Sophie Roell, Editor

Sophie Roell is co-founder and editor of Five Books. Previously she worked as a journalist in London, Beijing, Shanghai and New York. As a financial reporter, she covered the early years of the Chinese stock markets and the transition of its economy after Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 tour of the south. She wrote about the North Korean economy from Pyongyang in 2001.

She studied modern history as an undergraduate at Oxford and, after travelling the world as a reporter for five years, took the Master’s in Regional Studies-East Asia at Harvard University.  This wonderfully flexible program insists on at least one East Asian language and some courses on East Asia, but leaves plenty of room to roam about the university taking courses on random subjects. Five Books, set up in 2009, is an attempt to continue that experience.

Interviews by Sophie Roell

The best books on Language and Post-Truth, recommended by Nick Enfield

The word ‘post-truth’ may only have entered the Oxford English Dictionary in the last decade, but the phenomenon it describes is much older and deeper, connected not so much to the latest internet trend as the fundamentals of human cognition and communication. Here, linguistic anthropologist Nick Enfield, a professor at the University of Sydney and leader of its post-truth research group, introduces the best books to get thinking about the complex relationship between language and reality.

The best books on Market Concentration, recommended by Jan Loeys

Power corrupts and corporate power is no exception: its effects are bad for consumers, bad for workers and bad for the economy. Here, Belgian American economist Jan Loeys recommends books that look at the economic and political implications of ‘market concentration,’ and explains why we don’t need governments that are pro-business but ones that are pro-market.

The best books on Madagascar, recommended by Alison Richard

With its range of unique wildlife, Madagascar has been likened to a floating evolutionary laboratory. To Yale biological anthropologist Alison Richard, it’s simply a magical place. Here, she recommends five books on the island she has visited for the past five decades and explains why she wrote her own book, The Sloth Lemur’s Song.

The Best Catalan Fiction, recommended by Gala Sicart

For a long time, Catalan fiction was eclipsed by books in Spanish but these days it’s flourishing, says translator and editor Gala Sicart. Here, she recommends four of the best contemporary Catalan novels and one book of short stories, from the classic Mercè Rodoreda to her 21st-century equivalent.

The Best Audiobooks: the 2022 Audie Awards, recommended by Michele Cobb

The movie industry has the Oscars to celebrate its achievements, but if you love audiobooks, you’ll be more interested in the Audies. Here Michele Cobb, Executive Director of the Audio Publishers Association, talks us through the 2022 shortlist for ‘audiobook of the year,’ as well as one of her favourite books from the fiction category.

The best books on Ukraine and Russia, recommended by Serhii Plokhy

Thousands of people have been killed since 2014 in the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, in a war that has been rife with disinformation, misleading narratives and false flag operations. Here Serhii Plokhy, Professor of Ukrainian History at Harvard University, recommends books to better understand the conflict, from an introductory work by an eminent historian to the latest work of some of Ukraine’s leading novelists.

The Best Books for Learning French, recommended by Vincent Serrano-Guerra

In spite of all the online ads promising to teach you a new language in a matter of minutes, learning a language takes time and commitment—and motivation is critical. Here Vincent Serrano-Guerra, author of a book for learning French that focuses on the 20,000 words that are the same in French and English, explains how best to set about it and recommends some books that’ll also get you familiar with French culture.

The Best New Celebrity Memoirs, recommended by Sharon Marcus

While it’s easy to dismiss celebrity memoirs as offering cheap, voyeuristic thrills into the lives of famous people we like the look of, when they’re done well, they can give insight into challenges we all grapple with as human beings. They can also be very funny. Sharon Marcus, professor of literature at Columbia University and author of The Drama of Celebrity, recommends the best new celebrity memoirs.

The best books on Fairy Tale Tellers, recommended by Nicholas Jubber

Once upon a time, someone told a story that would be told for hundreds of years, making its way into books and, eventually, into movies, where the tale would again be told afresh multiple times. Who was that someone? Nonfiction writer Nicholas Jubber introduces some of the original tellers of fairy tales, as well as some of his favourite 20th-century interpreters.

The best books on Sri Lanka, recommended by Razeen Sally

Many visitors to Sri Lanka have been beguiled by its charms, from its hill towns to its beaches, its ancient temples to its friendly people. And yet, for a quarter of a century until 2009, it was torn apart by a brutal civil war. Here, Sri Lanka-born political economist Razeen Sally, author of Return to Sri Lanka: Travels in a Paradoxical Land, recommends the best books to get a better understanding of Sri Lanka and the complexities that make the country so fascinating to visit and read about.

The best books on Philanthropy, recommended by Beth Breeze

Philanthropy is everywhere—and that means we need an informed debate about what it is and how to do it better, rather than resorting to populist critiques of donors and their motives, argues Beth Breeze, Director of the Centre for Philanthropy at the University of Kent. Here she recommends five books to help encourage a more careful and nuanced look at philanthropy, an activity that affects all of us every day but is particularly critical in the lives of the most vulnerable.

The Best China Books of 2021, recommended by Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Whether you want to read the entire history of China in 250 pages or find out what’s going on right now in Xinjiang, enjoy a new translation of a 16th-century fantasy novel or delve into contemporary short stories, 2021 has been another good year for books about China. Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Chancellor’s Professor of History at UC Irvine, recommends his favourite China books of 2021.

The Best Audiobooks of 2021, recommended by Robin Whitten

In 2021, as in previous years, AudioFile magazine picks out the very best audiobooks of the year, books that make great listening and where outstanding narration brings additional pleasure over and above reading the book in print with your eyes. Here, AudioFile editor and founder Robin Whitten picks out the best audiobooks of 2021 for us—out of the 2,300 books that she and her team listened to and reviewed.

The Best Business Books: the 2021 FT & McKinsey Book Award, recommended by Andrew Hill

Every year the Financial Times’s management editor, Andrew Hill, helps organize its ‘Business Book of the Year’ award, which celebrates outstanding books relating to business in the broadest sense. Here, he talks us through the 2021 shortlist, six books that will draw you in and open your eyes to how events happening in the world of business affect all of us–sometimes in very profound ways.

The Best African Novels, recommended by Blessing Musariri

“We are connected to the spirit and it’s an active connection. It’s not somewhere that’s only in the afterlife, it’s here in the present as well. That, I think, is endemic across all African cultures and traditions,” says Zimbabwean novelist and poet Blessing Musariri. Here she recommends some of the best African novels, books that had a big personal impact and have stayed with her.

The best books on Nationalism, recommended by Yael Tamir

When we think of nationalism, we tend to think of its extreme varieties. In fact, it’s so ubiquitous in our daily lives that we rarely even notice it, says political theorist and former Israeli politician Yael Tamir. Here, she recommends books to help us better understand nationalism in all its forms and why one ignores its power at one’s peril.

The Best Climate Books of 2021, recommended by Sarah Dry

From the power of the individual to effect change to the large-scale government interventions needed, are we close to a tipping point in our efforts to combat climate change? Just in time to get up to speed for COP26, here’s a selection of the best climate books of 2021, selected for us by historian of climate science, Sarah Dry.

The Best Detective Fiction, recommended by Jeffrey Archer

With so many works of detective fiction coming out each year, which books stand the test of time? Here, bestselling British author Jeffrey Archer talks us through some of his favourites, the books he found completely unputdownable and made him want to read everything the author had written.

The best books on Immigration and Race, recommended by Reece Jones

In a series of books, Reece Jones, Professor in the Department of Geography and Environment at the University of Hawaii, has explored the impact of borders on our lives. In his latest book, White Borders, he delves into the history of immigration and race in the United States, and explains the connection between the two. Here, he recommends the best books he’s read on the topic and explains why he’s not optimistic about the future.

The best books on Mumbai, recommended by Saumya Roy

It’s one of the most densely populated, vibrant cities in the world, combining enormous wealth with dire poverty. It’s India’s financial and commercial capital, home to the glamour of Bollywood and the movie industry, but it has somehow managed to defy modernization. Saumya Roy, journalist, author and co-founder of a nonprofit that made loans to the city’s poorest entrepreneurs, recommends her favourite books on Mumbai (aka Bombay).

The 2021 British Academy Book Prize for Global Cultural Understanding, recommended by Patrick Wright

Through careful research and compelling argument, the books shortlisted for the British Academy Book Prize for Global Cultural Understanding cast light on globally significant problems, says Patrick Wright, chair of the 2021 jury and Emeritus Professor of Literature, History and Politics at King’s College London. Here he talks us through the books that made the 2021 shortlist as well as last year’s winner, works of nonfiction that “speak directly to the urgent challenges of the times in which we live”.

The Best Conservation Books of 2021, recommended by Charlotte Smith

Many of us are increasingly alarmed at the damage human beings have done—and continue to do—to the natural world and would love to be better informed about what we need to do to protect our precious environment. Fortunately, every year, the Wainwright Prize picks out the best writing on global conservation—books that are not only informative but highly readable. Here, British journalist Charlotte Smith, chair of the judging panel, talks us through the books that made the 2021 shortlist and why it’s worth reading all of them.

Best Books for History Reading Groups, recommended by Donna McBride

It’s a golden age for narrative history, with lots of highly readable books bringing to life many different aspects of the past, says historian Donna McBride. A Fellow of the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, she has led ‘The Historians’ reading group there for the last five years. Here, she recommends some of the best popular histories the group has read and shares some tips on how to set up and run your own history reading group.

Best Graphic Histories, recommended by Eleanor Janega & Neil Emmanuel

Graphic histories can offer complex and layered insights into the past and are underused as a medium, argue historian Eleanor Janega and illustrator Neil Emmanuel, authors of The Middle Ages: A Graphic History. Here, they recommend five graphic histories that show the power of comics not only for telling moving stories but also transmitting difficult concepts.

The best books on Liberal Democracy, recommended by Francis Fukuyama

Even some of the world’s most authoritarian rulers continue to pay lip service to democracy and people’s right to vote for their leaders, but the days when many social scientists believed that all countries at a certain level of prosperity would eventually turn to liberal democracy are over, says Francis Fukuyama, now a Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute. Here, he recommends books to better understand liberal democracy, and what those of us lucky enough to live in one can do to protect our form of government.

Key Philosophical Texts in the Western Canon, recommended by Nigel Warburton

Even if you’ve never studied philosophy, it’s nice to be able to read a few books and get a sense of what it’s all about. Here, we asked our philosophy editor, Nigel Warburton, to talk us through five key works of Western philosophy—many of them in the public domain and available for free as ebooks—and explain why, despite one or two odd conclusions or quirky writing styles, they’ve played such an important role in expanding our understanding of the world.

The Best Mary Wollstonecraft Books, recommended by Sylvana Tomaselli

Mary Wollstonecraft lived by her pen and wrote trenchant critiques of the role of women and marriage in late 18th century British society. She died aged 38, a few days after giving birth to her second daughter, Mary Shelley. She is often remembered for writing the Vindication of the Rights of Woman, but it was not in fact her best book, says Cambridge intellectual historian Sylvana Tomaselli. Here, she recommends books to read to get a good understanding of the extraordinary Mary Wollstonecraft, and the writers she was both influenced by and reacting against.

The best books on Disagreeing Productively, recommended by Ian Leslie

Many of us avoid conflict in our relationships with family and friends or at work, but that’s probably a mistake, says Ian Leslie, author of a number of nonfiction books on human behaviour. Here, he recommends books that offer insight into how to disagree productively, from evolutionary biology to 17th century Rhode Island, from Nelson Mandela to seemingly intractable conflicts.

Best Books on the Periodic Table, recommended by Henrik Selin & Noelle Eckley Selin

The periodic table of the elements has been described as “one of the great intellectual achievements of humankind”. Here, Noelle Eckley Selin of MIT and Henrik Selin of Boston University talk us through some of their favourite books about various chemical elements and explain why they’re vital to understanding the world around us.

The Best Books on Taxes and Taxation, recommended by Joel Slemrod & Michael Keen

Many of us try to avoid thinking about taxes unless we have to, but the truth is taxation has had a profound effect on the course of history and will play a key in the future society we create, too. Here, Michael Keen and Joel Slemrod, both public finance economists and authors of Rebellion, Rascals, and Revenue: Tax Follies and Wisdom Through the Ages, recommend books about taxes that are not only informative but also good reads.

The best books on Contemporary India, recommended by Kapil Komireddi

As the world’s biggest democracy, India could be an inspiring example of how a multiethnic, multilingual country with many different religions can come together to form a vibrant state with equality enshrined in its constitution. But all that is in danger of going down the drain, as the country transforms into a brutally exclusionary Hindu-supremacist state under the leadership of Narendra Modi, says Kapil Komireddi, essayist and author of Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India. Here, he talks us through how the country got to where it is now and recommends five books that present a “comprehensive picture” of contemporary India.

Nuclear Books, recommended by Richard Wolfson

In science, the word ‘nuclear’ refers to anything to do with the atomic nucleus, whether you’re using it to generate power or create weapons of mass destruction. Here, physicist and science educator Richard Wolfson recommends five books relating to things nuclear, from a book of graphic nonfiction about the Curie family to how fusion can save the planet.

Space Travel and Science Fiction Books, recommended by Christopher Mason

Space travel may be the stuff of science fiction but some of it is getting closer and closer to becoming reality. What’s more, we have a duty to pursue it, says Christopher Mason, Professor of Genomics, Physiology, and Biophysics at Weill Cornell Medicine and author of The Next 500 Years, a blueprint of how to set about leaving our solar system. Here, he recommends his favourite science fiction about space travel, and an essential philosophy book.

The Best Vietnamese Novels, recommended by Sherry Buchanan

Vietnam has had a tumultuous history and its literature is one powerful way of trying to understand it better. Journalist, author and publisher Sherry Buchanan—who has spent two decades introducing Vietnam’s culture to English-speaking audiences—talks us through the best Vietnamese novels available in English, spanning the years from French colonialism to the 2016 Pulitzer Prize.

The Best Books on Social Media and Political Polarization, recommended by Chris Bail

Convenient as it is to blame our political woes on the polarizing effect of social media, echo chambers, interference by foreign powers or other shadowy operators, the truth is that human nature and our search for identity and status are more likely culprits. Sociologist Chris Bail, a professor at Duke University and director of its ‘Polarization Lab’, talks us through what social science has to say about the connection between social media and political polarization.

The Best Audiobooks: the 2021 Audie Awards, recommended by Michele Cobb

There are so many fantastic audiobooks being produced at the moment, across so many genres, that it’s hard to know where to start listening. Fortunately, every year, the judges of the Audie Awards pick out some of the very best. Here, Michele Cobb, Executive Director of the Audio Publishers Association, talks us through some of the 2021 winners, including the ‘audiobook of the year.’

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 Romance Audiobooks, recommended by Emily Connelly

With Valentine’s Day only days away, it’s time to get in the mood for love—and what better way than listening to an audiobook about two people who at first don’t get along but then fall madly in love? Emily Connelly, assistant editor of AudioFile magazine, recommends her favourite romance audiobooks.

The best books on Hieroglyphics, recommended by Diane Greco Josefowicz

Reading the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt reveals much about the worldview of a civilisation that rose to prominence 5000 years ago and flourished for thousands of years. Here, intellectual historian Diane Greco Josefowicz—whose book, The Riddle of the Rosetta, co-written with Jed Buchwald, tells the story of how the meaning of the hieroglyphs was deciphered in 19th century France—recommends the best books to learn more about hieroglyphics.

The best books on Galileo Galilei, recommended by Paula Findlen

The trial of Galileo by the Roman Inquisition was one of the most public confrontations between the new science emerging in the 17th century and the Catholic Church but, nearly 400 years later, there’s still a lot of scope to argue what it was about. Here historian of science Paula Findlen, a professor at Stanford University, explains the endless fascination of Galileo Galilei, the Renaissance man who turned a telescope to the sky and took the world by storm, and recommends the best books to start learning more about him.

The best books on Jewish Vienna, recommended by Brigid Grauman

In the late 19th and early 20th century, Vienna had a vibrant intellectual and cultural life, embraced and at times led by key figures in its large Jewish community. All that would disappear with the rise of anti-Semitism and the Anschluss. Many Jews fled or committed suicide. Others were deported to concentration camps. After the war some went back, but Vienna would never be the same. Here Brigid Grauman, whose father’s family were assimilated Jews from Vienna, recommends books that evoke that poignant, tragic period that ended with World War II.

Best Books by Black Queer Writers, recommended by Robert Jones Jr.

The novels of James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Wallace Thurman and James Early Hardy bring the America of the last two centuries vividly to life. Marlon James brings us a fantasy trilogy set in ancient Africa. Robert Jones Jr., author of The Prophets—a love story set on a plantation in the American South—talks us through his choices of the best books by Black queer writers.

The Best Russia Books: the 2020 Pushkin House Prize, recommended by Serhii Plokhy

Every year since 2013 the Russian Book Prize run by Pushkin House, a UK charity, has carried out the important task  of drawing attention to books that “encourage public understanding and intelligent debate about the Russian-speaking world.” Here, Harvard historian Serhii Plokhy, chair of this year’s judging panel, talks us through the books that made the 2020 shortlist.

Best China Books of 2020, recommended by Jeffrey Wasserstrom

All eyes are on China as it occupies an increasingly important role on the world stage and its economic growth continues to barrel on. But behind the Chinese Communist Party’s apparent competence lies a deep insecurity about its relationship with its own citizens, particularly those who question its right to rule them. American historian and Sinologist Jeffrey Wasserstrom picks the best books of 2020 on China.

The Best Audiobooks for Kids of 2020, recommended by Emily Connelly

Whether you’re on a car journey or sitting on the sofa together at home, listening to audiobooks with kids can be an incredible experience. Some will make you laugh, some will make you weep. Many will help us develop empathy for other human beings in the world around us. Here Emily Connelly, Assistant Editor at AudioFile, talks us through the magazine’s choices of the best audiobooks for kids of 2020.

The Best Audiobooks of 2020, recommended by Robin Whitten

With most people carrying smartphones these days, entering the world of audiobooks has never been easier. Some are straightforward narrations of a book, but when an audiobook is done well, it can be an extraordinary, all-encompassing experience. Here Robin Whitten, editor of AudioFile magazine—the best resource for finding good quality audiobooks on the web, in our view—talks us through her picks for the best audiobooks of 2020, chosen from the hundreds they’ve reviewed over the course of the year.

The Best Business Books of 2020: the Financial Times & McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award, recommended by Andrew Hill

Whether you’re looking for ideas on how to run a successful business or books that look at the various challenges facing capitalist society, the Financial Times & McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award is a great place to start. Andrew Hill, who with colleagues at the Financial Times sifted through hundreds of entries to compile the award’s longlist, talks us through the books that made the 2020 shortlist—as well as offering some predictions for the year ahead.

The Best Science Books for Kids: the 2020 Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize, recommended by Mike Kendall

To find the best science books for kids, the judges of the Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize look for books that are not only accurate but also entertaining. Mike Kendall, Professor of Geophysics at Oxford University and chair of this year’s judging panel, talks us through the six fabulous books that made the 2020 shortlist (the final winner will be chosen by the real experts: more than 13,000 kids).