The Atlantic 10

The books that made us think the most this year

animation of a book with pages flipping radiating blue, yellow, and red
Julia Schimautz
Editor’s Note: Find all of The Atlantic’s “Best of 2022” coverage here.

End-of-year lists are by nature subjective, and selecting books in this way can be particularly hard. Tens of thousands of titles are published annually in the U.S., and a reader’s time is finite. We can digest only so much. Every publication, every jury making such judgments, has a filter. So this time around, we asked ourselves, as well as our colleagues: What were the books that had particular valence for us at The Atlantic? We looked for those that impressed us with their force of ideas, that drew us in not because of some platonic ideal of greatness, but because they got our brains working and presented fresh angles on the world. In a phrase, they were good to think with.

And so we arrived at The Atlantic 10.

Between the covers of these books, readers will find an enormously diverse set of subjects and an array of writerly moods, from the whimsical to the deadly serious. These are stories that plunge into the intimate world of farmworkers in Central California, the unlikely friendship between two Asian American college students, and the machinations of modern-day authoritarians. The questions these titles pose are varied and generative. How has Ireland evolved over the past several decades? What kind of art form is the video game? What role does racism have in the health and wellness of Black people? But what binds these books to one another is that, in 2022, they were the ones that gave us a new way of looking, that forced us to stop and consider—that, once the last page was turned, dropped us back into our lives as smarter people. — Gal Beckerman, Ann Hulbert, Jane Yong Kim

The cover of G-Man

G-Man, by Beverly Gage

Beverly Gage’s tautly written, meticulously researched biography of J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI’s longest-serving director, could not be better timed: For six years now, the bureau has managed to confound Americans—infuriating and then winning over Democrats, gratifying and then enraging Republicans. Gage’s chronicle delivers yet more surprises, as well as rich historical context that helps put these revelations into perspective. Vilified over the past half-century as the persecutor of 1960s activists and an abuser of surveillance powers, Hoover was widely admired in his dapper younger days. He cultivated the image of a New Deal professional and, backed by a midcentury political consensus, he carefully sustained the FBI’s public reputation for nonpartisan vigilance. But the fracturing of that consensus, and the exposure of Hoover’s excesses, spelled the end of his reign. Filling in the context of the FBI’s original quest for apolitical clout, Gage supplies insights into the bureau’s quandary in our polarized times.

Cover of Spin Dictators

Spin Dictators, by Daniel Treisman and Sergei Guriev

Dictators have gotten smarter. The blunt tools of a Stalin or a Mao—shutting down the avenues of free expression, quashing any sign of protest, imprisoning or killing dissidents—have ceded some ground to more sophisticated means of control. This new “low-intensity coercion” is the subject of Guriev and Treisman’s timely and indispensable Spin Dictators. The world’s emboldened authoritarian leaders, in Russia and Turkey and Venezuela, are not looking to rule primarily through fear; rather, they manipulate the information ecosystem of their country, using tactics such as armies of bots and snarky memes. These new dictators work to undermine nominally democratic systems from within, even allowing some opposition to exist as they rig the processes that would allow anyone to contend with them for power. Guriev and Treisman are focused outside the United States, but their book also offers an important warning to Americans: The progress of such authoritarianism is creeping, cumulative, and sometimes hard to detect, so we would do well to keep an eye out for it at home.

Stay True

Stay True, by Hua Hsu

Hsu’s memoir is powerful because in many ways, his story is unremarkable. Stay True imbues familiar experiences with beauty and meaning: It is both an introspective coming-of-age story and a tale of an unlikely friendship. While an undergrad at UC Berkeley in the late ’90s, Hsu was an introverted music obsessive deeply concerned with coolness and taste. Then he met Ken, a charming and confident frat bro. The son of Taiwanese immigrants, Hsu at first regarded Ken, who came from a Japanese American family with deep roots in the U.S., with skepticism and envy. Over three years, however, the two forged a bond during balcony smoke breaks, late-night drives, and extended pop-culture debates—a bond tragically cut short by Ken’s murder the summer before their senior year. Stay True summons Hsu’s memories of Ken—how he looked taking a drag of a cigarette, how it felt to see his handwriting after he died—along with references to Jacques Derrida, the Beach Boys, and Marcel Mauss as the author attempts to make sense of the senseless ending of one of the most consequential friendships of his life. The result is funny and wise, an elegiac work of self-forgiveness. What a gift it is, Hsu concludes, to remember the people you loved, and who loved you, while you were busy becoming yourself.

The Haunting of Hajji Hotak

The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories, by Jamil Jan Kochai

In his collection of short stories set in Afghanistan and America, Kochai forces his readers to look the violence associated with the War on Terror squarely in the face, and shows how these two countries are forever intertwined. Employing elements of the surreal, the absurd, and the magical, The Haunting of Hajji Hotak asks what war does to those who see it firsthand—and how this witnessing reverberates to their descendants. He experiments, deploying flash fiction, shifting perspectives dramatically, and, in one story, confining his narrative to a single, long sentence. But these expressions never feel distracting; each form virtuosically fits its purpose. Most of all, his method is unexpected. Kochai’s work is far too sophisticated to reduce these fraught tales to a matter of victims and perpetrators. In the collection’s final, titular entry,  someone—presumably an FBI agent—is spying on an Afghan American family in California. This person reports the most intimate, private details of the family’s life, but his tone almost borders on tenderness. Through it all, the reader senses the looming possibility that the spying will escalate into something violent. Kochai instead ends the story surprisingly: with an act of care, almost of love.

The Consequences

The Consequences, by Manuel Muñoz

The stories in The Consequences, Muñoz’s first book in more than a decade, are hauntingly simple. His language is powerful and layered; it doesn’t perform for readers or try to impress. The pared-down style gracefully highlights the collection’s steady focus on the lives and families of Mexican and Mexican American farmworkers in Central California. In these surprising, vivid stories, worries are deeply felt but not often spoken aloud, and obligation to kin and the need to survive outweigh much else. The disappearance of a husband triggers a dark financial misadventure; a fraught bus ride forges a temporary alliance; a boozy housewarming party unearths pent-up class tensions. Muñoz’s characters narrate their experiences—the constant threat of the migra, the cumulative effects of deportation, the brisk logistics of picking fruit—with a wry candor. “It’s easy but hard at the same time,” one character tells another about working in the fields. “Anyone can do it. It’s just that no one really wants to.”

We Don't Know Ourselves

We Don’t Know Ourselves, by Fintan O’Toole

In a book that is at once intimate and deeply reported—sharp in its judgments and its humor—Ireland’s finest journalist chronicles his country’s painful emergence into the modern world. Stand-alone chapters (on emigration, schools, television, contraception) form a coherent arc: from O’Toole’s childhood in working-class, tradition-bound Dublin to his reporting on Ireland’s overwhelming embrace of same-sex marriage by referendum. Two figures illustrate what Ireland has had to overcome. One is Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, the fastidious, imperious prelate who controlled Catholic life from the 1940s up to the early 1970s. McQuaid turned a blind eye to the abuse of young children by priests (and was himself later accused of abuse), epitomizing a Church that, O’Toole writes, had “successfully disabled a society’s capacity to think for itself about right and wrong.” The other is Charles Haughey, the three-time taoiseach, or prime minister, first elected in the late 1970s. Deeply corrupt, loyal to his own hypocrisy, Haughey lived like “an Ascendancy squire” while pressing to maintain bans on abortion and divorce. Central to We Don’t Know Ourselves is the uneasy coexistence of opposites: of an inward-looking past and an outward-looking present, of knowledge and denial.

My Phantoms

My Phantoms, by Gwendoline Riley

On the second page of Riley’s novel My Phantoms, Bridget, the narrator, describes a set of old family photos: “My grandfather had been the photographer, but the perspective was a shared one.” Our family’s narratives—about love and loss—can hover, shape, and sometimes haunt our own experience of the world. Riley cannily understands this, and her formally daring, indelible novel depicts the many ways in which Bridget’s own story can be crowded out by those of her parents, namely that of her mother, Helen. For most of Bridget’s life, Helen has been emotionally opaque, reluctant to reveal her vulnerabilities, yet the book follows Bridget as she attempts to circumvent this resistance. She wants to better understand her mother’s sadness in order to find out how their family ended up fractured. As their stories compete, one perspective must dominate in Bridget’s search for the truth.

By Gwendoline Riley

The cover of The Books of Jacob

The Books of Jacob, by Olga Tokarczuk

In her exuberant retelling of the incredible but largely true story of Jacob Frank, a false Jewish messiah in 18th-century Poland, the Nobel Prize–winning novelist Tokarczuk sets up a battle between two philosophies on how to approach existence. The first might be called the apocalyptic: In their millenarian frenzy, Frank and his followers set out to “annihilate the old world order” by overthrowing all established rules and norms. The other doctrine is harder to see, because it’s everywhere—it’s the gospel of the everyday. Its rituals ensure the maintenance of life and the renewal of the generations; its prophets are Hayah, Jacob’s cousin, who has magical healing powers, and Asher Rubin, a compassionate doctor. But its disciples are ordinary women, toiling stoically in the background. Moving fast and breaking things versus tikkun olam, Hebrew for “repairing the world”: That's the struggle for our souls that plays out in Tokarczuk’s novel (translated by Jennifer Croft), without—fittingly—a clear resolution.

The cover of Under the Skin

Under the Skin, by Linda Villarosa

Villarosa, a veteran journalist who has covered Black health and wellness for decades, begins her forceful exposure of racism’s toxic effect on the U.S.’s health system by recounting her own personal awakening. She had to learn, she explains, to see health disparities in her own community as resulting from something more than just poverty. That “something is racism,” not lack of education, poor diet, or bad individual choices. She exhaustively explains how implicit bias on the part of physicians, centuries of entrenched discrimination, and the toll of encountering and fighting daily aggression can translate to high rates of kidney disease and HIV/AIDS, as well as disproportionately elevated infant and maternal mortality. Through sensitive reporting and straightforward science, Villarosa builds to a searing call to action. The issue is not the fault of Black patients, is not what they do or don’t do; it is “the American problem in need of an American solution,” and it requires an urgent remedy.

The cover of Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, by Gabrielle Zevin

Many refer to Zevin’s novel as a book about friendship, but it isn’t so simple. The two main characters—Sam and Sadie, video-game designers whom we follow over 30 years—have a dynamic that’s hard to define: They’re collaborators in awe of each other’s minds, but they’re also resentful and competitive. They love each other, but much of the time, they don’t like each other. They’re like the rest of us—capable of caring for people fiercely and still failing them, again and again. If that sounds bleak, know that the book is also hopeful and tender. It takes its title from Macbeth, in which the title character essentially laments that we live our stupid little lives, week after week, just to die and be forgotten. Zevin, though, makes this human limitation feel beautiful. Real life isn’t like a video game; it doesn’t go on forever. But within a brief existence, redemption is possible—and precious.

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