Happy New Year! For the past few years I have compiled lists of the books that I read in the previous year. This post consists of a list of the books that I read in 2022, along with some thoughts I have on each. I’ve divided the list into fiction and non-fiction, since the two might appeal to somewhat different audiences. Within each group I have somewhat maintained the chronological order within which each book was read. If while reading this, any books come to mind that you think I’d like to read in the coming year, please share in the comments, as I’d love to learn about them.
The Invention of Morel — Adolfo Casares
The first book I read in 2022 was quite a surprise. The Invention of Morel is a little novella in the spirit of Borges. What starts as a seemingly simple island adventure novel takes turns into stranger and stranger territory. Eventually the nature of perception and reality start to come into question (as they do in all great psychological works). I won’t spoil anything, but it is a genius construction, and I am disappointed it isn’t as well known in the English speaking world.
The Colossus of Maroussi — Henry Miller
I always appreciated Henry Miller, but never truly loved him until reading this book. While his Tropic of Cancer is filled with beautiful passages set amid various forms of suffering or degeneration, Maroussi is a love letter to the possibility of the human spirit. Doubling as a quasi-travelogue, it is a fictionalized account of the year Miller spent in Greece before the second world war. After reading the book I was so moved as to resolve to travel to Greece at the next possible opportunity, which hopefully will be sometime in the coming year.
Rules of Civility — Amor Towles
I had heard a number of good things about contemporary novelist Amor Towles over the years, so decided to finally give one of his books a try. I always enjoyed the works of Fitzgerald, and I picked up Rules of Civility because it seemed to be trying to capture that same sense of early 20th century energy and possibility. Unfortunately, the book was a bit of a disappointment. Unlike Fitzgerald’s characters which came from experience and have a sense of reality, Towles’ inhabitants of New York city all seem to be pretending to be from the 1930s. The illusion never stuck for me.
Perfume — Patrick Suskind
After Rules of Civility I wanted something a little less… civil. Suskind’s novel of scent and murder more than met my desires. The story has a relatively straightforward premise: what if someone was born with a superhuman sense of smell? From this beginning it weaves a tale which is both a kind of thriller at the surface, as well as a philosophical novel at a deeper level. Highly rewarding to both the lower and higher sensibilities.
Chess Story — Stefan Zweig
Speaking of the higher sensibilities, Zweig is a master of the psychological novel, and his novella Chess Story is the perfect encapsulation of his masterful control of the craft. The story on its surface is about two experts of the game of chess, but each could not have arrived at that skill from a more different direction. I read this book in a single sitting in Central Park this summer, turning each page faster and faster as I barreled towards the ending. The conclusion stuck with me much longer than that lone afternoon in the park.
Demian — Herman Hesse
Hesse was one of the first authors which I could say unreservedly that I loved. In order to savor him, I only read one book of his every few years. It has been a while since the last (The Glass Bead Game), so I picked this one up and read it during a summer trip to LA. My love for Hesse stems from the fact that he is a mystic as much as he is a writer. Demian is also his most autobiographical novel, and in reading it I recognized a great many subtle moments of magic during childhood and early adulthood that are so easy to pass over in one’s memory as we approach adulthood and beyond. To read this book is to reinhabit those moments, and the unique affective dimensions which they unlock.
The Memory Police — Yoko Ogawa
I had known about The Memory Police for many years, and had even had friends recommend it to me. It wasn’t until I had three recommendations from different people (the magic number) that I finally decided to take the plunge. The novel tells the story of a quiet dystopia in which collective memories are slowly (and seemingly magically) taken away from the inhabitants of an island. For the few individuals who seem to keep their memories, there are the titular police to deal with them. This is a novel with a line of melancholy that runs through it. It was beautifully written, but I was a little let down by the ending, which I won’t spoil here.
Slow Days, Fast Company — Eve Babitz
I had picked up this collection of short stories during my second trip to LA this year. Being a novel all about southern california (and LA in particular) it seemed only fitting. During this trip I was accompanied by my partner, who read most of them to me during our six hour drive back to San Francisco. This seemed like an especially desirable way to enjoy the text, and Eve’s voice is so strong in each that it practically feels as if one is simply being told stories by a friend. Unlike Rules of Civility which created a false 1930s New York, the 1960s Los Angeles of Babitz is as real as it could possibly be.
White Noise — Don DeLillo
The final fiction book I read this year was motivated by a friend. He was reading it in anticipation of the upcoming film. I decided to read along as well. I had always known that DeLillo is considered one of the greats of late 20th century fiction, and now I know why. Almost every page of this book is filled with either beautiful prose, hilarious prose, or both. All the narcissisms and paranoias of modern America are reflected back in the book with a biting satire. Unfortunately after seeing the film adaptation last night, I can’t say the same for it. If you have a choice between the two, pick the novel.
The Mind Illuminated — John Yates
A recurrent theme for my 2022 non-fiction reading was texts on spirituality or meditation. This started off with The Mind Illuminated, which is an exceedingly comprehensive text on meditation practice. Yates walks the reader from basic and beginner meditation practices all the way to the Jhanas and deeper practices. Throughout the text he also intersperses contemporary cognitive science descriptions of which might be going on in the brain that corresponds to various stages of practice. This is especially helpful for anyone with a more scientifically oriented mindset, as it helps to ground the instructions in more systematic language.
Right Concentration — Leigh Brasington
After becoming more interested in Jhana meditation practice from the descriptions found in Yate’s book, I picked up this text exclusively on the topic by meditation teacher Brasington. The author walks through each of the eight Jhanas, providing both the original instructions found in the Buddhist sutras, as well as his own commentary. I found the text helpful as a single concise resource, for either active meditators looking to explore Jhana practice, or even for those with purely an academic interest. I am still very early in my own Jhana practice, but I found the instructions in the book helpful for starting to make progress.
Experience and Philosophy — Franklin Merrell-Wolff
This book was recommended to me by a friend after a discussion we had about enlightenment experiences. Merrell-Wolff was an early 20th century mathematician who had just received an appointment as a professor at Stanford university, and a promising career lay ahead of him. He decided to instead give it up and devote himself to a spiritual practice. This proved fruitful to him, as the text of the book conveys a series of diary entries written over the course of a year where he describes in great and personal detail his experience with various altered states of consciousness. These culminate in what he describes as an enlightenment experience. I of course am in no position to judge the validity of his claims, but it is a fascinating read nonetheless.
Sacred Knowledge — William Richards
On the topic of altered states of consciousness, Richard’s Sacred Knowledge provides a primer into the relationship between contemporary psychedelic research and traditional religious experiences. Being a psychologist at Johns Hopkins, he provides firsthand knowledge and perspective on the current renaissance in psychedelics research. If you are familiar with the work that has been done at Johns Hopkins over the past decade, this may be a bit redundant, but if not, it is a great introduction.
Seeing That Frees — Rob Burbea
Rounding out the theme of spiritual practice, Burbea’s Seeing That Frees is a truly wonderful text on the Buddhist concept of Emptiness. This is often a teaching which is presented very awkwardly, since in order to properly understand it, one must more or less understand all of buddhist ontology and epistemology. Burbea chooses to follow a path of explaining very coarse forms of emptiness (such as obvious fictions like the value of money) and then working to increasingly subtle forms, until the emptiness of all phenomenal experience is introduced. This book is an incredibly valuable resource that I am sure I will come back to again and again.
Anti-Oedipus — Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari
I didn’t read this book alone. I tried once in 2015 and failed. I read it in a group, and recommend anyone else interested to do the same. Anti-Oedipus is probably the most difficult text I have ever read, but it is also one of the most rewarding. Written in the late 1960s by two French philosophers, the text is a hallmark of postmodern thought, and likewise a cornerstone of leftist-anarchist thinking. When I try to describe it now, I often tell people that it is a high-dimensional object which you can only talk about by projecting it onto a lower-dimensional manifold. At one angle it is a critique of psychoanalysis, at another it is a history of human civilization, at another it is a critique of capitalism, at an accelerationist manifesto, at another it is a work of literary analysis like no other. Deleuze has said that ideas are like bricks. The book contains enough of them to cover the earth.
Intro to Schizoanalysis — Eugene Holland
In order to make it through a dense and obscure text like Anti-Oedipus, I benefited not only from the help of my friends, but also from the excellent commentary text by Holland. This work walks through the four main chapters of Anti-Oedipus and provides a kind of summary of each. On the one hand this is immensely helpful, on the other it can be a bit of a crutch. As I said above, Anti-Oedipus is a high-dimensional object. Any attempt to “summarize” it naturally involves limiting its scope. Holland provides a reasonable reading of the book, but there are ultimately many other equally valid ones.
The Disappearance of Rituals — Byung-Chul Han
Byung-Chul Han is a philosopher whose work I had wanted to read for a while. The Disappearance is the first text of his I read. Despite being a small volume, the book is packed with insight and cultural criticism. The underlying theme of each of the short chapters is that contemporary society has lost many of the rituals which supported the psychological health and cohesion of the past. Rather than simply providing the conservative take (old is good, new is bad), Han acknowledges all that we have gained from the breakdown of old rituals. The question we face now as a society though is how best to develop new ones which can serve us going forward? He doesn’t necessarily provide answers, but he identifies the issue quite nicely.
Hyperobjects — Timothy Morton
The first book of philosophy I ever loved was Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s The Phenomenology of Perception. The phenomenological perspective is one that I take very seriously, and see it as the natural outcome of the long lines of thought produced by both eastern and western philosophy. Standing in intentional contrast to this tradition is Object Oriented Ontology (OOO), which attempts to throw all this out, and suggest that we can, after all (after all the proofs over centuries from thinkers as diverse as Kant and Nagarjuna) get directly at the reality “out there.” I wasn’t convinced before reading Hyperobjects that this was possible, and I am especially not convinced now. The irony of a text like this is that it actually demonstrates just how much even our best attempts to avoid subject-oriented thinking lead us right back to ourselves every single time.
The Right to Sex — Amai Srinivasan
This was a nice change of pace. After multiple glowing recommendations from friends, I decided to check out this collection of works by the philosopher Srinivasan. The connecting theme of the work is that each essay is about or relating to contemporary state of sex and gender. Srinivasan is indeed a great thinker, one who has the increasingly rare ability to speak deeply about a subject without ending up providing proscriptive declarations which erase the true ambiguity which any true problem naturally contains. Another way of saying this is that there are no easy answers, and Srinivasan’s text is wise enough to not provide any.
Being You — Anil Seth
I spent much of 2022 (and 2021) studying consciousness, so it was only fitting that I end the year with a book on the subject. Seth is one of the foremost consciousness researchers, and this text provides a very nice overview of various contemporary theories and approaches. I am particularly sympathetic to the Active Inference line of work, and this book provides an exceedingly clear introduction to it, as well as to the related Free Energy Principle. Like all similar texts, it has to do some sleight of hand in order to relate these things back to consciousness per-se, but it is an informative and entertaining read nonetheless.
I may end up spending most of 2023 reading a single “book”… wish me luck!