My year in books – part I – non-fiction

December is the month of lists. Not just wish lists for Father Christmas, but a seemingly endless deluge of lists of the “best moments/films/albums/concerts/cat videos of the year” variety.

I wouldn’t want loyal readers of this blog (all three of you) to miss out on this seasonal bonanza, so here is my own contribution: a list of the best books I’ve read this year (published in two parts, starting here with non-fiction).

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  1. Bill Bryson’s The Road to Little Dribbling (2015) is simultaneously the funniest and wisest book about life in contemporary Britain I’ve ever read. Bryson’s love for his adopted country is infectious (not that I needed a great deal of convincing – see my October blog). Whilst it’s by no means a political book, he manages to offer sage observations on most of the important political questions of our age – from the folly of austerity and HS2 to the marvel that is the British higher education system and the benefits of immigration. I’d vote for Bryson! My only minor complaint is that he slightly short-changes Scotland (he sleeps through most of it) and indeed basically anywhere that isn’t southern England, to which considerably more than half the book is devoted. But I forgive him because a) I’m from southern England too (as I suspect a lot of his readers are: that’s why he panders to us) and b) Bryson’s so charming on the page that only someone with serious psychiatric problems could muster enough indignation to be seriously annoyed with him.
  1. Like Bryson, Michael Lewis has been writing bestselling books for my entire life (he made his name with Liar’s Poker – his insider account of life as a bond salesman at legendary Wall Street firm Salomon Brothers – published in 1989). His forte is bringing the world of high finance to life in glorious, lurid technicolour. He has an eye for the engaging human angle and a talent for storytelling. As a result, he stands head and shoulders above pretty much every other writer on finance. The recently released film version of The Big Short has won critical acclaim and his most recent book Flash Boys (2014) was a breath-taking account of the rise of high frequency trading – a subject that nobody else has succeeded in making sound even remotely interesting. But the book of his I read this year – and loved – actually strays slightly more onto Bryson territory. Boomerang (2011) is essentially a travelogue. Lewis visits post-crash Iceland, Ireland, Germany, Greece and California for a spot of “financial disaster tourism” as he calls it. The result is a fascinating tale of how the financial crisis took different forms in different countries as a result of different national characteristics. The Germans were too gullible and rules-orientated, meaning they were the suckers who continued to believe the ratings agencies long after everyone else figured out that AAA ratings were meaningless. The Icelandic bankers were too macho; the Irish too optimistic; and the Greeks were scuppered by their complete lack of social solidarity. No surprises there, then.
  1. Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America (2004) is another classic of observational journalism. Cooke spent his entire working life as a BBC correspondent in the US and his weekly radio broadcasts were a fixture of the schedule for the best part of six decades. The selection in this book cover the entire period from the Truman Presidency to post-9/11 America. Sometimes they focus on the major events of American history in that period – the shooting of JFK, Watergate, 9/11 – but just as often they’re little vignettes about the changing of the seasons in New England or high society in New York. Perhaps the acutest observations in the book though are about the nature of journalism itself. Cooke argues that the success of Woodward and Bernstein – the heroes of Watergate – has cast a long shadow over journalism. Their legacy is a world in which journalists see their role as being to investigate, interrogate and often prosecute their targets in the court of public opinion. Whereas Cooke harks back to an older school of journalism which sees its job as being simply to describe and elucidate. As I wrote back in March, I think he makes a good point and I rather wish there were more journalists like Cooke around today.
  1. At the other end of the social spectrum from the genteel, elitist world Cooke belonged to in New York, Alan Johnson’s memoir This Boy (2014) is a powerful story of growing up poor in West London in the 1950s and 1960s. The vividness with which Johnson is able to recreate his childhood on the streets of Notting Hill and North Kensington (areas which have changed more or less beyond recognition in the intervening half century) is extraordinarily compelling. Johnson writes with genuine humility, candour and non-judgment, which makes him come across as intensely likeable. No wonder Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell et al wanted to recruit him to lead the Labour party after 2010! Indeed, if this were America, This Boy is exactly the kind of book you’d expect a presidential candidate to write (it’s in the same vein as Obama’s Dreams From My Father). Johnson’s story is even complete with a shit for a father who walked out on him, his mother and his sister early on. The whole thing is a bit like the back story you could imagine Aaron Sorkin writing for the main character in his British version of The West Wing. Oh, to think what might have been.
  1. Meanwhile, the 2016 presidential campaign is well underway in the States and, my God, what a shit-show! It is extraordinarily difficult to make sense of a polity in which characters like Donald Trump and Ben Carson thrive. NYU-based social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has done more than most to explain the inexplicable. He was first drawn to analysing America’s liberal-conservative political divide after watching John Kerry’s spectacular failure in 2004 to connect with voters who didn’t share his worldview. The Righteous Mind (2012) is the result. Unlike previous generations of liberal scholars (such as my hero, the historian Richard Hofstadter, whom I wrote about back in January), Haidt does not pathologise conservatives. Rather, he subverts the old paradigm by suggesting that, in a sense, conservatives are superior to liberals. Their moral psychology is based on six foundations – liberty, fairness, care, authority, loyalty and sanctity – whereas liberals’ moral palate is less sophisticated, comprised as it is of just the first three on this list. Haidt’s analysis only goes so far. He doesn’t offer a convincing explanation of why liberals and conservatives tend to interpret words like liberty and fairness in such different ways (as someone who wrote a master’s thesis on the appropriation and re-invention of key words by different political groups, perhaps I’m particularly sensitive to this gap in the argument). Nonetheless, with an election year coming up, The Righteous Mind is as good a guide as exists to navigating the bizarre moral psychology of American politics. Then again, in the age of Trump and Carson, Hofstadter’s argument that right-wing politics is the product of paranoid, status-anxious minds looks more persuasive than it has in a while.
  1. This Changes Everything (2014) is probably the most important and thought-provoking book I’ve read this year (though I admit the title does over-promise somewhat: it hasn’t actually changed much at all for me). Veteran documentary-maker and anti-globalisation campaigner Naomi Klein takes on the most important issue facing humanity today: how do we avoid climate catastrophe? Klein’s view is that capitalism is part of the problem, not part of the solution. I happen to disagree with her (as I explained at length in October), but the book certainly got me thinking and I admire the passion she brings to the subject. There is not enough good writing about climate change out there. Too much of it is either excessively technical or yawn-inducingly worthy or unappealingly sanctimonious and self-righteous. Klein is none of these things and for that I applaud her.
  1. Mark Forsyth’s The Elements of Eloquence (2013) is a very entertaining whistle-stop tour of the figures of rhetoric (39 in total) – the tricks that make memorable phrases memorable. Back in January I used it to analyse the poetry of one of my favourite pieces of music: Finzi’s Dies Natalis, which uses a text by the seventeenth-century poet Thomas Traherne. Forsyth makes a strong case for the value of knowing a little bit about the figures of rhetoric – not just for writers, but also for readers. It’s one of those instances where having a basic understanding of the techniques being used increases your enjoyment of the end-product rather than diminishing it by taking some of the mystery away. Read my blog from January to find out more about merisms, diacope and catachresis.

So that’s my non-fiction list for 2015. Watch this space for my fiction picks – coming soon.

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