My Favorite Books of 2023

It’s been a turbulent but mostly good year, with some pileups of new projects, two sisters old enough to play together, and a new job on the horizon for the new year. No novels on my best of the year list, which makes me a little sad, but a lot that I enjoyed on the non-fiction side!

These are my favorite books I read for the first time in 2023, listed in chronological order (with one exception).

The exception is my favorite book tout court from 2023

You Have to Be Prepared to Die Before You Can Begin to Live: Ten Weeks in Birmingham That Changed America by Paul Kix

I’ve been the person to clarify that Rosa Parks didn’t make a spontaneous choice to sit in the “white only” section of the bus and that she didn’t refuse to move because she was tired. She was an activist, deliberately engaging in planned civil disobedience.

In Kix’s day-by-day chronicle, he explore the many behind the scenes choices and setbacks when King went to Birmingham and faced down Bull Connor. I appreciate books like this that show the density of history, especially history that gets quickly summarized as though the triumph of non-violent resistance was inevitable.

It’s particularly notable how much King’s pattern of non-violent resistance depended on being met with violence. His attempts to organize fizzled in some cities where the mayors and police never sent out the dogs or the water cannons—one even reverently removed his hat before arresting King, to defuse his protests with a show of respect. A great deal of the Birmingham strategy depended on finding people who were willing to be beaten bloody and the moral question of whether to allow children to put their bodies on the line for freedom.

An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us by Ed Yong

I put off reading this for a while because so many people had recommended it so strongly, and sometimes this puts me off—it feels like I’ll let friends down if I don’t like it. But it was splendid. The book is about senses animals possess that we don’t share, and one of my favorite running themes was the methodological puzzle of how to make sure you’re varying something that you can’t yourself perceive directly.

It’s one thing to tape and play back audible bird calls, but in a particularly vivid and low-tech example, scientists observing elephants would wait for them to pee, then move in with shovels, a wheelbarrow, a truck to move the peed-on dirt somewhere else where a new elephant would encounter it and they could see how it responded to whatever message it might convey.

Career and Family: Women’s Century-Long Journey toward Equity by Claudia Goldin

I read this earlier in the year, before Goldin won her Nobel in economics, which left me thrilled by the news. Her book for laypeople on the economics that shape women’s involvement in the spheres of work and home was fascinating, and I drew on it for an essay at Deseret.

Greedy jobs lose their teeth when the work becomes genericized. If different workers can be treated as interchangeable by clients and employers, the pay goes down, but the pressure for the job to be totalizing also eases off. […] I closed the book with a bigger, unresolved question about balancing life at home and on the job. It seems like the easiest way to safeguard room to be a person at home is to accept being a widget at work. 

Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne by Katherine Rundell

This was probably the weirdest book I read this year. It’s listed as a biography, but it felt like it went beyond the genre. Rundell engages deeply with history, theology, and philosophy while exploring the life of poet, minister, and sometimes scandal-causer John Donne. I knew several of his poems without knowing anything about the man, and this was an electric read.

Recoding America: Why Government Is Failing in the Digital Age and How We Can Do Better by Jennifer Pahlka / Fragmented: A Doctor’s Quest to Piece Together American Health Care by Ilana Yurkiewicz

I’m grouping these two, because both are by women who look at painfully broken systems and respond to them with compassion. Both Pahlka and Yurkiwicz are attentive to the way government and medicine can fail the most vulnerable, and the moral injury that inflicts on the people working for or administering the tottering system.

I reviewed Recoding America for Deseret and Fragmented for National Review.

How to Read a Tree: Clues and Patterns from Bark to Leaves by Tristan Gooley

I read this because of Mrs. Psmith’s review, and it’s enriched my biking and walking around my neighborhood. (It also answered “Why is the tree out front sending up all those spindly mini-tree-shoots?”) It meant when I walk, I have questions in mind and a reason to look once, twice, three times at a tree, to see what story it tells about the history of this space.

(Don’t read this mom!)

This is the book from the list that I’m wrapping to give someone else at Christmas.

And if you’re interested, this was my best-of list for 2022.