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:
- Podcasts & social media recommendations.
- Big new releases, often reviewed or talked about in traditional media.
- Things about current trends.
- 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.
1. Podcasts & social
How were the good recommendations good? Creative, beautiful, different.
How were the bad recommendations bad? B-sides that aren’t anywhere near as good as the single.
From a podcast, the hit was the lovely As Kingfishers Catch Fire. Ever since Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries, publishers have created a stream of lovingly produced books that set knowledge to a symphonic sense of time. Here, each chapter mixes authorial autobiography, literary criticism and bird biography to give you the story of both a specific bird as a part of nature and as a piece of culture. The writing is clear and compelling and the presentation is stellar – from the endpapers to the bespoke paintings of birds that introduce each chapter – the book is physically a really great artefact. Granted, you’re not going to take it on the tube, but there’s no getting away from the fact there just ought to be more books like this.
2. Big New Releases
How were the good recommendations good? Brilliant, resonant.
How were the bad recommendations bad? Uninteresting, under-inflated once the hype had disipated.
I really did think Lincoln in the Bardo was as good as everyone said. It is a book about an afterlife with a lot of opaque rules and remarkably little regard for conventional structure (hard) – but it is also a book about the divide between the dead and the living, and the tenderness that causes us to hope that one day that gap might close (enveloping). If that tenderness connects – and as someone with a young child, it most definitely did – there is something lovely in its sustained fragility, and the grace of showing a president trying to reach across the void. All the more so for the gap with reality.
3. Current Trends
How were the good recommendations good? Like being able to rewind and re-watch real life in HD, with a smart voice over.
How were the bad recommendations bad? Lacking in urgency.
The more you read about how the world is right now, the more fractal things feel, as if we are living the precise opposite of those conspiracy theories: everything is unconnected, history is random. So reading super-contemporary history to understand the world right is a tenuous bet, but if not understanding then you can at least get clarity. Tim Shipman, Sunday Times Political Editor has two books that are essentially long – very long – newspaper articles retelling what happened in the last few months. All Out War is Stellar stuff on the year of chaos that was 2016 and the Brexit referendum. The sources, particularly on the Tory side, are exceptional and allow for a forensic telling of the campaign from all angles. If you spend a lot of time online then Kill All Normies by Angela Nagle is all killer, no filler. A journey from the edges of online culture to the rotten parts of its core that at times leaving you wanting to wash your eyeballs clean. It brings admirable clarity to a lot of very contemporary debates – meme culture, 4chan, the alt-right, digital fascism, outrage, free speech, no platforming – it is a book that tells you new things about what it is like to live online right now.
4. Things that found me
How were the good recommendations good? Intensely right in the manner of a round block in a round hole.
How were the bad recommendations bad? There aren’t any, just not enough good ones.
Many years ago, a manager had a copy of a James Ellroy novel on his desk, well thumbed – and then one cold day a few years forward from then, but still a few years back from now, on a winter day out in a cathedral city, there was a shed selling second hand books and I bought a huge brick of paper that combined The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz into intense story, that of crime in LA in the 50s. This year I finally read it. The world in it is at once totally monochrome (everyone is compromised, there are no good relationships) and yet on that inch of ivory, there’s all the richness of the whole human heart. Morals, motives and emotions are both primal and deeply nuanced.
It is heavy though; a lot more fun is News of the World by Paulette Jiles. It’s a Western full of great American archetypes (road trip, the frontier, freedom of speech, the way the old shackle the young, excellent descriptions of desert fauna) – but somehow the story of a grizzled Civil War vet taking on one one last job, taking a 10 year old girl recently freed from a year with the Kiowa, and returning her to her white parents – isn’t fake. At it’s heart, it’s real.
And as for poetry, there was Falling Awake, Alice Oswald – I started the year with it – and take this, about dawn, sleeplessness and longing:
4:22 the village is lost in its veils
a few dreams lean over the lanes like
here come cascades of earliness in
which everything is asked is it light
is it light is it light
the horizon making only muffled
answers but moisture on leaves is
quick to throw glances
and bodiless black lace woods in
which one to another a songbird asks
is it light is it light
It is so good, and now I really wish I could find it.
- Falling Awake, Alice Oswald. It really is very beautiful poetry, and useful too, in that its new ways of looking are right there for the taking.
- So Long, See You Tomorrow, William Maxwell. Adultery, a murder and suicide – but all three are really just the background to a subtly evoked moment when the narrator finds himself a stranger to his own actions. As an older man he looks back at his teenage self, and a friendship that takes place against a quintessentially tragic backdrop and finds himself wondering – why didn’t I say something different? Poignant, brief, and just the right side of taciturn.
- Debt: The First 5,000 Years, David Graeber. The kind of book that actually blows your mind – it’s terrific at telling the story of debt, credit and capitalism – but it’s even better at gradually showing how deeply enmeshed in the very language of markets your thinking is. Come for the history of how money came to be, and how it is indivisible from the history of war, taxation, slavery, theft (all in this telling, to some extent, sides of the same coin) and stay for what it tells you about how things are valued. It isn’t perfect – there’s a pretty rushed attempt to write off the medical and technical progress that has come with late capitalism – but it is actual, proper thinking that will make you realise how often economics asks completely the wrong questions, with the wrong language, looking for the wrong answers.
- Hillbilly Elegy, JD Vance. Elegy is a strange choice of title for a book – it implies a certain ghostly type of sadness, a floaty, wistful melancholy – whereas Hillbilly Elegy is energetic, direct and does not fuck around. It is explicit about the questions it asks, and the answers it wants. It explicitly wrestles with the role of individual responsibility, the power of structural economic changes and government policy, and ultimately why people the author knows have made such destructive choices. The final chapters explicitly place the story into a political context and the author has given some compelling interviews further unpacking this. The book has been quite narrowly pegged to current events (“a great insight into Trump and Brexit” says the cover) but it asks broader questions than that.
- All That Man Is, David Szalay. Honestly, I don’t find being a man, in and of itself, a particularly interesting thing. But here we are with a Booker nominated look at modern masculinity told via nine interlinked short stories – a favourite format of mine. Not enough is made of the links between the stories (it’s no Ghostwritten) and most of the book is dominated by a kind of stoned Mitteleuropean Crap Towns vibe, only with no redeeming jokes about roundabouts or takeaways in Hull. I was glad I stuck around for the final story, because even if the message was trite (old man finds redemption in his kids), it was nicely done. But all in all: skippable.
- Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi. Debut novel that tracks the way slavery shudders and shivers down a family tree from the late 1700s to the present day. The good parts are great – there’s a righteous anger and returning for the story generation after generation you get a good sense of the colossal injustices of history. The strict structure imposes big narrative penalties though – no long lived characters to bond to, and each new chapter starts afresh and needs to telegraph its place in time (and there are some “as you know, it’s 1964 now so we’re doing heroin” parts). Where it’s perhaps most subtly successful is in showing how people live with so little knowledge of the huge weight of history that is only very recently behind them.
- Novel on Yellow Paper, Stevie Smith. Written in the mid 1930s – many years before she became the famous, much anthologised poet – this sees Stevie Smith’s alter ego Pompey recording her thoughts as she wanders through the London suburbs and Berlin. It feels not unlike several rather brilliant poems wrapped in a longer free-form, unstructured prose piece that felt flat to me.
- Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders. Basically as good as everyone says it is. Does a brilliant job with riding the dividing lines between a US president as a symbol, a historical actor and a human being, and all the tensions and toughness inherent in that. It’s also thoroughly propulsive despite being quite weird and with little in the way of a direct through line, and deeply tender and full of feeling. Reminds me very much of a Neutral Milk Hotel lyric: “how strange it is / to be anything at all.”
- The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, James Gleick. Finished this a month ago and still don’t quite know what to think. It’s very good history-of-thought for the most part and contains the clearest description of entropy and thermodynamics I’ve ever read but it doesn’t feel like it’s about information as I know it. Perhaps that reflects the way that once something is known, it can’t be unknown – and to get back to how people thought before that is really very difficult indeed. The past being a different country, and all that.
- The Dudley Smith Trio (The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential, White Jazz), James Ellroy. Brutal, intense and compelling trio of LA crime conspiracies that imagines a world that is at once totally monochrome and simultaneously full of different tones – morals, motives and emotions are both primal and deeply nuanced. Reading all three in a row you also see a real virtuoso technician at work with the prose too. A star. A dark star.
- Product Leadership, Richard Banfield, Martin Eriksson, Nate Walkingshaw. The mark of a successful career advice/strategy book is how many pages I’ve folded the corner of to come back to later and there’s lots in this volume on running Digital Product teams. Wide range of interviews and examples, my only criticism would be (and this based on personal need) wanting more on working enterprise/traditional orgs.
- The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg. A quick read – it’s by a NY Times reporter, so it feels like a few long features – but the stories are well told and it explains the way habits form and work clearly. Poses some interesting questions too – around personal responsibility (as per Kahnemann, the author shows we believe we have more agency than we really do) and around how habits can help shape big societal changes such as Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights movement.
- News of the World, Paulette Jiles. In the aftermath of the Civil War, Captain Jefferson Kyd, 72, an itinerant reader of the news to the illiterate frontier population takes on one last job: escorting Johanna, a 10 year old girl, recently freed from a year with the Kiowa and returning her to her white parents. There’s so many great American archetypes here: the road trip, the frontier, freedom of speech, the way the old shackle the young – but they’re all sketched with a tough, poetic brevity. Like a lot of the best Westerns, the people are tough and terse, the landscape beautiful and strange and full of possibilities.
- As Kingfishers Catch Fire: Birds & Books, Alex Preston. There ought to be more books like this. It’s beautifully designed, a compelling mix of genres and suffused with care and attention. Each chapter takes a specific bird and mixes autobiography, literary criticism and bird biography – essentially, rather like listening to a fascinating lecture – and gives you the story of both the bird as a piece of nature and the bird as cultural metaphor. The writing is clear and compelling and the presentation is stellar – from the endpapers to the bespoke paintings of birds that introduce each chapter – the book is physically a really great artefact.
- Meet Me in the Bathroom, Lizzy Goodman. Rather brilliantly done, this is a history of perhaps the last great traditional rock band – The Strokes – and the Downtown NYC scene that was their genesis. It then pairs this story with that of DFA records, in particular, the success LCD sound system had with their hybrid dance/punk music. The author has interviews with everyone from the doormen at the clubs to the one hit wonders, might-have-beens and never-weres (Fischerspooner, The Rapture). It’s all beautifully woven together so while there’s no authorial voice you get a great sense of narrative and a circling of the big themes: what is it to be ambitious and talented? What do you do with that, and what counts as success and what as throwing it away?
- The Pike: Gabriele D;Annunzio, Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War, Lucy Hughes-Hallett. At one level, this is the bonkers biography of an early 20th century Italian poet, writer, lover, fighter plane pilot and nationalist. On another, it is the story of someone who laid the groundwork for the aesthetics of Fascism and actually lead a dictatorial commune that occupied the city of Fiume. It’s also a brilliant evocation of the way history is not just a set of events – it is a symphony of currents and tides and a great many ideas are always working, forming and reforming before the surface, long before they hit the shore.
- Autumn, Karol Ove Kanusgård. It’s about autumn and it’s currently autumn! His wife is expecting a child and so is mine! Everyone goes on about him! What could go wrong? Well actually it’s a decent, quick read with plenty of thought provoking lines of inquiry and some tough, robust writing. It’s basically a bit like what I imagine it would be to go to NCT with a smart, slightly solipsistic and intense Scandinavian.
- Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right, Angela Nagle. All killer, no filler. A journey from the edges of Online culture to the rotten parts of its core that at times leaving you wanting to wash your eyeballs clean. It brings admirable clarity to a lot of very contemporary debates – meme culture, 4chan, the alt-right, digital fascism, outrage, free speech, no platforming – and does a great job balancing a longer view that’s not hyperlinked to the latest Twitter storm, without being blunted by lack of immediacy. It feels like a book that tells you new things about what it is like to use social media right now.
- The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry. Struggled with this. The set-up is clear: man of god, woman of science, a Victorian England with one foot in it’s pagan, pastoral past and another in the modern world of open heart surgery and a structured, quantified approach to knowledge. The disappointment is that the characters are flat vessels for these ideals, prone to dialogue that’s little more sophisticated than “I’m a woman of science”, navigating a dull plot that’s basically just a series of portentous happenings.
- The Four-Dimensional Human: Ways of Being in the Digital World, Laurence Scott. Felt like this passed me by, really. Here and there a paragraph stood out but mostly it zipped by like motorway scenery. Didn’t feel anything like urgent enough; it was written in the days before Gamergate and the Russian elections. A gentler book from a gentler time, not fitted to the days we find ourselves in.
- Fourth of July Creek, Smith Henderson. A social worker in 1980s Montana starts tracking a survivalist and his family – at the same time as his own life and family is falling apart. Tough, focussed and full of interesting themes (money, markets, freedom), this is a pretty successful modern western. It turns a lot of frontier conventions inside out, with plenty to say about family ties and the role of the state.
- So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson. A genial and readable account of deeply unpleasant online behaviour around social media shaming. The first hand research and interviews are excellent and build a convincingly thorough picture of what it’s like to have a digital mob destroy you for a momentary action. Ronson is a compelling and fair narrator, alive to the complexity of what he’s describing and in general he’s good at taking the time to let the story unfold.
- Theft By Finding: Diaries 1977-2002, David Sedaris. The funny parts are very, very funny. Dangerously so if one is reading in public transport – but the first half, indeed the first fifteen years are a bit of a slog. Arguably this makes a change from most memoirs in which the journey to the top is the best bit. Here it’s shorn of context and explanation and reduced to the nub of it; being poor and scraping by. The second half, when Sedaris moves to France and becomes a published writer just takes off – it’s hilarious, weird and precise – all the situations spring exactly to life. The end palls, too; the repetition of the start creeps back in, with coffee in the IHOP replaces by conversations on planes.
- The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, Brad Stone. Absolutely fascinating. Bezos is a clearly a unique creation and this book brings his excesses and intellectual drive to life. Better than the Jobs book and so probably the closest you can get to one of the people shaping the world right now.
- All Out War: The Full Story of How Brexit Sank Britain’s Political Class, Tim Shipman. Stellar stuff on the year of chaos that was 2016 and the Brexit referendum. The sources, particularly on the Tory side, are exceptional and allow for a forensic telling of the campaign from all angles: political, personal, policy, moral, press… feels like history being written in real time.