15 December 2023

CapX’s books of 2023

By Alys Denby & Joseph Dinnage

Our contributors have rounded up some of their favourite works, and whether you’re into political theory or the history of video games, there’s something for everyone in CapX’s Books of 2023.

Robert Colvile

One of the downsides of being a single parent is that your reading tends to be restricted to the likes of Harry Potter (the eldest) and Chicka Chicka Boom Boom (the youngest). But I did really enjoy Ed Conway’s Material World, which explores where the metals and minerals that make up our iPhones and wind turbines actually come from. And it was a privilege to hear Danny Finkelstein talk at the Cheltenham Literature Festival about Hitler, Stalin, Mum and Dad, which sets out in appalling, gripping detail how Nazism and Communism ravaged the lives of both sides of his family. It also felt rather appropriate, on visiting Paris a few months ago, to bring Andrew Roberts’ Napoleon the Great – the perfect match of subject and locale, and rather more true to life than Ridley Scott’s recent effort.

Alys Denby

Martin Amis meant a lot to me, so my sadness at his death was tempered by the pleasure I had in rereading my old signed paperback of The Information. Cormac McCarthy also died this year and Blood Meridian is one of the most extraordinary novels I’ve ever read.

This is Europe by Ben Judah is a portrait of the continent you don’t see, from the mines of Siberia to the migrant trail over the alps. I had the pleasure of interviewing him for the CapX podcast. I also spoke to Editor of the Jewish Chronicle, Jake Wallis Simons, just a few days after Hamas’ atrocities in Israel. His book, Israelophobia, is a necessary antidote to useful idiots and apologists for terror.

Joseph Dinnage

I started off this year with Jeremy Jennings’ fantastic Travels with Tocqueville: Beyond America, which takes you on Alexis de Tocqueville’s various journeys through North America, Europe and North Africa, painting a picture of a man who, despite growing political responsibility and poor health, refused to stop learning.

Mikhail Sholokhov’s And Quiet flows the Don was another great read. It chronicles the Melekhovs – a Don Cossack family – and their harrowing experiences of WWI, the Russian Revolution, and the Russian Civil War. Tragically, the struggles of the Melekhovs are not too different to those living in Eastern Ukraine today.

Ever late to the party, I also got round to reading Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. While I’m not sure I can now call myself a die hard magic realism fan, it’s worth a read just to get a sense of how absurd the violent reactions to its publication were.

Karl Williams

In addition to the primary sources (including those republished on CapX), I’ve dipped back into some of the synoptic classics, such as Charles Moore’s three-volume biography of the Iron Lady herself, and Dominic Sandbrook’s Seasons in the Sun: Britain, 1974-1979. I’ve also read more focused accounts, like Alfred Sherman’s Paradoxes of Power: Reflections on the Thatcher Interlude.

However, my standout book in this vein has undoubtedly been the second edition of Andrew Gamble’s The Free Economy and the Strong State: The Politics of Thatcherism. Although published in 1994, this superb analysis of the Thatcher revolution has aged remarkably well.

I have been pressing this work on many of my Westminster friends. But I would particularly recommend it to the nebulous constellation of young right-wing radicals who, for want of a better term, I like to call the ‘Tory Leninists’. In their relentless focus on institutions and the dynamics of power in modern Britain, they want to ensure that next time a centre-right party is in government, it is also in power. Gamble’s book would aid them in that quest.

Joanna Williams

This year I enjoyed reading The Visionaries by Wolfram Eilenberger. It weaves together the biographies of philosophers Hannah Arendt, Simone de Beauvoir, Ayn Rand and Simone Weil, setting the legacy of each woman’s intellectual work against the political turmoil of life in the early decades of the twentieth century. Eilenberger shows us how the capacity to think and write freely takes on a greater significance when people are mercilessly swept up in world events.

Roger Scruton’s Culture Counts was similarly satisfying. In this short volume, he expresses concern that people are losing the deep attachment to western culture upon which ‘the future of our civilization depends.’ For Scruton it is through art that people develop a ‘relation of belonging’ and this timely call to arms inspires us to reject today’s cheap politicisation of culture and look at art anew. Unfair Play by Sharron Davies was another great read. Davies makes the case for sport to be differentiated by sex based on rigorous scientific evidence, reasoned moral arguments and, most compelling of all, her own experience of competing against East German swimmers before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Davies highlights injustices without self-pity; her anger is directed not at doped athletes but the officials who – then as now – let such injustices happen.

Mark Littlewood

If you don’t have an Apple TV subscription, get one. Just to watch Slow Horses. Then read Mick Herron’s brilliant books upon which they are based (there are now eight in total). The spy thriller focuses on a bunch of MI5 rejects who have been sidelined, but not sacked, and yet in their dreary headquarters of Slough House always seem to find themselves at the centre of a national security emergency. I’m sure it’s not realistic, but it feels like it to a layman like me.

If you’re ever worried that political groupings feel like a cult, that is of nothing compared to the Church of Scientology. Mike Rinder’s A Billion Years lifts the lid on one of the world’s most extraordinary and controversial religions – it’s his jaw-dropping story of how he rose to the very top of the Church before dramatically defecting from it.

For another insight into the weirdest corners of the world, try Jang Jin-Sung’s Dear Leader. Another defector story about a trusted insider in the North Korean regime who managed to escape. Hardly a cheery Christmas read, but it might give you some solace. Things look pretty grim in Britain at the moment – but we still live in one of the greatest places on the planet.

Christopher Snowdon

Number Go Up by Zeke Faux is the book about crypto-currencies that I’ve been waiting for. It is jaw-dropping and hilarious in equal measure. The chapter on NFTs is worth the cover price on its own. The South Sea bubble and Tulip mania will always be mentioned when historians discuss the madness of crowds, but the crypto craze tops them all. It is a staggering story of irrational exuberance. The definitive story is yet to be written but this will certainly do for now.

2023 was also a strong year for books about snooker. Brendan Cooper’s Deep Pockets takes an unashamedly high brow look at a sport that rarely gets the philosophical treatment and is recommended to anyone who has ever taken an interest in the game. Luke G. Williams’ The Natural is a biography of Patsy Houlihan, arguably the most gifted snooker player of the 1960s who had the misfortune of being at his peak when the game was in the doldrums and the professional circuit was a closed shop.

Andrew Tettenborn

2023 was catch-up year. In what the Chinese might without irony call the Year of the Censor, I finally got around to Sherry Jones’s The Jewel of Medina, the book about bickering and backstabbing in Arabia written from the point of view of A’isha, third wife of a less-than-gentlemanly Muhammad. Not only did this survive craven censorship by American conglomerate Random House and a firebomb attack on its British publisher; it’s a good and perceptive page-turner.

If you need an antidote to pleasure, try Nothing but the Truth by the still (just) anonymous Secret Barrister; the picture it convincingly paints of a dystopian criminal justice system isn’t so much one of lions led by donkeys, but of mangy big cats led by no-one much at all – if anything more disconcerting. For serious culture-warriors I would push Michael Sandel’s under-rated Tyranny of Merit, a book convincingly arguing that even super talent or virtue, being undeserved, gives you no serious moral claims to any advantage. True, you might not like its prescription of (essentially) targeted egalitarianism; but you could just as well conclude in favour of a combination of Christian forbearance and noblesse oblige. To each, as they say, what by luck is his own.

Ian Acheson

My two stand out books of the year both look at aspects of Northern Ireland’s tortured recent past. Rough Beast by Mairia Cahill is a mesmerising and brutal dissection of Europe’s most abnormal political party Sinn Fein. Cahill at 16 was a rising star in the republican movement until she was sexually abused by an IRA activist. It is a meticulous, shocking and occasionally hilarious memoir from an angry and traumatised young woman who dared to take on the might of the republican machine.

Dirty Linen by Martin Doyle looks at life and death in rural Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Outside Belfast and away from the televisual attractions of urban conflict, Loyalist and Republican paramilitaries were just as busy slaughtering their neighbours. Doyle takes the parish he was born in and provides an intimate and haunting account of homely townland hatreds and the terrible violence they unleashed.

William Atkinson

As self-styled literary intellectuals plunged into mourning over the death of Martin Amis earlier this year, I had to sheepishly admit I’d never actually finished one of his books. Fortunately, CapX’s resident Amis expert passed on a series of recommendations, for which I have been extremely grateful.

As such, London Fields must be my book of the year. By turns imaginative and appalling, charming and chilling, the story of Nicola Six’s hunt for her own murderer has taught me everything I know about darts, as well as spurring me on to read more of Amis. A modern masterpiece.

I also enjoyed Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. Few could ever match his drug and alcohol consumption and hope to stay alive, so the sheer entertainment of his account of Richard Nixon’s re-election will never be bettered. It presents politics as it deserves to be shown, with all its vulgar insanity intact.

Speaking of vulgarity, I also flicked through The Plot by Nadine Dorries. I can’t claim that it is as engaging or enchanting as Amis or Thompson. Yet is a must-read for anyone who wants to know why the Tories are enduring a collective nervous breakdown, if not always, perhaps, for the reasons the author intended.

Harry Phibbs

An Immigrant’s Love Letter to the West by Konstantin Kisin was a particularly powerful book. As so often it’s those who have seen an absence of freedom that most recognise its importance. He grew up in the poverty and tyranny of the Soviet Union but manages to offer an entertaining account. So important to retain a sense of humour.

Often, my book purchases are driven by reading obituaries. An example this year was Ann Leslie whose death prompted me to read her memoirs, Killing My Own Snakes. Her experiences of overcoming the misogyny of the old Fleet Street are powerful while the accounts of her tribulations as a war correspondent feel all too topical.

John O’Connell

How do we get economic growth? Given we’ve had anaemic rates of growth for quite some time, it’s a question that all political parties are wrestling with. A good place for them to start might be to understand where it came from in the past. Koyoma and Rubin’s How the World Became Rich looks at geography, politics and more to demonstrate why growth happened where and when it did.

The Battle for Bretton Woods by Benn Steil is as much a thriller as it is an account of the post-war monetary system cooked up in New Hampshire. Espionage and monetary policy – what’s not to love? (As an aside, I’ve stayed at the Mount Washington resort and my room was host to some of the Iranian delegation at the 1944 conference.)

I’ve also just finished Bleak House by Charles Dickens. Apparently, it was panned by critics on its release but they didn’t really know what they were talking about. It’s fantastic in every way.

Kristian Niemietz

More of a booklet than a book, No Room! No Room! by Alan Evans, published in 1988, is that rare example of a classic that almost reads as if it had been published last week. But then, maybe that’s not too surprising. It is, after all, a book about the British housing crisis – and area in which nothing of substance ever changes. The same goes for NIMBYism: The Disease And The Cure by Richard Ehrman (1990).

The Capitalist Manifesto: Why the Global Free Market Will Save the World by Johan Norberg was published this year, but it is also a quasi-sequel to Johan’s earlier book In Defence of Global Capitalism from 2003. Taken together, the two books offer a great overview of how anti-capitalist shibboleths have shifted since the turn of this century, how anti-capitalists are still wrong about everything, and how they’re nonetheless winning.

On that note: Perspectives on Capitalism and Socialism by Jason Clemens and Steven Globerman draws on international polling data on attitudes towards economic systems. The interesting finding is not that most Millennials and Zoomers, in Britain and elsewhere, love socialism: we already knew that. What is more interesting is that this report seeks to clarify what people actually mean when they say ‘socialism’. Do they want collective ownership of the means of production? Or do they just want more redistribution from the rich to the poor? Spoiler alert: in Canada, it is mostly the latter; in Britain, it is mostly the former.

So there’s some hope for Canada. There’s none for Britain. Merry Christmas!

Rakib Ehsan

The three best books I read this year were Against Decolonisation: Campus Culture Wars and the Decline of the West by Doug Stokes, It’s Not About Whiteness, It’s About Wealth: How the Economics of Race Really Work by Remi Adekoya, and Fixing France: How to Repair a Broken Republic by Nabila Ramdani.

Stokes takes to task the rise of illiberal tendencies and identitarian groupthink on university campuses. Adekoya, meanwhile, asserts that while many of the world’s power dynamics and status imbalances are viewed through the prism of race, it is ultimately a matter of financial weight. Ramdani provides a damning analysis of the current state of the French Republic, with its rigid model of secular republican universalism bursting at the seams. With ‘colour-blind egalitarianism’ ignoring very real forms of racial and religious discrimination, she writes that her country is failing – but optimistically paves the path towards a fairer and more cohesive France.

Tom Jones

With the rise of medically assisted suicide, it was a ‘good’ year to get round to Evelyn Waugh’s Love Among the Ruins. Written at the very beginning of the welfare state, Waugh delivers a tour-de-force that reminds you satire was, at one point, important rather than impotent. This welfare dystopia has become so unbearable that euthanasia is now the most in-demand government service – as it now seems to be the Canadian government’s first resort.

And I don’t want to log-roll, but I do have to choose my friend James Heale’s Out of the Blue. The style, a constant stream of Westminster gossip, was pitch-perfect for the subject; weaponising it was perhaps Liz Truss’ defining feature as a politician, and one can’t meaningfully understand her rise without it. By the end of the book you aren’t sure how much more there was to truss than Low Namerist Westminster Bubblism. We still aren’t.

And finally, always, the Oxford book of English verse. Or a Biggles, maybe.

Harrison Griffiths

The temptation to see a thread full of graphs posted by an all too online policy wonk as the final word in a given economic discussion is very real. Applied Mainline Economics: Bridging the Gap between Theory and Public Policy,  by Peter Boettke and Matthew Mitchell is a vital tool in the armoury of those wishing to scrutinise those threads and a robust challenge to those who think that economics can be distilled down to a set of undertheorized mathematical equations. Anthem, by Ayn Rand is a stark illustration of the depths society can plunge to when individuality is erased. But it also carries the hopeful message that even the darkest times can be illuminated by the ingenuity and determination of each and every individual. Regime Change, by Patrick Deneen is essential reading for those wishing to understand the right-wing challenge to a free, prosperous society.

Reem Ibrahim

Since becoming acquainted with Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism earlier this year, I rather enjoyed her first novel We The Living. It depicts the ways in which citizens are mercilessly suffocated by collectivist states, and the pertinence of staying true to one’s own values. People often ask why I value liberty, to which I answer because I value myself. In the spirit of alternatives to leftist strands of feminism, I quite enjoyed The Essential Women of Liberty, a collection of essays by influential women who have contributed to the ideas of freedom. Authors include Mary Wollstonecraft, Isabel Paterson and Elinor Ostrom. Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being also provoked some interesting conversations for me this year, prompting me to come to the conclusion that the meaning of life is to simply enjoy it.

Maxwell Marlow

A couple of books have really caught my attention this year. Economic Calculation in the Socialist Society by Dr Trygve Hoff, though originally published in 1938, was a great refresher on price theory and gave me further food for thought on the use of AI in economic planning. I also re-read one of my favourite books, The Square and the Tower by Dr Niall Ferguson, which is essentially like The Plot but more historical and did not have to pass through a slew of lawyers before being published. It’s a great read for historians, economists, and enjoyers of political intrigue. For video essays (acceptable for 2023), I’ve been an avid fan of Perun’s weekly content – providing fascinating military, geopolitical, and strategic analysis about the War in Ukraine, military economics, and recently an analysis of the Guyana-Venezuela referendum.

Sam Dumitriu

Stripe Press continues to stand out as the most interesting publisher going. The Making of Prince of Persia by Jordan Mechner is a good example. Mechner’s journals tell the story of how an iconic video game came into being. It is a fascinating insight into the creative process.

On a different note, Piranesi by Susanna Clarke stands out as the most interesting work of fiction I’ve read in a long time. At first, I hated it but perseverance was rewarded in bundles as all was revealed to not be as it seemed. I want to say more, but flying blind is the best option for a book like this.

Matthew Lesh

China After Mao by Frank Dikötter chronicles China’s transformation from a backwater to economic superpower. Counter to the usual narrative, Dikötter argues that the official rhetoric around ‘reform and opening’ was hiding a deeper truth of continued statist control of society and the economy under the Chinese Communist Party. To the extent that China succeeded, it was thanks to being forced to adopt a market-driven approach, but true and broad liberalisation was never actually on the cards. Indeed, much of China’s difficulties today – including falling growth, skyrocketing debt, poor allocation of capital and a property crisis – have their roots in the policies that prioritise maintaining Communist rule over all else.

The Illusion of Control by Jon Danielsson highlights how financial regulations that try to limit risk can often end up backfiring by making everyone the same and creating systematic vulnerabilities – that’s because regulators encourage every institution to look and feel the same, just see for example UK defined pension funds in 2022 that were encouraged to partake in liability driven investments (LDIs) and all became vulnerable when interest rates went up. Colonialism by Nigel Biggar provides a provocative counterview on British history, acknowledging the cruelty and violence perpetrated by the British Empire while calling for a more balanced reading of history that acknowledges the good as well as the bad.

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Alys Denby is Editor of CapX. Joseph Dinnage is Deputy Editor of CapX.