history. I first read these books when I was perhaps 10, and their impact on my love of history could be measured on the Richter scale.

There are 17 books plus short stories in the series, and I re-read the whole lot, 3000+ pages. I considered these as one book when accumulating my read count, because I read them in one fantastical excited blur.

These books directly inspired both a holiday and a proposal this year for me. They’re wholesome, educational and so exciting. Possibly no other book educated or influenced me as much this year as these did. Stories teach best because they mean something to us.

Any Human Heart – William Boyd

This book was a gift, one I appreciated. The story, told as a diary, follows a boy for the course of his life, through considerable ups and downs, from pre-war England to mid-war Bahamas and beyond. The diary format creates an emotional connection that weighs down the loves & losses like they’re our own.

Our narrator tangles with factual characters, from artists to royalty, weaving his tale into British history and, in some small way, telling the story of his class. Quite beautiful.

Smartest Guys in the Room

A detailed account of the rise and fall of Enron. The fine lines drawn by this book are impressive. Each character in the saga is carefully developed. Most pronounced is how the lessons we’ve since learned, from the crash of 2008, play a prominent supporting role in the Enron collapse, just a few years earlier. Had more been done at that point, what disaster could we have avoided?

Politics on the Edge

I won’t cover too much ground, as I’ve done an in-depth summary of this book here already.

As I reflect on reading this book two thoughts reoccur:

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster – Bill Gates

This should be a bible for legislators & citizens. Bill Gates lays out the plan. Not every puzzle piece, but at least the outlines where the puzzle pieces need to go. His global view of poverty, illness, technology and innovation combine to offer a hopeful call to action.

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis de Bernières

This was one of the two best fiction books I read this year.

When I finished this book I sat still for a few minutes whispering “Wonderful” to myself. An eccentrically told life story, through the eyes of several participants in WW2 and the occupation of Kefalonia. Rather than me telling you anything about this story, I urge you to go and read it.

The book is as funny as it is quirky or romantic, but this passage particularly stood out to me. I will leave it with you.

Those that truly love have roots that grow towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossoms have fallen from their branches, they find that they are one tree and not two.

Their roots are so entwined together that it is inconceivable that they should ever part.

Because this is what love is.

Seveneves – Neal Stephenson

I don’t tend to read sci-fi or fantasy because it usually obscures characters rather than explores them. I stuck with Seveneves initially because of the compelling catastrophic situation that orientates the story, and then for the physics.

The book opens with the introduction of a world-changing event. It’s told quite well I suppose, and for a couple of days, I walked around half-believing that it faintly might be real. Big ideas can infect you, even fictional ones, when engaging.

The physics, especially the orbital mechanics, that are explained in some detail throughout the story make the clunky character interactions worthwhile. Unfortunately, later in the book this attachment to reality is replaced with abstract world-building, and loses its energy to me.

This is notable as the first true sci-fi book I can remember finishing, and I enjoyed it.

A Month in the Country – JL Carr

This was the other of my favourite fiction books from the year.

I bought this on a whim from Daunt Books by St Paul’s. Thank St Paul that I did. This short book, at <100 pages, is both light & seeing. Recounting the story of a man recently returned from WW1 Passchendaele, suffering from PTSD. Left by his wife, with little money, he accepts the job of restoring a medieval mural in a Yorkshire church. He arrives in the small village, a somewhat broken man.

The village is literally all sunshine for him, kind and accepting, through the warm & lovely summer of 1920. But it cannot last forever, and as his work draws to a close he must come to terms with the fact that this would only be, could only be, a bright, warming memory of one sweet summer.

It is a beautiful tale of nostalgia, the perfect things that cannot be relived or retained. Just as we reach to touch them, they crumble. To quote the book directly:

the friends you’ve made, this marvellous summer, the splendid job you’ve done. I mean the lot. You can have this piece of cake only once; you can’t keep on munching away at it.

And that’s the heart-wrenching pain of it, much as I felt as I finished this book, with a coffee in hand at the Ned: the most beautiful things cannot last forever, lest they lose their colour, and sour.

There are a few fleeting encounters which juxtapose this hemertic perfection, to remind us and our narrator of the bubble of village life. One is a visit to a big town to buy an organ, accompanied by some of the villagers, where they are treated with disdain for needing to buy second-hand. The village is rejected as unimportant to the outside, an illustration of the cocoon that he can’t inhabit forever. Oh, but we wish he could.

It is the end of the “horse era”, a time, the narrator reflects in hindsight, that nobody saw coming. Village life was unchanged for centuries, the locals still battening down for winter just as the animals went into hibernation, but the shocking changes of 20th-century modernisation lie just over a pastoral hill. Even the glorious simplicity of village life itself cannot last.

The sentimental heartwarming of this little welcoming neighbourhood, where everyone from the Sunday school children to the farmers of the next parish adore him, is something that perhaps we all long a little for in modern life: a time when most of us don’t know our neighbours. But that time has gone, the “good” times cannot be reprised or replayed. That Carr teaches us for sure.

If Gatsby was set in Yorkshire, with human feelings, it might read just like this beautiful little book.

List in Reverse Order of Completion