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Your brain on books: themed readings lists for a 20-page-a-day habit in 2023
Happy 2023! An old friend recently asked me to help her make a reading list for the new year. She reflected on how easy it is to spend hours reading daily, especially online, only to get to the end of the day and realize almost every word of it was ephemeral. She wondered, what if she just read 20 pages of something worthy every day? By the end of the year, no matter how much time she wasted online, she’d have at least finished a couple of dozen books she’d always meant to read.
It reminded me of an eccentric History adjunct I had in college. Ken had no patience for anything conventional, including enduring undergrads’ tortured history papers. At the beginning of each seminar, he gave us a simple schedule. Every day (including weekends) of the term, we were to read the next 50 pages in a book on that seminar’s theme. And every class meeting, we answered a few quick quiz questions from deep in that week’s hundreds of pages, small details you’d probably miss if you only skimmed. Letter grades were assigned solely based on the quizzes (and solely at the department’s behest). Other than that, we just discussed and debated the texts. By the end of the term, you’d have absorbed a dozen texts, start to finish, on a single theme.
Ken’s classes were cake for me. That pace was slower than the rate at which I usually consumed narrative history. But I watched plenty of friends go into the term confident of an easy A only to promptly crash and burn.
Fifty pages a day is a nice average for a year. You finish a solid 18,000 pages in twelve months. But most of us are pulled in so many more directions than a 1990’s undergrad, so what about my friend’s more modest daily twenty? It still nets you 7,300 pages over the course of a year and is light enough that even if you have a brutal week, you can easily catch up on a quiet Friday night in, or a weekend afternoon.
I know a lot of you, like me, think in terms of titles, not pages. Your 2023 reading lists, or highlights thereof, are welcome in the comments. But if anyone wants to jump into a preset 2023 reading list like the ones Ken used to pass out, below you’ll find three themed lists that by my rough count, each run close to 7300 pages of text. Page counts exclude indexes and end notes. I’m happy to help with alternate recommendations in the comments, since many will have already read some of the core texts in each and want to swap out certain titles.
Humans, who else?
If you’ve been reading my book recommendations for long, you can probably close your eyes and recite half of these titles. What can I say? They’re canonical for a reason. I’m happy to propose good alternatives to swap in if you want to share in the comments which books you need to switch out.
Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (272 pages)
The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization (183 pages)
A History of the Byzantine State and Society (856 pages)
Imperial China, 900–1800 (974 pages)
Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs (208 pages)
Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America (898 pages)
A Golden Age Dawns: genomics’ early decades and paleoanthropology’s maturity
At the heart of this Substack project is my awe at everything the 21st century’s genomics revolution can now tell us with precision about our species’ past. Those rough drafts and updates to conventional wisdom constantly emerge as peer-reviewed papers from the world’s foremost labs. It’s still early days for genomics as a field, so actual books taking into account the latest findings are few and far between. But this list includes the young domain’s few popular must-reads, plus my pick of the pre-genomic texts that set the scene for the age of miracles we’re living through. In contrast, books on human evolution date back decades, and there are now many gems that we can reread almost like prequels we’ve already spoiled with lately revealed facts and updated frameworks.
Population Genetics: a Concise Guide (184 pages)
Genetics of Human Populations (809 pages)
Who we are and how we got here (286 pages)
Origin: a genetic history of the Americas (276 pages)
The Selfish Gene (358 pages)
Genes, Peoples, and Languages (208 pages)
Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human (208 pages)
Dawn of Human Culture (276 pages)
Grooming, gossip, and the evolution of language (207 pages)
Don’t say they didn’t warn you
I’ve read every book (some multiple times) on the first two lists, but among all the books I can personally vouch for in this set are some I have yet to get to that people I trust have been insistently recommending. It’s probably nice to live in a time when you can look back over your lifetime and laugh at how overblown prior decades’ most alarmist predictions have proven. Unfortunately, that time is not ours. The Cassandra-like critiques and warnings in some of the more recent books that follow are often so much less dystopian than our actual intellectual climate today, you’d be forgiven for yearning for their feared scenarios.
The Life of Michael Servetus (182 pages), 1848
Copernicus' Secret: How the Scientific Revolution Began (196 pages), 2007
Giordano Bruno: Philosopher and Heretic (290 pages), 2009
A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience (286 pages), 2014
The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution (350 pages), 2015
Animal Farm (126 pages), 1945
1984 (282 pages) 1949
Fahrenheit 451 (176 pages), 1953
The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression (758 pages), 1997
The Cultural Revolution: A People's History, 1962—1976 (306 pages), 2016
Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010 (310 pages), 2013
The Closing of the American Mind (382 pages) 1987
Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance (250 pages) 1994
Kindly Inquisitors: the New Attacks on Free Thought (182 pages) 1995
The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them (238 pages) 1996
The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do (342 pages), 1998
Conquests and Cultures: An International History (380 pages) 1998
The Burden of Bad Ideas: How Modern Intellectuals Misshape Our Society (234 pages), 2001
The Blank Slate: the Modern Denial of Human Nature (440 pages), 2002
The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success (243 pages) 2020