My Top Books of 2023

Shahriar Shahrabi
9 min readJan 2, 2024

This year was full of traveling and giving talks at conferences. So I didn’t have the usual free time to read to my heart’s content. I still managed to finish around 33 non-fiction books and almost as many fiction books.

I enjoy diving in different fields. This year I decided to fill the gaps in my knowledge in game design theory, product work and company management. Other than that, I read quite a bit of comics, philosophy and art history.

So here are my top books, in no particular order:

The Aesthetic of Play by Brian Upton

After reading all the classic game design books that you see floating around various lists, I wasn’t expecting much from this book. So I went in with little expectations! What I got was a nicely formulated and clearly articulated framework to understand games, symphonies, books or whatever else we experience as a work of aesthetics.

This book changed how I think about design, be it in game design, art direction or constructing narratives. Brian Upton has done a lot of research and combines philosophy, art history, neuroscience and his decades of experience as a game designer. I really love this book!

If someone asked me what game design book is worth reading, this would be a very easy recommendation, followed by Jesse Schell and Raph Koster’s works.

Hegel’s Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art Vol 1

Ok, I loved reading this. But Hegel is way too deep up his own bum sometimes (pardon my language)! Let’s get the bad parts out of the way. Hegel can’t write! There, I said it. The guy takes super-simple concepts and articulates them with sentences that go on for several pages. I don’t understand how someone can be so smart and so dumb at the same time.

This is a very western-centric work. His ignorance of Far Eastern or Middle Eastern art results in some unfortunate casual racism at times. He sometimes overreaches in his arguments. In those instances, the points are quite obviously wrong. This happens especially with the examples he gives to build his arguments.

While it is amusing to observe the mental gymnastics the guy goes through to philosophically explain why our noses have two holes, this is a long book! Hundreds of pages in, in a book typeset in a style that I can only describe as “let’s pack as many words as we can on a page with font size 2”, you do wonder what life choices lead you here! So why did I love reading this?

Regardless of whether you agree with Hegel on individual points or not, you do spend a lot of time thinking about all these different aspects of aesthetics. It is like having a very long conversation with someone about the topic. Also, as a whole, he is on to something, and he makes some very good points! His knowledge of the western art history is pretty good, and you learn a lot about the northern European post-humanist/nationalist view of the arts. Anyway, if you find yourself annoying innocent people with long conversations about aesthetics, which they don’t care about, you will probably enjoy this book!

Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility by James p. Carse

In some texts, you know their content before you read them because they are frequently referred to. This is one of them, so I was not sure if there would be any pleasant surprises in it. Reading this, I felt what can most accurately be described as tremors that propagated throughout my mind. It is not that I have not already “known” the concepts in the text, but how it was framed put me in a curious state of mind. Perhaps it was precisely because I already knew what was there that the text had such a profound effect on me.

The work is not without fault, however. Similar to Jung’s work, I would have a hard time convincing someone of the ideas in it through my own words. Is this a sign of my lack of dialectical skills? Or is the deep meaning in the work a consequence of expertly framed linguistic gymnastics and not an inherent truth? Who knows? The author does sometimes take leaps in establishing connections that felt unconvincing to me but were framed as inevitable.

Either way, this is a book I can recommend to everyone. Insider tip, read this book like you would read poetry. Don’t take the logic too seriously and focus more on the metaphor.

The Spanish Civil War: A Very Short Introduction by Helen Grahman

Is this the best book on the Spanish Civil War? No idea. But it is my introduction to the topic, and I really enjoyed reading it. The Spanish Civil War is an important event in European history. Both for its formal importance in regard to the world wars and the symbolic place it has in the mind of a global left movement. I don’t know if this is the best book you can start with, but it is a topic worth diving into.

Money Men: A Hot Startup, a Billion Dollar Fraud, A Fight for Truth by Dan McCrum

Most nonfiction books I read are unfortunately written by authors who are brilliant at what they do, and what they do is not writing. That’s why reading this felt like a ray of sunshine on a cloudy day. Dan McCrum is an amazing writer, and I could barely put this book down!

How do I best sell this book? It is the real story of a German/ Austrian start-up that managed to steal billions of dollars from the German stock market! The tale contains everything from pornography and illegal gambling to international accounting heists and the Russian mafia. Honestly, every page I thought, “Surely it can’t get wilder than that!” But, sometimes you can’t make up the stuff that happens in real life!

This is a very fun book. It actually made me interested in reading the book about Theranos. Maybe if another book on Sam Bankman Fried comes out that covers how the financial crimes were committed, I will read that too. This whole thing is just too juicy!

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most

Some books change you forever when you read them. This book not only changed my present and future, but it also made me look into the past. I reassessed my behaviours on several occasions and realized that I was, as a matter of fact, wrong!

This is one of those books that I think everyone should read!

This is one of those books that I will probably reread every two years, just to make sure I don’t forget the very important lessons inside.

The Personal MBA by Josh Kaufman

The name might put you off, but I promise this book is not trying to turn you to a Mr Business. As a matter of fact, this work is mostly useful for normal people who are trying to build something small to get something done. It respects your time and touches the basics of pretty much everything you need in regard to doing business. It also offers plenty of resources if you need to go beyond the basics for any given topics.

I wished I read this book like 10 years ago!

The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else In Business by Patrick Lencioni

Another book I will regularly reread. The Advantage is brilliant! In the past few years, I have already become a firm believer that the number one reason why bad art direction or product design happens is politics. The Advantage very nicely formulates why that is the case and what can be done about it! A sure recommendation for any team lead, or anyone working as a director or executive.

V For Vendetta

I left the fun part for last, time to talk about all the graphic novels! V for Vendetta doesn’t need much introduction. It is basically a perfect work of art. Each element blends seamlessly in a unified whole. This year I was very lucky to read it for the first time!

Ballad for Sophie

Ballad for Sophie is beautiful! The story doesn’t reach the level of something like Day tripper and certainly not the depths of V for Vendetta, but it will still live rent-free in my head for a long time. Also, Filipe Melo is a composer, so the work comes with an actual ballad you can listen to. It kind of hits extra hard because of it. Anyway, the book does a pretty good job of selling itself:
“A young journalist prompts a reclusive piano superstar to open up, resulting in this stunning graphic sonata exploring a lifetime of rivalry, regret, and redemption.”

The Arrival by Shaun Tan

This graphic novel has no words. It is a series of images which describe the experience of migrating to a foreign place. As someone who has been on the move since 14, and has lived in several countries, this lead me to shed a few tears. It is an absolute mastery of visual story telling!

Habibi by Craig Thompson

Oh I loved Habibi! There are quite a lot of controversy around this work. The main points of criticism is Orientalism. It is true that Habibi does indulge in a fair bit of Orientalism. The story happens in Wanatolia, which is a weird combination of Turkish, Arabic and Persian elements. But all the faults to the side, this book is beautiful!

Craig Thompson went in to find beauty in the Islamic culture to show to its fellow country men, and he found it! Islamic art is very logos centric, it is centred around written words. This doesn’t feel like a cheap shot at copying and pasting some middle eastern art, this is clearly a work by someone who genuinely fell in love with the beauty of the script, the same way that many middle eastern artist have in the past few centuries.

There is nothing quite like this as far as I know, and I respect the fact that an American guy who doesn’t know Arabic or Persian decided to spend so much of his life researching a portion of the beauty I grew up with and bringing it to the average western audience! Brilliant work.

I had to leave out a lot of works which left a strong impression on me this year. A quick note on some of them, The Vegetarian by Han Kang was a hell of an uncomfortable read! Goodbye Eri left a hole in my heart. The Plenitude gave me a lot to think about, and Fear and Art made it finally clear to me that not only am I an artist, but I have been an artist since my teenage years. It is Lonely at the Center of the Earth gave me a window to the mind of someone who is very different from me, someone who experiences negative emotions strongly!

Anyway, thanks for reading! I hope you find something here that might interest you. You can follow me on various socials listed here: