A Year in Books, 2020

One of the many things the pandemic dislocated is the start and the end of the year. What even were January and February 2020? A forgotten prelude, unconnected to the real 2020, which began when we went home from the office in March. When the shops and the schools closed shortly after. When the sun started shining. And when did it end and begin again? Not at Christmas, because straight afterwards, the schools and the shops closed again. Perhaps it ended a few weeks back, with my first vaccination, a moment of grace in the gloved hands of a nurse, followed by 24 hours of lethargy, jetlag head, and the dull ache of societal grief washing through my bones. 

Maybe the end is roundabout now, a year and a bit after we went home, a year after I wrote in an email:

The weather is cold, a sharp Spring cold. The schools have only been closed a week, somehow. I found spaghetti, rice and a small can of baking powder yesterday and it doesn’t feel odd to record that. How is it still March? All of life has been blown away. 

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A Year in Books, 2019

A New Decade / The Radio Plays the Sounds we Made

I read more books than usual this year, the average quality level was higher and there are two or three that I would press in to your hand right now. It was altogether, the most enjoyable year in reading for a while. What I took from this is a good reminder that beneficial effects are often linked – more and better, faster and together, quality and quantity. This is frustrating when you’re focussed on change, because it’s easier (and more desirable) to be able to isolate single pieces of the system and operate on those, and it’s more pleasant to believe that operating on isolated parts of the system can drive holistic change – more pleasant because that’s clearly easier than the alternative, which is to accept that changing systems requires a look at the multiple interrelated pieces that comprise the whole.

How to read more books
Counter-intuitively though, it can sometimes be straightforward to jumpstart some level of change with a small, meaningful action. In this case, for me, it was just to really focus on reading over the summer, and to shorten the time between buying and reading a book. Over the last few years, I’ve bought books by building an order from end-of-year “best of” lists, and then buying a large number from Amazon, in order to have good choices of books on hand the moment I finish one. The difficulty is that culture goes cold, that is to say, something bought in December can look less interesting in March. Throughout last year, I consciously shortened the distance between buying and reading, which meant I got to Jia Tolentino’s excellent Trick Mirror, Paul Kingsnorth’s Savage Gods and Max Porter’s Lanny quickly. All three are worth your time.

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A Year in Books, 2018

I used to look for patterns in the books I read, as though each book was itself a chapter in another book, one that would tell the story of the year. But honestly, who would make up the story of last year? Not the news, but my own story, where I had my second son and lost my mother to cancer in the same month.

That being the story — less an arc and more a downpour, less a journey and more an explosion, less a beginning/middle/end and more a big bang and black hole — the books ought to reflect things like faith and fatherhood, or grief and growth. There’s a little bit of that, because there’s a little bit of that in so many stories, but 2018’s reading was really just a jumble of fiction and non-fiction, and I am not sure there is any great lesson in it.

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On Noticing

I’ve been working – or at the very least, sitting at various desks, typing – for about 18 years. Before I had a career, I thought what I would do was write literature, or at the very least, serviceable novels. Then I spent a few years as a technology journalist, and another few as an editor. By the time I was 30 that had plateaued. I’ve worked in Product Management for nearly a decade since then, and I’ve actually been fairly successful. I lead a great team, and the product we work on reaches hundreds of millions of people.

But I’m not sure “Product Management” is really the thing I am good at. For starters, it’s not a specific, single thing, and for seconds, it’s such an early 21st century role that it may well disappear or certainly change radically over the next 20 years, to the point that it won’t make any sense to look back and say “I was good at that,” because that will not be there any more.

So what have I become good at over the course of working for nearly two decades? What skills have I developed?

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On Stone Circles and Building Things


Itis fairly common in England to see small plaques set into the front of older houses with chiselled numbers saying when they were built. 1906, 1871, 1832. In Cartmel, a little village at the southern tip of the Lake District, home of a couple of very good restaurants, there’s a little whitewashed stone cottage, and in black paint above the door, the date of its construction: 1776.

At the same time as the Declaration of Independence was being signed in North America, under the cloudy skies of Northern England, somebody built this small house, putting stone after stone on top of each other to fashion solid, rough walls with their backs to the rising hills.

People still argue over America’s founding ideals; they wonder if those ideals make sense still. The white house in Cartmel still makes perfect sense today. It is lived in, wired up for power, water and wifi and worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. So it functions just as you’d expect any brand new house to function: as a home, as an asset and as a node on the network.

For some reason, I have no photos of this house, even though I can picture it exactly. I remember having this thought, too — about it being built at such an interesting point in history — as we walked past, and I didn’t tweet it. My little interaction with it is gone, but no matter. The next person to go past doesn’t need any written clues from me. They know what the little house is for.

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A Year in Books, 2017

I’ve had trouble sorting out what I read last year. The books themselves aren’t sorted. We moved in November – so they’re still all piled up in the corners of the house, like snowdrifts. Paperbacks I’ve not seen for a decade or more are sitting right at eye level, while my copy of one of the best things I read in the last few months, Lincoln in the Bardo, has disappeared without trace.

So I’ve only got the list I made to tell me what I read, and it strikes me as completely all over the place. If anything the list itself is an output – a trial of four ways of discovering things to read:

  1. Podcasts & social media recommendations.
  2. Big new releases, often reviewed or talked about in traditional media.
  3. Things about current trends.
  4. Stuff that “found me” – presents and books I’d bought months or years previously and that sat around until some moment caused me to start them.

Each of them generated one really good recommendation and lots of duds. The good ones were good in different ways; the bad ones, too.

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Hanging Around

On the occasion of the Rolling Stones’ 30 year anniversary, a journalist asked laconic drummer Charlie Watts, “what had it been like to spend three decades working with the band?”

“Five years of hard work,” he replied. “And 25 years of hangin’ around.”

Now Charlie Watts put the slink into Sympathy for the Devil and the pop into Satisfaction, so you can forgive a man a lot of hanging around when that’s what happens when he’s working. But if, in your next monthly catch up with your manager you announced you’d replicated this productivity ratio in the office – five days of hard work, 25 spent “hangin’ around” – you would likely be facing some tough questions. For all that digital leaders talk about outcomes not output, there is an invisible standard, a sort of “I know it when I see it” quality to what counts as being productive.

Most of us have internalised the fact there is no time for hanging around. Most productivity methods – Agile, Getting Things Done, Bullet Journals – have their things to say about “value” and “focus”, but the answers, the process, and the meat of what they’re about is basically throughput.

Make a list. Process it in some way, into categories. Get through it. Put a lot of ticks next to a lot of things.

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A Year in Books, 2016


Early in the summer last year, we went on holiday to the south of France. The lanes around the house smelled of lavender and olives. We ate outside on the veranda, looking out over wooded hills, the day’s dry heat like smoke in the air.

There was a swimming pool, a neat Topaz jewel, the same bright blue colour as the sky. Sadly my toddler son decided to hate it – he would sit on the edge and kick his little pink legs to paddle but if he got in deeper than his waist he would scream and cry in rage.

A few weeks later, at the end of the summer, in a hotel in Scotland, the same boy was very different. Again and again, he sat on the lip of the edge of the pool, grinning and bouncing, before pushing himself to fall toward, into the water and into my arms. Something had changed, and he was ready for the world. Now we try and go swimming every other weekend to the local pool. The first time we went, as we got changed, I took off my watch  and my shoes and my socks and I remembered how when my father took my brother and I swimming as kids, he used to push his watch into one of the shoes before putting them into the locker. The carefulness of that action came back so strongly, even though I never knew I remembered it.

This year’s best books weren’t about character, but about the context of the past.

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A year in books, 2015

I always seem to read the same number of books a year.
A lot of things change, but not this. I’ve been recording it for ten years or so, and it’s always 24 or 25. It’s not one every two weeks; I cram at Christmas and in the summer. Maybe now my body just knows that’s the target, and I just lean towards it.

This year was a character study.
Of myself and my son, who turned one right at the end. “Everything is a phase,” someone told me. I watch my son, and even though he’s tiny, there are already things he has done only for a little while that he’s now doing for the last time. Crawling doesn’t last long. All of this makes you think about yourself, too. What are you doing for the last time this week, or the first time right now?

So I think I was drawn to books about people. I read the first two volumes of Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson biography. The first one starts by talking about Texas soil in 1800, and how it made people poor, even the dreamers. The point is how the Johnson family’s decisions had been shaped in all the years leading up to him being born. It makes you think of yourself like the sea, and all the rivers of choices and ideas that have been poured into you. There’s such a completeness to the Caro’s imagining of him that he’s written less a book and more Frankenstein’s monster, the full creation of a human being using only ink and paper.

The second volume is even better. It’s about one election, gangsters and lawyers versus cowboys and rangers, money versus myths. It finishes and you think it was Johnson that ended the Wild West.

You can make people up
The best character this year was an Opium Dealer in River of Smoke. It’s the second of a trilogy looking at the Opium trade in the 1800s. Bahram Modi is an Indian climbing through society on the back of a terrible trade; and he knows he deals in misery but he cannot reconcile it with the pleasure and power of what he can see with his own eyes. It’s about the difficulty of understanding the system you’re in, about how the world is always too wide to take in.

It’s hard to write about work.
The absence of work from 20th, 21st century art is really surprising. It’s a lot of life. And it’s huge for the Victorians — Dickens and Trollope. Even Austen, she’s writing about what is it that people do all day to get by? Perhaps it gets harder to write about the more digital and the less tangible it becomes. I read a couple of books about Apple and they were not memorable. All Day Long is a series of vignettes talking to people about their jobs, and there are some nice conceits (the maker of ballet pumps, followed by the dancer), but it feels unrealised by the end. Kim Gordon’s good on her life’s work. There are these bursts of anger. You finish it and think about naming your children after her.

One of these days Joshua Ferris will do something completely fantastic. To Rise at a Decent Hour has an excellent opening, lot of sharp lines, dull in the middle and a good final third until he completely blows it with the ending. I suspect one of these days he will write something truly excellent though.I re-read Neuromancer and maybe that could be said to be a great novel about the hold of work on someone. Murky, intense, psychedelic, fragmentary and entirely powered by its own magic.

If a book is good you want to buy it for people.
I bought Station Eleven a few times. There’s something unusually delicate about its approach to the apocalypse. It reminds you of how one dimensional things like The Walking Dead — with their relentless nihilism and cruelty — are. Melancholy and moving, yet fast and involving.

How do you take yourself seriously?
It’s a harder question than you might think. I wonder if people said it to Miranda July. She does so much — art, films, and a novel — and yet she is really serious about each. The First Bad Man feels like a new, different way of doing literary fiction. The whole thing could be an allegory — and yet July feels all in on it, total commitment to a story of love and motherhood and fantasy that never self censors. Loved it.

In full, the year’s reading:

  1. 10th — 22nd Jan. Complete Short Stories, Flannery O’Connor. The best are excellent; bitter and tough, full of pride mercilessly observed. There’s a narrow focus to them that’s a strength and a limitation.
  2. 22nd Jan — 9th Feb. The Man With The Compound Eyes, Wu Ming-Yi. DNF. Tedious Eco tale interweaving the horrors of a giant trash island with Pacific island folklore; squanders these interesting ideas on flat characters and a story that loses narrative tension and interest with every turn of the page.
  3. 10th Jan — 13th Feb. Neuromancer, William Gibson. A rare re-read and well worth it. Murky, intense, psychedelic, fragmentary and entirely powered by its own magic.
  4. 15th Feb — 22nd Fev. Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel. Finished this at just gone midnight after a solid two hour power to the end. A lovely rhythm to it; there’s something unusually delicate about its approach to the apocalypse. It reminds you of how one dimensional things like The Walkng Dead — with their relentless nihilism and cruelty — are. Melancholy and moving, yet fast and involving.
  5. 23rd Feb — 3rd March. The Sculptor, Scott Macleoud. Beautifully executed if overly conventional story of a lost artist saved by love.
  6. 3rd — 19th March. Poetry Notebook 2006–2014, Clive James.
  7. 24th — 30th March. Becoming Steve Jobs, Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli. Fluid, compelling and convincing portrait of the Apple CEO.
  8. 20th March — 4th April. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Joshua Ferris. Excellent opening. Lot of sharp lines. Pretty dull in the middle. Very good final third until he completely blows it with the ending. I suspect one of these days he will write something truly excellent though.
  9. 5th April — 17th April. Girl In A Band, Kim Gordon. It’s great; slim chapters, bursts of anger, beautiful descriptions of playing in Sonic Youth and some really funny lines.
  10. 21st April — 10th May. The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro. Creepy and strange story of the deep past; pulls off the fable thing fairly well (better than harvest for instance).
  11. 20th May — 26th May. The First Bad Man, Miranda July. Genuinely great. Compelling, terrifying, funny, sweet and very rude, it also feels like a new, different way of doing literary fiction. The whole thing could be an allegory — and yet July feels all in on it, total commitment to a story of love and motherhood and fantasy that earns its happiness and hope, never self censors and avoids being dull, sub-Kafkaish. Loved it.
  12. 27th May — 5th June. A classless society: Britiain in the 90s, Alwyn Turner. Flat and turgid; far too much focus on every last detail of Major’s bumbling regime, with little to say about the more interesting cultural trends.
  13. 5th — 19th June. Sea of Poppies, Amitav Ghosh. A stadium rock book. Unashamedly big, epic and pacy. Never threatens to surprise you but it fascinates with a very polished blend of detail and drama. Bring on the next one!
  14. 19th June — 1st October. Lyndon Johnson, Path to Power. Less a book and more a paperback Frankenstein’s monster, the full creation of a human being using only ink and paper. Quite incredible.
  15. 31st July — 10th August. A Shepherd’s Life, James Rebanks. Likeable vignettes of rural life in the Lakes.
  16. 12th August — 10th September. The Lies of Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch. Nicely realised world and when the plot finally gets going the stakes are high and it’s compelling — but the author never quite figures out if the central character is a rogue or hero or what he wants the reader to think. There’s a lack of emotional control that robs the plot of significance — how much can you care about all of this when it veers between picaresque and tragedy in 20 pages?
  17. 10th — 24th September. All Day Long, Joanna Biggs. Interesting series of vignettes where the author interviews people about work. Some of the stories are affecting and full of lively detail, but overall the patchwork effect doesn’t coalesce into anything greater or stronger. An eloquent final few pages on the future work, framed by a visit by the author to her old school, hints frustratingly at something bolder, more cohesive — and unrealised.
  18. 25th September — 19th October. Jony Ive, Leander Kahney. Workaday Apple bio. The odd new bit around the process but nothing substantial.
  19. 24th September — 25th October. All The Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr. Compelling WW2 story that threads together the fates of multiple characters over short, lusciously written chapters. There’s something of the blockbuster about it — it’s polished, professional and a little bit too sweeping — that means it feels less emotionally engaging than it should.
  20. 26th October — 5th December. River of Smoke, Amitav Gosh. Second in the trilogy, and home to my favourite character of the year, the flawed, ambitious, wealthy and inquisitive Opium dealer Bahram Modi. Too many of the other characters, especially the supporting cast, don’t distinguish themselves, and the book’s second strand — set of letters — is flat and slack. But Bahram lifts it above history to the realm of beauty.
  21. 21st October — 12th December. Means of Ascent, Robert Caro. Absolutely brilliant; whereas the first volume ranges far and wide, this is really focused around a single compelling story — the 1948 senate election. Two compelling main characters in Johnson and his opponent, Coke Stevenson are joined by a superb supporting cast featuring Mexican gangsters, Texas Rangers, wily lawyers. The book is beautifully constructed, making it clear just how titanic the opposing forces were. In a sense, the election was America as it wants to think of itself — the stoic heroism of the frontier and the myth of the West, facing off against unbridled capitalism, ambition and the unchecked forces of market progress. Stellar.
  22. 12th Dec — 28th Dec. The Loney, Andrew Michael Hurley. One of the very few books where the last page really, really matters. What comes before is uneasy and damp, strange and intense. When those last few pages unfurl it takes a deep breath and soars into much more ambitious territory, grander and more macabre.
  23. 12th Dec — 20th Dec. The Song Machine, John Seabrook. Enjoyable and well researched look at the intensive way modern songs are assembled — a bit like formula 1 cars, endlessly tuned and built to a tight spec.
  24. 28th Dec. Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. Two of the lessons are beautiful and brilliant.

A year in books, 2014

2014 was a year of commitment. I married, and had a child. I began a new job in earnest. And it made no difference, in one way, to the reading – I got through 25 books or so, mostly on the train in the morning, a few over the summer on holiday, a few in the evenings before bed. A mix of fiction and non, some graphic novels. Some old, some new.

This is the pace I’ve kept up since I started recording my reading in 2007. And yet of course the year imprints itself on the reading. Of course the books reflect the life (I don’t find it surprising that the fabulously rich pay consultants to build bespoke libraries in the same way they acquire other tastes).

The thread of commitment runs through these books; if each was a footstep, each would be firmly planted. How so? Any collection of books is, at heart, a collection of wants: Things you want to find. Things you want to learn, stories you want to complete, voices you want to hear. Things you want to have an opinion about.

This year, my wants were mostly places – my wife was pregnant from spring through to the end of the autumn, so I found myself thinking a lot about where I live, and where the baby will live. It is a cliche but of course it’s true: when you’re starting the clock of someone’s life going, you can’t help but think of the world 80 years from now. As you paint the nursery in the summer and wait for winter, through the open window the paint smells float out and the sounds of the world come in. Police sirens, ice cream vans, humble traffic and in the distance the river. These sounds are coming closer. What is it like, this place?

I wanted to read about the world as it is, as it was, as it could be.

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