Best Books I Read In 2023
A major theme for my reading this year was trying to dig into the history of energy-production and its interaction with progress. Out of several, Energy and Civilization by Vaclav Smil came out ahead by a wide margin in a strong field.
Two other histories stood out to me: Black and British by David Olusoga and Quartet by Leah Broad. Both explored an aspect of social, political, and cultural history that I had not previously learned about in a way that I found engaging. Richard Baum’s lecture series on The Fall and Rise of China was also a favorite of the year, partly because of the lecturer’s personal anecdotes of his time visiting China as it was opening up to the West.
Margaret Atwood’s On Writers and Writing was a lot of fun, though probably only interesting to those who care a lot about writing or who are particular fans of hers.
I had a fairly disappointing year on fiction, with only Kindred by Octavia Butler really standing out against the crowd. This is in contrast to 2022, and something I will try to improve on next year.
The full list of all books is here.
Energy and Civilization by Vaclav Smil (2017)
Non-fiction. Categories: history history-technology progress
Recommendation: I would recommend this for anyone interested in an in-depth exploration of the topic, though the detail and quantitative exposition may put off some readers.
Why I read it: I read this because I’ve been circling the topics of energy and civilization for a few books now and thought I would try Smil, who is generally more detail-oriented than other writers on the topic.
Note: Here we go. Finally found the book I was after. The book covers a lot of ground, because energy is a topic that is pretty central in the study of civilization which is itself quite a broad topic. So inevitably some of what matters was left out, but forgivably. A few things did not quite land for me. He discusses an ‘energy hypothesis’ about the centrality of energy production in understanding civilizational progress, but at the same time some of the most interesting parts of the book for me where discussions of energy efficiency rather than productive capacity (for example, in converting fuel into heat). I would have liked more discussion of this issue, especially in the context of dematerialization. I also enjoyed both the main body of the work and the author’s more opinionated discussion at the end, which is in some ways a separate work. This will be unpleasant reading for people who do not like numbers and equations in their reading (though it is not as extreme as some Smil) and the level of detail can be intense (for example, how many grams per square meter of skin per hour a horse can sweat-100-compared to a human-500). I liked this book so much that I got a paper copy to reread.
On Writers and Writing by Margaret Atwood (2014)
Non-fiction. Categories: philosophy memoir
Recommendation: I would recommend this to people who think a lot about creative writing.
Why I read it: I read this because I love almost everything by Margaret Atwood.
Note: I really enjoyed this. Atwood’s writing always has clever little asides but she, politely, prioritises the story over her own wittiness. But because this book is a set of adapted lectures on the subject of writing she doesn’t feel any obligation to hold back. Don’t read this expecting practical advice on how to write (though there is, for example, some interesting practical reflection on motivations for writing and to what extent to expect them to be satisfied). Instead, think of this as a set of reflections by a skilled practitioner on her trade.
The Fall and Rise of China by Richard Baum (2010)
Non-fiction. Categories: history china
Recommendation: Recommended for people who want to learn about modern Chinese history.
Why I read it: I have a relative blind-spot on Chinese history and have found lecture series by The Great Courses to be relatively good.
Note: Compared to some other histories of China, this one focuses relatively more on the more modern period of the 19th and 20th centuries. What makes this stand out is the many personal anecdotes that the lecturer is able to give about his own experiences as a Western academic in China over many decades. He seems to have led quite an exciting life! The discussion of 21st century China doesn’t hold up to the benefit of hindsight, but (having been published in 2010) that is the risk over covering very modern history.
Black and British by David Olusoga (2016)
Non-fiction. Categories: history abolitionism
Recommendation: Recommended for anyone interested in any of British history, the history of empire, 19th and 20th century global history, or Black history.
Why I read it: I read this because a friend recommended it to me and I’ve liked some of David Olusoga’s documentaries.
Note: Because the transatlantic slave trade and the flow of ideas around race and slavery were so international, the book tells a history that is much more international than its title suggests. I was fascinated by the discussion of waxing and waning fashions for abolitionism in the UK and the ways in which being ‘better than the US’ became an excuse for relative inaction on Britain’s own problems. The book also set these developments in a historical context relative to other international events (e.g., the American revolutionary war and Napoleonic wars) in a way that I had previously missed. Olusoga’s coverage of events in the late 20th century for Black British people was also a badly-needed corrective for some of the gaps in current news coverage and school-history syllabuses.