Nonfiction Books » Best Nonfiction Books of 2023

Notable Nonfiction of Early Summer 2023

recommended by Sophie Roell

Five Books Expert Recommendations

Five Books Expert Recommendations


As high summer hits the northern hemisphere, Sophie Roell, editor of Five Books, takes a look at the many nonfiction books published over the last three months. With so many books coming out that are both readable and written by people who know what they're talking about, reading remains one of the most enjoyable ways to make sense of the world around us.

Five Books Expert Recommendations

Five Books Expert Recommendations

Buy all books

The early summer of 2023 has seen a lot of new nonfiction books published across a range of subjects, and it’s been a lot of fun (though somewhat daunting) trying to keep an eye on them. This is a round-up of the ones that I was drawn to. Apologies in advance for all the good books and interesting topics I’ve missed.

Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, books have gradually been coming out about the largest military conflict in Europe since World War II. The Russo-Ukrainian War is by Serhii Plokhy, a Ukrainian historian at Harvard who looks to history to understand the conflict, seeing it as an “old-fashioned imperial war” with its roots in the 19th and 20th centuries. As he notes in the preface, “I take a longue durée approach to understanding the current war. I decline the temptation to identify the date of February, 2022, as its beginning, no matter the shock and drama of the all-out Russian assault on Ukraine, for the simple reason that the war began eight years earlier, on February 27, 2014, when Russian armed forces seized the building of the Crimean parliament.”

Also out recently is The Politics of the Past in Putin’s Russia by Jade McGlynn, a researcher at King’s College London, who looks at how the Russian propaganda machine weaponizes history to achieve its ends. This is a fascinating work of research, more academic in tone (it cites references in the text). It makes you think not only about Russia, but how every government wanting to solidify its power uses history to its own ends and what that means.

If you like spy books, there’s a new history of the intelligence war between Russia and the West (but very much focused on understanding the current conflict): Spies by Calder Walton.

Books on the Russia-Ukraine War recommended on Five Books

On war in general, there’s a new volume on a subject that’s always popular on Five Books: military strategy. The New Makers of Modern Strategy: From the Ancient World to the Digital Age is a collection of essays from a variety of leading scholars in the field, edited by Hal Brands of Johns Hopkins SAIS.

Also out are new books on the West’s devastating exit from Afghanistan. August in Kabul by journalist Andrew Quilty tells the story by someone who was there (and indeed flew back to Kabul just as those who could were fleeing).

Books about war on Five Books

Since last year, I’ve been keeping a closer eye on biographies, a genre I enjoy. When you see the world through someone’s eyes, it’s hard not to sympathize with them. I was excited to see a new biography of Martin Luther King Jr. by American journalist and biographer Jonathan Eig. Like many foreigners who have spent time in the US, I was aware who Martin Luther King Jr. was and his importance, but not the details nor why he shared a name with a 16th-century German monk (who my history professors at Oxford seemed to think important). This biography is highly readable and, according to the introduction, draws on new information, particularly on Mike’s father.

Other biographies out these past three months include Ramesses the Great by Toby Wilkinson, the Cambridge Egyptologist, as well as an account of the life of Sultan Suleyman of the Ottoman Empire (also often called ‘the Great’ in Western languages) by Turkish historian Kaya Şahin. Both rulers spent a lot of time and energy building their reputations, which may be why we’re reading about them three millennia and five centuries later, respectively.

Messalina, the wife of the Roman emperor Claudius, was not so lucky, going down in the history books as a debauched adulteress. In Messalina: A Story of Empire, Slander and Adultery, PhD student Honor Cargill-Martin makes a valiant attempt to restore her reputation, though it’s hard going as little is known about her, beyond that she was a young (perhaps very young) bride.

More new biographies, recommended on Five Books

Witchcraft: A History in Thirteen Trials is by Marion Gibson, Professor of Renaissance and Magical Literatures at the University of Exeter. This is a very easy way into a tough topic and the book is very informative and nicely done. Sadly, it also remains highly relevant: I’ve recently got involved in local politics, and though only a few women run as candidates where I live in West Oxfordshire, two have already been called witches on social media.

Of global history books out this spring, there’s The World of Sugar by Dutch historian Ulbe Bosma. It covers the history of the sweet stuff, first produced in granulated form in the 6th century BC, but not a huge commodity until more than two millennia later. This is not a quirky book about a single commodity in the style of Mark Kurlansky, but very much a reckoning with sugar. As he points out early on, two-thirds of the 12.5 million Africans shipped across the Atlantic went to sugar plantations. He writes, “The ubiquity of sugar tells us about progress but also reveals a darker story of human exploitation, racism, obesity, and environmental destruction. Since sugar is a relatively recent phenomenon, we have not yet learned how to control it and bring it back to what it once was: a sweet luxury.”

For a lighter read there’s A Little History of Music, in one of my favourite series, the Yale University Press Littles Histories series. In principle, the series is aimed at young adults, and this book opens with the basic question: “What is music?”

Also out now is Revolutionary Spring, a new book by Christopher Clark, author of The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, a book that made waves with its analysis of the outbreak of World War I. In Revolutionary Spring, Clarke takes on the revolutions that spread across Europe in 1848. These are the revolutions from which ‘the Arab Spring’ would take its name, and, like its namesake, things did not go well for the revolutionaries. This is a doorstopper of a book, so not one to take on for a quick read, though well worth pursuing if you like long history books. Also in European history, there is a new book on the Franco-Prussian war, Bismarck’s War by Rachel Chrastil, a professor of history at Xavier University.

If a grisly story of adventure on the high seas is what you’re after, David Grann, writer of wonderful tales of narrative nonfiction, had a new book out in May: The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder about an 18th-century British man-of-war which was shipwrecked off Patagonia.

For a new coffee table book, there’s Ancient Rome: The Definitive Visual History. Two University of Oxford academics, Andrew James Sillett and Matthew Nicholls, consulted on the book. Nicholls specializes in 3D digital reconstruction of ancient Rome. The book starts in 753 BCE and goes through to the death of the last emperor in the West, Romulus Augustulus, in 476 CE. There is also some coverage of the Byzantine Empire, including Justinian’s legal code.

More new history books on Five Books

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics has been recommended many times on Five Books, and I also met a man at a lunch last summer (he was Greek, admittedly) who told me that it was all I needed to read to understand everything about life. As a result, I was very pleased to see a new book in Princeton University Press’s Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers series, offering selections from it. The books in this series provide the important parts of the text in the original language, a translation on the facing page, as well as explanations of what it’s all about. Susan Sauvé Meyer of the University of Pennsylvania takes on the task in How to Flourish: An Ancient Guide to Living Well, which includes about a quarter of the text of The Nicomachean Ethics. This is not, I would say, an introductory book—it starts with a close look at the Greek word for living well, eudaimonia, and how best to translate it—but more a way to dip your toe into an important primary source without being overwhelmed.

Also new in ethics books, there’s a “fully updated and expanded” version of Ethics in the Real World by Peter Singer, the Australian-American philosopher behind the effective altruism movement, one of our best philosophy books of 2016. These are short essays, mostly from Singer’s Project Syndicate column, addressing issues like: “Can Ethics Be Taught?”, “The Case for Going Vegan” and “Why Google War Wrong” to fire James Damore for his comments about women in tech. Also newly republished and updated is his 1975 classic, Animal Liberation Now.

Economics is the big issue of the moment, and I was very grateful when Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator of the Financial Times, agreed to recommend books to better understand what’s going wrong with the world economy. Since we spoke, there has been a new book by Daron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson, Power and Progress, both economists who like to look at the lessons of history and the bigger picture (this book starts with a discussion of Jeremy Bentham and his panopticon). Power and Progress is above all a call to action. As the authors write, “Today’s ‘progress’ is again enriching a small group of entrepreneurs and investors, whereas most people are disempowered and benefit little…Confronting the prevailing vision and wresting the direction of technology away from the control of a narrow elite may even be more difficult today than it was in nineteenth-century Britain and America. But it is no less essential.”

There’s also a very readable, eye-opening book by British journalist Ed Conway called Material World, which looks at the mining and consumption of six commodities: sand, salt, iron, copper, oil and lithium. It opens with him watching gold being mined and, having witnessed what’s involved, feeling a bit guilty about his wedding ring.

New economics books on Five Books

This year marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s First Folio, when his plays were first put together as a book, under the title Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. There’s a new edition of Emma Smith’s book about it, Shakespeare’s First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book, which is well worth reading if you missed it first time round. Another new book about the Bard is Shakespeare Without a Life by Margreta de Grazia of the University of Pennsylvania, which looks at the 200 years when there was little interest in the life of William Shakespeare beyond the date of his death.

Shakespeare on Five Books

After reading so much about quantum mechanics, multiverses and things that are beyond my brain, it was nice to get a straight up book about planets (both near and far), what we know about them, and how we know it. Worlds Without End: Exoplanets, Habitability, and the Future of Humanity is by Chris Impey, a professor (and public science enthusiast) at the University of Arizona. In his sober assessment, we’re like to find out if there is alien life out there in the next five to seven years, so keep your eyes on the headlines.

Also in new science books is Cambridge physicist Athene Donald’s Not Just for the Boys: Why We Need More Women in Science, looking at why after decades of effort, the numbers of women pursuing careers in the physical sciences and engineering still remain low, and women aren’t adequately represented at the top of biomedical research either.

In Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introduction series there’s a new book on Pseudoscience (again, a popular subject subject on Five Books) by Princeton historian of science Michael Gordin.

New science books on Five Books

One final—somewhat niche—book to mention: Peter Brown, the historian often credited with creating the field of ‘late antiquity’, has a memoir out, Journeys of the Mind: A Life in History. Born in 1935 in Ireland, this is a snapshot of growing up in the last days of the British Empire (his father worked in Sudan) and what it was like as an Irish Protestant in the UK, as well as a lot of details on Brown’s intellectual formation and influences. The memoir is nearly 700 pages but Brown is a beautiful writer, and he has nice, wry observations about all sorts of things. If you know someone who enjoys intellectual memoirs, this is a rather lovely one.

Memoir on Five Books

July 2, 2023

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at [email protected]

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you've enjoyed this interview, please support us by .

Sophie Roell

Sophie Roell

Sophie Roell is editor and one of the founders of Five Books.

Sophie Roell

Sophie Roell

Sophie Roell is editor and one of the founders of Five Books.