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.”

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Year in Reading, 2012 (second half)

Thanks to work, I spent the second half of the year with even more and ever better reading devices than ever before – iPhone 5, retina iPad, Kindles of many stripe – but the list of books read is as slender as it’s been since I started tracking it. While I’ve been really enjoying saving stuff from the web to Pocket and reading them at my leisure, the real cause in the drop was a conscious effort to learn more for work. I spent a lot of time in the autumn reading business tomes, product management manifestos and UX volumes, often picking chapters, so it just didn’t seem right recording them here. Below, then, is just the fun stuff.

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On Pulphead, the best book I’ve read so far this year

‘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.”’

That’s a stellar paragraph I clipped from Pulphead, the widely praised collection of essays by US journalist John Jeremiah Sullivan. The essay in question – Mr Lytle – can be read in full on the Paris Review website. I’ve still not finished the book itself, but it’s really terrific, each essay a well crafted story with sentences that confound the reader in the best possible ways. Recommended.

Year in reading, 2012 (first half)

One of the few regular things I’ve done regularly on this blog is tracking books I’ve read; I started the year off  by defecting to Pinterest, but got nowhere with it. Something about that layout. For all that people make out Pinterest is a site for curating and collecting, it’s really a shop, isn’t it? Showing all these book covers makes it seem more like the 3-for-2 tables at Waterstones than a library…

So, here I am, back on the blog. After the jump, books from the first half of the year, summary verdicts and mistake filled summaries.

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My new photo project

It’s been over a year since I walked slowly away from Flickr; I really love Instagram, but I take Instagram photos for my Instagram friends with it. Since my quiet exit from Flickr the pictures I take with my dSLR have just been sitting on my hard disk, and every now and then I’ve taken them out on my iPad. Until now, that is: I think Tumblr is terrific and I found an excellent photo-friendly theme, so I’ve decided to try and run a daily photo blog.

It’s called Malevolent Aesthetic Bacon Takedown, just so I can prove SEO hasn’t won. That, and I’ve had the name on the shelf for too long. Take a look, daily updates, pretty pictures, it’ll be great.

Inside the Biosphere

A photo from this time last year, taken inside Montreal’s amazing Biosphere. Designed by Buckminster Fuller and built in 1967 for the World’s Fair, it’s a geodesic dome, strong, light, and enclosing a huge amount of space. It’s a beautiful building – full of benign faith in the future.

Michael Lewis: You are lucky and so there is a debt there

“This isn’t just false humility. It’s false humility with a point. My case illustrates how success is always rationalized. People really don’t like to hear success explained away as luck — especially successful people. As they age, and succeed, people feel their success was somehow inevitable. They don’t want to acknowledge the role played by accident in their lives. There is a reason for this: the world does not want to acknowledge it either.”

Michael Lewis’ speech at Princeton has some great one liners wrapped around a really interesting point, and one that’s come up in a few things I’ve been reading recently: the importance -unfashionable and anti-individualistic though it is – of luck. Or positioning, or being on the right side of big shifts. I think about it a lot when it comes to my work (digital product design), and the decline of print. I think about it when it comes to success and attention, and politics too, given the UK’s current government, and their desire to reduce the reach of the welfare state.  And I like Lewis’ speech especially because it’s not just about recognising the role of luck and saying, “yes, luck helped me”; it’s where he takes that message:

“Above all, recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck — and with  luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your Gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.”