Collage of books the author read in 2023.

What I Read in 2023

7,076 pages across 18 books

Brandon Smith
20 min readJan 11, 2024

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At first blush, it may seem I read a little less than normal this year, but that’s because I’ve also been editing a friend’s novel and writing one of my own.

Reflecting on 2023, my interests this year — beyond the joyful inclusion of several fictional works — were primarily dedicated to research (The Mycenaean World, Your Atomic Self , The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, plus others I’ve yet to finish). On the other hand, my focus jostled between practical skills-building (Rich Dad Poor Dad and Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat) and plumbing for a deeper understanding of our heady sociopolitical climate (San Fransicko, What’s Our Problem?, The Fourth Turning, The Parasitic Mind). I’ll likely read less of the latter this year, but if you have any recommendations, I always appreciate them.

All that said, per usual, here are the books I read in 2023 in the order I read them, with some commentary on each. Each title links to its corresponding page on Goodreads.

San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities

Michael Shellenberger, 2021

A friend recommended San Fransicko after one of our late-night hangouts ended in a time of mourning for the state of our city. Shellenberger — who found himself surprised when progressive policies on crime, drugs, and affordable housing led the city of San Francisco worse off than before — took a good hard look at why. San Fransicko showcases his findings, uncovering why the progressive policies he thought would clean up the city failed to do so. The policies certainly enabled the worsening of these societal issues, but it’s the deeper, underlying change to the social contract — the ideological shift toward diminishing responsibility for one’s actions based on race, class, et cetera — that he posits has done the most damage.

Definitely worth the read.

“The more you play the victim, the more of a victim you’ll become.”

― Michael Shellenberger, San Fransicko

Rich Dad Poor Dad: What the Rich Teach Their Kids About Money That the Poor and Middle Class Do Not!

Robert T. Kiyosaki, 1997

Rich Dad Poor Dad has been an immensely popular book in the finance genre for years. I can see why. Kiyosaki’s approachable style makes financial success feel accessible. The lessons he outlines having learned as a kid from his “rich dad,” which is his best friend’s dad (his own dad is his “poor dad”), are invaluable evergreen concepts:

  • The rich don’t work for money. The rich have money work for them.
  • Financial literacy isn’t about how much money you make, but how much you keep.
  • Focus on building your assets, not on your paychecks.
  • Work to learn — don’t work for money.

Through each lesson, he explains the differences between assets and liabilities regularly. He also shows how the rich legally avoid paying as much in taxes by setting up personal corporations.

There’s a lot more depth to this book than I could adequately outline here. If you’re looking to deepen your financial literacy and improve your financial health, you can’t go wrong giving this book a read.

“There are times when I have given and nothing has come back, or what I have received is not what I wanted. But upon closer inspection and soul searching, I was often giving to receive in those instances, instead of giving for the joy that giving itself brings.”

— Robert Kiyosaki, Rich Dad Poor Dad

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

J.K. Rowling, 1999

The Chamber of Secrets read like a horror book in my youth. I was scared of just about everything back then. But now, having had the fiction-spooks all but wrung out of me, this book read quite differently this time around. Still enticing, still charming, still fun. From the voices in the walls, to petrified friends, near-death encounters, spiders, bigger spiders, a flying car, an angry willow, a seductive ink-swallowing journal… it’s all there. I just see it, feel it, and know it differently. Whether that’s from the tolling of so many years or the mere familiarity of having read the book before and watched the movie several times, it’s hard to say; but it’s easy to mourn the blind surprise of a first read I’ll never have again.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is defined by its continuity with The Sorcerer’s Stone, the steady maturing of its characters, and the burgeoning overarching series plot; but it also shines in its inventiveness and its classic, unforgettable moments.

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

— J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking

Samin Nosrat, 2017

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat has swiftly become the single greatest influence on the advancement of my skills in the kitchen. From this book I learned the immense importance of salt and the lie we’ve been told about it. So many of us have been educated to believe that salt is bad, but this is dead wrong. Yes, like anything, you can consume too much. But salt doesn’t come naturally in a whole-food diet; this ingredient that is so essential to life needs to be added. No wonder I constantly felt drained. I’m much more liberal with my salt now, and my energy has improved dramatically. Not only that, the flavor of my food has come to life like never before. I’ve adopted the habit of salting chicken a day before cooking it, as Samin recommends. Complete game-changer.

But salt is just the first lesson. Delving deeper, proper management and choice of fat and acid unlocks richer, more balanced flavors from even the simplest dishes. Proper application of the mode and temperature of heat influences texture, resulting in the right amount of juiciness versus crispiness.

A new world has opened up to me through this book. So much experimentation lies ahead. Cooking is one of those life skills I want to master as best I can, and I feel so many steps further down that path than before I read this charming, educational book.

“Get used to the way the salt falls from your hands; experience the illicit thrill of using so much of something we’ve all been taught to fear.”

— Samin Nosrat, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat

The Left Hand of Darkness

Ursula K. Le Guin, 1969

The Left Hand of Darkness paints a picture of an intricately imagined world on par with the likes of Herbert’s Dune and Asimov’s Foundation. At its heart, this novel is a thought experiment: What if there were a population of androgynous humans? What would that society look like? What would be its benefits? Its foibles?

This world Le Guin named Gethen (Winter, to those who aren’t from there); the people, we soon discover, are the descendants of a genetically modified sect of people who were deposited on this ice-cold planet generations ago as an experiment. To see what kind of society they’d make for themselves. The story centers on an ambassador from Earth, Genly Ai, who has traveled to Gethen in order to study the population and attempt to invite them to join a growing intergalactic civilization.

Like any good work of science fiction, The Left Hand of Darkness doesn’t attempt to predict the future; it explores and exposes the deep, abiding, painful truths of our shared humanity. It’s rather easy to see why it’s heralded as one of the great works of the genre.

“It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”

— Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness

The Mycenaean World

John Chadwick, 1976

I finally took the time to get a library card. I haven’t had one for a long time. But my bookshelf space is running thin, and I wanted to use this as an opportunity to find research books for the fiction I’m writing. The Mycenaean World is the first one I picked up when perusing the shelves. It’s an archaeological history of the pre-Greek Aegean world. I got what I wanted out of it, and some things I didn’t quite expect but still found illuminating.

Chadwick’s studies and translations of the Knossos tablets led to his writing of this book. The stone tablets, etched with symbols and text, primarily provide information about the everyday lives of the Mycenaean people. Some are census records, others resource tabulations or records of trades made between city-states. Through them we get a sense of what the population of these pre-Greek cities were like, what kind of livestock they kept, building materials they used, et cetera. Some tablets also include names of notable figures we now recognize from Homer: names of gods, goddesses, kings and queens and heroes, indicating that they’d possibly been important enough to be remembered through oral tradition (through which vehicle, I suspect, their stories naturally took on a new shape).

The Lies of Locke Lamora (Gentleman Bastard #1)

Scott Lynch, 2006

While it takes a fair amount of time for this story to pick up steam, it’s a wild ride once it does. The world-building and character introductions at the beginning of the book are necessary, though, and so beautifully and vividly rendered. Locke Lamora, the titular character, is a cunning criminal who plots elaborate thefts, many times on the rich and powerful, to benefit his gang, The Gentleman Bastards. Eventually, his gang gets trapped in the crosshairs of multiple crime bosses and they must outthink their enemies or die trying.

This was Scott Lynch’s debut novel, and an absolutely impressive one at that. An amalgamation of genres, Lynch has crafted a story and world that stands on its own; part thriller, part family drama, part adventure, it’s full of intrigue and plenty of twists and turns. It features some of the greatest dialogue of any book I’ve read. Just be warned: this book is quite full of foul language and violence amid little sparks of light; an extrapolation, perhaps, of the human condition. Of our better angels and our lesser demons.

“You can’t help being young, but it’s past time that you stopped being stupid.”

— Scott Lynch, The Lies of Locke Lamora

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

John Koenig, 2021

In May, for my brother’s bachelor party, we ventured to Portland, Oregon. Among the many places he wanted to explore was the world’s largest independent bookstore, Powell’s Books. It’s safe to say I could’ve sequestered myself there all day in some remote corner, delving into works previously unknown to me, enveloped in the heady musk of aging paper. But the rest of the group maxed out near the two-hour mark. Such is life. It was a bachelor party, after all.

One book proclaimed, “Hello friend!” in that strange way only books can: The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. I hadn’t heard of it before, but among the hundreds of books I perused that morning, it called to me. So I bought it. And tore through it throughout the next few days and on my flight home.

It’s a delight. A dictionary of made-up words for thoughts, feelings, states of being, that we don’t otherwise have words for. One of my favorite authors, Gene Wolfe, frequently made up words in his stories (The Book of the New Sun is a particularly notable example). If anything, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows has given me permission to make up my own words for the stories I’m working on. And I’ve already begun to do so.

Anyway, there are so many good entries in this little dictionary. I’ll never succeed at finding the right one. So here’s one for the lot of us:

Tillid
adj. Humbled by how readily you place your life into the hands of random strangers, often without a second thought — trusting a restaurant to check its expiration dates, trusting a construction crew to not cheap out on materials, trusting thousands of other drivers to stay in their lane — people who you may never meet but whose wellbeing you’re deeply invested in, whether you know it or not.

— John Koenig

Product-Led Onboarding: How to Turn New Users Into Lifelong Customers

Ramli John and Wes Bush, 2021

Product-Led Onboarding is perhaps the most comprehensive book I’ve read on the subject, bringing in both the authors’ own learnings as well as concepts developed by seasoned professionals like behavioral scientist B.J. Fogg.

At the heart of John and Bush’s onboarding methodology is the EUREKA framework:

  • Establish an onboarding team
  • Understand your user’s desired outcomes
  • Refine your onboarding success milestones
  • Evaluate your onboarding path
  • Keep new users engaged
  • Apply the changes and repeat

To build a successful onboarding cycle, users must perceive your product’s value (visualize it in the context of their life), realize its value, and adopt it (start using it regularly). This requires a lot of work, from interviewing customers, to deciding the right amount of friction in the process (more friction requires higher intent to complete).

I’ve read some good onboarding books. This is perhaps the most thorough and serves as a valuable tool for the whole onboarding team (designers, product managers, etc.) to have at hand. Not everything in this book can be accomplished in one product iteration, but it does provide scaffolding for any team to build upon over time.

“The goal of the entire onboarding experience is to help users improve their lives. It’s important and helpful to view onboarding not as an exercise in teaching users about a product but rather how it makes them successful. For that reason, onboarding shouldn’t be defined by how many features users have adopted. Instead, it should be determined by how much their lives have been improved.”

— Ramli John and Wes Bush, Product-Led Onboarding

Your Atomic Self: The Invisible Elements That Connect You to Everything Else in the Universe

Curt Stager, 2014

Whether you know the basics about atoms or nothing at all, this beautifully-written book has something for you. I went into it knowing a little more than the basics, but Your Atomic Self greatly expanded my understanding. Did you know, for example, that with every breath you breathe you’re inhaling atoms once breathed by everyone else living on earth today, as well as those who came before? Your last breath held atoms once breathed by everyone you love, and even those you may despise. We’re more closely connected than we think.

Stager delves deep into the many atoms and molecules that comprise our bodies, where they came from, and how quickly they pass into and out of us (hint: it’s pretty fast). Much of the carbon that makes up our body and skeleton recently came from exhaust and pollution; nature has a way of reincorporating itself.

How is it that this assortment of tens of trillions of atoms wizzing around, through, and from us each moment in such seemingly random disarray somehow assemble into molecules, cells, and entire organisms like ourselves? While science can’t provide those answers yet, Your Atomic Self certainly serves as an accessible tool by which to ponder many such questions about our reality.

“By some estimates as much as one hundred thousand metric tons of space dust settles quietly to the ground, the ocean surface, and the roof of your residence every year, including not only iron but also silicate minerals from asteroids, comets, and even occasional splash-ups from Mars.”

— Curt Stager, Your Atomic Self

What’s Our Problem?: A Self-Help Book for Societies

Tim Urban, 2023

Unless you’re living under a rock, you know the state of American society today is in a rut, and What’s Our Problem? is a great place to start gaining a clearer understanding of how it all happened and what it all means. In this monumental six-year investigative effort, Urban has distilled the complex web of events, philosophies, and social movements that led us to where we are today into a uniquely conversational, self-aware discourse.

Urban uses hand-drawn illustration and the following two metaphors to help clarify his concepts:

  1. The Genie, the social entity generated by an “idea lab” culture (one in which ideas are freely exchanged and debated, and are based on scientific, high-rung thinking). Multiple Genies coalesce into a collaborative Supergenie.
  2. The Golem, the social entity generated by an “echo chamber” culture (one in which ideas are not freely exchanged or debated, and are based on tribal, low-rung thinking). Golems don’t understand collaboration, and so they do the only thing they know how to do: kick, scream, and pummel each other into submission.

I found Urban’s observations of both major political parties and the various social movements about which he commentates to be as balanced and fair as I could hope for. While he does spend more time critiquing the low-rung Left, he does so, it seems, to better understand and diagnose it (himself being politically left-leaning). He does a generally laudable job avoiding direct criticism, an approach that espouses the very antidote he claims our society needs more of today: A return to true liberalism, in which two opposing viewpoints may challenge one another through heathy civil debate. Culture has a tendency to waver between Genie and Golem over decades, and today’s Golems are leaving wide swaths of the population blinded by their respective echo chambers.

“If we can all get just a little wiser, together, it may be enough.”

— Tim Urban, What’s Our Problem?

The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy — What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny

William Strauss and Neil Howe, 1997

This book was a little out-there, yet strangely accurate. It’s one of those books one reads and later thinks, hmm, that probably could’ve been considerably shorter. Much of the book frames history through the lens of mythic storytelling, replete with hero archetypes for each generation. Look, I love myth. But I could’ve done without that part: Just give me the history lesson.

The prophecy? Well, there’s more to it than I can write about here, but it boils down to this: “Sometime before the year 2025, America will pass through a great gate in history, commensurate with the American Revolution, Civil War, and twin emergencies of the Great Depression and World War II.”

The Fourth Turning was written in 1996 as society was in the Third Turning. Today, it seems, we’re nearing the end of the Fourth Turning itself (which may have begun around the time of 9/11). Strauss and Howe classify each of the Turnings, which last roughly 20–25 years, as follows:

  1. High. The start of a new cycle after a crisis. Institutions and communities strengthen while individualism weakens.
  2. Awakening. Spiritual upheaval, value systems begin to be challenged.
  3. Unraveling. Individualism strengthens, institutions and communities weaken. Changing value systems.
  4. Crisis. A climax in which the new values regime is decided and takes hold, replacing the old. During this period, everyone alive has “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to heal (or destroy) the very heart of the republic.”

Furthermore, the authors classify the generations of people born in each turning through these archetypes:

  • A Prophet generation is born during a High.
  • A Nomad generation is born during an Awakening.
  • A Hero generation is born during an Unraveling.
  • An Artist generation is born during a Crisis.

Put through the mythic lens as heavily as the authors chose to do, it was hard for me to take the book too seriously. But how these correspond with history, both in the previous Turning and those that came before, is undeniably intriguing. However, if WWII marked the end of the last Fourth Turning (which makes sense), I have a hard time understanding how WWI fits in. That would’ve happened in the Second Turning, unless Europe’s cycle differed from America’s. I could see the American Civil War marking the end of the previous Fourth Turning.

Anyway, it stands as a thought-provoking book that I’m glad to have spent some time with, as wild as it was.

“To fix crime we have to fix the family, but before we do that we have to fix welfare, and that means fixing our budget, and that means fixing our civic spirit, but we can’t do that without fixing moral standards, and that means fixing schools and churches, and that means fixing the inner cities, and that’s impossible unless we fix crime.”

— William Strauss and Neil Howe, The Fourth Turning

The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and as Religion

Joseph Campbell, 1986

The late Joseph Campbell, acclaimed mythologist and teacher, is perhaps most famous for his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (which I’ve yet to read). The Inner Reaches of Outer Space is one of those books which, despite its thin profile, leapt out at me from the bookshelf at Barnes & Noble one day as if to say “Read me, read me!” Well, read it I did.

This book is divided into three parts: “Cosmology and the Mythic Imagination,” “Metaphor As Myth and As Religion,” and “The Way of Art.” The first half of my copy is now filled with highlights; the second half, not as much. But I suppose that’s to be expected. In the first half, Campbell delves into the myriad repeating themes and similarities between mythologies and religions around the world. From the virgin birth (a rudimentary idea appearing in nearly every myth) to the Zodiac to the repetition of 432 as a cycle of time (as well as other significant constituent numbers); then onward to cakras, energy, balance, beginnings, endings. “Myths … though derived from the material world and its supposed history — are, like dreams, revelations of the deepest hopes, desires and fears, potentialities and conflicts, of the human will,” writes Campbell. Myths are as inward-delving as they are outward-looking, comprising the full experience of life, making sense of the invisible connections between all aspects of the reality we inhabit.

There is so much packed into this slim volume (118 pages before the chapter notes, index, etc.). His observations truly fascinate; it’s a book I’ll surely pick up and refer to from time to time.

“The first and most essential service of mythology is this one, of opening the mind and heart to the utter wonder of all being. And the second service, then, is cosmological: of representing the universe and whole spectacle of nature, both as known to the mind and as beheld by the eye…”

— Joseph Campbell, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space

Scythe (Arc of a Scythe #1)

Neal Shusterman, 2016

Other than my slow-but-steady reread of the Harry Potter series, I haven’t read much in the way of young adult fiction in the past several years. Enter Scythe, a book my cousin had been recommending for the same several years. Like other popular YA works, it’s plain fun. Despite its multitude of you’ve-gotta-suspend-your-disbelief-and-just-accept-it moments, Scythe is chock-full of profundities and highly relevant concept explorations for our burgeoning era of artificial intelligence.

In the lore of Scythe, an AI known as the Thunderhead rose to prominence and was voted in as the new world leader. It systematically dismantled all governments and built a new system that suited the needs of all people everywhere. It then eradicated disease, sickness, famine, and even death. But with immortal humans came overpopulation. Thus, a new profession was needed: the Scythes, whose job it is to “glean” people to keep the population from spiraling out of control. The book follows two Scythe apprentices what are met with twist after turn in their quest for the title of Junior Scythe — a title which isn’t handed out to just anyone.

“Without the threat of suffering, we can’t experience true joy.”

― Neal Shusterman, Scythe

The Parasitic Mind: How Infectious Ideas Are Killing Common Sense

Gad Saad, 2020

In The Parasitic Mind, Evolutionary Behavioral Scientist and Professor of Marketing Gad Saad pontificates about the reasons for the loss of Reason in the world today. “We are both thinking and feeling animals,” he writes. “The challenge is to know when to activate the cognitive (thinking) versus the affective (feeling) systems.… The problem arises when domains that should be reserved for the intellect are hijacked by feelings.”

Saad dives straight into the deep end on the hot topics of today: racism, gender ideology, trans-activism, victim mentality, diversity, equity, inclusion, and more. He leaves very little off the table. What Saad, I believe, rightfully exposes, is the Progressive authoritarian dogma that diversity is humanity’s end-all-be-all … as long as that so-called diversity is, naturally, focused through the narrow Progressive lens. Progressives, he posits, have no tolerance for intellectual and political diversity.

I found the brashness of his writing rather crass at times, though he’s clearly doing so to get his points across. So take that as you will. At the end of the day, this book is worth the read, whether you agree with him or not (I myself agree with him on some, but not all, points). We can all benefit from having our beliefs, ideas, and notions challenged, of being reminded that human nature is, well, natural, and accepting that biological pathogens are not the only kind of pathogen that can infect a society.

“Freedom of speech … does not exist to ensure that you only levy beautiful compliments at me. Occasionally being offended is the price that one pays for living in a truly free society.”

— Gad Saad, The Parasitic Mind

Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know

Adam Grant, 2021

A few years ago, I read A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger, which contains observational learnings similar to those found in Think Again. Young children are unafraid of their ignorance, constantly asking questions. But the school system does not foster questioning, stamping out intellectual curiosity in favor of … what? Indoctrination? This has left generations of people unable to question or think for themselves as well as people used to.

In Think Again, Grant, an organizational psychologist and professor at Wharton, uncovers the evidence that rethinking can be fostered as a skillset. And part of that entails thinking like a scientist, constantly asking ourselves how we might be wrong (rather than seeking evidence that we’re right) and pursuing insights that might recalibrate our views. It’s a succinct and insightful book dedicated to wisdom, to becoming aware of how little we know. Wisdom, after all, is rather humbling.

“Some psychologists point out that we’re mental misers: we often prefer the ease of hanging on to old views over the difficulty of grappling with new ones. Yet there are also deeper forces behind our resistance to rethinking. Questioning ourselves makes the world more unpredictable. It requires us to admit that the facts may have changed, that what was once right may now be wrong. Reconsidering something we believe deeply can threaten our identities, making it feel as if we’re losing a part of ourselves.”

— Adam Grant, Think Again

Red Seas Under Red Skies (Gentleman Bastard #2)

Scott Lynch, 2007

Red Seas Under Red Skies picks up not long after The Lies of Locke Lamora ends. We find Locke and Jean in the grips of an intense brotherly feud characterized by contrasting bouts of anguish and hilarity. Lynch’s writing, as mentioned in the above summary for Lies, is remarkably witty. Rarely have I seen characters come to life so clearly as in this series, from their descriptions to their behaviors to their dialogue. I feel like I know them quite deeply, as if they aren’t fictional beings at all. As if I might run into them, flesh and blood, next time I’m out at a bar.

Just like its predecessor, the plot — which this time around involves a heist, imprisonment, and pirating — takes time to build. But once it gets going, it’s full sail ahead. The menagerie of new characters and places keeps things fresh, expanding the story for all that is in store in the books to come. At its heart, Red Seas is a story of friendship, camaraderie, love, and the bonds we keep or break. It’s about discovering what matters most when things go horribly wrong.

“Gods, when did we discover how easy it is to be cruel to one another?”

— Scott Lynch, Red Seas Under Red Skies

Thunderhead (Arc of a Scythe #2)

Neal Shusterman, 2018

Whereas Scythe included journal entries from prominent Scythes in each chapter, Thunderhead features journal entries from the AI world leader — the Thunderhead — itself. Its sense of morality and love for humanity evokes that of the Christian God at times, at others not. It is an interesting character in its own right.

Thunderhead picks up the story not long after Scythe ends. The Scythedom is in crisis, the Old Guard and the rising New Guard vying for control over its future. A mounting institutional civil war leads some Scythes beyond their gleaning duties, as some begin hunting others within their ranks, or order non-scythes to do the dirty work for them.

Thunderhead is a fine sequel full of intrigue and action, twists and turns — no less entertaining than its predecessor, and arguably more so.

“How ironic, then, and how poetic, that humankind may have created the Creator out of want for one. Man creates God, who then creates man. Is that not the perfect circle of life? But then, if that turns out to be the case, who is created in whose image?”

— Neal Shusterman, Thunderhead

Well, that’s that. Another year gone. If you happened to make it this far, thanks for reading. Hope you got something out of it and maybe added one pick to your reading list. ✌️

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Brandon Smith

Designer, writer, and photographer dwelling in Los Angeles.