Since 2020, I’ve been pretty good at completing around 30 books a year1. It’s time again for a short rundown of most of the books that I read this year.
Tress of the Emerald Sea by Brandon Sanderson
This was my first read from Sanderson’s profilic body of work. I backed his Kickstarter, A Year of Sanderson, which promised four (already-written) novels throughout 2023. I managed to read two of them during the year.
This was a really fun read, it decidedly tried to break tropes but yet told a true to the form fairy tale. The world was interestingly similar, but not quite. This book is technically part of the bigger universe of Sanderson, but obviously I knew nothing of that so the narrator was totally unknown to me.
The Frugal Wizard’s Handbook for Surviving Medieval England by Brandon Sanderson
I understood that one thing Sanderson did with the “Secret Novels” was to write a bit different stories from his usual stuff. I didn’t really connect with this book, I felt that he put too much effort to the gimmick and that made the story a bit boring: an amensiac time-traveller from future lands in medieval times and slowly figures out a twist, but hopefully not too slowly because dark forces are on the move. Maybe different from Sanderson’s usual stuff, but this was very tropey and without any subversion of it, unlike in the previous book.
Lots of fun little ideas, like in Tress of the Emerald Sea but this time they went a bit to waste.
This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
This was one of those books that are highly rated and all of those lists, but still manage to hand around in your “to read” lists for an eternity. You’re sure it’s great, but you’re not exactly sure why you should pick this out of the many other books that are probably just as great.
But it was great.
The book is written in the style of very flowery letters between two agents of two warring factions in a war across time and space. They have a plan, or is the other just baiting the other? The letters are about the two protagonists, to the point that the world around them is left a bit vague, which is not a problem. It’s really about the two of them. And then at one point you start to realize that there’s more to the time travel aspect than just jumping around, because of course there is.
This was a bit like The Murderbot Diaries if Murderbot had another Murderbot as a pen pal.
Mausritter by Isaac Williams
I did end up reading a couple of more RPG rulebooks this year, but nothing like last year. Mausritter was the most interesting one, not just because of the game settings itself, but because of its community and expansions.
Mausritter is one of those simple OSR rulesets (like DURF, Cairn and so on) but does some smart stuff with its inventory and wraps everything in small mice against trying to survive. Although the setting has the elements of basic fantasy, it doesn’t limit what the outside world is actually, just what it looks like to the mice - mostly dangerous, sometimes fantastical.
This has lead to a variety of additional content for the game. The usual shape of adventures is a trifold brochure, which means the entry level is low and art styles vary a lot. There are introductory adventures, collections and megadungeons.
Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss with Tahl Raz
A great book about negotiation, although its chapters are built around former lead international hostage negotiator for FBI Chris Voss’s stories from real world and he can’t go a page without mentioning that he was the lead international hostage negotiator for FBI. Unlike many other popular psychology/business/airport books, each chapter namechecks great references and isn’t just full of anecdotes of dubious origins.
However, I felt this book focused very much on transactional negotations where after your victory, you don’t need to see your “opponent” the next day. Not much of a problem for a former lead internation hostage negotatior for the FBI, because whoever you are negotiating with will end up behind bars for a longer while.
The Infinite Game by Simon Sinek
This book probably could have been a blog post. The central point is that there is a difference in finite games (things that are more like transactions) and infinite games (things that are more like relationships). Not exactly the most novel idea, but I guess the meat of the book is what are the implications of this.
I guess it continues to be mind-blowing how a finite game of Prisoner’s Dilemma differs from an infinite one. However, I think this highlights one shortcoming of Never Split the Difference, which focused very much on winning but not on maintaining a relationship after the “win”. Although trust is a key topic in Never Split the Difference, it’s still just a tool to achieve a certain outcome.
Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein
Epstein makes a good case that specialization is not always a good thing, and there’s value in range. I think the book started great, went hard to the usual anecdore factory route in the middle and in the end started sound like the book shifted focus to making the normies reading the book be glad they aren’t talented in any one thing or that they never invested time to become great at anything. It would be unfair to say it was trying to praise mediocrity, but who among us doesn’t think themselves a “generalist”? Just dabbling on many things probably doesn’t make one a generalist or give “range”.
I think everyone would love the thesis of this book to be true. Or that the society at the large would value range. However, as Smith illustrated, specialization is the key ingredient of capitalism. And like so many elements of the market economy, it’s mostly value neutral and says absolutely nothing about what’s good for humans or society in the long run. There is however a happy conclusion, if narrow, early specialization isn’t necessarily the most effective way to become “successful”, don’t stress about it and try to enjoy what you do and do what you enjoy and enjoy the ride. Even if your experience and life path won’t be “valued” by others, you’re probably happier that way than trying something singular and failing at that and regretting that you never “made” it.
The anecdotes of this book illustrate how better decisions can be achieved through diversity of experiences and thought, but I don’t it’s necessary for this diversity exist in a single individual with “range”, only that the group making the decision is welcoming of differing opinions.
Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber
In a way, Graeber’s book looks at exessive specialization from another angle and makes similar case that it probably isn’t all good. It’s important to clarify that what Graeber means by “bullshit job” isn’t that the job is shit, but that even the person performing it feels that it doesn’t really add any value. According to a survey mentioned in the book, a third of respodents felt they had a bullshit job, which is depressing.
However, is this an issue of a job itself or the employee not seeing the value of it? Many seek meaningfulness in their lives through their daily work and many jobs can feel very detached from the end product or service, unlike those we grew up with in childrens’ books like doctors, police and such. However, as Graeber argues, many value the work in itself, no matter what it produces. Are some jobs just adult day care?
Or is the lack of clarity about work’s purpose more a symptom of our ever more complex world (partly due to specialization?) and/or poor managerial practices? With our material needs mostly fulfilled, most of us yearn for more meaning in our lives and our lives are more and more filled with work, so ideally that work should give us some of that meaningfulness.
Termination Shock by Neal Stephenson
I finally managed to finish this book this year. Stephenson tells a story spanning the Earth about an eccentric billionaire who decides to do his part to stop climate change by starting a rogue geoengineering operation to shoot sulphur into the athmosphere. Before the governments of the world could act to stop him, they would risk the titular termination shock.
The book is set in a near-future where the effects of climate change are more visibly seen around the world, and its implications affect countries’ foreign policy and actions. As usual for a Stephenson book, there are multiple main characters and their arcs follow a bit different trajectories. There’s political intrigue, action and the characters’ stories get entangled with each other.
Like many Stephenson books, this is a long - yet entertaining - book but I felt that he again had problems coming up with an ending to his story. There were a lot of interesting ideas and hooks in the book, and probably individual novels could have been written of most main characters to better explore those ideas.
Where science fiction usually posits a future with faster than light travel or some currently infeasible or unknown technology, climate fiction seems to cover what we currently see as the inevitable. The only speculation is how the world reacts. Or, what I guess is even more fictional in most climate fiction, is that the world actually reacts.
Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
This is not the original novel or an audiobook of it, but a full-cast dramatisation by the BBC with Peter Serafinowicz as Crowley. Also features Pratchett and Gaiman as traffic cops.
Sure, there’s the new TV series, and it’s great. But so is this radio adaptation.
Saga: Compendium One by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
Just in time for the second half of the series to continue. When I got my son, I read Sandman. Now that I got a daughter, I ended up reading Saga4.
It really packs a punch. It’s a massive space fantasy opera, with a lot of themes I’ve not used to see in comic books. The characters are deep, funny and interesting. And so very mortal. There so many subplots with their own cast of characters and sometimes fate throws characters between these subplots, new friendships and enemies are made.
I really loved how inventive the character design was, it went absurd and bizarre and it was always a pleasure to see where things were going. Except when some bad stuff finally hit.
The Compendium One covers the first half of the saga of Saga. The authors took a breather at the midpoint for four years. I look forward to reading the full Compendium Two in a decade or so.
The Creative Act: A Way of Being by Rick Rubin
Either this is a very pretentious book, or Rubin really believes in this stuff. From the book’s form, it’s really easy to make a case for the first, but I think it’s worthwhile to entertain the idea that this is truly what he believes in, even if some of it sounds insufferable or superficial. Some of the advice also sounds that it’s easy for someone as insanely succesful like Rubin to say and do but hard or infeasible for anyone else to follow. I think this is because for Rubin, creativity is a goal and an Art, not a source or a surefire way for financial success.
I would approach this book less as a self-help book and more as an autobiography of how Rubin thinks and sees the world.
However you approach it, it’s does come off more than a bit pretentious, though.
Legends & Lattes by Travis Baldree
A high fantasy, low stakes story about an orc who opens up a coffee shop. It’s a cozy fantasy, a bit in the form of later Pratchett (Going Postal, Making Money) but without the snark and satire. The story is pretty straightforward, but that’s more of a feature than a bug. It’s exactly what it says on the tin. There’s very little world-building, it’s your run of the mill D&D or World of Warcraft fantasy with orcs, thieves and adventuring parties. If the gimmick of a barbarian orc setting up a coffee shop sounds fun, you’re in for a cozy adventure.
Behave by Robert M. Sapolsky
Sapolsky’s Behave goes interdisciplinary to explain human behavior from milliseconds before action to multiple generations before, and further. It spends its beginning to cover and debunk common myths about behavior, including what is the role of adrenaline and aggression.
The book covers a lot, and on many levels. He makes a good argument that one discipline’s view of human behavior is way too narrow and that the reality is very, very complex and nature has a way of surprising us the deeper we start to look into things. Like DNA is not as simple as we though it to be and there are so many interconnected things and recursion that simple cause and effect are often very hard to show. Humans, our biology and life have massive capabilities for adaptation with not too much hard-wired. There are feedback loops on top of feedback loops that can have multigenerational effects and span simple biology to complex behavior. I think it’s difficult to some, as it was for Descartes, to lose the separation of mind and body, or that emotion and rationality are separate5 and hopefully this book helps to overcome that duality.
The book does a great job of covering a lot of current and recent research and literature. Many of the classic behavioral studies are covered, although some of them have had hard time being replicated I’m confident Sapolsky is aware of this even though he doesn’t directly address this. He is covering a huge topic and goes for building a narrative structure, so going into the weeds would distract a lot from that, although Sapolsky digresses quite easily anyway.
I can’t think of a better book that could give a very thorough overview of human behavior and touches it on multiple dimensions. He admits at the beginning that it’s easy to say “things are complicated”, but although he says later that this is what his book boils down to, I don’t think it’s that simple. Things are complicated, true, and it makes things interesting and wondorous - yet scientific.
He covers free will a bit in this book, and this year Sapolsky went fully deterministic with his latest book.