Our holiday reading list

We asked our community of experts for a list of books they would recommend for the holidays. Whether you like to read from cover to cover or between the lines, we have you covered.

Stefanie Hausheer Ali, associate director for programs in the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Follow her on Twitter @StefHausheer.

The Red Sparrow trilogy by Jason Matthews. A gripping spy thriller series set in Moscow, Washington, and Europe. The author is an ex-CIA Operations Directorate officer.

Who Thought This was a Good Idea? And Other Questions You Should Have Answers to When You Work in the White House by Alyssa Mastromonaco. Written by a former deputy chief of staff to US President Barack Obama, this hilarious book offers a behind-the-scenes look at everything from the campaign trail to working in the West Wing to international trips with the president and more.

Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement in a Complex World by Stanley McChrystal. A fascinating reflection on leadership and how to empower innovative teams equipped to tackle the fast-paced, unpredictable challenges of the modern era, drawing upon the experiences of the author as leader of the Joint Special Operations Task Force in Iraq as well as other historical anecdotes.

Support the Atlantic Council

Daniel Fried, distinguished fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative and Eurasia Center.

Grant, Ron Chernow’s biography of Ulysees S. Grant. In addition to Grant’s wartime leadership (an underrated general, but more capable than Robert E. Lee), the book devotes much attention to Grant’s less successful leadership during Reconstruction.

Bob Kagan’s The Jungle Grows Back makes the case for American power in the service of values. US leadership is like oxygen or good health: we miss it, only when it’s gone.

Steve Inskeep’s Jacksonland covers the struggle over an alternative model of the United States through the fight of the Cherokee nation to maintain its cohesion in the early 19th century and integrate with the United States on terms better than what they got. Fascinating “what might have been” look that illuminates what in fact happened.

Klara Jordan, director of the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative. Follow her on Twitter @JordanKlara.

The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads by Tim Wu. In his book, Wu explores the phenomenon of attention and attention harvest that have been exploited since the 19th century. He calls attention to our last true scarce resource that we should reclaim. I recommend this book because it’s an in-depth study into the history of monetizing human attention that connects past to the current discussion about commercial models and motivation of media platforms.

Rise of the Machines: A Cybernetic History by Thomas Rid. I see this book as an amazing and rarely told story of control theory of man and the machine, so pertinent to today’s conversations around artificial intelligence and the limits of autonomy. The book also covers how competing ideals over what we quaintly call “cyberspace” used the control theory to justify their vision for the future of our networked world—a conversation that is hot as ever and claims to be the source of divide between technologists in Silicon Valley and national security experts around Washington. I recommend the book because in my opinion it adds a grain of salt to the current technological hype and shows us that APT (advanced persistent threat) groups have been with us longer than we may know.

How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City by Joan Elizabeth DeJean. As a lover of all things French, I read a couple of books each year about French food, architecture or history. This book tells the story of transformation of Paris into modern and idealized city through the evolution of urban planning, especially its concept of public spaces such as parks and bridges. The author richly analyzes the history of the city that impacted and shaped the concept of urban life throughout Europe. I recommend the book as it added to my ability to understand the intentionality behind public spaces in Paris and provides me better historical context to understand a near universal obsession with the City of Lights.

Robert A. Manning, senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Follow him on Twitter @Rmanning4.

Fear by Bob Woodward. This is a must-read for getting a feel for the chaos in and tribulations of those serving President Trump and the dynamics and a closeup view of his White House. Woodward’s remarkable access to principal players and documents provides a credible view of the incredible and unprecedented specter of the presidency as reality TV—and its consequences.

Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World by Adam Tooze. Americans have too short of a memory span, and to many, 2008 may seem like eons ago. But the worst economic meltdown since the 1930s and stunning excesses of Wall Street that we saw in 2008 have shaped the US economy and politics, but it’s less well understood how the crisis impacted the political economies of Europe and beyond. Though this weighty tome is comprehensive to a fault, and a bit intimidating in its length, it is perhaps the most thoughtful assessment of the 2008 financial crisis and Great Recession and connects dots that few have managed to understand in terms of its far-reaching impact.

Life After Google: The Fall of Big Data and the Rise of the Blockchain Economy by George Gilder. This provocative entry is a welcome respite from groupthink about Big Tech and a philosophical as well as political case for anti-trust action and for blockchain as a key remedy for cybersecurity. While some of Gilder’s conclusions (cryptocurrency advocacy, for instance) are a bit out there, his critique of both the centralized Big Tech model and the profound flaws in cybersecurity are worth contemplating. His argument as one reviewer cited:

“Under Google’s guidance, the Internet is not only full of unwanted ads but fraught with bots and malware. Instead of putting power in the hands of individuals, it has become a porous cloud where all the money and power rise to the top.

“On a deeper level, the world of Google—its interfaces, its images, its videos, its icons, its philosophy is 2D. Google is not just a company but a system of the world. Its devotees uphold the flat universe theory of materialism: the sufficiency of deterministic chemistry and mathematics. They believe the human mind is a suboptimal product of random evolutionary processes. They believe in the possibility of a silicon brain.”

And, I couldn’t resist:

Fletcher Knebel’s Night of Camp David. The re-release of this 1960s bestseller about a US president gone stark raving mad is unfortunately, now in vogue.

Andrew Marshall, vice president for communications at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter @Consultifi.

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje is a novel about the unreliability of memory, about growing up— and about British intelligence during and after the Second World War. Ondaatje, author of The English Patient, writes economically and luminously, and the time and place he describes—a dark, mysterious, liminal, post-war London—is beautifully evoked.

Ben MacIntyre, a friend from journalism, has carved out a niche for his tightly-written, thrilling and highly informative books on espionage. The latest, The Spy and the Traitor, is one of his best yet. It describes the recruitment, work, and betrayal of Oleg Gordievsky, who spied for the British and escaped Russia. It’s timely and highly entertaining.

Adam Higginbotham, another British journalist, is about to publish Midnight in Chernobyl, a thrilling and fast-paced book on the nuclear disaster of 1986. I have an advance copy and am halfway through. It will be published in February. It’s brilliant and shocking.

Karim Mezran, senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter @MezranK.

Fawaz Gerges’ Making the Arab World: Nasser, Qutb, and the Clash that Shaped the Middle East. In this book, fruit of numerous years of research and interviews, Fawaz Gerges gives a novel, nuanced, and extremely interesting view of the relationship between the hero of Arab nationalism, Gamal Nasser, and the main intellectual of the Muslim Brotherhood Sayyid Qutb. I enjoyed reading it both from a pleasure point of view as well as from an informative one. It is highly readable and informative.

Frederic Wehrey’s The Burning Shores: Inside the Battle for the New Libya. Excellent work by one of the top experts on Libya. It is highly informative, precise, and complete and, more importantly, reads like a thriller. Once you start reading it you cannot put it down.

The President is Missing by Bill Clinton and James Patterson. This book is a page-turner. It is also very interesting as it provides insights on the White House and its workings, undoubtedly the result of Clinton’s collaboration. I am looking forward to the next one.

 Bart Oosterveld, director of the Atlantic Council’s Global Business and Economics Program

Stubborn Attachments by Tyler Cowen.  A vision for a prosperous and free society based on maximizing the rate of sustainable economic growth by the brilliant and prolific economist Tyler Cowen. It is brief, sharply argued, and informed by the author’s deep knowledge and experience in pushing intellectual frontiers.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. The powerful and gripping story of eight generations of a family affected by the horrid crime of slavery. Deeply intimate personal stories from Ghana and the American south over generations. An epic endeavor. This is why one reads books.

How Music Works by David Byrne. A comprehensive and excited overview of the artform written by one of its stars, Talking Heads co-founder David Byrne. Covering everything from music technology and its varied effects on composition to “how to create a scene.” A thrilling book by a fascinating man.

 J. Peter Pham, vice president for research and regional initiatives and director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center

The Return of Marco Polo’s World: War, Strategy, and American Interests in the Twenty-First Century by Robert D. Kaplan. Agree or disagree with him, Kaplan is always thought-provoking. Like its predecessors, this latest collection of his essays is a much-needed cautionary note against the temptation to faddish enthusiasms in international relations.

The Boko Haram Reader: From Nigerian Preachers to the Islamic State, edited by Abdulbasit Kassim and Michael Nwankpa. Nigeria’s Boko Haram has proven to be not only one of the deadliest terrorist groups currently operating, but also one of the most misunderstood. This utterly depressing read is nonetheless a veritable goldmine of primary source material—much of it published for the first time—and a reminder that if researchers would only take the time to analyze what militant groups actually communicate to their adherents, they would be less inclined to misread them and the threat they pose.

First Raise a Flag: How South Sudan Won the Longest War but Lost the Peace by Peter Martell. Born with so much hope and promise, the world’s newest state quickly plunged into a fratricidal conflict that has left more than half of its population displaced or in dire need of humanitarian assistance. One of those who has covered South Sudan the longest, Martell combines eyewitness reporting with extensive research to produce a solid account of this tragedy. 

Eric Ridge, acting director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Center for Resilience

Waiting for Eden by Elliot Ackerman. This fall, we launched the Adrienne Arsht Center for Resilience Bookshelf, which highlights a range of stories in which resilience is a central theme.  For good reason, Waiting for Eden was the first book that we added to our shelf. Ackerman’s novel is a spare, heart-wrenching—and yes, resilient—novel about service and sacrifice. No wonder the New York Times called it “a sculpture chiseled from the rarest slab of life experience.”

Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America by James Fallows and Deborah Fallows. Whether writing from Shanghai or Sioux Falls, South Dakota, James and Deborah Fallows have helped us all better understand far-reaching communities and cultures.  Our Towns richly explores the workings of small- and medium-sized cities across the United States: how they grow businesses, manage irregular migration flows (side note: see our great Arsht Center for Resilience report on this subject), and how they are resilient to the universe of challenges they face.

We Fed An Island by José Andrés. The 2018 hurricane season was, mercifully, less active and destructive than the 2017 season that featured major back-to-back-to-back storms.  In We Fed An Island, Chef José Andrés provides a gripping on-the-ground account of his experience responding to the deadliest of last year’s storms, Hurricane Maria. (The Arsht Center for Resilience was also proud to host Chef Andrés speaking on this subject last year).  Building resilience to natural disasters is a process that must occur long before the next storm is on the horizon. Andrés is trying to make sure that we do just that.

William F. Wechsler, senior adviser for Middle East programs at the Atlantic Council and interim director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014, US Secretary of State John Kerry went on CBS’s Face the Nation and complained: “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion.”  Well, it seems that Russian President Vladimir Putin and an increasing number of world leaders indeed may prefer a return to more Hobbesian world.  So they subvert the norms of international behavior that have held sway since the end of the Cold War and actively undermine the liberal order that was so painstakingly built after World War II.  Understanding this trend is the central challenge of our times.  I, therefore, thoroughly appreciated reading the The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World by Robert Kagan, a slim volume that smartly outlines this challenge.  I got around to reading it last month and have already bought a few more copies as holiday gifts.  To further appreciate what might be lost if the jungle is indeed allowed to grow back, it’s worth reading The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker, which describes why the modern era has become humanity’s most nonviolent period.  Of course, it only takes one serious nuclear exchange for this trend line to be reversed.

Ernest Hemingway famously had a character explain that he went bankrupt in two ways: “gradually, then suddenly.”  That’s also how systems of government fundamentally change.  This past year I went on a minor Roman history binge and recommend The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic by Mike Duncan, the man behind the History of Rome podcast.  Duncan focuses not on Julius Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon but on the two generations preceding that event, when the traditional norms of Roman political behavior degenerated, conflicts between populists and the establishment became tribal, zero-sum games, and violence became an increasingly acceptable means to achieve policy goals. The parallels to our present day are painful to recognize, but more such lessons can be drawn from How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, which I read at the beginning of the year.  Turning back to Rome and to the question of why its empire died centuries after its republic, I recommend The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire by Kyle Harper.  Given all of the other threats we face we thankfully don’t have to deal with the added dual challenges of climate change or new pandemics—right?

Finally, I also read several books this year about different aspects of the revolution taking place in our understanding of human DNA.  I think my favorite of the group was Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past by David Reich.  Reich is the head of the Harvard lab that is doing the most work on this subject, which is opening up new discoveries about how humans moved across the planet in prehistorical times. I also recommend She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity by Carl Zimmer and The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life by David Quammen.


Related Experts: Bart Oosterveld, Daniel Fried, J. Peter Pham, Karim Mezran, Robert A. Manning, Stefanie Hausheer Ali, and William F. Wechsler