The best (and worst) books I read in 2023
(And as always, if you love books as much as I do, I’d love to connect with you on GoodReads.)
The Covid Consensus: The Global Assault on Democracy and the Poor - Toby Green and Thomas Fazi
I don’t know about you, but I still think about the Covid-19 pandemic every day. I’m not over it, and I haven’t moved on. And if you can’t understand why, I’d like to hit you over the head with a copy of The Covid Consensus1, a blistering polemic that’s far and away the best thing I’ve read about recent global history.
Green and Fazi lay it bare: the hysteria, bullshit, absurdity, incompetence and malice that was forced upon us by sociopaths and morons, the destruction they wreaked on a global scale, the damage we’ll be cleaning up for generations, and the rank insanity of the cost/benefit analysis. If you can make it through The Covid Consensus and still think the “experts” have a shred of credibility, I don’t want to share a planet with you. Reading it filled with me with equal parts vindication and rage.
Another bad book for my blood pressure was The Children’s Inquiry by Liz Cole and Molly Kingsley2, which details all the disgraceful ways in which children were neglected, disregarded, immiserated and failed by the so-called covid “experts”. I’m glad I was childless in 2020, because if I’d read The Children’s Inquiry knowing that that the titular child was mine, I might have had an aneurysm. Buy this for your grandkids, but don’t be surprised if they riot.
Emergency State by Adam Wagner is another piece of essential reading. Whatever your opinion on covid restrictions, anyone who values a free and democratic society should be appalled by the way our constitutional norms were ripped to shreds by their implementation. Dangerous precedents have been set - and when the other shoe drops, don’t say you weren’t warned.
Speaking of warnings…
Our Final Warning - Mark Lynas
I’d already read Lynas’s 2007 book Six Degrees, which gave a degree-by-degree account of what climatologists are predicting will happen if we don’t stop burning fossil fuels. It was sobering, and this new updated version is even scarier, given humanity’s total failure to make any meaningful emissions cuts since 2007.
All I can say about Our Final Warning is that I hope it’s wrong, because if even 10% of it comes true, we’re screwed. It’s almost the most pessimistic book I’ve ever read (second only to Learning to Die in the Anthropocene), and a much-needed slap in the face. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since I put it down.
As a counterbalance, Saul Griffith’s Electrify gave me a glimmer of hope that there might be a way out of this mess. Only a faint glimmer, but a glimmer nonetheless. Until I find further solace, I can only pray that the climate models turn out like the covid models.
Act of Oblivion - Robert Harris
Like all Brits I learnt about the Civil War in school, but I missed this exciting subplot: how, after the restoration of the monarchy, a handful of regicides managed to escape execution by fleeing the country, then were pursued for the rest of their lives by agents of the crown. Act of Oblivion is the fictionalised story of two of those kingslayers - Edward Whalley and William Goffe - who made it all the way to the American colonies but still weren’t safe. I loved it.
Mostly this novel was just fun, but as a bonus I learnt a lot about the 17th century (all but one of the characters in Act of Oblivion are real historical figures.) It also sent me down a Civil War nerd rabbit hole that led me to another great read: To Catch a King by Charles Spencer, which chronicles Charles II’s narrow escape from England after his military defeat in 1651. I can’t believe I’d never heard of this story, nor that I didn’t know why so many English pubs are called “The Royal Oak” - it’s one of those historical high dramas that’s so movie-perfect it reads like fiction, and the book had me gripped. Highly recommended.
Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea - Charles Seife
I’d never given much thought to the oft-repeated factoid that the Ancient Greeks didn’t have a “zero” in their numerical system. I’d assumed it was little more than a historical curiosity from a less advanced era - and I never would have guessed there could be so much to say about this seemingly simple number.
Zero taught me that there’s a lot to say about nothing - it’s a surprisingly deep concept that’s had a long and complex intellectual development, intertwined in all kinds of curious ways with the history of human thought, from maths (duh) to philosophy to art to science, and it’s even wrapped up in some of the major unresolved questions of modern physics. I’m filing this book under “much more interesting than I’d have guessed from the cover.”
Some honourable mentions:
Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore was very entertaining, insofar as it’s possible to be entertained by the brutal crimes of a psychopathic monster. One of the most well-written biographies I’ve ever read.
Robert Service’s biography of Lenin was great too - longer review here.
I’ve read countless books about the Second World War, the Holocaust and related topics, but I still learnt a ton from both Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands and David Cesarini’s Final Solution - two brutal, devastating books about the very worst that history has to offer. Both are long but make use of every page, are scholarly but eminently readable, and represent history writing at its finest. Someone please send a copy to Gary Lineker.
Louise Perry’s The Case Against the Sexual Revolution challenged a lot of my preconceptions. If you don’t read it, at least watch this interview with the author, which is excellent.
And finally, a few books I read last year that didn’t impress me so much:
I gave up on Die With Zero after a couple of chapters because it was so repetitive it could have been one page long. But even if it was a blog post I still wouldn’t recommend it, because wow this advice is terrible. Thank God I didn’t read this claptrap when I was 21 - I might taken it seriously, and that would have been a disaster. We all make mistakes in our youth, but at least I didn’t (I still can’t believe anyone actually thinks this is good advice) fund my partying with high-interest loans so I could have more fun now and worry about the consequences later. People keep recommending Die With Zero to me and I think they’re all insane. This book is so stupid it’s dangerous.
William MacAskill’s What We Owe the Future had a few interesting parts, but most of it felt pretty derivative and I don’t feel like I got much from it. Which is a big disappointment, because I really loved MacAskill’s earlier book Doing Good Better. The new book is only maybe worth a skim.
I’ve never understood why anyone pays attention to James O’Brien, and after forcing myself through his new book How They Broke Britain, I understand it even less. (Longer review here.) O’Brien’s hardly wrong in his basic assessment of the state of British politics, but the book is a boring, childish, ad-hominem rant that adds nothing original - plus it contains factual inaccuracies that would embarrass a fifteen year-old. Don’t waste your time.
That wraps it up. Here’s to a bibliophilic 2024. 🥂
The Covid Consensus exists in two editions: a shorter version published in 2021 by Toby Green alone, and a longer version published in 2023 with Thomas Fazi as a co-author. I read and recommend the second edition, and offer no opinion on the first.