The books I enjoyed most this year
In no special order and not necessarily published recently
Super-Infinite by Katherine Rundell. OK, I said no special order, but this is my number one, by a good margin. Who knew someone would be able to write a better book about John Donne than John Carey, and so soon? My review here.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. One of the best nineteenth century autobiographies, perhaps just one of the best autobiographies period. Douglass was a late bloomer by necessity and a splendidly vivid writer. Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl also.
Forms of Contention by Hollis Robbins. A careful and hugely readable tracing of the traditions that influence(d) African American sonnet writers. I enjoyed most, perhaps, the judicious and extensive quotations. The analysis is always reliable and I learned something on every page. Strongly recommended for people interested in sonnets, American poetry, African American poetry, or modern literary criticism that isn’t boring, crazy, or both.
Pevsner, London I: City of London. Perhaps I have opened this book more times than any other? An indispensable guide to the best part of London that will help you learn to look. I wrote about How To Walk Around London here.
Red Crosses by Sasha Filipenko and Rock, Paper, Scissors by Maxim Osipov. Filpenko is a Belarusian novelist, Osipov a Russian short story teller. In my joint review I said, “If you want to understand modern Russia, reading Turgenev and Tolstoy will tell you as much as reading George Eliot and Emily Bronte does about modern Britain. Start instead by reading Filipenko and Osipov.”
The Medieval Mind of C.S. Lewis by Jason M. Baxter. Such a joy, this book traces the influences of great books on Lewis, personally and professionally. It is highly informative, clear, and every sentence follows neatly from the last. My review.
Pachinko. One of the few novel recommendations that worked out well, let alone this well. One of the outstanding novels of the last few years. Thoroughly absorbing, based on hugely detailed research, about a period of history you likely don’t know much, if anything, about. My long and gushing review here. O Noa! Noa! How did it happen Noa!
F by Daniel Kehlmann. A reader recommendation, and a good one at that. Here’s the first sentence. “Years later, long since fully grown, and each of them enmeshed in his own particular form of unhappiness, none of Arthur Friedland’s sons could recall whose idea it had actually been to go to the hypnotist that afternoon.” Good luck getting that out of your head for the rest of the day.
God’s Architect by William E. Wallace. A stunning short book about how Michelangelo built St. Peters. Fascinating details on every page. If you want to know more about how Michelangelo ran the building site for the dome, for example, this is your book.
The Organisation Man by William H. Whyte. A 1950s sociology of the new conformism in corporate life. I just spent a decade interviewing people who work in corporates and this book felt weirdly up-to-date to me.
The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. Lewis was a superb psychologist and this book has several essays that are worth re-reading. Over time, I think it will come to be seen in much higher regard. A classic of practical philosophy.
Old London Churches by Elizabeth Young. Great pictures and lovely descriptions from post-war London. I also spent a few days with Nairn’s London which is great but overrated.
Moral capital: foundations of British abolitionism by Christopher Brown. Superbly detailed history of exactly what it promises. Also Old London Bridge by Gordon Home, another book that gives you exactly what you want, with wonderful fold-out diagrams and pictures. And The rebuilding of London after the Great Fire by T. F. Reddaway.
Talent by Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross. You won’t get a more interesting or well-informed book on this subject (I just spent a decade interview people in corporates etc). I think of Talent as the practical, specific philosophy that flows from the abstract, general philosophy of Stubborn Attachments. Thinking about them as a pair is probably most fruitful. Like, yes, it’s especially interesting that IQ is less relevant to talent than most people think, especially than high IQ people think — but it’s more interesting that the person who believes in the moral importance of GDP growth also believes that growth won’t necessarily be powered by more and more IQ. (What does it mean for AI? That question remains unaddressed, I think… Or is AI so high in conscientiousness it doesn’t matter?) The Straussian way to read Tyler Cowen is just to read… all of Tyler Cowen. If the main lesson of Stubborn Attachments is something like: GDP growth is the main lever we have for moral progress and broadly common-sense, pragmatic moral views bounded by human rights will drive that, then this book becomes a fascinating set of pragmatic moral views about your whole life, not just talent. In fact, it becomes a new sort of Protestant work ethic guide — and what that means for the way you ought to cultivate your own personality. Open more browser tabs! Care more about small tasks! Take your role in society seriously, even if you think you have a bullshit job, perhaps especially then! Work on your stamina! Being prepared in a strict and narrow sense can be a form of idleness! And many others. This reading, however, is not relevant for every reader of Talent, but perhaps it is for some of you. My favourite Cowen is still The Age of the Infovore (possibly tied with In Praise of Commercial Culture).
Here is one of my favourite paragraphs from The Age of the Infovore.
The Portuguese author Fernando Pessoa wrote: ‘The buyers of useless things are wiser than is commonly supposed — they buy little dreams.’ This is a big part of what markets are about. Whether you are buying cosmetics, a lottery ticket, or an oil painting, you are constructing, defining or memorialising your dreams into vivid and physically real forms. Gabriel García Marquéz, in his Living to Tell the Tale (Vivar Para Contrala ‘Living in Order to Tell it’ is arguably a better or at least a more literal translation), understood the power of stories. His opening quotation notes: ‘Life is not what one lived but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.’
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