Confession: this year, I failed in my reading target of reading ‘at least one more book than last year’, which would have required a minimum of 31. I could make several attempts to excuse myself, not least an abandoned effort to read the King James Bible which consumed many hours, and the distractions of moving. Nonetheless, here is my year in books:
It started out well, with The End of the Chinese Dream. I’d been looking for a good book on China for a while and picked this intimate study of the hopes, dreams and fears of Chongqing residents over a general sprawling history. It’s particularly memorable for its account of using a traditional Chinese ‘wishing tree’ to subvert government restrictions on surveys. There’s a much broader narrative to Adam Tooze’s The Deluge, a history of the global political reshaping which followed the First World War, which I wanted to read something about in this centenary year. (Fun fact: once upon a time, I went to Tooze’s ‘Economics for Historians’ lectures.) Suffice to say, I really enjoyed this, and recommend it to anyone interested in how and why the twentieth century turned out as it did.
More surprisingly, another piece of non-fiction this year which really stuck with me was Addiction By Design – Natasha Dow Schüll’s study of machine gambling in Vegas. I think I read this after an extract in The Guardian happened to catch my eye, and I found it completely enthralling. Not being a gambler myself, I had always assumed that the pleasure of a place like Vegas would come from the thrill of taking risks. In fact, the majority of casino revenue is now made up of gaming formats which are geared to precisely the opposite: routinised, almost trance-like experiences at slot machines. A work supported by years of research, the author deserves credit for making it so accessible to a general audience.
I’ve focused on non-fiction so far, which is where a lot of my hits of 2014 turns out to be, but there was a lot of good fiction stuff too. The Line of Beauty drew me into its world and served up some of the most well-written sex scenes I’ve ever read (your mileage may vary, but I remember being pretty struck by them). Heart of Darkness is a justified classic, obviously, and well conveys the dark and the terrible of European colonisation. The Caves of Steel was the first Asimov book I’ve ever read and, apart from being clever, imbued me with a strong, false nostalgia for the science fiction of the 1950s, and the kind of futures they imagined. The Ocean at the End of the Lane was vintage Gaiman: I’m not convinced it had much that was new, but I’m always a sucker for the twisted fairytale world he creates. And much of the pleasure of The Silkworm was the comfortable feeling of being allowed back into a JK Rowling book series, with characters you already know and love, ready for another adventure.
On the other hand, The Autograph Man was (as everybody warned me) Zadie Smith’s least best, and meanders around the lives of some fairly unlikeable but also unremarkable characters. I wasn’t particularly taken in by The Big Sleep: it was fine, and scratched an itch for a hard-boiled American detective, but I’m not in a rush for more of Philip Marlowe. Under The Net has somewhat slipped out of my brain, although I think I understood something from it at the time. The Book Thief was simplistic but moving. Love in the Time of Cholera is all about the writing, and that always stays with me less than plot, meaning that now when I look back I draw a blank although I remember enjoying it at the time. One thing which did stay with me was Lolita, so I’m glad that I tried again with this book after abandoning it halfway through a few years back. The first half is still much better, but it’s worth reading alone for Humbert’s skilful self-justification, all the creepier for its certain seductive power.
Oh yes, and late this year I also read War and Peace. I’m pleased that I did. Big epics usually take some time to get into, especially with so many characters, and this was no exception. But since the first thing most people say about War and Peace is how long it is, I have to say that it didn’t feel so long, especially once I could devote proper stretches of time to it. So, why bother? Well firstly, I knew next to nothing about Napoleon and the Napoleonic wars, so Tolstoy proved very instructive. The characters are pretty memorable, especially Natasha – after whom my sister was named! – and there are a couple of moments (especially during the war sequences toward the end) which hit you hard. He also throws in a couple of great quips.
Many congratulations to Simon for appearing in the essay collection Going Underground. And many thanks to Christa, whose gift of Division Street America was not always easy to read, and often melancholy, but an important insight into the city of Chicago. Love Letters to the Home Office and The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile I have written about elsewhere.
And finally, for anyone who’s still reading: sometimes, for whatever reason, something you read enters the ‘random useless fact’ part of your brain and stays there. So allow me to share two entirely unrelated things which I found interesting in my reading this year. Firstly, courtesy of Linguistics: A Very Short Introduction is the Tuyuca language of a small South American people. It’s one with mandatory evidentiality, which means that the grammar of the language requires you to specify how a statement is known – whether visually, nonvisually, secondhand or through being apparent or assumed. (Comparably, for example, English often forces you to specify whether a noun or singular or plural: you can’t ‘pick flowers’ where the number of flowers may be 1.) But just think how much more precise the news would be if we spoke Tuyuca, eh?
Second fact, this time from Rousseau: the Polish-Lithuanian parliament of the 16th-18th centuries had a procedure known as the liberum veto. If any member invoked it (by shouting “Nie pozwalam!”, Wikipedia claims), then it didn’t just crush the legislation being debated, it also brought the session to an immediate end and voided everything which had already been passed in that session already. For anyone who despairs at the banality of Republican obstructionism in the US Congress, take some comfort in the fact that at least they don’t have the liberum veto. (Rousseau wasn’t very impressed, either. He called for the death penalty for anyone who tried to use it.)
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