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The best non-fiction books to read in 2023

From politics and Big Tech to history and identity, the essential books for the year ahead.

By Tom Gatti

Three prime ministers, four chancellors and more ministerial resignations than anyone cares to count: in 2022 Westminster was in a state of political permacrisis. This year several writers try to make sense of the chaos. Out (William Collins, May) concludes Tim Shipman’s bestselling Brexit trilogy with a blow-by-blow account of Britain’s exit from the EU and its struggles with the Covid-19 pandemic; Politics: A Survivor’s Guide (Atlantic, May) is the Guardian columnist and former NS political editor Rafael Behr’s handbook for how to engage with an era of “fury and confusion”. The former Tory MP Rory Stewart has learnt to talk frankly about ex-colleagues in The Rest is Politics podcast with Alastair Campbell; in Power Failures (September) he gives his verdict on the “absurdity, bankruptcy and frustrations” of British politics. Further insight into the Tories comes from The Conservative Party After Brexit by Tim Bale (Polity Press, March) and Samuel Earle’s Tory Nation (Simon & Schuster, May), an examination of why, despite its blunders, the party is so successful at gaining and holding power.

One of its key tactics has been to co-opt the culture wars. In Minority Rule (Bloomsbury, September), Ash Sarkar explores how on both sides of the Atlantic the right has stoked fears about those on the margins in order to distract us from the gravest issues facing society. Race is a major fault line in today’s political discourse, but in This is Not America (Atlantic, June) the NS contributing writer Tomiwa Owolade argues that we take too much of our “critical framework” from the US and our understanding of the nuances of black British life suffers as a result. Gary Younge’s Dispatches from the Diaspora (Faber, March) gathers together his journalism on “black life and death” – including “We can’t breathe”, his powerful NS cover story on George Floyd and the pandemic. And in This Thread of Gold (Dialogue, June), the activist and UN adviser Cat White profiles a series of remarkable black women in order to restore their place in the “dominant narrative”.

[See also: The New Statesman’s best books of 2022]

It’s a project of which Angela Saini and Anna Funder would no doubt approve. Saini’s new book The Patriarchs (Fourth Estate, March) is an ambitious history of the patriarchy, drawing on science and archaeology to “overturn simplistic theories” about male power. In Wifedom (Viking, July), Funder, the author of Stasiland, explores how Eileen O’Shaughnessy was written out of her husband George Orwell’s story and asks “what it takes to be a writer – and what it is to be a wife”. Separating life and work is a preoccupation of Monsters (Sceptre, May), in which Claire Dederer expands on her viral essay “What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?” to consider creativity in the age of MeToo.

Monstrous men continue to hold positions of great global power. In Russia, Vladimir Putin wages both a culture war against the West and a military war with Ukraine. ZOV: Inside Putin’s Corrupt War on Ukraine (Profile, February) is a memoir by the former Russian soldier Pavel Filatyev of his experiences on the front-line; when he published it on the web in 2022 he was forced to flee Russia and go into hiding. Providing deeper understanding of the military story is Conflict (William Collins, September) by the former United States Army general David Petraeus and the British historian Andrew Roberts, a study of “the evolution of warfare from 1945 to the Russian invasion of Ukraine”.

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[See also: The 14 best books to help you understand Putin’s Russia]

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What exactly is the “West” against which Putin rages? In The West: A New History of an Old Idea (WH Allen, March), Naoíse Mac Sweeney shows how the concept of the Western world became a powerful ideological tool. In another big-picture history, The Earth Transformed (Bloomsbury, March) Peter Frankopan shows how climate change has shaped our world, while Simon Schama provides a historical counterpoint to the Covid-19 pandemic in Foreign Bodies (Simon and Schuster, May) – a portrait of Waldemar Haffkine, a Russian Jew who created vaccines against cholera and the bubonic plague before he was blamed for a deadly contamination incident. Homelands (Bodley Head, March) is Timothy Garton Ash’s “personal history of Europe”, capturing its advances and disasters since 1945. Two leading classicists, Mary Beard and Tom Holland, return in 2023: Beard with Emperor of Rome (Profile, October) and Holland with Pax (Little, Brown, July). Meanwhile, in The Tragic Mind (Yale, February), Robert Kaplan uses classical tragedy as a framework for understanding today’s global crises.

Any account of our political present (or future) must consider the role of technology. In Containment is Not Possible (Bodley Head, October), Mustafa Suleyman, the co-founder of Google’s DeepMind, paints a provocative picture of the “unprecedented new risks” that advances in areas such as AI will bring. David Runciman’s The Handover (Profile, September) uses the AI debate to tell the story of how we ceded control to states and corporations, the original forms of undying “artificial intelligence”. The US Democratic senator Bernie Sanders takes on the greed of big business in It’s OK to be Angry About Capitalism (Allen Lane, February), while Quinn Slobodian provides the intellectual backstory in Crack-Up Capitalism: Market Radicals and the Dream of a World Without Democracy (Allen Lane, April).

[See also: The New Statesman’s best albums of 2022]

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of the National Health Service. In Fighting for Life (Viking, June), Isabel Hardman tells the NHS’s history through “twelve battles” that shaped it, and the NS’s medical editor Phil Whitaker draws on his 30-year career as a GP to ask What is a Doctor? (Canongate, July) – the book is described as a “damning portrait of political interference in medical treatment and the shift away from patient-centred care”. Leah Hazard is a midwife whose memoir Hard Pushed was a bestseller: Womb (Virago, March) is her study of an organ that is misunderstood and politically contested.

The NHS is often cited as a key component of Britishness – where English identity resides is an altogether trickier question. In The Full English (HarperCollins, April), Stuart Maconie retraces the steps of JB Priestley, who walked through England in 1933: like Priestley’s original account, this is a patriotic, progressive, “sustained lover’s quarrel with England”. In The North Will Rise Again (Bloomsbury, February) Alex Niven – a northerner, like Priestley and Maconie – asks what can be done to make the North of England “one of the most dynamic and forward-looking places in the world once again”. As we approach the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland’s politics are far from settled. Killing Thatcher by Rory Carroll (HarperCollins, April) promises to be a gripping account of the IRA’s 1984 assassination attempt, while Aoife Moore’s The Long Game: Inside Sinn Féin (Sandycove, September) is a portrait of a party on the brink of power in the Republic of Ireland.

Of the year’s forthcoming memoirs, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s account of her years in jail in Iran, co-written with her husband Richard Ratcliffe, is the most keenly anticipated (Chatto & Windus, October). Family secrets course through Blake Morrison’s Two Sisters (Borough Press, February) – published on the 30th anniversary of his seminal And When Did You Last See Your Father? – and Shame (Fitzcarraldo, June) by the Nobel Prize-winner Annie Ernaux, which centres on a childhood memory of her father attempting to kill her mother. Meanwhile, Polly Toynbee’s An Uneasy Inheritance (Atlantic, June) uses her family’s history of left-wing agitation to examine Britain’s class divide. Alice Robb studied at an elite ballet school in New York City: in Don’t Think, Dear: On Loving and Leaving Ballet (Oneworld, March) she considers the obsessive, dangerous nature of an art that trades in notions of beauty and perfection. And the iconoclastic Swedish musician Neneh Cherry has written a memoir, A Thousand Threads (Jonathan Cape, September), which spans New York, London and Sierra Leone and deals with “identity, art and acceptance”.

Finally, as Elon Musk’s Twitter is engulfed in chaos and Facebook is subsumed in Mark Zuckerberg’s weird visions of the Metaverse, 2023 may be the year to take political discourse back into the real world. In Win Every Argument (Pan Macmillan, February), Mehdi Hasan, a US talk-show host and former NS columnist, lays out the value of a good, productive quarrel. Let’s hope Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer are taking notes.

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This article appears in the 04 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Sunak Under Siege