Fortune favors the books: Our editors’ favorite non-fiction of 2023 pulls back the curtain on a year of major transition

So much (digital) ink has been spilled about 2023 marking the end of a certain era of the internet:  Elon Musk’s Twitter misadventure, Sam Altman’s creative destruction of the commons via artificial intelligence, Google’s dominant position in search assailed by multiple antitrust challenges, not to mention the AI forces mentioned above—as Max Read noted in a recent New York Times column, the millennials who formed the shape of the early internet are aging out of their dominance over the zeitgeist. In many ways (in my opinion, not Max’s), new technology is splintering the web back to its wild mid-1990s roots. Still, though it may be a poor era for the web, you can’t convince me it’s not a golden age of reading. 

The iPhone, at nearly two decades old, may not be the hottest tech anymore, but has any invention since the printing press done more to encourage literacy? Words jump from our palms into our brains at unparalleled immediacy and frequency thanks to the device that also gave birth to the digital media industry that has employed me for going on four years now. I joined Fortune to build a new digital news desk in early 2022, having learned how the iPhone-adjacent model works at Business Insider (which makes a cameo in one of my books of the year), and the centrality of phone-based reading has allowed Fortune to grow by leaps and bounds, even if we are something of a 93-year-old startup. The algorithm appears to be changing now, but one thing is certain: Words are immediate in the 21st century in such a way that we take them almost for granted. We swim in a sea of words daily (a minor but increasing portion of those words being Fortune.com stories), and the humble book will never go out of style. It just might be a digital one.

That being said, I and other Fortune editors have picked our favorite, even the best books of the year, the non-fiction books that explain not only how the algorithm of life and business are changing, but who the humans are who created this algorithm world, this sea of words that we swim in every day. Here’s to a 2024 full of words, too.

Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral by Ben Smith (Penguin)

“Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” That was the Sex Pistols’ famous message to America as the Sex Pistols flamed out in punk rock’s first searing explosion onto the scene, but it might be Ben Smith’s reflection on the media industry’s punk rock moment: the explosion of digital traffic in the early 20th century. But instead of Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious, Smith gives us the figures of Nick Denton and Jonah Peretti (his former boss), the men who figured out the currency of internet 2.0: going viral and getting big traffic. Of course, neither of their startups quite exist in the same way anymore. Blogging pioneer Gawker Media was sued into oblivion by former wrestler Hulk Hogan, famously and secretly backed by billionaire Peter Thiel, before being sold for parts, largely to private equity-backed GO Media, losing its entire character in the process. Buzzfeed News shuttered this year, while Buzzfeed the brand lives on in a bigger company with Huffington Post that trades for pennies on the dollar, billions off its valuation at its peak. Smith’s beautifully reported and written book explicitly conjures a Shakepearean analogy to the Hamlet characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, except he brings them up in the Stoppardian sense. That would be Tom Stoppard, the great British playwright who burst onto the scene in 1966 with “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead,” about how Hamlet’s college friends and would-be assassins believed they were the main characters only to find out they had just a cameo in the greatest play of all time. But I can’t look beyond how punk rock changed music forever, even though it died after just a few years. All revolutions do. —Nick Lichtenberg, executive editor, news

Book cover of The Fund: Ray Dalio, Bridgewater Associates, and the Unraveling of a Wall Street Legend

The Fund: Ray Dalio, Bridgewater Associates, and the Unraveling of a Wall Street Legend

Courtesy Macmillan

The Fund: Ray Dalio, Bridgewater Associates, and the Unraveling of a Wall Street Legend by Rob Copeland (Macmillan)

The unauthorized tell-all has a long and (sometimes in)distinguished history, but there can’t have been many like this scathing look inside the culture at the world’s biggest hedge fund. Rob Copeland has been covering the industry, and billionaire Ray Dalio in particular, for well over a decade at the top newsrooms in the U.S., first The Wall Street Journal and currently The New York Times, and his copious reporting on Connecticut’s richest man and his fund, Bridgewater Associates, yields astonishing fruits. From future Attorney General James Comey running a weekslong investigation (and mock trial!) into a case of a missing order of bagels, to Dalio instructing a top consultant that a “baseball card” ranking system designed to mimic his famous invented set of “principles” meant that Dalio himself needed to have the top score in “believability.” The reporting includes horrific accounts of sexual harassment, sprinkled amongst its many anecdotes of cultish behavior around Dalio’s “principles,” which bring to mind another word starting with the same letter: a panopticon of constant surveillance, with Dalio playing video of one (female) lieutenant that he humiliated, openly crying, for years afterward to staff in a ritual of cruelty. Dalio was still furious about the book when he addressed Fortune’s Global Forum in Abu Dhabi in late November, but so far he isn’t challenging any of its claims in any courtroom outside Bridgewater’s own Connecticut headquarters, which of course, isn’t a real one.—N.L.

“Glossy: Ambition, Beauty, and the Inside Story of Emily Weiss’s Glossier”

Courtesy of Atria/One Signal Publishers

Glossy: Beauty, Ambition, and the Inside Story of Emily Weiss’s Glossier by Marisa Meltzer (Atria/One Signal Publishers)

Journalist Marisa Meltzer’s chronicle of Glossier’s rise and fall is both an enjoyable read and a thought-provoking cautionary tale. In the late 2010s, direct-to-consumer brand Glossier dominated cosmetics with its minimalist marketing and “no-makeup makeup” focus. At its helm was Emily Weiss, the MTV Hills and Vogue alum and Into the Gloss founder who would go on to become a prolific leader of the now defunct “girlboss” era. Meltzer’s portrait of the enigmatic Weiss makes the book grippy and readable. The book’s portrayal of Glossier’s crumbling empire seems emblematic of the overall “vibe shift” from the 2010s to the 2020s: when consumers tired of millennial pink, TikTok’s raw authenticity replaced Instagram’s curated sheen, and investors became increasingly wary of so-called “unicorns.” Equal parts dishy, informative, and nostalgic, I found myself finishing Meltzer’s book in just a few days.—Ashley Lutz, executive director, editorial growth

Cover of Pandora’s Box: How Guts, Guile, and Greed Upended TV by Peter Biskind

Courtesy HarperCollins

Pandora’s Box: How Guts, Guile, and Greed Upended TV by Peter Biskind (HarperCollins)

The ‘70s gave us the Jack Nicholson-style antihero. The ‘90s gave us the indie movie revolution personified by, among others, Quentin Tarantino. The peak TV era that started at the turn of the 21st century gave us Tony Soprano, Don Draper and then a long slow decline. That’s the story told by the longtime Hollywood watcher (and muckraker) Peter Biskind, who has completed an unofficial trilogy of sorts on what he calls “movements” in entertainment, first with Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, then Down and Dirty Pictures, and now Pandora’s Box. To Biskind-heads like myself, it’s a breath of fresh air to have the take of the former Premiere magazine executive editor, and current Vanity Fair contributing editor, on what is now the well-trodden subject of the revolution that was televised, first on HBO, then basic cable, then the streamers. His distinctive mix of cultural criticism with hard-nosed reporting has former HBO head Michael Fuchs waxing bittersweet about how being forced out in the 1990s “broke my fuckin’ heart,” while the subtitle of his book gives away what he really feels about the streaming revolution: “How guile, guts and greed upended TV.” Spoiler alert: He finds by the end of his investigation that content isn’t king, it’s always been cash. —N.L.

“Exit Interview: The Life and Death of My Ambitious Career”

Courtesy Macmillan

Exit Interview: The Life and Death of My Ambitious Career by Kristi Coulter (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

If the post-pandemic years brought a breath of worker empowerment with the so-called “Great reshuffle” and “Quiet quitting,” Exit Interview offers a timely examination of the hustle culture that they rejected. The often-exhausting memoir chronicles Coulter’s time working at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters in the aughts, but Amazon isn’t really the star: It’s Coulter’s frequently frustrated ambition as she tries to navigate a maze of ever-escalating demands presented in proprietary corporate jargon. A sort of Uncanny Valley for the corporate set, the memoir holds something for everyone: the chaos of a bare-bones startup (employees sometimes work on ‘desks’ mounted on sawhorses) with the mind-numbing bureaucracy of America’s now-second-largest employer (Coulter describes starting work Sunday night to be ready for a company-wide meeting on Wednesday; in other meetings, managers breezily ranked their direct reports according to the order in which they’d be tossed off a lifeboat.) The sometimes absurd, often infuriating drama will strike a chord with any woman who has spent time in the heavily male land of tech.—Irina Ivanova, deputy editor, news

“The Coming Wave: Technology, Power, and the Twenty-first Century’s Greatest Dilemma”

Courtesy Crown

The Coming Wave: Technology, Power, and the Twenty-first Century’s Greatest Dilemma by Mustafa Suleyman and Michael Bhaskar (Crown)

Despite its title, DeepMind and Inflection AI co-founder Mustafa Suleyman’s landmark book is not entirely pessimistic. The advent of artificial intelligence, he argues, can solve humanity’s greatest challenges–and there are chances it could lead to catastrophic events that we are unable to preempt due to the very nature of transformative technologies.

The real question is whether our systems can adapt fast enough. Immediately, Suleyman sees the threat of AI being used to manipulate elections, as he warned in a Fortune commentary piece in September. The coming months are set to test that theory as dozens of nations hold critical elections in 2024, heightening uncertainty around the world. Within a few years, the world as we know it will not exist, as our fortunes are upended by this transformation. 

To take full stock of the author’s stark warnings and idyllic promises, bear in mind that these are not the words of another tech entrepreneur opining on the latest technology, but those of an ethics and policy geek who found himself at the frontline of a technological revolution–or as he calls it, a shift in power. —Mohamed El Aassar, editor, commentary

Crack-Up Capitalism: Market Radicals and the Dream of a World Without Democracy by Quinn Slobodian

“Crack-Up Capitalism: Market Radicals and the Dream of a World Without Democracy”

Courtesy Macmillan

Crack-Up Capitalism: Market Radicals and the Dream of a World Without Democracy by Quinn Slobodian (Macmillan)

First, there were the “globalists,” then came the “crack-up.” That’s the vision painted by Canadian historian Quinn Slobodian, a professor at Wellesley College soon moving to Boston University. Where his last book focused on the birth of neoliberalism and the somehow-true story of the Bond villain-sounding Mont Pelerin Society, which was literally founded by the legendary historian Friedrich Hayek in a village in Switzerland, his new book is about other earth-shaking economic developments hiding in plain sight. Why is it, he asks, that capitalist development wants to divorce the democratic nation-state? It would much prefer to make business in “special economic zones” instead, he argues. As evidence he offers up Hong Kong, Singapore, and Dubai as zones that flourished in the 1970s, ‘90s, and 2000s when big business wanted to lighten its tax burden and a lot of pesky regulations. But there’s also the example of Honduras and a potential zone there called “Prospera,” boosted by Stanford economist Paul Romer. One thing’s sure: That zone won’t be the last. —N.L.

Book cover of "Flawless: Lessons in Looks and Culture from the K-Beauty Capital"

“Flawless: Lessons in Looks and Culture from the K-Beauty Capital”

Courtesy Penguin

Flawless: Lessons in Looks and Culture from the K-Beauty Capital by Elise Hu (Dutton)

Korean cosmetics are the world’s best—or, at least, so I’ve heard. But the observation doesn’t surprise me: South Korea has long punched above its weight in innovation, cultural influence, and soft power. But what does the “K-Beauty” industry—not just cosmetics, but K-pop and cosmetic surgery—look like in practice? What does it mean for South Korea’s women and men? In Flawless, Elise Hu turns her reporting during her time in the country as National Public Radio’s Seoul correspondent into a broad investigation of business, gender politics, and technology.—Nicholas Gordon, editor, Hong Kong

"The War Below" book cover

“The Coming Wave: Technology, Power, and the Twenty-first Century’s Greatest Dilemma”

Courtesy Simon and Schuster

The War Below: Lithium, Copper, and the Global Battle to Power Our Lives by Ernest Scheyder (Atria/One Signal Publishers)

To uncover the inconvenient truths and the often overlooked tradeoffs of the energy transition, Reuters reporter Ernest Scheyder takes readers on a journey through American history, geopolitics, and the business world.

It’s almost ironic. To move away from fossil fuels, humanity must rely on an unlikely hero: the mining industry, with its history of violence and pollution. And in light of global competition over key metals to power tomorrow’s electric vehicles and electronic devices, there are no good choices. Does the U.S. rely on China for key minerals, or accept the havoc their mass mining could wreak on American landscapes and communities? Does the government know what it’s doing, when the implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act, which encourages adoption of clean technologies, seems to be so uncoordinated? Can the businesses of the future deliver their lofty promises, when key projects are facing serious setbacks? 

Fortune readers will find the chapters about Tiffany & Co. CEO Michael J. Kowalski’s revolutionary stand on ethical sourcing 20 years ago, and Elon Musk’s efforts to secure Tesla’s future supply of critical minerals of particular interest.—M.E.

Cover of "Unscripted: The Epic Battle for a Media Empire and the Redstone Family Legacy" by James Stewart and Rachel Abrams

“Unscripted: The Epic Battle for a Media Empire and the Redstone Family Legacy”

Courtesy Penguin

Unscripted: The Epic Battle for a Media Empire and the Redstone Family Legacy by James Stewart and Rachel Abrams (Penguin)

The past few years have been a rich era of family drama, seen in TV and tabloid coverage of the Kardashians, the Murdochs, and the British royal family—as well as on the small screen with their fictionalized counterparts in HBO’s Succession and Netflix’s The Crown. Against that backdrop, New York Times journalists James Stewart and Rachel Abrams deliver Unscripted, a barely-believable true tale of intrigue, manipulation, and colossal amounts of chutzpah in the media world. A chronicle of the last few years of Sumner Redstone, who before his 2020 death was majority owner of Viacom and CBS, the book depicts the waning days of a mogul whose influence outlived his mental capacity—and the war that ensued between his daughter, Shari, and the older men (and one woman) on the companies’ boards. The pre-Me Too setting makes for occasionally jaw-dropping scenes. In one, a police precinct captain who received a report of an assault by a CBS executive immediately tips off the company, which is also his side hustle. Some pages later, a board member investigates rumors of assault by asking the alleged perpetrator whether he did it and taking the response as fact. This unsparing and often uncomfortable takedown of several powerful men who misjudged the extent of their influence ends with perhaps the only eternal lesson: Power and money always corrupt.—I.I.

Courtesy Hachette Book Group

The Peking Express: The Bandits Who Stole a Train, Stunned the West, and Broke the Republic of China by James Zimmerman (Public Affairs)

In 1923, Chinese bandits—or political freedom fighters, if you asked them—attacked a train between Shanghai and Beijing and took its many wealthy passengers, including a sister-in-law to John D. Rockefeller Jr., hostage. The “Lincheng Incident” soon sparks a crisis for the weak Republic of China: The local warlord wants to go in guns blazing, hostage safety be damned, while foreign diplomats demand Beijing to do everything in its power to keep the foreigners alive. 

This book by James Zimmerman, former chair of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, is a reminder of how precarious the country was in between the two world wars–a situation that leaders in Beijing still complain about today.—N.G.

“Plunder: Private Equity’s Plan to Pillage America”

Courtesy Hachette Book Group

Plunder: Private Equity’s Plan to Pillage America by Brendan Ballou (Public Affairs)

It can seem like America’s social fabric, of late, is fraying. Everywhere you look, life costs more but seems to deliver less, with fees and fine print proliferating like mushrooms. Once-publicly funded emergency services, including ambulance care, fire departments, and even hospitals have abandoned large chunks of the country. The dream of homeownership seems ever more out of reach, with people relegated to paying more and more rent to faceless entities. And lest you think the consumer economy is healthy, a quick look at the many retail bankruptcies of recent years would convince you otherwise. In Plunder, antitrust attorney Brendan Ballou gathers the disparate strands of a troubled nation to point to a very convincing villain: Private equity, a once-niche corner of the financial world that this year has ballooned to more than $22 trillion in value, with a foot in every industry. Ballou works for the Department of Justice, and his prosecutorial bona fides shine through the writing, where methodical examples of the worst-managed companies add up to frequently blood-boiling results. Consider: Nursing-home residents with open wounds who are left untreated because the staff has “too much to do;” prison inmates served rotten meat “not fit for human consumption;” a town that jacks up residents’ water bills even as the treatment plant fails and the water becomes toxic. Ballou’s takedown ends with recommendations for fixing this societal decay—from beefing up the government’s enforcement authority to banning specific types of mergers.—I.I.

Courtesy Simon and Schuster

Fortune’s Bazaar: The Making of Hong Kong by Vaudine England (Scribner)

Every capitalist economy celebrates its tycoons, and Hong Kong is no exception. Much like how the U.S. is littered with buildings celebrating the Carnegies and Rockefeller, the Chinese city is littered with references to the Chaters, Kadoories, and Hotungs. In the 19th century, migrants from all over the world traveled to the newly-founded British colony to make their fortune. Journalist-turned-historian Vaudine England takes on Hong Kong’s Wild West—or, should I say, “Wild East”—days in her book Fortune’s Bazaar, a reminder that the city’s history isn’t exclusively British or Chinese, but a hodgepodge of influences, cosmopolitanism, and entrepreneurial grit. —N.G.

Godzilla and Godzilla Raids Again, by Shigeru Kayama, translated by Jeffrey Angles (University of Minnesota Press)

“Godzilla and Godzilla Raids Again”

Courtesy University of Minnesota Press

Godzilla and Godzilla Raids Again, by Shigeru Kayama, translated by Jeffrey Angles (University of Minnesota Press)

Godzilla is back. Godzilla Minus One, the latest movie from Japan’s Toho Studios, has the highest domestic box office for a live-action Japanese movie. And Warner Bros. will get its own shot at the monster movie with next year’s “Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire.” But this franchise got its start with 1954’s “Godzilla,” written by Japanese author Shigeru Kayama. Jeffrey Angles has put out the first English translation of Kayama’s novelizations of the film and its sequel, and their strong anti-nuclear messaging. Angles also gives important context behind Kayama’s time with Godzilla—including the author’s growing discomfort with how the kaiju became a beloved mascot, instead of a warning against uncontrolled progress.—N.G.

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