We asked CapX’s writers and editors which books – new or old, fiction or non-fiction – they enjoyed reading this year.
I’ve already waxed lyrical on CapX about Ron Chernow’s biographies of Washington and Hamilton, but they really do repay reading – whether or not you’re a fan of the musical based on the latter.
Policy-wise I had the interesting experience of interviewing David Goodhart, Tyler Cowen and Douglas Carswell almost back to back, each of whose books – The Road to Somewhere, The Complacent Class and Rebel – seemed to be trying to answer the same very big question, namely what’s gone wrong with our economy and how can we put it right.
Oliver Letwin’s autobiography-cum-manifesto Hearts and Minds was sprightly and admirably self-deprecating, and I also devoured Just in Time, John Hoskyns’ memoir of the early days of Thatcherism – and of the Centre for Policy Studies, which I now run.
Finally, the football nerd in me greatly enjoyed The Mixer by Michael Cox – a tactical history of the Premier League which makes an unanswerable case for the benefits of immigration, at least when the people immigrating are Pep Guardiola and Eric Cantona.
Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo Da Vinci is magnificent. Richly illustrated and superbly told, it is a worthy successor to his fine biographies of Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin. It is as good on the art as the science and technology.
Founder of Modern Economics, the first volume of Roger Backhouse’s biography of Paul A. Samuelson, was one of this year’s most thrilling geeky reads. It chronicles in detail the formative years of the economist who has most influenced other economists, the one who introduced the systematic use of mathematics into the discipline and whose contributions earned him a Nobel Prize in 1970.
We learn that it was Milton Friedman who prevailed on Samuelson to write his PhD at Harvard under Schumpeter. Backhouse describes Samuelson’s initial scepticism of Keynes and his Damascian conversion a few years later, which made Samuelson one of the foremost American representatives of the post-WWII mixed-economy consensus. The book also begins to grapple with the limits to the Samuelsonian quantitative approach, encapsulated by the high hopes placed on econometric forecasting in the 1940s and 1950s, frustrated ever since by the impossibility to predict and manage an ever more complex market economy.
If Keynes was the 20th century’s most important economist for policymakers and Friedman the one who captivated the general public, then Samuelson doubtless bears responsibility for making economics into the highly relevant and highly imperfect science it is today. Anyone interested in the trajectory and future of economic research should read this book.
The inspiration for the fantastic and hugely successful musical Hamilton, Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton was my favourite read of the year. It tells the remarkable life story of one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. Born into poverty in the Caribbean and orphaned at an early age, his genius and drive took him to what is now Columbia University in New York City before joining the War of Independence where he rose through the ranks to become George Washington’s Aide-de-Camp. After the war he trained as a lawyer and was the principal author of the Federalist Papers which are still regarded as the best and most authoritative guide to interpreting the US Constitution. Hamilton went on to found the Bank of New York, the US Coast guard, and was the first ever US Treasury Secretary. He was killed in a duel by Vice-President Aaron Burr.
Hamilton’s life demonstrates what can be achieved through hard work, ambition and drive. However, his writings and his policies as Treasury Secretary have much to teach governments in the 21st Century, not least the UK as it prepares to leave the EU. America went from a bankrupt former colony, unsure of its place in the world, to a super power. Under Hamilton’s influence, the US recognised the importance of the financial sector, embraced international trade, and defended individual liberties and the rule of law. Moreover, once it gained its independence from the British Empire, it did not become an insular nation. Rather, it chose to pursue peace and friendship with the rest of the world, especially with the British Empire.
McCrae’s Battalion: The Story of the 16th Royal Scots by Jack Alexander is a labour of love and a very detailed history of one specific battalion in WWI. Built around the core of the Hearts of Midlothian football club, it was one of the Pal’s Battalions which filled the need for recruitment between the first few months of war and the introduction of conscription in 1916. Heart breaking, as all such histories of the time are, and extremely well done.
Strongly recommended on two grounds. For the story itself and also as an example of what the gifted amateur (as far as I’m aware this is the only book by the author) is capable of for this is markedly better than many a book, or history, from so called professionals.
Two novels affected me this year, for different reasons. One I wrote about in the summer reading list — A Natural, by Ross Raisin. It’s my book of the year, and (were I a wealthy philanthropist with lots of money and nothing else to organise in the week before Christmas) I’d arrange for a copy of this heterosexual writer’s dissection of male homosexuality to appear in the Christmas stocking of everyone I have ever met. It’s scientifically perfect, which makes it sound clinical — and there is a hint of this precision in the distance of the prose style. This just serves to elevate the drama of the crises which eventually afflict many of the book’s characters: you don’t realise how much you care about them, until your face is wet with tears. Astonishing writing.
The other novel to work its way under my skin is Why Did You Lie?, by Yrsa Sigurdardottir (translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb), actually published in 2016 but I didn’t read it until this year. Yrsa is an Icelandic crime writer and this story — four people stuck on a tiny rock in the middle of the Atlantic, where there’s barely enough room to stand; all of whom have lied and all of whom will pay for their lies — is a gripping classic of “Scandi-noir” (which is less deformed by the “isshoos-based narratives” that are too common in too much English crime fiction, like a dreadful Afternoon Play on Radio 4.)
But there’s more going on here than just a good story: in the months since I read the book, the creeping sense of dread it induced has grown, until I realised that Yrsa’s central image — of fragile humans, clinging to an inhospitable rock, battered by the elements and never further than a mis-step from a cold and lonely death in the pitiless embrace of an indifferent ocean/universe — is a metaphor whose relevance extends much, much further than the pages of this wonderful novel.
In The Wisdom of Finance, Harvard Business School professor Mihir Desai does two things: uses idea and stories from the “real” world to explain finance and vice versa. I interviewed Desai for CapX in September. He was full of interesting things to say and his view of finance as both brilliant and flawed makes The Wisdom of Finance the ideal last-minute Christmas present for both the banker and banker basher in your life.
There was plenty to disagree with William F. Buckley about. But the way in which he refashioned American conservatism from the offices of National Review, the magazine he founded in 1955, has made him a figure of enduring fascination to me. The year after Donald Trump co-opted the Republican party to win the presidency seemed like the right time to delve into the life of someone who played such a big role in defining the Right in the US. And so I got my hands on a copy of William F. Buckley, Jr: Patron Saint of the Conservatives by John B. Judis.
The Writer’s Desk, by Jill Krementz, is a gem. It is a series of photographs of writers at work. Stephen King has his feet on his desk. Cathleen Schine props herself up in bed. Saul Bellow stands. Roy Blount, Jr. was a canary in the coal mine. Sitting in front of a mid-Nineties desktop computer, he asks Krementz, “Why write, when you can watch a movie on your typewriter?”
For obvious reasons, it’s been a bumper year for books marking one of the more melancholy centenaries (against stiff competition) of recent years, that of the Bolshevik coup, but if I had to pick one it would be Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government, a sprawling, discursive work in the grand Russian style. It owes its title to the massive apartment complex (known to many Russians as the House on the Embankment after a Soviet-era novella) built just across the river from the Kremlin for the communist elite at the end of the 1920s. As many of its occupants were to discover, it was dangerously close to the Lubyanka too.
Slezkine uses the story of some of those who lived in this building as a way of tracing the evolution of the Soviet state, particularly in its first three decades. That would be worth the price of the book alone, but more interesting still is Slezkine’s analysis of the Bolsheviks as a millenarian sect. That’s not a new theme, but coming to grips with it is essential to any real understanding what Bolshevism was and what it would lead to. In Slezkine, readers will find an original and brilliant interpreter of this idea, and will be left uneasy by the realization that Bolshevism is just one variant of a poisonous millenarian impulse which will always be with us.
My criterion for recommending a book is, did it keep me awake at night? There is nothing like reading into the small hours, ideally under the covers with comestibles and beverages to hand. Strangely, the next day’s exhaustion evaporates on the following night, when you pick up where you half-remember having left off. These are the books that I lost sleep over this year. I hope they deprive you of much-needed rest too.
In fiction, 2017 was the year in which I succumbed to A Dance to the Music of Time, the Anthony Powell dodecalogue. The resulting insomnia rendered me a raccoon-eyed zombie, and most novels dull to the taste for weeks afterwards. I sought out unread novels by Margaret Drabble and Elizabeth Jane Howard, discovered Rebecca West in fiction and non, and enjoyed Lawrence Osborne’s Beautiful Animals, which took a Graham Greene-ish look at the moral quandaries of Europe’s migrant crisis.
On current affairs, some readers compared Ben Judah’s This Is London to Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, but I found the experience closer to reading Dostoevsky: Judah’s prose seeks to emulate the life-and-death stakes of the plot. Out of town, I discovered Roger Scruton’s News From Somewhere, and am ending the year with his latest, Where We Are: The State of Britain.
In non-fiction, I couldn’t read Kyle Harper’s environmental rejoinder to Gibbon, The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire, without thinking of our times. Still, you have to laugh. Jeremy Dauber’s The Jewish Joke: A Serious History managed to explain the history without killing the jokes. Jimmy Webb’s autobiography, The Cake and the Rain was as eccentric and inspired as his songwriting. Simon Fenwick’s Joan, on the often overlooked life of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s better half, was a skilled piece of biographical detection. Sam Leith’s Write To the Point is the best recent book on how to write proper.
I do like books with pictures. They’re so much easier to read. These art books come with a health warning. If you are reading in bed and fall asleep, the books may fall on your face and cause maxillofacial injury.
Carmen Bambach’s monograph accompanying the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current exhibition, Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer, is an epic commensurate to its subject. Bambach supplies lots of colour illustrations, and explanations that tell you not just what Michelangelo did, but how he did it. Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath’s Art et Liberté: Rupture, War and Surrealism in Egypt (1938-1948) was a fascinating and pioneering account of the kind of cross-cultural exchange which, curiously, would be impossible now. In William Blake and the Age of Aquarius, I discovered new and important information on the links between Blake and Jimi Hendrix, as well as the story, equal parts gripping and awful, of a Blake-inspired hippy commune in Ohio. Similar shenanigans had me fondling the pages of Casanova: The Seduction of Europe, which includes reproductions of the ceilings of which Casanova saw so much. More chastely, Henry James and American Painting arranged art and life in a Jamesian tangle.
My book of the year was Great Expectations, which I have just finished reading to my daughters. Next up, a lady novelist whose name escapes me. Something called Pride and Prejudice.
Intangible investment – in knowledge-based assets such as software, design and branding – has now overtaken investment in tangible assets such as plant and machinery, offices and computers. Because intangibles are more likely to be scalable, involve sunk costs and lead to spillovers and synergies, this has big implications for how businesses operate and the economy works. In their thought-provoking book, Capitalism Without Capital, Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake explain how the rise of intangibles could impact on everything from productivity growth to inequality and business finance.