The best books I read or listened to in 2023

Below is my annual summary of some of the best books I read in the past year. There are a few themes that weave their way throughout: the brain, running, history, and biographies. Here I also try to rank them loosely – the first ones are my top choices. Enjoy! 

The Strange Order of Things by Antonio Damasio

I heard Damasio talk a few times and was unimpressed, feeling that his arrogance to substance ratio was too high for my liking. I overcame that to read this book, and boy am I glad I did. My assessment was wrong. He has the substance and is a truly gifted writer. This book was pure brilliance – perhaps the best book I have read in the last 3 years. He describes the fundamentally homeostatic role that consciousness (a sense of self) plays, and then goes into the idea of civilization and culture as just a natural progression of that homeostatic process. Argues that culture is just a further manifestation of homeostasis and is fundamental to the maintenance of civilization, humanity’s most powerful invention.

The Man from the Future: The Visionary Life of John von Neumann by Ananyo Bhattacharya

This is a fascinating book on John von Neumann – perhaps the flat out smartest (in terms of raw horsepower) and most influential thinker on the planet during his time. This helped me appreciate all his contributions, and feel pure awe at how he was both overwhelmingly smart and quick as well as, uniquely creative.

What’s our Problem by Tim Urban

I love his “wait but why” blog. This was a fun, irreverent, but very insightful sizing up of our uniquely turbulent social/political situation today! He frames dialogue in terms of high vs low level rather than right/wrong, which is useful. The second half of his book lays out in great detail his view of Social Justice Fundamentalism as a movement that started with good intentions but has gone off the rails, as every movement can when the line is crossed in “ends justifying the means.”  Good food for thought and perspective. I don’t know enough in this realm to have a well thought out perspective, but am happy to take it all in! 

Draft No. 4 by John McPhee

This is a unique book on the writing process of John McPhee who wrote for the New Yorker. He shares anecdotes, stories, and advice. I loved the writing and some of the insights into his thought process on how to get it just right. I couldn’t put it down. 

Today we Die a Little by Richard Askwith

Great book about the life of the Czech runner Emil Zatopek. At his peak, he was truly a beast, winning the 1952 5K, 10K, and Marathon (his first Marathon, entered on a whim). He also pioneered in his uniquely hard core manner, the concept of interval training, doing up to 100 repeat 400M in a session! Crazy! I love it!  While I liked the running descriptions, the depiction of the wider context of the post WWII situation was eye truly opening.

The Idea of the Brain, by Matthew Cobb

Starts well! Brilliant and packed history of the latest in our understanding of the brain. Overall great perspective piece. It starts to fall apart a bit near the end as it comes upon more recent history, as his own biases more prominently enter in. I also didn’t appreciate his dismissal of fMRI in parts (but that’s my bias!) as some complaints were slightly unfair. Later he talks up fMRI so he redeemed himself somewhat 🙂.  

Rethinking Consciousness by Michael S. A. Graziano (A)

Reading popular books by prominent scientists on consciousness is a secret (or not so secret) hobby of mine.  I like Graziano’s thoughts, and while I think that there are a few areas where his construct is not so air tight, I think he’s onto something as  “hard problem” disappears with his attention schema construct of our sense of self…nested, external and internal world models which we attend to.

The Future of Seeing by Dan Sodickson (A)

I was asked to review this by a publisher, and hopefully it will be coming out soon! Dan is a luminary in the field of MRI, having won the ISMRM Gold Medal for co-inventing parallel imaging approaches. He’s a brilliant physicist and radiologist. Now I know he’s also a great writer of popular books that transmit his infectious enthusiasm and deep insights. This is about the future of imaging – with a heavy emphasis on medical imaging. It was packed with information and an inspiring read! I actually listened to it, as I uploaded the pdf onto my speechify app and listened while driving to and from my National Senior Games National Meet in Pittsburgh. 

Shakespeare by Bill Bryson (A)

Bill Bryson is a super entertaining, engaging, and deeply scholarly writer who exudes irreverence with every sentence. I’m personally fascinated by Shakespear as I feel he was a super genius who single-handedly influenced the English language and informed the human condition in a once-in-a-millenium way (I know..I’m not really sticking my neck out here with this opinion). This lays out what is known and speculated about him in a way only Bryson can pull off. 

Embrace the Suck by Brent Gleeson (A)

This is by a former Navy Seal and is all about developing resilience. Good stuff. I listened to it on a long drive.  Practical, inspiring, solid advice and engaging stories.

Talent by Tyler Cowen

This was recommended to me by Adam Thomas and it’s all about recognizing talent in the context of hiring or pretty much anything. I interview many people, and am always trying to figure out the best things to ask or look for to really get at whether they would be great for the job. This delivered some solid, actionable advice. 

Never Finished by David Goggins (A)

Listened to this audiobook on my runs. It’s a followup to his first book, and while good, didn’t have the same “punch” as his first one. Goggins is both inspiring and curious. I’m not sure I resonate with what motivates him (much as to do with deep anger) but hearing about his hard core exploits is fun and inspiring. 

Indestractable by Nir Eyal

We all suffer from distraction and have challenges in controlling our attention. I figured I would give it a read as it had good reviews and promised advice on helping kids become less distracted – something I’m always looking for as well. Overall, a good book with solid usable advice. Insightful but nothing fundamentally new. 

Feeling and Knowing by Antonio Damasio (A)

As much as I loved Damasio’s book that I read earlier, and as much as I wanted to like this, I found this one too vague and a bit flat.  Nothing really new. Perhaps it was the audio format. I had a feeling he was contracted to do this and just whipped something out quickly. Had a hard time paying attention to this one. 

Modern Training and Physiology for Middle and Long-Distance Runners by John Davis

Solid timeless advice and a few good insights, also unique tidbits that I never know, including that the famous writer/thinker Joseph Campbell briefly held the Columbia University school record in the half mile! 

The Slummer: Quarters Till Death by Geoffrey Simpson

Amature writing and a strange dystopian setting with undeveloped characters, but the visceral descriptions of running kept me engaged. As a runner, I could relate. 

Beyond Illusions by Brad Barton

Brad ran a mind-boggling age-group world record of 4:19 at age 53 so I was interested. Some slightly interesting descriptions of his process, but a pretty below average book.

Dr. Sean Marrett: A Life of Joyful Engagement

Peter Bandettini1, Bruce Fischl2,4, Richard Hoge3, Albert Gjedde5 and Alan Evans3

1 National Institute of Mental Health, Bethesda, MD

2 Martinos Center, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA

3 McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, CA

4 Department of Radiology, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA.

5 University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, DK

Dr. Sean Marrett, a treasured staff scientist for the NIH intramural program’s Functional MRI Facility (FMRIF) for over 20 years, passed away on December 12, 2023, after a 16-month battle with mesothelioma at the age of 62. The cruel irony is that it was discovered weeks before his planned retirement. Sean radiated “joie de vivre” more strongly than anyone we have ever known, and has touched so many within the NIH IRP and international brain imaging community.

After receiving his Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering from McGill University in 1983, Sean took the position of system manager and programmer under Dr. Alan Evans in the McConnell Brain Imaging Center (BIC) at the Montreal Neurological Institute. It was immediately obvious that Sean was a brilliant mind with a passion for the scientific side of BIC life. He dove into many aspects of the work there, most notably with Drs. Keith Worsley, Evans and Peter Neelin in their legendary ‘Bunker’ office meetings on the spatial statistics of activation studies with PET and fMRI. Sean later received his Ph.D. in Neuroscience from McGill University, supervised by Dr. Albert Gjedde, on oxidative metabolism in the brain. Albert was a close friend of Sean’s, harboring a great respect and affection. According to Albert, Sean in many ways inspired the development of PET imaging in Denmark, beginning with the deposit of an early device from Montreal in Copenhagen, and a second device in Aarhus that Sean came to work with and to use to develop novel imaging methods for the mapping of oxygen metabolism and blood flow. 

He carried out his post-doc at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) NMR Center (now the Martinos Center) from 1997 to 2000, training under the PhD scientists Bruce Rosen, Roger Tootell, and Anders Dale during their seminal fMRI-based research on the human visual system. In his time at MGH, Sean contributed to the many projects probing the retinotopic and frequency-tuning characteristics of human early visual cortex. He also made significant contributions to the software that would go on to become the FreeSurfer suite of neuroimaging analysis tools. His burgeoning skills during his postdoctoral research years illustrated Sean’s seminal strengths: he combined a wide-ranging curiosity, a deep and broad knowledge of human neuroimaging and neurophysiology with technical skills that enabled him to enhance the research of the many scientists who were fortunate enough to interact with him.

In 2000, he joined the nascent, jointly funded NINDS/NIMH FMRIF, as a staff scientist. Sean’s influence has permeated the NIH brain imaging community. He forged the positive, open, and helpful culture that now defines the FMRIF. Over the course of 20 years, thousands have been helped by Sean. As the de facto FMRIF manager, the multitude of tasks he performed included balancing the budget, creating the computational and stimulus infrastructure, and troubleshooting innumerable issues as they came up – all while setting the tone and policy of how the FMRIF is run. He successfully navigated the siting and installation of five of our scanners, including our two recent 7T scanners. Lastly, he collaborated with many groups across several NIH institutes – helping them get the best data possible. 

His career spanned the beginnings of functional brain mapping. Nearly every brain imaging scientist from back in the day knew and loved Sean. In Montreal, he was a force of nature, whether engaging in intense scientific debates or carousing with other BICers at the Thompson House student bar. At MGH his contributions helped surface-based analysis become ubiquitous in the study of human cortical function. He was also part of OHBM history, as one of the driving forces behind the OHBM Hackathons and embodied the field’s energy going forward. At national and international meetings, Sean would greet new and old colleagues with his radiant smile and good cheer – as if they were the primary person that he was looking forward to meeting – always knowing what they were working on, and deeply curious to get any updates – personal or professional. His knowledge of the literature was encyclopedic and up to date. This deep grasp of salient information went beyond literature, as he developed a reputation as having a preternatural awareness of what was going on throughout the NMR Center, Clinical Center, IRP, NIH, and brain mapping community worldwide. Of all the people I know, he was among the most intensely curious about literally everything. 

In the past decade, his focus of choice was scanner hardware and pulse sequences, and all the possible combinations of resolution, sensitivity, and contrast  the latest in each could produce. This was an area initially well outside of his training but in time, he mastered it. When the scanner was open, chances were that he would be there testing a sequence. His favorite meetings, aside from OHBM, were the annual ISMRM (International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine) meeting and the RSNA (Radiological Society for North America) meeting where he would talk shop with as many people as he could. In particular, he loved to make his annual day trip to RSNA to take in the latest in technology, and to deeply engage with the MRI-related vendors. He knew them all on a first name basis, and he was so engaging and obviously caring that almost everyone  considered him a good friend. 

Sean’s defining traits were his unassuming openness and genuine interest in others as well as a deep empathy for them. Regarding his work and the people he worked with, he really cared. He had boundless energy to personally engage with everyone he met. He would also remind us that we were surrounded by amazing technology and brilliant people. What more could one want? Throughout his personal and professional life, his constant and radiant smile was that of a kid in a candy store. He was a deeply devoted husband and a very proud father to his two sons. He was also a proud Canadian – or more precisely – a proud “Québécois.” He was equally ready to delve into an intense science discussion or to share a laugh or a good story. He was the first to march unhesitatingly into the ocean that he loved, so he could play in the waves, no matter how cold. During his life, and in particular, during his last year, he traveled widely. Each new location was a source of wonder, joy and excitement.  It was clear that he embraced this world with every ounce of his being. 

He cherished social gatherings and celebrations, and no matter how trivial or inconsequential they may have been, he always mentioned afterwards, “That was so fun! Just wonderful!” Perhaps the most appropriate summary of his life would be his dancing. Anyone who knew Sean also knew, as truth itself, that whenever there was a dance floor, he was ALWAYS out there, drenched in sweat, radiating joy, fully in the moment, dancing as if that was all that ever mattered – and indeed, he was right. 

Sean attending to  the delivery of the National Institute of Mental Health Functional MRI Facility’s Siemens Terra 7T, March 30, 2022. 

Link to Photos of Sean: http://www.thebrainblog.org/mature-dating-websites/