Each year, I like to reflect on the best things I’ve read over the course of those twelve months and share some of my favorites. If you know me personally or follow my social media, you’ll know that my wife Ellen passed away in June after an 18-month fight with brain cancer. As you might imagine, reading wasn’t high on my priority list for much of the time leading up to her death. After she passed, it took me a while to get to a place where my mind was focused enough to be able to read anything. When I was, I found myself pulled more toward the escapism of fiction than the often harsh reality of nonfiction. On balance, I read less nonfiction and more fiction than I ever have in a single year. But, a few nonfiction titles did manage to find me as the year progressed. I’ll share a few of my favorite books in this post.
You can read last year’s favorite books here.
by Alan Lightman
There are moments when a book finds you at the exact right time. One day, while I was going through some old things that belonged to my wife, I found a copy of this book she gave to her late father. She gave him it as a gift, noting its unique blend of science and literature. He and I had similar reading interests, so I sat down to skim a few pages at bedtime that night. A few hours later, I had finished the entire book.
Einstein’s Dreams is a fictional depiction of differing dreams Einstein had during this push toward developing his theory of relatively. Each short chapter in the book is a single dream, with each one representing some unique scenario about how time moves and how people might interact with it. Each fantastical scenario makes you think about time, the nature of the universe, the nature of people, and how everything fits together. In one dream, time stops at one location on the Earth, and you can choose to go there or not. In another, people only live for an hour and must conduct their entire existence within that limitation. In yet another, time is a quality and not a quantity, and therefore can’t be measured. Here, events are triggered by other events, and not time.
I enjoyed the book so much that I did something I rarely ever do… I read it again in its entirety. Einstein’s Dreams probably has to catch someone in the right state of mind, but if it finds you there, I think you’ll find it thoughtful, whimsical, and perhaps even perspective-changing.
by Barbara Kingsolver
A gritty, coming-of-age story about a boy in rural Appalachia, written by a Kentucky author, that won the Pulitzer? I was sold.
As it turns out, Demon Copperhead is not about an angry snake. In fact, Demon (a nickname) is a boy born to a young, rural Appalachian mother. Throughout his childhood, he deals with absent parents, death, an abusive stepfather, the foster system, and much more. Many of these struggles track along with the rise of the opioid crisis, which would come to affect Demon’s life tragically. Many things that Demon experienced reminded me of the tragedy surrounding me and the people I knew during my rural upbringing, which is perhaps why the book connected with me so strongly. It’s all so real, as Kingsolver describes it using some of the best descriptive prose I’ve ever read.
You’ll find yourself feeling a full range of emotions for Demon while following his story. You’ll feel sorry for him, wonder how he managed to keep going, and question basically all his life choices within the span of a few pages. But above all else, you’ll root for him. With that, you’ll understand how the circumstances of his life are a product of so many things around him: his environment, his family, the things he missed out on as a kid, and more. I will warn you that the events of the book are described in very real detail and might be hard for some folks to read about. I haven’t read any of Kingsolver’s prior work, like the acclaimed Poisonwood Bible, but I certainly will now.
by Jean Hanff Korelitz
The Plot was something I picked up after hearing a good review of it on a sports radio podcast, of all places. The book follows a struggling author/professor who finally finds success with one of his novels. The problem? The plot for the novel was stolen from a student of his who died before he could write the book himself. That happens within the first couple of chapters, so there are no spoilers here. The trouble begins when someone reaches out to the protagonist and accuses him of stealing the story he wrote about. From here, the book turns into a compelling mystery novel. Who is the mystery accuser? How do they know the plot is stolen? What is their connection to the deceased student?
Interestingly enough, The Plot includes a story within a story. You won’t just be reading the plot I described; you’ll also dip in and out of the plot of the book the protagonist stole and published. Eventually, everything connects… but only after a few twists. A couple I predicted, and some I didn’t. The Plot is a quick read with a satisfying arc and conclusion.
by Merlin Sheldrake
I’ve always been fascinated by fungi and mushrooms. They are ubiquitous, diverse, and even sometimes delicious. They’re also essential for most life forms but shrouded in mystery due to how difficult they are to study. In Entangled Life, Merlin Sheldrake writes beautifully about the mystery and wonder that is fungus. Did you know that the largest organisms on earth are fungal networks? How about that trees communicate using fungal networks? Or that the vast majority of fungal species are still undiscovered? Or that we’re evaluating the use of radiation-absorbing fungi to protect astronauts during space travel? I learned so much about how fungi impact many facets of our lives, including the research being done to leverage fungi for applications in mental health, cancer treatment, building materials, and even communications. Perhaps most thought-provoking was the fundamental role fungi have played in the evolution of our planet and species.
There’s so much more to mushrooms than the ones that appear on our plates, and there’s more to fungus than what grows on food particles that we drop on the floor. Sheldrake is enamored by fungus and often uses language that speaks of it as an almost godlike entity whose world we’re merely borrowing. I challenge you to read this book and not be enraptured by the whimsy and majesty he deploys to describe the world of fungi.
Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow
by Gabrielle Zevin
Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow was one of the most popular books of 2023, and I’m glad it found its way to my desk. The story follows two friends passionate about building worlds, primarily through video games. I’ve always enjoyed books where the main characters are nuanced in such a way that you can love them for who they are while still recognizing their flaws. Zevin does a tremendous job of building these sorts of characters. While you’ll continually root for them, you’ll also experience frustration and confusion about some of their choices… just like most of our friends in real life! Characters who are more likely real, nuanced people are more compelling.
The story here is ultimately about friendship, but game development and world creation are the canvas upon which the story is drawn. Therefore, I think it’ll appeal to many who grew up playing games like I did. If you like to create things, I think you’ll also relate to the characters and how their need to express their art impacts the daily decisions of their lives, big and small.
by Alexandra Robbins
If you’ve known me for more than a few minutes, you know that I think teaching is one of the world’s most important and underappreciated jobs. I have a great reverence for the teaching profession, not the least of which is because most of my success can be traced back to teachers who cared about me. While I think most people appreciate teachers, few understand what it’s like to be a teacher in a public school system in the US, and the challenges that come along with it. With The Teachers, I now have a book I can point people to that I think effectively relays these struggles.
In The Teachers, Alexandra Robbins spent a year inside a few different schools, following individual teachers she presents as case studies. Each chapter of the book is a month within the school. For each teacher, she describes what’s happening in the classroom, how individual relationships with students and other teachers develop, and how it affects their personal lives. I love this approach because it allows the reader to view the teacher as a whole person and not just for their work alone. In addition to the narrative case studies, Robbins also devotes a portion of each chapter to summarizing specific issues teachers collectively face, along with historical context and supporting facts and figures. These summaries include topics like low teacher pay, high teacher burnout, difficult parent interactions, lack of support for student special services, and disconnected administration priorities. In some ways, the book is structured like a mixed-methods academic study, but without all the dry, specific language and in a format anyone can engage with. I was also impressed that Robbins spent a year as a long-term substitute teacher in a school system herself, not just observing but completely immersing herself within the culture she was studying.
If you really want to know what it’s like as a public school teacher in the US, The Teachers is required reading. I’ve already bought a few extra copies to give away. I think this book should be required reading for school administrators and policymakers.
by Kim Stanley Robinson
After reading The Ministry for the Future last year, I was excited to learn that KSR had written a well reviewed book on the colonization of Mars. I’ve always been fascinated by space travel. Now that it’s likely we’ll be spending people to Mars in the next few years, I find myself consuming a lot of perspectives on what Mars colonization might look like. In Red Mars, Robinson provides a fictional account of what this might look like.
Red Mars chronicles the settlement of Mars from the first 100 initial travelers to its existence as a flourishing, culturally diverse new horizon planet that Earth dwellers flock to. The book focuses on a handful of specific characters from the first 100 (maybe too many) and their relationships and technical challenges that arise while settling the planet. Robinson isn’t afraid to dive deep into the technical nuance of problems the settlers encounter, whether they be scientific in nature or political. In this way, Robinson reminds me of Andy Weir, who is one of my favorite authors. If you’ve read his work, I think you’ll like Red Mars too. Although. I would consider it quite a bit more nuanced and detail-driven.
Grief is a complicated process, and it often comes in waves. The waves still hit as time passes, and sometimes they hit hard. The gaps between the waves do seem to be growing, and in those gaps I’m slowly finding my way back to a more curious and engaged state. I have a tall stack of books on my shelf for 2024, and I hope to share some of my favorites with you around this time next year.
Did you have a favorite book you read this year or a recommendation you think I’d like? If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments or on social media.