The Critic books of the year

Reading highlights from our editors and contributors

Artillery Row Books

David Butterfield

This year many important books have made cogent, often devastating attacks on some of the great absurdities of our age, chief amongst them Mary Harrington’s Feminism Against Progress, Thomas Sowell’s Social Justice Fallacies and Christopher Rufo’s American Cultural Revolution. Yet the most enjoyable book was Simon Winchester’s Knowing What We Know. Despite a rather silly subtitle (From Ancient Wisdom to Modern Magic), it proved to be a delightfully erudite and eclectic survey of the myriad ways in which humans have sought to reify knowledge, propagate it and (the hardest challenge of all) preserve it from destruction by the four horsemen of the information apocalypse: Hubris, Greed, Ignorance and Apathy.

Ellen Pasternack

This year I’ve been making the most of comic novels and short story collections to brighten tube commutes: slim enough to fit into a handbag, lightweight enough to enjoyably dip into whilst contorted around a stranger’s backpack. Two favourites have been Heartburn by Nora Ephron (a delight from start to finish, made all the more so by the knowledge that as well as being warmly and self-deprecatingly funny, it is also a thinly disguised exposé of Ephron’s own cheating ex-husband); and Calypso by David Sedaris, which made me laugh so reliably that a friend who bumped into me whilst I was reading it in February still remarks on how much I looked like was enjoying myself.

I also enjoyed Hags by Victoria Smith, published in March this year, which I reviewed for the New Statesman. Smith argues that women “past their expiry date” are viewed with a cruel lack of sympathy, which stems from men’s and younger women’s refusal to acknowledge that they too will grow older; that they were once powerless babies; and that the women who gave birth to them, dealt with their tantrums, and taught them how to use a toilet are truly their peers. Young women should think twice before they joke at the expense of “Karens” — one day they will be Karens, too.

Fred Skulthorp

Jacob Phillips’ Obedience is Freedom was my book of the year. A beautifully written synthesis of philosophy, theology and personal recollection, it forced me to revisit everything I thought I knew about being a grown up. It is the ultimate antidote to the world of anaemic, bland, self-pitying memoir. Alywn Turner’s All In It Together is an incredible tying up of all the threads of farce and blunder across British society in the years running up to 2016. No one is capable of synthesising the idiosyncratic weirdness of English society, politics and culture like he is. I can’t wait for his next book on Edwardian popular culture, out early next year. Lastly, I’ve also been enjoying Simon Raven’s Alms For Oblivion series. This is England on either side of the Suez Crisis in all its scheming depravity, cruelty and decline. Raven was a poet of despair and seediness. He is a much needed voice for our times.

Sebastian Milbank

2023 has seen me return to one of the most prescient and enjoyable thinkers of the 20th century — Simone Weil. It’s startling to read a philosopher whose work is so utterly engaged with the same problems we are struggling with today, in a way that feels fresh and energetic. Two of her works stand out especially: The Iliad, Or, The Poem of Force, an extraordinary, lyrical, morally potent work of literary criticism about an ancient text that develops into an eternal reflection on the human capacity for violence. The other is The Need for Roots, a call for social renewal and an escape from the atomising limits of liberalism, issued at the height of WW2 as a report for the French Resistance. It’s required reading for anyone interested in our political moment, and the current crisis of liberalism and globalisation.

On the escapist side of the ledger, I’ve been reading The Worm Ouroboros. Billed as the inspiration for Lord of the Rings, readers hoping for high fantasy with axe wielding dwarves and magicians throwing fireballs will go away disappointed. It’s something else far more exotic and unexpected. A florid work of Edwardian romance, in contrast to Tolkien’s spare, elegant style, the language explodes with unashamed baroque anachronism. Somewhere between the wilder fringes of mediaeval romances, Arabian Nights and the poetry of Keats, an extraordinary literary world unfurls. Give the text time, attune yourself to the language, and a work of incredible beauty emerges, shimmering and strange.

Victoria Smith

I have a slight obsession with books involving terrible people getting into enormous amounts of trouble at work. Hence as someone who has worked in publishing for many years, I found R. F. Kuang’s satire Yellowface the perfect book for projecting my own paranoias. It’s incredibly silly, but also surprisingly generous towards its narrator, blurring the line between badness and bad impulses in a way that feels rare and, as a result, rather brave.

For a non-fiction version of watching people who are definitely worse than you mess up, I would highly recommend Zeke Faux’s Number Go Up on the rise and fall of Crypto. When it comes to a less idiot-laden read, I’ve been hugely impressed by Rachel Hewitt’s In Her Nature, part-memoir, part-history of women’s relationship with outdoor sports. A highly original work, it explores the relationship between access to space and the emotional work of inhabiting a female body. Quietly angry and fiercely feminist, it’s the book I’ve been encouraging everyone to read.

Jo Bartosch

Mary Harrington’s debut book Feminism Against Progress leers off bookshelves in the same way a rowdy, pugilistic drunk might prop up a bar seeking out a target. The prospect of making eye contact with the ideas in it is alarming, and after you do you’re left feeling bruised, tired and staring into a void where there once seemed to be a future for humanity. But Harrington is an original and provocative thinker — her book is a must read for anyone interested in sexual politics and the material demands of the fourth industrial revolution. A self-identified reactionary feminist, she deftly steps from technology as a driver of social norms to what resistance to “progress” might look like. You might be left doubting her conclusions, but her analysis is compelling. Feminism Against Progress is, without a doubt, the most interesting book I’ve read this year.

Next up is Sam Knight’s The Premonitions Bureau, a gripping dive into a long-running study of precognition. The gorgeously written book spans children’s drawings which appeared to predict the Aberfan disaster to people’s propensity to seek out patterns. It offers a fascinating insight into human nature whilst pushing at the edges of what we know and feel about fate.

Finally, Detrans: when transition is not the solution, by Dr Az Hakeem, is the first book by a professional in the field with a focus on the experiences of those who have given-up their trans identities. Hakeem approaches his patients with warmth and respect, though he offers a forensic and unquestionably authoritative analysis of the trans phenomenon itself.

Lola Salem

As the Titanic sank, the terrified crowd could hear the sound of “Nearer, my God, to thee” resonating — a simple melody, honest and seemingly reassuring, played in the midst of pure chaos. Covenant, by Danny Kruger, reads like that tune. In this political manifesto, the call for something better, something higher, is bashed out unreservedly. Yes, brethren, whilst British political conservatism disappears in the flow of incompetency and moral failure, let us rejoice in the hymn of fundamental principles from which we’ve strayed away like lost liberals sheep. Let us try real conservatism once and for all. In 2023, it takes a lot of courage to believe it can (and ought to) be done. Although Covenant is light on details, it is definitively clear in scope. Kruger believes that delineating the subtle combination between faith, family, flag and freedom will preoccupy many in the coming years. May that prayer be heard.

Christopher Montgomery

When you have children, it must be a common temptation to reread the books of your youth as they reach the age you read them at. However much they disdain your choices, and however much you claim they’re bound to have been better than the grossly swollen YA rubbish littering their shelves (why are all modern kids’ books so fat?). “But we weren’t ‘young adults’” you maybe also moan. “We were children” — and proud of it, you’re tempted to lie, but don’t quite go that far. There’s only so much eye-rolling you can take.

I’ve tried and failed to sell the merits of Sam Youd, aka John Christopher, quite the most maddeningly erratic writer, if you’ve ever been cranky enough to track down and read all of his books as an adult. But trying unsuccessfully to sell them to my twelve year old son has made me return to The Guardians and so many others.

Famous now, if at all, for The Tripods trilogy, Christopher was initially best known for 1956’s The Death of Grass, which efficiently did what it said, and wasn’t at all the “cosy catastrophe” he and other post-apocalyptists like John Wyndham are so often now accused of being.

Youd/Christopher mostly left the world of adult fiction behind him after the 50s — and a good thing too, given how bad the Nazi leprechaun sex novel set underneath an Irish castle is: I wish I was joking — and “John Christopher” duly became one of the bankers of British children’s fiction.

His Sword of the Spirits trilogy — a medieval future much more satisfying than The Tripods – deserves to be far better known. And as for The Empty World, a 1977 effort where first the grown-ups die and then most of the children too, this is the first literary death scene I remember, forty years on from reading it, precisely because of the deaths of the children.

But The Guardians was always my favourite. A fantastically reactionary fable — there was some evidence you were meant to disapprove of this society — or so it seemed to me, reading it in the early 80s, a decade after it came out.

The near future was a world where the urban proles, who watched television and enjoyed crude games, lived ruthlessly fenced off by the dreadful Barrier in vast megacities called conurbs. While the real rulers of this society lived in an artificially antiquated countryside known simply as the County.

Rob, our inevitable orphaned hero, escapes his grim conurb youth into the rural paradise and is soon taken up by a young gentry member curiously well-disposed towards him. Politics, society and a sci-fi device shamelessly reused from The Tripods make for a riveting read even now.

John Christopher’s genius, when it fired, lay in things like the Barrier — the grim hundred foot electrified wall between Conurbs and County. But which, when Rob finally reaches it, is just a wire mesh fence, easily circumvented. It’s a good book which makes you think about what other people are merely imagining, and the part their dreams play in your real life.

Ben Sixsmith

This year I hated Kehinde Andrews’ The Psychosis of Whiteness, was thoroughly bored by Rory Stewart’s Politics on the Edge and couldn’t stand — what? Oh, I’m supposed to talk about the books I liked.

As a wrestling fan, I enjoyed Wes Brown’s funny and poignant semi-autobiographical novel Breaking Kayfabe. I had fun grappling with Justin Brierley’s work of social commentary/apologetics The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God. My best pure reading experience, though, was offered by Kurkov’s Death and the Penguin — not a new book, but a book that was new to me. It seemed no less fresh and compelling for its age.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover