I have for many years, but without good reason, jotted down the books I’ve read. Maybe it’s at least prevented me reading the same book more than once (though I once bought the same book four times, each of its predecesors having long been buried in cliff-hanging piles in my office or study). For many a year I read 70-80 books, as well of course as numerous chapters and acedemic papers. The more I wrote myself, the less I read. A pattern emerged fairly rapidly. I usually had half a dozen books on the go: a couple of academic tomes, a work of popular non-fiction, a biography and, for bedtime, a novel. It is a pattern that has stetched into retirement, again for no good reason. Bizarrely, I feel guilty if I turn to a novel in the daytime.
Anyway, this blog is just a bit of diversionary fun. In 2017 I find I read 102 books, well up on my average despite the fact that I wrote a single-authored book, edited another, and even published an article or two. How does this list break down?
Of the 102, 47 were novels (which surprises me – lots of bedtime reading). I must own up to going through a Simenon phase. He is surely one of the very best of twentieth-century writers: such plotting, wit and imagination, an Austin-like economy of phrasing. Anyway, I wound my way effortlessly through Maigret’s adventures, 14 of them, plus a further three of Simenon’s other novels. Maigret, I reckon, must have been an alcoholic (or maybe Simenon was), given his propensity for interludes in Parisian bars and his capacity to absorb huge quantities of wine and spirits daily. Of the other 30 novels there are a few I recall with particular clarity. I love James Lee Burke’s novels (they are not thrillers!), and The Jealous Kind was 2017’s treat, to which add two other favourites, Donna Leon, who contributed Earthly Remains, set as ever in Venice, and Sarah Parestsky, who published Fallout. I’ve also grown accustomed to reading Billingham on Tom Thorne (Love Like Blood in 2017), but I immediately donate them to Dorking’s wonderful Oxfam bookshop, which is revealing. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle and Kavan’s dystopian Ice fuelled thoughts of difference. Tsutsui’s The Maid was disturbing. Disraeli’s Sybil was better than one had the right to expect from an ex-PM. Le Carre’s A Legacy of Spies was disappointingly complex and obsure, Harris’ Munich better. Sebag Montefiore’s Red Sky at Noon, the last of a trilogy, was gripping storytelling. Tremain too is always good value, and I enjoyed her latest, The Gustav Sonata. Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is potently and touchingly beuatiful.
I read a dozen or so sporting autobiographies and biographies, principally from the worlds of rugby and cricket: pure, lazy relaxation. Paul O’Connell’s The Battle stands out most, due to the author’s frightening level of intensity, his career-long self-doubt and, above all, his ‘honest’ acceptance of the necessity for forward violence even in the much-scrutinized professional era.
Speaking of violence, I also read Fraser’s Mad Frank and Sons. What I found interesting about this story of intimidation and no-holes-barred or extreme violence was the pride expressed in the Fraser ‘family record’ of years spent in prison, and their tunnel vision. ‘Mad Frankie’ himself brought to mind my notion of the ‘focused autonomous reflexive’, an adaptation of Margaret Archer’s theory of reflexivity. Does Fraser not have characteristics in common with the fixated, self-serving and self-excusing ‘greedy bastards’ comprising my capital monopolists? Yes, he does, and the latter do far more harm!
It would be laborious and alienating to trudge through all 102 volumes, so I will just comment on a miscellaneous few before saying a word or two about academic works. I once lectured Rachel Clarke at UCL and I found her Your Life in My Hands, a junior doctor’s narrative of life in the NHS, quite exceptional. She excells at a form of communication I suspect I would find very difficult if I attempted it myself. Boyd’s Travellers in the Third Reich was revealing about Nazi fellow-travellers and touring ‘aristocratic’ naivety as Hitler took his grip on power. I remember my father, who was at the time in shipping and often visited Germany, telling me how locals would only discuss Hitler in open land where there were no prying ears. Mary Beard’s Women and Power was disappointing: although enlightening on Greeks and Romans, her knowledge and perspicacity fades towards the present. Parris writes like a dream but seems to have no moral compass (Chance Witness). Eagleton too writes alarmingly well (The Meaning of Life). I dipped also into Varoufakis, Monbiot and Harry Leslie Smith, and several contributions to the Penguin Monarchs Series (to fix a timeline in my head). Perryman’s collection on Corbyn’s Labour was dense and informative. Jeffries’ Grand Hotel Abyss on Frankfurt critical theory was fun.
What of texts appropriately seen as academic? Well here’s a list: Urry’s What of the Future?; Streeck’s How Will Capitalism End?; Winlow et al’s The Rise of the Right; Bauman’s Strangers at Our Door; Honneth’s The Idea of Socialism; Bhaskar’s The Order of Natural Necessity; Snyder’s On Tyranny; Cox’s Existentialism and Excess; Evans & Tilley’s The New Politics of Class; Garthwaite’s Hunger Pains; Payne’s The New Social Mobility; Badiou’s Our Wound is Not so Recent; and Bourdieu’s Photography. There are none in this list that I wouldn’t recommend, though I would prioritise Streeck, Urry, Winlow et al and Garthwaite if you are pushed for time. But then again you and I might differ. At least you by now have an idea where I’m coming from. At the end of the day just a handful of the books I consumed in 2017 are not especially memorable.
Oh, and an unexpected gem from my local Oxfam bokshop: Poems from Italy. This is a collection of poems from soldiers – ranging widely in rank and ‘education’ – serving in Italy during the second world war. It’s a reminder that insight, perspicuity, clarity of thought and articulacy are not the preserve of the few.