The best books I’ve read this year

Here follows a list of the books that I’ve most enjoyed and which have most affected my thinking this year. I’ve presented them in alphabetical order so as not to have to make choices about which were best: if they’re on the list then I think they’re worth reading. I note, with some shame, that yet again I’ve gone mainly for books by white men. Please don’t hold that against me or them. I never consciously make choices about what to read based on the physical characteristics of the writer, but am nevertheless aware that what we choose to read shapes who we are. If you feel strongly that my thinking would be enhanced by reading the work of any others writers, please make your suggestions in the comments.

4 3 2 1 – Paul Auster

I don’t read enough new fiction and that which I do read often leaves me relatively unmoved. This book is an exception. I’ve been an Auster fan ever since reading In The Country of Last Things when going through a phase of only reading dystopian fiction when I was at university. I’ve read most of what he’s written ever since. 4 3 2 1 is much longer than any of his other novels, weighing in at over a thousand pages, but I found it so compelling I read it in little over a week. It could be described as ‘experimental’, but this wouldn’t do it justice. It’s the story of a life – that of Archibald Ferguson – lived four different ways. It’s the story about the butterfly effect of tiny chance differences. It’s a story about how we are both shaped by the environments we find ourselves and yet still are somehow unalterably ourselves. I commend it to you.

The Better Angels of Our Nature: A history of violence and humanity– Steven Pinker

This is another exceptionally long book. I’ve had it on my shelf for a couple of years and have been deterred by its sheer bulk. But, like Auster, I’m a confirmed Pinker fan, so I was determined to give it a go. I’m very glad I did. It’s a stunningly accomplished work of scholarship tracing humanity’s relationship with violence over our history, and its thesis is that, contrary to the popular narrative, the world has become, and is still becoming, less and less violent over time. Pinker marshals an extraordinary weight and range of evidence to support this idea, and to read it is to be left with a sense of pleasing optimism about our likely future. I found some of the descriptions of medieval torture a little too much for my delicate palate and got a little lost in some of the statistical analysis, but Pinker is at heart a great story-teller and I never found myself less than enthralled.

Charles Dickens: A Life – Claire Tomalin

I don’t read nearly as much literary biography as I’d like to, but few years ago I picked up Tomalin’s biography of Samuel Pepys and loved it. When I saw she’d written a biography of Dickens I rushed out to buy it and then promptly shelved it. In designing the English Studies for the new BPP PGCE course I decided to include Dickens as a case study and wanted to put some background reading on the reading list and remembered this book. I could hardly assign it if I hadn’t read it so read it I did. Tomalin’s a terrific writer and true scholar. Her investigations into Dickens’ shrouded early life and the did-he-didn’t-he controversy of a possible extra marital affair were gripping stuff. But the sections I enjoyed the most were those describing the writing of his various novels; the way his life intertwined with the fictional narratives he worked on is fascinating. Ultimately, Dickens comes across as a deeply flawed, intensely contradictory and often unlikable man, but his life, as told by Tomalin, is never less than deeply human. I’m intending to read her biography of Thomas Hardy in the coming year.

Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How culture made the human mind– Kevin Laland

Intrigued by the book’s title, I went to see Kevin Laland give a talk at the Hay Festival this year. It felt like serendipity. I was riveted as he explained how over decades of painstaking research he has arrived at a full and complete evolutionary explanation of how humans – and no other species – developed language and how this lead inexorably to the development of culture and how we have subsequently co-evolved with our culture to become who we are today. As an evolutionary biologist, much of Laland’s research has been into animals and his narrative is satisfyingly interwoven with stories of the surprising behaviour sticklebacks, crows, macaques and meerkats. Laland’s bold claim is that he has completed  the missing sections in Darwin’s account of how the theory of evolution explains where we’ve come from and how we got here. It looks like he’s right.

The Descent of Man – Grayson Perry

If some of the books on my list are very long, this is very short. You can read the whole thing in a couple of hours. I’ve been an admirer of Perry’s art ever since he burst to public notice after winning the Turner Prize in 2003 (I even has a couple of silk screen prints of some of his work on my walls) and read and enjoyed his book on art, Playing To The Gallery. This is a book about masculinity and the need for men to reinvent themselves to thrive in the modern world. I never really ‘got’ the whole transvestite thing; it seemed unnecessarily gimmicky, and it came as a real surprise to discover Perry to be an uber-competitive mountain biker and leather-clad motorcyclist. I found the sections on Perry’s own life and experiences as, if not more, interesting than the central thesis that ‘default man’ and ‘old school man’ are such counter-productive conceptions of what it is to be male. There were several sections were I found myself frowning at some Perry’s sweeping generalisations, but on the whole I think he’s right.There is an increasingly urgent need for men to rethink who they want to be.

Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, activists and one scholar’s search for justice – Alice Dreger

The back story to this book is every bit as interesting as the book itself. Dreger was, for many years, a champion of intersex people’s rights and has done as much as anyone to bring the hidden plight of children born with the reproductive organs of both sexes to wider public attention. She came to see how all sorts of so-called progressive campaigns were based on spreading misinformation and lies, and employed personal attacks to silence opposing voices. In trying to expose such practices, Dreger was turned on by some of the very people she saw herself as aligned with and experienced first hand some of their more vicious tactics. The book is a quest for scientific rigour and honesty, and attempt to fight the injustices many reputable researchers have experienced for trying to share their research. This is a book about telling the truth, no matter the personal cost and as such is an important and timely read for many in the education world.

Guns, Germs and Steel: A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years– Jared Diamond

Props to Nick Rose for nagging me to read this. It’s been around a fair while (first published in 1988) but I’d never come across it before. It sets out to explain why it is that certain parts of the world enjoy advanced technology and high living standards while others are prone to famine and poverty. Diamond’s thesis is that this is pretty much entirely down to geography. The advantage to humans living on the Eurasian land mass is that the crops and animals available to domesticate repay attempts to farm far more than those available on any other landmass. Natural geographical barriers have slowed the spread of culture which lead to huge delays in technological advancement, and the immunities enjoyed by Eurasians as a result of living amongst livestock for so many millennia meant that when Westerners pitched up on other continents, a lethal combination of guns, germs and steel pretty much wiped out any resistance. It’s a great book to read alongside Yuval Noah Harrari’s Sapiens as Diamond covers a lot of what Harrari overlooks and vice versa. If you’re a geography teacher and you’ve not read this, you really should.

King John: Treachery, tyranny and the road to Magna Carta– Marc Morris

I tend to read a fair bit of popular history, but, looking through my list, this is the only one I seem to have managed this year. Morris begins by debunking most of the mythology surrounding Bad King John – he was absolutely not a contemporary of Robin Hood – before spelling the reality of just how shoddy a specimen of monarchy he really was. I particularly enjoyed the background of the Angevin period leading up to John’s birth and his unlikely rise to kinghood (he had three older brothers!) His parents – Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine – were both forces of nature and, had the lived to see how feckless their youngest son turned out to be, would have been astonished. Morris is a fine writer, weaving historical narrative with contemporary chroniclers and tells a dramatic story about the making of modern England and its place in Europe.

Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: Adventures in modern Russia– Peter Pomerantsev

Pomerantsev is a Russian born, British raised journalist who has spent many years living and working in Putin’s Russia. The stories he tells – of the destruction of historic Moscow, the rise and fall of the mafia, the lawlessness, corruption and sheer surreality of modern Russia is breathtaking. You really couldn’t make it up. Each chapter follows a different strand of Russian life – one tells the Kafkaesque tale of a woman arrested and imprisoned without trial for selling cleaning supplies which some bureaucrat made illegal overnight to spite a rival; another tells the tale of an insidious cult behind a rash of high-profile suicides; yet another follows the hopes and fears of alumni of the gold diggers academy who hope to bag a ‘Forbes’. Throughout it all, Pomerantsev looks on, seeming as amazed and confused as his readers. I worried at times that the tales he tells are perhaps a bit too prurient, but beneath them lie a genuine affection for those he writes about and the country of his birth.

Prisoners of Geography: 10 maps that tell you everything you need to know about global politics – Tim Marshall

I read this off the back of Guns, Germs and Steel and suspected I might be getting more of the same. Yes and no. Marshall’s worldview is, like Diamond’s, that the modern world can, in large part, be explained by geography, but this is much more a book about the here and now. It seeks to cast like of the various geo-political dramas around the world and point out the inevitability of Russia’s attitude to Europe, China’s stance on trade in the Pacific, America’s rise to global prominence and the catastrophe of drawing lines on the map of Africa which ignored its geography. Marshall’s insight into so many of the world’s hotspots is remarkable – I watched the recent activity unfolding in and around the Sea of Japan with North Korea flexing its nuclear muscles marvelling at Mashall’s prescience – and I’d recommend this book to anyone wanting to understand a little more about why things play out the way they do.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed – Jon Ronson

I experience my own very minor public shaming this summer and, following advice from various well-wishers, decided to give this a go. I’d read The Psychopath Test, and knew what to expect in terms of journalistic style – Ronson is always front and centre in the stories he tells – but I found the journey he describes compelling. He begins by fondly harking back to the early days of Twitter when all was peace and love. I remember this time fondly too – Twitter was a revelation and it very literally changed my life. I am very much a creation of social media. He charts the rise of the dark side by first describing his own role in various public shamings and how virtuous this made him feel, before recounting the sorry tales of various victims of public shaming. I found the story of Jonah Lehrer particularly sombre. Lehrer was a wunderkind science writer in the mould of Malcolm Gladwell until he was caught out for making up quotes and lying about it. His fall from grace was spectacular and appalling. Equally sobering is the story of the rash, ill-advised ‘racist’ joke of Justine Sacho and her online hounding. I couldn’t help thinking, there but the grace of god… Ronson doesn’t really offer much in the way of solutions, and the post-script details some of the public shaming he found himself on the end of after publication. My best hope is that if more people read about the consequences of our intolerance we’re be less likely to take such malevolent delight in the failings and foibles of others.

Speak Memory: An autobiography revisited– Vladimir Nabokov

One of the books I read this year that isn’t on my list is Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously. Instead, I thought I’d include it tangentially by writing about two of the books it inspired me to read. One commitment I made was to read all of Nabokov’s oeuvre. Lolita and Pale Fire are two of the best novels I’ve ever read and this seemed like an excellent excuse to reread them as was as take in some of the great man’s lesser known works such as Pnin and Ada or Ardor. I confess I didn’t get much further than rereading Pale Fire (which is every bit as superb as I remember it!) but I did manage to read Nabokov’s quite wonderful autobiography, Speak Memory. It covers his life from his birth in 1903 to his emigration to America in 1940. Not only is this a terrifically interesting read, it’s also very beautifully written. For my money, Nabokov is up there with Conrad, Orwell and Wodehouse as the greatest stylists in the English language and this may be an even finer example of his art than any of his novels.

War and Peace– Leo Tolstoy

The other book I owe reading to Andy Miller is Tolstoy’s door-stopper classic. I first read it when I was at university and been proudly boasting of the feat ever since, but, as I read about Miller’s epic reading journey, it became increasingly clear that I couldn’t really remember anything of the story. The idea of rereading seemed an insurmountable challenge but for Miller’s surprisingly obvious and useful advice to read 50 pages a day. This was still a big commitment – 50 pages of my fairly small print edition for took me a good two hours – but I feel very gratified that I managed – more or less – to stick to it. For anyone wavering about whether to give it a go, let me assure you that it is absolutely worth the effort. War and Peace is, without doubt, the finest novel ever written. It has everything: comedy, tragedy, action, romance, politics, history, love, death, war and, er, peace. Tolstoy’s ability to get inside the vast range of characters and bring them indelibly and uniquely to life is staggering. His apparent understanding of men, women, rich and poor is remarkable. There are brief moments when you find yourself getting lost in all the Russian names, but this are quickly resolved and present little difficulty in following the quite excellent plot. Reading this book is a joy I would recommend to everyone who believes that reading can be at once serious, culturally beneficial and damn good fun. I competed it on a flight to Seoul and wrote about my thoughts on finishing it here.

Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race – Reni Eddo-Lodge

Last, but decidedly not least is Eddo-Lodge’s polemic on race and power. I got quite a bit of flak for blogging about this book when I first read and it all came from those who normally support and endorse most of what I write. This is fine. Reading should make us uncomfortable and it should challenge our assumptions. It some ways it’s very much of a piece with Grayson Perry’s The Descent of Man: what he says of maleness, she says of whiteness. Both are, their respective authors argue, political and ideological but, because they are hegemonic, they go unremarked and unnoticed, especially if you are either white or male. This is a book that manages to be both angry and dispassionate, serious, yet at times lightly comic and at turns intensely discomfiting and utterly compelling. One of my favourite moments is Eddo-Lodge’s transcript of a telephone interview with BNP leader, Nick Griffen. This could be taken straight from Ronson or Pomerantsev and is a masterclass in understatement. Not everyone’s going to enjoy this book and I’m still not sure I have come to terms or completely agree with everything Eddo-Lodge writes. But I’m glad it read it and reckon everyone else should too.

3 Responses to The best books I’ve read this year

  1. Hi David,
    Thank you for a wonderful list of books. This will be left around in conspicuous places around the house when presents should be bought for me 🙂

    The one thing I would say is we should read who we like and not apologise if they happen to be white, BAME, men, women, alive or dead. Reading for me is a pleasure and it’ll be a cold day in hell before I let people dictate my choices.

    Happy Christmas.

    • David Didau says:

      Dictate? For sure. Suggest? Bring it on. Speaking of which, what’s your suggestion Naureen?

      • I’ve just finished a collection of short stories by Thomas Hardy (another dead, white man ) which I hadn’t read before. These reminded me of how much I love Hardy. I’m going to read Mayor of Casterbridge again next which I absolutely adore. I’m also planning to read a few books in Urdu and an English translation of the Quran.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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