Reviewing the books read or re-read in 2016, I chose the thirteen most satisfying. In other words, I reflected on how much stimulation and pleasure was felt sitting with the book – and why. If you have the patience, the following slideshow will countdown for this year. The rest of the post details why I found these books superb.
13. A Russian Journal (1948) by John Steinbeck, with photographs by Robert Capa, made me remember how powerful and authoritative was Steinbeck’s voice in 20th century literature. Capa and Steinbeck travel to Russia in 1947 to report what they see, rather than analyse the politics of the period. Steinbeck is an honest exponent of genuine journalism and Capa could “photograph thought” so this is an important historical document as well as interesting read.
12. A History of Pictures: From the Cave to the Computer Screen (2016) by David Hockney and Martin Gayford is a beautiful, albeit heavy book to hold. Written in the form of transcript, it is a long conversation about representation and art between the authors. I really wanted to underline the numerous quotable quote, dog-ear and scribble notes on page after page – but could not bring myself to do it. The book is more of a history of representation than a history of pictures and I found their insights sagacious.
11. George Orwell’s third novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936), is much better than the author personally rated it. Orwell never wanted it reprinted and claimed it was only published as he ‘needed the money’. I can see why he felt this way; the plot, characterisation and style need development. However, I gobbled it greedily feeling pleased that after all these years of reading Orwell that there was still such pleasure to be found in this novel the author wanted pulped.
10. I visited the Beat museum and City Lights Books in San Francisco and re-read Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road for the fun of it. It wasn’t that much fun and I preferred The Dharma Bums which I’d not read before. The Dharma Bums is really amusing, alive and feels like a more honest novel about the people and times. I laughed aloud a great deal.
9. I read Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2016) by Yuval Noah Harari on my kindle and highlighted 134 passages during the process. I then downloaded the audiobook and started again. What surprised me about this sequel to Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (which I have also just re-read) is how clearly Harari is able to make complex ideas – about technological change, politics, history and society – very accessible.
8. The Sellout (2015) by Paul Beatty is a most amusing and subversive read. In many ways, like Michel Houellebecq, Beatty is interesting as he says things about race, culture and contemporary society most authors would not poke with any length stick. There are many one-liners that make one laugh aloud. Sentence after sentence is intelligent and very wickedly witty. Like Houellebecq, you laugh more than just a little guiltily. I love how his outrageous rants are often little “essays passing for fiction”. There is wisdom and some pretty terrible, or terribly insightful, things said.
7. Looking at Pictures by Robert Walser is a beautifully bound book filled with treats – visual and poetic – including gorgeous colour art reproductions adhered to the pages. It is something special. In many ways Walser reminded me of the feeling one has when reading Herman Hesse.
6. The Gene: An Intimate History (2016) by Siddhartha Mukherjee is a comprehensive, scholarly and, as the title suggests, quite personal exploration of a scientific topic that has completely obsessed our society in recent decades. The history covers all the familiar names such as Mendel, Darwin, Crick, Watson and Rosa Franklin but includes many innovators and scientists in the burgeoning biotech industry, especially in the last few decades, who are not so well-known. The six parts range from 1865 to conceptions of a post-human future. He explores a vast range of topics that many people will have but a passing knowledge through reading newspapers and magazines. There are particularly insightful passages about Nazi eugenics, heredity, population genetics, twins, cloning and the politics of race, sexuality and identity that make for interesting reading for those who wish to think further about the impact of scientific understanding in and on our culture. It is hard to imagine a more comprehensive and readable book about the subject of genetics.
5. The Art of Time Travel: Historians and Their Craft (2016) by Tom Griffiths has been reviewed positively and is even better than that. The author explores the craft of fourteen of Australia’s most interesting historians and the text certainly reflects Griffiths’ belief that “History is essential to meaning and identity and…its greatest virtue is uncompromising complexity”. Historians discussed – in all their complexity – that I enjoyed most included: Eleanor Dark, Judith Wright, Geoffrey Blainey, Henry Reynolds, Greg Dening and Inga Clendinnen. Griffiths successfully makes his considerable understanding of these historians clear to the reader and in some cases it will be as revelatory as it was for this reader. For example, having read Blainey my entire adult life I found much to contemplate in Griffiths’ analysis of this historian’s approach to the “great seesaw” of history.
4. The Stupidity Paradox: The Power and Pitfalls of Functional Stupidity at Work (2016) by Mats Alvesson, André Spicer develops the thesis that many organisations are caught in the stupidity paradox: they employ smart people who end up doing stupid things. This can produce good results in the short term, but can pave the way to disaster in the longer term. This book should be read by everyone. Everyone!
3. The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (2015) by Andrea Wulf made me want to do the author’s bidding and help place him ‘back on a pedestal where he belongs’. Humboldt, who died in 1859 just a decade short of a century, was a Prussian scientist, geographer, naturalist, botanist, explorer and embodiment of the Romantic era but is now largely forgotten. He was the most famous person in the world except for a monarch or two, and Napoleon. I loved how he was bought to life again. A wonderful, wonderful read!
2. An excerpt in The Monthly from Our Man Elsewhere: In Search of Alan Moorehead (2016) by Thornton McCamish so impressed I pre-ordered the book and it has given great pleasure. Moorehead made a life travelling and writing. He seemed to know everybody and have been everywhere. His flight from the continental confines of Australia inspired the likes of Robert Hughes, Clive James and other would-be expatriates. This is not a conventional biography. McCamish’s book is something special. He is clearly enamoured with Moorehead and communicates the adventure of his ‘search’ for the war correspondent, traveller, husband, father, womaniser, journalist and writer skilfully. I was hooked. There’s just so much to enjoy in the story of Moorehead as well as the author’s thought about his subject’s legacy and life. At one stage, Alan Moorehead was Australia’s most famous writer and I hope more re-discover his non fiction.
1. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (2015) is an extraordinarily engaging, albeit bleak, rumination on friendship, self-loathing, abuse and suffering. The story opens conventionally enough and we start to get to know four friends commencing careers in New York City. Malcolm, Willem, JB, and “post-sexual, post-racial, post-identity, post-past” Jude, who becomes the centre of the novel. His story is painful and often I wanted the author to just stop telling me about Jude as it is a brutalising and painful tale but never anything other than compelling. He needs his friends more than most of us ever would. This is what all readers want from a novel; it is real.
The truth of the matter is that finishing reading aloud The Lord of the Rings to my children was the most satisfying reading experience of the year. Also, sitting in cafes, after long walks through New York and San Francisco reading Baudelaire’s Twenty Prose Poems and Zone: Selected Poems by Guillaume Apollinaire was pretty damn fine too.