As we’re about to enter a new decade, I decided to look back at which books that I first read since 2010 (ignoring publication date) stand up as my favourites (For reviews of the last five years, see 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019).
My top five in fiction are:
- War and Peace: it sounds silly to say that War and Peace is underrated, but I think it is. Because it’s famously long, a lot of people imagine it’s also hard going — but it’s actually very accessible: gripping plot, beautiful prose and some of the best drawn characters in literature
- The Quincunx: it’s a shame how few people know this remarkable novel; set in Victorian England, it’s an astonishingly ambitious (and very long) story of a man who comes to believe he has been cheated out of a fortune. It’s rich and complex, but extremely readable.
- The Kingdom: my favourite novel of 2018, the Kingdom is unlike anything I’ve ever read — part memoir, part history, part imaginative retelling of the story of St Paul. It’s beautiful, thought provoking and ultimately uplifting.
- The Three Body Problem trilogy: What happens when humans make contact with aliens — and it turns out to be a terrible mistake? I liked the opening volume when I first read it, but the sequels transformed it into something magnificent. One of the most ambitious works I’ve encountered — and quite unlike any Western sci-fi I’ve read.
- The Magus: The story of a man who falls in love on a Greek island and is drawn into an ever more bizarre and dangerous series of events by his lover’s mysterious guardian. I think I read this in 2010 or 2011 and it’s one of the most intoxicating and atmospheric books I’ve ever read. I often find myself thinking back to particular passages almost ten years later.
I think these are the five that I find myself thinking about most frequently and which I’d be most excited to reread.
My top five in non-fiction are:
- The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes — an extraordinary account of the physics, politics and personalities behind one of the seminal moments in human history.
- The English and their History by Robert Tombs— a comprehensive yet concise history of England that traces the development of its constitution and character over the last millennium — and shows how persistent the core themes and clashes have been over that span.
- The Secret of Our Success by Joseph Henrich — the case for cultural evolution — i.e. “culture is smarter than you are” — as one of the core drivers of our species’ success (see more here).
- Reformation by Diarmaid MacCulloch — the story of perhaps the biggest turning point in European history — and the period that I believe is most important to understanding political and cultural strife in the West today.
- Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt — an account of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of the Holocaust, and one of the most important meditations on the nature of evil and the challenge of resisting it.
In a sense, I found making this list quite sobering. I’ve read around 400 books in the last decade, but I remember very little about the vast majority. And when I think about the non-fiction books that most influenced me, most of them I read more than a decade ago.
In particular, I’m struck by how much history dominates the non-fiction list. Almost none of the “ideas books” I’ve read and enjoyed stand up as strongly 5–10 years later. It’s also striking how many of my favourites of the decade — in both fiction and non-fiction — were written long before.
This leads me to think that I should read more history and more old(er) books that have already stood the test of time. Recommendations always welcome!