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.

Trick Mirror is all killer, no filler. Jia Tolentino has an extremely solid grip on some very slippery topics: the problem with rebelling against power structures, the way choice on the internet reduces freedom, how hard it is to escape conformity – the list goes on. As well as being thought provoking, it has a propulsion and urgency to it – it’s very compelling.

Savage Gods is just one of those books that really got me; spookily insightful at the outset, I found myself underlining constantly in the first half. My path and the book’s diverged somewhere before the end, but not wildly, and the parting was not harsh.

Lanny is another strange, beautiful one from Max Porter. A bigger English weirdness seeps in than I felt in his previous book, Grief is a Thing With Feathers. The tension towards the end is incredible too – you want, so desperately, for Lanny to be found, to survive. All we want is to survive.

Life and how to survive it is the main topic Coal Black Mornings, Suede frontman Brett Anderson’s Lovely, fragile and clear memoir of the band’s early, early days. I read it in a day while sick on the couch. He’s a great writer and there’s a paint-stripper freshness to his focus on his relationship with his parents and past. Instead of name dropping you get the real feel of what it was like to be trying to become something when you started with so little.

Do you remember the first time? Or the tenth?
I read William Finnegan’s tough, ascetic memoir of a life chasing waves to surf and it really made me think about how you remember your life – if only because it like such a matchless example. Barbarian Days won a Pullitzer, and it’s a great example of muscular American prose, the written equivalent of a Silvertone photo, fundamentally metallic, a dirty chrome surface. The vagrancy of a life lived on beaches is there in complete detail and the specificity of his recall something really special:

“Being out in big surf is dreamlike. Terror and ecstasy ebb and flow around the edges of things, each threatening to overwhelm the dreamer. An unearthly beauty saturates an enormous arena of moving water, latent violence, too-real explosions, and sky. Scenes feel mythic even as they unfold. I always feel a ferocious ambivalence: I want to be nowhere else; I want to be anywhere else. I want drift and gaze, drinking if I’m, except maximum vigilance, a hyper alertness to what the ocean is doing, cannot be relaxed.”

I’ve been writing yearly recaps of what I read since 2006, and looking back at the lists from the some of those early years, I don’t recall books in the way he recalls waves. Some books I have entirely forgotten. I cannot picture the cover or even attempt a synopsis. But some I do hold on to, and I can still tell you the few which mattered.

I’m not sure the extent to which reading ought to be about stockpiling knowledge, though. In his Desert Island Discs interview, Daniel Kahneman makes the case plainly:

“we should think of living, not only of remembering.”

I spent more time with Daniel Kahneman this year thanks to Michael Lewis’ excellent Undoing Project, which is simply terrific and satisfying on every level. Clever sentences, beautifully drawn relationships and a writer who is able to take deeply profound ideas and render them as clearly as possible.

Probably the best writer I know on life and what it means to live it is the biographer Richard Holmes, given he’s made his career on understanding what that process really is. “Little is taught by contest or dispute, everything by sympathy and love”, Coleridge is quoted as saying at the start of This Long Pursuit, a beautiful set of essays, sketches and miniature biographies. It’s familiar territory for Holmes – Romantic poets and the end of the fun when the Victorians show up – but here he adds some excellent insight into forgotten characters, many of them female, and it adds up to be a compelling meditation on memory itself:

“There is a goddess of memory, Mnemosyne; but none of Forgetting. Yet there should be, as they are twin sisters, twin powers, and walk on either side of us, disputing for sovereignty over us and who we are, all the way until death.”

  1. Exhalation – Ted Chiang
  2. Trick Mirror – Jia Tolentino
  3. The Ride of a Lifetime – Bob Iger
  4. The Content Trap – Anand Bharat
  5. Barbarian Days: A Surfing Live – William Finnegan
  6. Coal Black Mornings – Brett Anderson
  7. Lean Analytics – Alistair Croll
  8. Lowborn – Kerry Hudson
  9. One Giant Leap – Charles Fishman
  10. Savage Gods – Paul Kingsnorth
  11. This Long Pursuit: Reflections of a Romantic Biographer – Richard Holmes
  12. Lanny – Max Porter
  13. The Dry – Jane Harper
  14. Normal People – Sally Rooney
  15. Golden Hill – Francis Spufford
  16. The Undoing Project – Michael Lewis
  17. The Complete Maus – Art Spiegelman
  18. Human Voices – Penelope Fitzgerald
  19. In Persuasion Nation – George Saunders
  20. The Book You Wish You Parents Had Read – Philippa Perry
  21. On a Sunbeam – Tillie Walden
  22. Amusing Ourselves to Death – Neil Postman
  23. Wool Omnibus – Hugh Howey
  24. Inspired (2nd ed) – Marty Cagan
  25. If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things – Jon McGregor
  26. Principles: Life & Work – Ray Dalio
  27. All Among The Barely – Melissa Harrison
  28. National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy – Roger Eatwell & Matthew Goodwin
  29. Bad Vibes – Luke Haines

Previously: 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, earlier…

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