On January 2nd, 2023 I undertook Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I finished it on June 20th, 2023. I read all six volumes. The undertaking shaped my year, reshaped my site, and will shape my future direction.
2023 Reading Recap
I read a total of twenty-three books this year. That includes the six volumes of Gibbon. If you count Gibbon as one behemoth book, then I’ve read seventeen books.
Aside from the Gibbon undertaking, 2023 proved a pivotal year with my reading. That’s due to a book I read in the latter half of 2022, Alan Jacob’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. The book came at the right time for me. I was feeling restricted in how I read non-fiction. Intuition told me to evolve. That intuition I battled. That battle, working through a reading insecurity: a fear of personal regression.
When I dove head first into Hustle Culture around 2010, I applied all of the reading methods. I tried speed reading. I tried the note-taking systems. I tried the “index the lessons” methods. And with that, I reduced every book into fashionable hustle chestnuts. The chestnuts were what I was taught to see. I missed how those approved Hustle Culture reading methods were performative and aimed at personal gratification of the theatre of that performance.
When I left that Hustle Culture world I underwent one catharsis after another. One catharsis I underwent was my reading. I one day looked at my bookshelf and flipped through the books I had read using the approved Hustle methods. I realized I had no idea what I had read. I looked at my commonplace notes, my indexed notes, my highlights, my cloud, my Anki quiz cards, and got mugged by reality: I had undergone a useless mental masturbation exercise and knew nothing of what I had read.
Later that year, I read Mortimer Adler’s classic, How To Read a Book. It lifted me out of the neutered style of reading I was doing, and hoisted me into a better intellectual place. It helped me get back to who I was versus playacting as a life hacker.
Adler teaches to not take any notes whatsoever when you read; he advises reading straight through without stopping whatsoever. The goal is to determine if that book is worth a reread. The exercise of reading straight through proved great for me. I believe it would be for anyone constrained intellectually from the reading hacks peddled by sciolists and the gurus playing obsequious to the theatre of “learning lessons from books.” But after a few years of reading straight through I felt restricted. I wanted to converse more with a book. But I felt like if I started taking notes as I read, I’d regress to “Hustle Jimmy” and reduce books to chestnuts.
Silly, I know.
I ignored that I had matured. Jacobs gave me the permission I needed to evolve. I started writing marginalia. I worked on slowing down my reading. And I’m glad I did.
2023 marked the year I slowed way, way down as I read. I started conversing more with books via marginalia. I even started marking up fiction books. As a result, reading became more enjoyable.
The big pivot Jacobs inspired — asking questions. I asked a lot of questions in the margins. I worked to be Socratic with the questions. That soon evolved into the analytical reading methods Adler teaches, like circling the key terms. I then began summarizing in the margins, in my own words, concepts or passages I wasn’t quite grasping. I began arguing with certain authors right on the page. All that deepened my conversation and enjoyment.
This was the biggest change to my reading and the best change. It helped prepare me for Gibbon and what else was to come for 2023.
Reflections of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
I wrote a series on this behemoth, so I won’t delve into much here other than some reflection. I loved spending six months with an author and six months on one topic At times, sure, it got a little weary. I felt like when Spring showed up I needed to move on. But finishing Gibbon on my balcony and seeing Sloan’s Lake Park come into bloom was fitting.
I walked away with a lot from Gibbon. But not with what most would expect. People like to ask me about the fall of Constantinople, ask if we’re in a decline, or mention a battle. I frankly don’t remember much of certain battles Gibbon covered. It comes to me if I read it elsewhere. But off the top of my head, I don’t suddenly remember certain dates. I walked away with far richer benefits.
First, I walked away with a deep appreciation for living in America. And an appreciation for living in the present time — I wouldn’t want to be alive at any other time. I’m curious about other periods, but most people overlook how good we have it now. From our health, and our longevity, to the creature comforts we enjoy, we got it good. Yes, areas of our life have declined notably since 2020, but those declines are nothing compared to what it would have been like to get a stomach bug in say, 1880. Today we can go to the pharmacy or urgent care, and get a simple medicine to fix us fast. In 1880, that stomach bug was a death sentence. Much of modern America concerns me, but I still prefer now versus any other time in our past.
Second, my interest in foreign policy increased, and my views on it changed. I see the importance of deterrence. I see that foreign policy is at one end simple: deterrence matters. The strongest country militarily sets the tone for the rest of the world. I’d much rather live under American ideals, hollowed out as they might be, than live under communist China’s ideals. That’s simple. The complex end is the balance of conducting foreign policy. American foreign policy is often laughed at (wrongly, since in the end, even with our ups and downs, America has been the most effective at it as far as a dominant world power goes), mainly because it doesn’t follow the ancient continental (European) styles. Ours is more ephemeral as the populace has more say than they believe, and our political class can at times be great or at times be abysmal with foreign policy. And part of the complexity is the tradeoffs of how we conduct our policy. The tradeoffs at home, abroad, culturally, and politically. It’s tricky. It made me lament how unserious our political world has gotten (largely due to Social Media).
Third, the nature of war. And I’m referring to the human nature element. Gibbon’s work reveals much of man’s nature. Man is flawed. Man is tragic. Man is born in sin. Man can accomplish great things. Man can do wonderful things. But inherent to man’s nature are evil and good. War, as Gibbon shows, is conducted by man, and thus has a nature. And war has a habit of stripping away man’s best qualities and unleashing the worst and most demonic features of man. Gibbon shows how Christianity and ancient Hellenistic — or Western if you want to call it — moral teachings tempered demonic unleashing. Yet it did not solve it, nor can it ever solve this nature. War brings out the worst in individuals. Today, many people have a purity fragility around war. This isn’t to say we must shrug our shoulders at something awful, but there is this sense that, “Oh yeah! America did terrible things in Vietnam, therefore AMERICA IS AWFUL!” America has done awful things, as have every other country and society on earth. The fact is, America is far more tempered than most countries. Our ideals are imbued with Christian ethics and Western ethics. And the Roman Empire, when it went to war, it was depravity and barbarity to the extremes we can’t imagine. America and other countries are plagued with sins, no country on earth as no man or woman on earth is free from sins, but America and other Western countries are far less depraved and far more tempered when it comes to war.
Last, and most important, before I read Gibbon I was a Christian deist, and now, I’m a flat-out Christian. Odd since most accuse Gibbon — falsely— of being anti-Christian and hating the Christians. Gibbon questions aspects of Christianity and he raises important questions. He does a phenomenal job of showing the complexity of Jesus, especially the birth of Jesus. Gibbon didn’t show me the light per se, but my wrangling with Jesus Christ came into light as Gibbon wrangled with him. Working through Gibbon’s wrangling of Jesus, I dropped the deist bit, and went full Christian.
Gibbon Inspired Professional Change
I loved spending time with Gibbon. I also read two other Roman books post Gibbon that enriched my Roman Empire experience. And I loved spending that much time on a topic.
Adler teaches analyzing one topic at a time to best understand it. And an intellectual I like, Tyler Cowen, recommends reading a bunch of books on one topic to best know it.
Going forward, I’m going to read certain books in a cluster. I have a new feature on my site called the Deep Reading Series. And seeing how my Roman Empire articles went well, I’m going to deep dive into certain topics.
Gibbon and the most common question I received when someone found out I was reading Gibbon, inspired the next topic: American Decline. I’m currently a few books in. I have future topics lined up and have new site features for Good Word Members where we can interact deeper on these topics.
Want to know more about the Roman Empire but don’t want to read the Gibbon canon?
Gibbon is a lot. Most people, understandably, will not read it.
But, as I said, I read two other books about the Roman empire that are great.
- The War That Made the Roman Empire, Barry Strauss
- Escape from Rome, Walter Scheidel
Strauss’s book is accessible, fun, memorable, and informative. Pop history can sometimes be generic and banal. Strauss delivers a serious book but one that is enjoyable. If you want a good understanding of what Rome was like before Augustus declared himself emperor (and the starting point of Gibbon’s belief of where decline fomented) then read it.
Scheidel’s theory is that Rome fell before it declined. After finishing Gibbon’s work, I came to that conclusion. Gibbon flirts with that idea but goes more chronological. Scheidel makes the best case as to why Rome fell before it declined, but most importantly, he shows why Rome’s fall was good for mankind.
This book is heady. Its prose is more academic. But it’s pragmatic, detailed, and well-reasoned. It also delivers a superb summary of the Roman Empire, and what it was really like.
Scheidel delivers a masterclass in critical thinking. He does a lot of counterfactuals and contingency questions good historians deploy. He plays out various what-if factors. In conversation or on Twitter, you’re apt to come across, “Rome fell because of X” or “If Napoleon did this then” and everything sounds neat, tidy, and mind-blowing. But those scenarios sum everything up to fit a perfect world scenario — aka a self-serving fantasy. Scheidel shows how brittle a one-size-fits-all theory is when he does robust “then what?” or “as compared to what?” scenarios. I enjoyed how he did it, it’s worthwhile for anyone to understand that exercise.
While I have not read it, at least three people I know are reading the abridged version of Gibbon’s classic work. I believe all three are reading the Penguin Classics version. And all three have told me it’s great. So, if you want to read Gibbon, but not spend most of 2024 doing so, then the abridged version might be a great choice.
Best Non-Fiction of 2023
Gibbon is the clear winner. It is the greatest history I’ve ever read. I might rank it as the greatest non-fiction. It is a classic for a reason.
Best Gibbon Inspired American Decline Reads
- The Dying Citizen, Victor Davis Hanson
- The Rise of the New Puritans, Noah Rothman
- How To Save The West, Spencer Klavan
- The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, Louise Perry
I believe the Dying Citizen should be read by every American citizen. It’s also a great guide to what it means to be a citizen. You’ll walk away with a lot.
Rothman is a masterful wordsmith. He’s an elite wordsmith. He goes beyond picking the right word and instead uses the best and most meaningful word. He’s a rare non-fiction writer whose words paint a thousand pictures. Many books from conservative authors covering Progressive Liberals either throw red meat at their audience or merely point out proof that “woke is bad.” Rothman goes beyond the standard, “This is a postmodern mess!” or “Here’s another example of a man going into a woman’s bathroom!” He shows the cultural heritage of why America has groups that will pick up the Puritan flag and run wild with it.
Klavan’s book does a great job detailing the concerns, especially Conservative worldview concerns, of what is causing decline in the West, and he offers a good vision forward. Like Hanson, Klavan is a classicist, and like Hanson, you learn a lot about citizenship, truth versus relativism, morals, and so on. It’s easy to read, enlightening on multiple fronts, and well-reasoned.
Perry is fascinating. She’s a Progressive Liberal and former 4th wave feminist. But her work in a rape crisis center became her Road to Damascus. If you have been interested in masculinity and femininity, and have read articles or books on those topics, and are Conservative, likely you will come across familiar themes Perry details. But Perry gives a lot to walk away with. The parts on rape are eye-opening. My gripe, she works too hard to dodge getting called a Conservative or pro-Christian in any shape or form. But, she makes a great argument, and there is a lot to be learned in this book.
Social Justice Fallacies, Thomas Sowell
Thomas Sowell is my intellectual hero and my hero in general. He’s 93 years old. I assumed his newest book would more or less be a collection of essays. Not that I expected him to phone it in, but I had wondered if he was writing new material.
I assumed wrong.
Sowell wrote a new book. It’s sharp, incisive, and meets his lofty standards.
Choice of Fate, Léon Krier
I heard of this book via Roger Scruton. I have a working theory certain cities hate themselves. I read Krier and now I understand my seething of home design displaying garages as a centerpiece and why skyscrapers are so ugly. And I see how some cities hate themselves. Krier is a visionary. If you read this book, you’ll never see cities and townscapes the same way.
Soul of the World, Roger Scruton
I didn’t read Gibbon when I went to bed, at least most nights. Gibbon requires focus. One of the books I read, Confessions of a Heretic, was a collection of essays by Roger Scruton. And I loved it. I watched a video on beauty by Scruton and I believe it’s something everyone should watch. See it here.
Soul of the World is a collection of lectures and essays shaped into a book. Those essays and lectures were delivered to an audience familiar with the ideas Scruton engages with. So some passages of the book, like when he talks Kant or Nietzsche, will not be accessible to a ton of people. But the core of his message is presented beautifully. He covers art, religion, culture, and sex. And he details why the world has a soul, in other words, why God exists. Even if you’re an atheist, this is a beautiful book.
Best Fiction of 2023
Hands down, Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy.
Classic literature has a way of going above the psychological to reveal to us human nature. That Hardy does arrestingly. His prose is poetic, and beautiful, and has a habit of luring you into sentimental reflection.
The story is not a love story. At the end, you’re not sure if it’s a happy ending. But it’s a story of youthful romantic frenzy, human nature, maturity and immaturity, innocence lost, and consequences of unchecked frenzy. A few told me before I read it, “It captures women perfectly!” Wrong. It captures human nature. The main female character Bathsheba Everdene is not representative of all women. Some women, yes, but not all. Bathsheba will likely make some women see themselves in her, or notice they share certain qualities or some of her youthful patterns. And men can see themselves across the three main male characters. Some might be just like Gabriel Oak, but others are just pieces of Oak.
It’s a superb classic.
It will make you reflect.
It surfaced various sentiments for me when I was around maybe seventeen and upwards to about twenty-six or so.
A note, I read the Penguin edition. The footnotes were written by a Feminist, and while most were ok, some drove me nuts. She kept claiming that Bathsheba has no agency and the misogynist men kept forcing her into terrible decisions. It was eye-rolling. It was written in English so you don’t need many footnotes. But some helped to understand various cultural references.
Fiction Runner Up
Running Grave, Robert Galbraith
Galbraith is JK Rowling. It’s her pen name. Running Grave is the latest in her Cormoran Strike series. I enjoy this series. The emotional tension she creates between the characters Strike and Robin brings a wonderful reality to the story.
I found this one far better than the last one.
If you want to read this series, start with the first one, The Cuckoos Calling. Otherwise, if you don’t, the emotional tension will be lost which will sap much of the tension of the story.
Letdown Reads of 2023
I had a good year of picking books.
The only real letdown was my reread of Ross Douthat’s The Decadent Society. I like Douthat.
I enjoy his cultural critiques. But Douthat is rather tone-deaf on the populist corners of his Conservative brethren.
I first read this in September of 2021. And to pat myself on the back, I can’t believe how much I’ve improved and matured my reading. I’m thrilled I slowed my reading down. Second, I’ll pat myself on the back for maturing in my worldview. I looked at my old summary of this book in 2021, and it looks like a different person wrote it.
The big reason for the pat on the back, I understand the arguments better, see the arguments better, and see where I agree or disagree with Douthat.
With this book, on the reread, I agree with much of Douthat, but he kept paying lip service to the New York Times reader. He kept pacifying their worldview. A worldview of “Populist conservatives are bad racists!” Douthat panders to that myth. And it enervated his argument. I still liked the book, but he misunderstands populism, and he stews too much inside the halls of The New York Times.
If you’re a longtime reader of mine you notice the site redesign. It’s completely rebuilt, and it’s geared to my new direction. That direction is more on reading. Yes, I will still talk Hustle Culture. And will talk of Hustle Culture’s crazy theatre, contradictory ideologies, and even the benefits it can offer. But whatever I’m doing with reading has struck a deep chord.
Upcoming for the site, I will have more interactive features and a more conversational element for my paid subscribers. I will also open up more of my thoughts and musings from what I’m reading. I enjoyed spending time with one author and on one topic. Going forward I’m going to detail topics and plan to announce books to get those who wish to be involved, involved.
That has me extremely excited for 2024. I have no idea how the site will take shape. But you readers grew me out of my last site and into this change in direction. So I will be stumbling through learning steps with you which I think will be fun.
Thank you to all my readers. It’s been quite a journey the last few years, and this year proved the biggest pivot, and you played a large role in that. I look forward to what’s to come.