Books of 2023

A combination of life’s distractions, ill discipline and slow reading mean that I have only managed to finish 11 books this year. I am almost embarrassed to admit to such a paltry tally. There are people who can rip through that many titles in less than a month. I envy them their capacity. But it is what it is. Eleven.

As is now my habit, there is a tweet thread of brief reviews of each book – summarised in the image below. Click on the image for a higher resolution version.

Multi-panel image of the tweet thread of reviews of the 11 books I read in 2023.

Tweeted reviews of the books read in 2023.

My favourites would have to be the first two books that I read this year: Andrea Wulf’s Magnificent Rebels and Kenan Malik’s Not so Black and White.

I had previously enjoyed Wulf’s biography of Alexander von Humboldt (The Invention of Nature) and he reappears here, albeit as a minor character, in her stupendous and rollicking tale of the writers, philosophers and thinkers who coalesced around the polymath Goethe in the small university town of Jena in the last decade of the 18th Century. Their lives, deaths, loves, rivalries and collective creativity make for a riveting story.

Not so Black and White is a more sober tome but no less vital. It provides a deeply informed analysis of the history of racism and the ways that identity politics, while seeking to enact the higher aspirations of the Enlightenment, have led to a fracturing of social solidarity. Malik is another author I’ve read before – his The Quest for a Moral Compass is a magisterial exploration of the development of moral philosophy – and I was once again hugely impressed by the depth and clarity of his writing.

Most of the other non-fiction titles I got through this year were also important and compelling reads, especially Sarah Churchwell’s The Wrath to Come, an exploration of the persistent legacy of slavery and white supremacy in the USA; Angela Saini’s deconstruction of the presumption of male power in The Patriarchs; Matthew Cobb’s The Genetic Age, a thoroughly researched account of the societal implications of gene and genome engineering; Gaia Vince’s terrific and terrifying analysis in Nomad Century of the likely impact of climate change on human migration; and Peter Frankopan’s massive and massively impressive The Earth Transformed – world history as you have never read it before.

I reserve special mention for Why don’t things fall up?, my friend Alom Shaha’s brilliantly lucid account for non-specialists of how science helps us to understand the world.

Sadly, the two novels that I read this year – Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See – were both disappointments, neither conjuring for me the feeling of the worlds they sought to convey. Better luck next year on that front, I hope.

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