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My top 9 reads of 2023

My top 9 reads of 2023
Photo by Kimberly Farmer / Unsplash

Many people start the new year with the resolution to read more books that deepen their understanding of the world around them. I am often asked for reading recommendations, so I have habitually collected and shared the most thought-provoking books I encountered in the previous year. These are not books that were published in 2023. In fact, many of them are rather old. These are simply books I read during the year and found insightful. I hope you will, too.

'Skin in the Game' by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

“Skin in the Game” is a book about many things, but primarily, it is a book about what happens when you separate the cost of a decision from the people who actually make the decision.

What does transferring the cost of a decision to another group of people do to the incentive structure of your society? This is a vital question because it speaks to what happens when you scale a civilization when a society becomes too large and starts to entrust certain institutions and bureaucracies with key aspects of its decision-making process. Those institutions may be specialized and professional, but they are also far removed from the concerns of the communities they supposedly serve.

The bureaucrats operating such institutions no longer have skin in the game. They are incentivized to do what is best for their own careers and not what is best for the communities they serve because their lives will not be affected. Taleb also explains why the intolerant minority beats the more-accepting majority. This is counterintuitive for many people who believe that the big tent strategy is the key to winning political battles.

'Return of the Strong Gods' by R.R. Reno

This tome does a great job explaining why forces like nationalism and populism are taking hold in our world today. Reno points out the shortcomings of Enlightenment liberalism and why the attempt to put away many of the key aspects of human identity ended up causing significant problems, damaging social cohesion and the search for meaning.

Reno discusses the emergence of the postwar consensus starting in 1945, which stressed the need to stop any form of authoritarianism. Many leaders believed that the core of authoritarianism was a connection to larger forces of identity — a connection to meaning, purpose, and the transcendent. It became very important to these new modern states to limit their population’s access to these forces.

Reno is honest about his own difficulty in parting with certain liberal precepts, but at the same time, he recognizes that these realities about identity, nationalism, and populism are not going away.

Our ruling class can wring their hands with concern if they like, but that will not change what is happening. We are transitioning from a time of liberal ideology and returning to the things that have been true about social organization for a very long time. Reno understands the failure of our elites to contain these changes and knows we cannot prevent the return of the strong gods, so we must channel those forces in a positive direction that is healthy for society instead of creating an ugly backlash.

'The Clash of Civilizations' by Samuel P. Huntington

Samuel Huntington was an international relations guru and professor. The author and scholar Francis Fukuyama was one of his students. Fukuyama famously developed the “end of history” model in opposition to Huntington’s “clash of civilizations.”

This book was written in the early 1990s, just after the fall of the Soviet Union, and Huntington attempted to envision what the post-Cold War world would look like. This shift away from a bipolar world was very important because many nations and alliances had been held together simply because only two major forces dictated international relations.

While Fukuyama’s model looked to be the winner early on by predicting a monopolar Western hegemony that would produce a universal culture and political form, we are starting to see events tip in Huntington’s favor.

Huntington predicted that different civilizations would attempt to modernize while simultaneously de-Westernizing, separating two phenomena that were previously thought to be interlinked. It is interesting to see what Huntington got wrong and what he got right from our chronologically advantageous perch in 2024. He certainly fails in some of his predictions. But his most important prediction is the phenomenon Reno observed decades later in “Return of the Strong Gods.” Huntington believed we would see the end of the age of secular economic ideology that dominated for so long and see the resurgence of more traditional cultural identities linked strongly to religion.

'The Ancient City' by Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges

This was my favorite book of the past year because Coulanges does not just review the events of ancient Greek or Roman history but rather takes the reader to the beginning of those cultures and treats them as if they are entirely alien civilizations.

Coulanges focuses on religion as the core of the ancient identity, creating a way of being that is entirely foreign to modern secularized individuals. Religion was the water in which the ancients swam, the way they sought to understand every aspect of life, and the doctrine that dictated everything from laws to family formation.

When Coulanges discusses the ancient Greek or Roman religions, he is not really discussing the pantheon we think of with Zeus or Jupiter. Rather, he’s referencing the even more ancient religion of ancestor worship and the sacred hearth.

Coulanges also explores how religion and the strength of the family limited the power of the state. Each of the Genes, or patrician families, had a religion that was unique to their own domestic practice without some kind of overarching belief that tied them together. This particularity of worship gave the families an incredible degree of power over every patron, freedman, and slave that was connected to them, limiting the demands the government could make without risking pushback from one of the Genes.

The author documents the state’s need to alter the religion and create a belief system that would connect the families before they could be stripped of power. The tribes formed a city-state, and the city-state grew into an empire. But at each step, the families had to be weakened, and the religion altered. “The Ancient City” is a fascinating read back to front, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

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