I read exactly one (1) generalist nonfiction book last year. Normally I am a huge sucker for the kind of books that do the rounds on the podcast circuit—pop-science, sprawling anthropological syntheses, whatever self-help thing is zeitgeisty. Now I still buy them, but I can’t summon the enthusiasm to actually get past the first chapter.
By way of contrast, I had no problem with narrative nonfiction and memoirs. I even managed a few hefty textbooks. But anything outside of specific object-level learning, I don’t want to know about.
In a possibly related development: this was the year I fell in love with the short story. Literary fiction has always felt like a raw deal. I’m incapable of persevering through a book the size of a brick in the hopes that I will maybe be able to extract some obscure payoff—I’m on my third rejection of Brothers Karamazov. But a 20-page short story? I can deal with that, no matter how dense the prose or self-indulgent the author.
I think I read ~200 short stories this year, of which, several make the cut for my favourites below.
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Oblivion — David Foster Wallace
I tried to read DFW in my early twenties and bounced off hard. While his journalism and essays are fun and accessible—I think I’ve previously recommended ‘This is Water’, which is a banger of a commencement speech—his fiction is famously baroque.
This year I am enjoying a DFW renaissance of sorts, with an extra decade of life experience giving me the confidence to tackle his first novel and two short story collections. Of those, I recommend Oblivion, with the fairly strong caveat that even within the short story format, it’s not easy going. DFW is a maximalist, which means he will spend several pages holding forth on e.g. the intricacies of consumer marketing focus groups. As to the deeper meaning, there is no spoon-feeding. Subtext sometimes becomes text, but only in a deliberate nod/wink way such that it recursively becomes subtext again.
If you want to dip your toes, the story Good Old Neon is the star by a wide margin for me, touching on personally resonant themes such as pathological self-awareness, spiralling scrupulosity, and the language problem, i.e. the impossibility of communicating what is in your head in any meaningful way.
A big part of DFW’s appeal is basically watching him show off, both in terms of toying with genre tropes, and in getting to see the metacognition of someone much smarter than you walking through their second, third, and nth order thinking. This is satisfying in and of itself, kind of like a magician explaining a trick.1
Kindred — Octavia Butler
A terrific and terrifying novel in which a black woman living in 20th century California is repeatedly pulled back through time to the antebellum South. Kindred was published in 1979, but unlike most sci-fi of the era, it has aged extremely well—it might have been written yesterday.
This is primarily a study of all the subtle and un-subtle ways in which power struggles manifest between oppressor and oppressed, men and women, spouses, families, etc. It’s rare to read a book at the intersection of so many different genres, and even rarer that it pulls them all off.
Logic Beach: Part I — Exurb1a
Speaking of transcendent sci-fi: the classic Golden Age is exemplified by paper-thin characters, usually male and square-jawed, who exist only as vehicles to explore an idea. This is fine for what it is, but I’ve always wished there was more scientifically rigorous (‘hard’) sci-fi that also realistically portrays the mushy intangibles of human relationships—the problem being that the former requires a kind of weapons-grade autism and the latter a keen sense of empathy.
So I was surprised to find in Logic Beach some of the most insightful musings on romantic love I’ve read in a long time, set alongside a plot in which post-human digital entities graduate from children playing with multidimensional shapes to shared consciousnesses attempting to expose the true face of physics.
This is a highly uneven book in other ways, not least of which because it lacks a real ending (when part 2?), but this is Exurb1a’s first book, and they are still the most promising self-published writer I’ve discovered recently—in the same class as qntm/Sam Hughes, who I also re-read a lot this year.
String Theory — David Foster Wallace
Of all the topics DFW might have covered, and given his relatively small body of nonfiction work, I feel ridiculously lucky that he just-so-happened to write enough essays on my favourite sport to fill an entire (slim) volume.
I read eight tennis-related books this year, of which six were good and three were great, but String Theory easily tops the list. If you are a tennis aficionado you absolutely need to hear DFW deconstructing the game through the lens of Euclidian geometry, commerce, aesthetics, etc.
Even for non-tennis nuts, there are some fun ideas about consciousness or lack thereof (hypothesis: pro athleticism selects for people who are able to fully embody the moment because they have very little going on in the metacognition department—uncharitably, they operate something like p-zombies or in the popular lingo, NPCs) as well as the true sacrifice that many athletes make: they are forced into a one-dimensional mold, operating monomaniacally for our entertainment so that—ironically—the experience of transcendence is only available to us schlubby spectators.
The Twilight World — Werner Herzog
The true story of the last Japanese soldier still fighting a guerrilla war from the jungles of a small island in the Pacific, decades after the end of World War II.
There is only one man who could capture the absurdity of this quixotic quest—the warped experience of time, the relentless battle against nature, the psychological profile of a true obsessive—and that man is Werner Herzog. Watch this one-minute clip where he divulges his feelings about the jungle and you will have a good sense of whether you will love or hate The Twilight World.
The prose is ecstatic and dreamlike without quite becoming overwrought, and anyway, the book is short. I loved it.
The Paper Menagerie — Ken Liu’s short story collection is infused with Chinese culture and history, and includes some tearjerkers and fiendishly warped plots.2
My First Goose— a vivid and brutal short story by Leo Babel, which I read alongside George Saunders’ deconstruction (it blows my mind that Saunders has a Substack where he shares his craft, mostly for free).
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury — very beautiful, dreamy episodic stories. More like fantasy than sci-fi, deserves its classic status.
I, Robot by Isaac Asimov — source of the famous three laws of robotics, which I’ve only ever heard discussed in the context of their naivety. But this collection is all about the ways in which the laws fail, and why AI alignment is really hard! Another classic that deserves its status.
Educated by Tara Westover—like a much better version of Hillbilly Elegy. Made me realise my childhood was in fact solidly middle class.
As always, I’d love to get some fresh recommendations from Deep Dish readers. What was the best book you read in 2022?
Great list! Thanks for sharing 🙂 I’ve already started reading Logic Beach based on what you’ve shared.
Some books I’ve read fairly recently that you (or readers) might enjoy:
* Utopia Avenue, David Mitchell (it starts off like a fictional 60s rock-n-roll story, and then you realise it was written by the same guy who wrote Cloud Atlas…)
* Upgrade, Black Crouch (interesting world-building; the plot is simpler than his previous books Recursion and Dark Matter)
* The Kaiju Preservation Society, John Scalzi (in Scalzi’s own words: “It’s a pop song. It’s meant to be light and catchy, with three minutes of hooks and choruses for you to sing along with, and then you’re done and you go on with your day, hopefully with a smile on your face.”)
* The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, Stuart Turton (I believe this is being adapted into a TV show; it will be interesting whether/how it works)
* The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, VE Schwab
* The Space Between Worlds, Micaiah Johnson
* Unhappenings, Edward Aubry (I LOVE this book and have re-read it many times since I first read it a couple of years ago)
I would be fascinated to see what eight tennis-related books you read in 2022 and how you’d rank them…
Also, I want to give a shoutout to the Doof Book Club podcast (https://www.doofmedia.com/book-club/). Lots of overlap with the sorts of books you’ve mentioned previously, and the discussion is pretty incisive and often makes me want to re-read books (and read books with a more thoughtful eye). I think you’d enjoy it 🙂
Happy reading in 2023!
Thanks Sonnie, good stuff. I’ve read and enjoyed the Blake Crouch books on your recommendation, so will def pick up the new one. Same with Unhappenings—will very likely keep returning to it over the years, great concept and well executed. Others all look good, onto the list they go.
1. String Theory – DFW (see above)
2. Levels of the Game – John McPhee (a masterclass in composition)
3. Open – Andre Agassi (even better than everyone says, thoroughly enjoyed)
4. Rafa: My Story (lots of insights into why Rafa is such a weird guy)
5. Winning Ugly – Brad Gilbert (best strategic and tactical advice I’ve come across so far)
6. The Inner Game of Tennis (mindset and psychology, nothing surprising but always a good reminder)
7. Rod Laver: An Autobiography (zero writing skill but simple and wholesome, great insights into the beginning of the professional era )
8. Days of Grace – Arthur Ashe (fine, just a little boring – DNC)
Podcast looks cool too, thanks. They have a whole series on Worm!
I’m on my second read of Brothers Karamazov. I read it a couple of years ago, on and off over the whole year. Eventually finished it but I certainly missed a lot reading it like that. What’s difficult with it and Dostoevsky in general is that it’s hard to filter for plot significance – he provides so much background to people and places, you get overwhelmed reading pages and pages of info that doesn’t seem to build the narrative. But I have this habit of just pushing through novels even if they are dense and seemingly incomprehensible. Some people think that’s a waste of time but, especially with a book like Karamazov, it serves as a primer for the later attempts. If you get through it once you at least have a semblance of the plot and characters, so on the second read your mind can focus more on the details. Enough struck me on the first read to give it another go and I keep hearing people say that, of his three great works, Karamazov is the magnum opus.
To be clear I think this is a good habit for certain books, and am bemoaning my own attention span more than I am criticising litfic. The problem is in being very confident that the juice is worth the squeeze. I have no doubts that Brothers Karamazov is worth it, in part because it has held up over time, and in part because I’ve read and enjoyed shorter works, e.g. Notes From Underground.
My challenge for 2023 is Infinite Jest, which fits the same category—novels that I expect to have to grapple with over several months, and probably multiple reads. Maybe Dostoevsky will make it in there in a future year.
I read The Idiot and Crime and Punishment before trying it. Though both are fairly hefty works in and of themselves, I think they are a tad more accessible than Brothers Karamazov.
I devoured the entire oeuvre of Lois McMaster Bujold over November-December. Found it really interesting to track her style evolution from the early 80s through to just a couple of years ago.
Nice one. What was your favourite/s? I read Barrayar recently–liked it, but didn’t love it, so didn’t go any further.
I read a really cool historical book last month based on the recommendation of a friend. It’s called Mutiny on the Bounty. It recounts the voyage of William Bligh. It’s a fully historically accurate book, but told in the style of a novel. It gets better and better as the story progresses (although the intro and first chapter or two are a bit dry). Highly recommend for a bit of mental escapism and to learn about an interesting, albeit slightly esoteric event in history.
Never read it. Added to the list, thanks Jon.
Being an Indie non fiction author is an uphill task and any help is always welcome. Ny author friend suggested me to try honestbookreviews.com to get reviews and this is the best investment I made on my book. I collected 27 reviews for my book, raked up 798 sales during Christmas and counting. Best return on my investment.
On point, as always, thanks Rich. String Theory will make the perfect gift for Kim’s impending birthday.
My favorite 2022 read was The Brothers York: An English Tragedy, by Thomas Penn, about the Wars of the Roses, especially Edward IV and his brothers George and Richard II. This was the first time in years that I’ve read a non fiction book that kept me up at night, unable to put it down, and too enthralled to get sleepy. Off the back of that we watched The White Queen, a BBC dramatisation of The Wars of the Roses, which we also loved.
Also very good were The Power Law by Sebastian Mallaby on venture capital and The Sounds of Life, by Karen Bakker, about bioacoustics and animal communication. Kim has raved about the beautifully written Who Dares Wins by Dominic Sandbrook about British history 1979-1982.
The only reading disappointment of 2022 was the dearth of content from The Deep Dish! All the best for 2023.
Thanks Paul. I’m not big into that era (started Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall series and appreciated the depth of research and strong writing, but just couldn’t get into it) but that is certainly a glowing endorsement. Is it a page-turner on the same level as e.g. Barbarian Days?
My partner also enjoyed The Power Law—she’s given me the cliff-notes version, but I’ll have to check it out.
Hope to do better on that front! Although, of course, no promises.
Nice post! Will have to check if any of these are available at the public library!
Some of my favorite books this year.
How not to Die by Michael Gregor, I assume you’ve already read this based on some of your diet posts.
I read the Elon Musk biography by Ashlee Vance before all the news stories about him this year. Mind blowing imo how Tesla and SpaceX happened.
Theodore Rex Teddy Roosevelt biography of his two terms as President, another amazing read though obviously an American centered story. Birth of the panama canal etc.
Steve Jobs autobiography by Walter Isaacson yet again a fasnicating well done biography. I don’t like or have ever used apple products but still an amazing read about Apple’s development.
Thanks Jack. Definitely keen to tackle the Teddy Roosevelt bios at some point.
Yeah I read that a while back, was quite enamoured with Musk…like several other people I used to admire, fame has not been good for him.
Agreed… it might sound nihilistic but I’ve tried to maintain a “have no heroes” policy for the last couple of years. I’ve found it useful though hard to follow 100%of the time.