29th Sep 2023


EUobserver's non-fiction book picks for summer

  • Ursula Von Der Leyen reading a book. (Photo: Dati Bendo)
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With summer in full swing, we asked our journalists, editors and columnist to share their favourite non-fiction books they read this year. If you're still looking for something to read, read on.

The Pike: Gabriele d'Annunzio, Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War

By Lucy Hughes-Hallett

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Wester van Gaal: This is a biography about Gabriele D'Annunzio, a 19th and early 20th-century poet, writer, polemicist, war hero (and criminal). He is sometimes called 'The First Fascist' for his stint as cocaine-fuelled dictator of the free state of Fiume (modern day Rijeka in Croatia), but he never identified as a fascist himself. Not wanting to associate himself with any group, he preferred to be the lone Superman: hard to pin down, always surprising, and capable of great deeds and atrocities.

He was profoundly immoral, even though he lived according to a moral code. He celebrated blood sacrifice during the First World War but was also capable of compassionate poetry, especially in his earlier years.

I wanted to read this book because the far right is on the rise in Europe, and I wanted to remind myself what reservoir of feeling fascism is rooted in. D'Annunzio was the prototype, although nobody like him exists today. The Pike is a beautiful book and very funny.

The Only Road North: 9000 Miles of Dirt and Dreams

By Erik Mirandette

Elena Sánchez Nicolás:: The book basically describes how Erik (the author), his brother, and his two best friends travelled through thirteen African countries by dirt bike — until a terrorist bomb changed Erik's world.

I love how the book takes you to some of the most unknown places in the world, describing and reflecting on Africa's poverty, danger, and beauty from the point of view of a young American boy who struggles with spirituality and religion along the way. I'm an atheist but I really loved this book, including its religious bits.

Die Welt von Gestern: Erinnerungen eines Europäers (The World of Yesterday)

By Stefan Zweig

Lisbeth Kirk: The book is about Zweig's childhood in Vienna, before the first World War ended the Habsburg Empire.

Zweig later witnessed hyper inflation in the 1930'es and saw the rise of nazism in Europe.

When the Second World War broke out, few people thought it was likely to happen. Zweig himself spent the hot summer partying on a beach in Belgium and reports from the chaos when the last trains rolled out of Belgium as German troops invaded.

Zweig's memories speaks an important message to us today about how quickly war can erupt and change our lives for good. It also demonstrates how unprepared most people were, ignoring all the signs.

Zweig was one of the best known journalists in Europe at his time, an excellent observer and writer. You can find his book translated into all major languages and I am glad to see it has lately picked up among young people.

The Tyranny of Merit

By Michael J Sandel

Shada Islam: The book tackles the question of winners and loses in democracies & the role of luck & existing but invisible privilege in ensuring success

When asked about making EU institutions less white and more diverse, I'm often told it's all about "merit". This book shows there's more to "merit" than meets the eye.

The Naked Don't Fear the Water

By Matthieu Aikens

Nikolaj Nielsen: The author, a journalist, travels with Afghan refugees to reach Europe. A beautifully written story of survival and hope in the face of almost insurmountable odds and dedication.

On the Donation of Constantine

By Lorenzo Valla

Andrew Rettman: This debunked a fake Vatican document in which the Roman emperor Constantine purportedly gifted his empire to the Roman Catholic Church.

I loved Valla's use of scholarship, mostly philology, to expose the forgery because it made me think of 21st century disinformation and the importance of fact and academia in fighting back. It also inspired me as a journalist, because it was the ultimate in speaking truth to power.

"No one who knows how to speak well can be considered a true orator unless he also dares to speak out," Valla said.

Prefaces to Shakespeare

By Tony Tanner

Matthew Tempest: Harvard University Press collated in 798 pages the great late Cambridge academic's introductions to all 37 extant plays.

One of the greatest minds in literary criticism has gone deep, and returned with all-encompassing, original thoughts on the man who 400 years ago explained humanity to itself.

Shame about the horrific cover.

Trade Wars Are Class Wars: How Rising Inequality Distorts the Global Economy and Threatens International Peace

By Matthew C. Klein, Michael Pettis

Paula Soler: The book (acclaimed and controversial) is actually an essay on how the current trade imbalances are not due to differences in productive efficiency, but to the bad distribution of income by the surplus country, such as China or Germany, whose workers earn low wages compared to what they produce.

In the name of competitiveness, the author argues that countries exert downward pressure on wages and proposes, among other things, a redistribution of wages and the rebuilding of productive infrastructures.


By Genesis P-Orridge

Anton Shekhovstov: A memoir by Genesis P-Orridge, a musician, poet, occult artist and cultural engineer who invented the phenomenon of Industrial Music and — over several decades — influenced scores of musicians in and outside of avant-garde music circles.

This memoir of P-Orridge, who unfortunately succumbed to leukaemia in 2020, is a fascinating story not only about the great artist himself and his rejection of traditional characterisations of human existence but also about various socio-cultural environments in Britain in 1960-1980s.

Power and Progress: Our Thousand-Year Struggle Over Technology and Prosperity

By Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson

Alejandro Tauber: In a time of huge societal discussion about technology and where its development might take us, this book — through example after example — hammers the point home that technological progress is not an emergent phenomenon that leads to unintended consequences, but rather a series of choices that can be made to benefit the few or the many.

Guess where we're headed now?

I think many policy makers who are now grappling with the regulation of big tech and AI would benefit from reading this book, thanks to the helpful pointers Acemoglu and Johnson set forth.

Apart from that it's also colourfully written and contains many interesting and fun anecdotes.

Les Exportés

By Sonia Devillers

Caroline de Gruyter: It is the shocking story of Devillers' maternal grandparents, Harry and Gabriela Deleanu — well-off, educated jews who were trapped in communist Romania with their two daughters after the second world war. While Romania, under Ceausescu rule, closed its windows on the outside world and the country's economy tanked, Ceausescu treated jewish families like outcasts. Their lost their jobs, their status and their social lives. The regime kept them hostage and only let them leave the country after months, sometimes years of tough negotiations with rich benefactors in the West. Each family was traded for hard currency, Danish pigs or other merchandise Romania desperately needed.

This story about Romania's jews is not well-known. Many were mentally broken by the time they managed to get out, and did not want to compromise emigration chances of those still trapped in the country. Moreover, they were often ashamed of being the subject of this cynical barter trade — like prized animals — and so they kept to themselves. Now, the next generation is speaking up. Ceausescu once openly admitted that "the jews and petrol are our best export products".

The book is deeply personal and well written. It is interesting on many levels. With Central and Eastern Europe increasingly moving center stage in Europe, it shines a light on one aspect of Romania's traumatic past. It also reminds us what totalitarian regimes are capable of.

All About Love

By bell hooks

Eszter Zalan: I bought bell hooks' book after her death in the excellent Brussels bookstore Passa Porta, as I felt like I missed a lot not having read her before.

This philosophical yet deeply personal journal around the meaning of love is an all-encompassing read. I highlighted and re-read sentences as she looks at love from romantic, religious, familial, societal aspects. It is deep and though-provoking, as the writer herself.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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