The best books I read in 2022, Part 2: Non-fiction

When it comes to non-fiction, while I bought more this past year than in prior ones, most I don’t read end-to-end. Instead, they’re references for my work (organization design and leadership). That said, four stood out and kept me engaged from beginning to end:

  • are we human? notes on an archaeology of design
  • Man’s Search for Meaning
  • American Urbanist: How William H. Whyte’s Unconventional Wisdom Reshaped Public Life
  • Two Heads: A Graphic Exploration of How Our Brains Work with Other Brains

Are We Human? Notes on an Archaeology of Design, Colomina and Wigley

As a design nerd with an anthropology background, it’s perhaps unsurprising that are we human? was my only ?????????? book this past year. I want to revisit it for a deeper critical appraisal; I simply haven’t had the time for such an exercise.

But *anyone* interested in design, humanity, anthropology, culture, society, and the folly of modernism (it never ceases to surprise me how design-types continue to fall for the intellectual bankruptcy of the modernist movement, particular the philosophies of shysters like Le Corbusier) should get a great deal out of reading this book, particularly the reflections it encourages.

Though written by professors and willing to traffic in theory, are we human? is never oblique or obfuscatory in the way of so much academic writing. I would love to run a chapter-by-chapter book club for this text.

Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl

The oldest book I read this past year, originally published in 1946 in German, 1959 in English, with a number of updated and augmented versions since (I read the 2006 e-book.) I was introduced to Man’s Search for Meaning by my 14yo son, who, after having completed a class assignment well before the period was over, was recommended the book by his English teacher. It blew his mind, so I thought I’d give it a crack.

It’s a powerful book, divided into two parts. The first details Frankl’s experience in German concentration camps, a horrific experience that somehow made him stronger. The second then explores Frankl’s theory of logotherapy, his belief that meaning and purpose are what’s most important to humans and their continued survival. As someone with nihilism tendencies, I’m intrigued by non-religious and non-spiritual discussions of being connected to something greater than yourself.

American Urbanist: How William H. Whyte’s Unconventional Wisdom Reshaped Public Life, Rein

A recommendation I found through The New York Times, American Urbanist is an intellectual biography of William H. Whyte, probably best known for his 1957 book The Organization Man, an early anthropology and sociology of corporate life, though he spent the bulk of his career pursuing matters of urban design and public spaces, with a focus on New York City. On that front, probably his greatest impact was as an early advocate of Jane Jacobs, whose The Death and Life of Great American Cities established a new way of thinking about urbanism.

As both an org designer and urban nerd, I was predisposed to appreciate this book. While I would have been quite content with a straightforward biography, Rein’s engagement with Whyte’s intellectual realm is impressive and illuminating, making connections and pursuing threads for further study. Whyte proves to be a great main character, an East Coast WASP with an Ivy League education who nevertheless developed an outsider, even Bohemian take on the heart of American life. Whyte operated within the comfort of established corporations (Time/Life Inc., the Rockefeller Foundation) while maintaining an iconoclastic perspective that often ran contrary to his benefactors’ beliefs.

Closer to home, I appreciated how Whyte developed his points of view not through formal education, but simply a no-nonsense approach to understand the world around him: close observation (he was an early advocate of sociological and ethnographic practices in studying corporations and cities), an appreciation of the impact that design choices have on people, the practical application of good writing and strong storytelling, and an allergy to dogma.

Two Heads: A Graphic Exploration of How Our Brains Work with Other Brains, Frith, Frith, and Frith

Cognitive science has long been of lay interest to me (and was a ‘path not taken’ in college, when I chose to study anthropology instead), and more recently, I’ve been studying up on collaboration and team dynamics, given my professional orientation around increasing the effectiveness of organizations.

So, when Two Heads came to my attention (likely another The New York Times recommendation), I was intrigued not just by the subject matter (how our brains have evolved to work best with other brains), but the presentation format—comics. Visual representations of abstract concepts is something else I grapple with a lot (e.g., org charts), so I’m curious as to how others conduct such things.

This book is very much for the layperson, and much of it addresses the basics of neuroscience. When it gets to the heart of their thesis (about collaborating brains), it definitely picks up, and provides some interesting insights into when we work better together, vs when we work best on our own. (I even cited it in a post on LinkedIn about the folly of individual performance evaluations for people working in teams.)

The best books I read in 2022, Part 1: Novels

Like many left-brained nerdy types, there’d been a point in my reading life where I stopped with fiction, as I felt it a waste of time when there was so much out there for me to learn. Also, it felt like fiction was dominated by sad modernity novels, a genre I have absolutely no interest in. As I age, I’ve grown to appreciate the reflective qualities of good fiction, and a willingness to engage in genre stories, which don’t tend to have the weary solipsism of so much contemporary writing.

In the order I read them:

The Anomaly, Herve Le Tellier

Published in France in 2020, translated and published in English in 2021, The Anomaly is a mind-bendy and twisty tale of how the world reacts to… an unexpected event.

This is one of those “the less you know before you read it, the better” books. If you dig mysteries, light genre affectations, existential musings, all in a plot-driven page-turner, you’ll be hard-pressed to find something better.

A Prayer For the Crown-Shy, Becky Chambers

I’m a fan of Chambers’ Wayfarer series (in particular the second, A Closed and Common Orbit), and have enjoyed the first two Monk + Robot books, of which A Prayer for the Crown-Shy is the second. These brief books (more novellas than novels) are gentle explorations of the human condition, centered on a tea-serving monk, and the intelligent, self-aware robot who becomes his companion.

It’s nice to read books that aren’t centered on conflict, but instead use wonder, philosophy, and good-heartedness to keep the reader engaged.

Children of Time, Adrian Tchaikovsky

Published in 2015, Children of Time came to my attention this year when I put out a call for “meaty genre stuff” to read (thanks, Mike!).

And boy, does it deliver. Another book (man, I hope I don’t keep saying this) where the less you know going in the better, because I found that my initial surprise that the story went there, and then kept building on that far beyond where I thought it could go, was essential to the joy of reading.

Don’t let the length (600 pages!) deter you. It moves quickly, and once you get going, you won’t want to put it down.

I also read the follow-up, Children of Ruin, which wasn’t as compelling for me. And only recently found out that the third book, Children of Memory, has been published in the UK, and comes to the US in 2023. So, if you’re the type who likes series… there’s a lot to look forward to!

Trust, Hernan Diaz

I think I came across Trust thanks to my connections on Goodreads [A miserably designed service that, sadly, is still the best of its kind. Damn we need a “Letterboxd” for books. Anyway, follow me on Goodreads.], and enjoyed this puzzle-box of a book, telling the same story from a number of different perspectives (a little Rashomon-like). It also hits on the recurring contemporary theme of how the very wealthy aren’t really that much smarter than the rest of us.

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, Gabrielle Zevin

If any novel caught the zeitgeist of my tribe (highly online GenXers and Xennials) it was Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow. This is as close to “literary fiction” as I’m sharing in this list. A coming-of-age roman a clef about Sam and Sadie, who meet as children, bond over video games, reconnect in college, and collaborate in producing a video game that is both critically and commercially successful.

While it falls into some increasingly tired contemporary tropes (trauma plot; shooting), the author clearly loves her characters and rewards them with a rich story with thematic depth.

The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, Stuart Turton

Perhaps the most aggressively genre book in this list, The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle come through my social media feed right when I needed a new book, and, as it’s been out for a few years now, was readily available by ebook from my local library. (All of the books I’ve listed I got through the library. I love the library with every fiber of my being.)

This is a time-bendy murder mystery, though the point isn’t to try to ‘solve’ it, but just to enjoy the twists, reveals, and other surprises along the journey.

The (non-professional) books I most enjoyed in 2020

Like many, I’m trying to be a better book-reader, after too many years of internet distractions. 2020 proved both a boon and a bane to this desire, but, in all, I think I did pretty good on the book front. If you’re looking for something good to read, maybe you’ll find it here. (None of these are related to my professional interests—I may have a separate book list of those over on my professional site.)

The Best Book I Read: Caste

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In no way an original choice, it’s still worth calling out Caste: The Origins of our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson, as the best book I read in 2020. This deconstruction and reconsideration of race as something more structural proved eye-opening and thought-expanding, and should be required reading for all Americans.

Thinking on the form of the book, what I distinctly admire is how Wilkerson balances the structural and systemic with the specific and personal. It’s a balance that can be hard to strike. Too systemic, and the analysis feels bloodless and academic, but too specific, and it just feels like a series of anecdata. Caste has the space, and Wilderson the savvy, to navigate the macro and micro to masterful effect.


In my 20s and 30s, I was all about non-fiction. I had trouble engaging with novels, found them irrelevant, and prioritized reading that helped me Gain Knowledge. Starting in my 40s, and increasingly these past few years, that’s shifted, where I crave the escapism and empathy of good fiction over the Knowledged Gained of non-fiction.

Here are the fiction books that I rated ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ or more this past year on Goodreads, in the order I read them.

Dragon Hoops, Gene Luen Yang


As an Oaklander, I’m a sucker for this graphic novel about the basketball team at Bishop O’Dowd high school, and how the author (who was a teacher there) overcame his aversion to sports and saw the positive role it can play in developing the lives of his students, many of whom come from challenged backgrounds. Dragon Hoops is distinctly Oakland in its exploration of race, ethnicity, heritage.

The Dog of the South, Charles Portis


After the author’s death, I thought I’d try the book that his ardent fans love most (True Grit, while his most popular, is not the most revered). This is a peculiar, sly, shaggy dog tale that remarkably captures a place and time (1970s American South through to Central America), and should have you laughing out loud quite a bit.

Network Effect, Martha Wells

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The latest Murderbot tale, and the first full novel. I love Murderbot, and this book gets back to the spirit and verve of the first couple novellas (that had kinda waned the later ones). If you dig genre fiction (in this case, space-y sci-fi) with an arch sense of humor, and haven’t yet dug into Murderbot, you’re in for a treat.

The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell

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I was surprised I had never heard of this book, written over 20 years ago and with quite an avid following (65,000+ ratings on Goodreads), and was turned onto it after a shout into the ether (well, Facebook) asking for good things to read.

It’s the story of humanity’s first contact with extraterrestrials, lead by a team of Jesuits. How the book probes matters scientific, spiritual, and ethical makes sense when you learn the author was an anthropologist. The Sparrow is remarkably thoughtful, good-humored, and ultimately brutal.

Oh, and I heard in an interview with Scott Frank, the writer and director of The Queen’s Gambit, that he’s developing this as a production.

Sacred Games, Vikram Chandra

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A lengthy, sumptuous cops-and-gangsters tale begins in Mumbai and expands across South Asia. At 900-plus pages, plenty of room for diversion from the main plot (about a policeman trying to unpack the story of a notorious gangster), but it never feels egregious—everything contributes to enabling the reader to dwell in the locale (including the use of local argot that had me looking up words frequently).

The Word Exchange, Alena Graedon


I probably liked this book more than it deserves, but I’m a word nerd, and this novel is about, well, the dictionary, and runaway capitalism, smartphones, oh, and a virus, so yeah, it came to me at just the right time this year.

The Changeling, Victor LaValle

The Changeling

A captivating contemporary take on the classic “changeling” tale. Set in New York City, with a rare/antiquarian book dealer at the heart of a fantastical horror story.

Piranesi, Susannah Clarke

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One of the most discussed/reviewed novels of 2020, from the author of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Whereas that book was long, deep, rich, and thorough, this is shorter, sparer, and more suggestive. It’s a curious work, at first seemingly allegorical, then a detective story.


The Biggest Bluff, Maria Konnikova

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With a Ph.D. in psychology, and extensive experience in longform non-fiction, Konnikova explores the world of high-stakes poker (specifically no-limit hold ’em) and how it proves to be an intense distillation of so much of what makes humans human. You don’t have to be interested in poker to appreciate the book—she connects her experiences at the table with how she (and we) make decisions and actions throughout our lives.

User Friendly, Cliff Kuang and Robert Fabricant


While on the face of it, this is a professional book for me (and I think folks working in digital product design would benefit from reading it), it’s intended for a broad audience, and I think succeeds in appealing to that generally Interested Reader. I’ve long thought the world would benefit from a general audience book that peels back the mechanics of how design effects so much of our lives, and this book does that well.

The Wes Anderson Collection: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Matt Zoller Seitz


For reasons unbeknownst even to me, I didn’t watch The Grand Budapest Hotel until last year, and then found it my second-favorite Wes Anderson movie (after The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou). And it is probably the height of Anderson’s craft, and this book, which deconstructs all that went in to making the film, proved to be a fan’s delight.

Trick Mirror, Jia Tolentino


I’m technically cheating with this one — I finished it at the end of last year. It’s an excellent book, a collection of new essays by one of my favorite The New Yorker writers. She has a keen eye and a remarkably sophisticated social-critical sense. It was all the talk of 2019, but if you never got around to it, do yourself a favor and read it!