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5 January 2022

What to read in 2022: non-fiction

From politics and science to history and pop, the essential books for the year ahead.

By Tom Gatti

We begin the year as we began the last one: fighting a virus that has transformed our way of life. In Preventable (Viking, May), Devi Sridhar examines the ways in which politics influences medicine and how we can protect ourselves from the next pandemic, while the historian Peter Hennessy looks to the 1942 Beveridge Report to seek lessons for the future in A Duty of Care: Britain Before and After Covid (Allen Lane, March). The NHS, created in the wake of William Beveridge’s proposals for a welfare state, marks its 75th anniversary this year. Fighting for Life by Isabel Hardman (Viking, September) and Life Support by Michael Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott (Biteback, February) outline the enormous pressures it faces. There is some hope to be gleaned: from the disaster expert Lucy Easthope in her memoir When the Dust Settles (Hodder & Stoughton, March), which shows how we can rebuild after catastrophe; from Gavin Francis in Recovery: The Lost Art of Convalescence (Profile, January); and from Michael Ignatieff in On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times (Picador, January).

Solace can seem in short supply in an era of multiple global crises. In Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century (OUP, February), the New Statesman columnist Helen Thompson examines the origins and consequences of the political shocks of the past decade, while Phil Tinline goes further back in The Death of Consensus: 100 Years of British Political Nightmares (Hurst, June), an account of the “building and breaking of shared national outlooks”. National identity is at the heart of Who Are We Now? Stories of Modern England (Picador, March) by the NS editor-in-chief Jason Cowley, which is about how England and the English have changed over the last 25 years, from Blair to Brexit and Covid. It is told through a series of stories, merging the personal and the political – stories of conflict and division but also ultimately of hope. There could hardly be a less unifying personality than Nigel Farage, and yet he has been part of our national story too. In One Party After Another (Simon & Schuster, February), Michael Crick reveals how a fringe Eurosceptic became “one of the most influential British politicians of the 21st century”. In April, Century publishes Tina Brown’s The Palace Papers: Inside the House of Windsor. The timing – in a jubilee year, and in advance of a memoir from Prince Harry – already has readers of certain newspapers deeply exercised.

The Orwell Prize winner Darren McGarvey argues in The Social Distance Between Us (Ebury, May) that Britain’s inequalities stem from the gulf – geographical, economic, cultural – between those who make decisions and those affected by them. Thomas Piketty takes the long view in A Brief History of Equality (Belknap, April), a “surprisingly optimistic” account of progress towards a more equal society. Francis Fukuyama’s Liberalism and its Discontents (Profile, March) is a short, sharp defence of a doctrine that has come under attack from all sides. Changes in the world order are charted – via studies of Margaret Thatcher, Charles de Gaulle, Richard Nixon and others – by the veteran American diplomat Henry Kissinger in Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy (Allen Lane, April).

Critical thinkers are in good supply this year. They include Ayishat Akanbi, who argues in The Awokening (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, August) that “wokeness” has led to polarisation rather than progress; Susie Alegre, whose Freedom to Think (Atlantic, April) shows how Big Tech erodes our humanity; and the behavioural scientist Pragya Agarwal, who examines the gendering of emotions in Hysterical (Canongate, September). In Control: The Dark History and Troubling Present of Eugenics (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, February), Adam Rutherford outlines how technology and politics have combined to allow the revival of a disturbing idea.

There is more science writing to look forward to in The Book of Minds: How to Understand Ourselves and Other Beings by Philip Ball (Picador, June), An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us by Ed Yong (Bodley Head, June) and Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Omniscient Cell (Bodley Head, November) – the story of the base unit of life and its role in modern medicine. Among several books on the warming planet, Fire and Flood: A People’s History of Climate Change by Eugene Linden (Allen Lane, April) paints a full picture of how we got to the precipice. An intriguing corner of science and psychology is illuminated by Sam Knight in The Premonitions Bureau (Faber, May), about a group of “seers” – who predicted future disasters – assembled by a British psychiatrist in the 1960s. If that sounds like a great TV series, Amazon Studios agrees: it snapped up the rights in 2019.

[See also: Leo Robson on the most anticipated fiction of 2022]

There’s the promise of gripping narrative, too, in Simon Parkin’s The Island of Extraordinary Captives (Sceptre, February), the story of a group of artists and academics – including a chess setter for the New Statesman – who became “enemy aliens” in a Second World War internment camp on the Isle of Man, and Philip Oltermann’s The Stasi Poetry Circle (Faber, February), an account of how the East German secret police “weaponised poetry in the struggle against the class enemy” in the 1980s. On the heels of Sathnam Sanghera’s bestselling Empireland come new books tackling Britain’s colonial past. The profits and losses are explored in Uncommon Wealth: Britain and the Aftermath of Empire by Kojo Koram (John Murray, February) and White Debt: The Demerara Uprising and Britain’s Legacy of Slavery by Thomas Harding (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, January). Turning to the present, Oliver Bullough dissects “Global Britain” in Butler to the World (Profile, March). Hannah Rose Woods interrogates national myth making in Rule, Nostalgia (WH Allen, May), while the conservative writer Douglas Murray sees Western nations taking an unfair amount of blame for the sins of the past in The War on the West: How to Prevail in the Age of Unreason (HarperCollins, April). Sabrina Mahfouz offers a personal take on imperial legacies in These Bodies of Water: Notes on the British Empire, the Middle East and Where We Meet (Tinder, May).

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The relationship between the Middle East and the West continues to shape the world. It’s tackled in different ways in False Prophets: British Leaders’ Fateful Fascination with the Middle East from Suez to Syria by Nigel Ashton (Atlantic, March), The Making of the Modern Middle East by Jeremy Bowen (Picador, September) and The Fate of Abraham: Why the West is Wrong about Islam by Peter Oborne (Simon & Schuster, April). A pivotal moment for Britain and China is revisited 25 years on, in Diplomacy Ends at Midnight: The Long Return of Hong Kong to China by Dalena Wright, and Chris Patten’s The Hong Kong Diaries (both Allen Lane, June).

The turbulent politics of the US is explored in Stephen Marche’s speculative The Next Civil War: Dispatches from the American Future (Simon & Schuster, March), Anthony Barnett’s Taking Control! Humanity and America After Trump and the Pandemic (Repeater, March), and in His Name is George Floyd by Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa (Bantam Press, May), the biography of the man whose death in 2020 caused a global wave of Black Lives Matter protests. Racial inequality is explored from a British point of view in The Race to the Top: Structural Racism and How to Fight It by Nazir Afzal (HarperNorth, September), Colin Grant’s I’m Black So You Don’t Have to Be (Jonathan Cape, October), and in I Heard What You Said (Picador, June), Jeffrey Boakye’s account of being a black pupil and teacher in an education system that is default white. These are joined by essays from the novelists Tsitsi Dangarembga – Black and Female (Faber, August) – and Esi Edugyan, in Out of The Sun (Serpent’s Tail, February).

There are essay collections, too, from Margaret Atwood (Burning Questions, Chatto & Windus, March), Elena Ferrante (In the Margins, Europa, March) and Geoff Dyer (The Last Days of Roger Federer: A Book About Endings, Canongate, June). Haruki Murakami and Howard Jacobson look “under the hood” in, respectively, Novelist as a Vocation (Harvill Secker, November) and the memoir Mother’s Boy (Jonathan Cape, March). On the centenary of modernism’s year zero, there is a “landmark” new edition of Ulysses (Cambridge University Press, July) and a revealing collection of Mary Trevelyan’s diaries and letters charting her friendship with TS Eliot, edited by Erica Wagner (Mary and Mr Eliot, Faber, October).

Finally, four music books to soundtrack 2022. Jude Rogers shows how song shapes our lives, through 12 tracks, in The Sound of Being Human (White Rabbit, April). Bob Stanley provides a prequel to Yeah Yeah Yeah, his brilliant history of modern pop, with Let’s Do It: The Birth of Pop (Faber, May). Jonathan Cape publishes Jarvis Cocker’s memorabilia-inspired memoir Good Pop, Bad Pop in May. And Kate Molleson introduces ten unorthodox figures who altered the course of musical history in Sound Within Sound (Faber, July).

Publication dates are subject to change

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This article appears in the 05 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Johnson's Last Chance