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.

Author: Peter Bandettini

Peter Bandettini has been working in functional brain imaging since he started his Ph.D. thesis work on fMRI method development in 1991 in the Biophysics Department at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW). After completing a post doc at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1996 and a brief Assistant Professorship at MCW, he became Chief of Functional Imaging Methods and Director of the Functional MRI Facility at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD. He was Editor-In-Chief of NeuroImage from 2011-2017 and has been active in both the MRI community (International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine) and the Brain Imaging Methods community (Organization for Human Brain Mapping). All his views and posts are his own.

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