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A Reading Retrospective: Making Sense of 2023 Through Books

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Senjuti Patra


Senjuti was born and raised in Bankura, a small town in India. A reluctant economist, fierce feminist and history enthusiast, she spends most of her time reading. Her interaction with other people is largely limited to running away from them or launching into passionate monologues about her last perfect read or her latest fictional crush.

As another year draws to a close, many of us are looking back and taking stock of all that the past year had to offer. With the WHO declaring the end of the COVID-19 global health emergency in early 2023, the pandemic receded farther away from public discourse, though it’s still very much a fact of life for those at higher risk of infection and those who are battling the long term effects of the disease. The pandemic was replaced in the headlines by wars, unrest, and natural disasters in different parts of the world, in increasingly polarized political climates, and ambivalent public attitudes towards artificial intelligence and social media.

We have no choice but to go into the new year with all the baggage from 2023, but we can arm ourselves with better knowledge and a more nuanced understanding of the events from the last year that will be shaping the world in years to come. Here, I have for you some book recommendations that illuminate the broader context of some of the most important world events from 2023. Happy reading, and may this new year bring strength, courage, joy, empathy, and peace for all.

Hamas Attacks Israel, Israel Launches Offensive in Gaza

In October this year, in response to a devastating attack by Hamas on Israel that killed over a thousand people, where more than two hundred people were taken hostage, Israel launched a military offensive in Gaza that has killed over twenty thousand people. Horrifying reports of violence against Palestinian civilians and of enormous levels of displacement and deprivation are still reaching us every day. Despite protests and demonstrations around the world and appeals by most of the world’s governments, a permanent ceasefire is yet to be negotiated.

cover of the hundred years' war on palestine

The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine by Rashid Khalidi

This book covers a large swathe of history from the last days of the Ottoman Empire to the very recent past. It draws upon historical scholarship as well as the author’s own family archives and first-hand accounts of journalists and activists involved in the resistance movement. This is a deeply moving and comprehensive account of a century of displacement, dispossession, and violence faced by the Palestinian people.

Russia’s War Against Ukraine Continues

Even as fears began to materialize about political and public focus in the West shifting away from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Ukrainian forces continue to be engaged in battle against Russian troops. Despite suffering heavy losses, the Russian army has maintained its presence in Ukraine on the back of its much larger population and bigger economy.

Cover of The Gates of Europe

The Gates of Europe by Serhii Plokhy

This book presents a portrait of Ukrainian history from the eighteenth century, from the Roman and Ottoman periods to the rise of the Soviet Union and the second world war, right up to the 2010s. The driving force of this history is Ukraine’s unique geographical significance and its struggle to establish and maintain an independent political identity — an aspect that provides an important historical perspective for understanding the current war in the region.

Global Temperatures Reach Record-Breaking Levels

Climate change is no longer an amorphous threat for the future — 2023 was the hottest year on record so far. Extreme weather events like heatwaves, draughts, and floods have wreaked havoc in different parts of the world and led to large losses of life, property, and livelihoods.

Cover of The Nutmeg's Curse by Amitav Ghosh

The Nutmeg’s Curse by Amitav Ghosh

This book begins with the story of the large-scale cultivation and widespread adoption of nutmeg from an island in Indonesia to illustrate how colonialism, capitalism, and consumerism are historically linked with environmental degradation and the crisis we find ourselves in today. Ghosh brings the penchant for research and the compelling narrative style of his extraordinary historical novels to this passionately argued treatise that is yet another reminder that climate change cannot be effectively addressed in isolation from the social, political, and economic forces that drive it.

Book cover of The Sixth Extinction- An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

One of the effects of climate change and rampant habitat destruction has been the extinction, at alarming rates, of non-human life forms from the planet. In 2023, 21 species were declared extinct in the US. Elizabeth Kolbert’s brilliant book travels across time and continents to investigate how mankind has brought about the sixth mass extinction of life forms on Earth while providing a window into the work that scientists are doing around the world to preserve biodiversity and understand the factors that threaten it.

Debates About AI as the Need for Regulation Intensifies

With the launch of ChatGPT and subsequent focus on similar tools by technology giants like Google and Meta, conversations about the impact and potential of Artificial Intelligence in virtually every aspect of life took center stage, coupled with increasing anxieties about large-scale unemployment. Debates raged about the ethics of the various uses of big data and the ways in which they cemented or worsened existing prejudices and inequalities.

cover of Race After Technology

Race after Technology by Ruha Benjamin

This book looks at the ways in which technology has absorbed human biases and, in turn, reinforces them using the veneer of objectivity that is still bestowed upon it. It shows through a range of examples how seemingly neutral technology — and sometimes even technology designed to correct racial discrimination — perpetuates stratification and racial prejudice. It drives home the point that AI and automation can have different outcomes on the lives of marginalized communities than the White male templates most technologies are still based upon.

Democratic Backsliding Continues Around the World

As per the latest Global State of Democracy report for 2023, on a global scale, the net decline measured in various indicators of democracy outweighed net gains for the sixth conservative year. Democratic backsliding has been observed across all regions of the world. It’s driven by a decline in indicators like social and political equality, freedom of expression, and freedom of the press.

Cover of The Decline and Rise of Democracy

The Decline and Rise of Democracy by David Stasavage

Based on a sweeping view of several millennia of human history, this book examines the conditions under which democracy first flourished and how this early form of governance was transformed into modern democracy. This is a very interesting, wide-ranging history of the complexities of the evolution of political institutions and one that has valuable insights into the crossroads we are at now.

To Make Sense of It All

2023 was not an easy year, but it is another year humanity has endured through displays of individual and collective bravery and solidarity. It might be overwhelming to look back at all the major events from the year past, so here are two books that provide brilliantly experimental frameworks for making sense of it all.

cover of Doppelganger by Naomi Klein

Doppelganger by Naomi Klein

The author Naomi Klein has often been mistaken for Naomi Wolf, the feminist writer turned conspiracy theorist. When Wolf’s prominence soared as a vaccine skeptic during the COVID-19 pandemic, this confusion became increasingly troublesome to Klein. She uses this experience in her latest book to look at the world through the distorted lens of her doppelganger and creates a brilliant, incisive commentary on the state of politics and society in a world in which the boundaries between the online and the offline become increasingly blurred.

Experiments in Imagining Otherwise cover

Experiments in Imagining Otherwise by Lola Olufemi

Written in an experimental mix of prose and poetry, this is a book that will inspire and energize. We can often feel hopeless because we are made to believe that this is the best that things can be. This book encourages its readers to break free from such notions and imagine a different existence — one that would be suffused with freedom and joy.

Look to go a little more in-depth on these issues? Here are more books by Palestinian authors and Ukrainian authors. Here are more recommendations for books about climate change. For more books to reignite the spark of hope, check out this wonderful list: What to Read When the World Feels Hopeless.