The Five Most Impactful Books I Read in 2023
The books that changed me this year, plus a whole lot of good links!
Last week, Salman over atasked about the one most impactful book you’ve read this year.
Choosing one was difficult. I’ve read widely this year, and the result is that I read some books that blew my mind and others that were simply awful. I read more books I wanted to throw across the room this year than ever, but maybe that’s a good thing.
Here are the five books that affected me the most in 2023, with links to purchase at Bookshop if you’d like to support an independent retailer. I’m presenting them in the order I read them over the course of the year.
1. Faith, Hope and Carnage
This series of conversations between musician Nick Cave and journalist Sean O’Hagan moved me to think so much more about the fragility of life, the depths of grief, and the power of maintaining your love for humanity and the world. I remember going for a walk while in the middle of the book, listening to his album Ghosteen on my headphones, watching the mist move across the hills, and feeling such an enormous sense of both joy and sadness.
Get it here: Faith, Hope and Carnage
2. To Have or To Be? by Erich Fromm
Fromm explores two modes of existence, one that is focused on relationships and presence, and one on grasping and acquisition. He envisions a world in which we move towards the former, and become less machine-like and more humane. After reading The Master and His Emissary (certainly one of the most impactful books I read in 2022), I see these two modes as actually encoded in the brain (the right and left hemispheres).
This book built on the framework that was already forming in my mind, and emphasized the importance of not letting the grasping side dominate.
Get it here: To Have or To Be?
3. Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam
A lot of people blame social media for the destruction of local community. Written in the 90s, this book shows that the decline of social capital in the US did not start with the internet. Instead, the trend towards the destruction of social bonds began decades before, with more individualistic attitudes that rejected much of the structure of community that had come before.
I tend to see technology as both cause and effect here, with social media preying on the way people now value convenience, entertainment, and spectatorship over the challenge of actual friendship. This books shows that those attitudes started developing long before.
(That said, this book was long, deadly boring at times, and quite academic. But it changed the way I think so much that I have to include it.)
Get it here: Bowling Alone
4. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
The title of Jeanette Winterson’s memoir comes from the response her adoptive mother gave when young Jeanette told her that she was in love with another woman and that it made her happy. “Why be happy when you could be normal?” This religious zealot of a mother withholds love from the author throughout her life, leading to an obsession with love that is written on every page of her amazing novels.
Get it here: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
5. The Perfectionist’s Guide to Losing Control by Katherine Morgan Schafler
This is the only self-help book that made the list, and it blew my mind a bit. I’ve long thought that perfectionism is something I need to work hard to overcome, or at least temper, as the constant need to do more, be more, and work harder can be disastrous and seems to severely limit the joy I allow myself to feel.
Instead, Schafler says that perfectionism is not something you need to overcome. It’s actually a positive trait in many ways, a function of idealism. But there are both adaptive and maladaptive ways to express it. Realizing that I can’t change who I am and that I don’t actually need to in order to be happy was an extremely helpful reframing for me, as well as understanding the negative ways my perfectionism manifests (self-punishment is a big one for me). Highly recommend to anyone who struggles with this, I learned a lot.
Get it here: The Perfectionist’s Guide to Losing Control
HONORABLE MENTION: Just to throw in one more that had a pretty big impact on my life: Zak George’s Dog Training Revolution taught me so much about positive training! I’m a complete novice, and definitely bit off a lot with a high energy, high anxiety rescue herding dog. But Lucy is now the goodest girl, so well mannered (mostly) and building confidence every single day.
Read, Cook, Make
I just finished Wintering by Katherine May, a perfect book for these chilly nights. It explores the concept of winter as a necessity in both the natural world and in our emotional lives. “A moving personal narrative shot through with lessons from literature, mythology, and the natural world, May's story offers instruction on the transformative power of rest and retreat.”
These Italian baked beans and kale are delicious, simple to make, and nutritious. I made mind with chard from the garden instead of kale, which was also quite good. A perfect mean to throw together.
These knitted cushion covers are so pretty and have the look of hand loomed fabric, I think. It seems like a good way to use up leftover skeins, too.
Head, Heart, Hands
Things to make us think, feel, and do.
Lots of links today, because it’s been a while. Let’s catch up!
‘We’re sedating women with self-care’: how we became obsessed with wellness. I had mixed feelings about this article, which seems to conflate a whole host of practices and ideas under the commercial “wellness” label. But it raised many good points too.
A Cupboard of Tools. This one from Oliver Burkeman really hit home for me, as I sometimes find myself searching for THE ANSWER when there is no single answer.
I Started a Dinner Club and It Changed My Life. I randomly came across this post that I think was written way back in 2017 and now I really want to start a dinner club.
See also The Friendship Dip. So interesting.
Need more reading suggestions? I’ve been enjoying Pandora Sykes’ recommendations, like this list of short story collections.
I just finished knitting the Novice Slipover from PetiteKnit and I am all about the sweater vest right now! Photos to come after I block it (if I don’t forget). Highly recommend this to any newer knitters out there, since there’s lots of detailed instruction.
A song for this week: