What I read in 2016

Christopher de Hamel, author of my favourite book of the year. Credit: https://www.1843magazine.com/culture/the-power-of-the-book

Compared to 2015, I read slightly more books in 2016 (to my surprise, as political events distracted me a lot in June and November) — 47 in total, plus three that I abandoned. There were some excellent ones, but overall I feel none of this year’s would have made it into my top three in 2015.

Non-fiction

The most visually stunning, and perhaps the best, book I read was Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel. Unlike anything I’ve ever read, the book walks through 12 of the world’s most spectacular manuscripts in a highly accessible, conversational style. This is a perfect present for anyone interested in history or art (and a rare one where paper easily trumps Kindle).

My other favourite non-fiction book was, to my surprise, Anguish and Triumph by Jan Stafford, a biography of Beethoven. I know absolutely nothing about classical music, but this made Beethoven’s truly astonishing life vivid and made me listen to a lot of his music that otherwise I doubt I’d have ever sought out.

Two other excellent biographies were Andrew Roberts’ Napoleon the Great and Richard Davenport-Hines’ Universal Man: The Seven Lives of John Maynard Keynes. In both cases, you are left astonished at how much their subjects managed to fit in.

Tren Griffin’s Charlie Munger: The Complete Investor is not quite a biography — more a compelling distillation of the investment philosophy of Munger (Warren Buffett’s slightly less famous partner). The first of my abandoned books, after about 100 pages, was Jeremy Adelman’s biography of Albert Hirschman, the economist; not knowing much about Hirschman, I found the level of detail overwhelming.

In history, I loved Tom Holland’s Rubicon and James Shapiro’s 1606: The Year of Lear and enjoyed Quentin Skinner’s Foundations of Modern Political Thought, which traces the evolution of the modern idea of the state through the late medieval period and the Renaissance. I was less convinced by The Silk Roads, a history of the world through the lens of Central Asia, which had lots of stellar reviews, but I found rather one-sided and polemical in the later periods.

The follow up to my 2015 book of the year, Sapiens, Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari, is fascinating and thought provoking throughout (though if you’ve recently read Sapiens you might find some of the material familiar). Covering similar ground, and a good complement, was Brian Christian’s The Most Human Human, a wide-ranging well researched meditation on what it means to be human, which cleverly takes Christian’s role as one of the decoys in the annual “Turing test” competition as its starting point and structure. I also enjoyed Christian’s Algorithms To Live By, co-authored with Tom Griffiths, which looks at what humans can learn from computer science about decision making.

Two other books that broadly relate to my day job were The Future of Machine Intelligence, edited by David Beyer, and The Sovereign Individual by James Dale Davidson and William Rees Mogg. The former is a short and excellent set of interviews with machine learning practitioners; it’s moderately technical and well worth a read if you’re interested in the field. I read The Sovereign Individual, a piece of futurology and political/economic prognostication first published in 1997, because it has been recommended by several Silicon Valley luminaries. Having read it, I find this rather terrifying: it is an unsophisticated and occasionally hysterical tract, that would read better as dystopian fiction than as social science. It fails to engage with any substantive literature in the fields it deals with and, mixed in with some genuinely interesting ideas, it includes such gems as a prediction of the apocalyptic impact of the Y2K bug and conspiracy theories about Vince Foster. There is a deep and serious book to be written about the tension between 21st century technology and the state, but this is not it.

I read two non-tech-focused business books: The Hollywood Economist by Edward Jay Epstein and Superbosses by Sydney Finkelstein. The Hollywood Economist, though largely a collection (I discovered after buying it) of New Yorker columns, is a highly readable and enlightening look at how and for whom Hollywood makes money — which is not at all intuitive. Superbosses, despite the terrible name, is an interesting, grounded and practical look at why some leaders incubate wildly successful leaders, while others — equally successful on other metrics — do not.

My second abandoned book, which drifts between fiction and non-fiction is Ann Wroe’s ‘biography’ of Pilate. It is a compelling premise and beautifully written, but I ultimately couldn’t get into it enough to push past the first 100 pages.

Fiction

I read some very good novels this year, but none that would make my all-time top ten. The closest were probably Possession by A.S. Byatt and The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu. Possession is a rich literary mystery and romance; it’s extraordinary to think about the degree of thought and invention that went into it. The Three Body Problem is amazingly imaginative science fiction with real depth and a brilliantly evoked Chinese backdrop. I have read too little science fiction to know how it stacks up against the greats (if anyone has suggestions, I’d be delighted to receive them), but I loved it and plan to read the rest of the trilogy in 2017.

Perhaps the best fiction I read this year, though, was not a novel but a play —Life is a Dream. Written in the mid-17th century by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, it is an astonishingly modern — even post-modern — exploration of fate, free will and reality. If you like, say, Hamlet, this is a must-read/see.

I am a sucker for good historical fiction and I loved The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee, an extraordinarily deeply researched, yet compelling, historical novel about an opera singer, set at the time of the Paris Commune. I also enjoyed Golden Hill, set in late 18th century New York, by Francis Spufford (whose Red Plenty I loved), but not quite as much as many critics obviously did. I felt similarly about Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald. I also liked The Foreign Correspondent, about Italian intellectual emigrés who have fled Mussolini to Paris, just before the outbreak of the Second World War. One book that I thought I’d enjoy (I found it when looking for a novel about Talleyrand, inspired by the Napoleon biography) but turned out just to be very silly — a sort of proto-Dan Brown — was The Eight by Katherine Neville.

This summer, I decided to try two of the most celebrated novels of the decade: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante and A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard. I confess I was underwhelmed. I enjoyed the Ferrante more — it is undoubtedly beautifully written — but I didn’t feel compelled to read the next in the series and I abandoned the Knausgaard after about 150 pages or so.

Similarly, I didn’t really enjoy the Booker prize-winning The Sellout by Paul Beatty. I read it just after Thomas Pynchon’s The Secret Integration, which I preferred and which tackles a similar topic — race in America. Reviews say The Sellout is very funny, but I didn’t really get the humour. Perhaps this reveals an unsophisticated taste, but I need more to happen to enjoy a book properly.

On which note, the year’s most gripping story was Robert Harris’s Conclave; even if the premise of a papal election procedural sounds unpromising, I recommend it as a perfect aeroplane or holiday read. I ended up binging on Robert Harris this year: I also read the Fear Index, Enigma, Archangel and books two and three of his Cicero trilogy, Lustrum and Dictator. All are very readable, but the Cicero trilogy is exceptional (and a great read in combination with Rubicon, mentioned above).

I read three books by the authors who dominated by 2015 list, Brandon Sanderson and Agatha Christie. Sanderson’s Warbreaker is one of his early novels and set in a very well imagined world, if not quite as vast in scope as his more recent work. The 4.50 from Paddington and The Mysterious Affair at Styles are classic Christies but ultimately not her best work.

Trying to read some detective fiction beyond Christie, I also tried two of the British Library Crime Classics series, The Cheltenham Square Mystery and The Secret of High Eldenham, both of which were enjoyable if a little silly. Two much better detective stories were His Bloody Project by Graeme McCrae Burnett, a highly unusual and brilliantly crafted murder story set in 19th century Scotland, and The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny, which is set in a remote Canadian monastery (I’m always trying to find something that will capture something of what makes The Name of the Rose my favourite novel).

Not really a detective story, but an ingenious retelling of one of the most famous murders in literature — the shooting of “the Arab” in Camus’s L’Etranger — is The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud, which is moving and disturbing.

On the lighter side, I enjoyed the Lies of Locke Lamora, Red Seas Under Red Skies and The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch, who writes in a similar vein to Brandon Sanderson. These are fun, highly readable heist thrillers set in a fantasy world. Totally different, but similarly readable (and escapist) were P.G. Wodehouse’s Carry On Jeeves, The Inimitable Jeeves and Very Good Jeeves.

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I’m looking forward to 2017’s reading. In non-fiction, I’ve decided to pursue a theme to begin with of “political books I know I’m going to disagree with”; in fiction, I’m going to try to read more science fiction, as I mentioned above. I’m also interested to read more about pre-20th century US history and books about the impact of technology on politics. If you have recommendations on any of these — or indeed any other topics — I’d love to hear from you.