Author Professor Musician Historian Lover of beautiful prose Passionate social-justice advocate
The best books of 2023

This list is part of the best books of 2023.

We've asked 1,644 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 On Music Theory, and Making Music More Welcoming for Everyone

John Michael Cooper Why did I love this book?

The disciplines of musical scholarship (music theory, music history, and music education) are rooted in ideas and value-sets that were determined in the 18th-early 20th centuries by individuals who were profoundly racist and classist.

As a result, today’s musicians learn how to think about music in ways that are deeply at odds with modern understandings of who musicians are, who listeners are, and how music communicates. Ewell dismantles these ideological barriers to understanding and points the way to new systems of understanding music – and each other – that will make tomorrow’s musical world better, richer, more inclusive, and a product of our own time rather than the age of Jim Crow and Nazism: a music theory (and view of music history) for today. It’s essential reading.

Although a world without music is unthinkable, a world without racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, and misogyny is almost inconceivable. One big step in that direction is to root out the racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, and misogyny from how we understand and teach music. Ewell teaches how to do that – and if we follow through on his ideas, then even though we will still have to root those ideological ills out of the rest of the world, we will be able to think of music without them. That’s worth something, isn’t it? 

By Philip Ewell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked On Music Theory, and Making Music More Welcoming for Everyone as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Since its inception in the mid-twentieth century, American music theory has been framed and taught almost exclusively by white men. As a result, whiteness and maleness are woven into the fabric of the field, and BIPOC music theorists face enormous hurdles due to their racial identities. In On Music Theory, Philip Ewell brings together autobiography, music theory and history, and theory and history of race in the United States to offer a black perspective on the state of music theory and to confront the field's white supremacist roots. Over the course of the book, Ewell undertakes a textbook analysis to…

My 2nd favorite read in 2023…

Book cover of The Sweetness of Water

John Michael Cooper Why did I love this book?

The Sweetness of Water is historical fiction that captures the reality of the human issues – the opportunities, the hopes and fears, the dreams and taboos – of life in the American South in the years just after the Civil War.

The characters are complex, the history solid, the writing gorgeous. It is rare that one encounters historical fiction that is truly fictional and yet also “fictionally true” – that is, accurate to small historical details even though the story is made-up. But this book is that, and I’m glad to have it part of me not only as a historian of the nineteenth century, but also for what it brought me and taught me.

By Nathan Harris,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Sweetness of Water as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An Instant New York Times bestseller / An Oprah’s Book Club Pick

In the spirit of The Known World and The Underground Railroad, an award-winning “miraculous debut” (Washington Post) about the unlikely bond between two freedmen who are brothers and the Georgia farmer whose alliance will alter their lives, and his, forever

In the waning days of the Civil War, brothers Prentiss and Landry—freed by the Emancipation Proclamation—seek refuge on the homestead of George Walker and his wife, Isabelle. The Walkers, wracked by the loss of their only son to the war, hire the brothers to work their farm, hoping…

My 3rd favorite read in 2023…

Book cover of Lila

John Michael Cooper Why did I love this book?

It’s been nine months since I read this book, and my thoughts still return to it (or is it the other way around?) unexpectedly.

On its surface, Lila is the life story of an orphan rescued from a loveless home by a vagrant and her discovery of an unforeseeable future. But this book is poetry in prose, and that surface story is just the start. With its unpredictable time-frames and beautifully complicated characters, it offers insights into the life experiences of societal outcasts with whom most modern readers can scarcely empathize.

Most fascinatingly, its final pages will make many or most readers question, or perhaps rethink, their philosophical and religious views on cause and effect, human desire, and Divine will. My wonder at its wisdom is rare (and I wonder at a lot of books).

By Marilynne Robinson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Lila as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Lila, homeless and alone after years of roaming the countryside, steps inside a small-town Iowa church-the only available shelter from the rain-and ignites a romance and a debate that will reshape her life. She becomes the wife of a minister and widower, John Ames, and begins a new existence while trying to make sense of the days of suffering that preceded her newfound security.

Neglected as a toddler, Lila was rescued by Doll, a canny young drifter, and brought up by her in a hardscrabble childhood of itinerant work. Together they crafted a life on the run, living hand-to-mouth with…

Plus, check out my book…

Historical Dictionary of Romantic Music, 2nd edition

By John Michael Cooper, Randy Kinnett, Megan Marie McCarty

Book cover of Historical Dictionary of Romantic Music, 2nd edition

What is my book about?

This is a comprehensive handbook of Romantic music. It includes more women, more Black musicians and other musicians of color, and more musicians from Central and South America as well as Central and Eastern Europe than any other single-volume study of Romantic music – thus challenging the conventional hegemony of musical Romanticisms by men and by Western European nations. It also includes topics including anti-Semitism, sexism, and racism that were pervasive and defining to the worlds of musical Romanticism but are rarely addressed in general studies of that subject. The result is an expansive, inclusive, diverse, and more richly textured portrayal of “Romantic music” than is elsewhere available.