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Truman Capote relaxes with a book and a cigarette in his cluttered apartment, Brooklyn Heights, New York. (Slim Aarons via Getty Images)

Our Twelve Books of Christmas

Our favorite 2023 titles on creativity, parenthood, men, cancel culture, longevity, mental health, murder, grifting, identity, freedom, and sex.

By The Free Press

December 18, 2023

If you’re anything like us, you have a few books—okay, a stack, threatening to topple over—unread on your nightstand. Every night this past year we promised to finally start on one. Most nights, Twitter won out.

As the madness of 2023 comes to a close, we’re (finally, for real) taking a break from the newsfeed and turning to our bookshelves.

There’s a lot to read. Because this past year might have been a bad year for the Middle East, for freedom of speech, for FTX, for House Republicans, for Hunter Biden, but it was a good year for books. 

We hear Oprah has a book club. We know Reese has one, too. Your mom probably has one (at least many of ours do). But we think our list is, like everything we do, a little different.

Herewith, The Free Press’s first list of the best books of 2023—our twelve books of Christmas—presented in no particular order. 

If we know you, we know you’ll cheer some, jeer others. Mostly, we’d love to know what we overlooked in the comments. 

Last: if you’re looking for last-minute gifts, consider gifting one of these titles to yourself or someone you love this holiday season. 

Read, enjoy—and Merry Christmas! 

(Penguin Press)

The Best Minds: A Story of Friendship, Madness, and the Tragedy of Good Intentions

by Jonathan Rosen

Jonathan Rosen’s best friend Michael Laudor was an exceptional boy. Academically, he excelled. Things that are hard for most young students, like reading multiple books at once and comprehending large volumes of material, came easily for him. His charm was infectious, and he seemed to immediately attract the attention of any room he entered. Through high school and college, one thing was clear: everyone was drawn to Michael. 

Michael’s diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia in his twenties in some ways only added to his allure. But on the day he was accepted to Yale Law School, he also believed that monkeys were eating his brain.

The New York Times wrote a glowing profile about his resilience. A major book contract for Michael’s memoir followed. Director Ron Howard bought his life rights, and Brad Pitt was attached to star in a movie about Michael’s life.

But there would be no Hollywood ending. In 1998, suffering from hallucinations, Laudor, then 35, stabbed his pregnant girlfriend Carrie, then 37, to death. The former poster boy was suddenly a “psycho killer” on the front page of the New York Post.

This is a breathtaking account of friendship and the harrowing and insidious nature of mental illness as it takes over someone’s life. Most of all, it investigates the invisible forces—cultural, political, and ideological—that shaped Michael’s terrible fortune, and America’s ongoing failure to get people like Michael the help that they so desperately need. 

We pride ourselves on independent thinking, but Rosen’s book was named one of the year’s ten best by just about everyone—The New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, Oprah. In this, if not most things, we are happy to come to the same judgment. (Listen to Bari’s conversation with Jonathan Rosen on Honestly.) 

(Polity)

The Case Against the Sexual Revolution 

by Louise Perry 

The upheaval of the sixties countercultural movement and its rejection of sexual and social mores is generally presented as a positive for women. But it shouldn’t be, argues British writer Louise Perry, who grasps this third rail with both hands. 

Her provocative book takes on the unintended effects of feminism on modern sex—from dating apps to hookup culture to cutting-edge reproductive technology. 

Perry posits that the sexual revolution promotes the false belief that “any restrictions placed on sexual behavior must therefore have been motivated by malice, stupidity, or ignorance.” In fact, she argues, our sexual liberation has given rise to dangerous porn, dysfunctional sex, and the erosion of intimacy.

Perry, who also made her case against the sexual revolution at The Free Press’s first live debate alongside Anna Khachiyan, advocates for a new sexual culture based on dignity and restraint. Agree or disagree with her, Perry is a woman to watch.

(Brookings Institution Press)

Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It

by Richard Reeves

Only 74 men for every 100 women now receive a bachelor’s degree. Among men with only a high school diploma, one in three no longer works. Deaths due to suicide, alcohol, and drug overdoses are nearly three times higher among men than women. 

Richard Reeves’ book presents these stark facts that affect not just men but all of society. “We can hold two thoughts in our head at once. We can be passionate about women’s rights and compassionate toward vulnerable boys and men,” writes Reeves (you can listen to him on Honestly here).

Reeves is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the father of three sons, and he recently created the American Institute for Boys and Men to figure out what’s plaguing males today. One solution, he explains, is to “stop the trend to pathologize typically boy behavior. This means opposing the application of the ‘toxic masculinity’ label for any behavior that the user disapproves of.” 

(Harmony)

Outlive: The Science and Art of Longevity 

by Peter Attia with Bill Gifford

Not everyone wants to live forever, but who doesn’t want to live better for longer? 

Dr. Peter Attia thinks the good life—the longer, healthier kind—should be accessible to everyone who takes a proactive approach to their lives.

Once you’re diagnosed with heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and Alzheimer’s, it’s an uphill battle to get better, Attia writes. Instead, he urges readers to fight off the chance of getting these diseases for as long as possible by following a plan of (mostly aerobic) exercise, eating high-protein foods, and bolstering emotional health.

An episode from his own life helped him realize the importance of that last point. At age 45, he entered a facility that helps people deal with trauma. “My addictions were much more socially acceptable,” he told Bari on Honestly last June. “Namely, workaholism and perfectionism.” In his book, Attia writes how focusing on family and relationships boosted his “healthspan” and brought new meaning to his life.

Health books are a dime a dozen. This one is worth your time. 

Scammer

by Caroline Calloway 

If you are a normal person, chances are you’ve never heard the name Caroline Calloway. But for those of us who spent a lot of time online in the 2010s, Caroline Calloway became famous for documenting her charmed life at Cambridge University as a preppy, pretty Virginia native who is smarter than most social media influencers. 

Then her friend Natalie Beach supposedly exposed Calloway as a fraud, revealing that tens of thousands of her Instagram followers had been bought, and saying that Beach herself had written the clever captions for her posts. Beach became the press darling; Calloway became the villain. The feud played out in dueling tell-all essays, broken contracts, and endless online commentary about a doomed friendship. 

We realize how trivial this all sounds. But Calloway’s first book, Scammer, is unputdownable. And, as it turns out, she’s a genius. (Bari and Nellie physically fought over their one copy while on vacation.) 

Scammer is, fittingly, self-published and available for sale on Calloway’s website in two editions: “For Peasants” ($29) and “Luxury First Edition” ($65), which includes an author autograph and a handwritten note that says, “Thank you for being a goddamn patron of the arts!” It took us weeks to get a copy, so don’t expect it before Christmas.

(Swift Press)

Time to Think: The Inside Story of the Collapse of the Tavistock’s Gender Service for Children

by Hannah Barnes 

When it was founded in 1989, North London’s Gender Identity Development Service at Tavistock (GIDS) was meant to provide talk therapy to young people questioning their gender identity. 

But between 2009 and 2017, it referred more than a thousand children for puberty-blocking medication, while the number of young people coming to the center multiplied twenty-five-fold. The types of kids seeking treatment changed, too—there were fewer kids born male who felt they were girls, and more young girls who felt they were boys. 

What was going on? And were puberty blockers really the best treatment for these youths? Most journalists avoid this controversial topic for fear of backlash, but BBC journalist Hannah Barnes courageously dove into the research—gaining access to thousands of pages of documents, including unpublished reports. The result is a thoroughly researched exposé about what happens when politics and ideology take over medicine. (For more on this important subject click here to read our latest coverage.)

(Simon & Schuster)

How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement 

by Fredrik deBoer 

Our favorite Marxist, Freddie deBoer, is known for his incisive commentary on education and mental illness, often featured in his “cool but rude” Substack

His latest book is a kind of breaking ranks—Freddie taking aim at a progressive movement that he says has betrayed itself.

Freddie argues that the progressive movement has strayed too far from its original values, “forever wandering from the righteous to the ridiculous,” becoming preoccupied with identity politics rather than the economic issues that affect the American working class. He writes that the political activism of 2020—a type virtually unseen since the late 1960s—consumed the country, and then amounted to nothing much at all.

But he’s not surprised by this. “To be an American radical,” he writes, “is to grow used to failure.” In order to make change happen, he argues, you have to struggle and battle and never give up. 

His book—you can read an excerpt here—which offers practical solutions for how to fight the good fight, is both unsparing and unmissable. 

(Simon & Schuster)

Freedom

by Sebastian Junger 

Sebastian Junger has covered fires, shipwrecks, wars, and the most dangerous jobs on earth, like fishing and mining. Freedom, his latest book, is more meditative. For the better part of a year, Junger and three friends trekked the railroads of the East Coast, bedding down under bridges, cooking over open flames, drinking from creeks, and running away from railroad cops—all to explore the idea of personal autonomy.

“We were walking through ghettos, through farms, through suburbs, through everything America from the inside out,” Sebastian told Bari on Honestly this year. “We carried everything we needed on our backs. We bought food once in a while and we were highly mobile and autonomous. And no one knew where we were. And that’s a profound form of freedom.”

Though Junger’s book is not political per se, in our moment of creeping authoritarianism, his book offers a powerful antidote.

(Knopf)

The Shards

by Bret Easton Ellis 

Bret Easton Ellis came out of a nearly 15-year fiction hibernation to deliver what he does best: a terrifying story of murder, sex, youth, and Hollywood. 

This novel, originally serialized on his podcast, is set in 1980s Los Angeles and follows a serial killer known as the Trawler, who begins to prey on teenagers. Meanwhile, the book’s protagonist—named Bret Easton Ellis—is caught up in a whirlwind senior year at Buckley Prep—all popped collars, bright pink polo shirts, and copious amounts of Valium—when a new student and the Trawler upend his perfect life. 

Ellis told The Free Press that writing the book, which he started when he was 17 but couldn’t finish until his late 50s, was “a kind of letting go of the past.” Come for the creepy plot, stay for the ’80s nostalgia and Ellis’s brutal look at his own ambition and sexuality. 

What’s Our Problem? A Self-Help Book for Societies

by Tim Urban

Why have we lost our collective grip? And how can we regain it?

We’d be hard-pressed to come up with more pressing questions than those—and they are the ones that Tim Urban, creator of Wait But Why, the doodles-meets-musings blog that tackles everything from fatherhood to AI, attempts to answer in his colorful first book.

This being Urban, those questions inevitably lead to others: Why has every major institution in our society become such a mess? What does it mean to be human? How should we spend our limited time on this earth? 

The result is a self-published book that pulls from history, evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, and political movements. You will feel smarter and more curious having spent time inside Urban’s capacious mind.

(Mariner Books)

No Ordinary Assignment: A Memoir 

by Jane Ferguson 

There is nary a war front or humanitarian crisis that Jane Ferguson has not covered: Yemen at the start of the Arab Spring to the Syrian civil war; Kabul in 2021 when the Taliban seized the city; Somalia in 2010, during the second battle of Mogadishu. Practically every page of her memoir from thirteen years as a war correspondent exudes tension and danger. 

Of sneaking into a rebel stronghold in Homs, Syria, she writes, “Nasser told me the plan. . . I was simply to drive into Homs and hope for the best. I was horrified, but completely at the mercy of my hosts. . . I felt sick to my stomach with fear.” 

Given her childhood in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, Ferguson has grown up looking at life through conflict, and she explains that she wrote her book “to answer with total honesty the question, Why do you do this work? Really, why?” War reporting often comes with a healthy dose of braggadocio, but there is none in this memoir. Only great humanity and empathy for the subjects of her hard and necessary job. 

(University of Chicago Press)

The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind 

by Melissa S. Kearney

Religious conservatives have long extolled the importance of marriage, but Melissa Kearney, a professor of economics at the University of Maryland, presents an entirely data-driven case for it. Her book shows how children raised in two-parent households have consistently better outcomes than children raised in single-parent environments. 

Two-parent households have more money, time, and “emotional bandwidth,” Melissa recently told Bari on Honestly. That also means less stress. “We see in the data that married parents are less likely to resort to spanking and harsher parenting. They’re more likely to report having strong, nurturing bonds with their kids. . . . Kids from two-parent households are less likely to have behavioral issues. They’re more likely to reach educational milestones. They’re less likely to get in trouble with the law. All things that set them up to be in a better position to thrive in life.”

Melissa isn’t interested in shame and blame or in a return to the 1950s. Instead, she wants to explore why marriage rates are declining, especially among Americans with only a high-school degree—and what can be done about it. 

(Simon & Schuster)

The Canceling of the American Mind: Cancel Culture Undermines Trust, Destroys Institutions, and Threatens Us All—But There Is a Solution

by Greg Lukianoff and Rikki Schlott

In 2015, Yale University students mobbed a professor in the quad for having the gall to suggest that Halloween costume choices shouldn’t make them feel unsafe. Those screaming, hysterical students made national headlines and ultimately led to the resignation of the professor, Nicholas Christakis, and his wife, Erika, as heads of the residential college where they served as deans.

That was one of the first examples of cancel culture, which has since metastasized throughout academia, leading to the greatest number of college professors losing their jobs than any time in previously recorded history. From 2010 to 2023, there have been more than 1,000 attempts to get professors censored, fired, or disciplined for assorted speech infractions. 

But Lukianoff and Schlott don’t just serve up depressing statistics; they offer real steps to regaining a free speech culture where healthy debate can thrive: “Re-embracing Free Speech Culture,” they write, “requires a return to our old folk wisdom—‘to each his own,’ ‘everyone is entitled to their own opinion,’ ‘never judge a book by its cover,’ ‘attack the argument, not the person,’ and ‘always take seriously the possibility you might be wrong.’ In the age of Cancel Culture, we need to embrace a new saying, too: ‘Just because you hate someone doesn’t mean they’re wrong.’ ”

And finally, here are some upcoming books we’re looking forward to in 2024. You can preorder them now, and expect more from these authors in the pages of The Free Press in the coming months:

Troubled: A Memoir of Foster Care, Family, and Social Class 

by Rob Henderson 

Born to a drug-addicted mother, Rob Henderson lived in 10 different foster homes and faced a childhood of instability and poverty. In his memoir, he explains how he was able to overcome his circumstances, and how the Air Force and then the Ivy League shaped his worldview. 

The End of Race Politics: Arguments for a Colorblind America

by Coleman Hughes

Hughes makes a passionate case for the end of race-based politics—and for why we must return to a color-blind approach. “I have been waiting for this,” writes Thomas Chatterton Williams in a blurb for the book. “Hughes delivers exactly the message the country most desperately needs.” 

The Demon of Unrest 

by Erik Larson 

In his examination of the five months between the election of Abraham Lincoln and the start of the Civil War, the author of Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts shows off his unique gift for bringing history to the page in full color. 

Bad Therapy: Why the Kids Aren’t Growing Up 

by Abigail Shrier

Gen Z’s mental health is worse than any other generation, with youth suicide rates on the rise and antidepressant prescriptions common among the under-25s. In exploring why this might be the case, Shrier points the finger squarely at the mental health profession. If Abigail’s last book is any indication, we can be sure that this one will be equally clear-eyed and important.

The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness

By Jonathan Haidt 

Clearly, the kids aren’t alright. Our favorite social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, explains why with his new book, which explores the reasons behind the epidemic of teen mental illness in America. He argues that when, in the early 2010s, phones landed in every kid’s palm across the country, everything changed—and not for the better. Along with his diagnosis—he blames social media along with a decline in traditional play—Haidt offers solutions to possibly the biggest problem plaguing Generation Z.

Morning After the Revolution 

by Nellie Bowles

We hear good things about this Nellie Bowles woman. In addition to writing her weekly TGIF column, she’s been working on her first book, described as a “romp through the sacred spaces of progressivism.” With her usual wit, Nellie tackles a Robin DiAngelo course on the “Toxic Trends of Whiteness,” a protest over trans rights at Wi Spa in L.A., and a meetup with the “disinformation czar” at The New York Times. This one is at the top of our list. 

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