Best Arts & Humanities of 2023

The Best Arts & Humanities titles of 2023 include intriguing conversation starters, special tributes to pioneers, and fresh takes on creative art forms and people.


Belser, Julia Watts. Loving Our Own Bones: Disability Wisdom and the Spiritual Subversiveness of Knowing Ourselves Whole. Beacon. ISBN 9780807006757.

Belser’s eye-opening book sparks a much-needed conversation about interpretations of the terms “disability” and “normal.” She wants readers to see her disability, not look past it as she illuminates her firsthand experiences and the intersectionality of being a queer, feminist rabbi. Her perspective adds fresh insight and teaches how to read sacred Christian and Jewish writings through a different lens, leaving readers with a yearning for an all-inclusive world.

Brown, Ashley. Serving Herself: The Life and Times of Althea Gibson. Oxford Univ. ISBN 9780197551752.

Brown took nearly a decade to research and write this outstanding biography of Althea Gibson, the first Black woman sports-superstar. She utilizes dazzling prose to paint a full portrait of the tennis champion, but what really shines is her craftsmanship in revealing all facets of who Gibson was. That includes revelations of Gibson’s views about being Black in the United States and noteworthy mention of her other talents.

Busch, Charles. Leading Lady: A Memoir of a Most Unusual Boy. Smart Pop. ISBN 9781637744147.

A born raconteur, Busch spins enthralling tales into short, buoyant chapters in this absolutely captivating memoir. The award-winning playwright, actor, and drag legend found his artistic voice by writing his own plays and casting himself as the woman lead. Two of his plays—Psycho Beach Party and Die, Mommie, Die!—became movies with Busch starring. This joyful, upbeat, and witty memoir will capture the hearts of theater and movie buffs.

Ciuraru, Carmela. Lives of the Wives: Five Literary Marriages. Harper. ISBN 9780062356918.

Literature scholar Ciuraru pulls back the marital veil to give voice to five “little women,” each creative, talented humans in their own right, who collaborated with, supported, suffered under, and occasionally triumphed over their literary spouses (including Roald Dahl and Kingsley Amis). Spoiler alert: there aren’t too many happy endings, but this fascinating literary biography absolutely screams to be a first volume.

Fernandez, Maria Elena. And Don’t F&%k It Up: An Oral History of RuPaul’s Drag Race (The First Ten Years). Grand Central. ISBN 9781538717660.

Fernandez’s oral history (with contributions by World of Wonder) of the first 10 seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race is an immensely entertaining look at how a little TV show shot in a basement studio became a tastemaking cultural juggernaut and global success. Each season gets its own exhaustive chapter detailing the art of its casting and eyewitness memories of melt- downs, catfights, conspiracy theories, and camaraderie. Loaded with heartbreaking and hilarious first-person confessions, this book’s a winner, baby!

Gabriel, Mary. Madonna: A Rebel Life. Little, Brown. ISBN 9780316456470.

Pulitzer Prize finalist Gabriel’s massive biography of Madonna follows the sing- er’s life from her Michigan childhood to the conclusion of her Madame X tour in 2020. The book devotes considerable space to Madonna’s companions and collaborators and offers an in-depth look at her work and inspirations. Impressive in size (880 pages) and scope, this splendid volume will enthrall fans of the singer or of pop music in general.

Hartigan, Patti. August Wilson: A Life. S. & S. ISBN 9781501180668.

There probably won’t be a better-written biography of the great playwright August Wilson (1945–2005) than theater critic Hartigan’s vital and remarkable book. An astute judge of plays, she is also insightful and moving as she details how Wilson, whose absent father was white and whose mother was Black, made theatergoers see Black lives as a vibrant part of the soul of the nation.

Kickz, Xavier. Art of Custom Sneakers: How To Create One-of-a-Kind Kicks; Paint, Splatter, Dip, Drip, and Color. Rockport. ISBN 9780760381809.

This one-of-a-kind title combines instructions for creating custom sneakers with the style and structure of a graphic novel. Readers needn’t be sneakerheads to appreciate the way Kickz, a YouTube influencer, guides them through historical details and best practices, mixing in FAQ answers along the way. This approach results in a work full of bright, colorful illustrations; it’s a stencil for other craft books to emulate.

Mann, William J. Bogie & Bacall: The Surprising True Story of Hollywood’s Greatest Love Affair. Harper. ISBN 9780063026391.

By stripping away the barnacles of fake Bogart lore that vintage publicity agents created to carefully manufacture a he-man image, Mann unveils a fresh, complex, and empathetic portrait. The sweeping narrative tilts its focus a little more toward Bogart, but Bacall is an integral half of this dual biography. This magnificent book is splendidly written, reads fast, and is impossible to put down. The definitive biography that fans have been waiting for and deserve.

Schedneck, Brooke. Living Theravada: Demystifying the People, Places, and Practices of a Buddhist Tradition. Shambhala. ISBN 9781611809718.

Readers might expect this book to explain and define what the oldest, conservative form of Buddhism entails, and it is indeed an engaging, highly informative lesson about a lived religion. However, religious scholar Schedneck takes the work further, spotlighting practitioners in Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand and exploring how the traditional religion affects daily life and culture in Southeast Asia. A temple-etiquette guide adds a special touch.

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