The Best Books I Read in 2023
Happy Friday, readers!
I’m thrilled today to share my favorite reads of the year with all of you! I had a harder time narrowing down my list for 2023 than in any previous year. Really, though, that’s a good thing. It means I had a fantastic year of reading. I broke this year’s list into three categories:
Contemporary Fiction — novels published after 2000 (though all of the titles listed are much more recent than that)
Class Fiction — novels published before 2000
I read well over 100 books this year, so I was pretty happy to get the total number for this list down to 15. All of them were easily given five stars and could be re-read with enjoyment. Without further ado, my favorite reads of 2023.
The Green Bone Saga by Fonda Lee
I read the first volume of this trilogy in 2022 and really enjoyed it. I don’t quite know why it took me another year to read the next two, but better late than never. Over Spring Break, I tore through Jade War and Jade Legacy; by the end, I was sad that my time with the Kaul family was at an end. It’s definitely up there among my all-time fantasy favorites.
Trust by Hernan Diaz
This was actually the first title I finished in 2023 and it has stuck with me 100+ books later. With four connected “books” within the larger narrative, all written in a different style and from a different perspective, it’s unlike anything I’ve read before. Set during New York City’s roaring ‘20s, it centers on a financier and the ripples of his wealth. Exploring fact vs fiction and the role of memory in history, Diaz’s Pulitzer-winning title is well worth your time.
The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese
It’s a rare thing when a 700-page book almost feels too short for the epic story found within. Telling the multigenerational story of a cursed family in the jungles of India, Verghese blends science and medicine with the more ethereal qualities of love, family, and belief. There isn’t anyone I’d hesitate to recommend this book to.
Blacktop Wasteland by S. A. Cosby
Few thrillers have captured my reading attention like Cosby’s debut novel. I actually read all four of his books in a 10-day sprint this summer; Blacktop Wasteland was my favorite of the bunch. All of his stories are dark and violent, but this one also had a little bit of levity; it was just more fun than the others. The car chase scenes were especially evocative — I’ve never read anything quite like it. If you need a new must-read thriller author, Cosby is your guy.
The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store by James McBride
I just finished this one a couple of weeks ago and loved it. McBride captured some of life’s most beautiful themes — diversity, community, neighborliness, kindness, love — without being overly sentimental or contrived or happy-go-lucky. Set in a poor neighborhood outside Philadelphia before the start of WWII, Jewish residents and Black residents do their best to coexist in a world that doesn’t want them. It’s a remarkable story all around, combining masterful prose with top-notch storytelling. This was my first time reading McBride and I’m excited to dig into his backlog.
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
In the often hyper-masculine realm of sci-fi, Le Guin forged a new path with this 1969 story about a genderless society. Combining geopolitics with gender politics and even throwing in a bit of an ice-world survival story, Le Guin managed to tell a unique and riveting story while also sharing some of the most thought-provoking wisdom I’ve ever encountered in a book. I’ll definitely be re-reading this one and looking to explore more of Le Guin’s catalog in the coming years.
Dune by Frank Herbert
Compared to other sci-fi classics, this story feels especially timeless (and timely). There’s an ecological narrative at play, which is quite obviously relevant, but it’s also squarely focused on the human element rather than on science, technology, or space travel. The novel’s hero, Paul Atreides, is simply a young man adjusting to an unexpected regime change and learning about his own leadership abilities along the way. Excited to dig even deeper into the story in January and February with The Big Read.
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
This 1995 book was recommended by a reader of this newsletter whose opinion I hold in extremely high regard. After seeing her mention this title in the doorstoppers discussion, I immediately requested it from the library. Over 600 pages later, I was blown away by the experience. Four people in an unnamed Indian city unexpectedly come together in a small apartment to run a sewing business. Weaving together heartbreaking backstories and the bleak hardships of life in urban India, Mistry also ensures a fine balance between despair and hope.
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
This story looks deeply at a single individual’s crime as well as his internal torment about that crime (i.e. the “punishment”). It gets at the agonizing psychological heart of guilt as powerfully as anything I’ve ever read. That’s not all it does, though — this story offers readers a lot, even if it’s not always easy to get through. This is another one I’m excited to explore further with The Big Read next year.
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
In Steinbeck’s own words:
“I will tell them one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest story of all—the story of good and evil, of strength and weakness, of love and hate, of beauty and ugliness. I shall try to demonstrate to them how these doubles are inseparable—how neither can exist without the other and how out of their groupings creativeness is born.”
An all-time favorite book that explores, at its heart, good vs. evil — and the unending choices we make to either cave to those labels or fight them or earn them anew each day. A multigenerational story of a family in California’s Salinas Valley, you won’t forget how this one made you feel.
An Immense World by Ed Yong
This is one of those eye-opening books that fundamentally changes how you see and experience the world around you. Inimitable science writer Ed Yong takes readers on a journey through the senses of animals, going well beyond the five classics that us humans are used to. Seriously, this is a mind-blowing book. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
The Power Broker by Robert Caro
There is no other biographer like Caro, period. I’ve read his famed LBJ series and finally read his first book this summer with a coworker. It’s ostensibly about longtime NYC parks commissioner Robert Moses, but at 1,200+ pages, it’s about much more than that, getting to the very heart of power itself. It’s a long haul, but one you’ll never forget.
A Fever in the Heartland by Timothy Egan
Until reading Timothy Egan’s revelatory book, I didn’t know that the KKK had a large and despicable presence in northern and western states as well, especially pre-Great Depression. What really sets this book apart is Egan’s narrative prowess. Though it’s never explicit, he makes it easy for the reader to connect the dots between the America of 100 years ago and the America of today. There’s a moral to the story, but he never smacks you over the head with it. Great stuff overall and my favorite title of the year in the history genre.
Fire Weather by John Vaillant
Though I don’t rank the books on this list, Vaillant’s Fire Weather would definitely be in the top five if I did. In telling the story of 2016’s apocalyptic firestorm in Ft. McMurray, Alberta, Vaillant also urgently conveys the unimpeachable science behind the climate changes that fueled the inferno. I’ve read a lot of books about climate science and about wildfires (it’s a necessity when living in the western U.S.) — this is the best of the bunch. You’ll never think of wildfire or carbon emissions the same way.
God, Human, Animal, Machine by Meghan O’Gieblyn
In the year since ChatGPT was launched, the world seems to have accelerated into an AI era. It has prompted the full range of human emotions — excitement, anger, dread, curiosity, and plenty more. I’ve seen plenty of explainer-type articles and industry-specific doomer articles (especially for writers), but surprisingly few think-pieces have grappled with the existential meaning of these new technologies. Though O’Gieblyn’s book was published pre-ChatGPT, it remains thoroughly relevant in this new age. She considers big questions about what it means to be human, the essence of consciousness, the ways that technological and mechanical metaphors (“The brain is a computer”) impact our thinking, etc.
What I appreciated most was how she prompted readers to think for themselves. O’Gieblyn asks a lot of questions and doesn’t offer many answers. It made me realize just how many modern books seek to tell us exactly how to think rather than offer ideas to chew on. I’ll be thinking about this one for a long time and it’s had a substantial impact on what I’m looking for in my reading for next year. (More on that in a few weeks.)