22 books in 2022… seems fitting, right? That wasn’t intentional, just a coincidence.
This year, I read some of the best fiction I’ve read in years: Project Hail Mary, The Midnight Library, Cloud Cuckoo Land, Recursion, … the list goes on, actually. I can confidently recommend every fiction book I read this year. The only ones I would give a more lukewarm recommendation are The Wheel of Time books, given the commitment you’re potentially making by reading them (14 long books is no joke).
I always tend to try to include a memoir each year. This year I chose Code Talker by Chester Nez, about the Navajo Code Talkers of WWII: A captivating story of ingenuity and perseverance that’s quite unlike other war stories I’ve read or watched.
There were also some real winners on the non-fiction front this year: Four Thousand Weeks, Good Strategy Bad Strategy, and Influence is Your Superpower are particularly worth looking at.
I hope, as you plot out your reading list for 2023, these books offer some ideas. So without further ado, here are the books I read in 2022 in the order I read them, with some thoughts on each.
Robert Jordan, 1991
Though slightly less eventful than its predecessor, The Great Hunt continues the story of the Three Rivers youths as they part ways into separate groups and journeys.
Book One, The Eye of the World, may have been criticized for its similarities to The Lord of the Rings, but in The Great Hunt we see The Wheel of Time begin to take its own shape. The world expands as the characters set off to new regions and cities, while armies wielding a terrible power from the islands off the coast begin invading the mainland.
The Great Hunt feels transformational to me; it’s intended to set up what’s to come. The fact that this series is fourteen books is still somewhat daunting, but I’m ready for the next chapter.
“Her silence was more eloquent than any words.”
— Robert Jordan, The Great Hunt
Matt Haig, 2020
Life, death, love, a magical library, and parallel universes. What’s not to love about all that? These are just a few of the themes of The Midnight Library.
Mild spoiler (this happens in the opening of the book): Nora is pretty down on life in the novel’s opening pages, full of regrets, caught in the past, wishing she’d made different choices. When the weight of her regrets finally becomes too heavy to bear, she decides to end her life. But when she does, something strange happens. She lands in the Midnight Library, a place where time stands still. A place full of books containing alternate lives she could’ve led—and now has a chance to.
What follows is a beautiful story about life and learning how to live. It’s one of those rare novels that’s so sure of its voice and purpose that you can’t help but surrender to it. To say I adored it and its message would be a severe understatement.
“The thing that looks the most ordinary might end up being the thing that leads you to victory.”
— Matt Haig, The Midnight Library
Mitch Albom, 2021
Mitch Albom has a talent, similar to C.S. Lewis, for writing a straightforward, quick-paced story that turns out to have myriad layers you never would’ve imagined from the outset.
The Stranger in the Lifeboat starts as a simple stranded-at-sea-in-a-lifeboat-after-the-boat-sinks story (does Life of Pi ring a bell?), but it quickly transforms into something all its own. A couple of days into the group’s strandedness, a person is found floating alive in the water. They help him into the boat. He soon claims he’s the Lord. Nobody believes him.
Alternating between three sets of characters—those lost at sea, those who are investigating the mystery behind the sinking of the yacht, and news reporters—The Stranger in the Lifeboat reveals its final shape bit by bit. There are plot twists and revelations aplenty. Albom writes in clear, crisp, simple prose with short, staccato chapters that move the story along rapidly.
I read this in just a few sittings and loved almost every moment. The all-too-fictional characters (many of whom were supposed to be famous, including an unnamed “past US president”) made certain aspects of the story (particularly the news reports) feel unnecessary and inconsequential. But as a parable of sorts, it does its job. I’ve noticed with parables that some part of it always feels empty, and that’s very much the case here. But it’s that missing piece, I think, that we, the audience, are meant to fill in for ourselves.
“Did you know a crab will escape its shell thirty times before it dies? … This world can be a trying place … Sometimes you have to shed who you were to live who you are.”
—Mitch Albom, The Stranger in the Lifeboat
Ryan Holiday, 2014
With The Obstacle is the Way, Holiday tries to accomplish two things simultaneously: To reflect on the simple, timeless teachings of the Stoics (Seneca and Marcus Aurelius chief among them) and observe the many ways in which well-known people throughout history have turned their challenges into their greatest triumphs.
If you’ve never read any Stoicism, I suppose this book is an excellent entry-level introduction. The problem is that there isn’t much depth here. I have a copy of The Essential Marcus Aurelius always sitting on my desk (it’s been hanging out there for years), and I’d suggest picking that wonderful little book up instead.
The concept that you can overcome challenges if you simply face them head-on isn’t revelatory. Holiday is a pretty smart guy, judging by his career and a few of the videos I’ve seen where he’s giving lectures on marketing. I quite enjoyed his book Stillness is the Key when I read it a couple of years ago, but after having read another of his books, I’m starting to find his written works to be a bit formulaic.
“Focus on the moment, not the monsters that may or may not be up ahead.”
— Ryan Holiday, The Obstacle is the Way
Oliver Burkeman, 2021
I’ve read many books about time management and productivity. This is hands-down the best and most important one yet. While others tend to over-prescribe ways to “optimize” your time, Burkeman takes an entirely different approach by helping you change the way you think about time.
Four Thousand Weeks is a mixture of stoicism, practicality, and brutal honesty that may be hard for some to swallow. Burkeman discusses in-depth why any attempt to optimize our time and cram as much experience into it as possible is a futile attempt at believing that doing so will give us more time with which to do and experience things. Tones of melancholy infest Burkeman’s words as he mourns how little time each of us has, and yet, what is “enough” time? Is there such a thing? And so, equally, he reminds us to celebrate that we have been granted any time at all. The statistical likelihood that any one of us exists is so small that we should be celebrating that we actually have time with which to contribute to the human story.
Despite the many productivity books I’ve read, this is the one I’d recommend anyone read first. It’s a treasure, and while I wish it had existed sooner, it really did arrive in the world at exactly the right time.
“There is an alternative: the unfashionable but powerful notion of letting time use you, approaching life not as an opportunity to implement your predetermined plans for success but as a matter of responding to the needs of your place and your moment in history.”
— Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks
Chester Nez & Judith Schiess Avila, 2011
In the Hopi House in Grand Canyon National Park last year, I came across this book and many others of interest, but this was the one I picked off the shelf. While I have a sliver of Choctaw blood running through my veins, I haven’t spent as much time with indigenous literature, history, or tradition as I would like or feel that I should.
This year, I wanted to change that. I attended my first tribal meeting with my father. I picked up the book American Indian Myths and Legends, which I’m slowly reading through. And, of course, I read this book, Code Talker, by Chester Nez & Judith Schiess Avila.
I’ve read war memoirs before (Unbroken immediately comes to mind), but this one was different. Its voice was new to me. In this vibrant account, Nez tells the story of his life growing up on the Checkerboard, an area of the Navajo Reservation, where he was forced to go to school and learn English. His education and the physical hardship of his childhood prepared him for life as a Code Talker in WWII. He, along with many other young Navajo men, developed an uncrackable code to send cryptic communications in the Pacific theater.
His story spans several battles across multiple islands. From nearly getting killed by his fellow countrymen his first day on the job (they couldn’t tell the difference between him and the Japanese, nor his language) to becoming a key reason for the Allied victory in the Pacific, his story is one of endurance, persistence, love, compassion, and hope.
“I smiled, remembering the sheep and goats, the sound of their bells… I loved the sound, like soft chimes in the dark. Maybe, if I concentrated, I could block out the gunfire and hear, instead, the bells.”
— Chester Nez, Code Talker
Blake Crouch, 2019
It had been a long while since I’d read a thriller. Recursion has a captivating science-fiction element to it that makes it one of the better time-travel narratives out there.
The story begins as an increasing number of people begin suffering from False Memory Syndrome, in which they remember a life they haven’t lived. NYC detective Barry Sutton begins investigating and finds himself thrust into a world of scientific intrigue, corporate greed, and one in which time and memory fold in around him.
And that’s what makes this such a good time-travel book; memory is the primary device driving it. It’s a unique take. That, coupled with stunning action sequences and solid character development, mark this as not only one of the best thrillers I’ve ever read, but also one of the most exciting books, period.
Crouch really hit the nail on the head with this one.
“But on a night like this, of a restless mind and dreams of ghosts, time feels secondary to the true prime mover: memory. Perhaps memory is fundamental, the thing from which time emerges. The ache of the memory is gone, but he doesn’t begrudge its visitation. He’s lived long enough to know that the memory hurt because many years ago, in a dead timeline, he experienced a perfect moment.”
— Blake Crouch, Recursion
Richard P. Rumelt, 2011
This is the most complete book on strategic thinking I’ve read. Rumelt clearly knows his material; he is a professor on the subject, after all. In Good Strategy Bad Strategy, Rumelt first clarifies what a strategy is and is not. Then he explains the difference between a good strategy and a bad one. The latter part of the book provides examples of strategies in action.
Just a few of the things I took away from it include:
- Good strategies identify critical obstacles and a detailed plan for overcoming them
- Bad strategies don’t include plans for overcoming obstacles, but read as statements of desire
- Good strategies are usually unexpected
- It’s often best to choose a simple, focused path than to choose a path that leads to more complexity
I loved this book and plan to reference it in the future.
“The kernel of a strategy contains three elements: A diagnosis that defines or explains the nature of the challenge… a guiding policy for dealing with the challenge…. [and] a set of coherent actions that are designed to carry out the guiding policy.”
— Richard P. Rumelt, Good Strategy Bad Strategy
Influence is Your Superpower: The Science of Winning Hearts, Sparking Change, and Making Good Things Happen
Zoe Chance, 2022
I’m glad I chose this book as one of my starting points for exploring the practices of influence and persuasion. It’s something I’ve long known I need to do, but was always hesitant to. Chance brings an approachable and supportive voice to the conversation. The art of persuasion can feel intimidating, but she makes it easier.
Admittedly, I listened to the audiobook version of this. About halfway through, I thought I should really get it as a physical copy to keep and reference when I need it (so it’s now in my book shopping list).
Chance, who is a professor at Yale, first teaches about the underlying bits of human psychology that help to dictate the art of influence. These include the concepts of the Gator and the Judge, aspects of the mind that represent instinct and intuition, respectively. She then teaches how to use that knowledge to gently influence and persuade like a “kindly brontosaurus.”
All in all, a great book on influence and persuasion that I’m happy to recommend.
“The Gator doesn’t take requests. You can’t reason yourself into falling in love, despising ice cream, or enjoying parsnips (which are clearly odious). It’s possible to override gut reactions, but it’s not easy.”
— Zoe Chance, Influence is Your Superpower
Robert Jordan, 1991
Now we’re cookin’. The Dragon Reborn begins to truly define the story of The Wheel of Time (WoT).
“The Dragon Reborn” is a person, which is this book’s great irony, since the titular hero is hardly present within its pages. He has no chapters of his own, and is instead tacked onto the end of a few chapters sprinkled throughout the book. I’m fine with this, as the times he does appear are really quite intriguing, and he’s in mental anguish for most of it, which would annoy more than entertain if we had to spend more time with him. The set piece at the end of the book, when all the characters who have spent the past two books separated finally converge in the same location, is executed brilliantly.
The Dragon Reborn is a tale of three journeys, of the younger characters growing and maturing, of them all finding their way back to each other. Central to the WoT lore is the concept, of course, of the Wheel of Time, a spinning wheel that weaves the fabric of reality and all the events that unfold. Our central characters are uniquely powerful strands in the fabric around which everything else weaves. Smartly, Jordan weaves them back together by charting their journeys down rivers and streams. The metaphor is beautiful, and it pays off.
This was certainly my favorite book in the series thus far.
“For the young, death is an enemy they wish to try their strength against. For those of us a little older, she is an old friend, an old lover, but one we are not eager to meet again soon.”
— Robert Jordan, The Dragon Reborn
Brad Stulberg, 2021
For those who are burnt out on ambition, this book is here to help. For me, who has too many interests and hobbies, it served more as a focusing lens, reminding me that it’s important to divide my time in a more meaningful way.
To no fault of Stulberg, I’ve burnt myself out a bit on books like this, which mix topics like stoicism, time management, and productivity. It’s a popular and captivating genre these days, as so many of us have felt the Great Burden, our lives weighed down by technology, looking desperately for an escape, for presence and meaning. I mean, this is the third book of its kind I’ve read this year!
Still, it’s a decent one in the genre and one I’m no less grateful for having read. It’s full of practical tips and reminders for finding a more centered, intentional, and grounded way to live.
“Excitement temporarily feels good. And there is no doubt that bursts of excitement add texture to your life. But if you are obsessively trying to generate the feeling, you may miss out on what is in front of you because you are already moving ahead.”
— Brad Stulberg, The Practice of Groundedness
Carlo Rovelli, 2020
I discovered Rovelli’s work in 2020 and blasted through his books Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Reality is Not What It Seems, and The Order of Time with a childlike fervor. I instantly found the beauty and accessibility of Rovelli’s written works quite remarkable and different from any scientific literature I’d read before.
At its heart, Helgoland is a historical examination of quantum theory. It emerged from the mind of the 23-year-old Werner Heisenberg in 1925. The book follows the history of the theory from inception to the present.
Quantum theory itself is fascinating, as it describes reality not as a system of objects, but as relations; that what we experience as reality borders on collective hallucination. The theory’s complex math somehow works dependably even though it’s incomprehensible. As Rovelli notes more than once, the more one studies quantum theory, the less one understands it. I remember learning the basics in high school chemistry and couldn’t quite wrap my head around any of it, and now I know why.
That said, it’s another beautifully written book by a physicist-philosopher-poet who I’ve truly come to appreciate. My mind has expanded a bit more having read it.
”The search for knowledge is not nourished by certainty: it is nourished by a radical absence of certainty. Thanks to the acute awareness of our ignorance, we are open to doubt and can continue to learn and to learn better.”
— Carlo Rovelli, Helgoland
Marty Cagan, 2017
I decided to give this book a read when it popped up in the suggestions in Audible. Its compelling title was the first thing to catch my eye, and the description seemed promising.
Devouring this book on my evening walks, I made an interesting discovery. This book is written for anyone on a tech product team, but is geared mostly toward product managers. I learned, incidentally, that I was doing quite a lot of the work and owning many of the responsibilities of a product manager in my current job without even realizing it.
Inspired is a good read, packed with valuable information for budding product managers and individual contributors alike. I learned quite a bit from it.
“We need teams of missionaries, not teams of mercenaries.”
— Marty Cagan, Inspired
Bernadette Jiwa, 2018
I love stories. When I made my photography business back in 2011 (which I no longer operate), I naturally branded the business to focus on storytelling. I was capturing the stories of my clients, after all. “Story” itself was the brand’s identity. While a bit on-the-nose, it made sense for the business.
Working now in the tech world as a designer, storytelling is something I try to imbue into my work however I can; stories have the power to announce, persuade, and guide. When it comes to building new features or services, you can’t get very far without those three things.
Jiwa takes a multi-faceted approach to showcasing the role stories play in successful companies and careers that’s centered around a “Story-Driven Framework”. The book is divided into three parts:
- Defining what the Story-Driven Framework is and the tools within the framework
- Examples for building a story-driven company, with a showcase of how other companies have done it, both big and small, including Tesla, Wikipedia, The Virgin Group, IKEA, Melbourne’s Happiest Tram Driver, and many more
- A guide for developing a story-driven strategy
Many people, from business executives (including small business owners) to public figures, service providers, and designers could benefit from reading this book. It served as a great refresher for me while I was working at a startup that needed to imbue a bit more story into its DNA.
“It’s impossible to be intentional and deliberate if you don’t articulate and prioritise what’s important to you. You can accidentally build the kind of company or career you want or you can create it on purpose.”
— Bernadette Jiwa, Story Driven
Marty Cagan & Chris Jones, 2020
After enjoying Inspired, I decided to give Cagan’s next book a try. While Inspired focused on processes and how product managers and other key members of a product team can work together to create great products, Empowered focuses on relationships and team dynamics. While Cagan and Jones recognize there is a no one-size-fits all way to structure a product team, they provide substantial insight on how to structure the type of team that will work for your company’s particular needs.
This book covers topics like leadership, trust, and hiring the right people; how hiring capable people with good character yields better results than hiring exceptionally talented people with poor character; and how encouraging people to think like an owner rather than an employee helps them to take responsibility rather than just focus on tasks that need doing.
“Leaders don't create followers, they create more leaders.”
— Marty Cagan, Empowered
Blake Crouch, 2016
Jason, a dutiful father and husband, goes out one night for drinks with an old college roommate. On his way home, he’s kidnapped, drugged, and knocked out. He awakens to find people he’s never met welcoming him back; far worse, he finds that everyone he knows and loves either has no idea who he is or has different memories about him than he does about them. Wondering if he’s gone insane, if it’s an elaborate practical joke, or if something more sinister is at work, Jason must fight his way through countless trials to try to recover the life he once knew.
While I enjoyed Recursion just a bit more, Dark Matter is still a fantastic, surprising book. I’ve read a decent number of action thrillers in my life, and so far, Crouch’s books are among my favorite in the genre. I’ll definitely be keeping my eye out for more of his work.
“Imagine you’re a fish, swimming in a pond. You can move forward and back, side to side, but never up out of the water. If someone were standing beside the pond, watching you, you’d have no idea they were there. To you, that little pond is an entire universe. Now imagine that someone reaches down and lifts you out of the pond. You see that what you thought was the entire world is only a small pool. You see other ponds. Trees. The sky above. You realize you’re a part of a much larger and more mysterious reality than you had ever dreamed of.”
— Blake Crouch, Dark Matter
J.R.R. Tolkien, 1977
Anyone who has read The Silmarillion can attest that it isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s quite a challenge, requiring many trips to the end pages to look up information in the index.
Even so, it’s a rewarding read, easy to admire Tolkien’s dedication to his craft. Part mythology, part history, it represents the grand sum of his world-building efforts for the world The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings inhabit. And no, it isn’t called Middle Earth, actually; that’s just a continent. The world is called Arda, and its history is intricate.
Published posthumously, The Silmarillion recounts the events of the First Age. It includes tales of creation, the dawn of the elves and humans and dwarves, and the rise and defeat of Morgoth, the first dark lord before Sauron. In the preface, Tolkien mentions that the Second Age isn’t too eventful, mostly a time of peace and rebuilding after the destruction wrought by the war against Morgoth. It’s interesting, then, that Amazon Prime decided their new show The Rings of Power should take place in the Second Age. Maybe, since Tolkien didn’t document it, they saw it as a canvas upon which to develop new stories. (I’ve since watched the show and won’t reserve judgment here.)
Some of Tolkien’s other posthumous books include Beren & Luthien, The Children of Húrin, and The Fall of Gondolin, which contain deeper accounts of events and people mentioned in The Silmarillion. Beren and Luthien, in particular, have a rather large role to play in the middle of The Silmarillion.
While reading this book is a feat of its own, one must admire the master who assembled it. Since childhood, when I first read The Hobbitand The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s sublime work continues to hold a special place in my heart.
“All have their worth and each contributes to the worth of the others.”
— J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion
Anthony Doerr, 2021
Cloud Cuckoo Land is a nuanced tale following several key characters over a span of fifteen hundred years or so. The connections between the characters aren’t direct but rather metaphysical ones, threads connected across interweaving patterns in a vast time-tapestry. Their connection, while not physical, is nonetheless deep; their stories are human stories, their problems human problems, their desires human desires. They represent some part of what makes humanity so complex, so troubled yet spirited.
Konstance, the only character living in the future (a couple of hundred years from now), is onboard a spaceship to a distant star system. The ship houses a virtual reality space called the Library, where every book, movie, show, and artwork in human history can be viewed or read. The Atlas can also be accessed via the Library: An expansive and detailed mapping of Earth that Konstance can explore as if she were there herself. Through the Library and Atlas, she experiences and learns humanity’s story, including a few unfathomable secrets.
This isn’t a book with a linear, obvious plot, and that may deter some readers. But it didn’t bother me one bit. I came to love the stories of Konstance, Omir, Ana, Zeno, and the rest, and was a little disappointed I had to depart from them by the time I reached the back cover. It’s also one of the most beautifully written pieces of literature I’ve ever read. Doerr has truly mastered rhythm and flow and an exquisite vocabulary.
“And as he looked, turning the leaf over and back, Aethon saw that the cities on both sides of the page, the dark ones and the bright ones, were one and the same, that there is no peace without war, no life without death, and he was afraid.”
— Anthony Doerr, Cloud Cuckoo Land
Andy Weir, 2021
Hands-down the most fun I’ve had reading a fiction book in a long time. Like The Martian before it, Project Hail Mary isn’t a story of good versus evil. The enemy is nature itself. Nature and time. When a scientist discovers the sun is suddenly cooling, a cross-disciplinary team of the world’s top scientists and space agencies come together in a race for a solution. Ryland Grace, a middle school science teacher, soon finds himself reluctantly at the center of the entire effort. It’s down to him and an unlikely friend to solve the problem; if he fails, it will mean the certain extinction of all life on Earth. No pressure.
Once again, Weir has clearly done ample research to bring this book to life and supply some good science fact, but it’s balanced out by healthy doses of obvious science fiction. This gives the story life and keeps it moving. His technobabble is never overbearing, and is only meant to provide clarity and advance the plot.
Project Hail Mary is a rollicking good time. I’m trying to imagine how to categorize it. “Speculative-science-fiction-comedy-mystery-adventure-thriller” perhaps? Genre means nothing to this book, and it balances all those things so very well. It also features my new favorite character, whom I won’t spoil here.
“Human beings have a remarkable ability to accept the abnormal and make it normal.”
— Andy Weir, Project Hail Mary
J.K. Rowling, 1997
Well, the time has come. I bought a beautiful Harry Potter boxed set a couple of years ago new cover art (“new” meaning 2013) and finally decided it was time to give the series another read since it was first published.
It was fun comparing the book’s events to the movie, including how lines of dialog shifted or maintained. While I found that distracting at times, what I appreciated more now as an adult is how much world-building and planning Rowling must have done for the series before publishing The Sorcerer’s Stone. Characters are mentioned in passing in this first book whom you don’t learn more about until much later in the series; seeds for bigger things to come are already being foreshadowed. And for a book that’s so accessible to children, there’s so much wisdom tucked between its covers.
While this story’s surprises are no longer there for me, Rowling’s words still carry their sense of magic and delight; it felt a bit like traveling back to a simpler time in life when the world was more full of wonder than it is now.
“The trouble is, humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things that are worst for them.”
— J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
John Whalen, PhD, 2019
I like it when a book gives me a new system or method to consider utilizing in my work. Strategic Writing for UX did that for me in 2020, and Microcopy: The Complete Guide before that. Design for How People Think is Whalen’s improvement upon the Empathy Map, a research tool designers use to document what people see, feel, think, say, do, and hear.
Whalen introduces the Six Minds as a tool for obtaining and organizing user research data: Vision, Language, Wayfinding, Memory, Decision Making, and Emotion. While deceptively similar to the dimensions found on an Empathy Map, the Six Minds go considerably deeper, providing more context and room to empathize with users, all in the name of designing the right solution to the right problem. Furthermore, the Six Minds framework provides a more acute lens for dictating what to pay attention to when conducting behavioral research.
All in all, it’s one of those books that I’ll keep near my desk as a handy reference when starting a research endeavor.
”From a design perspective, we should be more interested in the deeper, underlying sources of emotion. What is it that your users are trying to achieve? Why? Are they fearful of what might happen if they’re not able to achieve that? … We want to push beyond the surface level of immediate reactions to an interface and consider the more fundamental concerns that may be driving those reactions.”
— John Whalen, Design for How People Think