My annual list of books arrives a bit later than usual. However, this delay is in some ways fortunate. Now my list will not be seen as an extended comment on the Lex Fridman reading list discourse. Those not on Twitter will have heard little about this. I envy you: we would all be better off if none of us had seen Fridman tweet out a proposed list of books to read in 2023—some as simple as The Little Prince, others as long and complex as Brothers Karazamov—and the avalanche of snobbery that followed. The entire brouhaha strikes me as a strange upper middle class status game. It seems that an attachment to books normally assigned in 10th grade English is the literary equivalent of glitter mascara or an overcooked steak. All three belong on that select list of items the commentariat can gleefully make fun without fear of “being the asshole.”
It is interesting to consider what books, fashion, and food have in common. Most obviously, they are all heavily commercialized consumer products that, in contrast to items like cars, suitcases, or kitchen tables, have limited reuse. Each category has its hideously expensive and comically cheap items, but when it comes to daily use the price distinctions between the low and the high are not so large. This means that the real arbiter of quality is not wealth but “taste.”
Taste is a slippery concept. I cannot deny that some foods are superior to others; nor do I deny that the greatness of some foods can only be appreciated by a discerning and experienced palette. Likewise, some books are objectively better than others, and many of these can only be relished by those who have learned how to read them. But that is all a matter of enjoyment, really. I see no sense in equating taste with character. You can learn a great deal about a man’s interests, ideas, and intellectual commitments by looking at his library. But it is awful hard to weigh the worth of a man’s soul by weighing his bookshelves.
I bring all this up because there was an element of the Lex Fridman debates relevant to my own book lists. Not all of Fridman’s critics wrote his list off for being too simple, too juvenile, too male, or too white. A large group of tweets instead criticized his list for being too long. A 52-book year strikes many in the twitterati as unrealistic or unwise. Many maintain that reading at such a clip would trim comprehension down to nil, reducing these books a disorganized jumble of pages only dimly remembered.
I doubt all this. Those of you who have followed this blog over the years understand why: most years I average some 70 books. I did not reach that number this year (more on that in a moment), but I can certainly testify that a 52 book year is possible. Nor am I convinced that speed of reading is negatively correlated with comprehension. If anything, it might improve comprehension, as it allows you to read several books on a similar subject in a row, each reinforcing what was read directly before it.
At least once a year someone asks me for tips on quicker reading. I have none to give. I have been able to read faster than most people since I was a young child. I never learned how to read faster and thus can offer no advice on how to do so.
I can only give this bit of practical guidance: spend more time reading. I do not own a television. I prioritize reading books over both newspapers and blogs. I am quite convinced most of Fridman’s Twitter critics could read an additional 20 books a year if they were not on Twitter.
I take more seriously the problem of retention. I do not believe that my retention rate is worse than the readers with smaller lists. Inasmuch as reading many books on a similar topic acts like a sort space repetition software, reminding you of facts, theories, and arguments that otherwise fade from memory, reading more books is, on balance, better for retention than reading few. Yet I will not deny that the problem posed by retention, both for those who read little and read lots, is formidable.
I suspect that the real key to retention is what one does after reading. Students are tested on their reading and asked to write long essays not just to assess their intelligence or reading comprehension, but because teachers know that tests and essays are a form of forced recall that help you remember what you are learning. But as my readers own post-academic experiences can likely attest to, even this has a shelf life. Most of us do not remember what we were tested on decades ago unless we are still using or teaching the thing tested today. This is the advantage the narrow specialist has over the generalist: by reading and rereading in the same narrow literature, everything he reads over the decades compounds on what he has already read. The result is, as suggested earlier, a sort of spaced-repetition software made of books.
Those of us with less narrow interest find this problem more difficult. This was brought home to me in a rather poignant way a few days ago when I listened to the New Testament episodes of the Literature and History podcast. I have served as a missionary in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Speak of small book lists! For two years I had only the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the revelations of Joseph Smith, and church magazines as reading material (I read 15 years of back issues of the magazine Ensign that had collected in one mission apartment). I studied this stuff with incredible intensity; by the end of the two years you could read me any three verses from any part of the New Testament, and I could tell you the book and chapter from which it came.
No more! As the podcast host quoted from this and that scripture I realized I had lost the skill. And Church books are far from the only place I have atrophied. I wrote both of my undergraduate theses—some 70 pages in total—on ancient China. At that time I knew my each chapter of the Book of Lord Shang and each biography of the Shiji by heart. But I have not opened any of those texts for at least seven years. I discover, to my chagrin, that I do not know them like I used to.
To combat this problem I have implemented a new procedure into my reading. For books nuanced enough I fear I might forget their argument and important enough that I would regret doing so, I determined to write small handwritten summaries of what I read. I bought ten or so little notebooks like the one picture at the top of this post, labeled them by category (“Chinese Politics,” “Classical Greece,” “Military Theory,” and so forth) and have begun filling them up with chapter-by-chapter summaries of my own invention (for journal articles I have been typing 2-5 paragraph summaries. I have posted several of these to the Scholar’s Stage forum).
This takes a fair amount of time. For J.E. Lendon’s Song of Wrath—which I first reported as one of my ‘top ten books of the year’ back in 2016—my summary was some 30 pages long. I suspect if transferred to a word processor that would 8-10 pages in a normal, 12-pt single spaced font.
For other reading where argument or narrative is less important than individual facts, I have created a series of OneNote pages to keep track of items and evidence I might need later. My organization of this all is quite complicated; it is perhaps best described visually. These two screenshots should give you an idea of how it works:
There is a fairly clear trade-off with all this: by spending so much time taking notes on key books I am reducing the amount of time I might be spending reading new ones. This year has been an experiment to see whether or not this trade off works to my favor. I still deem it too early to tell, to be honest. But I hope that doing all this will both imprint what I read more firmly in my mind, and also provide me with an easy way to recall what starts to fade. Rereading my handwritten summary is much easier and less time intensive than rereading an entire book.
This partially explains why my reading has dropped by some 30 books this year. It does not explain all of it. Obviously my new job running the Center for Strategic Translation involves a lot more administrative work than I had in past positions. But the real difference the Center has made is in the kind of reading it demands. Research for articles involves delving deep into the China Leadership Monitor, Journal of Contemporary China, and think tank briefs. It also involves reading a large number of Chinese language articles on Qiushi or Ai Sixiang. When it does demand opening up a proper book, I often find myself reading select chapters or sections instead of the entire thing. So an increasingly large portion of my reading is no longer captured in book lists. I would need a list of all journal articles read in a year to represent most of my academic reading. I have never written such a list, but for 2023 I am tempted to start the habit.
The list that follows proceeds along the pattern set in years past. You can find my past entries here (2021) here (2020) here (2019) here (2018), here (2017), here (2016), here (2015), here (2014), and here (2013). As in those lists, I have bolded my favorite books of the year. As this list is about 30 books shorter than most years I have reduced this list of favorites down from ten to eight. If I did not finish the book cover to cover for the first time this year it cannot qualify for favorite status; repeats are great, but are not eligible for favorites of the year honors.
The books are listed in the approximate order in which I finished them, not started them. Indeed I started some several years ago. Finally, at the very end of this list is a second list less detailed than the first. This is a less detailed accounting of the many books which I read portions of in 2022, but did not have the time or desire to finish cover to cover.
Susan Faludi, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man (New York City: William Morrow, 1999).
Randall Kennedy, Say It Loud!: On Race, Law, History, and Culture (New York: Pantheon Books, 2021).
Daniel Gardner, trans., The Four Books: The Basic Teachings of the Later Confucian Tradition (New York: Hackett, 2007).
Chris Miller, Putinomics: Power and Money in Resurgent Russia (Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).
Spencer Weart, The Rise of Nuclear Fear (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2012).
Robert Timberg, The Nightingale’s Song (Detroit: The Free Press, 1996).
U.S. Marine Corps, Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1: Warfighting (Washington DC: Department of the Navy, 1997).
John Kelman, Among Famous Books (New York: Hodder and Stoughton, 1912),
Carter Malkasian, The American War in Afghanistan: A History, (Oxford University Press, 2021).
Jonathan House, Toward Combined Arms Warfare: A Survey of 20th-Century Tactics, Doctrine, and Organization (Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific: 2002)
John Podhoretz, Bush Country: How Dubya Became a Great President While Driving Liberals Insane (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004).
Fred Barnes, Rebel-in-Chief: Inside the Bold and Controversial Presidency of George W. Bush (New York: Random House, 2006).
Joseph Fewsmith, Rethinking Chinese Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021).
David Jordan, James Kiras, et. al., Understanding Modern Warfare, 2nd ed (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).
Elsa Kania and Ian Burns McClasin, The PLA’s Evolving Outlook on Urban Warfare: Learning, Training, and Implications for Taiwan (Washington DC: Institute For the Study of War, April 2022).
Department of the Army, Army Techniques Publication 7-100.3: Chinese Tactics (Washington DC: Department of the Army, 2021).
Michael Barnhart, Japan Prepares for Total War: The Search For Economic Security, 1919-1941 (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1991).
Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier, America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11—The Misunderstood Years Between the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the Start of the War on Terror (New York: PublicAffairs, 2008)
Chuck Klosterman, The Nineties: A Book (New York: Penguin, 2022).
William Ian Miller, The Mystery of Courage (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000).
Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (New York: Macmillan and Co., 1922).
American Red Cross, First Aid, CPR, and AED Participants Manual (2014).
Richard Nephew, The Art of Sanctions: The View From the Field (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017).
J.C. Wylie, Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control (Annapolis: Naval University Press, 2014).
Thomas Schelling, Arms and Influence, rev. ed.(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).
Theda Skopcal, Diminished Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret, rev. ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989).
Ralph Sawyer, trans. The Art of War in Seven Military Classics of Ancient China (New York: Basic Books, 2007).
L. Michael Allsep Jr., “New Forms for Dominance: How a Corporate Lawyer Created the American Military Establishment,” PhD Thesis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2008.
Joseph Torigian, Prestige, Manipulation, and Coercion: Elite Power Struggles in the Soviet Union and China after Stalin and Mao (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022).
Robert Frost, Robert Frost’s Poems, ed. Louis Untermeyer (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002).
Gary Greenberg, Be Prepared: A Practical Handbook New Dads (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004).
Paul Rahe, The Spartan Regime: Its Character, Origins and Grand Strategy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).
J.E. London, Song of Wrath: The Peloponnesian War Begins (New York: Basic Books, 2014).
Richard Baum, China Watcher: Memoir of a Peking Tom (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).
Clifford Owen, The Humanity of Thucydides (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997).
Office of Secretary of Defense, 2022 Report on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China (Washington: Department of Defense, 2022).
Mykhaylo Zabrodskyi et al., “Preliminary Lessons in Conventional Warfighting from Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine: February–July 2022,” Rusi Special Report (London: Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, November 2022),
Paul Rahe, Republics Ancient and Modern, vol I: The Ancien Regime in Classical Greece (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994).
Robert Strassler, ed., The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996).
J.E. London, Song of Wrath: The Peloponnesian War Begins (New York: Basic Books, 2014). [Yes, I read this twice].
John Fitzgerald, Cadre Country: How China Became the Chinese Communist Party (Sydney: NewSouth, 2022).
Aeschylus, The Persians in Aeschylus I, edited by David Green, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
BOOKS READ, BUT NOT FINISHED
Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life; The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self; Why We Are Restless; The Essence of Decision; Administrative Behavior; Rebooting Clausewitz; War’s Logic; MCDP 1.1 — Strategy; MCDP 1.4 — Competition; Strategy of Conflict; Evolution of Nuclear Strategy; Mr. Putin; Economic Sanctions Reconsidered; Know Your Enemy; The Arab Predicament: Arab Political Thought and Practice Since 1967; Governing the World; Washington; Blood, Metal, and Dust; Directorate S; Our Man; Dead Certain; Decision Points; Known Uknowns; No Higher Honor; Duty; Tough Love; Education of an Idealist; The World As It Is; Promised Land; Creating the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations of 1867–1914 and Their Lasting Impact; Transforming the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations and Their Consequences; Uncivil Society; A Dictionary of Marxist Thought; Chinese History: A New Manual; Glossary of Chinese Political Terms; Historical Dictionary of the Communist Party of China; China’s Political System; The Politics of China; China’s Governing Party Paradigm; China’s Quest; 总体国家安全观学习纲; Governance of China, vol I, II, III, & IV; 邓小平文选vol 2, 3; Selected Works of Jiang Zemin, vol I; Spies and Lies; Burying Mao; Innovate to Dominate; China’s Vision for a New World Order; The Long Game; Beyond Tiananmen; Foundations of Neuroscience; Enigma of Reason; Nemesis: Alcibiades and the Fall of Athens; The Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace; New History of the Peloponnesian War; The City and Man; Concepts of Order and the History of the Peloponnesian War; Peace of Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition; School of History; Republics Ancient and Modern, vol II; Meditations; The Protestant Establishment; Special Providence: American and the World; Empires Without Imperialists; Imperial Designs; How To Teach Your Children Shakespeare; Chinese Through Poetry; Everlasting Empire; Saving the World; A History of Chinese Political Thought; Spring and Autumn Annals of Master Yan; Xunzi.