Prospect’s books of the year 2023: Lives

From philosophers Derek Parfit and Daniel Dennett to Sonny Rollins and Daniel Finkelstein
December 6, 2023

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…” A line by Allen Ginsberg that has lent some of its words to the title of Jonathan Rosen’s book, The Best Minds, about his exceptionally clever, severely schizophrenic schoolfriend Michael Laudor, who was treated as a cause célèbre—the subject of a potential movie—after graduating from Yale Law School in the 1990s.

What he was not, however, was treated, at least not sufficiently. Well-intentioned people around Laudor tried to give him a normal life. And then, in 1998, Laudor killed his pregnant fiancée, Caroline Costello, during a psychotic episode. It is testament to the empathetic brilliance of Rosen’s book that, by the end, you’re not entirely sure who the title is referring to—to Laudor, to a society that neglects mental illness, or even to Rosen himself.

There is also a blurring of personal lives and grand social forces in Naomi Klein’s wonderfully esoteric Doppelganger. It begins with an individual case of confusion: Klein is often mistaken for Naomi Wolf, another Jewish thinker and author—albeit one who, unlike Klein, has sunk into conspiracy theories about Covid vaccinations. But then it expands into the territory of mass confusion: about politics, technology and what we can ever really know.

It has been a good year for philosophical biographies. Our reviewer, Julian Baggini, described David Edmonds’s Parfit—about Derek Parfit, one of the late 20th century’s most important thinkers on identity and morality—as “surely the best biography of a philosopher since Ray Monk’s hitherto peerless Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (1991).” The same accolade cannot be paid to Daniel Dennett’s I’ve Been Thinking, not least because it is the author’s own memoir, but it is nevertheless one of the most compulsively readable accounts of what it means to live as a philosopher.

Is Clare Carlisle’s The Marriage Question also a philosophical biography? In a way, yes. Its immediate subject is the novelist George Eliot, or (to give her real name) Mary Ann Evans. But its grander subject isn’t just that suggested by its title—what women, in particular, stand to gain and lose in marriage—but also what it means to lead the moral, rewarding life in general. With this and her previous book on Søren Kierkegaard, Carlisle has confirmed herself as one of the most deep-thinking writers about deep thought. 

It has been a good year, too, for cultural biographies. Aidan Levy’s Saxophone Colossus gives the doorstopper treatment to one of the most intriguing figures in jazz, Sonny Rollins, and situates him properly, which is to say prominently, within popular culture. Oliver Soden’s account of Noël Coward’s life, Masquerade, is as clever and as playful as Coward himself. Laura Cumming’s Thunderclap is, as one would expect from its author, a poetic yet clear-eyed investigation of art, family and loss.

Family unites two works by two great journalists—as does horror. The first is Daniel Finkelstein’s Hitler, Stalin, Mum and Dad, which, in describing the pains that his family endured to simply exist throughout the 20th century, describes many of the enduring pains of the 20th century itself. The other is Paul Caruana Galizia’s A Death in Malta. His mother was the crusading journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who fought corruption in her home country and was murdered in 2017 as a result. In Paul, it is clear, she has the perfect writer to tell her story—and, in fact, continue her legacy. 

Mark O’Connell’s A Thread of Violence is based on extended conversations with the Irish killer Malcolm Macarthur, who was responsible for the “Gubu” (“grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented”) crimes in 1982. His book acts as a corrective to the salaciousness and stupidity of much true crime. Where, the author seems to ask, does any of this get us? 

Whereas Arthur Parkinson’s Chicken Boy feels like a corrective to… everything? Here is a boy. Who likes chickens. And who draws and writes about them beautifully. Cluck.

Read more

Books of the year 2023: Politics & Reportage
Books of the year 2023: Ideas
Books of the year 2023: History