The 7 Best Books of the Year

The Slowdown’s selection of the most notable books of the year, handpicked by our editors.
By Emily Jiang
December 7, 2023
6 minute read

This past June, The Slowdown launched our Book of the Month newsletter, for which, at the start of every month, we reviewed a new, compelling book that was capturing our attention and imaginations. We searched far and wide for the texts that best encapsulated our present-day collective consciousness, and that we thought held wisdom that could be digested and spur conversations for years and decades to come. Ranging from writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit and climate activist Thelma Young Lutunatabua’s hopeful climate compendium Not Too Late to Tracy K. Smith’s urgent yet timeless memoir To Free the Captives, here are the books we thought fit the bill.

Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility edited by Rebecca Solnit and Thelma Young Lutunatabua (Haymarket Books)
Edited and curated by writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit and climate activist Thelma Young Lutunatabua, the co-founders of a new project from which the book takes its title, Not Too Late brings together 20 contributions from a diverse range of key voices in today’s climate conversation. Presenting what may be the most zeitgeisty, potent, and on-point package—a kaleidoscope, really—of writing and thought related to the climate crisis to date, this is an enlivening book that, as it makes glaringly, bracingly clear, arrives at a pivotal moment in the history of humankind and the planet.

Ordinary Notes by Christina Sharpe (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Through 248 notes stretching across 392 pages, the author and English literature and Black studies professor Christina Sharpe weaves together thoughts on Black life and the lived Black experience. In some entries, she reaches into the past, both public and personal; with other notes, the reader becomes a bystander to events in Sharpe’s life in real time. Her notes begin a trail of thought on one page, then shift to a new note, only to pick up the original thought several notes later. Across this note-taking opus, Sharpe explores acts of racial violence, thoughts on art, family memories both tender and vicious, and observations on literature, politics, music, grief, and joy.

Look: How to Pay Attention in a Distracted World by Christian Madsbjerg (Riverhead Books)
The result of decades of research and time spent thinking and writing about the subject of observation, Christian Madsbjerg’s Look spans a vast range of theories—from philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s idea of embodied perception, to psychologist Max Wetherheimer’s gestaltism, to anthropologist Franz Boas’s abductive reasoning, to novelist Georges Perec’s “endotics,” to author J.A. Baker’s “systematic watching”—to arrive at several glorious moments of insight. Culling together centuries of innovative theory and thought, this is a book expertly tailored to our frazzled, media-saturated, iPhone-as-appendage age.

The Ugly History of Beautiful Things: Essays on Desire and Consumption by Katy Kelleher (Simon & Schuster)
Exploring the space between the awe that beauty brings and the havoc—cultural, social, moral, political, environmental—that beauty can wreak, Katy Kelleher’s The Ugly History of Beautiful Things spans a wide variety of subjects: mirrors, flowers, gemstones, seashells, cosmetics, perfume, clothing, glass, porcelain, and marble. Combining memoir-ish, first-person accounts with historical research, it is a roving and riveting romp through the material world. Kelleher illuminates deep, dark truths not only about the objects and artifacts she unpacks, but also about who we are as human beings.

Roman Stories by Jhumpa Lahiri (Knopf)
In the nine probing tales that comprise Roman Stories, beautifully translated from Italian to English by Jhumpa Lahiri and Todd Portnowitz, Lahiri enters a broad diasporic world existing entirely within Rome, the city in which she has lived, on and off, for the past 11 years. It is a magnificent book, reflective of—and extending out of—the time she has spent in the Eternal City, but with giant fictional leaps. Through characters who experience at turns, among other things, xenophobia and nationalism, violence, racism, anxiety, and various social and cultural divisions, Lahiri explores what it means to adapt to Rome, to adopt it as a home, to decipher its particularities and peculiarities as an outsider—and also, in some cases, to experience it as an insider.

Open Questions: Thirty Years of Writing About Art by Helen Molesworth (Phaidon)
In this collection of 24 essays, the Los Angeles–based writer and curator Helen Molesworth explores the works of artists including Lisa Yuskavage, Simone Leigh, Ruth Asawa, Noah Davis, and Marcel Duchamp. Throughout, Molesworth doesn’t aim to lecture her reader, but instead engages them and points to the things that “pleased, confused, bothered, disturbed, or confounded” her. Open Questions is more than a collection of art writing; it is a meditation on seeing and feeling, on connecting and thought-making. Molesworth gives that power to the viewer, and in a way, gives them the chance to be the curator themselves.

To Free the Captives: A Plea for the American Soul by Tracy K. Smith (Knopf)
This searing memoir by the Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Tracy K. Smith travels through time, relationships, and Smith’s own life to illuminate the lasting legacy of racism in our country. Shying away from narrative, but managing to keep an eye on the stops along her journey, Smith manages to thread lyrics and anecdotes into her work as she critiques history, lives through current events, and reflects on how we can collectively move forward. As noted by the subtitle, the work is indeed “a plea for the American soul,” a personal understanding of what the past can teach us and how we learn from it, if we choose to.