For some of us this year, there was a lot more time to read. For others (especially parents of little kids), there was, shall we say, a little bit less. No matter which group you fall into, our editorial board has a recommendation for you. This year, we asked our incredible group of editors for books that helped them understand the forces at play and the events unfolding around us — whether that was the pandemic, the election, or systemic racism and the protests against it. Some of the books peered more deeply into those issues, while other books offered some respite from thinking about those challenges.
As this long, difficult year draws to a close, we’d like to thank everyone for reading Just Security. Providing our readers thoughtful analysis and legal commentary of today’s pressing national security issues gave us purpose and meaning through these strange, and often solitary, months. We hope you keep reading in the new year. If you appreciate our work, please consider making a tax-deductible donation this season to our non-profit (link).
In the meantime, we’d like to wish all our readers a wonderful holiday season and a very happy New Year.
Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism by Anne Applebaum. Why do some people seemingly turn their backs on everything they previously stood for to embrace nationalism and autocracy? Like, what happened to Lindsey Graham? Applebaum draws on personal experience — watching her friends and acquaintances in Poland, the United Kingdom, and the United States gravitate toward nationalism over the years — to help explain the phenomenon. It’s a gripping read about a global trend but told through intimate betrayals and individual portraits.
The Book of Dust: The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman. When New York City shut down in mid-March, I was halfway through this book and I remember feeling so grateful I could escape into this other world at the end of each exhausting day. That said, the world Pullman creates in his books (The Book of Dust trilogy expands upon His Dark Materials) is even more dangerous and foreboding than the world we live in.
The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells. Probably the most terrifying book I’ve ever read. It lays out in harrowing detail what we have in store for ourselves if we do not take on global warming aggressively and globally. Nothing else will matter if we don’t attend to this.
Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe. Guaranteed to take you out of the moment and put you smack dab in New York in the middle of the 1980s. Compellingly gripping account of race, class, the criminal justice system, and the political manipulation of all three. Remarkable how little things have changed.
Vile and the Splendid: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson. This one did not help me make sense of the current reality, but instead reminded me of a reality that could have and should have been. It is the story of Winston Churchill’s first year as prime minister, from May 1940 to May 1941, the year in which England was besieged by German bombers. It was a reminder of the combination of guts, chutzpah, hard work, and serendipity that it takes to be a true leader amidst a crisis. Told in the style of a novel, it is replete with hilarious descriptions of Churchill’s eccentricities, the unrequited love stories and longings of those close to him, and the dogged determination, perseverance, and boldness that enabled Churchill to lead the country through a terrible year and come out intact on the other side.
The Overstory by Richard Powers. This one is cheating a bit, since it came out in 2019, but I didn’t read it until 2020, so I am including it now. Fair warning: It is hardly the fluff-read-on-the beach-with-a-daiquiri kind of distraction. Instead, it is full of pain and hardship. It is also one of the most beautiful and intricate novels I have ever read. It puts trees at the center–overlaid by multiple interconnecting stories of love, loss, and passion. It is one of those books that both broke my heart and filled it with joy. And it has changed the way I look at, listen to, and think about trees, their root structures, and the canopies overhead.
A Promised Land by Barack Obama. Listening to President Obama read his own words aloud (itself a treat), I was struck by how his revisiting of so many key moments and issues from his campaign and first term really serves as a retrospective prelude for the dynamics we now are experiencing in 2020. From the nature of political discourse in the United States, to the relationship between the United States and Russia, to the dangers posed by pandemics, the topics on which Obama reflects may, on the surface, be major issues he confronted in his campaign and presidency; but, beneath, they also serve as bellwethers whose full import 2020 has laid bare and whose trajectory and significance demands a return to recent history to appreciate.
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. It may seem strange to herald as a distraction from a year filled with the horrors of a pandemic, a work of historical fiction set during an earlier pandemic. But O’Farrell’s Hamnet, a meditation on the death of William Shakespeare’s son Hamnet from the plague and its repercussions for the play Hamlet, does what good historical fiction strives for: It removes a reader from his or her time and place, provides immersion in another, and forces reflection on the power of context, then and now. Hamnet took me away from 2020 but then returned me to it wiser for the journey.
The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein. Most people have heard of the racist and debilitating practice of redlining, but to see the broad range of institutionalized, government-driven segregationist practices laid out with so, so many examples from across the United States over decades was stunning. Rothstein sets out one jaw-dropping instance after another in superbly documented detail. Truly a must-read.
Washington Square by Henry James. This classic novel is set in an upper-class townhome on the eponymous square, which prompted my curiosity to read it, being that this iconic park is just outside Just Security‘s home at NYU School of Law. James draws quintessential characters that prove timeless and absorbing. Interestingly, though jazz artist Dave Brubeck’s “Autumn in Washington Square” is of an entirely different era, it somehow makes for a fitting backdrop to this tale.
Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life by Lulu Miller. This might be a strange choice for the “explainer” category, but I found this (beautifully written, spare, tender) book incredibly helpful in understanding our human desires to bring order to chaos, to rank and classify it into chunks we can digest, and to thereby feel some control over it. This human impulse has been upended this year by cascades of events that shatter illusions of control. Our response — and I don’t just mean conspiracy theorists; I mean we educated folks who fancy ourselves self-conscious — has often been to try to reassert hierarchies and reassemble control. This book asks gently about what this approach costs us, and others.
The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America by David Allen Sibley. I keep this book on my desk while I work, and there is nothing more grounding than watching the birds search for seeds on the trees outside my window, and then flipping through this book to identify them and learn a little more about their habits. Whether this practice is in direct contrast to the ideas presented by Miller (above), well, I don’t particularly care. But I’d love to have that conversation with her, or anyone who’s read the book!
Adil Ahmad Haque
No Refuge: Ethics and the Global Refugee Crisis by Serena Parekh. This is a stunning work of practical philosophy. The writing is gripping, crystal clear, and accessible to anyone. But it is not an easy read, because this is not a book of abstractions. This is a book about the lived experiences of real people with nowhere to go, the international system that fails them, and the social and political structures that we need to change.
The Philosopher Queens edited by Rebecca Buxton and Lisa Whiting. Features 20 essays about 20 women philosophers, written by 20 women philosophers, edited by two women philosophers. This is a book for everyone: your teenager, your parents, or the professional philosophers in your life. The essays are fascinating. The artwork is stunning. If time is scarce, read one essay each night before bed.
Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino (paperback released in 2020). This book is not about counterterrorism, impeachment, Russia, election security, COVID-19, racial justice, or any of the other topics that gripped me and Just Security readers this year. But in many ways, it’s deeper. It’s a series of brilliant reflections on the social media, reality TV, scam-driven culture we seem to live in. And it’s a broader meditation on the vanities and righteousness and thirst for decadence that seem to drive us, yes, even those of us who think of ourselves as wonky policy types who somehow rise above it all.
“The Woman Shaking Up the Diamond Industry,” by Ed Caesar, The New Yorker, Feb 3, 2020. Okay, so it’s not a book, but this may be the best piece of nonfiction I have read in a couple of years. Ed Caesar takes us on a fascinating run through the world of diamonds, told through the eyes of Eira Thomas, the woman who has shaken up the industry by discovering some of the world’s biggest diamonds. A masterfully reported account that touches on themes of consumerism, glamor, geopolitics, entrepreneurism, and feminism. It was one of those stories where I grew sad as it came to an end. (Not content to just write one amazing story this year, in July, Caesar gave us an account of a Cold War bunker that was converted into hosting servers for the dark web.)
The Wolf Hall Trilogy by Hilary Mantel. Thomas Cromwell is the government lawyer and bureaucrat who seeks to faithfully serve an increasingly unhinged king. He grows in power as he invents legal justifications for the often repugnant and capricious decisions of Henry VIII, rationalizing the actions to himself as merely the work of a faithful servant to his king and nation. A great cautionary tale, far enough removed from present events to be entertaining but close enough to feel deeply relevant.
Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women by Kate Mann. A gripping read that helps make sense of the pervasive challenges women encounter in their daily lives. She describes misogyny as the “shock collar” that keeps women in line.
The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John Barry. Useful historical perspective for the moment in which we find ourselves. Also an interesting story of how the field of medicine was transformed in the United States around the turn of the century.
A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy by Russell Muirhead & Nancy L. Rosenblum. Muirhead & Rosenblum are political theorists, and their book focuses on the destructive power of fake facts on the fabric of democracy, with special emphasis on Trumpism.
Conspiracy Theories by Quassim Cassam. Cassam is a British philosopher whose short, lucid book focuses on the epistemology and psychology of conspiracy theories. It is closely connected with Cassam’s other 2019 book, Vices of the Mind: From the Intellectual to the Political, but where Vices of the Mind is written for philosophers, Conspiracy Theories aims at the general reader.
Piranesi by Susanna Clark. A luminous novel set in a remarkable alternate universe – a beautifully told story with heart. Moving, even for readers who aren’t usually fantasy fans.
Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare by Thomas Rid. This fascinating history of information warfare chronicles the ways intelligence agencies have manipulated public opinion from the 1920s to today. With a powerful new tool in the internet, adversaries are using our free speech against us, exploiting society’s divisions and replacing facts with beliefs.
The Spy Masters: How the CIA Directors Shape History and the Future by Chris Whipple. Through interviews with former CIA directors, this book provides an intriguing inside look at their relationships with U.S. presidents and the pivotal role the agency has played in American history.
Fionnuala Ní Aoláin
The Virus in the Age of Madness by Bernard-Henri Lévy. An extraordinary philosophical reflection on death, pandemics, power, science, and the nature and humbleness of humanity under stress.
Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney. For distraction, always Irish poetry, I re-read this epic, which is described as “encountering the monstrous, defeating it and then having to live on in the exhausted aftermath.” The beauty of the tale holds its own centuries after its first telling.
Shadows on the Hudson by Isaac Bashevis Singer. About a group of Jewish refugees in New York struggling to remake their lives after the Holocaust.
Writers and Lovers by Lily King. A portrait of the struggling artist as a no-longer-so-young woman working as a waitress while trying to finish her first novel.
The Past by Tessa Hadley. About three grown-up sisters gathering at a family cottage in England as they contemplate selling it.
Luster by Raven Leilani. A portrait of the struggling artist, this time as a young, African American woman, raw and sometimes very funny.
The Enigma of Clarence Thomas by Corey Robin. From his years as a self-described radical black nationalist to his support of market emancipation, this book examines Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his judicial philosophies on race, capitalism, and the Constitution. Thomas’ jurisprudence is important to understand in its own right; after all, he may soon be the longest serving justice in the history of the Supreme Court and much of his jurisprudence has been adopted by a majority of the current justices. But Justice Thomas has also had a profound effect on the Trump presidency (see, e.g., here and here), with Thomas clerks staffing all echelons of the administration and federal judiciary. His jurisprudence and legacy are helpful in understanding not only the Trump administration but also the landscape of conservative power in the years to come.
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin. I read this book for the first time this past year. I’m late to the party, but I highly recommend this Ursula Le Guin classic!
Beth Van Schaack
Beloved by Toni Morrison. Almost too painful to recommend, but a powerful story of the inter-generational trauma occasioned by racial injustice.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. Written when McCullers was only 23, it is a disquieting and poignant account of race relations, gender roles, and class in 1930s Georgia, made all the more relevant in the context of the Black Lives Matter Movement.
Soviet Judgment at Nuremberg by Francine Hirsch. This book sets the record straight on the role of the Soviets in conceptualizing and launching the project of international justice; I reviewed this legal history gem here.
The Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto. A narrative account of the role of the Dutch—including my ancestors—in settling Manhattan. I am following along with The Life of Peter Van Schaack, arguably the most famous Van Schaacks (although Lili St. Cyr, née Willis Marie Van Schaack, gives him a run for his money). This latter book may be of less interest to non-descendants, but through Peter’s papers, this compendium recounts his dogged, but ultimately unsuccessful, efforts to avert the American revolution.