The Books, Videos, Movies, and TV Shows That Changed Me Last Year
If you want to develop great taste, you must taste a lot of stuff
Evan is still off hiking in the wilds of New Zealand, and he wrote this piece before embarking on his trip. It’s a fitting companion to both his accountability scoring for his 2023 predictions and his exhortation for builders to acquire cultural taste. Let us know what pieces of culture you loved last year and/or what you’re planning to consume this year in the comments. –Kate
As 2023 closed out, I argued, “The problem you solve for customers is increasingly one they can’t even articulate for themselves. The ones that are easy to understand have already been built and funded over the last 20 years. Building something of true excellence will require a hungrier engagement with the world—and that will have to start with developing superior taste.”
One of the best ways to develop great taste is to, well, taste stuff. Engaging with a variety of media, cultural artifacts, and content helps you develop a sense for quality. This aesthetic muscle allows builders to engage with their customers in a fundamentally more empathetic way.
The natural next question is with what content to start. What is excellent, and why?
2023 was one of my favorite years for content ever. There were so many films, books, and videos that meaningfully affected me. So I examined my databases where I track all the TV, movies, and books that I consumed last year and pulled out the ones that changed me as a person. I evaluated my selections on three criteria:
- Recall: You know how your teenage crush consumed you? Every little thing would make you think of them and sigh longingly? The best content does that, too. It worms into your brain and pops up over and over again, long after you first watched or read it. I wanted to optimize for content that I couldn’t quite keep tucked away in the back of my mind.
- Before-and-after factor: This list focuses on content that instigated a distinct change in my personal life or creative practice. It is, admittedly, an imperfect measure, as I actually think that much of the value of consuming quality is an overall intellectual and spiritual uplift, but these works made an impact.
- (Mostly) fiction: I have and will continue to review non-fiction work for readers. Last year I particularly enjoyed McKay Coppins’s Mitt Romney biography; Ben Smith’s Traffic, which profiled Buzzfeed and Gawker; Make Something Wonderful, published by the Steve Jobs Archive; and Rick Rubin’s guide to creativity. But I already wrote tens of thousands of words of analysis on these books! Go read those if you want nonfiction. The point of this list is to expand your horizons, not just recommend the same stuff as every other tech publication.
None of these links are affiliates. I’m not trying to get paid by Amazon; I just want our readers to feel joy. So please, consume and enjoy.
The Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons, books 1 and 2: The all-too-common flaw of sci-fi novels is that they contain interesting scienfitic ideas that are subsumed by clunky prose, female characters who are mostly sex objects, and a story that lacks emotional engagement. Not here. Hyperion is well-crafted, beautifully written, and has plot lines that burrowed into my heart. The first book may just be the best sci-fi novel ever written? And somehow, the second is even better? Read this if your brain breaks around the space-time continuum and you want to read The Canterbury Tales in space.
The Will of the Many by James Islington: The fantasy genre is full of tropes—a boy becomes a hero, the hero was foretold in a prophecy, etc.—so authors have to learn when to follow the trope and when to subvert it. The Will of the Many is a story of rebellion and danger, set in a Roman Empire-esque world, that perfectly nails this balance. While I enjoyed the author’s previous fantasy series, this book is heads and shoulders above his previous work. If the momentum continues, it belongs in the same conversation as The Lord of the Rings, The Cosmere, Game of Thrones, and other fantasy greats—it is that good. Read this if you want a story of rebellion, anger, and Roman revenge.
Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman: I cheated—this one is nonfiction, and it wasn’t my first time reading it (it was likely my fifth). It happened the way it always does: I cite a passage in my research, start reading the next sentence, and then, oops, I finished it again. The book, which was published in 1985, is a theoretical take on the dangers of TV and how the perils of news as an entertainment product are not well understood. If the author had seen TikTok, his brain may have exploded. Read this if you are concerned about our current media environment and want to understand the structural reasons for why it is damaging.
Of all the mega-giant internet companies, YouTube may be the most important and least discussed. There is an incredible amount of art and science and culture and beautiful, messy life on the platform. If you can properly train your algorithm to feed you more than Mr. Beast videos, the content is amazing. These were a few of my favorites.
Weekend Update: The Iceberg on the Sinking of the Titanic—SNL. Every aspect of this Saturday Night Live sketch from April 21, 2021 is perfect: the costuming, actor Bowen Yang’s impeccable timing, the interplay with the audience. I have watched it once a quarter as a reminder of how great comedic writing works. Watch this once to laugh and twice to appreciate the overwhelming amount of talent and skill that went into a sketch with a decidedly silly premise: the Titanic iceberg wanting to promote its musical album.
Action Bronson: Tiny Desk Concert: Action Bronson shouldn’t work. Nothing about him says bona fide hip-hop artist—he can’t really sing, his rap flow is borderline bizarre, and he’s a short white guy from Queens. However, Bronson has something so powerful, so overwhelming, that these factors don’t matter: an unholy level of charisma. Watch this if you want to see the power of confidence in creating.
2023 was maybe the best year for movies in a decade. I saw over 20 films in theaters (thank you, AMC Pass) and had the time of my life. Film is our most important modern medium (that’s an essay for another day); these were the movies that moved me this year.
Stop Making Sense: The greatest concert film ever made is, well, the greatest concert film ever made. This year marked the 40th anniversary of the legendary Talking Heads concert. Directed by Jonathan Demme, who made Silence of the Lambs, every inch of it is sparkling perfection. I knew one of the band’s songs before seeing this movie, but I enjoyed it so much that I dragged my wife to see it a second time. Frontman David Byrne is another charisma machine, and each part of this fun, engaging film benefits from his touch. It was so good that typing this review made me go throw it on the TV. Watch this if you want to see how artistry is timeless and how small details are what makes big things great.
Chungking Express: This movie, directed by Kari-Wai Wong and released in 1994, shouldn’t work. The story is tenuous at best, and the pacing is bizarre. After my first viewing, I gave it three stars. A few weeks later, I bumped it to three and a half; a few weeks after that, to four. On and on, until it became one of my all-time favorites. Some shots are so good that they have literally appeared in my dreams. I can’t explain why it works, but it just does. Watch this if you are tired of Marvel blockbusters and want to understand how weirdly wonderful quality cinema can be.
Killers of the Flower Moon: Martin Scorsese’s best work, this movie was my favorite new release of the year. Haunting and cutting, the film works on two levels. First, the story is well-crafted, and the acting by every member of the cast impeccable. Second, the film is a meta-commentary on the genre of true crime. I have always felt it is perverse to use people’s suffering for financial gain, and this film tackles that feeling head on. It made me consider how to treat the stories of startup failure that I write about with more empathy and kindness. Just watch it!
Death Note (Crunchyroll): I explored anime for the first time last year and fell in love with it. The medium isn’t perfect, but at its best, it can pull off things live action could never. One of my favorites of the year was Death Note, a psychological thriller that follows a high school student who gains the power to kill anyone by simply writing down their name. It is smart, it is intense, and you will binge this harder than anything you have ever binged. Watch this if you want to see the best of what anime can do.
Arnold (Netflix): Is it a shameless hagiographic documentary? Yes. Did it get me pumped up enough not to care about that? Also yes. Arnold Schwarzaneger’s rise from a bodybuilder in small-town Austria to European competitor to body-building champion to global movie star to California governor is one of the most incredible stories of our time. Watch this if you want to gain the motivation to dream bigger.
All of this content changed me in some way, and I think it will do the same for you. What do you recommend I should check out in 2024? Leave a comment below.