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Our Favorite Reads in 2023

Our Favorite Reads in 2023

As we turn the page on 2023, AP editorial board members, contributing editors, and staff share their favorite reads. We’ll be back in the new year, returning January 2.

American Purpose

Riding the Tiger: Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the Uses of War by Leon Aron

Recommended by Dalibor Roháč

It is not simply because of loyalty to my own organization, AEI, that I’m singling out Leon Aron’s most recent volume, Riding the Tiger. The book written by my colleague is oozing with anecdotes, with rich and colorful detail, and it showcases a plethora of cultural artifacts that jointly drive home its main argument. Relatively early on in his reign, Vladimir Putin set on a course to transform Russia’s culture and its historic self-understanding in a way that has put the geopolitics of grievance, revanchism, and militarism at its heart. It was this cultural transformation, not NATO’s “expansionism,” that has made war inevitable. For as long as this form of national identity continues to capture the imagination of Russians, the country will remain a threat to its neighbors.

Strange Defeat: A Statement of Evidence Written in 1940 by Marc Bloch

Recommended by Daniel Chirot

The most astonishing military defeat in the 20th century was the collapse of the French army, then reputed to be the best in the world, in six weeks in 1940. The French had more tanks than Germany, more aircraft, and enough men, but they had little understanding of how to use modern technology. Runners (including Bloch) were still used to convey messages, tanks were not sufficiently connected by radios, and infantry could not coordinate with the air force. The Germans had adapted. Also, France was a deeply divided country, and in a desperate crisis turned to reactionary old men who did not believe in democracy. Their view of the world was pessimistically delusional, as it was rooted in fantasies about a mythologized ideal past. America is not going to be invaded by anyone soon, but aren’t there frightening analogies that should make us think harder about where we are headed?

Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World by Tara Isabella Burton

Recommended by Nicole Penn

Traveling on the Boston T, I happened to alternate between reading Tara Isabella Burton’s Strange Rites and overhearing a Franciscan monk counseling a man about the nature of belief while they sat under an advertisement for Salem’s “Witch Walk” tour. Some would call this an odd coincidence, but I’m chalking it up to something a bit more providential. Burton’s immersive survey of the Soul Cyclers, Snape Wives, Wiccans, Bronze Age Pervert acolytes, and other flourishing subcultures of the internet age is an important reminder that God is not dead, but rather just very online. Although institutional religion may be in serious decline in America—nearly half of Gen Z adults now report never having attended religious services in their teen years—Burton’s study is proof that despite its protean expressions in the modern era, the human desire for transcendence is stubbornly immutable.

Underground Empire: How America Weaponized the World Economy by Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman

Recommended by Nils Gilman

Building off their celebrated International Security article on “weaponized interdependence,” Farrell and Newman chart the development and geopolitical significance since the 1970s of the globe-spanning but U.S.-centered financial and telecommunications infrastructure. As these systems were being built, mainly by U.S. corporations, some thought it spelled the realization of a libertarian dreamworld of borderless free-flowing money and information outside of government control. But after 9/11, the U.S. government recognized that the world’s reliance on this physical infrastructure made it ideal for locating and cutting off terrorists—and eventually also for squeezing states like Iran, Russia, and China. Inevitably, this “weaponization” of the world economy has provoked a backlash—“the United States had made itself too powerful to be trusted”—as these states are now seeking to develop their own technological stacks, redividing the world into increasingly hermetic informational spheres. 

Annapurna: The First Conquest of An 8,000-Meter Peak by Maurice Herzog

Recommended by Carolyn Stewart

During a recent trek in the Western Himalayas, I came across a faded copy of Maurice Herzog’s Annapurna. In this classic of mountaineering literature, Herzog recounts his experiences leading a team of French alpinists on an expedition to summit Annapurna and be the first climbers to bag an eight-thousand-meter peak. After successfully reaching the summit, elation quickly turned to despair. The climbers were struck by snow blindness, frostbite, avalanches, and hypoxic drunkenness in a nightmarish descent back to base camp­. Annapurna is a study in leadership that rivals anything one might find in the Library of Congress. Despite the swashbuckling nature of the whole ordeal, Herzog led his expedition with humility, tenderness, and a deep understanding of his team’s strengths and weaknesses. At times, Herzog is a bit too unsparing in detail­—particularly when recounting trailside amputations—and yet, there is much here to satisfy the most adventurous of armchair mountaineers.

The First Political Order: How Sex Shapes Governance and National Security Worldwide by Valerie M. Hudson, Donna Lee Bowen, and Perpetua Lynne Nielsen

Recommended by Tod Lindberg

This book came out in 2020, but I’m just getting to it and haven’t yet finished it. You will recall how Alexander Wendt (following on Hedley Bull and the English School) reintroduced sociology into the study of international relations with constructivism and his famous observation, “Anarchy is what states make of it.” Hudson and her collaborators have produced a path-breaking work that does the same for anthropology—specifically, by re-centering our view of politics from prehistorical times forward around sex differences. The “first political order” is the male-dominant one, in which all men assert superiority over all women and maintain power relations accordingly, from the family and kinship networks to the national level and on into international politics. While part of the world today has largely moved beyond what they call the Syndrome, a substantial part remains firmly in its grip. There’s a lot to wrestle with and argue about here, but it’s a book I’ve long been awaiting. 

The Ghost at the Feast: America and the Collapse of World Order, 1900–1941 by Robert Kagan, and Prequel: An American Fight against Fascism by Rachel Maddow

Recommended by Michael McFaul

These days I am writing my own book on lessons from the Cold War for dealing with China and Russia today, so I rarely read entire books, but just skim the parts that pertain to my research. But this year I read two fantastic books cover to cover: Bob Kagan’s The Ghost at the Feast: America and the Collapse of World Order, 1900-1941 and Rachel Maddow’s Prequel: An American Fight Against Fascism. The books are complementary. Kagan details the isolationist tendencies in the United States in the 1930s that helped to create the permissive conditions for World War II. Maddow chronicles the rise of fascist politicians and movements in the United States at the same time, a history that I honestly did not know and wonder if we repress on purpose. There are scary echoes today of both stories, as the title of Maddow’s book implies. Let’s learn these lessons of our past so we don’t repeat them now. 

Eighteen Days in October: The Yom Kippur War and How It Created the Modern Middle East by Uri Kaufman

Recommended by Craig Kennedy

Fifty years ago, Israel experienced an existential crisis when the armies of Egypt and Syria attacked the Jewish state on two fronts. This book is the definitive history of that war. Kaufman is not a professional historian, but he has produced an exceptionally thorough and thoughtful account of the Yom Kippur War. Relying on Israeli, Russian, and American archives, the author paints a detailed account of the blunders and successes that were part of this conflict. On the Israeli side, his portraits of Sharon, Dayan, and Meir are especially sharp while capturing the challenges of making strategic decisions under great pressure. Sadat is portrayed as seeking revenge for the 1967 war, yet fearful of a repeat performance. As a new conflict rages in the Middle East, this volume will provide both context for what we are witnessing now and an understanding of what it means to make very difficult choices. 

A Kidnapped West: The Tragedy of Central Europe by Milan Kundera

Recommended by Josef Joffe 

This is a slender book about a region that was both a space and a state of mind known as Mitteleuropa. It was roughly congruent with the Habsburg Empire. Vienna, Prague, and Budapest were centers of a luminous civilization that was destroyed by the Nazis and communists, turning into “Eastern Europe,” a “Kidnapped West.” 

After the fall of the USSR, autonomy came back, but not the glory of the past. Kundera notes: “These countries had vanished from the map of the West.” They had shone forth with a “maximum of diversity in a minimum of space.” We can’t think of Western modernity without Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka, Edmund Husserl, and Gustav Mahler. They were Jews, and “no other part of the world has been so marked by Jewish genius.”  

After the Velvet Revolutions, the West did not forget Mitteleuropa, integrating it into NATO and the EU. Will its breathtaking creativity rebound after oppression? Perhaps. Yet the scions of modernity were murdered and their descendants went West. And Western culture’s center of gravity has shifted to the United States.

Dry Humping: A Guide to Dating, Relating, and Hooking Up Without the Booze by Tawny Lara

Recommended by Laura Silverman

Sobriety is having a moment right now. Gen Z is drinking less, “sober curious” folks are flocking to bars and bottle shops without the booze, and months like Dry January give participants a respite from heavy partying. 

Tawny Lara’s new memoir-meets-practical-guide—with a title that’s sure to turn heads—on how to navigate a social life without alcohol illustrates that dating and relating off the sauce is an invitation to try something just a little bit different. And if you do end up “meeting for drinks,” whether on a first date or a brunch with friends, why not make those drinks non-alcoholic? Lara weaves in interviews with subject-matter experts in psychology, addiction, nutrition, sobriety, and dating with personal anecdotes on how she turned a one-year experiment of not drinking alcohol into what has since become eight-plus years of documenting her life, sober, in the public eye. 

I longed for a book like this when I was first starting my own sobriety journey over sixteen years ago. Lara’s words are bound to help the next generation find freedom in relating to others, and themselves, in a new way. I’ll say “cheers” to that!

The World: A Family History of Humanity by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Recommended by Adrian Karatnycky

My essential book of 2023 is Sofia Andrukhovych’s Ukrainian-language magnum opus, Amadoka (forthcoming in English from Simon & Schuster in 2025), a novel that is a mimetic masterpiece spanning Stalin’s repressions, the Holocaust, and the ongoing war in Ukraine. However, my essential book in English is Simon Sebag Montefiore’s The World. Spanning 1,300 pages, this magisterial and judicious history of the world from antiquity to the present, awash in facts, is told in large measure through the histories of dynasties, families and their intrigues, and the transcendent, larger-than-life personalities in government, culture, and science who shaped the fate of mankind through the millennia. As a fan of knowledge and of books that can be read in spurts, this encyclopedic work brings endless joy and unending revelations.

Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861–1865 by James Oakes

Recommended by Katherine C. Epstein 

Freedom National is the fourth book by the highly distinguished historian of American slavery James Oakes. I’ve been working my way through Oakes’ oeuvre because I thought his critique (from the left) of the 1619 Project was brilliant and gutsy. He’s a superb scholar, able to move seamlessly between a fine-grained command of detail and explaining why those details matter at the highest levels; he combines the best of historical materialism with the best of cultural history. Perhaps above all, he reads history forwards, as people at the time experienced it, not backwards from our contemporary assumptions and ideas. For me, one of the key implications of Oakes’ work is that the dominant narrative of U.S. history on the left is not only politically self-defeating but simply bad scholarship. Read him to see what really rigorous, intellectually bracing scholarship looks like. 

Manon Lescaut by Antoine François Prevost, and The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith

Recommended by Adam Garfinkle

Reading old books in pairs can be accidentally edifying. Honoré de Balzac’s Pere Goriot (1835, set in 1819) and Gustave Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education (1869, set in 1848) once revealed how little the fundamental attitudes of elite Frenchmen changed despite the serial tumult of their politics. This year Antoine François Prevost’s Manon Lescaut (1731) and Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), having flung me back another century, showed how honored classics within the Western canon can differ dramatically in the cultures they illustrate and the styles they employ. 

Prevost’s heroine remains as enigmatic now as when Prevost’s masterpiece was banned in Catholic France; Goldsmith is full of surprises. In chapter XIX he has his vicar deliver a Hobbesian defense of monarchy, but then this (!): “The rich have two sources of wealth, whereas the poor have but one. For this reason, wealth, in all commercial states, is found to accumulate, and all such have hitherto in time become aristocratical.” Thomas Piketty and those who suppose him original eat your hearts out. 

His Greatest Speeches: How Lincoln Moved the Nation by Diana Schaub, and A Nation So Conceived: Abraham Lincoln and the Paradox of Democratic Sovereignty by Michael P. Zuckert

Recommended by Gary J. Schmitt

Abraham Lincoln was not only America’s greatest president in deed but also in speech. Two recent books, Diana Schaub’s His Greatest Speeches and Michael Zuckert’s A Nation So Conceived show readers just how closely and deeply the two are related. Schaub’s detailed analysis of the Lyceum Address, the Gettysburg Address, and the Second Inaugural provides a concise encounter with Lincoln’s thought and how, through speech, he hoped to shape public opinion to address critical weaknesses in the body politic. Zuckert’s volume is no less impressive, as it examines how over time Lincoln—the lawyer, the politician, and the President—struggled with, and addressed, the core question at the heart of the American republic: Are the principles of equality and liberty—the very source of America’s free institutions—also a perpetual source of their potential undoing?

Writers and Missionaries: Essays on the Radical Imagination by Adam Shatz

Recommended by Matt Hanson

Shatz’s nuanced, novelistic portraits of writers, artists, and thinkers like Edward Said, Richard Wright, Claude Lanzmann, Sartre, Derrida, and especially the doomed, intense Israeli-Arab actor Juliano Mer-Khamis gain human depth and power from exploring the all-too-human space where art and politics clash. 

Magisteria: The Entangled Histories of Science and Religion by Nick Spencer

Recommended by Mathilde Fasting

Magisteria explores the nuanced relationship between science and religion from antiquity to artificial intelligence. Spencer challenges the simplistic dichotomy between the two, examining pivotal historical events such as the murder of Hypatia in Alexandria, the Galileo affair, and Thomas Huxley’s debates on Darwinism to reveal a more intertwined narrative. Focusing on the Western history of science and religion, Spencer raises fundamental questions about human identity and authority in determining nature, the cosmos, and humanity’s place in the grand scheme. The book delves into the evolution of the terms “science” and “religion,” arguing that their supposed conflict is a modern misconception. Spencer highlights reciprocal influences, where science shapes religion and vice versa, emphasizing that scientific explanations alone cannot address profound existential questions. 

Looking to the future, the author explores the impact of artificial intelligence on the science-religion dynamic, anticipating ethical considerations. The book presents a comprehensive and thought-provoking perspective on the overlapping magisteria of science and religion, challenging conventional narratives and promoting a deeper understanding of their interconnected histories. 

How to Feed a Dictator: Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, Enver Hoxha, Fidel Castro, and Pol Pot Through the Eyes of Their Cooks by Witold Szabłowski

Recommended by Ringo Harrison

“What did Saddam Hussein eat after giving the order for tens of thousands of Kurds to be gassed? Didn’t he have a stomach ache? And what was Pol Pot eating while almost two million Cambodians were dying of hunger?” The book contains interesting anecdotes such as Idi Amin’s love for Western food, Saddam Hussein’s obsession with Tabasco, and Enver Hoxha’s diabetes, which prevented him from eating sugary desserts. Perhaps most interesting is how the cooks see their leaders. The cook for Idi Amin was able to forgive his monstrosity after decades of anguish, while the cook for Pol Pot remains a firm supporter of him to this day. 

We often learn about dictators through the lenses of their victims or eyewitness accounts from their advisors, but To Feed a Dictator gives us another perspective about how these dictatorial regimes functioned, not in executive offices or war rooms but at the dinner table. 

In Memoriam: A novel by Alice Winn

Recommended by Charles Dunst

War novels are a dime a dozen. Alice Winn’s magnificent debut In Memoriam manages to stand out nonetheless. She weaves a breathtaking story of love and loss between two men—boys, really—who meet in a British boarding school during World War I. Her writing is simple yet captivating. She carefully paints her characters in shades of identity—sexuality, religion, and nationality—from which the book benefits greatly. Her portrayal of gay love in a Europe not yet accustomed to it is deeply moving: “Their tenderness was hesitant and temporary, like a butterfly pausing on a child’s hand.” Winn was just twenty-six years old when she began writing In Memoriam, so I feel a certain sense of generational solidarity with her, since I began writing my debut nonfiction book Defeating the Dictators (2023) at twenty-five. But even for those skeptical of us millennials, Winn’s writing will keep you turning the pages and stick with you for a long while. 

The Writings of P.G. Wodehouse

Recommended by Michael Mandelbaum

P.G. Wodehouse is the wittiest, funniest, merriest writer in the English language. The best known of his more than one hundred novels and many other short stories feature one of literature’s most memorable odd couples: Bertie Wooster, the lovable, well-meaning, somewhat dim upper-class Londoner who repeatedly finds himself honor-bound to marry a young lady to whom he has become accidentally and unwillingly engaged; and Jeeves, his valet (not butler, although, as Bertie notes, he does know how to buttle), who uses his mighty brain, honed by reading Spinoza and fortified by eating fish, to extricate Bertie deftly from his unwanted entanglements.

Also highly recommended are the Wodehouse romantic comedies that take place at Blandings Castle, over which presides the absent-minded Lord Emsworth, whose supreme interest in life is his prize pig, the Empress of Blandings.

Those unacquainted with the Wodehouse opus can consider this a public service announcement: Start with The Code of the Woosters and proceed from there.

Image: Christmas decorations in Moscow's Red Square. (Unsplash: From Marwhool)

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