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.

  1. 2nd Jan -23rd Jan. Cross-Stitch, Diana Gabaldon. Romance, time-travel… it’s a good mix, but it felt overlong and drifted into “plot not story”, where you just have lots of stuff happening for no real reason. Heroine is a bit too passive for me.
  2. 24th Jan – 3rd Feb. Goodbye To Berlin, Christopher Isherwood. His memoir – six, long, linked chapters, on early 1930s Berlin. It’s a slim book, and feels journalistic, so it’s immediate but there’s not much sense of inner life, or his own thoughts. “I am a camera,” he says on the first page. But it’s poignant, especially as it was published in 1939 – the treatment of the Jews, the mention of a ‘concentration camp,’ can’t help make it seem poignant and bleak. But I do suspect that history shines this book up as a mirror, and mean readers can see in it whatever they want to see.
  3. 4th Feb – 28th Feb. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers. Just didn’t connect with this; it’s just busy, full on and while there are moment that works, there’s lots where it’s just spinning the wheels.
  4. 1st March – 9th March Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller. DNF. It’s a historical document now; it might have once been valuable for putting some dirt under the fingernails of stuffy Edwardian literature, but that’s been accomplished. What’s left is a really pretty unforgivably bad book, whether that’s the misogyny, the anti-semitism or just the aimless purple prose.
  5. 10th March – 21st March. NW, Zadie Smith. Really enjoyed this. Reminded me of In Utero, in the way there’s a sense that its a creator flaying themselves. 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.
  6. 22nd March – 5th April. Blind Willow, Woman Sleeping. Haruki Murakami. Who was it who suggested drawing was ‘taking a line for a walk’? Feels like that’s what these are, sketches with lovely moments, but very fragmentary. It’s telling that the best piece is Firefly which is actually an extract from a full novel.
  7. 6th April – 22nd April. Duddy Kravitz, Mordecai Richler. Didn’t grab me in the way that Barney’s Version did, but it’s still an entertaining tale of a wheeler-dealer in Montreal in the 50s.
  8. 23rd April – 14th May. The Passage, Justin Cronin. Terrific post apocalyptic page turner. Absolutely hurls you through the story, and it skilfully combines lots of sections and perspectives. That said, I’m not sure it adds much in the way of meaning to vampires and the end of humanity.
  9. 15th May – 6th June. The Twelve, Justin Cronin. There’s a better, shorter book in here. The sections of the world falling apart are excellent, but the terrifying distopia promised by the blurb is a bunch of shameless cliches with little impact. Too many characters that you struggle to care about.
  10. 22-23rd June. V for Vendetta, Alan Moore and David Lloyd. Amazing, a real classic. Its vision of a postapoaclyptic UK is close to pastiche, but the characters themselves – V, Evey and particularly the government – are terrific, extreme and funny. Distinctive visual style, too. It feels dangerous and new, still.
  11. 24th June – 5th July. East India book. Fascinating history, but the book could have been better.
  12. 6th July – 5th August. Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin, Ben Judah. Good overview of the terrifyingly corrupt Russian regime; repetitious in places, it really comes alive in its 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.
  13. 6th August – 18th August. The Shining Girls, Lauren Beukes. Time travelling serial killer thriller. Less interesting than I’d hoped, with no real layering of stories and the time travel just becoming a really big obstacle for the investigating plucky young journalist to puzzle over. Not much wit and invention.
  14. 19th August. Memorial, Alice Oswald. Stunning “excavation” of the Iliad which strips away the narrative to focus solely on the deaths Homer names. Beautifully written, exquisitely layered, with all the low sad fury true grief demands. Appropriately blank at the end, when all is dust, but, oh, such heartbreak.
  15. 20th – 24th August. World War Z, Max Brooks. Startling and refreshing; the oral history idea is well executed, it’s intriguing to see the ideas play out in a genuinely worldwide setting. Humorous and affecting, it largely (well, apart from the bit about the Queen) steers clear of stereotypes and brings many fresh ideas of its own.
  16. 25th August – 15th September. The Unwinding, George Packer. Starts off well, and Packer can certainly write, in that muscular, American, this-is-serious-journalism way you get from the New Yorker et al. But after halfway, I found it ran out of momentum, or rather, it didn’t begin to escalate and tie together in the way a story should. It continues to unearth new stories, new sidetracks – and fine, that might be what literally happens – but there’s very little sense of it building into anything by the time you reach the end.
  17. 15th Sept – 13th October. Nostromo, Joseph Conrad. DNF. Just could not engage; there’s no real story, just a lot of setup.
  18. 14th October – 27th October. A Visit From The Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan. Light, quick on its feet, quick witted set of subtly linked stories. It is “funny and wise” as the reviews say, but it glides rather than gets its hooks right into you, because its cultural theme is how time sweeps all before it.
  19. 28th October – 1st December. The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt. Fun, engrossing and beautiful – the first half contains truly exceptional writing, the sweep is envolving and the book eats you up. But somewhere along the way the magic fades a little, and by the end, it’s reach for a meaning it cannot sustain. It ends, and it ends. There is no echo.
  20. 2nd December – 29th December. A Tale for The Time Being, Ruth Ozeki. It’s very readable, but like many books with two stories, the fact one is clearly more interesting than the other unbalances it. There’s a lot of stuff happening too, and sometimes the book isn’t light enough on its feet or deep enough in its engagement to utilise it all well.
  21. 23rd December. Hatching Twitter, Nick Bilton. Terrific access, and an incredible story – the current dominant startup myth is that a single founder should be allowed absolute power to execute his singular vision – the total opposite of Twitter, which functioned much more like a band, full of creative tension, and a fundamental disagreement that helped spawn something that is distinctively new.

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