Best Books I Read In 2022
This was a good year for catching up on classic speculative fiction, for me. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Disposessed were remarkable reads which deserve their reputations. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson was interesting as a historical object and exciting to read, but probably a tier below both of those in its significance.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik, and There is no Antimemetics Division by qntm are less meaningful to me than any of those, but were each tremendous fun in different ways.
In non-fiction, The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan was an outstandingly broadly-scoped history which was ultimately worthwhile though a bit tough-going. In contrast Virginia Postrel’s The Fabric of Civlization was a ripping yarn that I couldn’t wait to tell friends tidbits from whenever I could.
Julia Galef’s The Scout Mindset was a book I had been looking for without knowing it, and helped crystalise a lot of ideas that needed to be crystalised.
See 2023’s best books here.
The full list of all books is here.
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)
Fiction. Categories: speculative-fiction political
Recommendation: Strongly recommended for people who enjoy speculative fiction that explores dark aspects of our own society through heightened distortions of it. Pretty dark and unpleasant though.
Why I read it: I read this because I’ve been really impressed by everything I’ve read by Margaret Atwood and this is supposed to be one of her most influential books.
Note: I found everything I’ve previously read by Margaret Atwood deeply engaging, but this book was phenomenal. This felt like so much more than a story; it succeeds in transporting you into mental states that you (or at least I) couldn’t normally reach but which are deeply mentally expanding. And you end up feeling like you so strongly know so many characters that only get the barest mention. This book is largely about gender, childbearing, power, social oppression, and sex. These issues are fundamental enough that probably most people would find something interesting in there. The one caveat I would give is that parts of the story can be pretty upsetting, and so it might be a painful experience for some people.
There Is No Antimemetics Division by qntm (2021)
Fiction. Categories: fantasy horror
Recommendation: I strongly recommend this to people who like creepy and unsettling speculative fiction short stories.
Why I read it: I read this because I saw it on a friend’s bookshelf and had previously enjoyed Lena by qntm.
Note: The premise is great. Memes are concepts that spread themselves. Antimemes are concepts that block themselves from being spread. And sometimes some things might be able to use antimemes to protect themselves. I can’t really say anything about the book that wouldn’t make it worse, because the author reveals information so masterfully. Just read it, it’s not even that long. I even found this stimulating for some of my research, but this is unlikely to be true for most people. A friend pointed out that the characters in this book are a bit thin, and that’s true, but it didn’t bother me.
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (1992)
Fiction. Categories: science-fiction action
Recommendation: Recommended if you like sci-fi thrillers, especially with a grungy early-internet vibe.
Why I read it: I read this because I have enjoyed some books by Neal Stephenson and I heard that this had introduced the concept of meta-verse, so it seemed conceptually influential in a way that might be interesting.
Note: Overall, I thought this was a well-paced action sci-fi novel with some interesting concepts about alternative realities and memetic propagation. Much like similarly influential books (e.g., Neuromancer) some of the tropes which were introduced now feel a little under-developed or played out, because they have been refined and redeveloped over many iterations since then. But, for what it is, this was a fun read. Parts of the book did make me uncomfortable, including because there are some strongly racist or sexist interactions between characters.
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin (1974)
Fiction. Categories: speculative-fiction societal-exploration political
Recommendation: Recommended for people who like stories that explore alternative social models and don’t mind a slightly jumpy narrative.
Why I read it: I read this because it was recommended by Noah Smith’s list of sci-fi with good economics, and because I have previously enjoyed other books by Ursula K. LeGuin especially The Left Hand of Darkness.
Note: I really liked this book. It felt like it gave a somewhat plausible account of a radically different way of organizing, and did a good job of motivating the ways in which the concepts of people living under different systems of government clash with each other. I enjoyed the story. The book also did a good job of making sure that each of the systems it considered is presented with both up- and down-sides explored. None of them felt perfectly good nor perfectly bad.
The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World by Virginia Postrel (2020)
Non-fiction. Categories: history history-technology history-economic progress
Recommendation: Strongly recommend if you enjoy histories of technology/civilization/economies. Or really just histories.
Why I read it: I read this because I enjoyed her interview on EconTalk.
Note: I was blown away by this book and haven’t stopped harassing my near and dear with facts I learned from this book for the entire time I’ve been reading it. I think a huge realization for me was just how important textiles have been historically (which is especially fascinating given how little of my current attention goes to securing textiles and their products for my own needs). This offers a mind-expanding perspective on economic and technological change and the ways in which resources/techniques/opportunities shape social structures over millennia. You will not look at clothes the same way ever again.
The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik (2021)
Fiction. Categories: fantasy light-reading
Recommendation: Strongly recommend if you enjoy light young-adult fantasy.
Why I read it: I read this because I liked A Deadly Education and other books by Naomi Novik.
Note: If anything, I think this was better than the previous book. Like the other, it’s fun, conversational, and easy to get hooked. But it deals with the world and its characters’ relationships to it in a more interesting way, and because we already know the characters a bit the book is able to cover more ground with them. My fear that this was off-brand Harry Potter is firmly forgotten. I will read the next one when it comes out.
The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan (2015)
Non-fiction. Categories: history
Recommendation: Recommended if you like sweeping global history books. It is both very long and much too short to do justice to everything it covers, so you need to be ok with both of those things. I’m not in a position to evaluate its accuracy or completeness.
Why I read it: I found this a very interesting and wide-ranging history.
Note: The breadth of the scope of this book is both a strength and weakness - you do start to sense some of the connections between issues at a century-scale that wouldn’t appear in a more narrow book. At the same time, discussion of certain periods feels like it probably leaves out important dynamics that are happening slightly out-of-scope (for example, there wasn’t a lot of discussion of the Reformation and Enlightenment). I found the history of post-war Middle Eastern politics especially eye-opening, as well as the history of the Middle East during the European dark and middle ages. I liked the centring on the Silk-roads regions, though at points it felt a little forced. For example, during the chapters on European colonialism of the Americas and India, the Silk Roads somewhat fell out of the picture of this book (while Africa and South America were surprisingly un-mentioned for large parts of the book). This was also true of most of the discussion of the second world war (which, in general, seemed more British-local than, for example, the more dispassionate discussion of the first world war).
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (2020)
Fiction. Categories: fantasy mystery
Recommendation: Strongly recommend for people who enjoy some mystery in their fantasy and don’t mind beginning a book very confused and gradually coming to understand what is happening.
Why I read it: I read this because it was recommended by a friend and I have previously enjoyed Strange & Norrell and The Ladies of Grace Adieu by the same author. This book wasn’t remotely like those, and in retrospect I’m not sure that liking them is a reason to read this, but I enjoyed it a lot anyhow.
Note: This book is tentatively a fantasy book, but mostly the fantasy serves to establish one premise and then the book runs with that. The flawed narrator gradually reveals his world and you come to understand what’s going on. I enjoyed this a lot.
The Scout Mindset by Julia Galef (2021)
Non-fiction. Categories: rationality advice
Recommendation: Strongly recommend if you have an interest in knowing or doing things. More seriously, I think this is good for people who like to be reflective about how they think and act.
Why I read it: I read this book because I felt obligated to read such a widely discussed book about a topic that matters a lot to me.
Note: I avoided reading this book for a while because I assumed that my exposure to the rationalist community would mean there wasn’t much new for me. I ended up deciding it was worth finding out if I was wrong about that, and I really was. The book beautifully assembles a decade or so of thought about pragmatic rationalism. I especially appreciated the way it challenged some of my assumptions about the instrumental value of self-delusion. Also, Julia Galef is an excellent writer and doesn’t come across as incredibly arrogant, which can be tricky when you’re writing a book about how to think better.