The (Very) Best Books I Read In 2023
It was a great year of reading once again. Not because the titles published this year were particularly great–as always, my reading is usually rooted in stuff that’s older, in a more serendipitous process than catching titles as they come out. It was great because I found so many books that were new to me and in their own way, helped form a new me. I learned about perspectives I didn’t have before, learned things I didn’t know, and even connected with people I otherwise wouldn’t have known. It was wonderful and I feel so lucky to have so many more books I still want to read.
At the end of every year, I try to narrow down all the books I read and recommended in this email list to just a handful of the best. The kind of books where if they were the only books I’d read that year, I’d still feel like it was an awesome year of reading. You can check out the best of lists from 2022, 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011… I can’t believe it’s been 13 years of these roundups!
My reading list is now ~270,000 people, which means I hear pretty quickly when a recommendation has landed well. I promise you—you can’t go wrong with any of these.
The Son by Philipp Meyer
You never know why a book is going to jump out at you or why it will speak to you. I found this one at a Barnes and Noble on the Gulf Coast of Florida on vacation with my family. How could I have known that this epic Western–one of the greatest I’ve ever read–was largely based in Bastrop, where I live and where my bookstore, The Painted Porch, is? How cool is that? As it happens, Philipp came out and was the first in-person episode of The Daily Stoic Podcast–recorded in a building that dates roughly to the period of the book. And then just a few weeks ago, I was at a small rural grocery store in Red Rock, Texas and in a bin of used books, I found a pristine 1st edition hardcover of The Son (which I am going to have him sign for me when we go deer hunting later this month). Again, the magic of books! Anyway, on the little sign I put next to the book in the bookstore, I say that The Son is on par with the show Yellowstone, but better. If you’re looking to read more fiction this year, start here. It’s an epic book that spans multiple generations, from the Comanche raids of the 1800s to the border raids of the early 1900s and the oil booms of the 20th century. I also recommend Philipp’s other novel, American Rust,which reminded me of one of my absolute favorite books last year, Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland. Meyer is so in tune with the themes that we see ruminating in our country every day–the dignity of work, the despair of not being able to get ahead, the terrible cost of so many shortsighted economic decisions by American industry. But all of that is subsumed here in a great novel with great characters. It pairs nicely with Cormac McCarthy’s border trilogy as well (All The Pretty Horses is an all-time favor for me). But back to the topic of Texas, two amazing Texas books are Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne and Comanches: The History of a People by T.R. Fehrenbach.
Pontius Pilate by Ann Wroe
How did I find this book? No recollection–but I feel so much gratitude for having found it. Ann Wroe’s biography of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judaea–the man who sentenced Jesus to his gruesome death–was so overwhelmingly good that I could only read a couple pages at a time. How on earth did Wroe manage to produce such a rich and fascinating, 432-page book about a guy for which the historical record is not more than a couple artifacts and inscriptions? I don’t know… but it makes it a masterwork. Fitzgerald said genius was the ability to hit a target no one else could see…that’s what happened here. What so captivated me about this book is that although it is of course about the most seminal moment of the Christian world, it is happening inside the Roman world–the world of Seneca, literally. Seneca’s brother is in this book (he adjudicates a case involving St. Paul). Lucilius, who Seneca is writing his famous letters to, has the same job in a different province as Pontius. And by the way, that’s the most radical thing about this book: That you get to look at Pontius Pilate, the man who sentenced Christ to death, as a guy with a job. Did he do it well? How did it go so sideways? He said several times that he did not think Christ was guilty…he tried several times to get out of sentencing him to be crucified…yet in the end, he relented and did what he knew was wrong. What can that teach us? This was one of the most interesting and creative books I’ve read in a very long time. I also had Ann Wroe on The Daily Stoic Podcast earlier this year (listen here).
Good Inside: A Guide to Becoming the Parent You Want to Be by Dr. Becky Kennedy
I know how I found Dr. Becky’s work–my wife recommended it. I should know by now to put such books at the very top of my to-read pile, but this one took a while to get to. I regret that because WOW this book is good! It’s another that I could make it a couple pages at a time before I had to just stop and think. And then to go back through it for my notecard system took equally long, there was just so much stuff I had to get down. I’ve already written close to a dozen Daily Dad emails about lessons from the book–from parenting anxieties and frustrations to being present and asking tough questions. But as much as this is a parenting book, it’s also just classic Stoic principles applied toward being a person–because what is parenting but stress, situations you don’t control, worry, anxiety, fear, fatigue and frustration? I took so much out of this book. I just interviewed Dr. Becky too but I don’t think it will come out until January. Stay tuned and in the meantime, you just HAVE to read this book.
As much as I tried, I really can’t leave it at just three books. As you’ve seen in the list this year, I published a book myself in May, The Daily Dad. I quite enjoyed The Book of Charlie: Wisdom from the Remarkable American Life of a 109-Year-Old Man by David Von Drehle. It’s a short, great read. I even got to talk to David about Charlie on The Daily Stoic Podcast (listen here). The Past That Would Not Die by Walter Lord is a riveting, must read narrative nonfiction thriller about James Meredith’s brave and bold campaign to integrate Ole Miss in 1962. An equally moving and related book was Three Lives for Mississippi by William Bradford Huie. I’m not sure you can fully understand America or the darkness that humanity is capable of without reading these books. I found Jan Morris’ Conundrum to be an honest, eye-opening, and just very human memoir from someone who is trans (and also an amazing historian, veteran and fascinating person). The world would be a better place if more people read this book. I loved Joan Didion’s Blue Nights even more than I loved The Year of Magical Thinking as it is much more about parenting and one’s own mortality. If you’re a Joan Didion fan, check out The Daily Stoic Podcast on Youtube, the table we sit at is hers. Deliver Me From Nowhere: The Making of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska by Warren Zanes is a great insight into not just the creative process but also the business and branding and career process. It’s fantastic and almost unbelievable. Edith Hamilton’s The Greek Way is a wonderful discussion of what made the Greeks so special, what they can teach us and how they thought about life. I was lucky enough to interview Arnold Schwarzenegger twice for his new book, Be Useful. We met once in Los Angeles in his Bavarian-themed office (listen here) and then again on stage in NYC. And finally, Robert Greene released a 25th anniversary edition of The 48 Laws of Power. It’s one of the coolest designed books I’ve ever seen. If you flip the gold pages in one direction, you see Machiavelli’s hidden face…and if you flip them in the other direction, Robert’s face appears. It’s an amazing version of an amazing book which I continue to think everyone needs to read. And if you don’t want to read it because you think it’s ‘immoral,’ well then you definitely need to read it.
My oldest is obsessed with Minecraft and so we were very excited when we found out that Max Brooks wrote a novel about Minecraft called The Island (the audiobook is narrated by Jack Black). It’s so funny to see him absorb and get excited by what are effectively Stoic lessons but be open to them because it’s fictionalized through a video game. If I were to say any of the same things, he’d roll his eyes. I missed out on Harry Potter as a kid (just a tad old when they came out) and I never saw the movies so having kids was my first time interacting with the stories at all. We’ve loved making our way through the Illustrated Editions of Harry Potter this year. It’s a great way to read them and they’re beautiful books (if only JK Rowling could go read Jan Morris’ memoir and shut up). For my youngest, who is obsessed with bunnies, I read The Velveteen Rabbit for the first time and we both fell in love with the story. It inspired two Daily Dad emails that you can read here and here. If you haven’t read either The Boy Who Would Be King or The Girl Who Would Be Free, I would love for you to check them out. Stoicism is a philosophy I wish I had found earlier…and I wrote these books to help kids do exactly that.
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As always, I appreciate you supporting my bookstore, The Painted Porch. Please note that because a lot of the books we sell are backlist titles, there can sometimes be delays in stocking/sourcing. And with that, I hope that you’ll get around to reading whichever of these books catch your eye and that you’ll learn as much as I did. Whether you buy them at The Painted Porch or on Amazon today, or at your nearest independent bookstore six months from now makes no difference to me. I just hope you read!
You’re welcome to email me questions or raise issues for discussion. Better yet, if you know of a good book on a related topic, please pass it along. And as always, if one of these books comes to mean something to you, recommend it to someone else.
I promised myself a long time ago that if I saw a book that interested me I’d never let time or money or anything else prevent me from having it. This means that I treat reading with a certain amount of respect. All I ask, if you decide to email me back, is that you’re not just thinking aloud.
Enjoy these books, treat your education like the job that it is, and let me know if you ever need anything.
All the best,