Reviewing the books I read or re-read in 2015, I decided to choose the thirteen I had derived the most pleasure as a reader. In other words, I reflected on how much satisfaction was felt sitting with the book – and why. If you have the patience, the following slideshow will countdown to the book that gave me the most pleasure this year. The rest of the post details why I found these books so pleasurable.
The following thirteen books span well over 2000 years. About half were published in 2014-15 and three are books ones I re-read, two of them aloud to my children.
13. M Train (2015) by Patti Smith is a real reader’s read and you must read it. Smith, like you, has spent her life inhabiting the lives and worlds of writers and books. I love how she pursues these worlds in her endless travels to remote places. M Train is a book one devours in a sitting with a good coffee or two.
12. Jonathan Livingstone Seagull (1970/2014) by Richard Bach is a favourite from my teens and I re-read it this year aloud to my children who loved Jonathan’s travails. The book has a new last chapter and anyone who has previously enjoyed JLS should grab the updated edition.
11. Blood Year: Terror and the Islamic State (2015) by David Kilcullen may not seem likely to be a “pleasurable read” but it is essential reading for anyone endeavouring to understand the most worrying of contemporary issues. It confirms many beliefs about the unwise political trajectory a series of Western leaders have propelled us along and how these poor decisions have de-stabilised the region.
10. How to Win an Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians (64 BCE) by Quintus Tullius Cicero is a two thousand year old tract, by the brother of the famous Roman orator, Cicero, and is an absolute treasure. Written to Cicero as advice about the upcoming consular elections in 64 BC, it feels very fresh and frighteningly familiar. A great read and one that will have you chuckling and despairing in almost equal measure. The past is not another country…
9. Landmarks (2015) by Robert MacFarlane is a near-perfect book for me. His obsessions with authors, walking, literature, language, nature and landscape are just thrilling. That saying about reading one good book always leads to another does not hold true with MacFarlane’s; he leads to literally dozens of new authors and texts.
8. The Peregrine (1967) by J.A. Baker is one of the books discovered reading MacFarlane. The myopic author who traipses around the countryside on an obsessive mission to observe the most fascinating of birds is interesting enough but more importantly, the language is poetry of the absolutely highest order. As MacFarlane says, The Peregrine is not a book about watching a falcon but a book about becoming a falcon. A taste:
His eyes were fixed on my face, and his head turned as he went past, so that he could keep me in view. He was not afraid, nor was he disturbed when I lowered and raised my binoculars or shifted my position. He was either indifferent or mildly curious. I think he regards me now as part hawk, part man; worth flying over to look at from time to time, but never wholly to be trusted; a crippled hawk, perhaps, unable to fly or to kill cleanly, uncertain and sour of temper.
7. The Sun Also Rises (1926) by Ernest Hemingway transported me each morning, while taking the train to work, into the world of 1920s France and Spain. This is the experience that I so love about books. Everything else disappears and one is completely elsewhere. It feels like travelling but better.
6. The Three-Body Problem (2014) by Liu Cixin (and the sequel) made for wonderfully interesting reading this year. Any novel that deals with the big issues for humanity or our planet, especially if it is translated, must run a risk of having a neglected plot but this is a cracking story. I encourage all to explore some contemporary Chinese science fiction when it is this good.
5. Submission (2015) by Michel Houellebecq is just achingly brilliant. Not for every reader I know but for this one, the latest Houellebecq is a literary treat that takes one to places where other authors do not dare to tread. Magnificent!
4. Seeing Things As They Are: Selected Journalism and Other Writings (2014) by George Orwell and edited by Peter Davison was read after many hours of re-reading collections of Orwell’s essays and novels. It was particularly fascinating as it included book reviews and other occasional newspaper articles about what one could loosely call popular culture that I have never heard of before. A treasure trove for Orwell fans.
3. I re-read Wolf Hall (2009) by Hilary Mantel in preparation for the BBC series adaptation. The novel is even better second time round. I particularly enjoyed the dialogue between Cromwell and Thomas More which, on first reading, was overshadowed by that of Wolsey and Cromwell. Mantel’s portrayal of Anne Boleyn is as unflattering as that of Cromwell’s is positive. I cannot wait for The Mirror and the Light.
2. The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District (2015) by James Rebanks was a real find this year and, considering I was about to walk in The Lake District, had a special resonance. This memoir is a truly special read and certainly gave me greater insight into the culture of the land so many walkers love, unaware of the traditions that have shaped the landscape. The author’s musings on education were particularly interesting.
1. The Wind in the Willows (1908) by Kenneth Grahame has been wonderful to share with the kids. Robert Ingpen‘s illustrations are extraordinarily evocative, making Kenneth Grahame‘s memorable characters even more very real for us. We really took our time and read slowly, over many weeks, discussing and laughing at many of the humorous situations and odd, “old-fashioned” sentences. The beautifully bound centenary edition of this classic text was weighty but much better than my old battered paperback. Reading this aloud to your children is as good at it gets.
What books have you enjoyed most in 2015?