The Best Books I Read in 2023
By Peter J. Neumann, ScD, Director
It was another great year of reading. Here is my annual list, sorted alphabetically by author name. Keep those recommendations coming.
Moonshot (2022), Albert Bourla. Pfizer’s CEO’s behind-the-headlines perspective on what it took to develop a vaccine in the midst of the COVID pandemic, is valuable reading on several levels. It is a primer on drug development and navigating capital markets, supply chains, and regulatory and reimbursement bodies. It is a leadership guide about setting goals and managing teams under pressure. Most intriguingly, it offers a lens by which to consider the appropriate roles of the private versus public sector in pharmaceutical research.
Midnight at Chernobyl (2019), Adam Higginbothem. Among the many frightening details in this account of the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in 1986 is that the Chernobyl accident was not the first such incident in the Soviet Union. Numerous mishaps preceded it, though on smaller scales. As with previous accidents, Soviet authorities attempted to conceal the evidence until, in this case, the nuclear fallout was detected over Sweden. The story of how the disaster unfolded contains chilling detail, countless villains, and some genuine heroes among the local firemen and clean-up crews. Above all, it provides a window into the Soviet’s mindset with public chest-thumping about its nuclear energy prowess amid the rot and insecurities in the system.
The AI Revolution in Medicine: GPT-4 and Beyond (2023), Peter Lee, Carey Goldberg, and Isaac Kohane. By now, you know that AI is transformative and potentially dangerous. You have marveled at ChatGPT and understand that AI is being integrated into all aspects of our lives. Still, The AI Revolution in Medicine will surprise you by showcasing the capabilities of GPT-4 (OpenAI’s latest and most powerful model) in health and medicine. GPT-4 can quickly synthesize information from medical records, or summarize a vast scientific literature. Given prompts about a patient’s symptoms and family history, it easily outperforms experts in suggesting diagnoses and treatments plans. More astounding is what future versions may hold. The coauthors – a Microsoft executive, a science journalist, and a physician/computer scientist/researcher – have produced a balanced and accessible book with many vivid examples. It emphasizes that AI makes mistakes and requires human oversight – and that researchers still don’t understand why GPT-4 does some of the remarkable things it does.
Path Lit by Lightening (2022), David Maraniss. At the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, American athlete Jim Thorpe, a member of the Sac and Fox Nation, won the decathlon with surpassing performances. As he presented Thorpe his gold medal, King Gustav of Sweden may or may not have declared, “You, sir, are the best athlete in the world.” Regardless, it was hard to dispute. Path Lit by Lightening covers Thorpe’s triumphs, but also describes a life tinged with tragedy. Like thousands of Native Americans at the time, he was forced as a child into special “civilizing” schools. His Olympic medals were ultimately confiscated, because he had dabbled in professional baseball, thus violating his amateur status. Later in life he drifted from one menial job to another, low on cash, and pursuing schemes that never materialized.
Chip War (2022), Chris Miller. Silicon chips are the new oil, explains Chris Miller in this gripping depiction of the geopolitics of semiconductors. China now spends more on importing chips than on importing oil. Understanding chips and their supply chains is vital to appreciating contemporary economic, political, and national security issues, as well as US-China relations. Miller, an associate professor at Tufts University, describes how a few organizations – particularly the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), but also a few key companies in South Korea, the Netherlands, and California – have come to dominate the production of advanced chips.
Song of the Cell (2022), Siddhartha Mukherjee. There are few science writers better than Siddhartha Mukherjee. As he did in earlier books, including Emperor of All Maladies and The Gene, Mukherjee illuminates biology’s substructures. There is no life without cells, and no cells without life, he writes. Song of the Cell relates how scientists came to understand cells as nature’s essential unit, the unifying concept of life. It explains how cells differentiate, how the cells of the immune system function, and how cells recognize “self” from “non-self.” All of this is conveyed with a sense of awe, and humility about how much we still do not understand.
The Library Book (2018), Susan Orlean. This paean to libraries doubles as a true crime story. A great fire destroyed the Los Angeles Central Library in 1986. Police suspected arson, but who started the fire and why? The questions lead Orlean to ponder her childhood love of browsing the stacks at her local library, and to explore the history of libraries and attempts to ban and even burn books. Along the way she muses about the eccentrics who have advanced library science, and about library services, patrons, budgets and unions. The takeaway is that libraries are democratizing forces, and librarians unsung heroes of our communities.
Drugs and the FDA (2022), Mikkael Sekeres. I’ve read several books about prescription drug regulation, but none so captivating as Drugs and the FDA. Ignore the anodyne title; Mikkael Sekeres has written a terrific insider look at the drug approval process from his perch as a member of a 2011 FDA advisory committee convened to consider whether the Agency should withdraw the breast cancer indication for Avastin (bevacizumab). His experience lends the story its courtroom-like drama, and Sekeres interweaves the FDA’s history from the thalidomide tragedy in the 1930s to AIDS activists’ efforts to speed drug approvals in the 1980s.
The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams (2022), Stacy Schiff. My office in downtown Boston is a stone’s throw from the site of Samuel Adams’ 18th century home. A few blocks away is the Granary Burying Ground, where you can visit Adams’ grave (the tour guides say that the pub across the street is the only place in America where you can enjoy a cold Sam Adams while observing a cold Sam Adams). Unlike his celebrated cousin John, Samuel Adams registers hazily. This superb new biography resurrects him and restores him to his proper place as the indispensable instigator of the Revolution: the uncompromising force who stirred the pot, hounded the authorities, sensationalized the news (the Boston “Massacre” is his reframing), and commanded his fellow colonists to defend their fragile liberties.
Smart Brevity (2022), Jim Vanderhei, Mike Allen, Roy Schwartz. The authors of Smart Brevity are the folks who brought us Axios, the spry new media company that delivers news bites to our inboxes. They are on a mission, aiming to condense our memos, slash our emails, declutter our slides, and make our points more quickly and clearly. Be worthy, not wordy, they decree; cut to the chase, avoid passive tense. This takes effort and, most critically, recognition that our current practices are poor. I’ve recommended this book to my colleagues. Their only complaint: the book could have been shorter.
The Covenant of Water (2023), Abraham Verghese. Tragedy is never far away in this sweeping novel that follows several generations of families in Southern India from 1900 to the 1970s. But neither is hope, joy, faith, wisdom, and the author’s transcendent humanity. There are also secrets and mysteries, namely the drownings that plague several generations of one Indian Christian family. As in Verghese’s previous novel, Cutting for Stone, it all unfolds with exquisite descriptions: of the Kerala landscape; the society’s deep class divisions; the roles of myth, medicine, and art in the culture; and the modernization of India as it struggles to upend British rule.
Other books I enjoyed:
In Love, Amy Bloom
All the Beauty in the World, Patrick Bringsley
The Wager; Killers of the Flower Moon; The Lost City of Z, David Grann
Elon Musk, Walter Isaacson
Tracy Flick Can’t Win, Tom Perrotta
Democracy Awakening, Heather Cox Richardson
A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, George Saunders
When the Heavens Went on Sale, Ashlee Vance
A Crisis of Democratic Capitalism, Martin Wolf
Crook Manifesto; The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead.