Roundup

The Best Books We Read in 2022

FP columnists and contributors recommend their favorite books they read this year.

bFP - book recommendations
bFP - book recommendations

Even while keeping up with the nonstop torrent of news headlines from around the world, FP columnists and contributors somehow found time over this past year to read a lot of books, and many helped contextualize events happening out in the real world. 

We asked them to tell us which of the books they read this year they’d most want to recommend to FP readers. Here are the ones they chose.


Imperium

Ryszard Kapuscinski (Knopf, 331 pp., $24.99, September 1994)

Even while keeping up with the nonstop torrent of news headlines from around the world, FP columnists and contributors somehow found time over this past year to read a lot of books, and many helped contextualize events happening out in the real world. 

We asked them to tell us which of the books they read this year they’d most want to recommend to FP readers. Here are the ones they chose.


Imperium

Ryszard Kapuscinski (Knopf, 331 pp., $24.99, September 1994)

Recommended by Elisabeth Braw

As the Soviet Union lay in its death throes, the legendary Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, who had been born in a part of Poland that was subsequently ceded to the Soviet Union, crisscrossed the empire. The result was the book Imperium

When it was first published in Polish in 1993, Imperium was a beautifully observed and recounted voyage of a country in decay, with towns where visitors—as was the case with Kapuscinski—found themselves at the mercy of the often brave and kindly ex-Soviet citizens who’d stayed behind as everyone else left. 

Today, Imperium remains a masterful literary-journalistic account in Kapuscinski’s trademark style. But it has also taken on a new guise: that of today’s Russia foretold. To be sure, it was not inevitable that the misery Kapuscinski documented would lead to widespread Russian revanchism. But reading certain parts of the book today, one is overcome by a sense of foreboding. 


A Dominant Character: How J.B.S. Haldane Transformed Genetics, Became a Communist, and Risked His Neck for Science

Samanth Subramanian (W.W. Norton, 400 pp., $20, July 2020)

Recommended by Sumit Ganguly

I am in the midst of reading an utterly fascinating book, A Dominant Character: How J.B.S. Haldane Transformed Genetics, Became a Communist, and Risked His Neck for Science by Samanth Subramanian—a biography of British polymath John Burdon Sanderson (“J.B.S.”) Haldane. 

Trained as a biologist, Haldane was the consummate scientific trespasser (in the best sense of the word), with his scholarship ranging across multiple fields including physiology, genetics, mathematics, and evolutionary biology. 

Apart from his vast scientific expertise, he also flirted with communism and eventually embraced socialism. Apparently dismayed with Britain’s involvement in the 1956 Suez Canal debacle, Haldane moved to India that same year and became an Indian citizen in 1961. He conducted research into malaria and other diseases, including developing a treatment for tetanus, until his death from cancer in 1964 at age 72. 

Subramanian’s book provides a detailed, scrupulous, and insightful account of this extraordinary if eccentric scientist.


My Past & Thoughts

Alexander Herzen, abridged by Dwight Macdonald, transl. by Constance Garnett (University of California Press, 752 pp., $11.14, April 1982)

Recommended by James Traub

Of all the great 19th-century liberals whom philosopher Isaiah Berlin admired—Benjamin Constant, John Stuart Mill, Alexis de Tocqueville—the one he most deeply revered was Alexander Herzen, the supremely humane, wise, freedom-loving Russian essayist. Only one of Herzen’s major works appears to be available in English: My Past & Thoughts, translated by Constance Garnett, introduced by Berlin, and abridged from two volumes by Dwight Macdonald. 

Herzen approaches Russia’s feudal-bureaucratic society with Russian novelist Nikolai Gogol’s sense of the ridiculous and Russian writer Ivan Turgenev’s gift of swift characterization. (He knew both men, as well as apparently almost everyone else who mattered in Europe.) Too brave and honest to accept Tsar Nicholas I’s despotic rule, he left for Europe in time to participate in the revolutions of 1848 in both Italy and France. 

My Past & Thoughts is an astonishing torrent of childhood memory, political analysis, philosophy, and history—an epic Russian novel in which everything is true. I only regret that Macdonald edited out Herzen’s fierce and painful romantic life to make room for all the young Hegelians of Herzen’s Moscow coterie. 


An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943 (Volume One of the Liberation Trilogy)

Rick Atkinson (Henry Holt and Co., 681 pp., $26.39, October 2002)

Recommended by Steven A. Cook

As a land war is currently being fought in Europe, it seems appropriate to recommend a book about the last big one. A few years ago, I plowed through Rick Atkinson’s An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, which chronicles the U.S. landings in North Africa in 1942-1943 and the opening phases of U.S. combat in World War II. 

The story of U.S. armies in North Africa is one I only knew vaguely, even after I visited the North Africa American Cemetery and Memorial in Carthage, Tunisia. Also, how many people knew why the Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid was important before the street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in December 2010, catalyzing the Tunisian Revolution and wider Arab Spring? Read An Army at Dawn, and you will find out.

Now I am turning my attention back to the rest of Atkinson’s “Liberation Trilogy” with volume two, The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944, about the invasion of Sicily and the U.S. fight through Italy. Atkinson is a wonderful writer who not only can make harrowing battles of long ago come alive on the page but has also produced top-notch history.


Harsh Times

Mario Vargas Llosa (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 304 pp., $17.99, November 2021)

Recommended by Caroline de Gruyter

Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel Harsh Times was published in 2021, but it gains more relevance by the day. It is a historically precise but fictionalized account of political turmoil in Guatemala in the 1950s, fueled by lies, espionage, and conspiracies against the backdrop of the growing, often absurdist Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, aided by regional proxies. 

At first, the novel doesn’t seem to be Vargas Llosa’s best. There are many characters, some of whom are rather flat, and the story is broken into a thousand bits that seem randomly scattered around. Then you realize why you want to keep reading: Because it is captivating. And because today, again, we live in a world where dirty plots, fake news, and political hysteria rapidly gain prominence, complicating the work of those trying to uphold international treaties and common decency. 

In this sense, the book’s mosaic-like setup is both functional and fascinating: It adds to the feeling of disorientation that Vargas Llosa, a Nobel Prize winner, wants the reader to have. Harsh Times holds up a mirror. It is not just about a coup in Guatemala but also about the political direction today’s world is taking. Dig in over the holidays and ask yourself: How can we prevent the world from drifting further?


Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America

Pekka Hamalainen (Liveright, 592 pp., $34.99, September 2022)

Recommended by Stephen M. Walt

Was the triumph of Manifest Destiny a foregone conclusion? Maybe not. For a provocative, revisionist account of Western/American expansion, I recommend Pekka Hamalainen’s Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America

The book is a fascinating and revealing account of the French, Spanish, English, and U.S. engagement with the numerous and diverse native North American tribes who alternately helped, hindered, fought, and eventually succumbed to relentless white expansion. 

Far from being primitive societies doomed to defeat, Hamalainen shows that the original inhabitants of North America were sophisticated political actors. They resisted European and U.S. interference for far longer than is commonly believed, and their interactions with each other, the ever-expanding settler movement, and Washington, D.C., left an indelible mark on the United States itself. 

Had events taken a slightly different path—and had the native population been less susceptible to the diseases the Europeans brought with them across the Atlantic Ocean, the 13 original colonies might never have conquered the continent, and the United States would not be the global power it is today.


East West Street: On the Origins of “Genocide” and “Crimes Against Humanity”

Philippe Sands (Knopf, 448 pp., $43.89, May 2016)

Recommended by Janine di Giovanni

Philippe Sands’s magisterial East West Street: On the Origins of “Genocide” and “Crimes Against Humanity” traces the roots of the legal concepts of “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” back to Lviv, Ukraine, the city where his maternal grandfather was born. So relevant and poignant today.


Exit West

Mohsin Hamid (Riverhead Books, 240 pp., $12.69, March 2017)

Recommended by Lynne O’Donnell

Humanity is a shared condition; it is only humans who draw distinctions. Mohsin Hamid’s deceptively simple storytelling takes the reader to those places no one should ever have to go—places of horror and fear, of love and loathing, of innocence and its loss. His 2017 novel, Exit West, is set in a dreamscape of disbelief in which everywhere could be anywhere and there, but for the grace of God, goes anyone, at any time, without will or warning.

This wonderful, disturbing book humanizes the othered. Two young people meet, love, entwine, and enjoy. Until they no longer can, and the savagery out there imposes and forces them to make decisions they should never have to make. They leave—their home, their families, their city, their country—to escape the violence that only humans are capable of. They grasp at hope; it brings them disappointment, disillusion, guilt, guile, fear, suspicion, cynicism. Their lives change; they change. And they persevere. They survive. 

Exit West is a window to the inhumanity of our world, a shard of light on the shame that all should feel for every act of cruelty on any living being. War is the ultimate cruelty. And we are all dehumanized by it.


The Economic Weapon: The Rise of Sanctions as a Tool of Modern War

Nicholas Mulder (Yale University Press, 448 pp., $26.49, January 2022)

Recommended by Emma Ashford

Nicholas Mulder’s eminently readable book explores the early development of sanctions as a tool—both of warfare and as an alternative to it. The period under discussion is not, as you might expect, the 1990s or 2000s, but rather the 1920s, when the Allied countries first used their economic might to crush Germany’s economy and then departed from existing global norms to repurpose economic sanctions as a way to punish wayward states in the international system. 

The book, published just one month before Russia invaded Ukraine, was exceptionally well timed; prior to this year, it would have been an interesting addition to our historical understanding of sanctions but not particularly relevant to the conduct of modern, targeted financial sanctions. However, as the Western world has once again turned to the use of wide-ranging economic statecraft against Russia—and, increasingly, China—this book is suddenly highly relevant for the lessons it can teach us about what happened the last time this approach was tried.

Books are independently selected by FP columnists and contributors. FP earns an affiliate commission on anything purchased through links to Amazon.com on this page.

Books are independently selected by FP editors. FP earns an affiliate commission on anything purchased through links to Amazon.com on this page.

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