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An ongoing list of great books

My holiday book picks over the years

Every year, I choose the best books I’ve read and send a copy to loved ones to support my favorite authors and bookstores. It’s a really fun annual gift-giving tradition. You can read more about what’s involved here.

This is a list of the books I’ve recommended since starting the tradition. Check out the detailed reviews below!


Book Reviews

Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith

Year: 2023
Genre: Science

My top book this year was Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith.

I’ve known for a while that cephalopods are very intelligent but all the details in the book were brand new to me. Other Minds is full of fascinating scientific studies and anecdotes about these mysterious creatures. What struck me the most about the book is how little we know concretely about the limits of their intelligence. Octopus are apparently notoriously difficult to motivate in research settings, and squids are studied even less. We’re also only just beginning to understand the physical mechanisms behind their color-changing camouflage abilities as well.

Typically, popular science prose is very dry and academic, but since Godfrey-Smith is a professor of philosophy (specifically the philosophy of biology and the philosophy of the mind), his writing is both informative but also beautiful. I really enjoyed his explorations of the different answers to the question of consciousness and sentience, from both the scientific side and the philosophical side. He also gives a great primer on the emergence of intelligence in evolutionary biological history. I can’t recommend this book enough!

Cephalopods are an island of mental complexity in the sea of invertebrate animals. Because our most recent common ancestor was so simple and lies so far back, cephalopods are an independent experiment in the evolution of large brains and complex behavior. If we can make contact with cephalopods as sentient beings, it is not because of a shared history, not because of kinship, but because evolution built minds twice over. This is probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.


Blood, Sweat, and Chrome by Kyle Buchanan

Year: 2022
Genre: Film criticism

Blood, Sweat, and Chrome: The Wild & True Story of Mad Max: Fury Road by Kyle Buchanan was truly an epic read. The book is a behind-the-scenes oral history of the making of the latest Mad Max movie. Even if you aren’t a fan of this movie, it’s still well worth a read.

It took fifteen years to get the film made and the story of how it finally made it to theaters is full of dramatic twists and turns. Mad Max was a movie only storyboarded with no written script, filmed in physically harrowing conditions in the Namibian desert, with studio executives bewildered by this creative process and actively trying to pull funding away from the movie. People were unsure if the director George Miller was a madman or a next-level genius. Miller was 70 years old and had not directed a live-action film for 17 years by the time Mad Max: Fury Road was finally released.

Here are a few quotes that showcase how wild this book is:

A film like Fury Road isn’t just one of a kind—in this era of increasingly bland superhero movies, it’s the sort of film that could probably never be made again.

Parasite director Bong Joon Ho has said that the sheer scale of the movie brings him to tears, while Steven Soderbergh put it more bluntly. “I don’t understand how they’re not still shooting that film,” Soderbergh once said, “and I don’t understand how hundreds of people aren’t dead.”

I loved Fury Road when it came out but I wasn’t a huge fan of the Mad Max franchise itself. After reading this book, I now have mad respect for the perseverance and creative intensity of George Miller and his co-creators. I’m planning on doing a movie marathon of all the Mad Max movies when Furiosa comes out in 2024!


A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

Year: 2021
Genre: Fantasy

My top book this year was A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik. The premise is fun: take Harry Potter, but make Hogwarts an extremely deadly magic school where students can (and do) die all the time. And the main character has the capacity to be the evilest sorceress of all time.

From there, without giving anything away, the series expands from a straightforward fantasy YA-like story about magical high school drama to exploring themes of structural inequality, power, fairness and justice, and petty human squabbles in the face of horror and death. I was genuinely surprised and couldn’t predict how the book twisted and turned. The final book in the series is slated for release in September 2022, so now is a perfect time to get started on this amazing trilogy!


Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino

Year: 2020
Genre: Fantasy

My favorite book of 2020 was Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion by Jia Tolentino. The book is a collection of essays with topics that were all fascinating: defining identity on the Internet, depictions of women in literature, the capitalist industry of modern marriage, the industrial complex of fitness/pilates… If you want a preview, you can check out this interview on the Vox podcast where Tolentino speaks with incredible articulation – I’m envious of her writing skill and ability to speak so eloquently.


All Systems Red by Martha Wells

Year: 2019
Genre: Fantasy

I’ve chosen All Systems Red for my top book of the year! This is the first book in the Murderbot Diaries series and won both Hugo and Nebula awards for best novella.

The story is snappy, fun, and darkly humorous, featuring the eponymous “Murderbot” – a cyborg who neither sees herself as robot or human. I loved this series because it deals with complex themes like freedom, ethics, identity, consciousness, and “human” rights without falling into the typical bleak and dystopian tone that other stories use. I was repeatedly delighted by how funny the book is. Here’s the official summary:

On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid — a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.

But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it’s up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.


This article was last updated on 12/15/2023.