New works on China, Russia, political philosophy, English history, and much more graced our shelves this year. Here are the JoD staff’s favorite books of the year.
Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and Their Battle for the Future. By Ian Johnson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2023. 381 pp.
The Chinese Communist Party fears the past. Because, without control of the historical record, it is unable to justify a new leader’s rule. And it gets worse with time: The longer the CCP stays in power, the more the calendar becomes crowded with politically sensitive dates and anniversaries that the Party fears could invoke memories of its past crimes—and serve as rallying points for resistance. Ian Johnson’s remarkable new book takes the reader to the frontlines of this struggle, as he introduces us to a collection of “underground historians”—his shorthand for Chinese academics, writers, filmmakers, and journalists—who are bravely and persistently challenging the Party’s own history of its rule. These chroniclers are champions of values that defy any authoritarian regime—free thought, accountability, and a rigorous commitment to the truth. At a moment, when many are willing to mistakenly write off the People’s Republic as an indomitable monolith, Johnson’s book is an urgent reminder of the courageous, vibrant, and unceasing will of Chinese men and women who are striking at the soul of the Party’s mythmaking.
— William Dobson
The Blazing World: A New History of Revolutionary England, 1603-1689. By Jonathan Healey. New York: Knopf, 2023. 512 pp.
In the monarch’s robing room at the British Parliament, a copy of the death warrant of King Charles I hangs on the wall, a reminder of what can happen to a crowned head who interferes too much with the elected representatives of the people. The original warrant, of course, dates from 1649, smack in the middle of the shocking, transformative century that Oxford historian Jonathan Healey details in this book. Not only did the seventeenth century in the British Isles see a civil war and the killing of a king, it also ushered in familiar features of modern politics—the idea of free speech (John Milton’s Areopagitica), the world’s first bill of rights (1689), military dictatorship (Oliver Cromwell and his “rule of the major generals”), to name some—that have supported or threatened constitutional democracy to this day. Anyone who wishes to gain a clear view of democracy’s tenets, and its perils, at their roots must study these “blazing” years.
— Philip Costopoulos
I Love Russia: Reporting from a Lost Country. By Elena Kostyuchenko. New York: Penguin, 2023. 363 pp.
Elena Kostyuchenko is an award-winning reporter from Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia’s oldest independent news outlets, shuttered for violating censorship rules shortly after Vladimir Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine. Part ode but mostly elegy, I Love Russia, paints an intricate portrait of a complicated country, using the author’s own stories and experiences. The past is present throughout, whether it be the empire, World War II, the Soviet era, or the early postcommunist years. And the future—of an increasingly closed, autocratic society—is always lurking. Kostyuchenko tells stories of complacency and corruption, pervasive and persistent injustice, despair and anger, and ultimately acceptance, because what can be done? That sense of futility is palpable in every place, among almost all the people she records. Yet she and her colleagues continued, until forbidden, to report despite the mounting danger. In addition to Anna Politkovskaya, the most famous of the paper’s fallen, five others have been murdered. Their courage and their plight holds lessons for a world that seems poised to turn its back on freedom.
— Tracy Brown
Liberalism Against Itself: Cold War Intellectuals and the Making of Our Times. By Samuel Moyn. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2023. 240 pp.
We remain trapped by Cold War liberalism, historian Samuel Moyn contends. In a critical study of six towering midcentury thinkers—Judith Shklar, Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Hannah Arendt, and Lionel Trilling—Moyn unveils a hollow core that grew within liberalism as its proponents redefined their project in opposition to external threats. Moyn reaches through the cold fog of the bipolar world to the nineteenth century in search of a renewed vision for the progressive realization of universal human freedom. But his trenchant critique does not focus on prescriptions. Only history will reveal solutions. Perhaps Moyn’s readers can help.
— Lewis Page
Four Battlegrounds: Power in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. By Paul Scharre. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2023. 496 pp.
Paul Scharre, a vice president and director of studies at the Center for a New American Security, analyzes the AI race as it manifests itself in ways tangible (eg., bomb-defusing robots) and intangible (eg., data mining and analysis). As AI proves to be the latest stage for geopolitical competition between democracies and autocracies, Scharre urges democracies to band together to preserve freedom across the globe. (The author, not surprisingly, is concerned with China’s pace of AI development.) The alternative, he warns, is techno-authoritarianism.
— Madelyn Dewey
The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism. By Martin Wolf. London: Penguin, 2023. 496 pp.
Soaring economic inequality, elite failure, and technological upheaval have taken the luster from democratic capitalism—and populists have taken advantage. Martin Wolf’s The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism is both a sweeping account of how we got here and a compelling defense of the view that, despite its problems, democratic capitalism remains the best system for promoting human freedom and flourishing.— Brent Kallmer
Among the Braves: Hope, Struggle, and Exile in the Battle for Hong Kong and the Future of Global Democracy. By Shibani Mahtani and Timothy McLaughlin. New York: Hachette, 2023. 336 pp.
Before Ukraine, there was Hong Kong. Where Vladimir Putin viciously lashed out at his neighbor in a massive unprovoked military invasion, Xi Jinping offered a different formula for hollowing out the former colony’s spirit of protest and politics. In the face of massive demonstrations, Beijing leveraged draconian new laws to strip bare people’s freedoms, leaving them with the familiar patina of wealth and luxury—think soaring skylines and tony shopping districts—but none of the contentious substance that once animated daily life. Shibani Mahtani and Timothy McLaughlin, journalists formerly based in Hong Kong, are well placed to tell this story, and they do so skillfully through finely drawn portraits of the men and women who chose to defy the Chinese Communist Party but are ultimately swept up in the fight. In its show trials and propaganda, Beijing is still busily covering its tracks. Among the Braves is a genuine testimony to Hong Kongers’ sacrifice and, as such, deserves the widest possible audience.
— William Dobson
We, the Data: Human Rights in the Digital Age. By Wendy H. Wong. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2023. 272 pp.
In this world of ballooning and pervasive “datafication,” the core tenets of human rights—autonomy, community, dignity, and equality—do not readily apply. We, the Data offers understandable, eye-opening explanations of the ways data emerge, inform, and endure, and re-conceptualizes the relationship between technology, society, and governance. For Big Tech companies, which now function as global governors, ensuring human rights is not optional but required. This book serves as a necessary first step toward data literacy and advocacy in our datafied future.
— Mary Kate Godfrey
If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution. By Vincent Bevins. New York: Public Affairs, 2023. 336 pp.
Why did so many of the protests movements that swept across the world from 2010 to 2020—a decade that witnessed more than any before—apparently lead to the opposite of what they demanded? Inspired by his experience reporting on mass demonstrations in Brazil in 2013, journalist Vincent Bevins conducted more than two-hundred interviews in twelve countries in search of answers. The result is an extraordinary and readable global history that weaves together compelling personal narrative, crisp explanatory reportage, and insightful political analysis. Everyone can learn from If We Burn.
— Lewis Page
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