This year was a slower reading year for me (my previous annual reviews here: 2015, 2016, 2017). Partly it was because work was very busy, partly because I started writing a weekly newsletter which took up a lot of reading time, but mainly because we had a baby in January… and it turns out babies and uninterrupted concentration are a tricky combination!
Nevertheless, I finished 36 books and at least a couple became all-time favourites. To make this easier to read, I’ll start with my top five fiction and top five non-fiction and then briefly run through the others.
Top five fiction
My favourite novel was The Kingdom by Emmanuel Carrere. It sounds odd on the face of it: part-memoir, part-history of Christianity and part-imaginative retelling of the New Testament. But it’s one of the most fascinating, profound and consistently beautiful books I’ve ever read.
The rest of my top five in fiction was:
2. Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky — Hardly a contrarian pick, but I’d never read it before and found it extraordinary. The Grand Inquisitor chapter is one of the best pieces of writing I remember.
3. Betrayals by Charles Palliser — Palliser is one of my favourite novelists (his The Quincunx is in my top three all-time fiction list), but somehow I’d missed this. It’s an amazingly rich set of interconnected mystery stories that adds up to something brilliant and disturbing.
4. Some Hope by Edward St Aubyn — On my colleague Pippy’s recommendation I read the five Patrick Melrose novels this year (see below) and this was my favourite of the series. Patrick is a beautifully crafted character and the writing is wonderful.
5. La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman — I’m a huge fan of His Dark Materials and enjoyed this “equel”. I have mixed feelings about including it in my top five: I found the second half rather dull and inconsistent, but I thought the first half painted one of the most compellingly constructed worlds I can remember, so it sneaks in. A must-read for Philip Pullman fans and fun for nearly anyone.
Top five non-fiction
My favourite non-fiction book was Reformation by Diarmaid McCullogh, which is a superb guide to what I believe is the most important chapter of European history for understanding the present day. Not a quick or easy read, but brilliantly insightful — and a window into a jarringly unfamiliar world where technology and new ideas plunged a continent into chaos almost overnight.
The rest of my top five in non-fiction was:
2. The Shortest History of Germany by James Hawes — Excellent sweeping history whose thesis is that Germany is in fact two different countries: “Germania” and Prussia, with the latter repeatedly undermining, even dooming, the former since Roman times. A must read and a stark reminder of the persistent importance of geography.
3. Inventing the Future by Alex Williams and Nick Snricek. Last year, I read a number of works that I knew I’d disagree with as they were far to my right politically — and this year I did the same for some left-wing texts. I thought Inventing the Future (while I did, indeed, disagree with a lot of it) was superb: a manifesto for “left accelerationism” — which might be caricatured as Marx meets AI — along with a searing critique of the mistakes the Left has made over the last 50 years. Highly recommended.
4. Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durrant — a ~100 page synthesis of their enormous Story of Civilization series. Brimming with interesting ideas — and also a fascinating insight into what pre-occupied intellectuals in 1968: above all Communism, birth rates and the prospect of another World War
5. Inadequate Equilibria by Eliezer Yudkowsky — Yudkowsky, one of the foremost thinkers on AI safety, explores why so many systems in the world seem obviously broken and, crucially, when to think you might be able to improve on the status quo. Thought provoking throughout, particularly for entrepreneurs, policy makers and venture capitalists.
I enjoyed lots of other fiction that didn’t quite make my top five. I loved City of Thieves by David Benioff (might have sneaked into the top five if I’d been less generous to Pullman). Benioff is one of the creators of the Game of Thrones TV show and the book is a sometimes-horrific, sometimes-amusing novel about Leningrad in the darkest days of the Second World War.
One theme this year was my continuing search for a novel similar to The Name of the Rose, another all-time favourite. None quite reached those dizzy heights, but I enjoyed Altai by Wu Ming, a beautifully written spy novel set in the 16th century Mediterranean; Music of the Spheres by Elizabeth Redfern, a detective novel set in London at the height of the French Revolution; and Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay, a gripping story set in a thinly veiled Renaissance Europe. Less successful in this vein was The Brotherhood of Book Hunters by Raphael Jerusalmy, which I wanted to love as was advertised as Eco-like, but didn’t quite work for me.
As mentioned above, I read the five Patrick Melrose novels — Never mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother’s Milk and At Last — by Edward St Aubyn. I highly recommend them; they’re extraordinarily well written, often horrifying and deeply compelling.
As well as Brothers Karamazov, I read a number of classic that I’ve never got round to reading. I enjoyed Death in Venice by Thomas Mann, a novella that explores the destructive power of beauty; The Razor’s Edge by W Somerset Maugham, which captures the glories and the nihilism of the inter-war period; and Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, which really stands the test of time as a rollicking — and enormously influential — adventure story.
As in previous years, I read a number of detective stories. Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz was probably the cleverest — a book within a book and highly recommended for murder mystery fans. When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro is literary fiction, but at heart a detective story. Set in Shanghai around the outbreak of the Second World War, the first half was superb, but the second half didn’t live up to its promise.
I also enjoyed The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton, but felt it ultimately tried to be too clever, at the cost of tying up all the loose ends. Snow Blind by Ragnar Jonasson is a very good detective story set in Iceland, which captures the claustrophobia of an isolated and snowbound town beautifully. I wanted to like First Person by Booker-winning Richard Flanagan, a clever story about a sociopathic conman and his ghostwriter, but I didn’t care enough about the characters to really enjoy it.
Sci-fi/fantasy was another theme. I loved Player of Games by Iain M Banks — set in a brilliantly imagined world where power is determined by the winner of an elaborate strategy game — but found the same author’s Consider Phlebas rather dull. On the fantasy side, Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott is an enjoyable — sometimes dark, sometimes ludicrous — story set in a small English town cut off from the rest of the country since Tudor times. I also liked Smoke by Dan Vyleta: smart speculative historical fiction about a world where people literally smoke as a physical manifestation of sin.
My non-fiction book list is much shorter this year, largely because writing Thoughts in Between pushed more of my non-fiction reading into current affairs.
As well as those in my top five, discussed above, I read three books that spanned almost the full range of the political spectrum. Postcapitalism by Paul Mason is a good companion to the Inventing the Future (see above). It’s a thoughtful and nuanced examination of how capitalism might give way to something new (and, Mason thinks, better). It’s not ultimately convincing to me, but it’s well worth reading.
That would also be my verdict on The Virtue of Nationalism by Yoram Hazony (several standard deviations to Mason’s right): it’s a challenging and impressively argued case for why many of the things that liberals value most can only be achieved within a framework of distinct and sovereign nation states — and why this is the best guarantor of rights and international security.
I enjoyed Annie Lowrey’s Give People Money — a series of longform journalism-style chapters that explore the issues around Universal Basic Income, from a much broader perspective than the familiar “tech will take all the jobs” angle. It’s particularly good on the poverty and human freedom cases and worth a read even if you know the material well.
I also read and enjoyed Lateral Thinking by Edward de Bono, a classic and highly useful work on how to think more creatively, and Nabakov’s Favorite Word is Mauve by Ben Blatt, a light and readable look at how quantitative analysis can illuminate fiction. The chapter on literary detective work (e.g. identifying anonymous authors) is particularly good.
Overall, 2018 was a good reading year and I’m excited about 2019. I’m planning to read more in my favoured themes, but also explore some biology, which is a big gap in my knowledge base and seems increasingly important.
Recommendations in this — and indeed any — category highly welcome as always. Happy New Year!