My Favorite Books of 2023

Julia Leigh
5 min readJan 2, 2024

In 2023 I finally found a stride in my reading that has eluded me for years. I’ve struggled to find time between work and grad school and relationships to indulge in this hobby that once meant so much to me, not just as a pastime but as a part of my identity. At last, something clicked this past spring and I upped my reading count from just four books from January to May to 22 for the rest of the year (that’s more than I read in 2021 and 2022 COMBINED). While it’s certainly not all about the numbers, I have noticed positive changes in myself resulting from rediscovering my love of reading: my mood and well-being are just better when I prioritize recreational reading in my schedule and my creative energy soars when I actually feed it new stories.

A lot of factors contributed to my reading success this year–trading in some podcasts for audiobooks, embracing my local library, and the accountability of a book club played no small role. But the easiest way to read more is to read something good. I read a lot of books I enjoyed this year, but these two stand out as exceptional stories that I have simply not stopped thinking about.

A Psalm for the Wild Built

By Becky Chambers

Reading A Psalm for the Willd-Built on my vacation to Oregon this summer.

This novella feels like a balm to the ennui of late-stage capitalism.

Sci-fi but make it self-care.

Welcome to Panga, a utopic moon society where humans take what they need and not more, and robots roam the wilds. Dex is a tea monk, a job equal parts tea-brewing and compassionate listening. While they’ve risen to the top of their profession and are widely beloved, something is missing in their life that they can’t quite name. When they wander into the forest to seek answers, they meet one of these wild-built robots, the delightful Mosscap, whose purpose is to solve the very same riddle–what do humans need?

A Psalm for the Wild-Built is a breath of fresh air among shelves of dystopic, polluted worlds that characterize much of our futurist literature. As part of the Solarpunk movement, it dares to be optimistic about the future of human advancement and imagines a world in genuine balance between technology and nature. Everything about Panga seems antithetical to our hyper-individualist, consumerist world. The people have what they need and share what they have, they build things to last, and they respect nature’s autonomy. Through discussions of history, we see how Panga transitioned from a fully automated robot workforce to an artisan market economy, where people are encouraged to explore their interests. Accountability for past wrongs and respect for all life were vital in this social and economic transformation, emphasizing the hard, sometimes uncomfortable work necessary to build a society that cares for all. Even among this seeming perfection, the question of human fulfillment, purpose, and relationship to nature is explored through Dex’s foray into the wild.

Since reading Dex and Mosscap’s tale, I dream of the hope Panga represents. This novella feels like a balm to the elate-stage capitalism ennui. I plan on reading it again and again, and can’t wait to see where this robot and monk story goes in the sequel, A Prayer for the Crown Shy.

Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution

By R.F. Kuang

…Kuang illuminates the inextricable connection between material and cultural plunder.

Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution is a revelation of a totally different sort, one that will punch you in the gut with the inherent violence of the capitalist, imperialist enterprise.

An elite class of English polyglots sustains the British Empire by mining the linguistic resources of distant lands. Silver-working has revolutionized industry around the globe, but no country is as reliant on the translators’ trade as Great Britain. When a qualified translator inscribes a match-pair (a word and its translation) into a silver bar, the metal manifests the meaning lost in translation.

As a native Cantonese speaker, Robin Swift is a valuable asset to the Royal Institute of Translation. But the creature comforts of Oxford University do little to remedy the prejudice he faces as a foreigner in England, and his rigorous coursework fails to distract from the guilt of participating in the imperial machine poisoning his home country.

Despite its fantastical elements, Babel reads more as a parallel history than alternate. Silver-working is a novel lens through which to view Britain’s industrial and imperial agendas. In establishing language as a raw material, Kuang illuminates the inextricable connection between material and cultural plunder. And she does not limit herself to commentary on global politics. Ultimately, she weaves together stories of anti-colonialism and labor reform, crafting a narrative that unveils the means through which empire hurts those most vulnerable at home and abroad. This is not a light read, but it is a necessary one. It has given me a new vocabulary and perspective in discussions on power and violence in the global web of relationships between colonizers and colonized.

Babel and Psalm for the Wildbuilt couldn’t be more different in style and feel, but both of these stories deliver a profound message that lingers long after the last page is read. They expose the ugly truths of the world we have made and explore means of reparative justice for people and nature alike. For me, they are favorites not just of 2023, but of all time.

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