Books of the Year 2023

  • Themes: Books, Culture

Contributors to Engelsberg Ideas highlight the books they’ve enjoyed in 2023

Albrecht Dürer depicts a lectern with books arranged on it.
Albrecht Dürer depicts a lectern with books arranged on it. Credit: Art Heritage / Alamy Stock Photo

Pratinav Anil, author of Another India

This was, world-historically, a good year for the sobering polemic. Tomiwa Owolade showed how misplaced the race debate is in Britain, where class in fact counts for a lot more than colour, in This is Not America: Why Black Lives in Britain Matter (Atlantic Books). Columbus’ confusion notwithstanding, India too is not America. As Ashoka Mody argues in his latest broadside against the ruling caste, India is Broken: A People Betrayed, Independence to Today (Stanford University Press), the deepest fault lines are economic, not ethnic. As it is, even America is not America, a point trenchantly underscored by Walter Benn Michaels and Adolph Reed, whose essays have been collected by Anton Jäger and Daniel Zamora in No Politics but Class Politics (Columbia University Press).

James Barr, author of Lords of the Desert

Rory Stewart’s Politics On the Edge: A Memoir from Within (Jonathan Cape) provides a darkly funny insight into contemporary politics and a discombulating glimpse of the inner workings of the departments in which he served as minister. I have not read a better book all year. Ghaith Abdul Ahad’s A Stranger in Your Own City: Travels in the Middle East’s Long War (Penguin) is a superb mix of memoir and reportage, charting Iraq’s descent and featuring by his distinctive, fastidious line drawings.

Katherine Bayford, military historian

Richard Whatmore’s excellent The End of Enlightenment: Empire, Commerce, Crisis (Allen Lane) suggests that the Enlightenment ended up devouring those who most believed in it, providing the context for the emergence of Napoleon. William Doyle’s Napoleon at Peace: How to End a Revolution (Reaktion Books) and Rachel Chrastil’s Bismarck’s War: The Franco-Prussian War and the Making of Modern Europe (Allen Lane) served as quasi-bookends to the great Bonaparte experiment: what the Terror raised, Bismarck crushed.

Lukasz Bednarski, author of Lithium: The Global Race for Battery Dominance and the New Energy Revolution

Ashlee Vance published an eminently readable book on the recent history and evolution of the private space industry, When The Heavens Went On Sale: The Misfits and Geniuses Racing to Put Space Within Reach (WH Allen). James Ashton’s The Everything Blueprint: The Microchip Design that Changed the World (Hodder & Stoughton) is a natural choice for those who enjoyed Chris Miller’s popular Chip War: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology. In South Korea’s Grand Strategy: Making Its Own Destiny (Columbia University Press), Ramon Pacheco Pardo relates with style how South Korea made it in business and culture despite a turbulent political scene. Mathias Enard’s The Annual Banquet of the Gravediggers’ Guild (Fitzcarraldo Editions) transports the reader to rural France, beautifully capturing its traditions, scents, and human eccentricities.

Alastair Benn, Deputy Editor, Engelsberg Ideas

In her accomplished translation of The Iliad (WW Norton) Emily Wilson successfully distills the fundamental character of the epic world. A stunning achievement. I ended the year reading Sky Economics Editor Ed Conway’s Material World: A Substantial Story of our Past and Future (WH Allen), a Jules Verne-esque story that takes in mega-mines, mind bogglingly vast refineries, epic environmental damage and astounding feats of human innovation. Conway identifies six raw materials which, when clawed from the ground then baked or smelted or boiled into something more useful, play an outsize role in the modern economy. It’s a sobering work but not without glimmers of optimism and a sense of hope for the future.

Gill Bennett, author of The Zinoviev Letter: The Conspiracy that Never Dies

George Peden’s Churchill, Chamberlain and Appeasement (Cambridge University Press) is a masterly synthesis of years of research and expert knowledge, bringing fresh insights and debunking conclusively the myth that there was much policy difference between these two men. It is a pity that we need David Omand’s How to Survive a Crisis: Lessons in Resilience and Avoiding Disaster (Viking), but in troubled times the ability of this titan of the intelligence world to explain complex issues in clear and powerful prose is both impressive and comforting.

Rodric Braithwaite, author of Russia: Myths and Realities

In Vienna: How the City of Ideas Created the Modern World (Yale University Press) Richard Cockett reminds us forcefully of the unique contribution which Imperial Vienna, and ‘Red’ Vienna after 1918, made to modern music, art, psychology, literature, social democracy, and economics,The experiment drew heavily on the talents of Jews from across the empire. It was ended by Nazi savagery after 1938, which was itself deeply rooted in the clerical intolerance and anti-Semitism of ‘Black’ Vienna.

Ajay Chowdhury is one of a group of Indian crime writers whose stories are intriguingly set against the Raj and its aftermath. In The Detective (Vintage) Kamil Rahman, a brilliant Calcutta police officer sacked for challenging a bigwig, has fled to London, worked illegally in a tandoori restaurant, and joined the Metropolitan Police. Now he is investigating murders among local immigrants. With his poignant plotting and sharp characterisation, and deep empathy for Muslims, Hindus, Jews and English alike, Chowdhury transcends the usual boundaries of the genre.

Elisabeth Braw, author of The Defender’s Dilemma

Ian Bostridge is that rare musician who is also an academic. Indeed, the British tenor is both a top-flight musician – he’s especially noted for his interpretation of German Lieder – and a bona fide scholar with a history PhD from Oxford. It should come as no surprise that when Covid-19 hit and all concerts were cancelled, Bostridge seized the opportunity and wrote another book. Song and Self (University of Chicago Press) explains to the general reader some of the works Bostridge frequently performs. Unsurprisingly, his writing about them is as sublime as his performances of them.

Ahron Bregman, author of Cursed Victory: A History of Israel and the Occupied Territories

At a time when the Middle East is engulfed in bloody wars, Jeremy Bowen’s The Making of The Modern Middle East: A Personal History (Picador) is the book to read for those looking for a reliable guide to the modern Middle East. Jeremy is one of the finest, most knowledgeable journalists and broadcasters. His accounts of thirty years working in the region for the BBC combine with his personal experiences to result in this gripping, fast-paced tour-de-force, taking us from Afghanistan to Sudan, from Egypt to the Palestinian Occupied Territories, and from Syria to Jerusalem. This book is a real delight – a classic Jeremy Bowen product: cool, detailed and full of dispassionate analysis.

David Cowan, historian

The political consensus is quickly giving way under the pressure of populist politics, the Covid pandemic, and the war in Ukraine. There has been a great deal of reflecting this year on the economic and cultural failings of the status quo from politicians and philosophers. Danny Kruger MP wrote Covenant: The New Politics of Home, Neighbourhood and Nation (Politicos) to forcefully argue that conservatism should return to its communitarian roots. The New Leviathans: Thoughts After Liberalism (Allen Lane) by John Gray considers the limitations and hubris of the liberal West in recent decades.

Eloise Davies, historian

I greatly enjoyed Stefan Eich’s The Currency of Politics: The Political Theory of Money from Aristotle to Keynes (Princeton University Press), an ambitious and elegant history of the relationship between monetary theory and democratic politics from Ancient Greece to the present. Eich explores what it would mean to ‘democratise’ money today. Another delight was Roy Strong’s The Stuart Image: English Portraiture, 1603-1649 (Boydell & Brewer). Light-touch but learned, this is a seductive guide to the inventive – yet overlooked – portraiture of early seventeenth-century England, charmingly typeset to resemble an early modern book. My fiction highlight remains the first book I read this year: Shehan Karunatilaka’s entrancing and darkly funny Booker winner, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida (Sort of Books).

Thomas de Waal, author of Great Catastrophe: Armenians and Turks in the Shadow of Genocide

War in Ukraine and the ascendancy of the populist right across Europe have made us revisit the notion that Europe has banished the ghosts of history.

Time Shelter (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), by the Bulgarian writer Giorgi Gospodinov, deservedly won the International Booker Prize this year. It’s a brilliant fantasy about an experiment that allows first individuals and then whole countries to relive periods of their 20th century past. Maybe only a Bulgarian with a keen awareness of the tragicomedy of both socialism and what followed it could have written it.

Claire Kaiser’s Georgian and Soviet: Entitled Nationhood and the Specter of Stalin in the Caucasus (Cornell University Press) is a work of scholarship that throws light on one of Gospodinov’s themes: how the Soviet Union enabled and constructed a certain kind of ethno-nationalism among its constituent ‘nations.’ It’s also a revelatory book about Georgia, the non-fiction equivalent of Nino Haratishvili’s magnificent The Eighth Life.

Daisy Dunn, author of Not Far from Brideshead: Oxford Between the Wars

I very much enjoyed Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness: Britain and the American Dream 1740–1776 (Chatto & Windus) by Peter Moore. While it centres largely on Benjamin Franklin, the book also takes in Samuel Johnson, John Wilkes and Catharine Macaulay. The Founding Fathers drew considerable inspiration from Cicero and the Roman Republic, so I particularly enjoyed Moore’s forays into the classical origins of their ideas. And his argument for the British foundation of the American Dream is as fascinating as it is provocative. I am currently reading – and loving – a very handsome book by Andrew Lycett entitled The Worlds of Sherlock Holmes (Coles Books). It’s all about the cultural and scientific phenomena which touched Conan Doyle’s (and Holmes’s) life, and the legacy Holmes left behind. Both the text and the pictures are exquisite.

David Lloyd Dusenbury, author of I Judge No One: A Political Life of Jesus

In A Kidnapped West: The Tragedy of Central Europe (Faber & Faber), the late Milan Kundera
tries to show that Central Europe – ‘an uncertain zone of small nations’ – is the centre of
Europe. He argues, further, that Western Europe never understood the Cold War, because it
failed to appreciate the depth of Central Europe’s struggle to protect its ‘threatened identity’. We
could still say that, in 2023 (as in 1983, when Kundera wrote this), ‘there is something
conservative, nearly anachronistic’ about the Polish, Czech, or Hungarian idea of Europe. But if
Kundera is right, this is something that Europe needs – faith in its own ‘cultural identity’.

Patricia Fara, author of Life after Gravity: Isaac Newton’s London Career

I was gripped by this year’s Pulitzer prize winner, Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead (Faber & Faber) a politically charged condemnation of Big Pharma and white poverty in Appalachia that ingeniously updates David Copperfield. My second wake-up call came from the journalist Richard Fisher, whose The Long View: Why we Need to Transform How the World Sees Time (Hachette) takes a trip into the future as well as the past to compile a global account of attitudes towards time and the preservation of our planet.

Katherine Harvey, author of The Fires of Lust: Sex in the Middle Ages

Jamie Kreiner’s The Wandering Mind (W. W. Norton) is an engaging exploration of the lives of early medieval monks, many of whom saw danger and temptation around every corner. No doubt they would have thoroughly disapproved of two other books which I enjoyed this year. Jill Burke’s How to be a Renaissance Woman: The Untold History of Beauty and Female Creativity (Profile Books) offers a female perspective on Renaissance Italy, focusing in particular on bodies and beauty. Anthony Bale’s A Travel Guide to the Middle Ages: The World Through Medieval Eyes (Viking) thoroughly debunks the popular belief that medieval people never left their villages, and made me want to go travelling — though preferably with all the modern comforts and conveniences.

Katja Hoyer, author of Beyond the Wall: A History of East Germany

I don’t find it easy to commit to a book that will take months to finish. The thought of all the others that don’t get read gives me literary FOMO. But three erudite tomes kept me hooked this year. The first was Simon Sebag Montefiore’s sweeping story of humanity, The World: A Family History (Weidenfeld & Nicolson). Looking at the doings of people through the prism of family is a brilliant approach that allows Montefiore to span thousands of years and the entire globe whilst regaling us with an intriguing combination of scholarly wisdom and historical gossip. Peter Frankopan’s The Earth Transformed: An Untold History (Bloomsbury Publishing), a vast history of people’s interactions with the planet we live on, is even more ambitious in its chronology. But Frankopan’s fresh approach to world history expertly weaves granular detail into fast-paced analysis, taking his readers with him page by page. Christopher Clark’s latest masterpiece Revolutionary Spring: Fighting for a New World 1848-1849 (Allen Lane) a sparkling account of the revolutions that shook Europe 1848-1849. It’s at times laugh-out-loud funny despite the serious subject matter as Clark’s analysis is delivered with a unique mix of erudition and wit. All three historians make a great case that epic historical events sometimes require epic books to tell their stories.

William James, author of British Grand Strategy in the Age of American Hegemony

Nigel Ashton’s False Prophets (Atlantic) offers a fascinating and lucid account of the UK’s engagement with the Middle East since the Suez crisis of 1956. Amid the Labour Party’s recent divisions over the war in Gaza, the chapter on Harold Wilson, arguably the UK’s most pro-Israel prime minister, makes for timely reading. Under Wilson’s watch, the British Army redeployed from the sands of South Arabia to the barricades of Belfast. Here, I recommend Huw Bennett’s recent study on the early years of the Troubles. Uncivil War: The British Army and the Troubles, 1966-1975 (Cambridge University Press) carefully documents the army’s shifting strategy to contain the conflict in Northern Ireland.

Jeremy Jennings, author of Travels with Tocqueville Beyond America

Sara Wheeler has been one of our most popular and prolific travel writers over the last few decades. Her Glowing Still: A Women’s Life on the Road (Abacus) reflects upon this experience and does so at the time when travel writing looks to be an endangered species. When she started out, Wheeler tells us, it was good to travel. Now Covid, the charge of voice appropriation, damage to the environment and the cry of ‘We’ve been everywhere’, means that it’s almost wicked. Among the many merits of this engaging book is that it reminds us why human beings have always travelled.

I have always felt embarrassed by my relative lack of knowledge of the history of Central Europe. Anyone who has felt similarly afflicted should read Martin Rady’s superlative The Middle Kingdoms: A New History of Central Europe (Allen Lane). Taking us with wit and insight from the Romans to the present post-Communist era, it provides as sure a guide as one could wish to have. One fact stands out: for over two millennia Central Europe has been the victim of a long line of predators and conquerors. Those carrying Kalashnikovs are only the latest dogmen.

Paul Lay, Senior Editor, Engelsberg Ideas

Any year in which Peter Brown, the great scholar of late antiquity, publishes a new work will see it declared as one of my books of the year, and 2023 is no exception. His Journeys of the Mind: A Life in History (Princeton University Press) looks back over his remarkable career as a scholar – surely he ranks as the greatest living historian? – of staggering linguistic facility, erudition and insight. It also paints a vivid picture of the Anglo-Irish milieu in which he grew up, a community now all but lost. My other book of the year could not have been written but for the influence of Peter Brown, though it is the work of very different perspective(s): Beatrice’s Last Smile: A New History of the Middle Ages (Oxford University Press) by Mark Gregory Pegg. Moving, funny and beautifully written it demonstrates that medieval history is anything but dull.

Alexander Lee, author of Machiavelli: His Life and Times

Christopher De Hamel’s Posthumous Papers of the Manuscripts Club (Allen Lane) offers a fascinating new history of humanity’s relationship with books. De Hamel examines twelve noted bibliophiles – such as the eleventh-century theologian, Anselm of Bec, the Renaissance book-seller Vespasiano di Bisticci, and the forger Constantine Simonides – and explores the often surprising ways their lives were shaped by the written word. This is scholarship at its very best: deeply learned, elegantly written, and above all, tremendously addictive. A real tour de force.

Italo Calvino’s The Written World and the Unwritten World: Collected Non-Fiction (Penguin Classics) is a treasure-chest of delights. It offers an unrivalled insight into the intellectual world of one of the twentieth century’s foremost authors – and is absolutely fascinating, to boot. Ann Goldsmith’s translation more than does justice to the whimsical richness of Calvino’s thought. For anyone who loves If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, it is a sheer joy; but even for the neophyte, it is a book to come back to again and again.

I also greatly enjoyed Ismail Kadare’s A Dictator Calls (Random House). Though the style takes a little getting used to, it is certainly among the Albanian author’s most intriguing works. Focussing on a three-minute telephone conversation between Stalin and Boris Pasternak about the arrest of Osip Mandelstam, it offers a fascinating exploration of the relationship between literature under dictatorship – and, at the same time, the fragility of poetic friendships.

Mathew Lyons, writer and historian

Two marvels. Laura Cumming’s Thunderclap: A Memoir of Art and Life & Sudden Death (Chatto & Windus) is part memoir, part biography, part exploration of Golden Age Dutch art. Cumming writes with such luminous clarity about the art she loves that, in effect, she teaches us how to see. The deftness and elegance with which she moves between the different registers makes it a joy to read.

Ann Wroe’s Lifescapes: A Biographer’s Search for the Soul (Jonathan Cape) is an intense, visionary meditation on the breath of life and how it manifests itself – in Wroe herself and in other writers, thinkers and artists. It is at once filled with human spirit and with the spirit of something greater and more mysterious still.

Aaron MacLean, Senior Fellow, Foundation for Defense of Democracies

Waller Newell’s Tyranny and Revolution: Rousseau to Heidegger (Cambridge University Press) is a remarkable achievement. A clearly written book in a field where both scholarship and the original texts can often be impenetrable, Newell continues his project (begun in 2013 with Tyranny: A New Interpretation) of demonstrating that ‘tyranny’ is a real and useful category in thinking about politics, focusing here on the sources of purifying revolutionary challenges to the Western status quo in modern political thought, and especially in German idealism. The modern philosophical tradition gave us both our dominant liberal regime and also its most important challengers, and Newell’s work is an excellent basis for thinking about the role of ideology in politics.

Iskander Rehman writes with a reminder that great power war is generally not short and sharp, but protracted and attritional. His Planning for Protraction: A Historically Informed Approach to Great-power War and Sino-US Competition (Adelphi) is an excellent overview of this idea, a rich essay in applied history treating a subject that is rightly on a lot of strategic professionals’ minds. As with Newell’s book, Rehman’s references alone are worth the price of the volume. Indeed, the problem with both books is that they are likely to induce unstoppable rounds of further book-buying.

Andrew Monaghan, author of Power in Modern Russia: Strategy and Mobilisation

I very much enjoyed Peter Wilson’s Iron and Blood: A Military History of the German Speaking Peoples Since 1500 (Harvard University Press). It is an ambitious and fascinating examination of whether there is a German ‘way of war’, combining broad sweep across both time and themes, with telling depth of detail.

Nicholas Morton, author of The Mongol Storm

This year saw the publication of Chris Wickham’s brilliant reconstruction of the medieval Mediterranean economy in his The Donkey and the Boat: Reinterpreting the Mediterranean Economy, 950-1180  (Oxford University Press). I don’t necessarily agree with him on all points, but the sheer depth of his research and the breadth of his insights warrants close attention. Likewise John France’s magisterial Medieval France at War: A Military History of the French Monarchy, 885-1305 (Arc Humanities Press) offers a panoramic overview of the French army and it’s development during the medieval era. Crammed with information and highly persuasive arguments, this book is essential reading for anyone interested in medieval military history.

Sir David Omand, former Director of GCHQ

Three recent books should give us pause for thought about crises ahead. Mustafa Suleyman’s The Coming Wave (Bodley Head) in which the AI creator argues that the need to control artificial intelligence is an existential dilemma, navigating between unchecked openness and dystopian surveillance. For counter-terrorism expert Peter Neumann in The New World Disorder: How the West is Destroying Itself (Scribe Publications) we have only ourselves to blame after 9/11 for squandering the West’s advantages and we need to reinvent ourselves to encompass sustainable modernism. For central banker and regulator at the Bank of England, Paul Tucker, in his Global Discord: Values and Power in a Fractured World Order (Princeton University Press), our international economic and legal systems will not survive our fractured geopolitics unless we adopt a new kind of political realism in which we cooperate more with those with whom we share the most and whom we fear the least.

T.G. Otte, author of Statesman of Europe

In The Identity Trap: A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time (Allen Lane) Yascha Mounk offers a fascinating account of the intellectual origins of identity politics. A staunch defender of free speech but also a careful and meticulous historian of ideas he examines the roots and rise of ideas such as Critical Race Theory or Intersectionality that have come to dominate contemporary discourse, politics and institutions.

Revolutionary Spring: Fighting for a New World 1848-1849 (Allen Lane) by Christopher Clark offers a magnificent panoramic view of that strangest of revolutions in Europe, one that places greater emphasis on political concerns and one that draws disturbing parallels with today’s dissatisfactions.

Anna Parker, writer and historian

I loved David Grann’s The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny, and Murder (Simon & Schuster). It’s the thrilling real-life story of how imperial ambitions came into conflict with human failings, set in the midst of the British Empire’s war against its imperial rival Spain. In 1740, The Wager—manned by 250 ‘highwaymen, burglars, pickpockets’ and other undesirables—sets off from Portsmouth as part of squadron of ships tasked with destroying Spanish holdings on the coast of South America. Grann is an exceptionally compelling storyteller, who in The Wager provides an evocative account of life under sail. Red shipworms a foot long bore into rotten timber. The seamens’ fingers are coated in a permanent layer of black and sticky waterproof tar. Hammocks swing above bilge water. In 1741, the crew is shipwrecked on an island off the Patagonia coast. The crew’s ‘wooden world’—held together by naval regulations, laws of the sea, and the bonds of fellowship between the men—splinters. Captain David Cheap shoots and kills a crew member as he struggles to keep order; enraged, a rival group led by John Bulkeley, the ship’s gunner, mutinies, abandoning Cheap and his few supporters on the island. Astonishingly, both factions survive and return to Britain. Their conflicting accounts about what really happened on the island provide rich fodder for broadsheet newspapers, periodicals, and books until, in 1746, an Admiralty court hushes up the story, concerned that it shows the British Empire as uncivilised. The Wager is an exploration of the ‘revising, erasing, and embroidering’ that smoothes over the uncomfortable realities in both personal and national stories. It’s also brilliant fun.

John Raine, former British diplomat

John Gray’s The New Leviathans: Thoughts After Liberalism (Allen Lane) is rich if not seasonal fare. It is a work of mordant invective about the excesses and failures of the modern state (totalitarian and liberal). ‘Hyper liberalism’ and the ‘lumpen intelligentsia’ are Gray’s primary targets on which he focuses withering fire. With extensive quotes, he channels Hobbes in all his bleak sagacity, a voice both infinitely remote in its cadences but, in Gray’s stewardship, eerily relevant and authoritative. He cites other less renowned thinkers (from Vasily Razunov to Arnold Gieulincx) but wears his learning, as Hobbes did, with a measure of indifference reserving his mental powers for his own arguments. Gray compresses these into often caustic codas: ‘If liberalism has a future it is it will be as therapy against a fear of the dark.’

Gray offers neither hope nor a plan, as his critics often observe. But through Hobbes, whose humanity it is hard to suppress, if not his own analysis, he offers the deeper consolation of a kind of cosmic honesty about how things are. Hobbes lived, and worked, until 91 having if not the last laugh, then perhaps the last word on his critics. Gray keeps the indomitable realist alive still.

Angus Reilly, Editorial Assistant, Engelsberg Ideas

William Inboden’s account of Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy, The Peacemaker (Dutton) provides an indispensable overview of American foreign policy in a critical decade, with clear implications for contemporary geopolitics.

Stuart Reid’s The Lumumba Plot: The Secret History of the CIA and a Cold War Assassination (Knopf) is an exhilarating debut that can inspire pangs of envy in those, like me, who aspire to write works of such calibre. The characterisation is masterful, and the drama is propulsive in the viscous atmosphere of post-independence Congo. It is a book with a worthy cause and an author who truly does it justice.

Samuel Rubinstein, historian

My book of the year was, in a sense, published five years ago. But translations are works of art in themselves; foreign-language history books are too rarely translated into English; and even when they are, they seldom get as good as this. The German historian Hans-Ulrich Wiemer’s Theoderic the Great: King of the Goths, Ruler of Romans, trans. John Noël Dillon (Yale University Press) illuminates the strange world of a Dark-Age figure, best known today (if at all) as the barbarian who had Boethius imprisoned and executed. Thanks to John Noël Dillon’s magnificent translation, which came out this year, Theoderic’s world, in all its complexity, can now be reached by an Anglophone audience.

Peter Sarris, author of Justinian: Emperor, Soldier, Saint

I thoroughly enjoyed Robin Lane Fox’s wonderful Homer and His Iliad (Allen Lane), which I read before a trip to Troy and the Dardanelles. He manages to summarise centuries of scholarship and debate, integrate it with the latest archaeological findings, and present his own novel ideas with characteristic elegance and poise. Another highlight of the year was Peter Frankopan’s The Earth Transformed: An Untold History (Bloomsbury Publishing) which reveals a remarkable mastery of both the historical and scientific evidence and manages to explain the environment’s impact on man and man’s impact on the environment across a breath-taking timespan.

Kori Schake, Director of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies, AEI

What fun is Zadie Smith’s The Fraud (Hamish Hamilton)! Smith mocks the social aggrandisement of writers of historical novels throughout this historical novel, and she manages it without condescension — her characters are vibrant and true and in some cases even pitiable as they argue about a nineteenth century trial that bears resonance with our contemporary politics.

Chester Nimitz is the most underrated of the great Second World War commanders, and in Nimitz at War: Command Leadership from Pearl Harbor to Tokyo Bay (Oxford University Press) Craig L. Symonds finally gives him his due. It focuses on Admiral Nimitz in command: the innovative practices he undertook, the consequential decisions he made, the difficult personalities he navigated (both Douglas MacArthur and Ernest King). What comes through most strikingly is that Nimitz believed in giving people second chances, as he himself had been given when court martialled early in his career. The US needs a military in which Ensign Nimitz could become Fleet Admiral Nimitz.

Michael Sheridan, author of The Gate to China: A New History of the People’s Republic & Hong Kong

Vaudine England’s Fortune’s Bazaar: The Making of Hong Kong (Corsair) was a rich, colourful portrait of the many races who made the British colony of Hong Kong into a cosmopolitan trading city. The author has found people and stories out of Joseph Conrad, revealing powerful women behind the scenes. A pleasure to read and a corrective to official Chinese chauvinism.

For anyone who loves art and France, Jackie Wullschläger’s Monet: The Restless Vision (Allen Lane), a biography of the great Impressionist, is a treat in store. Wullschläger, chief art critic of the Financial Times, composed an essay for the FT in 2018 comparing Mantegna and Bellini that remains one of the outstanding pieces of writing on renaissance art; she goes from strength to strength and this biography, based on Monet’s letters, will keep this reader enthralled into the new year.

Andrew Sillett, Classicist, University of Oxford

In Pax: War and Peace in Rome’s Golden Age (Abacus), the latest instalment in his Roman history series, Tom Holland sets himself the extraordinary task of writing the world of the Roman empire in the conceptual grammar of its denizens. There are no comforting analogies with 21st century politics, rather a world of gods, blood and sex that is in equal parts terrifying and exhilarating. Llewelyn Morgan’s Horace: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press) flips this idea on its head: showing how influential a single poet has been on how successive generations have parsed the experiences life has thrown at them.

Christopher Silvester, writer

One of the most important books of the year, because of the terrible record of cultural suppression it relates, is Ian Johnson’s Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and Their Battle for the Future (Allen Lane). The historians he describes are not academics but journalists and underground filmmakers who have attempted to bear witness to political and social change in China from Mao to Xi. They have all suffered greatly for the sake of truth. Another important book was Nigel Biggar’s Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning (William Collins). Biggar’s scholarship is matched by his fair-minded and judicious approach. Finally, for exposing a little known though transformative episode in American history and for its narrative flair, I recommend Peter Cozzens’ A Brutal Reckoning: The Creek Indians and the Epic War for the American South (Atlantic).

Phil Tinline, author of The Death of Consensus: 100 Years of British Political Nightmares

James Ball has written books on the internet’s wiring, and on ‘post-truth’ – so who better to make sense of QAnon? In The Other Pandemic: How QAnon Contaminated the World (Bloomsbury Publishing), Ball brilliantly argues that this tangle of conspiracy theories is a deadly pathogen. It erupted when radicalizing algorithms met millions of people who feel disempowered, and want someone to blame.

We can’t tackle this without thinking about power, as Mathew Lawrence and Adrienne Buller do in their short, sharp, hopeful book Owning the Future: Power and Property in an Age of Crisis (Verso Books). They argue that the ‘extreme concentration of wealth and control’ has fuelled today’s political bin-fire. They also set out how it could be doused.

Duncan Wheeler, Chair of Spanish Studies, University of Leeds

I finished Greg Doran’s My Shakespeare: A Director’s Journey Through the First Folio (Methuen Drama) with more enthusiasm than I had begun it with. Productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company, most recently Hamnet, have left me cold, striking me as professional but lacking spark. Spark and enthusiasm are precisely what brings this book (part memoire, part primer) by the RSC’s former artistic director, Greg Doran, alive. Analysing the experience of staging almost all of Shakespeare’s works for the stage since he was a schoolboy in the 1970s, Doran showcases the same mix of concentration and relaxation he attributes to the best classical actors.

Mary Gabriel’s Madonna: A Rebel Life (Coronet) is a definitive biography of the only one of the big four (Prince, Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson) of 1980s popular music to still be alive. Gabriel’s eight-hundred page tome locates the material girl within the fabric of wider society in erudite fashion. The hagiographic tone is justified as an antidote to the attacks to which the Queen of Pop has been subject(ed) throughout her life and career. If she’s not to your taste, fair enough; but anyone unable to unwilling to appreciate her seismic contribution to the culture of the second half of the twentieth century has a problem.

Jeremy Wikeley, writer

Julia (Granta), Sandra Newman’s ‘feminist’ retelling of Nineteen Eighty-Four, is completely compulsive and totally convincing, an astonishing feat for a book built out of another book. And it pulls all this off while having a genuinely subversive argument with the original. Daniel Knowles’s Carmageddon: How Cars Make Life Worse and What to Do About It (Random House Audio) an exhaustive account of the way driving came to dominate modern cities, is only available on Kindle in the UK which is a shame, as anybody involved in planning (or politics) should read it. It’s a car’s world, we’re only living in it.

Francis Young, author of Twilight of the Godlings: The Shadowy Origins of Britain’s Supernatural Beings 

Two ostensibly different yet surprisingly resonant books I have enjoyed this year are They Flew: A History of the Impossible (Yale University Press) by Carlos Eire, and Into the Uncanny (BBC Books) by Danny Robins. Eire’s book is a serious work of academic history that nonetheless advocates that we should take claims of supernatural phenomena like flying saints seriously, challenging a cosy scholarly consensus that such questions somehow don’t matter. Danny Robins’s wonderfully humane book is a popular account of the podcaster’s paranormal investigations, and similarly challenges us to take seriously people’s experiences of the impossibly strange, which reflect an apparently unavoidable aspect of our humanity.

Muriel Zagha, critic

I was captivated by American novelist Todd McEwen’s spirited cinematic memoir Cary Grant’s Suit: Nine Movies that Made Me the Wreck I am Today (Notting Hill Editions), in which he charts his key encounters with film from Laurel and Hardy to Godzilla, Jacques Tati’s Mon oncle to The Wizard of Oz, and loved especially his evocation of the hallucinatory powers of Technicolor, which he experiences as a food, much as it is said that Marcel Proust used to ‘eat’ music. Marking the 75th anniversary of a film so classic that we forget how strange and experimental it really is, film scholar Pamela Hutchinson’s study The Red Shoes (BFI Film Classics) provided a fascinating account of the making of the film, especially its ground-breaking, extended ballet sequence.


Engelsberg Ideas