Books I read in 2022

BookWyrm says I’ve read about 6,500 pages this year (which probably includes a bunch of appendices and end notes that I didn’t actually read, but I’ll still take it). I feel like a very slow reader compared to some of my more literary friends, so making it through 20 books (including a couple of novellas and essay collections) feels like an accomplishment. Especially considering all of the other books I’ve started and set aside, or skimmed with the intention of returning to, or am still chipping away at when the mood hits, of which there are probably at least another dozen. I’m a very inconsistent reader, is what I’m getting at.

Which means the books I actually finish tend to be ones I’m genuinely enjoying—and that makes ranking into a pretty arbitrary task. So instead, just assume that if the description seems like something you’d be interested in, it’s probably worth the time investment. Keeping in mind my reading tastes can tend towards the dry and semi-academic.

I still need to do a better job of diversifying my reading. Of the 19 authors below, nine are women or people of colour, which means more than half are neither of those. Something to work on in the new year (and most of the books on my immediate to-read list will help with that, at least).

Books I actually finished this year:

TitleAuthorAbout
Being PeaceThich Nhat HanhA guide to Buddhist thought, rooted in empathy and kindness.
Ducks: Two Years in the Oil SandsKate BeatonAn unflinching graphic novel documenting Beaton’s time working in the oil sands—darker and heavier than I was expecting from Beaton, but the subject matter merits it.
In Praise of PathsTorbjørn EkelundMore a memoir than the book on walking that I was expecting, but still fairly enjoyable.
The Ministry for the FutureKim Stanley RobinsonFor a writer who’s often put at the forefront of optimistic sci-fi, Robinson’s near-future look at how humanity might navigate climate change still feels mighty bleak. I guess we’re at the point where “making it through will be incredibly difficult but not completely impossible” counts as optimism.
Moon of the Crusted SnowWaubgeshig RiceOne of two authors I had a chance to interview at Wordfest. Apocalyptic fiction from an Indigenous perspective, with the resilience and practicality that comes from having survived other cultural apocalypses already.
My View of the WorldErwin SchrödingerViews on the nature of self, connectedness, and reality. Yes, the cat in a box guy. No, that isn’t in this book.
New Dark AgeJames BridleHow our technology and culture are undermining our ability to understand the world, and what we can potentially do about it.
SSOTBMELionel Snell/Ramsey DukesThe most esoteric book on this list, but a very thought-provoking one on four systems for navigating the world: magic, science, religion, and art.
Strength to LoveMartin Luther King JrAdapted from King’s sermons, so more overtly Christian than most of what I read, but it seemed overdue to try to get a better sense of his actual thinking vs the sanitized hand-me-down version in popular culture.
The Dawn of Everything: A New History of HumanityDavid Graeber, David WengrowA massive book that aims to redefine how we view human pre-history, in the hopes that will change how we can imagine the future.
The Great God PanArthur MachenOne of the earliest “weird fiction” novellas. Still full of eerie atmosphere, but its ideas have been borrowed so many times that it’s tricky to see it with fresh eyes.
The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western WorldIain McGilchristAnother of those “reframing human history and experience” books, this time through the lens of the brain’s two hemispheres, in a much more nuanced manner than the usual pop-sci “left vs right brain” way. McGilchrist is impressively well-read in (Western) history, art, and philosophy, to an extent that the book suffers a bit from his thoroughness, but it’s argument is a profound one.
The Midnight BargainCL PolkThe other Wordfest selection, a fun, fast-paced fantasy romance with a vividly imagined world and a clever central metaphor.
The Taiga SyndromeCristina Rivera GarzaA poetic, dream-like detective story with an excellent sense of nature and place. Quick but cryptic, and nearly a year after reading it I remember the mood more than any of the particulars.
The Three Body ProblemCixin LiuLiu has a skill for explaining interesting concepts, but so far I’ve found his storytelling a bit stiff, which made the cynicism of Three Body Problem harder to take. I’m glad to have read it, but not sure I’ll follow up with the sequels.
There Are Places in the World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness : And Other Thoughts on Physics, Philosophy and the WorldCarlo RovelliSome wonderful moments, and a fantastic title, but these short essays on a range of topics don’t quite have the impact of Rovelli’s more focused works—which are some of the most approachable and thoughtful explanations of quantum physics that I’ve ever read.
Transcendence: How Humans Evolved Through Fire, Language, Beauty, and TimeGaia VinceAnother way of contextualizing human history, this time by looking at four key technologies—fire, language, beauty, and time. Optimistic and thought-provoking, and the only book I’ve read that encourages humanity to act more like a slime mold.
Ways of BeingJames BridleAn attempt to find a more generous definition of “intelligence”, one that goes beyond “the thing that humans do” to encompass the perception and cognition of the natural (“more-than-human”) world. I think Bridle and I have been reading a lot of the same authors lately, as a lot of the anecdotes felt quite familiar. Still, I appreciated their interpretations, even if I didn’t always agree with them.
Web of MeaningJeremy LentThematic echoes with Bridle’s Ways of Being and McGilchrist’s Master and His Emissary, in that all three want to rebalance the analytical, fragmented, computational mentality of modern Western thought with other, more holistic ways of knowing. Lent provides a quick gloss of a lot of philosophies, not always convincingly, but it’d make for a good jumping-off point for a lot of further reading.
When Things Fall ApartPema ChodronApplying Buddhist teaching to develop resilience and compassion. An excellent companion to Thich Nhat Hanh’s Being Peace, with slightly more focus on personal well-being. Not sugar-coating the nature of reality (the title is when, not if), but making acceptance a little easier.

Transcendence: How Humans Evolved Through Fire, Language, Beauty, and Time

(I’m trying to get in the habit of distilling some of the key concepts from the books I read, instead of just letting them wash over me before moving onto the next. I’m pushing 40, my memory isn’t what it used to be, and the act of summarizing is still one of the best ways for me to internalize a lesson.)

In trying to pin down the traits that have helped humanity thrive over our 35,000 post-Ice Age years, Gaia Vince lists four key technologies: Fire, Language, Beauty and Time. Really, though, she’s listing four aspects of a single technology. While I never would have thought to connect them in this way, Vince makes a compelling case that those four ideas, broadly defined, are all ways of offloading the work of evolutionary adaptation to external energy sources:

When humans began deliberately accessing resources of energy beyond their own muscle power, they transcended the realm of biological life and entered a new state of being.

In this reading, fire takes on many roles that would otherwise have to be done by the body: cooking food is a sort of pre-digestion, making it easier for our stomachs to break down tough meats and vegetables; it wards off predators overnight, allowing for more rest; it alters landscapes, creating grasslands that are more favourable to the endurance hunting techniques humans favour and making things more difficult for the other predators we compete with. The list goes on, but the commonality is that instead of relying on the energy we’re able to create with our own bodies, we outsource those energy needs to transcend our physical limitations.

Of course, that consumptive outsourcing has gotten us into all kinds of trouble over the millenia, and is at the root of most of our current environmental and cultural issues. There’s no denying that it has let us accomplish far more than we ever could have with our bodies alone.

Vince’s list of technologies gets more abstract as it goes, which is appropriate given that abstraction is such a seemingly unique human trait. Language offloads the energy requirements of teaching, allows for complex thoughts, and seems to structure how we percieve the world to such an extent that multilingual people will give different answers to questions of preference or opinion depending what language they are speaking at the time. It also allows for a “cumulative culture,” where knowledge gained by one person and one generation can be built on by the next, which is the key to the exponential growth of our technological sophistication.

Beauty, in Vince’s telling, is a tool for binding us as cooperative societies, promoting trade, specialization, and community. Time is the most tenuous of the topics, allowing for a conception of a future that led to multi-generational mega-projects and monoliths, and eventually to the predictive systems of science. It also moved us out of touch with our own natural bodily cycles as we increasingly defined reality and dictated behaviour through more objective, external measurements of time.

Humanity isn’t particularly well adapted to most of the environments we inhabit—at least not physically. Instead, we have a “developing bath” of culture, environment, and genetics, all of which influence each other, and which allow us to adapt to new situations at a pace that genetic evolution alone could never manage. As Vince says,

Local knowledge is indispensable because of an evolutionary trade-off, in which our species gave up innate adaptation to an ancestral habitat in return for the culturally adaptive versatility to survive any environment.

In her conclusion, Vince makes the argument that humanity is on the verge of transcending again, into a superorganism she calls Homo omnis, or Homni. Comparing humanity to a slime mold isn’t immediately flattering, but it’s an interesting thought; the mold is a collection of individual organisms that can, in times of stress, act as if it is one larger organism, capable of things that the individual units never could.

The book’s ending is a hopeful one, focusing on humanity’s collective triumphs while still nodding towards the (largely self-created) challenges we face. Homni seems a step too far for me, mostly because recent years have challenged my belief in our potential for collective action. But maybe that’s just me focusing too much on the short term, unable to pull back and see our deep history, or project into our deep future. I hope there’s at least some truth to it, that the pattern of transcending our limitations continues. Because Vince is right; our potential is tremendous.