I like to look back at the end of the year and see what books I read over the previous 12 months. Did I read a book that made me think about the world differently? Yes.
Did I find a great, serious work that spoke to me? Yes. Did I read a book that was just fun? You betcha. Did I read a dumb book that was a waste of time? I started one.
If you’re reading my column, I’m willing to bet you’re a reader, too. So, by way of sharing ideas on what to read next, here are my favorites of 2023, the favorites at Anne Arundel County Public Library, and some top sellers at a cute book shop in Annapolis, Old Fox Books.
The book that changed me the most was actually a mistake. My son’s fiancee recommended “Why Fish Don’t Exist,” a 2020 work by RadioLab cohost Lulu Miller, as something she found compelling.
When I started reading Miller’s autobiographical approach to understanding 19th-century taxonomist David Starr Jordan, I became very worried for the new member of my family. Miller began cutting herself as a high school student and attempted suicide.
I asked my wife if we should approach my future daughter-in-law and ask about her state of mind. Turns out she had told me she found the title compelling but hadn’t read it. I had just misunderstood what she said.
But that didn’t make the book any less brilliant. Jordan is a highly controversial figure credited with identifying nearly a fifth of all fish, except his work may have been mostly a — you guessed it — misunderstanding of what he was cataloging. Added to this is his suspicious role in the 1905 death of Jane Stanford, who founded Stanford University with her husband.
Miller’s exploration of Jordan’s life and work is told through her own personal awakening to who and what he was, an awakening that helps her understand herself as much as she can Jordan.
The one work of serious fiction that stuck in my mind was “Demon Copperhead” by Barbara Kingsolver. She was born in Annapolis, so I like that, but lives in Appalachia. I went to college there, so I like that, too. This 2022 novel won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year.
She transposes the story of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield to the mountains of Southwest Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. She captures life in this forgotten corner of America vividly through the life of Damon Fields. This is his story, from birth to a teenage mother with substance abuse woes, through a heartbreaking childhood, a moment of high school glory, and into the OxyContin addiction that decimated the region.
It is every bit the equal of Dickens’ greatest work, a story led by a fully formed narrator and surrounded by rich characters in a setting that was familiar to me, but maybe new to you.
For fun, I read science fiction and fantasy. What can I say? I started a life of voracious reading in the ’70s, when “The Lord of the Rings” and “Dune” were what all my friends were talking about.
For the last few years, I’ve been gobbling up new installments in the “The Murderbot Diaries” by Martha Wells. The hero, who calls himself Murderbot, is a construct, a mix of tech and lab-grown human, enslaved to an unnamed security company in the far-flung reaches of corporate-controlled human space.
SecUnit, what everyone else calls him, develops a personality after being involved in the massacre of a mining outpost. He hacks his governor module and goes rogue, just not in the way everyone expects half-human-half-robots to behave if set free.
I know, it sounds nuts. Most of the works are novellas, fewer than 200 pages and quick reading. The 2023 full-length addition is “System Collapse,” but I’d recommend starting at the beginning with the 2017 novella “All Systems Red.”
To find out what others are reading, I asked the folks at Anne Arundel County Public Libraries for a list of the most popular books. They broke it down by three categories.
“Lessons in Chemistry” was the most frequently checked-out adult nonfiction title in 2023. Bonnie Garmus’ 2022 novel follows the career of Elizabeth Zott, who is pursuing her dream of being a chemist in a very male-dominated 1950s America.
Her path takes her to the role of a television cooking show host in an era when local stations did a lot of their own programming. If you’ve seen the Netflix adaptation starring Brie Larson, the book is worth checking out for the differences in plot and character — including the ending. Both are stories about power.
In adult nonfiction, “Spare” was the top title of the year, a memoir by Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex, ghostwritten by a former journalist, J. R. Moehringer, and released in January. It’s been in the news a lot and topped several bestseller lists for months, helping feed America’s obsession with the royal family we thought we ditched two centuries ago.
The final category from the library was young adult fiction, where “The Summer I Turned Pretty” by Jenny Han was the most popular title. The 2009 book is the first in a trilogy, and the subsequent titles — “It’s Not Summer Without You” and “We’ll Always Have Summer” — also made the library’s top 10 list.
The first book follows Belly, a 16-year-old spending the summer at Cousins Beach with her mother, brother, and her mother’s best friend’s family. Like all the books, it is a coming-of-age story that explores love, friendship, and growing up.
Over at Old Fox Books & Coffee House on Maryland Avenue, co-owner Jinny Amundson said “The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder” by David Grann has been very popular. Released in April, it is a nonfiction account of the anarchy that followed the 1741 wreck of the HMS Wager, a square-rigged Royal Navy ship.
Another trend at Old Fox is the reemergence of slice of life Fantasy novels, like the 2023 “Bookshops & Bonedust” by Travis Baldree. A prequel to last year’s “Legends & Lattes,” the book is about an orc injured in battle and dumped in a quiet town with a bookshop to recuperate.
Perhaps unique to Old Fox is the status of bestseller bestowed on George Washington’s “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior.” It contains 100 rules that Washington copied out from manners guides of his day, picking out his ideas about how to dress, walk and eat in public.
Hopefully, you got some new books for the holidays, maybe even an e-reader or tablet.
I’ve already got some books lined up for 2024. Can’t wait to get started.