Author Professor Alcohol historian Lover of all things Mexican
The best books of 2023

This list is part of the best books of 2023.

We've asked 1,679 authors and super readers for their 3 favorite reads of the year.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

My favorite read in 2023…

Book cover of Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs

Deborah Toner Why did I love this book?

Simply the best book about the Aztecs I’ve ever read! I immediately started telling my students about it, quoting it in lectures, and generally raving about it to anyone who would listen.

After listening to it on audiobook, I immediately bought a print copy so I could read it again. This is an incredibly rigorously researched and carefully told history, with clear guidance to readers on what is historically certain, probable, likely, speculative, or unknown.

But is also a beautifully written human drama that combines grand-scale political history with intimate personal stories and evocative descriptions of everyday life in the Nahuatl world. I will never forget Flamingo Snake! 

By Camilla Townsend,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Fifth Sun as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In November 1519, Hernando Cortes walked along a causeway leading to the capital of the Aztec kingdom and came face to face with Moctezuma. That story-and the story of what happened afterwards-has been told many times, but always following the narrative offered by the Spaniards. After all, we have been taught, it was the Europeans who held the pens. But the Native Americans were intrigued by the Roman alphabet and, unbeknownst to the newcomers, they used it to
write detailed histories in their own language of Nahuatl. Until recently, these sources remained obscure, only partially translated, and rarely consulted by…


My 2nd favorite read in 2023…

Book cover of The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

Deborah Toner Why did I love this book?

A psychologist I happened to meet on a food tour in Atlanta recommended this to me when she learned I was a historian.

I admit to being dubious because I generally don’t have much time for sweeping histories of humanity, but this is of an entirely different order. It starts with a compelling question: when and how did we – humanity – get ‘stuck’ in a set of relations defined by extremes of social, economic, and political inequality and incapable of imagining any alternative?

It then spends most of the book demonstrating that it wasn’t ever thus, engaging in extraordinarily detailed exploration of early human history to overturn a whole host of our most common misconceptions about human society. Mind-blowing and life-changing!

By David Graeber, David Wengrow,

Why should I read it?

15 authors picked The Dawn of Everything as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

A dramatically new understanding of human history, challenging our most fundamental assumptions about social evolution—from the development of agriculture and cities to the origins of the state, democracy, and inequality—and revealing new possibilities for human emancipation.

For generations, our remote ancestors have been cast as primitive and childlike—either free and equal innocents, or thuggish and warlike. Civilization, we are told, could be achieved only by sacrificing those original freedoms or, alternatively, by taming our baser instincts. David Graeber and David Wengrow show how such theories first emerged in the eighteenth century as a conservative reaction…


My 3rd favorite read in 2023…

Book cover of A Short History of Drunkenness: How, Why, Where, and When Humankind Has Gotten Merry from the Stone Age to the  Present

Deborah Toner Why did I love this book?

This is a great one to read in tandem with The Dawn of Everything, as they cover a similarly enormous timespan but in very different ways.

The provocative suggestion that humans might have invented agriculture primarily as a means of having more regular and reliable access to booze was… unexpected! The more modern eras of history are also handled punchily, including some forceful overturning of the most enduring misconceptions about the 1920s prohibition of alcohol in the United States.

Forysth’s telling of human history through our myriad, complicated ways of getting drunk and all the social and legal rules about how and how not to get drunk is also hilarious. This is greatly enhanced by the audiobook narration of Richard Hughes.

By Mark Forsyth,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Short History of Drunkenness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

THE PERFECT GIFT FOR ANYONE WHO ENJOYS A TIPPLE . . . OR TWO . . . OR TEN!

Almost every culture on earth has drink, and where there's drink there's drunkenness. But in every age and in every place drunkenness is a little bit different. Tracing humankind's love affair with booze from our primate ancestors through to Prohibition, it answers every possible question:

What did people drink? How much? Who did the drinking? Of the many possible reasons, why?

On the way, learn about the Neolithic Shamans, who drank to communicate with the spirit world (no pun intended), marvel…


Plus, check out my book…

Alcohol in the Age of Industry, Empire, and War

By Deborah Toner,

Book cover of Alcohol in the Age of Industry, Empire, and War

What is my book about?

This book examines alcohol production, consumption, regulation, and commerce, alongside the gendered, medical, religious, ideological, and cultural practices that surrounded alcohol from 1850 to 1950.

It summarizes developments in a global framework to show how deeply alcohol was involved in central processes shaping the modern world: industrialization, empire-building, and the growth of the nation-state. It demonstrates how empires were partly built through alcohol, in both economic and ideological terms, yet alcohol production, trade, and consumption were also sites for anti-colonial resistance. It also argues that alcohol regulations and public health discourses increasingly revealed the intent and reach of state power to monitor and police citizens, as well as the legitimization of that power through nationalism.