Monday, 11 December 2017
Top books of 2017
This year I've found myself more and more drawn to ancient history. For some reason I'd always dismissed it as a bit dull compared to modern history - all those coins and bits of pot - but inspired by Tom Holland and Peter Frankopan in particular I've realised how much I've been missing out on.
This year my classical education began with what is technically a novel but so close to history as to feel worthy of this section - Augustus by John Williams. Williams is more famous for Stoner but for me Augustus is the better book; I'd place it alongside Gore Vidal's Julian and Creation as one of the all time great novels set in the classical era. It's written as a series of diary extracts, letters and speeches from Augustus's closest associates, most poignantly his daughter Julia, who he exiled to a barren island for her polyamorous lifestyle.
Spurred back into Roman history I read Mary Beard's SPQR - an excellent overview from the foundation of Rome to 212 AD when all men in the Roman Empire were given citizenship. Covering almost a millennium in just over 500 pages means it's pretty high level in places but it's a perfect introduction to the period. I have Beard's Confronting the Classics on my list for next year.
Later in the year I read Tom Holland's wonderful new translation of Herodotus's Histories, which was remarkably fresh for a book 2500 years old. The description of the Babylonian marriage market will stay with me for a long time. I read this alongside And Man Created God by Selina O'Grady, an arresting guide to the development of early religion across the ancient world. I'm currently working my way through Edward Gibbon's classic Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which, at 3.5k pages should keep me busy over Christmas. Even though many of his conclusions have been surpassed by later historians it's stylistically so beautiful that it's worth reading for the language alone, as well as the deeply snarky footnotes. He'd have been a twitter natural.
The best modern history I read this year was the third (of a planned six) in David Kynaston's "New Jerusalem" series covering British social history from the end of the war to Thatcher's rise to power. Modernity Britain covers 1957-62 and shows in stunning detail how technology, demographics and politics were morphing society, often against the strongly traditionalist sentiments of much of the population. He is particularly strong on schools (rare for me to say that about a non-education specialist) and housing - where he shows how the disastrous trend towards high-rise tower blocks came about, with scant regard for the views of people who'd actually have to live there. Every MP, and aspiring politico, should read this series if they want to understand the origins of contemporary social policy debates.
I'd also strongly recommend John Bew's Citizen Clem - one of the best modern British political biographies I've read. Attlee was a famously private man who left no diaries and few letters, his memoirs are almost comically repressed and unrevealing, so Bew tries to capture him through his intellectual interests in empire, social reform and poetry. Combined with the recollections of his peers this works triumphantly succeeds in casting Attlee as one of the great figures of 20th century British history - combining clear-eyed patriotism, a steely belief in individual responsibility and a deeply held commitment to socialism. A combination - Bew is not afraid to point out - sadly lacking in today's politics.
The first two volumes of Charles Moore's Thatcher biography were surprisingly balanced for someone who's Telegraph pieces often read like Littlejohn with a thesaurus. They're broadly favourable towards an undeniably transformational politician but don't hide away from her personal and political failings. His idiosyncratic decision to introduce every character with a footnote showing their educational background is a powerful demonstration of the deep iniquity in our school system.
I also enjoyed Richard Evans's Pursuit of Power - a comprehensive trawl through 19th century European political, social and cultural history - and The Deluge by Adam Tooze, a complex look at the post-WW1 failure of global leadership that plunged the world into deeper darkness.
I only read a couple of books on contemporary politics this year - Tim Shipman's Fall Out - was just as good as last year's All Out War - an excellent case study in how not to run an election campaign (or indeed anything). I hope for the sake of Tim's sanity that 2018 avoids any elections/referenda. I'd also recommend another, more personal, study of an election that went wrong: Hillary Clinton's What Happened. A funny and bitter insight into how she coped with losing to the ghastly orange baby. The section on the continuing misogyny of the political world seems even more unanswerable after the post-Weinstein scandals; though, oddly, some on the left seem to want to think her loss was purely down to a lack of ideological fervour.
Outside of history and politics my favourite this year was Michael Lewis's Undoing Project on Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, whose theories on behavioural economics have transformed multiple disciplines. Some of the sections on the protaganists' relationship are deeply moving and the explanations of their ideas are clear and concise. The only problem with the book is it's too short - it feels like he's missed out several chapters of material at the end by fast forwarding several decades.
Originals by Adam Grant was a rare business/leadership book that didn't make me want to throw it straight in the bin - some interesting ideas on building trust and culture in organisations. Signifying Rappers was a wonderful little book David Foster Wallace wrote with a friend early in his career - its analysis of hip-hop culture was uncannily prescient. My favourite comic at the moment is Stewart Lee and his How I Escaped my Certain Fate is a fascinating mix of memoir and annotated stand-up that gives an unusual insight into how comedy works.
The best fiction I read this year was Middlemarch. I'd gone through life imagining it was a extremely dreary provincial melodrama - a sort of Victorian Archers. It's actually a very funny, even acidic, study of universal archetypes. Along with Charlotte Bronte's Villette it's probably the best novel I've read by an English author. The other "classic" I read this year was Les Miserables by Victor Hugo which has sublime passages - especially early on - but badly needed a better editor. The last third of the book (400 pages) was a real drag.
My favourite contemporary novel of the year was Laurent Binet's HHhH - a post-modern take on the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich but a hell of lot better, and funnier, than that makes it sound. Binet manages to hold the suspense of the historical drama (even though I knew what happened) while simultaneously running a commentary on what he's doing. It's very clever. I also read Binet's follow-up The 7th Function of Language - which is much less accessible - I wouldn't bother unless you really enjoy French post-structuralist in-jokes. However, it did inspire me to read Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum (Eco is a character in the Binet book) which is engagingly bonkers and highly learned at the same time.
I found Francis Spufford's Golden Hill a bit disappointing given all the hype. It's very readable but I guessed the twist halfway through and I was expecting something a bit less obvious. Good for the beach though. Robert Harris's Officer and A Spy on the Dreyfuss case was another great beach read (again suspenseful even though I know the story - how does he do that?) As were Don Winslow's superb, brutal, Power of the Dog and Cartel on the Mexican drug wars (thanks for the recommendation Chris Deerin).
Other books I read this year:
The Inevitable by Kevin Kelly - dreary futurist nonsense - no idea why I bothered.
Creativity Inc by Ed Catmull - leadership advice from Pixar founder - entirely generic.
Electric Shock by Peter Doggett - pretty entertaining guide to the history of pop music.
I want my MTV - an oral history of the early years of MTV - quite niche.
A Perfect Spy by John Le Carre - I really wanted to like it but I was bored by the end.
Respectable by Lynsey Hanley - interesting ideas on class, more an elongated essay than a book.
A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil McGregor - does what it says on the tin.
Liberty or Death by Peter McPhee - a new history of the French Revolution. Not particularly revolutionary.
His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman - read again after 20 years in preparation for the new series.
Origin of our Species by Chris Stringer - engaging introduction to human evolution.
A History of Histories by John Burrow - good introduction to historiography.
The Unathorised Version by Robin Lane Fox - quirky review of the historical accuracy of the bible.