Year in reading, 2013

There was no pace to this year’s reading; usually I’m consistent, taking a couple of weeks for each book, working my way through them slowly on a commute that hasn’t changed much in six years. This year some of the books dragged, others I dispatched in a day or two, reflecting the fact my time itself came less evenly to me this year. Fewer than usual, too, and a couple of notable DNFs, including the dreadful Tropic of Cancer – unforgivably bad, it might have been a landmark in its day, but there’s no value in it unless you’re a cultural historian – and Conrad’s Nostromo, too, which is a slow book that I hit at a fast time. Maybe I’ll come back to it.

Best non-fiction was probably Nick Bilton’s Hatching Twitter. It’s not good in the same way Pulphead was last year, the words themselves aren’t thrilling and there’s not much pattern or structure to the writing… but it’s such a great story , with terrific access that even – especially – when so plainly told, it’s fascinating. I liked it particularly because it runs counter to the dominant business myth of our time: that of the single genius CEO. It’s often argued that the best way for a Jobs, Zuckerberg to succeed is for them to have total control to execute their conceived vision. Twitter is the opposite; a group of founders each with their own perspective and pull, none of whom can really agree what they’re working on is, and so Twitter, this genuinely new thing, arises not from consensus and singularity but from tension and debate. It’s all the funnier that this happens while one of the group attempts to sell the press a Jobs-like narrative about how Twitter came to be. Hatching Twitter reminded me of band autobiographies, particularly the tension of classic songwriting partnerships like Lennon and McCartney.

Anyway, I’d take the pace and verbatim insight of Hatching Twitter over the worthier George Packer take on America’s unwinding or the grim reading of Putin’s Russia provided by Ben Judah; the latter has plenty to recommend it though, particularly if you’re interested in Russia. Be prepared for bleakness, particularly in the second half where the author travels through the country and meets ‘werewolves in uniform’, villages sinking in the mud and corruption on a epic scale.

Two great novels this year; Zadie Smith’s NW and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. The Goldfinch, Victorian in size, scope and its tale of an orphan finding his way in the world with a stolen painting, is more enjoyable – the writing as sharp and purely beautiful as polar icicles, but at the end it all melts away. It seems impossible to comprehend but after 900 pages, there’s nothing left. It’s a magic trick of a book, impossibly deft and involving while it’s going on, but so thoroughly resolved by the end that you can close the last page and walk right away from it. It ends, and it ends. There is no echo. No danger of that with NW; it reminded me of In Utero, that sense you have that you’re seeing a creator flaying themselves, asking what the art, the fame, the platform of creativity is for. But it’s just so beautifully done, economical, lean, wise and really compelling. Feels true and substantial, like it really catches people and makes you interested in them.

A final recommendation, some poetry; Alice Oswald’s Memorial. Staggering and savage, it’s a retelling of The Iliad where she goes through the death of every man the original mentions, telling the story. It is as sombre as it sounds, but the power of the words takes as firm a hold of grief and sorrow as anything I have ever read:

Then Socus who was running by now
Felt the rude punch of a spear in his back
Push through his heart and out the other side poor Socus
Trying to get away from his own ending
Ran out his last moments in fear of the next ones

Like winter rivers pouring off the mountains
The thud of water losing consciousness
When it falls down from the high places
Mixing its streams in the havoc of a valley
And far away a shepherd hears it

Full list of books below.

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The best books I read in 2012

A walk, a train ride and another walk; the office to home, the home to the office. It’s a thin but strong thread, past hotels and theatres, schools and council houses. This evening, past a Japanese couple, silk and suit, flowing seamlessly from a Mercedes to the Opera House, and a bundle of sleeping bags in a Post Office doorway and an EMT huddled against the window of an ambulance, waiting with coffee and paper in hand. I only notice these few, because I have a train to catch and only 19 minutes to get desk to platform, and 10 minutes the other side, platform to kitchen.

Every now and then in London, you catch yourself, suddenly aware of the volume of people. All sense of it: noise and mass, an endless surge. You can stand back from the tube platform and watch train after train sweep people in and sweep people out, and endless flow. They are almost never empty. If you’ve ever got on the tube and wondered who are these people, where do they come from and why they’re wearing their expressions, then Craig Taylor’s book Londoners is perfect – it feels like you’re peeking inside the millions who pass you every day, as it’s a series of interviews with a wide range of people linked to the city, brilliantly paced, arranged and edited. It starts and ends with a pilot, talking about the descent and ascent from Heathrow, and in between are, it seems, all the multitudes who share the streets, all talking about who they are.

It’s a testament to how good a year in reading 2012 was that such a great book wasn’t the best thing I read. In short, 2012 was probably my best year in books since I started tracking what I was reading on this blog in 2007: I gave seven of this year’s choices five stars. Of course, I don’t really write full reviews and scoring books seems pointless, so really five stars is just a shorthand for “books I will buy over and over as presents, apologies, reminders and inspiration.”

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Year in Reading, 2012 (second half)

Thanks to work, I spent the second half of the year with even more and ever better reading devices than ever before – iPhone 5, retina iPad, Kindles of many stripe – but the list of books read is as slender as it’s been since I started tracking it. While I’ve been really enjoying saving stuff from the web to Pocket and reading them at my leisure, the real cause in the drop was a conscious effort to learn more for work. I spent a lot of time in the autumn reading business tomes, product management manifestos and UX volumes, often picking chapters, so it just didn’t seem right recording them here. Below, then, is just the fun stuff.

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On Pulphead, the best book I’ve read so far this year

‘It took me several months to make it back, and he grew annoyed. When I finally let myself in through the front door, he didn’t get up from his chair. His form sagged so exaggeratedly into the sofa, it was as if thieves had crept through and stolen his bones and left him there. He gestured at the smoky stone fireplace with its enormous black andirons and said, “Boy, I’m sorry the wood’s so poor. I had no idea I’d be alive in November.”’

That’s a stellar paragraph I clipped from Pulphead, the widely praised collection of essays by US journalist John Jeremiah Sullivan. The essay in question – Mr Lytle – can be read in full on the Paris Review website. I’ve still not finished the book itself, but it’s really terrific, each essay a well crafted story with sentences that confound the reader in the best possible ways. Recommended.

Year in reading, 2012 (first half)

One of the few regular things I’ve done regularly on this blog is tracking books I’ve read; I started the year off  by defecting to Pinterest, but got nowhere with it. Something about that layout. For all that people make out Pinterest is a site for curating and collecting, it’s really a shop, isn’t it? Showing all these book covers makes it seem more like the 3-for-2 tables at Waterstones than a library…

So, here I am, back on the blog. After the jump, books from the first half of the year, summary verdicts and mistake filled summaries.

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Some thoughts on the books I read last year

Yes, yes, I’m only getting round to this now. I was going to leave it, but then I was chatting with the Canadienne about The Lighthouse, a strange, light and surprisingly strong Icelandic novel I read in 2011 and I suddenly realised I had a few things to say.

Maybe I was tired at the end of the year; I had travelled a long away, after all. And maybe I was looking forward to the new year.

Just now I’ve written up my notes on the books I read in 2011. 26 books, which is pretty much the average number I get through; a higher number of non-finishes than usual, which included being extremely disappointed by William Gibson’s woeful Zero History. One thing that tracking the what I’ve read has done is make me aware that I should be more judicious of how few books I read – 26 or so a year isn’t a lot, especially when I can easily add one or two a week to my Amazon wishlist.

That said, 2011 had some real highlights, books that even on a quick scroll through the list really light up some fond memories: Edward St. Aubyn’s Some Hope trilogy was incredible, so compelling that the moment I finished it, I grabbed my coat and went looking for a bookstore to buy the sequel.

In A Strange Room by Damon Galgut was equally transcendant. The writing has the beauty of a cold, clear winter day – unflinching, technically marvellous – but there’s a tremendous empathy in it, which is often missing from literary fiction. The coldness is all on the outside of this one; the deeper you go, the softer and more human it gets.

We all romanticize our youth

INTERVIEWER

What about Joseph Conrad?

MITCHELL

His story “Youth” has this beautiful passage about your first landfall in Asia and how it haunts you for the rest of your life—everything is downhill afterward. There’s something of that in the end of Thousand Autumns. We all romanticize our youth, but when East Asia is intertwined with youth, the wistfulness and the sense of loss are amplified—for reasons which Edward Said might have scorned, and who knows, maybe justifiably. But Conrad wasn’t lying about what he felt, and neither am I, so perhaps we just have to take the flak.

Paris Review interview with David Mitchell. Well worth exploring the interview archive and adding a few to Instapaper.

The best book I read last year was The Odyssey

2010 was often a rotten year, both in books and out of books. Not that I am blaming the books you understand. If anything, there was comfort to be taken from the fact the pages did not misunderstand me by being full of sweetness and light.

Instead the books I read were often frustrating, full of let downs and wrong turns, the promises made on the first page escaping, slipping away, as if through the holes in the letters. There were books written by people failing to get their great ideas onto the page — or read by a reader who failed to get them off the page, the ink too dry and brittle to make a mark. The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris certainly falls into this category, as does Tyler Cowen’s The Age of the Infovore. Both are intelligent, curious books which I just didn’t connect with.

There were books that just didn’t pan out in the way I wanted. It’s too easy for new novels to get to a certain status on little more than fumes. Have a link between author and topic that’s easy to summarise, strengthen with topicality and a certain obviousness and you’re away. That’s certainly how I felt about The Reluctant Fundamentalist, an easily blurbable book thanks to its concept and direct opening, which sees the fundamentalist of the title beginning an unctuous monologue with an impassive listener in a cafe in Lahore. Said listener is an American capitalist pigdog, easy in his skin, silent with his Amex and keys to the world. The narrator quickly becomes deeply irritating, the plot is full of soft contrivances. The result is a book which lacks the confidence to indict either the American or the Fundamentalist, never getting up the guts to really howl, or to get as dark and difficult as the subject demands.

Laura Cumming’s book on self-portraits, on the other hand – A Face To The World – absolutely has the courage of its convictions, and it’s impossible not to connect to them. It’s a series of luminous essays giving a close-reading to a wide range of images, its thematic chapters sweeping with an easy grace through over five hundred years of art history, but never forgetting to bring you up close to the pictures. You finish the book feeling as though you’ve not only seen the self-portraits, but are so convinced by the psychological insight of the writing, you’ve become the blank canvas sat before the painter, looking at him while he paints.

The Lost City of Z was terrific too, a book about a dangerous journey into the Amazon by the last of the lunatic Victorian gentleman explorers – the kind of gent who considered a well-waxed mustache and a sense of God-given grace was sufficient protection against one of the world’s most hostile environments. I bought myself a copy, and then one for a friend, and then one for my brother and I’ll keep on buying it.

I enjoyed The Leopard, particularly after watching a BBC 4 documentary about it. It’s one book where I think a good Google before, and during, reading, really helps. David Mitchell continued to be the contemporary author I find most in tune with what I want from literature; The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was great. Colonialism. Capitalism. Japan. Lost love. Ninjas.

But the best thing I read this year was The Odyssey. Not much of a recommendation, really, because not a single person will likely read it as a result. I mean, it’s The Odyssey. No-one actually reads The Odyssey any more. There’s no link between the author and the text, no link between the story and the world now, no momentum at all. It’s like the giant stone fragments of the Pharoahs in the British Museum: it’s amazing that they’ve survived, but they’re not the kind of thing you want in your lounge. They’re just not relevant.

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Added to the wishlist: How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One

[Book] Via a review that’s interesting in and of itself, in the FT:

“Fish is a sentence connoisseur who describes his enthusiasm as akin to a sports fan’s love of highlights, and relishes the craft… [The book shows] the form and rhythm of sentences communicates as much meaning as their factual content, whether we’re conscious of it or not. In 1863, when General Grant took the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, the last hindrance to free passage of Union supplies along the river, President Lincoln wrote in a letter to be read at a public meeting: ‘The father of waters again goes unvexed to the sea.’ It’s a poem of a sentence, ‘The father of waters’ and ‘unvexed to the sea’ perfectly balanced on the unexpected pivot of ‘again goes’ rather than ‘goes again’, and all in the service of a metaphor that figures the Union as an inevitable force and the Confederacy as a blight on nature, without mentioning either.”

How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One

Books I’ve Read, 2011

Previously:

Kicking this year off with a selection from The Big Book of Dick(TM), a birthday present from a friend with an equally tawdry/literary sensibility. I’ve never never actually read any Philip K. Dick before, so looking forward to it. As before, this post will be updated throughout the year with brief impressions of the books and a slightly less than arbitrary star rating.

6th Jan – 24th Jan. The Man In The High Castle, Philip K. Dick. Took a while for me to get into it; more me than the book, I think, but once done, its takeover of my imagination was total. The completeness of its world is amazing: unlike a lot of “what if” fiction, it’s air tight. There’s no leaking in of our world – the characters are completely part of the nightmare. The scene in the hotel – jagged, missing half the obvious words, but packing in such extremes of feeling – held me completely.

25th Jan – 2nd Feb. Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. The story of an incredible achievement, a American mountaineer single-handedly creating an NGO dedicated to building schools for girls in remote areas in Northern Pakistan and Afghanistan. His approach – hands-on, building trust with locals – yields terrific results, and so as a book, despite being overlong and the writing lacking a certain something, it’s moving, heart-warming and important. Worth looking at the website for more, particularly this interview with Mortenson [PDF].

3rd Feb – 14th Feb. Cadence & Slang, Nick Disabato. A beautifully produced book about interaction design, interfaces and the feel of digital products. As a newcomer to the field, I found it incredibly useful. It’s full of practical advice, delivered in a straightforward manner. This does mean it’s not the most fun book to read – it’s didactic, split out into very short sections and gets straight to the point. In some ways, I think it would have benefited from a little more poetry to both the writing and its approach; on the other hand, I can see that this may well have ruined it, diluting the advice – which is applicable to a wide range of people and situations – and making it too idiosyncratic.

15th Feb – 21st Feb. A Grief Observed, CS Lewis. I read Joan Didion’s Year Of Magical Thinking last year and couldn’t get into it; similarly with Lewis’ meditation on loss. It’s written in a way that’s plain and elegant, and which clearly narrates the author’s attempts to come to terms with his bereavement. But again, it just wasn’t what I was looking for.

21st Feb – 26th Feb. In A Strange Room, Damon Galgut. A terrific book; three stories, sharing a similar theme — travel — written in a way that’s spare and beautiful. Sounds very literary, but what makes it emotionally successful is it’s just so empathetic in a straightforward, direct way. Only connect; this one does.

27th Feb – 3rd March. Smart & Gets Things Done, Joel Spolsky. Short, sharp and full of good advice about hiring developers.

4th March – 30th March. The Lost Books Of The Odyssey, Zachary Mason. Retellings of the Odyssey – alternate endings, different takes – some of which are just fragments. Fascinating, inspiring that it got into print, and parts of it are just deliciously clever – the chess story in particularly – that you can’t help smiling in pure delight.

31st March – 13th April. A Distant Neighborhood, vols 1 & 2, Jiro Taniguchi. Japanese Manga about a 48 year old salaryman who is thrown back in time to his 14 year old self, months before his father mysteriously disappears. I love time travel stories, and while this was melodramatic in places, its mostly simple, effective and affecting.

14th April – 1st May. Designing for the iPad, Chris Stevens. Written by the designer of Alice for the iPad, there are some good practical lessons here, although if you’ve done a lot of reading in the field, some of it will be preaching to the converted.

24th – 28th April. Elements of Content Strategy, Erin Kissane. Good overview of the field, but it would have really benefited from more specific examples – particularly as CS is so nascent.

1st May – 4th May. Cobra’s Heart, Ryszard Kapuscinski. Short selection of his writings on Africa; a bit random and lacking in context but then it’s a tiny volume. I’d be interested in reading The Shadow of the Sun, which is the full book they come from.

4th May – 12th May. Just Kids, Patti Smith. Terrific ramble through 70s NYC as Smith and the photographer Robert Mappelthorpe find their way in life and art. Avoids too much name-dropping and it’s a curious blend of the lyrical and the naive which keeps it fresh and intriguing. Throughout, there’s a tremendous and constant faith on both their parts in ‘the work’, which is inspiring.

13th May – 17th May. Some Hope trilogy, Edward St Aubyn. You just have to read this. It sounds so dislikeable and dismissible – posh English people being horrid to each other. Rah rah rah. But it is at the end just devastatingly beautiful and sad in such a rich, full emotional way. It’s funny and vertiginously daring, thrilling stomach churning about the heroin and addiction and beautifully patterned – these ripples, patterns repetitions – phrases, situations – echo down through the characters. Stunningly good.

18th May – 8th June. In The Plex, Steven Levy. Better than his iPod book which I read previously, this offers a terrific insight into Google. The interviews and direct quotes are its strong points; the context, less so, as it’s hopelessly one-sided.

9th June – 18th June. Mother’s Milk, Edward St Aubyn. The problem of high standards – it’s basically not as good as the Trilogy, and while it’s full of fine writing, that fall from grace rankles. There’s not enough Patrick, it’s too psychological and Freudian – and Eleanor is too passive, plus there’s too little continuation of the older characters. Iraq war stuff feels awkward. It only really takes flight when Patrick is allowed to riff on Seamus.

19th June – 9th July. The Good German, Jospeh Kanon. Enjoyable, pacy thriller set in Berlin, 1945. The setting is the strongest point as the desperate city is really brought to life. At its best it’s like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy. More action packed and flabbier though, it could do with honing in areas.

10th – 13th July. Miracles of Life, JG Ballard. Brief and mostly flat; Ballard lacks the interest in nostalgia required for a successful autobiography. There’s no sense of the sadness of time passing and no sense of character. That said, it’s clearly an incredible story, and I left Miracles feeling perhaps I just haven’t found the right Ballard book – I want to like him, because there’s something deeply admirable about him and his approach.

14th July – 6th August. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera. DNF. On a line by line basis, it’s very finely written. I found myself folding the corners of pages over to remember passages, but I found the book itself dragging. I didn’t connect with the main characters and their dilemmas. Each time I closed the book, it was easier and easier not to pick it up again.

7th August – 17th August. How to be a Woman, Caitlin Moran. She’s one of my favourite columnists, and a woman who single handedly makes the Times worth reading. No surprises that her book is possessed of the same blend of wisdom and surreal anarchy that she brings to the columns, and the chapter on abortion is particularly moving. I would have preferred more about her, I think – the most enjoyable parts are more personal than her journalism, and her own stories give it more depth.

18 – 27th August. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood. Curiously, everyone I mentioned this book to had a similar reaction: a sort of eye-rolling ‘yeah, read that in school’ dismissal. It’s a shame to be so closed minded about it, because coming to the book fresh, it didn’t seem dated or overly bombastic. Obviously, authoritarian dystopias all live in the shadow of 1984, but I felt The Handmaid’s Tale made a strong case for itself, and still does, as a book with an independent vision. I really liked the framing device too – the end skips forward several hundred years, and creates some interesting ripples going back through the text.

28th August – 1st September. Alchemy of Stone, Ekaterina Sedia. DNF. It’s rubbish; there’s just no sense of drama to the lifeless proceedings at all.

1st September – 27th September. The Little Book of Economics book, Greg Ip. Lots of American examples, but it’s a pretty good primer for understanding The Economist, which is itself a decent recommendation. 

28th September – 3rd October. The Cello Suites, Eric Siblin. Fascinating book about the the rise to prominence of Bach’s austere, beautiful and mysterious cello suites. Beautifully written, evocative and well told, it’s an ideal intro to the music. 

4th October – 16th October. The Bicycle Book, Bella Bathurst. That rare and wonderful thing; an overview of a topic that’s deeply knowledgable but with a lightness to its curiosity.

17th October – 21st November. 1Q84, Books 1 & 2, Haruki Murakami. In parts you worry it’s deeply terrible but just a page or two later and it’s irredeemably wonderful. Combines the bizarre and the mundane in a compelling and convincing way. Utterly unique and brilliant. The ideas shine through; an alternate place, doppelgängers, love and things not being right. 

21st November – 27th November. 1Q84 Book 3, Haruki Murakami. In parts it really drags; some will argue it doesn’t need to be this long but then it’s a novel, and if it’s a good one, it has its own logic, determines its own needs. This one certainly does; beautiful ending, it might be predicatable but it’s really earned it, and some beautiful writing too. Unique. 

28th November – 11th December. Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson. Disappointing. Of course, it’s full of great stories, but there’s very little analysis, or sense of understanding about the why and the how. 

12th December – 24th December. The Greenhouse, Audur Ava Olafsdottir. Strange, slim, light and yet strong enough to really pull you through its pages.

24th December – 28th December. Zero History, William Gibson DNF. Yikes, this was truly terrible – and yet the writing is so technically beautiful, but with so little to say. The story is meaningless (a marketing agency hunts for someone who designs jeans), the plotting lazy, and the characters empty. Whereas Gibson once created worlds where you never knew where you were, and always felt in challenged and threatened, here you get to watch a few idle rich kids travel the world in search of nothing at all. It’s hard to discern anyone’s motivation, harder still to share it – Gibson himself only seems enagaged when delivering parapgraphs of description or discussion about the conflation of military and casual clothing design. What makes it all the more heartbreaking is that there is brilliance here – the absences of characters taken away by screens, the strange loneliness of cites – but that instead of creating, he, like the marketing firms he writes about, is content to package up a little technical and otaku knowledge and sell it back to the dumb literati who shower him with plaudits. Woeful.