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Verso Author Picks: Books Read in 2023

Much like our Staff Picks for 2023, Verso's authors share the books they enjoyed the most this year.

Verso Books26 December 2023

Verso Author Picks: Books Read in 2023

To celebrate the new year, we asked our authors to share with us the books they enjoyed most in 2023.

Don't forget: we also celebrate each new year with a massive End of Year Sale. This year, you can save up to 50% on your entire order! Shop now before it's too late!

Palo Alto by Malcolm Harris

One of the best books I read this year was the "Marxist best-seller" Palo Alto by Malcolm Harris. In a publishing landscape crowded with soft liberal tech criticism, Palo Alto is unique in its insistence that Silicon Valley emerges from and actively perpetuates the White settler-colonialist project. In light of the ongoing genocide in Palestine, enabled then and now by the US, this book is essential reading because it challenges the idea of historical "progress" and dispels the current amazement that such things are "still" possible today.

Perhaps you'd want to match this book recommendation with Verso's The Palestine Laboratory ? They go great together...
- Dominique Routhier, author of With and Against

Private Worlds: Growing Up Gay in Post-War Britain by Jeremy Seabrook

If you want to understand English working-class conservatism, there might be no better place to start than Jeremy Seabrook's new memoir Private Worlds: Growing Up Gay in Post-War Britain (Pluto Books, 2023). Bringing to life the provincial England of the 1950s, he writes lyrically of housewives attentive to the sound of declining manners, elocution teachers offering upward mobility, and anonymous letters disclosing illicit relationships. Seabrook observes this forgotten cultural world in which he grew up with a loving gaze he regrets he lacked at the time. Fundamental to it was a crushing repression of sexual pleasure and sexuality but even so, he argues, its sweeping away by “the sixties” represents a genuine loss.
-Arun Kundnani, author of What is Antiracism?

This is Afghanistan: 2014-2021 by Andrew Quilty

Afghanistan has largely fallen from the headlines this year despite the country still facing an ongoing humanitarian crisis under Taliban rule. One of Australia's leading photojournalists, Andrew Quilty, lived in the country from 2013 until 2021 and captured the pain, heartache and beauty of a nation that the West occupied for 20 years. This stunning photo book, lavishly designed and movingly written, details Quilty's many award-winning investigations into the war, violence and daily life. It's a unique window into Afghanistan that should serve as a cautionary tale against US-led imperial hubris.
- Antony Loewenstein, author of The Palestine Laboratory

Why Men? A Human History of Violence and Inequality by Jonathan Neale and Nancy Lindisfarne

Brilliantly questions the old and new dominant accounts of the nature of humanity. Between the grander stories ‘Why Men?’ explains how wealth that creates war, why the many dark ages were lighter than we think, and how we were once much less violent. For millennia, elites have promoted ideologies to try to make inequality appear normal, right and inevitable. Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale puncture many myths spectacularly. A wonderful book for our changed times, of our changed times.

Favourite lines from page 6: “In the long dark teatime of the soul, all women may seem naturally caring, and all men bastards.”
- Danny Dorling, author of Shattered Nation

Tip of the Spear: Black Radicalism, Prison Repression, and the Long Attica Revolt by Orisanmi Burton

Liberal scholarship has recounted the 1971 Attica prison revolt as a drama of repression and an occasion for reform. Orisanmi Burton’s formidable Tip of the Spear: Black Radicalism, Prison Repression, and the Long Attica Revolt (University of California Press) upends that frame, mustering captive oral histories and insurgent archives to recover a silenced tradition of revolutionary abolitionism that inhabited prisons as battlefields in an undeclared domestic war, as well as zones of precarious liberation. Walter Benjamin once wrote that ‘Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins’. Burton has that gift. With Tip of the Spear he hasn’t just salvaged the imprisoned Black radical tradition from the condescension of liberal posterity, but provided a singular lesson in militant intellectual method, shedding stark illumination on the counterinsurgent genealogy of prison reform (between philanthropy and psyops) while doing justice to an abolitionist horizon oriented toward maximum demands rather than piecemeal adaptations.
- Alberto Toscano, author of Late Fascism

Our Lives in Their Portfolios by Brett Christophers

I read it in a grim week in October. Now I could better explain to my students why they were stuck in their parent’s box room in Finglas and had no space to have sex or finally grow up and move out. I could tell them – generation rent, generation stuck at home - that it was not their fault. And when I drove my son to the children's hospital that Thursday and queued with twenty other parents for the overcrowded car park, I understood that nobody was coming to fix things any time soon, and why. This was the difference between just another economics book on finance or asset managers and a book that connects what’s inside a portfolio with the lives of countless people. I’m so glad Brett Christophers wrote it. Read it; you’ll never look at things the same.
- Rachel O’Dwyer, author of Tokens

Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys

This year I read my second Jean Rhys novel, Voyage in the Dark, and I loved it just as much as Wide Sargasso Sea. Rhys has a way of describing women’s lives that I find extraordinary. This novel follows a young chorus girl in Edwardian England through a sad love affair, a subsequent life of living off of men, and an abortion. It’s as fresh and relevant as if it was written today, and a welcome change from the depictions of chorus girls, party girls, and mistresses by male literary giants from that era, who invariably lacked Rhys’s clear-eyed insight about the interior and practical lives of women.
- Anna Biller, author of Bluebeard’s Castle

Our Share of Night by Mariana Enríquez

What if the beneficiaries of the neoliberal era combined their interests with an unholy cult that, likewise, plants itself in the fertile soil of right-wing dictatorship and atrocity? Argentine writer Mariana Enríquez’s world-spanning, intergenerational novel, Our Share of Night, shares its immense scale and historical imagination with the likes of Márquez and Bolaño – but, with burning singularity, hers is a literary vision that knows the only realism equal to the experience of fascism is going to be horror. In this ultraviolent epic, whose real and imaginary demons have haunted me since January, medicalized gore and demonic ritual mediate between fascist terror in Latin America, disaster capitalism on a global scale, and the inward rupture of patriarchy. The narrative substance is equal parts indigenous mythology and economic violence, exorcism and immiseration. It’s the stuff of nightmares, but so is history. If only we could awake.
- Mark Steven, author of Class War

Winnie and Nelson by Jonny Steinberg
Retrospective by Juan Gabriel Vasquez
The South by Adolph Reed

Winnie and Nelson, by the South African journalist Jonny Steinberg, gives us an unflinching account, alternately inspiring and wrenching, of one of the most politically consequential marriages (and divorces) of the 20th century. Steinberg achieves a perfect combination of intimacy and discretion: he understands that, like any marriage, the Mandela's holds secrets that no outsider can ever fully access. To read his book is to experience vicariously both the moral grandeur and the harrowing costs of the anti-apartheid struggle to which both Nelson and Winnie Mandela were wedded. 

I was also deeply absorbed by another tale of revolutionary commitment and its emotional toll, Retrospective, by the Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vasquez. Advertised as a 'novel', Retrospective is in fact a work of literary non-fiction, telling the true story of a radical Colombian family who moved to Maoist China in the early 1960s, and took part in the Cultural Revolution. Vasquez brilliantly conveys the hallucinatory terror of Maoism, but he also captures the dreams and ideals that drew his subjects to it, which makes their disillusionment all the more tragic. 

Perhaps the most intellectually stimulating book I read in 2023 was published the previous year: Adolph Reed's extended essay The South. Reed has distinguished himself as a redoubtable (and deliciously caustic) slayer of conventional wisdom about race, especially what Barbara and Karen Fields call 'racecraft'. But in The South, his reflection on growing up in Louisiana in the 1950s, he reveals a different voice, probing and ruminative, as he chronicles the rise and fall of Jim Crow totalitarianism. The result is a deep, wise, and humane examination of the nature - and the limits - of historical change.
- Adam Shatz, author of Writers and Missionaries

Chevengur by Andrey Platanov

The publishing event of the year for me was the new translation of Andrey Platanov’s Chevengur, by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler. I read an older translation of it when working on Molecular Red. Like many a modernist classic, it's a book that's many things at once. Among other things, it's a chronicle of the first decade of the Russian Revolution. It's not "history from below,” but from below the below, from those who have nothing. It's also a theory of comradeship, of poverty, of dispossession. And it's a book about language, of how to write amid the destruction of language, a problem we have again now if in a different historical form.
- McKenzie Wark, author of Love and Money, Sex and Death

$ELL YOUR $ELF by Pippa Garner

My favorite book published over the last year is Pippa Garner's $ELL YOUR $ELF, edited by Sara O'Keeffe and published jointly by Art Omi and Pioneer Works Press, on the occasion of Pippa's first New York institutional solo exhibition. Pippa is now 81, and has for decades been making gorgeous, perverted, visionary, utilitarian, and transformative art. She is a true hacker—of gender, cars, reality—and little makes me happier than seeing an ahead-of-their-time artist get their due while they're still alive. The book is both a beautiful standalone object and an exhaustive and hypnotic survey of her work from the sixties to the present, with really special guest essays. If you want new frameworks through which to think about bodies, mechanics, life, death, and productivity, but you are bored of the humorlessness of so much art and theory—this is for you!
- Sophia Giovannitti, author of Working Girl

Phenomenology of Black Spirit by Biko Mandela Gray and Ryan J. Johnson

One of the most remarkable books I read this year is Biko Mandela Gray and Ryan J. Johnson’s Phenomenology of Black Spirit. The book manages to do two remarkable things at once. First, it extracts from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit figures of consciousness, the famous master and slave, but also stoicism, skepticism, and unhappy consciousness, making them less stages in the progression of western philosophy and more general figures through which to think the history of subjectivity. Second, by reading them against the history of black thought, juxtaposing Frederick Douglass narrative of slave revolt against Hegel’s famous master and slave and reading the struggle of faith and devotion against the lives of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and Angela Davis, it draws out the profound challenge of the radical black tradition to the history of philosophy. It is a stunning demonstration of a relationship to philosophy that is at once creative, breaking the boundaries between exegesis and history, and politically committed, reading for the history of the struggle for liberation.
- Jason Read, author of The Double Shift

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