I read 22 books in 2022, nearly all non-fiction. My reading process is still akin to the process I described in the 2020 review. I read primarily on Kindle, so I can export highlights to Readwise, an app that sends me a daily summary of Kindle highlights, serving me insights from books I’ve previously read. After I finish a book, I write a summary and post it to Goodreads. If a book is particularly insightful, I’ll write down some facts that I add to Anki, an app for spaced repetition, to increase knowledge retention.
Here are my six favorite books of 2022:
The Wizard and the Prophet
This book was recommended to me by Seth Godin. It highlights two archetypal approaches to sustainability. The wizard believes technology and innovation will save humanity—think solar panels, battery-powered flight, and genetically-engineered crops. The prophet, in contrast, believes that the only way to stay within planetary boundaries is to consume less. The author, Charles C. Mann, sketches out these archetypes by telling the history of agriculture, energy, water, and materials in the 20th century.
While I’ve been thinking about sustainability for the last 15 years, this book provided a new lens to look at the issues I work on. I especially enjoyed learning more about sustainability in agriculture, including the history of the Green Revolution, which dramatically increased the production of food and is seen by some as humanity’s greatest innovation.
To me, a hallmark of a good book is that I think and talk about it often after finishing it. That was certainly the case for The Wizard and The Prophet. I used the framework of wizard versus prophet in many conversations this year. While in my daily work I am primarily a wizard, in truth, both sides of the spectrum have merit. (Take, for example, hydroelectric dams: on the one hand, they produce zero-carbon power, a necessity to mitigate climate change; on the other, they block salmon and steelhead from swimming upstream to their mating grounds.)
I read two books on related topics. Vaclav Smil’s How We Got Here covers similar ground but from a more factual perspective. I haven’t finished it but may include it in next year’s list. Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky is a fantasy fiction book that uses a similar polarity between a wizard and a prophet (which she calls witch). I’d highly recommend all three books.
From Silk to Silicon
I enjoy books that include multiple biographies. They offer a lower time investment than reading a full book on a single individual and lead me to learn about people I wouldn’t have otherwise read a book about, thereby expanding my “known unknowns”. As examples, Doris Kearns Goodwin Leadership tells the story of four U.S. Presidents and James Martin’s My Life with the Saints gives a brief introduction to more than a dozen Christian saints.
In From Silk to Silicon, Jeffrey Garten tells the story of globalization through the lives of ten individuals, from Genghis Khan to Andy Grove. I enjoyed most chapters of this book, but I especially enjoyed the chapter on Jean Monnet and the founding of the European Economic Community (EEC), a precursor to the European Union, and the chapter on Cyrus Field, the entrepreneur who first connected Europe and the U.S. by telegraph by laying an oceanic telegraph cable.
In what appears to be a great basis for a Netflix series (akin to Succession or WeCrashed), the Founders covers the founding story of Paypal. As an entrepreneur, reading about the pace set by the Paypal founders was exhilarating. For example, I loved reading a passage in which Mike Moritz, a legendary investor at Sequoia, sends a candidate to Elon Musk. Musk conducts a phone screen. The candidate closes by saying, “I’d love to visit you next time I’m in the Bay”, to which Musk responds, “No. You need to fly here tomorrow.” He speaks with Musk for a few hours late that night and signs his offer the next morning at 8am. Incredible. There are many such stories in the book, and I’d recommend it to any tech entrepreneur.
In this gripping book, Dr. Edith Eger tells the story of how she survived the Holocaust (including Auschwitz), the imprint this experience left on her, and how she healed herself over the course of her life. The book’s main purpose is to help readers “escape the prisons of our own minds”.
As Philip Zimbardo puts it in the foreword: “Whether imprisoned by bad marriages, destructive families, or jobs they hate, or imprisoned within the barbed wire of self-limiting beliefs that trap them in their own minds, readers will learn from this book that they can choose to embrace joy and freedom regardless of their circumstances.”
The author’s story and the book’s main message (don’t ask “why me?” but “what now?”) resemble that of Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl was a lifelong mentor to and friend of Eger.
Robin Wall Kimmerer is a teaching professor of biology at SUNY and a member of an indigenous American tribe—the Potawatomi Nation. Her writing flows from the pages like water. It’s some of the most beautiful I’ve read. Each chapter of this book tells a short story about Kimmerer’s relationship to nature. I especially loved the chapter Three Sisters, in which she describes the symbiosis between corn, squash, and beans. The corn provides a stalk for the beans to climb up to the sun. The squash covers the ground, reducing the evaporation of water from the soil. The beans fix nitrogen, providing critical nutrients to the other two crops. Planting these three crops together forms a truly regenerative process. I read this before going to bed, planning to read a few pages, and inadvertently reading a chapter (or two) because the writing is so soothing.
The Beginning of Infinity
This book isn’t an easy read, but it’s very rewarding. David Deutsch is an Oxford physics professor. At its core, the book makes an argument for unbounded human progress, so long as we rely on the philosophy of fallibility: the belief that problems will arise, but that they are soluble, and that we ought to always look for errors in our thinking and then correct them. Deutsch covers much ground, explaining for example why the Roman numerals were a bounded system but the decimal system is not, and why the Athenians were better positioned than the Spartans when it relates to learning and improving.