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.”

So it was with Pulphead and The Art of Thinking Fast and Slow. Pulphead seems to have had a fair bit of success, which is great because it’s not the easiest sell in the world: it’s a book of essays and longform journalism primarily linked by brilliant writing. So far, so dull: superlatives are so weak these days. But if it could be summed up easily, well it wouldn’t have needed a full book. This is writing where none of the words are wasted. A favourite passage:

‘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.”’

Much of what makes Pulphead thrilling is right there: there’s an exaggerated simile about stolen bones that’s high risk, high visibility, like a pirouette – but it’s such a brief flourish, in such a controlled setting, that it’s easy to miss its real purpose. It sets up the speech perfectly, which comes in low and strong, sad and plain. Everything about Pulphead is a pleasure to read.

The Art of Thinking Fast and Slow is not quite as thrilling to read – indeed in places it’s dense and complex – but it is as much a revelation. In it, Nobel prize winning economist and psychologist Daniel Kahneman summarises much of his career and research. It focusses on how little we know of ourselves and our thinking; how easily tricked we are, how easily our perceptions detach from reality. It’s full of incredible examples and gives you a much better understanding of the pitfalls and problems that exist in thinking and understanding. It was really important for me at work; it helped back up many of the processes I wanted to implement when it came to digital product design, something I talked about in some of the presentations I gave last year.

The novels I read, old and new, were the equals of these three though: Graham Greene’s Quiet American was pure pleasure, just as complete and well weighted a literary construction I can imagine.

Hillary Mantel’s brand new Booker winner, Bring Up The Bodies, deserved its praise and deserves to outlast our current fascination with the Tudors. Its first chapter is incredible; I would have been jealous of how good it was, had I not enjoyed it so much. It’s a dark and claustrophobic book though, as bleak as the midwinter weeks in which I read it.

Londoners is non-fiction, but I also read a great book about the other place that has defined my life in 2012: Mordecai Richler’s Montreal-set Barney’s Version. It sees an ageing raconteur looking back on his life; regret and outrage and justifications flow as he writes his story. The final page twist is lovely.

Speaking of the passage of time, Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room handled it really well. It can seem gimmicky to switch the focus of a book from its characters to an object (a house in this case) but it works because the building embodies the hopes of the people far better than they do. It holds a tough mirror to them, outlasting them as it does.

All of the above books are excellent and well worth your time; if I had to pick a favourite I think it would be Pulphead. Perhaps it’s the writer in me, admiring just how much pleasure there is to take from its words, but I don’t think so: it’s just genuinely a really pleasurable read, one that feels light but lands heavy punches.

And while I felt like the number of books I read dipped in the second half of the year, I actually read the same number I usually get through – 27, a book every couple of weeks or so. So much for my attention span getting shorter.

3 thoughts on “The best books I read in 2012

  1. The Quiet American is a long time favourite of mine. The Michael Caine film isn’t a bad adaptation , either. Bought Thinking Fast & Slow a gift for someone at Christmas – may have to pick it up myself.

    If you’re in need of a new novel, I can highly recommend Any Human Heart by William Boyd.

    1. Hey Andy – yes, agreed on all counts. I saw the film straight after reading the book, and it holds up perfectly well. Enjoyed Any Human Heart, I read it earlier in the year, and I thought the TV version of his Restless was pretty good too…

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