Favorite Books of 2023

Favorite Books of 2023

To look back on a year of reading is to be handed a clear mirror of your priorities and passions, of the questions that live in you and the reckonings that keep you up at night. While the literature of the present comprises only a tiny fraction of my own reading, here are a handful of books published this year that moved me with their tendrils of timelessness, with their questions and their consolations — selections neither exhaustive nor universal, as subjective as a shade of blue.

Art by Violeta Lópiz from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print, benefiting The New York Public Library.
THE HALF KNOWN LIFE

“The mind is its own place, and in it self can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n,” Milton wrote in his immortal Paradise Lost. With these human minds, arising from these material bodies, we keep trying to find heaven — to make heaven — in our myths and our mundanities, right here in the place where we are: in this beautiful and troubled world. We give it different names — eden, paradise, nirvana, poetry — but it springs from the selfsame longing: to dwell in beauty and freedom from suffering.

With soulful curiosity channeled in his ever-lyrical prose, Pico Iyer chronicles a lifetime of pilgrimages to some of Earth’s greatest shrines to that longing in The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise (public library).

Art by Gilbert James from a 1900 English edition of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyām.

He begins in Iran, replete with monuments to Omar Khayyām, who built “a paradise of words” with his poems while revolutionizing astronomy — a place of uncommon beauty and uncommon terror, with roots as deep as the history of the written word, and living branches as tangled as the most contradictory impulses of human nature:

After years of travel, I’d begun to wonder what kind of paradise can ever be found in a world of unceasing conflict — and whether the very search for it might not simply aggravate our differences. And the natural place to embark upon such an inquiry — should we discard the notion of heaven entirely? — seemed to be the culture that had given us both our word for paradise and some of our most soulful images of it.

In Jerusalem, he walks through the Damascus Gate to find himself in “something as irreducible as life.” He visits the Himalayas and North Korea. As he travels, he is reminded of the seventeen years he spent at a Benedictine monastery in the mountains of California — an experience that forever imprinted him with the voice of inner stillness and the awareness that presence is the fundamental portal to the sacred:

Days, sometimes weeks, in the silence had given me a taste of what lies on the far side of our thoughts. Who we become — cease to become — when we put all ideas and theories behind us. I went often through pages of Thomas Merton there, but they seemed to belong to the cacophony below the stillness; the golden pampas grass in front of me, the dry hills beyond, the fleecy clouds stealing up the hillside — not what I thought about them — were the truth.

He arrives at the oceanic idyll of Sri Lanka in the lull of ceasefire after twenty years of violent fighting between the separatists and the government, not long after a deadly tsunami devastated the island. Over and over, he finds himself contemplating the interplay of beauty and brutality, in nature and human nature, reading the solution to the riddle in the still stone countenances of the statues in a local temple:

The Buddhas… stared at me impassively. Onto the quiet faces in the sun I could project anything I needed. Our one task is to make friends with reality, I could imagine them whispering — which is to say, with impermanence and suffering and death; the unrest you feel will always have more to do with you than with what’s around you. In one celebrated story, the Buddha had come upon a group of picnickers who were enraged because they’d just been robbed. “Which,” he’d famously asked, “is more important? To find the robbers or to find yourself?”

Read more here.

ARCHIVES OF JOY

Joy is not a thing of the will, not subject to control and conquest. It comes when we least expect it, like a murmuration of starlings across the evening sky. It stays for as long as we are able to stay openhearted to the tender transience of life. Anaïs Nin knew this when she contemplated its elusive nature, and Beethoven knew it when he spent half a lifetime capturing it in an ode.

The secret pulse-beat of joy is what Jean-François Beauchemin explores in Archives of Joy: Reflections on Animals and the Nature of Being (public library) — an invitation to “a certain, forgotten way of seeing the world” and an exultation at “earthly life, with its duration so short it obliges us to surpass ourselves.”

In a passage Walt Whitman could have composed a century and a half ago, Beauchemin introduces himself:

I am simply a man who is always moved and amazed by the brevity of everything, and who strives to at least balance this brevity a little by way of the counterweights within my reach, be it joy, for instance, or otherwise the seeking of beauty.

Art by Matthew Forsythe from The Gold Leaf

Beauchemin begins his archive of joy with an encounter:

Every other day since the start of summer, an old deer with a grizzled gray snout has been wandering into my garden to dream away some of what little time he has left. The light around him pivots by a few degrees, arranging its photons as if to ready him for his passing into the beyond. As his body escapes him a little more each day, I think that he’s slowly coming around to a more abstract and somehow purer way of seeing the world. It’s as if his subconscious has fallen out of sync with him and the intricacies and intensity of his life in the forest. From the look in his eye, and the story of sorts that it seems to tell, one remarkably real thing emerges: joy. I know that joy.

It is an old joy he finds there, and an old touchstone at the boundary of the natural world and the numinous:

I have no theory to explain the sense of closeness and connection I have felt to deer… Perhaps I am so drawn to them because they defy all explanation. I am continually moved by these timid beings, steeped in wary, woodsy contemplation, graced with a playful spring in their step and a synchrony of memory. I am quite sure that their mind’s eye holds an everlasting, airy daydream of a big red sun with people whirling about in their finest new clothes and a cascade of colors, just like a Marc Chagall painting. Alas, I only have intermittent access to this metaphorical world. I try my best to stay awhile, but all I can manage are fleeting moments. The images in my memory and imagination are not terribly compatible with those I think I see swirling in the gaze of my elusive visitors. The wood-wormed doors, half-moored rowboats, and secret infernos of my mind will always be foreign to the concerns of these beautiful animals. Still, they and I walk in step, and at night we lift our gaze to the same stars.

Art by Virginia Frances Sterrett, Old French Fairy Tales, 1920
Century-old art by the adolescent Virginia Frances Sterrett. (Available as a print and stationery cards.)

Other beings figure centrally into Beauchemin’s invitation of joy. He roams the forest with his dog named Camus, rescues a coyote pup from drowning, sits daily with a neighbor’s grazing goat, administers first aid to a hummingbird that crashes into his window, holds vigil over a dying rabbit. Looking back on his life, he finds himself “a writer whose curious destiny is to cross paths with creatures abandoned, hurt, lame, or dying.” A generation after Henry Beston insisted that “we need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals [who are] gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear,” Beauchemin observes that, like us, animals “live a never wholly decipherable life — not as mystical as ours, but no less mysterious.”

Read more here.

THE RIGOR OF ANGELS

“This is a participatory universe… Observer-participancy gives rise to information,” the visionary physicist John Archibald Wheeler wrote a generation before philosopher Iain McGilchrist asserted that the way we pay attention — the supreme participancy of consciousness in the universe — “renders the world what it is.”

It may be that consciousness evolved not so much to let the universe comprehend itself, as poetically inclined astrophysicists are fond of saying, but to keep us from being overwhelmed by the totality of a universe which we, as living functions of it, can never fully comprehend; to keep us from being crushed by the weight of a reality as vast as space and as deep as time, a whole so absolute and simultaneous that a mind can only hold it in disjointed parts across discreet moments.

These are the immense and intimate questions William Egginton takes up in The Rigor of Angels: Borges, Heisenberg, Kant, and the Ultimate Nature of Reality (public library) — an ambitious effort to trace “the capillaries of coherence flowing from the particular to the universal,” part ode to those who have caught glimpses of that elemental coherence we call truth and part elegy for our destiny as creatures doomed to glimpses only, for we are particles of the totality we yearn to see whole as we go on seeing through our instruments and our theories not the universe but ourselves.

Art from Thomas Wright’s An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe, 1750. (Available as a print and coasters.)

Egginton traces the invisible threads of revelation between Zeno’s thought experiments and Kant’s cathedrals of logic, between Dante’s cosmogony and the discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation, between Plotinus and Heisenberg, in order to illuminate and celebrate how that collaborative tapestry of thought has shaped “our conceptions of beauty, science, and what we owe to each other in the brief time given to us in this universe.” At the center of the book is the recognition that what we know about how the universe works is not a reflection of absolute truth but of our sensemaking — something William Blake intimated in his koan of a lyric that “the Eye altering alters all.” Egginton pulls back the curtain of perception:

Is the saturated red of a Vermeer part of that ultimate reality? The soft fuzz of a peach’s skin? The exalted crescendo of a Beethoven symphony? If we can grasp that such powerful experiences require the active engagement of observers and listeners, is it not possible, likely even, that the other phenomena we encounter have a similar origin? When we do the opposite, we forget the role we have in creating our own reality.

Read more here.

EXCELLENT ADVICE FOR LIVING

“No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” Nietzsche wrote as he reckoned with what it takes to find yourself. And yet where would the world be if each generation didn’t plank its crossing with the life-tested wisdom of its elders? Often, that wisdom comes so simply worded as to appear trite — but it is the simplicity of a children’s book, or of a Zen parable: unvarnished elemental truth about what it means to be alive, hard-won and generously offered.

That is precisely what Kevin Kelly gathers in Excellent Advice for Living: Wisdom I Wish I’d Known Earlier (public library) — an herbarium of learnings that began as a list he composed on his 68th birthday for his own young-adult children, a list to which he kept adding with each lived year.

Kevin Kelly in his 70s. (Photograph: Christopher Michel)

Hovering between the practical and the poetic, his learnings are sometimes seemingly obvious reminders of what we know but habitually forget, sometimes pleasingly contrarian, always unselfconsciously sincere. What emerges is a shorthand manual for living with kindness, decency, and generosity of spirit.

Here are some I loved and shall try to live by.

In a fine complement to the Buddhist practice of deep listening, he offers:

Listening well is a superpower. While listening to someone you love keep asking them “Is there more?” until there is no more.

Affirming poet and philosopher David Whyte’s observation that “to forgive is to assume a larger identity than the person who was first hurt,” he reframes the object of forgiveness:

When you forgive others they may not notice but you will heal. Forgiveness is not something we do for others; it is a gift to ourselves.

[…]

Forgiveness is accepting the apology you will never get.

Inverting the equation and echoing Maimonedes’s wisdom on repentance and repair, he maps the noblest path to seeking forgiveness when you yourself have erred:

How to apologize: quickly, specifically, sincerely. Don’t ruin an apology with an excuse.

[…]

A proper apology consists of conveying the 3 Rs: regret (genuine empathy with the other) responsibility (not blaming someone else) and remedy (your willingness to fix it).

In consonance with George Saunders’s moving reflection on his greatest regret, Kelly urges:

Whenever you have a choice between being right or being kind be kind. No exceptions. Don’t confuse kindness with weakness.

In a kindred sentiment that would have pleased Simone Weil, who exhorts us across the epochs to “never react to an evil in such a way as to augment it,” he adds:

Anger is not the proper response to anger. When you see someone angry you are seeing their pain. Compassion is the proper response to anger.

Read more here.

HOW TO SAY GOODBYE

“Death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love,” Rilke wrote while ailing with leukemia. To comprehend the luckiness of death is to comprehend life itself. When a loved one is dying and we get to be by their side, it is a double luckiness — lucky that we got to have the love at all, and lucky, which is not everyone’s luck, that we get to say goodbye. Even so, accompanying a loved one as they exit life is one of the most difficult and demanding experiences you could have.

How to move through it is what my talented friend and sometime-collaborator Wendy MacNaughton explores in How to Say Goodbye (public library) — a tender illustrated field guide to being present with and for what Alice James called “the most supremely interesting moment in life,” drawing on Wendy’s time as artist-in-residence at the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco and her own profound experience at her beloved aunt’s deathbed.

Punctuating Wendy’s signature ink-and-watercolor illustrations of Zen Hospice residents and her soulful pencil sketches of her aunt are spare words relaying the wisdom of hospice caregivers: what to say, how to listen, how to show up, how to stay present with both the experience of the dying and your own.

The book’s beating heart is an invitation to grow comfortable with change, with uncertainty, with vulnerability, radiating a living affirmation of the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s insistence that “when you love someone, the best thing you can offer that person is your presence.”

If you don’t know what to say, start by saying that.

That’s very vulnerable.

So much falling away. The body falling apart.

There’s a lot going on in that conversation.

It’s current.

Right here.

Right now.

Neither of you knows what to do in this situation.

That opens things up.

In lovely symmetry to Zen Hospice Project founder Frank Ostaseski’s five invitations for the end of life, Wendy draws on what she learned from caregivers and distills the five most powerful things we can say to the loved one dying — “a framework for a conversation of love, respect, and closure,” rendered in words of great depth and great simplicity, like the language of children, for it is this realm of unselfconscious candor we return to at the end:

I forgive you.

Please forgive me.

Thank you.

I love you.

Goodbye.

Emanating from these tender pages is a reminder that death merely magnifies the fundamental fact of living: We are fragile motes of matter in the impartial hand of chance, beholden to entropy, haunted by loss, saved only by love.

LEANING TOWARD LIGHT

“Gardening is like poetry in that it is gratuitous, and also that it cannot be done on will alone,” the poet and passionate gardener May Sarton wrote as she contemplated the parallels between these two creative practices — parallels that have led centuries of beloved writers to reverence the garden. No wonder Emily Dickinson spent her life believing that “to be Flower, is profound Responsibility.” No wonder Virginia Woolf had her epiphany about what it means to be an artist in the garden.

The garden as a place of reverence and responsibility, a practice of ample creative and spiritual rewards, comes alive in Leaning toward Light: Poems for Gardens & the Hands that Tend Them (public library). Envisioned and edited by poet and gardener Tess Taylor, it is a blooming testament to the etymology of anthology — from the Greek anthos (flower) and legein (to gather): the gathering of flowers — rooted in her belief that “the garden poem is as ancient as literature itself.”

Dahlias by cyanotype artist Rosalind Hobley.

Punctuating some of the loveliest poetic voices of our time are a handful of classics — Keats’s ode to autumn, a yawp of wildness from Whitman’s Song of Myself, Lucille Clifton’s spare, stunning “cutting greens” — and a miniature modern counterpart to the vintage gem John Keats’s Porridge: Favorite Recipes of American Poets: garden-grown delicacies like Jane Hirshfield’s braised fava beans, Ashley M. Jones’s glazed carrots, and Ellen Bass’s melon and cucumber gazpacho with basil oil.

In the garden, the poets find consolation for grief, connection to the cosmic compost that made us, consecration of our finitude and of the infinite in us — for “the gardener digs in another time, without past or future, beginning or end… the Amen beyond the prayer.”

Mostly, they find vitality, find reassurance, find reasons for rejoicing in the aliveness of life.

Savor some of my favorite poems in it here.

NOTES ON COMPLEXITY

“This life of yours which you are living is not merely a piece of the entire existence, but is in a certain sense the whole,” quantum pioneer Erwin Schrödinger wrote as he bridged his young science with ancient Eastern philosophy to reckon with the ongoing mystery of what we are.

A century later — a century in the course of which we unraveled the double helix, detected the Higgs boson, decoded the human genome, heard a gravitational wave and saw a black hole for the first time, and discovered thousands of other possible worlds beyond our Solar System — the mystery has only deepened for us “atoms with consciousness,” capable of music and of murder. Each day, we eat food that becomes us, its molecules metabolized into our own as we move through the world with the illusion of a self. Each day, we live with the puzzlement of what makes us and our childhood self the “same” person, even though most of our cells and our dreams have been replaced. Each day, we find ourselves restless miniatures of a vast universe we are only just beginning to fathom.

In Notes on Complexity: A Scientific Theory of Connection, Consciousness, and Being (public library), the Buddhist scientist Neil Theise endeavors to bridge the mystery out there with the mystery of us, bringing together our three primary instruments of investigating reality — empirical science (with a focus on complexity theory), philosophy (with a focus on Western idealism), and metaphysics (with a focus on Buddhism, Vedanta, Kabbalah, and Saivism) — to paint a picture of the universe and all of its minutest parts “as nothing but a vast, self-organizing, complex system, the emergent properties of which are… everything.”

Art Marc Martin by from We Are Starlings

Theise defines the core scientific premise of his inquiry:

Complexity theory is the study of how complex systems manifest in the world… Complexity in this context refers to a class of patterns of interactions: open-ended, evolving, unpredictable, yet adaptive and self-sustaining… how life self-organizes from the substance of our universe, from interactions within the quantum foam to the formation of atoms and molecules, cells, human beings, social structures, ecosystems, and beyond.

[…]

Neither we nor our universe is machinelike. A machine doesn’t have the option to change its behavior if its environment changes or becomes overwhelming. Complex systems, including human bodies and human societies, can change their behaviors in the face of the unpredictable. That creativity is the essence of complexity.

A century after Schrödinger made his haunting assertion that “the over-all number of minds is just one,” Theise considers the ultimate reward of this lens on reality:

Complexity theory can foster an invaluable flexibility of perspectives and awaken us to our true, deep intimacy with the larger whole, so that we might return to what we once had: our birthright of being one with all.

Read more here.

THE ASKING

For half a century, Jane Hirshfield has been slaking the world’s soul on poems of perspective and consolation, fusing her Buddhist training, her passion for science, and her tenderness for all things living.

The Asking (public library) collects some of her best work, including such treasures as “Optimism,” “Today, Another Universe,” “The Weighing,” and “To Be a Person” — poems that achieve the most difficult and paradoxical of triumphs for a work of art: to remind us who and what we are, while at the same time furnishing what Iris Murdoch called “an occasion for unselfing.”

HOPE AND LOVE
by Jane Hirshfield

All winter
the blue heron
slept among the horses.
I do not know
the custom of herons,
do not know
if the solitary habit
is their way,
or if he listened for
some missing one —
not knowing even
that was what he did —
in the blowing
sounds in the dark,
I know that
hope is the hardest
love we carry.
He slept
with his long neck
folded, like a letter
put away.

Art by Isabelle Simler from The Blue Hour
THE EXPERIENCE MACHINE

Attention is less a lens on the world than a mirror for the mind. “My experience is what I agree to attend to,” William James wrote in his foundational treatise on attention in the final years of the nineteenth century. In the epoch since, we have discovered just what an “intentional, unapologetic discriminator” attention is, just how much it shapes our entire experience of reality. But we are only just beginning to discover that, far from a passive observer of the outside world, our attention is an active creator of it as the brain makes constant conscious and unconscious predictions of what it expects to find when it looks, then finds just that; we are only beginning to understand how right Thoreau was when, in James’s epoch, he observed that “we hear and apprehend only what we already half know.”

That is what cognitive philosopher Andy Clark explores in The Experience Machine: How Our Minds Predict and Shape Reality (public library) — an illuminating investigation of the human brain as a prediction machine that evolved to render reality as a composite of sensory input and prior expectation, replete with implications for neuroscience, psychology, medicine, mental health, neurodiversity, the relationship between the body and the self, and the way we live our lives.

René Magritte. The False Mirror. 1929. (Museum of Modern Art.)

Clark writes:

Contrary to the standard belief that our senses are a kind of passive window onto the world, what is emerging is a picture of an ever-active brain that is always striving to predict what the world might currently have to offer. Those predictions then structure and shape the whole of human experience, from the way we interpret a person’s facial expression, to our feelings of pain, to our plans for an outing to the cinema.

Nothing we do or experience — if the theory is on track — is untouched by our own expectations. Instead, there is a constant give-and-take in which what we experience reflects not just what the world is currently telling us, but what we — consciously or nonconsciously — were expecting it to be telling us. One consequence of this is that we are never simply seeing what’s “really there,” stripped bare of our own anticipations or insulated from our own past experiences. Instead, all human experience is part phantom — the product of deep-set predictions.

Because these predictions are informed by our past experience, reality is not how the present self parses the world but how the Russian nesting doll of selves we carry — all the people we have ever been, with all the experiences we have ever had — constructs the world before its eyes. Our sensorium is a simulation we ourselves are constantly running. Clark traces this predictive process as it unfolds at the meeting point of stimulus and expectation:

Incoming sensory signals help correct errors in prediction, but the predictions are in the driver’s seat now. This means that what we perceive today is deeply rooted in what we experienced yesterday, and all the days before that. Every aspect of our daily experience comes to us filtered by hidden webs of prediction — the brain’s best expectations rooted in our own past histories.

[…]

When the brain strongly predicts a certain sight, a sound, or a feeling, that prediction plays a role in shaping what we seem to see, hear, or feel.

Emotion, mood, and even planning are all based in predictions too. Depression, anxiety, and fatigue all reflect alterations to the hidden predictions that shape our experience. Alter those predictions (for example, by “reframing” a situation using different words) and our experience itself alters.

At the heart of this equivalence is the recognition that changing our expectations changes our experience — not in a New Age way, but in a neurocognitive way. With an eye to the opportunity to “hack our own predictive minds,” which Bruce Lee intuited in his insistence that “you will never get any more out of life than you expect,” Clark observes:

Since experience is always shaped by our own expectations, there is an opportunity to improve our lives by altering some of those expectations, and the confidence with which they are held.

Read more here.

WHAT LOOKS LIKE BRAVERY

“Fearlessness is what love seeks,” Hannah Arendt wrote in her timeless meditation on love and how to live with the fundamental fear of loss. “Such fearlessness exists only in the complete calm that can no longer be shaken by events expected of the future… Hence the only valid tense is the present, the Now.”

Laurel Braitman was three when she was violently thrust into a perpetual Now: Her forty-one-year-old father was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive bone cancer and given a blink of time to live. The eccentric idyll of her family home — an avocado ranch populated by chickens, two donkeys, “four aloof merino sheep,” and a mean-spirited peacock — was suddenly haunted by the sense that each day could be the last. And yet her father — an accomplished surgeon himself, and a man with unabashed disdain for the impossible — managed to launch so fierce a war on his mortality, shedding more and more of his body in experimental surgeries to earn more time with his family, that he lived to see Laurel head to college, lovingly nourishing her dream of becoming a writer, a dream anchored in her longing “to make up better endings than the ones we’d been given.”

Along the way, he tried to instill in her his ethos of invincibility — at first empowering as she learns to fix carburetors, outfish all the fishermen, and do field work in Alaska and the Amazon, but eventually disabling as she wades into the waters of that most vincible of human endeavors: love.

A cascade of further losses — her mother’s death, the wildfire that burns the avocado ranch to the ground — teaches her what her father, with his larger-than-life bid for bravery, never dared admit: that acknowledging suffering is the fulcrum of strength, that fragility is the other face of resilience, and that our breaking points are also portals of possibility.

She tells the story of those difficult, transformative learnings in What Looks Like Bravery (public library) — a book about hope (“a trickster that transforms itself all the time, expanding to fill the space it’s given”), about loss, how it stays with us and how we go on (“just like when you close the door to a room and walk into another, the one you leave doesn’t stop existing. It’s just that now you’re somewhere else”), about the meaning of courage and how to live with uncertainty, about the price of our illusions of invulnerability and how compulsive achievement can never be an analgesic for the pain we carry, about the overwhelming beauty of life, not diminished but magnified by its transience.

Art by Jackie Morris from The Lost Spells

In a passage that calls to mind that immortal Mary Oliver line — “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” — she writes:

I am extraordinarily privileged in nearly every way, but what I’m most grateful for now is my parents’ belief, passed down like any other inheritance, that there’s more beauty in the world than horror.

[…]

This optimism gives you license. It’s a kind of audacity and it can work like an all-purpose key to the locked doors of your dreams. “Why not you?” it whispers.

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