For obvious reasons it has been a good year for reading. And I set out at the beginning of 2020 to be somewhat more systematic about what I read. To keep lists of what I wanted to read, to track what I had read and keep the book pile well stocked.
Having read few books during 2019 when I was trying to write one, I wanted to make up for some lost time.
Here’s my run-down of what I read.
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by psychologist Jonathan Haidt changed how I think about reason and intuition. We tend to use reason to justify intuitive decisions. This makes arguing people out of decisions or points of view hard. So instead we need, Haidt argues, to appeal not to their reason and more to their instinctive, moral judgements.
New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of The World by Peter Frankpan. I haven’ t read his first book on the Silk Roads. This read a little like a splurge of a research assistant’s notes into paragraphs, laden with facts and gushy prose. A good chronicle of China’s ambition and another reminder, were one needed, that the UK’s misadventure into isolationism runs entirely counter to the reality of coalitions and alliances shaping geo-politics (in the east) and why, I fear, we’re headed into a period of rapid national decline.
William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company. A work of utterly prodigious scholarship. A sweeping history that fill in large gaps in my knowledge of Indian history with copious use of translation from fresh sources. A story with lots of resonances to an era with large, seemingly unstoppable and voracious supra-national corporations.
A history of a quite different period – but again with lots of echoes to today – Jill Lepore’s If, Then: How One Data Company Invented the Future. Lepore tells the story of the Simulmatics Corporation, a company using temperamental IBM 700/7000 series computers to create The People Machine, a prediction engine for use in elections, Vietnam and during the unsettled sixties in America. Strong on the personal stories and personalities of the men and women involved, great on 60s politics and civil rights.
A different era – 1990s and a different milieu, Wall Street – Beunza’s detailed, closely argued and persuasive ethnography, Taking the Floor: Models, Morals, and Management in a Wall Street Trading Room, is about more than a single trading room. With very strong cameos this is long-term research at its best, weaving together the research ‘present’, and informant’s perspectives on what was happening at the time with great effect
2020 seemed like a good year to better understand genetics and Adam Rutherford’s A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived was an enjoyable tour of genes from Africa and Siberia to the hopelessly inbred Hapsburgs.
Having lazily referenced the core idea for decades I thought I had actually better read Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism. Ranging from Latin America to SE Asia, Benedict Anderson shines a light on the coupling of print capitalism (especially newspapers), local elites and metropoles in the development of national consciousness.
I don’t read enough fiction (always open to recommendations) and I tried for a while to rotate non-fiction and novels.
The Painter of Signs, the 1977 novel by RK Narayan is a touching account of how two woman, one an aunt who’s looked after Raman for years, and the other, Lucy, a customer of his signs, leave his life. The aunt departs on a pilgrimage and to live out her final years in Varanasi, the other is too committed to her mission to proselytise birth control in village India to settle down to married life.
Also, I don’t know when or where I bought it but this first edition is just lovely, isn’t it?
Robert Harris’s Second Sleep. A holiday read. Easy page turner. The premise, a future world where a theocratic state has removed all traces of human technological innovation, is clever.
Telling the tale of a range of global souls who have installed, or control a kentuki device bought by others, Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin is tale of the curiosity, naivety, optimism and occasional perversity that lies at the heart of our relationship with connected, domestic technologies.
I was reading The Sellout by Paul Beatty as the US was engulfed by Black Lives Matter protests. This raw satire takes aim at the painful and brutal contradictions at the heart of African American lives in the US. I won’t forget the goings-on that take place at LA farm/plantation of the protagonist, and Hominy his slave.
A different view of the US. A fictionalised account of the Manson murders (?), Emma Cline’s The Girls compelling and claustrophobic debut 2016 novel. This book is remarkable both for its control and use of language and the young author’s grasp of what makes people tick.
Confession. I’d never read anything by Zadie Smith. Intimations: Six Essays offers a brief peregrination on the pandemic from the vantage point of New York City, with no lack of political thrust. Smith’s Swing Time tells the story of someone sucked into, and ultimately spat out by, the world of pop music and celebrity.
The Shepherd’s Life: A Tales of the Lake District by James Rebanks is one my picks of the year. I hope to get to English Pastoral in 2021. A wonderful, poetic but quietly political book about farming and living in the Lake District. Utterly glorious to read a book by someone who is so happy with, and committed to, his work and his community.
He’s wasted on the Tory party. Perhaps too smart, curious and sensitive for politics full stop? Rory Stewarts’ Marches: Border Walks with My Father was another book exploring rural Britain. A bit stodgy and in need of editorial intervention in places but an enlightening and sympathetic book. By means of a walk along and zig zagging across the English-Scottish border Stewart charts the deep history of the Marches and the proud people who inhabit.
I’m a sucker for books hailing from the “one word plus subtitle beginning with a “how”” shelf. I wanted to like Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World but too often it felt like a simple idea was being padded out and stretched thin across what admittedly were some intriguing stories.
The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli: I’ll have to confess that I didn’t really understand large swathes of this book which requires abandoning most of what we think we know about time. Turns out that is not only difficult, but requires more technical explanation than I could process, even if Rovelli does an almighty job at keeping it as simple as he does.
I’m aiming to read much more about work next year as I gestate a longer term project, and James Suzman’s Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time was a great place to start. A deep history of how humans, and nature is focused on staying busy. At heart this is a hammer blow to the concept of scarcity which underpins modern economics and is, not surprisingly, a construct not an iron law of the universe.
Nikil Saval’s Cubed: A Secret History of the Office is a textual history of the office. Drawing mainly from fiction and film it plods along, offering more than a splash of colour and insight along the way but for me it failed to really bring the office experience to life.
So to 2021.
On the list already, but recommendations always welcome
These Truths -Jill Lepore
The Uninhabitable Earth – David Wallace-Wells
Radical Help: how we can remake the relationships between us and revolutionise the Welfare State – Hilary Cottam
A World Without Work: Technology, Automation and How We Should Respond- Daniel Susskind
The Overstory – Richard Powers
Underland – Robert McFarlane
English Pastoral – James Rebanks
How Spies Think – David Ormond
Uncharted: How to Map the Future Together – Margaret Hefferman
Conflicted – Ian Leslie
Oh, And I’ll try to read some more fiction. But then I say that every year.