The best books on Rock Music, recommended by Peter Lawlor

Successful musicians don’t necessarily need formal training or 10,000 hours of practice under their belt; what they must have is a feel for music, an innate gift. But many of rock’s brightest burning stars were lost to drugs. Here, Peter Lawlor—who combined a career as a senior economic advisor with that of an award-winning songwriter, producer and record label executive—selects five of the best books on rock music, focusing on revelatory biographies that peer behind the veil.

The Best Memoirs: The 2022 NBCC Autobiography Shortlist, recommended by Marion Winik

Autobiography is evolving; increasingly we find the field dominated by ‘genre-fluid’ books that plait memoir together with strands of cultural criticism, history, journalism or even poetry. Here, Marion Winik, the memoirist and critic, talks us through the five books that have been shortlisted in the National Book Critic’s Circle autobiography category—and describes the face of memoir in 2022.

The Best New Celebrity Memoirs, recommended by Sharon Marcus

With dozens of celebrity memoirs published every year, which ones are worth spending your time and money on and do more than just spin out platitudes on how to succeed or get through adversity? We asked Sharon Marcus, a professor at Columbia University, to pick the best celebrity memoirs published in the last year.

The best books on Islands, recommended by Gavin Francis

Generations of writers, explorers and armchair travellers have found a focal point of fascination in the idea of the remote island. Why so? Gavin Francis, the award-winning writer, explains the everlasting appeal of the lonely isle – and why the fantasy is at least as powerful as the salt-sprayed reality – as he selects five of the best books on islands.

The Best Essays: the 2021 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award, recommended by Adam Gopnik

Every year, the judges of the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay search out the best book of essays written in the past year and draw attention to the author’s entire body of work. Here, Adam Gopnik, writer, journalist and PEN essay prize judge, emphasizes the role of the essay in bearing witness and explains why the five collections that reached the 2021 shortlist are, in their different ways, so important.

The Best Biographies: the 2021 NBCC Shortlist, recommended by Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor, the author, critic and chair of the National Book Critics’ Circle biography committee, discusses their 2021 shortlist for the title of the best biography—including a revelatory new book about the life of Malcolm X, a group biography of artists in the 1960s, and a book built from a cache of letters written in Japan’s shogun era.

The Best Narrative Nonfiction Books, recommended by Samira Shackle

Narrative nonfiction is a style of writing that takes the facts and dramatises them to create novelistic retellings of real life events. Samira Shackle, author of Karachi Vice, a book that offers vivid insight into the lives of five of the city’s residents, recommends five books that have inspired her—and explains how a writer might begin to carve ‘plot’ and ‘characters’ from reams of research material.

The best books on Goya and the art of biography, recommended by Janis Tomlinson

The art of Francisco de Goya reflects the social and political chaos of Spain in his day, leaving later generations to read into his prolific work—by turns formal and bizarre, official and fantastic—many often contradictory interpretations. Art historian Janis Tomlinson recommends books that disentangle Goya from the retroactive projections of later admirers and situates him in his own time. We also consider what makes for a compelling biography.

Presidential memoirs (and biographies) as audiobooks, recommended by Robin Whitten

When you listen to presidential memoirs as audiobooks, you can hear an American president telling you their own story—at least when it comes to recent presidents. Going further back in time, biographies may be more useful. Veteran audiobook reviewer Robin Whitten, editor of Audiofile magazine, recommends the best audiobooks about US presidents, and explains the crucial role of professional narrators in bringing big books to life.

The best books on Abandoned Places, recommended by Cal Flyn

Five Books deputy editor Cal Flyn selects five of the best books on abandoned places, including a cultural history of ruins, an account of natural recovery in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, plus two unsettling works of science fiction. Her own book, Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape, is out now.

The Best Nature Books of 2020, recommended by Charles Foster

Charles Foster—the barrister, ethicist and bestselling author of Being a Beast—selects five brilliant nature books that reflect a new boom in nature writing in 2020, many of which ask us to examine more closely the interconnectedness of all things.

The best books on Margaret Thatcher, recommended by Simon Heffer

Simon Heffer, journalist, historian and friend of Margaret Thatcher, recommends the best books to read to gain an understanding of the United Kingdom’s first female prime minister—and explains why she was the most influential British leader of the modern era.

The best books on Lucian Freud, recommended by William Feaver

Though ferociously private, Lucian Freud spoke about painting, the art world and his life and loves to his confidante and frequent collaborator, William Feaver, on the phone most weeks for many years. Feaver’s transcript forms the core of his definitive two-volume biography. He speaks with us about the best books for understanding the life and work of this renowned painter, and the very particular collaboration that led to this magisterial account of one of the finest painters of the last century.

The best books on Forensic Science, recommended by Jim Fraser

Jim Fraser, veteran forensic investigator and author of Murder Under the Microscope, selects five of the best books about forensic science. Forget what you think you know about the subject from crime fiction and television dramas, and bring a healthy scepticism: this line of work can be as much a craft as a science.

The best books on Handel, recommended by Andrew Gant

George Frideric Handel was born near Leipzig, became established in Italy, and ended life as England’s national treasure. Andrew Gant—author of a new book on Handel’s most famous composition—selects the five best texts for gaining an understanding of Handel’s life and work, and explains why opera divas were the premiership footballers of the Baroque period.

The best books on Winston Churchill, recommended by Richard Toye

Winston Churchill’s role as a global statesman remains immensely controversial. For some he was the heroic champion of liberty, saviour of the free world; for others a callous imperialist with a doleful legacy. Here, historian Richard Toye chooses the best books to help you understand the man behind the myths and Churchill’s own role in making those myths.

The Best Books on the Philosophy of Travel, recommended by Emily Thomas

At its best, travel broadens our minds, expands our horizons and allows us to see the world we live in differently. But it has also played an important role in the history of philosophy. Emily Thomas, author of The Meaning of Travel: Philosophers Abroad, explores the connections between her two passions—philosophy and travel—at a moment when most of us are unable to leave our houses: perhaps the perfect moment to reflect on travel’s significance for human beings.

The Best Thomas Cromwell Books, recommended by Benedict King

The Mirror and the Light—the final instalment of Hilary Mantel’s epic trilogy covering the life of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister and architect of the English Reformation—was published to great acclaim this month. Here, Five Books contributing editor Benedict King chooses five of the best books to help you get to grips with the real Thomas Cromwell and the political and religious environment in which he operated. You can watch Benedict talking about his Thomas Cromwell book choices here.

The Best of Biography: the 2020 NBCC Shortlist, recommended by Elizabeth Taylor

How do you find the perfect subject for a biography? “Pick a real bitch, or real bastard, and make sure they’re dead,” a famous biographer once told Elizabeth Taylor. The author, critic and chair of the National Book Critics’ Circle biography committee talks us through the books that made their 2020 shortlist.

The best books on Andy Warhol, recommended by Blake Gopnik

Andy Warhol’s ubiquitous soup cans – and his willingness to play the naïf – eclipse the leading Pop Art figure’s depth, as Blake Gopnik reveals in his magisterial new biography. Here, Gopnik discusses five key books that offer crucial insight into Warhol the man.

The best books on Alexander the Great, recommended by Hugh Bowden

Alexander the Great never lost a battle and established an empire that stretched from the Mediterranean to the Indian subcontinent. From the earliest times, historians have argued about the nature of his achievements and what his failings were, both as a man and as a political leader. Here, Hugh Bowden, professor of ancient history at King’s College London, chooses five books to help you understand the controversies, the man behind the legends, and why the legends have taken the forms they have.

The Best of Memoir: the 2020 NBCC Autobiography Shortlist, recommended by Mark Athitakis

From a brave account by the Stanford rape case survivor Chanel Miller to New Yorker reporter Ronan Farrow’s gripping tale of investigating the Harvey Weinstein scandal, it’s been a golden year for autobiography. Veteran critic Mark Athitakis talks us through the memoirs that made this year’s National Book Critics Circle autobiography shortlist.

Editors’ Picks: Notable Books of 2019, recommended by Cal Flyn

Five Books deputy editor Cal Flyn reflects on a year of spectacularly rich literary output, highlighting notable new books from Mary Gaitskill and Robert Macfarlane, as well as sparkling debuts that mark the arrival of exciting new literary voices in 2019.

The Best of Nature Writing 2019, recommended by Charles Foster

What do we talk about when we talk about nature? Almost everything, says the academic and bestselling author of Being a Beast, Charles Foster. Here he selects five of the best works of nature writing in 2019; books that seek to connect us more deeply with the non-human world.

The Best Nonfiction Books of 2019, recommended by Stig Abell

Every year, the Baillie Gifford Prize judges seek to identify the very best nonfiction books published in the last year. Here, the chair of this year’s judging panel Stig Abell talks us through the 2019 shortlist: a thrilling line-up of books that are as notable for their literary prowess as for their weight and significance.

The best books on Gandhi, recommended by Ramachandra Guha

Gandhi’s peaceful resistance to British rule changed India and inspired freedom movements around the globe. But as well as being an inspiring leader, Gandhi was also a human being. Ramachandra Guha, author of a new two-part biography of Gandhi, introduces us to books that give a fuller picture of the man who came to be known as ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi.

The best books on True Crime, recommended by Cara Robertson

Why do women kill? What does violence tell us about human nature? How do the methods of the criminal justice system speak to an era? Cara Robertson—a lawyer, author and expert on the famous Lizzie Borden case—picks five true crime books that deal in murder, individual psychology, public trials and justice.

The Best Books by Adventurers, recommended by Alastair Humphreys

One morning in early June, Laurie Lee said goodbye to his mum at the garden gate and went off on an adventure. Is now the moment for you to do the same? Bestselling author and adventurer Alastair Humphreys recommends five books written by adventurers that can’t fail but inspire you to ‘go simple, go solo, go now.’

The Best Nonfiction Books of 2018, recommended by Fiammetta Rocco

It’s a difficult task: to identify the very best nonfiction books of the year. But the Baillie Gifford Prize aims to do just that. The chair of the prize’s 2018 judging panel Fiammetta Rocco talks to us about the six fascinating titles that made the shortlist.

The best books on Charles de Gaulle, recommended by Julian Jackson

Charles de Gaulle had ‘a certain idea of France’ which even he didn’t manage to articulate clearly. De Gaulle biographer and one of Britain’s leading historians of modern France, Julian Jackson, talks us through some key books to get a sense of France’s wartime leader and president, Charles de Gaulle.

The Best of Prison Literature, recommended by David Coogan

Prison literature can make difficult reading but is often incredibly touching, testimony to the resilience of the human spirit. David Coogan, an English professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who runs a creative writing workshop at Richmond City Jail, introduces ‘prison literature.’

David Russell on The Victorian Essay

With the advent of the Victorian age, polite maxims of eighteenth-century essays in the Spectator were replaced by a new generation of writers who thought deeply—and playfully—about social relationships, moral responsibility, education and culture. Here, Oxford literary critic David Russell explores the distinct qualities that define the Victorian essay and recommends five of its greatest practitioners.

The Best Books by Muriel Spark, recommended by Alan Taylor

This year marks the centenary of the birth of the novelist, poet and essayist Muriel Spark, a singular voice of 20th century literature. Her 22 novels are slim and entertaining says Alan Taylor, author of Appointment in Arezzo, but beneath the jeux d’esprit lies a fearsome intellect. Here he selects five of her key works.

The best books on Immersive Nonfiction, recommended by Will Storr

A good writer must always aim to write the truth – a more complex narrative than one of heroes and villains. But to find the truth, sometimes you’ve got to get up and go there yourself, says Will Storr, journalist and author of Selfie. Here he selects five books that have inspired his own immersive approach to nonfiction.

The Best Samuel Taylor Coleridge Books, recommended by Seamus Perry

The reputation of Romantic poet, critic and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge has long been overshadowed by William Wordsworth, his friend and Lyrical Ballads co-author. Oxford professor Seamus Perry talks us through the books that showcase Coleridge’s idiosyncratic brilliance.  

Enrique Vila-Matas on Books that Shaped Him

‘I like to show some restraint when it comes to making things up…’ The Spanish novelist Enrique Vila-Matas discusses the role of risk in writing, the ‘crisis of the novel’, and five books that have shaped his own work. (You can also read this interview in the original Spanish.)

Forgotten Classics, recommended by Scott Pack

Ninety per cent of the books we hear about are new, which means we are missing out on countless masterpieces already out there. Scott Pack, co-founder of the Abandoned Bookshop, a digital publisher that specialises in finding forgotten and neglected books, picks five forgotten classics, for lovers not of the new but of the different…

The best books on Wagner, recommended by Michael Tanner

Richard Wagner’s works are as immense as they are influential: the four-part, 15-hour saga Der Ring des Nibelungen is the most analysed opera of all time. And yet, Wagner was arrogant and virulently anti-semitic. Can we separate the musical genius from the man? Opera critic Michael Tanner recommends the best books on Wagner.