2019 was a good reading year, with several books among the best I’ve read this decade (see here for a separate post on my favourite books of the decade; my reviews of the last four years are here: 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018).
It turned out, though, that finding time to read books with a one-year-old at home is no easier than doing so with a baby (unless you count books for him… his favourite is Ten Little Monsters), so it’s another lighter year by volume.
As usual, I’ll split the list into non-fiction and fiction, starting each with my top five of the year.
Top five fiction
The best novel I read this year was The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, but as it’s a re-read, I’m not going to count it. It remains probably my favourite novel: vast, deep and evocative, but with a gripping plot.
Outside that, my top five were:
- Lent by Jo Walton. I recommend you read as little as possible about this before starting it. A spoiler-free synopsis is that it’s a work of speculative fiction that tells the story of Savonarola (of the original bonfire of the vanities fame). It’s clever, fun and philosophically and theologically deep.
- The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre. This isn’t fiction, but it’s basically a non-fiction novel, so it fits better here. Macintyre tells the remarkable story of Oleg Gordievsky, the highest ranking KGB defector of the Cold War. It’s totally gripping and brilliantly written.
- Educated by Tara Westover. Also non-fiction — a memoir — but a much more compelling plot and characters than the vast majority of novels. Westover tells the story of her childhood in an extreme Mormon survivalist family, through to her getting a PhD from Cambridge. It’s an extraordinary story. (Thanks Pippy James for the recommendation)
- The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey. An atmospheric novel set in 15th century Somerset that tells the story of a priest and a parish trying to understand the death of one of its most prominent residents. It’s a beautiful picture of late medieval faith, doubt, community and humanity.
- The Name of the Wind (and its sequel, The Wise Man’s Fear) by Patrick Rothfuss. As I’ve said before, I’m a big sucker for vast epic fantasies and the Name of the Wind is one of the best I’ve come across. The premise sounds unpromising: a tavern landlord tells the story of his life — but Rothfuss is a master storyteller and his worldbuilding is superb. (Thanks Megan Reynolds for the recommendation)
Top five non-fiction
I’ve found myself going off non-fiction books, partly because the quality of podcasts is so high today that I find interviews with non-fiction authors a better way to get to grips with their ideas (and then I get the book only if it sounds like there’s much more to learn from reading in long form). I’ve also found that I do more and more of my non-fiction reading for my newsletter, Thoughts in Between, and articles and academic papers are better suited for that format.
Nevertheless, I loved the best non-fiction books I read this year:
- The Secret of Our Success by Joseph Henrich. One of the most insightful and perspective-altering books I remember reading, The Secret of Our Success lays out the case for cultural evolution as one of the most powerful forces in shaping our species and societies. Henrich demonstrates the limits of reason and generating knowledge from first principles: “culture is smarter than we are”. It’s a must read. I wrote more about it in Thoughts in Between here. (Thanks Marc Warner for the recommendation)
- Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt. Arendt tells the story of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the senior Nazi officials who planned and executed the Holocaust. It’s part history, part psychological profile, and part meditation on evil, moral responsibility and overcoming history. I found the passages on the near total failure of the Holocaust in Denmark and Bulgaria particular powerful and moving. The book is nearly 60 years old, but it’s the first time I’ve read it and I thought it was extraordinary.
- The Passions and the Interests by Albert Hirschman. The subtitle is “political arguments for capitalism before its triumph”, which is an excellent summary of a fascinating and deeply insightful book. Hirschman sets out to trace the transformation of the idea of “self-interest” (particularly the desire to accumulate material goods) from deadly sin to praiseworthy ambition over the course of the early modern period. It’s both fascinating and jarring to see arguments that seem strikingly modern laid out by 17th century philosophers (Montesquieu’s arguments for economic freedom sound very like those of many Bitcoin advocates, for example)
- Destined for War by Graham Allison. Allison lays out why so often in history the tension between a dominant great power and an emerging one has ended in war — what he calls the “Thucydides trap” — and looks at what this means for the US’s relationship with China. It’s a constructive book with lots of recommendations for avoiding the trap, but it makes the prospect of war between the US and China feel much more real and likely than many of us might imagine. I wrote a bit more about this here. (Thanks Ian Hogarth for the recommendation)
- All Out War by Tim Shipman. The definitive account of the Brexit referendum, All Out War follows the major actors from David Cameron’s renegotiation with the EU up to Boris Johnson’s (apparent) failure to take the premiership and Theresa May’s entry to No 10. Shipman does a good job of making nothing seem inevitable. It’s a powerful example of how at pivotal moments, individuals and small changes in initial conditions can have an enormous impact.
I read a lot of sci-fi / speculative fiction this year. I loved Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning and its sequel Seven Surrenders, which are gripping and innovative (and Palmer has a stellar career as a historian outside her novels; I loved this podcast with her). I also thought The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas (which avoids a lot of the annoying things about time travel as a plot device) and The Binding by Bridget Collins were great holiday reads with clever premises.
I’m a big fan of Robert Harris and I enjoyed his The Second Sleep, which is a fun post-apocalyptic novel (I wrote a bit more about it here) but for me not as good as his very best ones (my favourites are Fatherland and his Cicero trilogy). As I wrote last year, I thought Philip Pullman — of His Dark Materials fame — kicked off his new “equel” very well with La Belle Sauvage and I read the second in the trilogy The Secret Commonwealth and thought it was even better (and much less uneven) than the first.
If you’re looking for a short but gripping read, Resume Speed by Lawrence Block is a compelling and very well executed novella, that despite its length manages to conjure a deep and memorable character.
Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh is a rich and beautifully written story of India during the Opium Wars. The characters are superbly drawn, though I found the plot took a long time to get going. Also beautiful was Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey — it’s worth reading for the writing and unusual magic realism-style, but I found that I didn’t greatly care about the characters.
I’m always trying to find books reminiscent of The Name of the Rose, which was one reason I read Flying to Nowhere by John Fuller (I also like his poetry). It’s strange, short novel, set in an isolated religious community where people keep disappearing. I found it rather hypnotic and absorbing, if ultimately a little opaque. Less successful for me was Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin, which is a very sophisticated pastiche of medieval hagiography, based on the life of a (fictional) Russian holy man. It’s very well done, but I found it a bit of a drag to get through.
Probably the most frustrating book I read this year was Gnomon by Nick Harkaway because it could so easily have been one of my favourites. It’s everything I love in a book: big, ambitious, multilayered with a fascinating premise (it’s set in the future in a panopticon society where the authorities can “read” the brains of suspected criminals under surgery; a lot of the novel is the readout of one such operation). But, alas, I found it gets bogged down in the periphery of the story for long stretches, would have benefited from heavy editing and at times allowed its cleverness to overwhelm both plot and characters.
I enjoyed both The Axe and the Throne by M.D. Ireman, a Game of Thrones-esque fantasy, and Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, a celebrated space opera, but neither for me elevated themselves beyond fairly standard representatives of their genres.
Alongside epic fantasy, my other great fiction weaknesses are murder mysteries and spy novels. I thought the new John Le Carré, Agent Running in the Field, was very good and completely gripping, if not his very best work. I also read The Mystery of Three Quarters by Sophie Hannah, which is one of the authorised Poirot remakes. It’s a solid beach or aeroplane read and, credit to Hannah, I don’t know if I’d have been able to guess it wasn’t a Christie original if I didn’t know.
Most of the other non-fiction books this year I read as part of the reading group I hosted in London for Peter Thiel’s Stanford course “Sovereignty and the limits of Globalisation and Technology”. This was a lot of fun — and often challenging — and I’m tempted to do something similar with another syllabus this year.
One benefit of working through a whole syllabus was that it pushed me to read things I would otherwise never have come across. War, Progress and the End of History by Vladimir Solovyov, a Russian spiritualist, is a great example. It’s technically fiction, but just as I broke my rules above, I will again here: it’s a philosophical novel, written in 1900, in which each of the main characters is a “representatives” of one of the main contemporary viewpoints on the “end of history”. It’s a fascinating insight into a mindset that’s largely disappeared from public discourse — and there are many eerily prescient passages.
I also enjoyed The Concept of the Political by Karl Schmitt. I was vaguely aware of Schmitt’s ideas, but I found this book highly provocative and helpful in building a mental model of worldview very different from my own. The Meaning of History by Karl Löwith was very hard work, but explored lots of thinkers I’ve not read before — and demonstrated how hard it’s been even for secular thinkers to escape a teleological approach to history.
Has the West Lost It? by Kishore Mahbubani is an excellent (and short) East Asian perspective on where the West is today, written by a self-described “critical friend”. The central idea (which echoes Allison’s Destined for War, above) is that the West is yet to come to terms with the reality of a multipolar world. I was less convinced by Kai Fu Lee’s AI Superpowers, which — while it does a good job of laying out how and why the Chinese startup scene is different from Silicon Valley — seems to embed a lot of wishful thinking about the future of AI.
In 2020, I’m planning to read more older books — ideally things published more than a decade ago that have stood the test of time (see more here in this separate post on my favourite books of the decade). For more contemporary topics, I think I’ll largely stick to podcasts and articles.
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