I’m a big reader. It’s my main source of recreation and feeds into my broader quest to understand everything about everything. This year I read 92 books, which is about normal for me.
I don’t have a particular method to what I read, I just chase up whatever I’m interested in at that time, and one thing often leads to another. There’s no syllabus, and I question the value of trying to read through “the 50 greatest books of all time” or some such list, because they’re always obviously biased and make no allowance for personal interest and variable enthusiasms. In my view if you need a list to tell you what to read, you just need to read more, period. If you do so, your interests will find you, and then you won’t have to rely on lists any more.
I usually have 20 or books on my to-be-read pile, and I just grab the one that looks most interesting at any given time. It’s mostly non-fiction, but I go through fiction phases as well, especially science fiction. Occasionally I’m burned out and just reread old favourites. Often these are the most enjoyable and rewarding books that I’ve read all year.
At any rate, here are some of the books that I enjoyed most this year. There is no logic to their selection, other than that I enjoyed them at the time and they have done the most to furnish my mental drawing room. Most of them weren’t released this year, but some were.
Colin Thubron – Shadows of the Silk Road
An older man taking a serious adventure. Thubron is tough as old boot, travelling overland along the old Silk Road, getting locked up in Xinjiang, catching various diseases, and being cold, hot, hungry and exhausted. I can’t say it sounds like fun, but it’s riveting for someone who doesn’t actually have to do it.
Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay – Cynical Theories
Two academics skewer modern cultural studies academia, in particular “Critical Theory”. Quite controversial for obvious reasons, I found it to be a fascinating and well-argued defence of traditional notions of evidence and falsification in academia in the face of emergent orthodoxies which seem mainly to value amorphous identity-based dogma and ad hominem attacks on those who disagree.
Oevre award: William Gibson
I reread Neuromancer in 2021, and then ordered all of his books that I hadn’t read before. Over the course of the year I read six of his novels, and although they tend to blend into one another a little, his voice is unique and thrilling. Is there any writer who is literary, inventive, and can write a gripping thriller without feeling tempted to deviate, even once, into a tedious multi-generational family saga? I am eagerly awaiting his latest (tentatively titled “Jackpot”) which I expect to be released in 2023.
Chuck Klosterman – The Nineties
I was a teenager in the nineties and I had no real understanding of how much that shaped me until I read this book. The Cold War was still reverberating in the 90s, but the world hadn’t yet been transfigured by technology. Read this if you want to understand why Seinfeld was the most influential TV show of all time, why popular music stopped evolving in about 1999, why every year since about 2002 feels kind of the same as any other, and why it was once the height of cool to be really sarcastic about everything.
Andy Weir – Project Hail Mary
No awards for highly elaborate or literary writing here but I have a soft spot for this book. Written by the same guy who wrote The Martian, it describes first contact with an alien species in the context of an earth-threatening emergency. Andy Weir’s characters always seem to be cheerfully emotionally neutered scientist-men, but write what you know I guess. Good fun this one – there’s plausible space travel, plausible aliens, geoengineering, and a great deal of detailed technical explanation. I listened to the audiobook, which I recommend.
Oliver Burkeman – Four Thousand Weeks
If you read the blurb, this sounds like a self-help book. I suppose it is, but only if you consider Montaigne and Marcus Aurelius to be self-help writers. The four thousand weeks in question are how long the average person has to live. Burkeman notes that this is a short period of time and starts by writing about time management, but rapidly veers off into the question of How To Live. Much better than it sounds.
Jorge Almazan – Emergent Tokyo: Designing the Spontaneous City
I love a bit of urban design, and I really love a bit of Tokyo. This one combines the two with many very clear diagrams, and explains how some of the best bits of Tokyo (the yokocho alleys, the multi-use buildings, and the dense residential low-rise residential neighbourhoods) came to be. The key argument is that they evolved in the early years of post-war reconstruction and have thrived despite formal urban planning, rather than instead of it. If you’ve ever been to Tokyo and wondered how on earth it works, read this book.
Kyle Harper – The fate of Rome
Book of the year. An amalgam of history, archaeology, climate research and more. I absolutely could not put this book down. It explains so many things I had never thought to question, such as why the Roman Empire could thrive in the relatively arid Mediterranean, but large empires before and afterwards couldn’t (hint: it was the climate of the time). The biggest eye opener for me was just how devastating the Antonine Plague was, and how later Roman history could really be divided into two – an earlier period which was culturally and economically contiguous with the time of Augustus, and a later period in which 50% or more of the population had died, the economy was ruined, and where a distinctly Greek culture limped on until the 15th century. Highly recommended.