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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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.

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Maybe it just fades away

“It’s not going to last forever, but the best thing you can do is pack [your time] full of so much weirdness and ideas that when you look at the wall of memories… we’re not feeling sadness for what once was, we’re just overwhelmed at everything we got to accomplish.”

Great talk by Cabel Sasser from Panic – it’s mostly about anxiety, of both the short term and the long term type. It reminds me of this Steve Jobs video, where he talks about the way digital work becomes obsolete very, very quickly – and in that case, what does it mean to really care about it? What persists?

On ten years of Custom PC

I’d like to do a post of great social and political import.

Ten years ago, I helped start a magazine. It’s still going, and the people running it now asked me to write a little bit about it. I was a staff writer on issue 1 of Custom PC and by issue 60-something, after five years, I’d become editor. I left two years after that, in 2010, so it’s been a while since I thought about CPC. But I got issue 1 down from the shelf and was reminded of the things we did I’d definitely do again, and of course, the many things I’d avoid if possible.
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On Snowfallen, and pollen for readers

Bobbie Johnson wrote a good critique of Snowfall, and I wrote a riposte on the work blog:

“Johnson assumes there’s one type of reader, the dedicated long-hauler who will diligently read 8,000 words about your topic. There are indeed some of these people. But there are many other types of readers, many skimmers, who will likely not be that entranced by your topic, or your opening line.

It is for these types of people that “magazine-style design” (for want of a better term), where you have a core story of flowing text surrounded by many box-outs, pull-quotes, maps and sidebars developed. These act like pollen to bees: they’re attractive, interesting and sticky. They provide a different take on the topic the article is addressing, and different entry points.”