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.

Added to the wishlist: On Roads

[Book] Having moved from the North to the Home counties when I was 11, then to York for University, then Norwich, and then London, I grew up on the M1, M6 and A1. Asylum’s lovely review of On Roads meant it headed straight to the wishlist:

“On Roads deals mainly with the motorway era, beginning with the first stretch of the M1, completed in 1959 and the subject of such excitement that it had four press openings… On the M1′s first weekend, “nearly all its overbridges were crowded with sightseers”, and the transport minister, Ernest Marples, sounded a note of Mr Cholmondeley-Warner when he advised that ‘on this magnificent road the speed which can easily be reached is so great that the senses may be numbed and judgement warped’… Moran is equally appealing on the psychology of driving, the ‘terra nulla of the roadside verge’, and motorway service stations with their ‘rich seam of English ordinariness and gone-to-seed glamour.’”

On Roads, by Joe Moran.

A Terrible Beauty

Published in 2000, A Terrible Beauty is defiantly a pre-internet book(1). In under 850 pages (under 775 if you discount the index), it gives the reader a history of the twentieth century’s defining ideas, from Marxism to Nazism, from Feminism to fusion. Not just the ideas, but the people too – Satre, Picasso, Orwell and Janet Leigh and thousands more. In the words of its own subtitle, it is a history of ‘the people and ideas that shaped the modern mind.’ The idea of any book – any mere bundle of paper – attempting to do that thing now would seem weirdly futile.

Yet it’s the reason why this is the case, the one that’s on the tip of your tongue – yes, Wikipedia – that reading A Terrible Beauty brings to mind. The book is divided into four parts, and within these, 42 themed chapters. They are roughly chronological, but if a later development, discovery or idea fits a theme, it will be mentioned ahead of time, giving a beautiful sense of the uneven march of history. That said, so far, so traditional narrative. What’s very Wikipediary (!) about the book is that the people mentioned are all picked out in bold type when they first appear, enabling you to zip through the text and start reading when someone’s name catches your eye. Despite the fact it all ties together very well when you’re reading sequentially, it’s startlingly easy to just open the book and start reading. That’s how I first got into it; I was staying at a friend’s house, and it sat on the bedside table in the spare room.

The page I opened it at was 530, with its piece on Germaine Greer, immediately presenting one of Greer’s killer lines:

“Her book, The Female Eunuch, did not neglect women’s economic condition, though only one of its thirty chapters is devoted to work. Rather it drew its force from Greer’s unflinching comparison of the way women, love and marriage are presented in literature, both serious and popular, and in everyday currency, as compared with the way things really are. ‘Freud’, she writes, ‘is the father of psychoanalysis. It had no mother.’”

So it continues, brisk but not hurried, economical without being threadbare:

“Greer is withering in her criticisms of how men are presented as dominant, socially superior, older, richer, and taller than their women (Greer is very tall herself). In what is perhaps her most original contribution, she demolishes love and romance (both given their own chapters) as chimeras, totally divorced (an apt verb) from the much bleaker reality.”

The conclusion to this section has stayed with me since I first read it, a sentence that completely embodies the book’s title:

“As with all true liberation, this view is both bleak and exhilarating.”

It was this line that came to me today as I read two pieces about the future of computing and the internet.

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Added to the wishlist: Lights Out For The Territory

[Book] The tiniest remarks can spark in me the biggest desire to read something. In this case, it was reading through William Gibson’s blog (he’s back at it now his new novel, Zero History, is done*). He’s taking questions:

“From Mean Old Man:
Q Essays. You’re really, really good at those. I read a few of yours a while ago, and was lastingly impressed; Tokyo, watches, one about U2… How do those happen?

A Thank you. It was my first literary form. It was probably your first too. It can happen a number of ways. Ones that involve really expensive free plane tickets (Singapore, Tokyo, say). Ones that involve being asked to consider things I’m peculiarly interested in at the time (the eBay watch one). Ones where I feel honored to have been asked (the centenary of Orwell’s birth) though in some cases I’ve declined out of feeling unworthy. (I declined to write an obituary for Wm. S. Burroughs, but mainly because he was still alive at the time, and believed in magic.) It’s not an activity I actively seek out, much, and if asked (and I’m not asked, that often) I more often decline.

Q And who do you consider to be superior essayists, living or dead, worth reading?
A Orwell comes to mind, of course, but those are classic formal essays. The various parts of something like Iain Sinclair’s Lights Out For The Territory *behave* in some ways like essays, and are brilliant, but do various un-essaylike things as well.”

So welcome to South East London’s biggest pile of unread books, Lights Out For The Territory.

* And in a recursive manner, this is a recommendation that also recommends itself, for like all new Gibson books, I will read Zero History.

Added to the wishlist: The Future History of the Arctic

Speaking of the Geiger counter, here’s Tyler Cowen recommending and quoting from The Future History of the Arctic:

“Svalbard is an integral part of the kingdom of Norway — there are reminders that the archipelago is both something more and something less than that. Russians and Ukrainians live here, some in Longyearbyen, though most are at the Russian settlement at Barentsburg. The girls at the supermarket checkout counter speak Thai. Somewhere in town is an Iranian who came here six years ago and, under the terms of the Spitsbergen Treaty, was able to settle here. If he were to return south to the Norwegian mainland, he would almost definitely be forced to leave the country, his asylum claims having been refused.”