Middle Eastern readers should eagerly seek out The Arc of a Covenant by Walter Russell Mead and We Are Not One by Eric Alterman. They provide very different perspectives on the history of the US-Israel relationship and can be read in harmony and/or counterpoint.
Prof Mead is the preeminent scholar of US foreign policy formation. His books, particularly Special Providence, are invaluable guides to how political, cultural, religious, economic, and other forces produced these national stances. His superb new book traces the development of the "special relationship,” including the unique US commitment to Israel's “Qualitative Military Edge” over any regional rivals.
In his element, Prof Mead is peerless. The Arc of a Covenant is therefore indispensable to understanding how and why Washington developed its policies towards Zionism, Israel, and the Palestinians. Like many of his key subjects, he has a clear sympathy for, and preference towards, Israel over the Palestinians. And while he plainly makes every effort to be fair, his singular understanding of American policy and its context is not matched when it comes to Israel. Even more, at times he struggles to understand Palestinian experiences and perspectives.
In this book and his Wall Street Journal columns, Prof Mead somewhat anachronistically continues to treat the Palestinian cause as essentially a thwarted quest for independent statehood without recognising that this is only one solution to the core problem of mass statelessness and the quest for citizenship – in whatever country – that Palestinians are increasingly embracing. That all-to-common blind spot both arises from and facilitates a relatively non-problematised emotional support for Israel, but it misses what is now arguably the key problematic.
Prof Alterman's task is slightly narrower, tracing the Jewish-American discourse on Israel. His engaging book is more openly, if not actually, polemical. He reads the evolution of Jewish American thinking regarding Zionism and Israel from an increasingly widespread centre-left perspective disturbed by the repression the occupation inflicts on Palestinians as a community and by statelessness as a human rights crisis for Palestinian individuals.
Prof Alterman charts a detailed historical, intellectual and, perhaps above all, emotional map of the deep rift between Jewish-American impulses to be supportive of Israel and, simultaneously, increasingly unwilling to deny the categorical indefensibility of the apartheid-like occupation. However, like Prof Mead, he is most comfortable with American and even Israeli topics, and sometimes seems drawn towards conventional wisdom or outdated ideas regarding Palestinians and other Arabs. This appears to be an occupational hazard for American historians, Jewish and Gentile alike, although Palestinians and other Arabs have typically failed to explain themselves adequately or effectively.
The most recent American Nobel Laureate in literature, Bob Dylan, has long occupied a fascinating intermediate zone between his Jewish heritage and his (apparently still quietly strong) Christian beliefs. Last year he produced his most remarkable book yet, The Philosophy of Modern Song, a splendid collection of 66 short essays on songs ranging from Steven Foster's "Nelly Was a Lady" written in 1849 (though he discusses a 2004 rendition) to just two written in the 21st century. Most are from the 1940s and 50s, when Mr Dylan was a young sponge soaking up American culture as fast as humanly possible.
There is not much philosophy in the book, but plenty of poetic flourishes in his often-mesmerising commentaries. As befits the work of a recording artist, it’s best listened to as an audiobook. Mr Dylan's own voice, eerily distant, tinny, and echoing, like the signal from a mysterious, far-off radio station, croaks out many of the best passages. Listeners will ideally switch between the audiobook and an easily created playlist of the songs, massively enriching the experience.
At 81, he still strikes the pose of a cynical outsider casting a jaundiced eye on everything: "You're sitting in the shade, slumped out, anonymous, incognito, watching everything go by, unimpressed, hard-bitten – impenetrable.” One of the richest passages involves a meditation on the difference between the outlaw, a figure he celebrates and identifies with, versus common criminals, no matter how powerful, whom he detests and dismisses. Modern, basically rock, song is essentially by and about the outlaw, facing down the “real criminals” lurking behind various masks of authority.
Among the most notorious rock outlaws, at least in their own minds, Led Zeppelin, are finally the subject of a book that takes them seriously enough as cultural figures, even caricatures, yet not too seriously (none of their songs could conceivably make it into Mr Dylan's book). Led Zeppelin: A Biography by Bob Spitz tells the story of Jimmy Page's wildly successful yet critically reviled band and its colossal influence in a serious yet often hilarious narrative. The original “Spinaltap,” Led Zeppelin possessed little creative energy, apart from Mr Page’s extraordinary riffs and solos, and increasingly relied on the brilliant, thunderous drumming of John Bonham. Yet they left their mark on a vast array of performers that followed them, plus a trail of self-destructive mayhem few ever equaled, or dared to try.
From the ridiculous to the sublime, noted children's author Katherine Rundell’s biography, Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne cuts through centuries of erudite criticism by reading every facet of the Renaissance poetic genius’ complex, and often contradictory, life and work through the defining theme of transcendence into infinity. He fixated on the prefixes trans- and super- in words throughout his work. This excellent analysis helps explain why, for example, Donne embraced yet feared mortality even more than his contemporaries also working in the shadow of the Black Death.
Honourable mention must go to The Chaos Machine by Max Fisher that makes a devastating case against social media's malign impact; Secret City, James Kirchick's riveting and wildly entertaining account of the often unseen and typically unwelcome gay underbelly of Washington power; and Political Succession in the Islamic Republic of Iran by Ali Alforneh (my colleague at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, which published the book), that updates and elaborates his long-standing thesis that theocratic governance in Iran is giving way to a national security state dominated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
When you get through all those, you'll be just in time for my suggestions about the best nonfiction from 2023.