Continuing the Just Security tradition of holiday reading lists, we asked our wonderful team of editors for end-of-year reading recommendations. We hope this list may enrich your personal reading or inspire your gift purchasing for others — or both! This year, we asked for books that helped our editors understand the moment we are living in in 2021 and received wide-ranging responses diving into issues of racial justice, climate change, rule of law, philosophy, and more. We also asked for books that illuminated something beautiful, joyful, or hopeful in the world — whether past, present, or future.
As we near the end of 2021 and prepare to continue conversations around national security, rights, and global engagement, we are especially grateful to our Just Security readers for the opportunity to meaningfully delve into and analyze the issues that shape our world. 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. We hope that you enjoy these reading recommendations from the Just Security team.
Leviathan on a Leash by Sean Fleming. This book not only challenges dominant modes of thought about state responsibility, but also invites readers to consider what makes a state in the first place. Whether or not you’re convinced by his reading of Thomas Hobbes, it’s an excellent opportunity to question some of the fundamentals of the international system.
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (translated by Diana Burgin & Katherine Tiernan O’Connor). With its dark and comical magical realism, revisiting this old favorite novel was a balm in 2021. It also underscores the importance of artistic and political expression, as well as perseverance in the face of the absurd.
Tangled Up in Blue by Rosa Brooks. A nuanced inside look at the culture of policing, from the vantage point of a human rights lawyer who became a DC volunteer police officer. Insightful, funny, and sad by turns, Brooks manages to do what is so difficult in this day and age – to empathize with police officers even as she offers a clear-eyed critique of policing.
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. This is an odd choice for something beautiful, in that it chronicles the life of a poverty-stricken alcoholic mother and her son as life in Glasgow delivers one blow after another. But it was the most moving and beautiful book I read all year, and the love between the mother and her son is, in the end, deeply redeeming. Really an astonishing book.
Intimacies by Katie Kitamura. One of my great reading joys is discovering something true about the world refracted through the prism of fiction — that “aha!” moment when a story concretizes a thought that had previously been only half-formed or nebulous. Intimacies is full of passages like that, exploring themes of identity, alienation, trust and doubt, and how we know each another (or don’t). A particular draw for international law-minded readers: the protagonist is a translator at an international tribunal in The Hague, and Kitamura expertly balances the high-stakes backdrop with interpersonal moments that feel honest, lived-in, and — well, intimate.
A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by George Saunders. Fittingly, this book on Russian short stories unfolds like a nesting doll: a study about narrative architecture becomes an analysis of what makes our brains love a good story becomes a meditation on empathy, art, and being human. Saunders is a sharply perceptive social critic who avoids cynicism thanks to a deeply humane and humorous world view, which suffuses this rich and layered book.
Exit West by Mohsin Hami. Confession: I actually read this last year but didn’t include it in my recommendations then, in part because it is so stylized and puzzling. But I can’t get it out of my mind, and that seems to me the sign of a good book. I think of it almost every time I read about another of the world’s refugee and displacement convulsions. This story of a young couple, Nadia and Saeed, fleeing their home in some unnamed country, leaving his father behind, moving desperately through mysterious “doors” to find safety, living their spartan, fearful, but always intensely human existence, clearly burrowed itself in my mind. Published in 2017, it’s an exploration of the psychology of physical, economic, political, and social insecurity that resonates too profoundly today.
The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland by Jim Defede. First published in 2002, this is the story of the 38 passenger planes with more than 6,000 people on board who were bound for the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, and were forced to land in Gander, Newfoundland, when the U.S. closed its airspace as a security measure in the aftermath of the al-Qaeda attacks. Defede, a journalist for the Miami Herald when he went there afterwards to research the book, paints vivid portraits of the dramatic scenes on the tarmac and in the town and of the way the residents so warmly embraced the befuddled stranded passengers, going to amazing lengths to make sure they had what they needed, from opening their homes for hot showers and a good night’s sleep, to looking after the pets in the cargo holds. The book inspired the Broadway hit musical Come From Away. The Ford’s Theater staged a performance of the music in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington the night before the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11 this year. The heartwarming, moving, funny depiction of humanity at its best was the perfect antidote for a difficult year in Washington.
Bewilderment by Richard Powers. This had me from the first paragraph, where the narrator observes, “Darkness this good is hard to come by.” The narrator and his neurodiverse, 9-year old son have set themselves up at a cabin in the Great Smoky Mountains for a night of stargazing. I started this book two days after our family returned to Washington D.C. following an extended period with whānau in a remote coastal region of Aotearoa New Zealand. There, darkness reliably followed sunset, and the moon cast a shadow. The spectacle laid out by the stars on a cloudless night topped any 4th of July fireworks display. Newly back to a city where electric light filled the night, I was craving darkness. Beyond the personal right book/right moment though, I recommend Bewilderment as a remarkably concise critique of the moment we are in as the human inhabitants of this planet. In an interview, Powers explains that the questions he picks up in Bewilderment are those left hanging after his Pulitzer Prize winning opus, Overstory. “Namely, how did we lose our sense of living here on Earth? How did we become so alienated and estranged from everything else alive? How did we get convinced that we’re the only interesting game in town, and the only species worthy of extending a sense of the sacred to?”
Traveling While Black: Essays Inspired by a Life on the Move by Nanjala Nyabola. Nyabola’s Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics: How the Internet Era is Transforming Politics in Kenya tops my list of go-to resources for thinking through the impact of social media, without the baggage of an American-centric bias. I was curious, then, to read something more personal from a writer and thinker I already adore. Traveling While Black is explicitly not a travel memoir but rather, as Nyabola describes it, essays about “the ideas that come from dislocation.” I have a lifelong love of the discovery process that comes from moving to unfamiliar places, so I was already onboard with the “traveling” premise of the project. But where the book really delivers is the “while Black” contribution. I cannot do it justice in the space here, but if you crave an accessible invitation to cogitate on the structural dimensions of racism on a global scale, Traveling While Black is for you.
Adil Ahmad Haque
This year, I’m listing two books that I hope to read over the holidays.
The first is Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History by Lea Ypi, a critically-acclaimed memoir of the author’s childhood in Stalinist Albania. I know Ypi as a leading young political philosopher, and I’m eager to learn the lessons she draws from her own experiences.
The second is The Ethics of Exile: A Political Theory of Diaspora by Ashwini Vasanthakumar, which examines the political role of exiles in correcting defective political institutions back home and countering asymmetries of voice and power abroad. I expect it will pair well with one of my picks from last year: No Refuge: Ethics and the Global Refugee Crisis by Serena Parekh.
Zero Fail by Carol Leonnig. This book paints a candid portrait of the Secret Service and its flaws from an author who deeply respects the institution. Despite the excellence of this agency, it is surprisingly fragile. Unless we adequately fund this organization and ensure that it is not used for political purposes, it will either fail in its mission to protect the president or be weaponized to attack a president’s political opponents.
All In by Billie Jean King. This book shows how much society can change in one person’s lifetime if some of us have the courage to challenge assumptions and conventions. While we still have a long way to go before the playing field is level for everyone, this book gives hope that change is possible.
Fionnuala Ní Aoláin
The Law of the List: UN Counterterrorism Sanctions and the Politics of Global Security Law 2020 by Gavin Sullivan. In a year where we should all be paying attention to the unrestrained rise of global counter-terrorism and the illustration of its seismic failures with the Taliban wresting control of Afghanistan, this book traces the emergence of global security law over two decades. Paying meticulous attention to the technocratic application of UN sanctions regimes, Sullivan reveals through theoretical and ethnographic analysis the broader unaccountability of global counter-terrorism regimes, the corelation of such regimes to unaccountable governance practices, and the unrestrained negative impact on the rule of law. A must read for security and counter-terrorism practitioners.
A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa. This is a genre-bending book that combines poetry, sleuthing, literary prose, autobiography and the reclaims Irish feminist prose and poetry in one extraordinary and illuminating text. It brings the most epic Irish lamenting poem, the grief-stricken story of Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, to life while reclaiming the power of life and storytelling for generations of women. It transcends its Irish roots to speak to loss, beauty and the capacity to retell forgotten stories everywhere.
The Frayed Atlantic Edge: A Historian’s Journey from Shetland to the Channel by David Gange. A book combining history, nature writing, and key observations of land and sea from the perspective of the writer adventuring in a sea kayak for a year. Gange follows the western fringe of Britain and Ireland to tell the story of the Atlantic coastline from near range. This is a book of tremendous beauty and adventure. Gange inverts the perspective of Island history and geography by telling stories of coastlines and those who inhabit them, bringing us back to the times when the sea was the main artery of trade and communications and reimagining both British and Irish history in the process.
Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War by Samuel Moyn. This book elicited strong reactions in legal and humanitarian circles, sparking a debate which spilled over onto the pages of Just Security. The book encapsulates the revolutionary idea that efforts to make war more humane have normalized the use of force and entrenched existing patterns of domination within the international system. Humane explains the origins and evolution of the forever wars, serving as a call to action for those seeking a better path toward peace.
La Chute by Albert Camus. No one writes more beautifully or poignantly about the meaning of life than Camus. The book explores themes of justice, power, truth, innocence, freedom, non-existence, and mortality. In these difficult times during the pandemic, Camus remains a source of inspiration for exploring our shared humanity and resilience in the face of the unknown. In his words, “in certain cases, carrying on, merely continuing, is superhuman.”
There Is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century by Fiona Hill. Cannot more highly recommend this important memoir/political history by Hill, the former Trump NSC expert who memorably testified about the “political errands” she witnessed Trump allies being involved in regarding Ukraine at his first impeachment trial in 2019. The working class daughter of an unemployed coal miner in northeast England, who went on to study Russia as the Soviet Union collapsed, and later to earn a PhD at Harvard, Hill lived and witnessed post-industrial economic transformations in England, Russia and America that have left behind whole populations — conditions that have proved fertile ground for the political rise of Vladimir Putin in Russia and Donald Trump in the United States, and in which democracy has come under threat. “I have seen firsthand just how vulnerable America is to the political afflictions that have befallen Russia,” Hill writes. “By November 2019, . . . I knew that America had embarked on an authoritarian swing of its own. When the global coronavirus pandemic hit, the U.S. teetered on the verge of a system failure. We needed to address our opportunity crisis and pull ourselves back from the brink.”
Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump by Spencer Ackerman. Ackerman (full disclosure, an old friend) makes a compelling case that the current disturbing era of resurgent authoritarian nationalism has deep roots in the United States’ approach to the War on Terror. A sobering reminder to security wonks that the harms of the post-9/11 era aren’t limited tot the direct civil liberties risks posed by counterterrorism authorities, or even the appalling body count of discretionary wars, but the toxic long-term effect it’s had on our larger political culture.
The Poverty of Privacy Rights by Khiara M. Bridges. A sort of spiritual successor to Oscar Gandy’s The Panoptic Sort and John Gilliom’s Overseers of the Poor. Bridges documents the extraordinary invasions of privacy imposed on people—and especially women—who rely on public assistance for food and healthcare… intrusions rarely demanded of those who receive other forms of government subsidy available to the affluent.
Atlas of AI by Kate Crawford. Big think in a slim volume; a penetrating work of political economy examining the social consequences of Artificial Intelligence, and far more engagingly written than a book fitting that description has any right to be. Crawford maps the ways AI threatens to entrench and reproduce existing power structures and social inequities.
Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare by Thomas Rid. This history of weaponized misinformation and psyops in the 20th & early 21st centuries makes for a surprisingly fun read, until you remember how depressingly relevant it remains. Many of the ops recounted here are being publicly disclosed for the first time—reader’s choice whether to find this amusing, appalling, or thoroughly paranoia-inducing.
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro. A coming-of-age story for a protagonist who doesn’t age, from one of the living legends of British letters. Narrator Klara is the pollyannaish solar-powered android companion to a young girl made sickly by the side effects of the genetic “lifting” that, in the novel’s near-future, has become a virtual requirement for parents who dream of sending their kids off to good colleges and prestigious careers. In anyone else’s hands, the story would be cloying, but Ishiguro’s deft touch makes it powerfully affecting.
XX by Rian Hughes. When a radio telescope picks up a mysterious extraterrestrial signal, AI experts at a British tech startup seek to decode the message… and end up discovering a group of “memetic entities” that personify the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. Even the most dedicated e-book reader will want to pick this one up in hardback: This massively ambitious (and jut plain massive) gonzo novel conveys its narrative through graphic design and typography as much as prose. (Think of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, only a bit more easily digestible.) There are handwritten letters, journal articles, a Golden Age sci-fi short story, news and journal articles, even a QR code pointing to an album of accompanying music. It’s a postmodern love-letter to modernism, an immersive and thoroughly bonkers dadaist multimedia experience disguised as a mere novel.
The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson. When travel between parallel universes is discovered, it turns out that nature abhors a duplicate: Try to enter a world where your counterpart is still alive, and the alternate earth will spit you out—folded, spindled, and thoroughly mutilated. This makes those society had previously regarded as most disposable suddenly valuable as world-walkers: The more versions of you have died, the more inter dimensional safaris you’re able to go on. Cara is one such world-walker, but the titular “space between worlds” isn’t just the eerie void between realities, but the gulf between the social world that shaped her and the posh domed city she now calls home.
The Anomaly (L’anomalie) by Hervé le Tellier. Winner of the 2020 Goncourt Prize, The Anomaly introduces a memorable array of characters, each of whom seems to have parachuted in from a different literary genre, including contract killer Blake, closeted Nigerian pop star Slimboy, film editor Lucie (and André, the older boyfriend she’s grown bored of), middle-aged novelist Victor, terminally ill pilot David, and pharma lawyer Joanna. They’ve got two things in common: Each is, in some sense or other, living a double life, and each took a storm-buffeted flight from Paris to New York in the spring of 2021. Then, four months later, the flight arrives a second time—complete with a duplicate set of passengers.