After two consecutive years of slightly missing my reading goals (looking at you, 2021 and 2020), I bullseyed this year by completing my target goal of 18 books in 2022. Sure, it's still quite a bit lower than my 10-year historical average of 35 books per year, but switching to a fully remote job obsoleted my 1+ average hours of daily city bus reading time, and all things considered, I think it was a reasonable trade-off. C'est la vie, King County Metro!
Learned the most (nonfiction)
One of my favorite reasons to read is to learn something new. I don't necessarily mean academic reading – I mean expanding my horizons, seeing things from new and different perspectives, and dispelling my own ignorance.
The modern drug crisis
I have a habit of going deep into a specific topic for several books at a time, and this year my main focus was on opioids and the modern US drug crisis.
Part I: OxyContin, opioids
I started off with Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Family by Patrick Radden Keefe, which was a great primer and deep dive into OxyContin and opioids in general – these being incredibly addictive painkillers – Purdue Pharma (the company that created and manufactured these drugs), and the Sacklers (the family who created and privately owned the company). I knew nothing about any of these topics before reading this book, and left with a very comprehensive understanding. I legitimately looked forward to reading this book every night.
I recall hearing blurbs about the Sackler family going to court a few years ago, and something about Purdue Pharma declaring bankruptcy, and I thought to myself: Ok, sounds like the bad guys got in trouble, cool. No, not quite. While they have certainly been put in the spotlight, it also seems very likely that they saw the trouble coming for a long time and were able to mitigate a lot of the financial impact. So to that end, I'm really glad this type of investigative journalism is en vogue right now: it's helping keep the heat on bad actors despite their best efforts to avoid it.
If you've liked other books about bad people doing bad things and (uh, well, somewhat) getting caught for it, like Bad Blood by Jon Carreyrou, then you'll probably like this as well.
This book most heavily focuses on the Sackler family, and is an impressively exhaustive history of the several generations of the family, primarily around their philanthropy and their work in the pharmaceutical and advertising industries. It hits on a lot of macro-level topics as well - benzodiazepines, opioids, drug crises in America, ethics in advertising, and the FDA - but its main focus is the Sackler family.
As an aside: We checked out the Hulu TV series Dopesick after I read Empire of Pain, and it was a great dramatic complement to the book. We also checked out The Dropout on Hulu (about Theranos/Bad Blood) and WeCrashed (about WeWork's spectacular fall), and even though they were unrelated, they sure felt like they all had something in common.
Part II: OxyContin, opioids, and black tar heroin
Empire of Pain frequently cited Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones (which I believe served as its inspiration), so I was eager to check it out next, even though it was a bit older and likely covered similar topics.
Dreamland focused much more on OxyContin and opioids in general (less about the Sackler family, although there was still plenty of overlap), and especially focused on how OxyContin contributed to a massive migration from prescription opioids to black tar heroin imported from Mexico. But mainly this book covered what, if it were any other non-harmful product, would have been an amazing story of business success as groups of farmers and laypeople from a remote state in Mexico single-handedly disrupted the US drug market with an innovative import, distribution, and retail system.
Most of all, this book left me with empathy. Obviously, there are a lot of bad people involved in the production and sale of extremely harmful and addictive substances. But the folks who are addicted, regardless of how it happened – it's just pretty darn tragic. I think our country generally has a "junkie" view towards those addicted to heroin and similar drugs, but then I read how easy it is to get addicted; how everyday people were essentially mislead by decades of bad behavior (or ignorance, but what's the difference?) from doctors and the pharmaceutical industry, and how hard it is to get off of morphine and morphine derivatives like oxycodone and heroin and, well, it's just sad and tragic.
Part III: Fentanyl, Methamphetamine
Empire of Pain explained how OxyContin, opioids, and the Sackler Family/Purdue Pharma poured addictive jet fuel on the United States, creating a whole generation of inadvertent addicts; Dreamland explained how many of those addicts became priced out of prescription opioids and moved to much cheaper black tar heroin; and now finally, in The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth by Sam Quinones, I learned about how many of those heroin addicts then moved to fentanyl and its derivatives (very often unintentionally, as it was added to so many street drugs) and methamphetamine.
I knew next-to-nothing about fentanyl and methamphetamine before reading this book (well, I guess that's not completely true; I was absolutely captivated by Norman Ohler's Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich which covered how widespread methamphetamine use was amongst German soldiers, and Hitler himself, before and during WWII). I had thus far only heard about fentanyl in "boogeyman"-type boomer-meme-posts on places like Facebook, and now that I understand it and its derivatives better, I have such a better understanding why so many people, including famous folks, have died with it in their system because it is very often added to other drugs to increase their potency and addictive qualities.
Meth, on the other hand: my main takeaway from this book was that "old" meth, which was derived from ephedrine/pseudoephedrine, was bad for you in the way that any addictive substance that affects your central nervous system is bad, but the newer phenyl-2-propanone (P2P) method that was developed in response to severe restrictions on ephedrine procurement turned it into something truly evil that almost always induced something akin to schizophrenia and psychosis in its users.
As with the other two books in this rabbit hole, I left with much more empathy towards the victims of drug addition.
Health and medicine
Every year I invariably dive into some type medical, biology, or health-related topic – there's something immensely fascinating about these topics and probably even more because it's so different than what I do in my occupation.
Memoirs by surgeons and doctors have been a recurring favorite of mine, and this year I read When the Air Hits Your Brain: Tales from Neurosurgery by Frank Vertosick Jr.
This book was excellent and profoundly affected me. I think (and hope) I'll permanently have a little more appreciation for my life and the health of my loved ones after reading it.
I assumed there would be some difficult content in this, but that I'd be able to intellectualize most of it like I did with Henry Marsh's excellent Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery. I was wrong. Perhaps it's because Frank Vertosick painted a more vivid word picture, or perhaps it the subject matter, but either way, some of these stories are going to stick with me forever. And now, as a new-ish parent, the chapters about his time working in pediatrics cut very, very deep.
I made a ton of highlights in this book, which is a good signal of when I really like a book. Just re-reading them now, I was reminded of how impactful this book was. I'd recommend checking them out if you're curious; they're an interesting mix of facts I didn't know, clever (and often humorous) quips, and soul-crushing personal anecdotes.
The future of jobs
I'm glad I read American Made: What Happens to People When Work Disappears by Farah Stockman. I started my professional career working in manufacturing, and while my experience was very different than the subjects of this book since I worked in engineering, I gained a lot of empathy for line workers who may have less career mobility and options, especially as many manufacturing companies continually chased cheaper labor. I worked very closely with folks in similar roles as those covered in this book, and gave me a new appreciation for the work that they did, as well as their long, dedicated tenures.
A major theme of this book is about the complexities of globalization. I won't even begin to summarize that here, but I think this book presented a pretty balanced view of 1) its inevitability, 2) its pros and cons (and how past predictions have changed in hindsight), and 3) the super complex situation that arises from workers and unions understandably wanting to maximize worker compensation, and the inverse pressure that puts on companies to seek cheaper labor elsewhere as a result.
A real open question this book leaves us all with: what's going to happen as the constant hunt for cheaper labor results in the obsolescence of jobs that can be automated?
And why not some dinosaurs
Ok, let's take a break from some of those gloomier nonfiction topics and move onto something a little more exciting for those of us who dreamed of being paleontologists when we were younger: The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World by Stephen Brusatte.
I really enjoyed this book – it was well-written and the author has an incredible passion and excitement about this topic that was contagious and engaging. I learned a ton about dinosaurs and the prehistoric world, and my curiosity was especially piqued by how elemental analysis of elemental iridium was used to raise confidence that an asteroid impact was the likely source of catastrophic global change that eventually wiped out most life on earth (and that it wasn't the first mass extinction: I kinda forgot that there were four others!). I also learned much more about the whole did-some-dinosaurs-have-feathers thing (answer: yes), basically updating whatever knowledge I had cached as a youngster with a dinosaur fascination.
One last ride with the crew of the Rocinante
I've been reading books in the spectacular The Expanse science fiction series by James S.A. Corey for what seems like forever, and finally made it to the last book in the series: Leviathan Falls. How bittersweet. I don't have much to say that I haven't already said in my overwhelmingly positive reviews of the previous eight books in this series, so I won't try.
I loved this whole series, every time I started a new book felt like putting on a brand new pair of socks (am I the only one who finds that remarkably comforting?) and I'm both happy to have it land a great ending, and so, so sad that it's over.
I will 100% go back and re-read these books again in the future.
The end of my Stormlight Archive journey (for now)
Last year, I couldn't get enough of the Stormlight Archive fantasy series by Brandon Sanderson, and after reading thousands of pages of that series in 2021, I was super excited to keep on rolling into book three (Oathbringer) and book four (Rhythm of War) in 2022.
My positive comments are consistent: Great lore, interesting characters, and the author clearly put a ton of care and forethought into each book. These are amazing stories and Brandon Sanderson is incredibly talented.
My complaints are the same as well: Long, long, long, where the slow parts just don't seem to contribute much to the story and end up feeling a bit plodding.
I left book three feeling super positive, but after finishing book four, and hundreds of hours of immersion in this fascinating world – to be honest, I'm a bit tired. It's not that I didn't enjoy book four, it's just that so many of the characters are still working through the same issues they've had for the past 100+ hours. Sure, there is some progress, but here I am again getting frustrated with Kaladin and Shallan for doing the same old things they keep doing despite all the lessons they learned, and regressing, regressing, regressing. And as we get introduced to new concepts and characters, perhaps I'm less patient than I once was with this series.
So all-up, I'm very glad read it, and for the most part, I enjoyed the journey. I didn't feel like book four ended very well, but I also understand that there's a fifth and final book planned in this first Stormlight arc, so maybe my qualms with the last 10% of this book are just staging something spectacular for the finale.
Will I read book five? Certainly. Would I re-read this series? I'm not sure. They're great books, but this is the one very rare time I'd rather read an abridged version instead.
The first time I've felt optimistic about climate change
I'm big fan of Neal Stephenson (so take this with a grain of salt), and this year I read his newest book Termination Shock. While it isn't quite in my hall of fame, like Cryptonomicon, Seveneves, and Anathem, it is definitely in a close fourth.
Overall, it had unique characters, globe-trotting adventures, and Neal's characteristic deep dive into a bunch of interesting technical topics (this time: solar geoengineering, drones, deep fakes, brain implants, and YouTube fame).
Ultimately, this book made me feel, for the first time, pretty darn optimistic about some of the levers we could potentially pull to positively impact the negative effects of climate change.
I was first introduced to Emily St. John Mandel via HBO's television adaptation of her book, Station Eleven (which I didn't read). It knocked my socks off, and I mildly lamented not having read the book, so I was eager to check out more of her stuff.
I originally planned to read her newest book, Sea of Tranquility, but I heard that book had references to characters and locations in her earlier book, The Glass Hotel, and I'm a sucker for things like that (or maybe a victim? Because I still haven't made any progress towards reading Asimov's Foundation series because of his prerequisites...).
I liked The Glass Hotel and looked forward to reading it every day. I especially liked the breadth of time it covered and I eagerly went down a huge Wikipedia rabbit hole on Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme, which somewhat inspired events in the book.
Which then finally got me to Sea of Tranquility. In hindsight, I'm glad I followed the internet's advice about reading The Glass Hotel first; while it might not have been of huge consequence, characters from The Glass Hotel definitely made more than just cameos in this book and I'm really glad I read that one first so I could better appreciate them.
I can't really put my finger on why I liked this Sea of Tranquility so much: it was kinda sci-fi-ey, kinda historical-fiction-ey, kinda weird... but I found myself looking forward to reading it more than usual. It was short, but that's not a bad thing either. And it had a time travel mechanic which was minimal and interesting.
I'm at the point now where I'll probably buy Emily St. John Mandel's next book regardless of its subject matter.
That's it for my 2022 reading list highlights. Overall, I enjoyed pretty much everything I read - you can see my entire 2022 reading list on Goodreads - with a minor exception being The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin (it had a cool premise, and I didn't hate it, but I don't plan to go any farther than this first book in the series).
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