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The Books I Read in 2023

Another year. Another bunch of interesting books.

Cover of the books I read in 2023

Books are great companions. They provide entertainment, offer reasoned and condensed ideas (an invaluable property in a world where we consume thousands of half-baked ideas via social media), they are nice to look at, they smell good, and help you appreciate the quality time you spend with them.

I don’t read as much as I would like to, but I always try to squeeze 2–3 books per month. And at the end of the year, I like to revisit what I read the year before. It’s like time traveling through a personal journey.

If you follow the ChangeLog articles, you already know all of them. If not, here they are: 35 books divided into 19 fiction and 16 non-fiction. All of them with a brief personal review.

California: La Fine del Sogno by Francesco Costa (2022)

This is non-fiction book in Italian describing the issues of the Great State of California (the title translate into California: The End of the Dream). The book focuses, in particular, on the housing crisis that caused a population decrease in the state for the first time in at least 100 years. Informative book. Worth it.

The Black Company by Glen Cook (1984)

This is a classic, and many trusted people have highly recommended it to me.

But I didn’t like it. I didn’t hate it either, but when you read a book and think, “I cannot wait for it to end,” it is not a good point in its favor. As usual, my problem is that the author fails to make me care for any of the characters. Zero. I see a bunch of guys fighting another bunch of guys, and there is no clear motivation for anything. I whispered, “that’s dumb,” too many times while reading this book for me to care to continue with the series. For now.

The Triumph of Caesar by Steven Saylor (2004)

The Triumph of Caesar is part of my “Ancient Roman” guilty pleasure books. They are never great, but they are always time well spent and full of tiny amusing, historically accurate details. This is number 12 of the series, and I consider it above the series’ average. I have been reading this series since 2020 and this is the only book of the series I read in 2023. Probably because I need to find the strength to read the two next entries, that are prequels. Unfortunately.

Hyperfocus by Chris Bailey (2018)

I am always uncomfortable with productivity books. I like them more when they focus on psychological insights because I consider them an expression of practical self-reflection of the mechanism of our psyche. I like them way less when they stress the “productive” side of things too much. This topic, though, would start another 2000 words article.

For now, let’s say that this sits in the middle. There are interesting bits of information that I liked. I agree with the importance and fragility of focused attention, but also on the importance of mindful unfocused attention. However, there are still too many of the standard “email/meetings/do a lot of stuff” things I tend to dislike.

Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel (2022)

I looked at this book because it was the “Goodreads Best Sci-Fi Book of 2022”. The problem is that it is not science fiction, not even close. And I despite 90% of the time travel trope. Books with time travel often become an incoherent mess. This book is no exception. It frustrated me, and I anguished every page of it.

But I know it is just me. Normal people do not suffer so much from a butchered temporal mechanic. So, maybe, you may find it enjoyable.

Writing into the Dark by Dean Wesley Smith (2015)

At the beginning of the year, I started writing more. To overcome a slump, I decided to give this book a try.

I think it is a good book. Not exceptional per se. After all, there is very little to explain in a book about not-outlining other than why the author thinks it is a good idea. But the book is very convincing.

After I read it, the book made me realize that rewriting and outlining maybe was the primary process that killed most of my books. Some years ago, I wrote two books with very minimal outlining. Then I jumped on the rewriting/careful outlining wagon and… I didn’t write anything more. So, maybe is it true? Maybe writing into the dark works better for me, even if my rational mind is pro-outlining?

After some time, I can say that the truth is in the middle. If I plan absolutely nothing, I end up with very clunky and unsatisfying words on the page. So I need to plan something, and give me the permission to scrap the plan if the characters moves in a different direction.

La matematica è politica by Chiara Valerio (2020)

This was a small Italian book whose title translates as “Mathematics is Politics.” The general idea was intriguing. However, I found this book very confusing. There are some good things, but they are scattered. It read as a partially-structured stream of consciousness, and more than once, I struggled to understand what the hell she was trying to say to me. Some parts are good. Some parts are a bit cringe. If I should give it a score, it would be a perfect 5 out of 10.

Star Trek: Vanguard: Harbinger by David Mack (2005)

In 2023, I also started this fantastic Star Trek book series. In this first book, David Mack’s prose was so good that I took some highlights and notes for passages I thought might be interesting to study for my own prose. The story was enthralling. I also liked that the main story focused on characters that were not from any TV series. Yes, there was the Enterprise and Kirk, but it seemed like bait to draw readers into a bigger, more exciting story.

The character’s portrayal, even if not mind-bendingly original, captured me. Nothing is black or white; every character carries their pains, sorrows, secrets, deep motivations, virtues, and flaws. More than once, characters I met with deep diffidence and the strong feeling that they were “the bad guys” ended up being redeemed in my eyes once I understood their baggage of problems and moral dilemmas. This, for me, is a sign of a well-built world.

But the “problem” with Harbinger’s story—if I can call it a problem—is that it is only a giant introduction to put the book series in motion. So, it is not a book that can be read as a standalone. You get detailed presentations of the characters, and you get involved with the story of (mostly) every single one. Then the book ends, and you understand that nothing—and I say nothing—got resolved, and you are up for a long literary journey.

Star Trek: Vanguard: Summon the Thunder by Dayton Ward, Kevin Dilmore (2006)

And I jumped into that journey.

In Summon the Thunder, we get to know the next two writers of the series: Dayton Ward and Kevin Dilmore. After reading some GoodReads reviews, I was worried. Many lamented a dip in the quality of the writing and, in general, a much worse book. However, I have to say, the reviews were unnecessarily harsh. Sure, Harbinger is clearly superior, but this holds up very well.

But it is not perfect. In fact, although the book offers some new clues about the mystery of Taurus Reach, the story itself is somewhat lacking. For example, there are no self-sustaining plot arcs aside from the mission of Quinn and Pennington, who are undoubtedly the strongest characters in the series.

How to Calm Your Mind by Chris Bailey (2022)

As I said before, I like Chris, and I found the concept of a book on his post-burnout experience promising. Unfortunately, though, it fell short. It is an exemplary case of the “this could have been a blog post” syndrome, from which many productivity books (in a very loose sense of the word productivity) suffer.

If you are interested in a much better book that tackles the problem of breaking the guilt-inducing cycle caused by the “I always have to accomplish something” mentality, I highly recommend Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman.

Star Trek: Vanguard: Reap the Whirlwind by David Mack (2007)

Third book of the Star Trek: Vanguard series. After a slower second book, this was absolutely fantastic. David Mack returned to the typewriter and produced 445 pages of pure thrill and frantic actions. It starts off slowly, but I swear to God, I had real trouble putting the book down (I may or may not have read a couple of chapters during a long, boring work meeting 🙄).

The book also solves many questions and plot points created in the previous book. Therefore, it would be a good place for me to take a break. But I will continue with the fourth book for sure. Yes. It is not great literature. It is definitely pulp science fiction. But, I have to confess, I adore the genre.

The Blackwater Saga by Michael McDowell (1983)

Interleaved with the others books, in May I started reading the six books of the Blackwater Saga.

The series, at least in Europe, became famous after being rediscovered in France in 2022 in a widely successful translation. The new edition is enriched by a marvelous cover art, and I’ll be lying if I said that the cover didn’t have an impact on me. I don’t usually judge books by their covers, but a good cover makes them stand out when I am randomly browsing through library aisles.

Anyway, the series follows the story of the Caskey family, a moderately wealthy family in the town of Perdido, Alabama, from 1919 to 1958. The novels read, for the most part, like a period drama but with a supernatural twist: the presence of Elinor, a mysterious woman that popped out in a hotel room after the 1919 flood of the Perdido River.

I can’t say the series was more than “fine.” But the books are small enough to drive you along the Caskey family without effort.

Surprisingly, it is a series about love. Maybe in a twisted way, but love nevertheless. It is also a sad series, in a melancholic kind of way.

Star Trek: Vanguard: Open Secrets by Dayton Ward (2009)

Book four of the Star Trek: Vanguard series. This is another “transitory” installment that follows the energetic and adrenaline-pumping third book, Reap the Whirlwind. In contrast, Open Secrets slows the peace and focuses on building the plot for the future books. While it wasn’t a chore, it felt like “something I had to do” to move forward in the series.

How to be Friend by Marcus Tullius Cicero (45 BCE)

This book is part of a really cool book series by Princeton Press that modernly translates ancient Greco-Roman classics. Every book is divided by theme, and it may be a single opera or an anthology of selected texts.

How to be Friends is the first one I read, and it is a translation of Cicero’s De Amicitia written in 44 BC (9.957 HE) during Cicero’s “Philosophical Exile.”

Nothing to add here; it is a classic and, like The Conquest of Happiness, still valid nowadays.

Under the Dome by Stephen King (2009)

Great concept. Questionable execution. This could have been an interesting exploration of human character when people get cut out from the rest of the world. A slower descent into a state-of-nature scenario. A rich ethical exploration of people facing a desperate situation. Especially for a book that a thousand fucking pages long.

Instead, it is just one of the most flat stereotypical mono-dimensional cast of characters ever doing the most stereotypical shit you can imagine and ending superb, What the actual fuck? Moment. It is so exaggerated and ridiculous that it was really hard to take it seriously.

The Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell (1930)

This is a classic by Bertrand Russell, written at a time when philosophy was still true philosophy, and philosophers were interested in how to live—a time before the self-help gurus swooped in with easy questions, tarnishing the entire practical philosophy genre with the stain of money-grabbing marketing.

After almost 100 years, “The Conquest of Happiness” (published in 1930) remains modern and worth reading, surprisingly so. We haven’t changed much in 90 years, after all.

In one passage, for instance, Russell criticizes contemporary parents (remember, it is the year 1930) for not allowing their children to experience boredom. He argues that the cinema, the radio, and all the new modern activities provide excessive passive entertainment.

Oh, Bertrand… If only you could have seen the depth of this problem in the 2020s…

How to Say No by Diogenes,M. D. Usher (2022)

It is another book in the Classical Wisdom for Modern Readers series. Here, the primary author and translator M.D. Usher compiles an anthology with various passages about Diogenes the Cynic from ancient authors.

Diogenes is a genuinely fascinating figure, the original rebel. It is a shame it is, at the same time, ignored and misunderstood by the modern general public.

Yes! No! but Wait…! by Tim Lott (2023)

It is another book about writing. Despite its brevity, it effectively highlights the unnecessary constraints of over-complicated story structure models. However, stories (I mean, plots, sorry) do have a structure, and knowing the main points of a plot can be truly beneficial.

The Greek Buddha by Christopher Backwith (2015)

It is a very informative book. However, I find it too speculative for my taste. There are a lot of logical “leaps of faith” that, even if they are well argued, they are “leaps of faith” anyway.

For instance, there is a section in which the author claim that the “founder” of Daoism, Laozi, is just a way for ancient Chinese to write Gutama, the name of the historical Buddha. There is a string of “we can imagine that,” that make sense individually, but they get weaker and weaker the more we string them together. It feels a lot like the author want to get Gutama out of Laozi by cherry-picking assumptions on Ancient Chinese language. I don’t think this is good science.

How to be Free by Epictetus, A. A. Long (II sec.)

I am continuing the Classical Wisdom for Modern Readers series. This time, it is a re-read. How to be Free is a modern translation of Epictetus’s Enchiridion. It’s not an easy book, but probably in the list of the top 10 books that changed my life. The book also includes some selected passages from Epictetus’ Discourses touching the theme of Freedom.

Philosophy in the Islamic World by Peter Adamson (2015)

This is one of those books that I read from time to time. This month, I finally finished it.

Philosophy in the Islamic World is a part of Peter Adamson’s series History of Philosophy without any Gaps. In this third volume, Adamson delves into the history of philosophy in the Islamic World, covering Christian, Islamic, and Jewish philosophers who lived in Andalusia, North Africa, the Middle-East and India.

Although it is a long book, it is a fascinating one. Primarily because it explores a usually ignored part of the philosophical landscape. I am delighted to have filled so many gaps in my philosophical knowledge!

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem (1961)

Solaris is a philosophical science fiction novel by the Polish author Stanislaw Lem, first published in 1961. It belongs to that very early era of science fiction that nowadays appears both weird and unusually captivating. However, the primary focus of “Solaris” is not on science fiction itself – a genre whose topics are only marginally tackled – but on the exploration of the human mind.

The mysterious, futuristic, and exotic planet Solaris serves as a pretext to discuss very human and modern themes: love, the boundaries of science, the concept of life, and psychology.

It is a deep, beautiful book – unfortunately, not an easy one.

The Last Exile by Ann Shin (2021)

In August, I came across this book through the Kobo Daily Offer (in Italian, La Collana di Giada, or “The Jade Necklace”). It was priced at €1, and in the short description, it promised a love story set in North Korea. I’m not typically drawn to romance novels, but the North Korea aspect intrigued me, so I thought, why not? It was only €1, after all (a somewhat insulting price for something that, I assume, cost the author tens of hours).

In the end, though, it was an honest-but-not-great book. But I don’t regret spending that token. I’ll do it again.

The main issue is that it feels unreal, and it is clear that the author wrote with the brakes on. While delving into the inevitable exploration of the gritty and tragic lives of North Korean refugees, there seems to be a barrier separating the reader from the disturbing reality. This doesn’t mean the book avoids difficult subjects—it certainly doesn’t—but I feel they pass by too quickly to be truly deeply felt.

The Internet Con by Cory Doctorow (2023)

The Internet thrives on the interaction of small, open entities. It is not designed for large, vertically integrated companies that seek to blatantly stifle competition and corrupt the system.

All the economic systems are like pools of water. You need to put a stick in it and shake it vigorously. You need to add new water and let the old water evaporate. They require agitation, movement, and filtering. If you let a big chunk of mucilage become too big, it will clog the filters, stop the movement and your pool becomes a swamp.

So fuck those big tech companies. We need competition, interoperability, and ownership of what we buy and do on the web.

That’s, more or less, the topic of the book.

To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip José Farmer (1971)

This is a 1971 sci-fi book that I read for the first time in my early teens. It serves as the inaugural book of the Riverworld series. It introduces the setting, and the main character, raises 100 questions, and answers almost nothing. So, take this book as a big introduction. The series’ premise is fascinating: every human being ever existed, resurrected along the shores of a never-ending river. Unfortunately, it is very 70s for the modern reader. Still worth it, though.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (2011)

This is a famous one. To be honest, even if I am kind of a nerd myself, I found that it was too much. It is really hard to believe. The worldbuilding is more clichéd than what I could get from ChatGPT if I asked for a 80s-nerd plot. Nevertheless, it is fun. If you don’t take it seriously, it is an entertaining adventure.

How to Keep an Open Mind by Sextus Empiricus,Richard Bett (III sec.)

This is part of the lovely series Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers. It is a collection of selected passages from Sextus Empiricus, a skeptic of late antiquity. It is very technical, so I will not recommend it unless you have a philosophy discussion group (like I do).

Medieval Philosophy by Peter S. Adamson (2019)

I finally completed the fourth volume of the majestic History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps series by Peter Adamson. This volume was dedicated to Medieval Philosophy, a wildly understudied period in the history of philosophy. It has been a very interesting read. Even if most of the philosophical issues of the time was made-up problems generated from trying to make sense of the inconsistency of religion, the question and the solutions are still relevant in modern philosophy.

Madre patria by Vittorio Emanuele Parsi (2023)

A small booklet on the value of good patriotism in the Italian setting. I am not 100% convinced, and I can see that the author feels very emotionally attached to the topic. Interesting read nevertheless.

Star Trek: Vanguard: Precipice by David Mack (2009)

Fifth volume of the Star Trek: Vanguard series.

This was another action-packed volume. It is a shorter one (or it felt shorter?) and moves the characters forward, overcoming several cliffhangers of the previous books.

If the characters progress, not the main plot arc. Something is lost at the beginning of the book. Then everything is “fixed” at the end. So, virtually, we are in the same spot?

Roughly speaking, of course.

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