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The Books I Most Enjoyed Reading in 2023

Politics on the Edge: A Memoir from Within by Rory Stewart

My very favourite book of 2023 was this autobiography by former Minister and one-time candidate for Conservative Party leader Rory Stewart. I almost didn’t read it at all, as I was feeling a little jaded with politics at the time and considering a more light-hearted Audible purchase. I’m glad I plumped for this though, and it did offer some light relief in the form of Stewart’s dodgy accents when recounting conversations with fellow politicians of all parties and nationalities.

There is no flab in this book, it ploughs on at quite a fast pace through Stewart’s political career, from becoming MP for Penrith and the Border in 2010 through to his run for leader of the Conservative Party (and Prime Minister) less than a decade later. In between he is thrust with no notice into a variety of ministerial positions for which he has varying degrees of suitability and aptitude. In my 2019 books blog post I recommended the drier Why We Get the Wrong Politicians by Isabel Hardman, in which she outlined why the failings of our ministerial system lead to roles being filled by individuals who are unsuited to them. Stewart’s book brings colourful examples of that theory, but to his credit he makes efforts to master the briefs he is given and make a practical difference to the country. Others from his party, particularly our recent Prime Ministers, are not always painted in a positive light, and he gives many interesting insights into their personalities.

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin

In 2023 I rediscovered the pleasure of playing computer games, eighteen years after writing a fairly grumpy blog post in which I declared that “The whole concept seemed utterly pointless, a real waste of time“. A spring break between contracts coincided with the release of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, which I bought on a whim after stumbling across Keza MacDonald’s effusive five-star review in The Guardian. Since then I’ve spent 167 hours playing that wonderful game, and have also relaxed by playing Creaks on Apple Arcade and Return to Monkey Island (32 years after playing the original on the Amiga).

It was with this background that I that I read Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow towards the end of the year. It’s a novel set over several decades about two friends who collaborate to develop and publish increasingly epic computer games whilst navigating romances, friendship, fallouts, family, health challenges, and other life-changing events. It’s very touching and heartfelt, and caused me to think about the value of play in our lives, and of maintaining friendships over extended periods.

Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story by Bono

Faced with a “to-read” list that now numbers into the seventies, I made a point of actively abandoning some books that I was not enjoying during 2023, rather than struggling through them to the bitter end. As my wife Jocelyn is fond of reminding me, life is too short to read books that you’re not enjoying. Cognisant of my maturing years and the theories of Optimal Stopping, I’ve also tended to stick to favourite genres this year rather than trying something new.

So, given that I enjoy biographies, and also enjoy books on rock music, Bono’s autobiography was always destined to be high on my list of favourite reads for the year. It covers U2’s lengthy career from their early schooldays in Dublin through to being the biggest band in the world, releasing classic zeitgeist-defining records including The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby. There is an impressive cast of supporting characters mentioned in the many anecdotes in this book, including Pope John Paul II, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Frank Sinatra, and countless others. At one point Mikhail Gorbachev pops in for tea on a Sunday afternoon.

A Visit from the Goon Squad and The Candy House by Jennifer Egan

These two books were released in 2010 and 2022 respectively, and feature interrelated stories with a large set of characters, set over multiple decades. Many of the central characters work in the rock music industry, and there are themes here of friendship, aging, and loss of innocence. The first book (which won a Pulitzer Prize) is probably the better one, but the audiobook of the second has better production qualities, with each POV character being narrated by a different professional voice artist. The second book also bursts with inspired ideas about where the ubiquity of social media might take us as a society.

One Two Three Four: The Beatles In Time by Craig Brown

A huge book comprised of many short and easily-digestible chapters that occupied much of my summer vacation. Craig Brown somehow takes a subject, The Beatles, about whom so very much has been written over the last sixty years and offers fresh perspectives and anecdotes. I laughed a lot and found myself sharing passages with family and friends. Definitely one of the most enjoyable biographies I’ve ever read and, along with Revolution in the Head by Ian MacDonald, one of the best books about The Beatles.

The Nanny State Made Me: A Story of Britain and How to Save It and The Full English: A Journey in Search of a Country and its People by Stuart Maconie

Two books by DJ Stuart Maconie make my list of favourites this year. The Nanny State Made Me iterates through stages in Maconie’s life, highlighting how at each point the welfare state in the UK provided him with the necessary support to become a useful and productive member of society. As with most Maconie books the politics is interspersed with an abundance of cultural references, and this helped to boost my “to watch”/”to listen” lists.

In The Full English, Maconie retraces a journey through England originally taken by J.B.Priestley in his travelogue English Journey in 1934, comparing and contrasting how the nation has changed in the intervening decades. Despite acknowledging that there is much that needs improving in England, there is also a love and sentimentality for the nation in evidence here. I was surprised to learn that Maconie’s father used to work for the same now-defunct manufacturer that employed my own Dad, so felt quite connected to those passages. I was also amused to hear him, as a proud Lancastrian, extol the virtues of Ilkley and admit that he could conceive of living there.

The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green

In this series of essays adapted from his podcast, novelist John Green reviews and rates things as diverse as sunsets, Diet Dr Pepper, the song New Partner by Palace Music, the Indianapolis 500, Halley’s Comet and the QWERTY keyboard. Many of these pieces were written with the backdrop of the 2020-2021 COVID-19 pandemic, but the inevitable ensuing introspection does not result in morbidity, instead conveying hope and wonder at how miraculous the universe is. I give The Anthropocene Reviewed four stars.

White Noise by Don DeLillo

The oldest book on my list this year, White Noise was written in 1985. Some of the characters and events depicted seemed oddly familiar – maybe it’s deja vu, but I can’t preclude having read this book previously and forgotten having done so!

I enjoyed this more than Great Jones Street, also by DeLillo, which I read in 2019 but which didn’t make my annual blog post that year. It is written in the first person from the POV of the protagonist, a male middle-aged college professor in a sleepy American town who has developed the field of “Hitler Studies”. Despite being almost forty years old, it covers themes of consumer culture, academia and mortality which remain relevant.

The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music by Dave Grohl

Another rock autobiography, and a brilliant collection of stories. Dave Grohl comes across as a very humble and lucky individual who can’t quite believe his good fortune at being a driving force behind some of the most successful bands in the world. There is an ordinariness to Grohl’s tales that is quite striking when compared to Bono’s book. Extended passages and chapters are given over to (surprisingly entertaining) anecdotes about losing a wallet at a gas station, or shopping for toys with his daughters. Yes, there’s a cast of famous names – Paul McCartney pops round to play the piano – but it’s all so natural and down to earth that you can’t begrudge Grohl his good fortune.

Atonement by Ian McEwan

I knew nothing about the plot of this novel before I started reading it; I certainly hadn’t seen the 2007 movie adaptation. I don’t consider myself to generally be a fan of historical novels, preferring those set within my own lifetime. But I found this to have terrific pace and well-drawn characters, and devoured it over the course of a weekend in May.

A Philosophy of Software Design by John Ousterhout

Most of the tech books that I read in 2023 were focused on specific technologies, as I moved on from a much-loved five-year contract at NHS Digital and had to grok an unfamiliar tech stack. This delightful and relatively short book was one of the only tech-agnostic software books that I read, and I wish that it had been available to me much earlier in my career.

Ousterhout writes engagingly about complex software design topics, offering opinions and philosophies for an approach to development that can sometimes be at odds with that espoused in the better-known Clean Code by Robert Martin. I know that I won’t follow all of the advice given in this philosophy (I’ve never been a fan of code comments, for instance), but have taken to heart chapters on writing general purpose modules, and “different layer, different abstraction”.

As I write this I note that it is flagged on Amazon as being one of the “Most Gifted” books in the Software Design genre, and that doesn’t surprise me – it’s a book that I would like those who I collaborate with to have read and absorbed.

Why Is This Lying Bastard Lying To Me? Searching for the Truth on Political TV by Rob Burley

Rob Burley is a TV producer who has worked on and edited many of the top political shows on the BBC and ITV. In this entertaining and irreverent book he dissects what makes for a great political interview, and relives many memorable moments from Sunday morning political programmes, particularly covering recent years since the Brexit referendum.

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Copyright © Ian Fraser Nelson 2023