The best books of 2023, as chosen by The Economist

BY Spectrum Wealth Management | Dec 11, 2023

Current affairs and politics

Deadly Quiet City. By Murong Xuecun. New Press; 336 pages; $27.99. Hardie Grant; £14.99

In 2020, at the start of the pandemic, a celebrated Chinese writer interviewed people in Wuhan, China, about their experiences during lockdown. His brave and vital book follows eight subjects, including a doctor at a small hospital, an unlicensed driver of a motorcycle taxi, and a citizen journalist whose daring efforts resulted in a prison sentence.

Fear Is Just a Word. By Azam Ahmed. Random House; 384 pages; $28. Fleet; £22

Since the early 2000s the number of Mexicans who have disappeared has rocketed to more than 100,000. A former bureau chief for the New York Times in Mexico tracks Miriam, whose youngest daughter is kidnapped and then killed by the Zeta gang. By focusing on one mother’s extraordinary story, the author evokes the cartels’ painful toll.

bianca bagnarelli

Flowers of Fire. By Hawon Jung. BenBella Books; 304 pages; $18.95 and £15.99

A brilliant examination of South Korean feminists’ struggle for gender equality that has global resonance. In describing how Korean women are treated as cooks, cleaners and “baby-making machines”, this spirited book illuminates a country grappling with a rapid and uneven ascent to wealth and modernity.

The Kingdom, the Power and the Glory. By Tim Alberta. Harper; 496 pages; $35

This chronicle of the modern evangelical movement in America is a horror story told from the inside. Its author, a staff writer for the Atlantic, grows angry and heartbroken as he watches the religious community in which he was raised hijacked by power-hungry hucksters and right-wing nationalists.

Some People Need Killing. By Patricia Evangelista. Random House; 448 pages; $30. Grove Press; £20

A rigorously reported look at Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign against illegal drugs from a Filipina journalist. It is also a story of lost innocence, as she learns that most people in the Philippines backed their president’s lawless war on drugs, in which some 27,000 people were killed extra-judicially.

Sparks. By Ian Johnson. Oxford University Press; 400 pages; $27.95. Allen Lane; £25

A Pulitzer-prizewinning journalist describes the valiant efforts of China’s “underground historians”, a motley and persistent group of academics, artists, film-makers and journalists attempting to correct the sanitised official record and provide truthful accounts of history. A rare insight into the extraordinary risks that some Chinese take to illuminate the darkest corners of communism.

Business and economics

Anansi’s Gold. By Yepoka Yeebo. Bloomsbury; 400 pages; $29.99 and £20

This is the story of one of the world’s greatest, but least famous, con artists. Ghana’s John Ackah Blay-Miezah bilked investors on several continents by promising he knew the location of lost gold. Exhaustive reporting by the author makes this a riveting and welcome addition to the canon on super-swindlers.

Best Things First. By Bjorn Lomborg. Copenhagen Consensus Centre; 314 pages; £16.99

A forceful argument to replace the un’s sprawling and vague Sustainable Development Goals with 12 cost-effective policies to help the world’s poor. “Some things are difficult to fix, cost a lot and help little,” the author writes. Others can be solved “at low cost, with remarkable outcomes”.

The Fiscal Theory of the Price Level. By John Cochrane. Princeton University Press; 584 pages; $99.95 and £84

An economics professor at Stanford University builds a new(ish) theory for how government debt, not interest rates, ultimately determines prices. Not for the faint-hearted, this book is provocative to economists and well timed for an age of big deficits and high inflation.

The Geek Way. By Andrew McAfee. Little, Brown; 336 pages; $30. Pan Macmillan; £22

A technology-and-business guru from mit explains how the mindset that inspires Silicon Valley could be usefully applied in life and in other fields of business, with a focus on teamwork, producing prototypes quickly and avoiding bureaucracy through individual accountability.

How Big Things Get Done. By Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner. Crown Currency; 304 pages; $28.99. Macmillan; £18.99

Megaprojects often turn into megasnafus. This entertaining book, co-written by an academic at Oxford University and a journalist, asks why ambitious schemes so consistently miss deadlines and budgets, and what can be done about it. Project management has never been more fun.

Material World. By Ed Conway. Knopf; 512 pages; $35. WH Allen; £22

The economics and data editor of Britain’s Sky News travels the world in this study of how six crucial materials—copper, iron, lithium, oil, salt and sand—have altered human history and underpin the modern economy. As countries seek to decarbonise, there is a battle raging to control their supply.

The Missing Billionaires. By Victor Haghani and James White. Wiley; 416 pages; $29..99 and £22.99

A compelling book dealing with the most important and neglected question in finance: not what to buy or sell, but how much. Even sophisticated professionals tend to answer this question badly, leading to lost fortunes. But financial theory provides the answer. Mathematical but not excessively so, this will appeal to anyone with an interest in markets.

Scaling People. By Claire Hughes Johnson. Stripe Press; 480 pages; $30 and £21.99

Good books about the nuts and bolts of management are vanishingly rare. A former executive at Google and Stripe offers a practical guide to everything from giving feedback and delegating to running a meeting and building teams.

Unscripted. By James Stewart and Rachel Abrams. Penguin Press; 416 pages; $32. Cornerstone Press; £25

A deeply reported and unsparing account of the final years of Sumner Redstone, an American media mogul who died in 2020. Like some reality tv, “Unscripted” is riveting because its cast is so awful. A juicy read that delves into (sometimes excruciating) detail about Redstone’s flawed character and extraordinary antics.

Biography and memoir

Hitler, Stalin, Mum and Dad. By Daniel Finkelstein. PublicAffairs; 560 pages; $35. HarperCollins; £25

Both sides of the author’s family were remarkable. His maternal grandfather, Alfred Wiener, was a prominent German Jew who created the most extensive archives documenting the Holocaust; Alfred’s wife and daughters were deported to a concentration camp. The author’s paternal grandmother was transported to a gulag in Siberia. An extraordinary tale of survival, eloquently told.

Ian Fleming. By Nicholas Shakespeare. Harvill Secker; 864 pages; £30. To be published in America by Harper in March; $35

Almost everyone has heard of James Bond. But fewer know how exciting and tormented the life of 007’s creator, Ian Fleming, was. This biography has flaws but it will be remembered as definitive, tracing Fleming’s childhood, military service, espionage and writing career.

Into the Amazon. By Larry Rohter. W.W. Norton; 480 pages; $38

Cândido Rondon, an orphan from Brazil’s poor hinterland, rose to become a military officer who oversaw monumental engineering works in the Amazon and pioneered a non-violent approach to indigenous communities. A vivid look at a hero whose humanism was ahead of his time.

J.L. Austin. By M.W. Rowe. Oxford University Press; 688 pages; $38.95 and £30

Most people are lucky if they enjoy one distinguished career: J.L. Austin had two. He shook up the study of philosophy at Oxford. And, as this scrupulous and engrossing biography shows, he played a crucial role as an intelligence analyst in the Allied invasion of France in 1944.

King. By Jonathan Eig. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 688 pages; $35. Simon & Schuster; £25

This magnificent biography is an overdue attempt to grapple with Martin Luther King in all his complexity. The author, an American journalist, makes the great civil-rights leader’s courage and moral vision seem all the more exceptional for having come from a man with ordinary human flaws.

Milton Friedman. By Jennifer Burns. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 592 pages; $35

The most complete biography of the economist who became a cultural symbol of the free-market era that captured the world in the 1980s. It documents Friedman’s essential role in economic policy and libertarian thought and shows his enduring relevance, despite the world’s protectionist turn.

Monet. By Jackie Wullschläger. Penguin; 576 pages; £35

Written sympathetically and with skill by the chief art critic of the Financial Times, this is the first account in English of the much-loved artist’s life and work. Monet was a tempestuous man whose most lasting relationship—in art as in life—was with water.

Still Pictures. By Janet Malcolm. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 176 pages; $26. Granta; £14.99

A kind of posthumous memoir in which the New Yorker writer, who died in 2021 and once compared journalists to con-men, probes memory, childhood and storytelling itself. “Do we ever write about our parents without perpetrating a fraud?” she asks, with characteristic incisiveness.

Waiting to Be Arrested at Night. By Tahir Hamut Izgil. Translated by Joshua Freeman. Penguin Press; 272 pages; $28. Jonathan Cape; £14.99

A memoir from a Uyghur poet now living in exile in America. He recounts how Xinjiang was transformed into a panopticon of state control, as the Chinese government began the detention and torture of Uyghur Muslims. An urgent tale of survival and subversion.

Wifedom: Mrs Orwell’s Invisible Life. By Anna Funder. Knopf; 464 pages; $32. Viking; £20

In this thought-provoking inquiry into the life of Eileen O’Shaughnessy, George Orwell’s long-suffering wife, the author’s aim is not to “cancel” Orwell, a thinker she deeply admires. Instead, by imaginatively resurrecting Eileen, she explores patriarchy and asks why women still vanish into subordinate roles.


A Day in the Life of Abed Salama. By Nathan Thrall. Metropolitan Books; 272 pages; $29.99. Allen Lane; £25

An American journalist in Jerusalem examines the events that led up to a bus crash in the West Bank in 2012 that killed six Palestinian children and one of their teachers. Part history, journalism, diatribe and lament, the book builds a relentless case that this crash and the ensuing trauma must be remembered.

The Blazing World. By Jonathan Healey. Knopf; 512 pages; $38. Bloomsbury; £30

A page-turning history of the 17th century in revolutionary England. This account of a time of religious and political turmoil, intellectual ferment, scientific innovation and media upheaval is accessible and abounds with contemporary resonances.

Emperor of Rome. By Mary Beard. Liveright; 512 pages; $39.99. Profile Books; £30

The much-loved Cambridge professor is known for her unabashed passion for unearthing the “real” Rome. Here she describes a chariot-load of extraordinary characters, examining around 30 emperors over 250 years. Readers will enjoy learning about the lives of these blood-splashed, technicolour rulers. Prepare to be shocked and entertained.

In Her Nature. By Rachel Hewitt. Chatto and Windus; 528 pages; £25

For hundreds of years women have had to fight for space to pursue outdoor sport. This inspiring and important book interweaves the author’s personal story of loss with the hidden history of trailblazing women who became cyclists, hikers, mountaineers and runners.

Judgment at Tokyo. By Gary Bass. Knopf; 892 pages; $46. To be published in Britain by Pan Macmillan in January; £30

A meticulously researched and authoritative account of efforts to prosecute and punish Japanese generals and politicians deemed responsible for some of the horrors of the second world war. The author, a former writer for The Economist, looks at why attempts to produce a shared sense of justice failed.

The Lumumba Plot. By Stuart Reid. Knopf; 624 pages; $35 and £30

An editor at Foreign Affairs recounts the rise and demise of Patrice Lumumba, who was prime minister of post-independence Congo for less than three months in 1960 before he was assassinated, establishing the playbook for future cia interventions. A shameful story with relevance to today, recounted with verve and thoughtfulness.

Revolutionary Spring. By Christopher Clark. Allen Lane; 896 pages; £35. To be published in America by Crown in June; $40

A historian at Cambridge traces the events of 1848—the year revolutions spread to almost every country in Europe. “Hierarchies beat networks. Power prevailed over ideas and arguments,” he writes. This scintillating book features a compelling cast of idealists, thinkers, propagandists, cynics, and argues that their sacrifices were not wholly in vain.

On Savage Shores. By Caroline Dodds Pennock. Knopf; 320 pages; $32.50. Orion; £22

An absorbing account of indigenous peoples in 16th-century Europe. Using archival documents and oral histories, the study shatters the Eurocentric assumption that, half a millennium ago, people and ideas flowed in only one direction, from the old world to the “new”.

The Wager. By David Grann. Doubleday; 352 pages; $30. Simon & Schuster; £20

A thrilling account of a shipwreck off the coast of Patagonia in 1741 from the author of “Killers of the Flower Moon” (recently adapted into a film by Martin Scorsese). It revolves around three complex figures. Those who love yarns involving cannon fire, sea-chests and mainmasts will find this book worth plunging into, as will those less intrigued by the age of sail.


The Bee Sting. By Paul Murray. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 656 pages; $30. Hamish Hamilton; £18.99

The story of one unhappy family told from multiple perspectives. Paul Murray is a confident, stylish writer: he convincingly evokes a teenage girl’s rage, a boy’s fear, a father’s secrets and a mother’s disappointments and grief.

The Fraud. By Zadie Smith. Penguin Press; 464 pages; $29. Hamish Hamilton; £20

This historical novel centres on a butcher’s claim to be the heir of an English aristocrat. It focuses on an ex-slave who backs his story and on a woman who, fascinated by the case, becomes a writer. Slavery, populism and women’s roles are serious themes in an often funny book.

Kairos. By Jenny Erpenbeck. Translated by Michael Hofmann. New Directions; 335 pages; $25.95. Granta; £16.99

A tale of an affair gone sour between a middle-aged male academic and a young female student in East Berlin in the dying days of the German Democratic Republic. It brilliantly weaves the personal with politics and history, and does a fine job of unsettling the reader.

North Woods. By Daniel Mason. Random House; 384 pages; $28. John Murray; £16.99

Set in a single home in the forests of Massachusetts, the interconnecting stories of this enthralling novel span four centuries. A timely musing on what and who are lost to history.

Prophet Song. By Paul Lynch. Atlantic Monthly Press; 320 pages; $26. Oneworld; £16.99

The winner of this year’s Booker prize is a chilling cautionary tale of war, parenthood and loss. Tender and terrifying at once, it follows a mother-of-four trying to keep her family together in a dystopian Ireland, where the government has succumbed to authoritarianism and is trampling on civil liberties.

Soldier Sailor. By Claire Kilroy. Scribner; 240 pages; $26. Faber; £16.99

A skilful and disquieting exploration of motherhood. In limpid, brisk prose Claire Kilroy describes the difficulty of completing everyday tasks when accompanied by an infant, including making breakfast and going to the supermarket.

Western Lane. By Chetna Maroo. Picador; 160 pages; $17. Pan Macmillan; £14.99

After her mother dies, Gopi, the 11-year-old narrator, takes up the game of squash at the urging of her bereft father. A slim, subtle debut novel of grief and growing up that conjures a powerful panoply of emotions in an elegant style.

Culture and ideas

Eight Bears. By Gloria Dickie. W.W. Norton; 272 pages; $30 and £25

Wonder, fear and friction characterise the relationship between bruins and people. The author, a journalist for Reuters, travels the world in search of eight surviving species of bruin, including grizzlies and pandas, bringing readers on a riveting and unique sort of bear hunt.

Gradual. By Greg Berman and Aubrey Fox. Oxford University Press; 240 pages; $29.95 and £22.99

A passionate argument for incrementalism, the idea that humanity has grown more prosperous by making a long series of modest improvements. Revolutionaries promise paradise but tend to bring about bloodshed, breadlines and book bans. Gradualism works.

High Caucasus. By Tom Parfitt. Headline; 352 pages; £25

This gripping, moving travelogue recounts the author’s hike across the Caucasus mountains from Russia’s Black Sea coast to the Caspian. A meditation on the role of memory in a fascinating place with a tumultuous, tragic past, it is liable to instil an unexpected urge to visit Dagestan.

The Identity Trap. By Yascha Mounk. Penguin; 416 pages; $32. Allen Lane; £25

A well-argued treatise about wokeness and cancel culture from a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University. The left’s swerve towards authoritarianism is “oddly unexplored territory” in intellectual history, Yascha Mounk contends. Bold and timely, this book poses questions about identity politics that many on the left are too afraid to ask.

Magisteria. By Nicholas Spencer. Oneworld Publications; 480 pages; $32 and £25

The common misconception that science and religion are at odds is revised in a deeply researched history of the interplay between the two ways of understanding the world. Religion produced the critical thinking that welcomed scientific knowledge, and science was often inspired by appreciating forces beyond our ken.

Pandora’s Box. By Peter Biskind. William Morrow; 400 pages; $32.50. Allen Lane; £25

A binge-worthy book about television arguing that the risky, rule-breaking shows that defined the golden era for tv in the early 21st century are giving way to less original fare.

Sailing Alone. By Richard King. Particular Books; 512 pages; £25

An engaging, beautifully written book that asks what possesses an ever-growing number of people to get into a small boat and sail on their own across the world’s seas. Both wimps and thrill-seekers will delight in this literary voyage.

A Thread of Violence. By Mark O’Connell. Doubleday; 304 pages; $29. Granta; £16.99

In this scrupulous, penetrating true-crime inquiry, the author tries “to understand the darkness and violence that run beneath the surface of so many lives”. His subject is Malcolm Macarthur, who committed an infamous double murder in Ireland in 1982.

Science and technology

The Coming Wave. By Mustafa Suleyman, with Michael Bhaskar. Crown; 352 pages; $32.50. Bodley Head; $32.50

A co-founder of DeepMind, a leading ai company (and board member of The Economist’s parent company) offers a cogent look at the technology’s potential to transform the economy and society, along with the risks of misuse and surveillance.

The Heat Will Kill You First. By Jeff Goodell. Little, Brown; 400 pages; $29 and £25

A thorough, sometimes frightening examination of the many ways that rising temperatures threaten environments and societies. The author, a climate journalist, tells his story colourfully through intrepid reporting and memorable characters. It is one of the rare books on climate change that anyone can pick up and understand.

Outlive. By Peter Attia. Harmony; 496 pages; $32. Ebury; £22

A longevity expert shows just how behind the times much of modern medicine is, partly because it cures rather than prevents. There are very simple things people can do to live more healthily and longer.

Time to Think. By Hannah Barnes. Swift Press; 288 pages; £20

This book is about a medical scandal at a paediatric gender clinic in Britain, but it tackles a controversy playing out across the rich world: how to treat gender-identity dysphoria in children. A journalistic and sobering take on a divisive and timely subject.

Ultra-Processed People. By Chris van Tulleken. W.W. Norton; 384 pages; $30. Cornerstone; £22

There is much to cheer about calories being cheap and abundant, when for most of history they were neither. But the cheapness and abundance of “ultra-processed” foods comes at a cost. (Warning: this book may ruin the joy of junk food.)

What an Owl Knows. By Jennifer Ackerman. Penguin Press; 352 pages; $30. Oneworld; £16.99

A natural-history writer draws on recent research to explain the magic and allure of owls. An ear tuft-to-tail appreciation of the raptor that Mary Oliver, a poet, called the “god of plunge and blood”.

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