I did a lot of reading in 2023. (If you’re interested in seeing all of what I read and/or discussing them, I invite you to follow me on Goodreads.) This year ended up being a year when I reread some books, so I didn’t read quite as many new-to-me things as I have in past years. That being said, I still read enough to find things I loved, some things that were mediocre, and some other books that I honestly wish I hadn’t wasted my time on. I wanted to share the books that impacted me the most this year, so I compiled this list of my Top 10 Nonfiction Books as well as a list of my Top 8 List of Fiction Books of 2023.
If you’re interested in seeing my Top Book Lists from past years, you can check them out:
Without further ado, here are my Top 10 Nonfiction Books of 2023!
#1 - Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away
After some serious debate, I determined that Annie Duke’s Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Awaywas the best book I read this year (fiction or nonfiction). I listened to it as an audiobook (Annie Duke reads it herself, which was great), and I had to keep pausing it so I could take notes about the ideas she was discussing.
Annie Duke does a wonderful job of outlining the science, behavior, and stigma that surrounds quitting. In my work as an endurance coach, some of the toughest (and most ill-received) conversations I have with the athletes I coach are about quitting. I can generally see when it’s a good idea to quit something (and I will suggest doing so to the athlete when I think it’s prudent to do so), but there is so much resistance to the idea of quitting because we equate quitting with failure.
I’ve been on a bit of a quest for many years to help athletes see when it’s time to walk away from one goal so they can pursue something better. It’s important to note that “better” takes many forms: more worthwhile, more in line with their current interests, a more appropriate fit for the current season of life they are in, and/or more fun. That being said, the resistance I get to the idea of quitting is fast, swift, and real. I’ve gotten used to the defensive response I will usually get to my suggestions of quitting, but it’s my hope that more people will embrace the idea that it can be powerful to walk away from something so you can walk toward something else that is better (whatever form better is currently taking), and this idea that quitting can be powerful is the core idea of the book.
“Quitting on time feels like quitting too early” is just one of the many insightful takeaways I had from this book. I know I will be referencing the things and thoughts I learned often in my personal and work life. It was a wonderful read.
#2 - Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind was the other contender for the best book I read this year (fiction or nonfiction), and it’s coming in at a very close second place to Quit.
Sapiens takes the reader on a journey from the dawn of our species through Mr. Harari’s thoughts on the future of our species. It’s incredibly well-researched and well-written and full of insights that triggered several “Aha!” moments for me. I am not exaggerating when I say that this book changed how I look at and understand our species and humanity in general.
This book definitely took me the longest to read in 2023, which was mostly due to the fact that it is densely packed with wonderful insight and research. I took my time while reading each chapter and strived to really absorb and process the information in each chapter before moving onto the next one. That being said, though it was dense and full of information, it was - paradoxically, I know - surprisingly easy to read. Mr. Harari’s writing style is accessible and communicates the ideas and history in this book well.
I am grateful that Mr. Harari wrote this book, and I think that reading it can be enlightening for just about anyone.
#3 - The Longest Race: Inside the Secret World of Abuse, Doping, and Deception on Nike’s Elite Running Team
Kara takes readers on a journey through her entire life, starting when she was young and was first introduced to running, through her high school and college years, and through her time as an elite athlete with the Nike Oregon Project. In addition to sharing her personal family history, she also goes into detail about the doping violations she observed and the sexual abuse she experienced while she was a part of the Nike Oregon Project and the aftermath of the investigations that ensued after she was brave enough to blow the whistle on Nike and Alberto Salazaar.
I listened to the book as an audiobook, which is something that I would highly recommend to others, as Kara reads it herself. The book is very compelling and you can hear the honesty and emotion in Kara’s voice at many points as she is reading the manuscript.
This book personally resonated with me on so, so many levels. It came to me at a serendipitous time in my life and I am very grateful that Kara had the courage to share her story so publicly. (I had the great fortune of being able to thank Kara for writing The Longest Race in person when I met her in June 2023, and I hope she understands just how significant and impactful her book is.) In my opinion, it is an important and powerful read.
#4 - Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World
Originals really dove into what originality actually is and how people can be more creative and original in their work and social lives. This book made me think about so many things in a new way. Adam Grant provides a lot of research and examples to back up what he’s saying, and he does so in a way that doesn’t feel forced.
All in all, this is a book that advocates for novel ideas and values that go against the grain and gives readers some practical takeaways about how they can originate new ideas, behaviors, and practices. In a world that feels increasingly vanilla, this is a compelling and thought-provoking read.
#5 - Own Your Past Change Your Future: A Not-So-Complicated Approach to Relationships, Mental Health & Wellness
Dr. Delony discusses a lot of hard truths; many readers may respond defensively internally with “That’s not me!” to what he is saying. That being said, he encourages having the hard conversations, both with one’s self and with others, and he gives actionable advice on how to move forward and live a life full of peace and wellness. He does this with an excellent blend of humor and compassion in his writing. Anyone and everyone should read this book.
#6 - The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter
Margareta Magnusson (who, as she eloquently tells readers, is aged between 80 and 100) from Sweden is the right person to have written The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter. Having lived so many years after raising a big family that moved all around the world, Margareta knows the amount of stuff one accumulates in the developed world simply by existing. In this book, she shares some Swedish cultural principles that advocate for dealing with your stuff yourself before you die.
As a single person who lives alone and whose family all lives out of state, this idea is of particular interest to me. I am very aware that if I were to die tomorrow that my family (specifically, my brother…lucky him) would be left with a rather ridiculous amount of things 800+ miles away from their homes to deal with. This is an idea that hovers in my peripheral mind quite a bit and makes me want to reduce that burden for my family.
This book outlines some great ways to think about the process of “death cleaning” - aka the paring down of one’s physical possessions - throughout one’s life, and especially in one’s later years. We will all die; this is a certainty. We might as well face this truth. In a world that is increasingly consumer-driven and focused on placing the highest value on tangible things, this book was a refreshing reminder that our stuff does not come with us when we die and that someone else - most likely someone we love - is going to be left dealing with it. Is this really what we want to do to the people who we care about most?
I think that this is a valuable read for anyone who lives in the developed world, and specifically, it’s an important read for us consumer-driven Americans.
#7 - The Impossible Climb: Alex Honnold, El Capitan, and the Climbing Life
I found this book to be both interesting and engaging. It wasn't what I was expecting; I was expecting a specific account of Alex Honnold’s free solo of El Capitan. (For those not familiar with climbing lingo, a “free solo” is when a rock climber climbs without any ropes or safety gear. It is just them and the rock. It is the most dangerous form of rock climbing and a staggering number of free soloists ultimately get killed doing the sport they love. El Captain in Yosemite National Park is a 3,000 vertical slab of granite that had never been successfully free soloed until Alex Honnold completed his climb in June 2017.)
While the book does go into great detail about Alex’s climb, it actually contains much more. Mr. Synnott writes about the climbing ethos and his own personal experiences - including his personal relationship with Alex Honnold - that led them both to be in Yosemite National Park in 2017 when Alex made his historic climb.
From cover to cover, I loved this book.
#8 - The Comfort Crisis: Embrace Discomfort to Reclaim Your Wild, Happy, Healthy Self
In my work as an endurance coach, I have long advocated for athletes to intentionally introduce discomfort into their training and their daily workouts. This advice often falls on deaf ears, but I give it all the same, hoping that the message eventually sinks in.
It dawned on me several years ago that most of us endurance athletes are attracted to endurance sports precisely because they are uncomfortable and difficult. If we’re honest with ourselves, we rarely have challenges or discomfort in our daily lives. Among other things, we no longer have any true natural predators, we have access to clean drinking water, we have climate-controlled environments and shelters for literally 93% of our daily lives, we have access to medicine for when we get sick, we can get remedies when we get injured, and we have access to food that is harvested and provided to us with virtually no barriers of consequence.
Consciously or unconsciously, we are actually seeking discomfort. Our evolution has shown us that we grow and change for the better when we struggle or face challenges. And so, in our 21st century comfortable world, we have to introduce challenges because we no longer are challenged to survive the way our ancestors were, even as recently as 100 years ago.
Mr. Easter brings his own experience along with research to support a potentially (ironically!) uncomfortable hypothesis: Comfort is great in moderation, and disastrous in the amounts we currently have in our daily lives. We think that this comfort is going to make us happy, but it almost never does, and if it does, that happiness is short-lived. And there are so many ways we can practice discomfort in our daily lives; this starts with awareness and a willingness to be uncomfortable.
The Comfort Crisis highlights that our love of comfort is, in fact, a very real crisis. This is a worthwhile and valuable read for everyone.
#9 - Grateful American: A Journey from Self to Service
As you can probably tell from this list, I enjoy reading memoirs. Gary Sinise’s memoir Grateful American: A Journey from Self to Servicewas a delight. Once again, I listened to this as an audiobook (a choice I made because Gary Sinise narrates it himself).
I’ve always loved Gary Sinise as an actor since I first saw him as Lieutenant Dan in Forrest Gump. My admiration for him deepened as I watched him do so much for American veterans and first responders. It was neat to hear him tell his story, which includes his family; starting a theater company; working in the film and television business; and ultimately, starting a foundation that serves veterans, first responders, and other Americans. I knew very little about his personal life and the backstory behind what I’ve seen him do publicly before reading this book.
Many people will say that they had big events in their life that changed them, but in my experience, fewer people actually do something actionable when they feel those changes. Gary Sinise took the emotional changes he felt in himself and put them into action serving others and by using his public and professional platform to encourage others to do the same.
All in all, this was a good read that inspired me to do more for my own community.
#10 - Will
Will Smith’s memoir Will rounds out my list of Top 10 Nonfiction Books for 2023. This was - by FAR - the best produced audiobook that I’ve ever listened to. Will narrates it himself and they integrated music, sound effects, and audio clips to complement the written words that he wrote.
Beyond the production of the audiobook, I really enjoyed the book itself (especially since Will does narrate it himself). There were so many times when I laughed out loud. I especially enjoyed how he imitated his friends and loved ones when telling stories, imitating their voices to give the stories more depth and personality. (As an aside, my favorite voice impersonation that he did is Charlie Mac.)
As a fan of Will Smith since the 1990s, this was great and I really enjoyed hearing both his life stories and the lessons he’s learned along the way. He was honest, even if it meant showing himself in a poor light. I respect him for writing an honest memoir.
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Coach Laura Henry
Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.