For some, reading has been an escape from the loneliness of lockdown, for others this year has been more about getting by than improving the mind. So to round off 2021, we asked CapX writers and editors which books – new or old, fiction or non-fiction – helped them make it through.
Due to family commitments, the vast majority of my reading this year has been aimed at the under-10 market. But assuming CapX readers don’t want my thoughts on the Captain Underpants series, I can say that anyone who’s enjoyed Peter Jackson’s Get Back documentary will absolutely love Craig Brown’s One, Two, Three, Four, a historical collage that brings the Beatles and their period back to the most vivid life.
And while the Corbyn era increasingly feels like ancient history, Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire’s account of the project, Left Out, does a great job of making you grateful all over again that the voters rejected it so decisively.
I spent nearly six months wading through Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light – it almost ruined reading for me. I loved the first two books in this trilogy, but this one, at about 300 pages too long, is proof that even the best writers need a really good editor.
Since then, with parenthood and pandemic anxiety pulverising my attention span, I’ve mostly resorted to books you can dip in and out of. Henry ‘Chips’ Channon: The Diaries, edited by Simon Heffer, is a great example. Channon was a member of the Guinness family and MP for Southend-on-Sea from 1935 to 1958. Reading this book is like gossiping with a bitchy, filthy rich friend who just happened to know all the most important people and be present at some of the most consequential moments of the 20th century.
Mark Stevens’ and Annalyn Swan’s Francis Bacon: Revelations, is a similarly vivid portrait of an impossible man whose booze-drenched life and tortured homosexual love affairs informed his art. Robert Shearman’s We All Hear Stories in the Dark is a kind of ‘choose your own adventure’ collection of loosely connected short stories. Shearman is perhaps best known as a writer for Doctor Who, and while these stories share that tension between fairy tale and science fiction, they’re much more grown-up.
CapX readers will enjoy The Future of Capitalism by Paul Collier, which combines a compelling analysis of where our economic system is going wrong with a practical and ethical framework for how to fix it. You can listen to my interview with him for The CapX Podcast here.
Much of my reading this year has been in aid of The CapX Podcast. Vivek Ramaswamy’s Woke, Inc was a fascinating dissection of the utterly shameless way that Wall St institutions have co-opted a social justice agenda to enhance their own power and avoid scrutiny, in an unholy marriage of convenience with left-wing pressure groups.
A couple of books on economics also stood out: Duncan Weldon’s 200 Years of Muddling Through was an excellently written and illuminating canter through British economic history since the Industrial Revolution, which concludes that power, not ideas is the real driving force of history.
One that may appeal particularly to economists themselves is Diane Coyle’s Cogs and Monsters, which sets out where the profession is going wrong and how it can regain relevance and credibility.
The final book I read in 2021 was Iain Dale’s The Presidents, a thoroughly enjoyable anthology of all 46 men who have occupied that vaunted position, with contributions from the likes of George Osborne, Bonnie Greer, Michael Crick and Roy Hattersley. Watch our for our rescheduled CapX Live event with Iain in the New Year!
The title of Ryan Bourne’s Economics in One Virus: An Introduction to Economic Reasoning Through Covid-19 is a nod to Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson. The author uses the Covid-19 pandemic to explain most of the economic concepts that the average person could ever usefully know. Strip away the jargon and ideas such as ‘endogeneity’ and ‘hyperbolic discounting’ are little more than common sense – but common sense is not so common and has often gone missing since the virus took hold in March 2020.
‘Moral hazard’ explains why people engage in more risky behaviour when they are wearing a face mask and why young people deliberately contracted Covid-19 when they heard that they could sell their plasma. ‘Public choice theory’ not only explains why some industries got bailouts while others did not, but also why politicians fail to plan for high impact, low-probability events.
Bourne does not attempt a cost-benefit analysis to answer the big question of whether lockdowns were worth it. It would involve so many variables and so many arbitrary estimates that I suspect it could go either way. But he reminds us that there would have been enormous costs regardless of government policy. Many businesses, including Disney World and the Premier League, shut up shop before they were required to do so by law.
Bourne’s critique of lockdowns is not that they do not work as a last resort, but that a blunderbuss approach of banning low-risk activities, such as fishing, along with high-risk activities, such as nightclubbing, created unnecessary hardship. Moreover, if we accept that lockdowns are expensive, it is worth asking whether that money could have been used more effectively in other ways. This introduces two more crucial economic concepts. Politicians’ failure to think on the margin and take opportunity costs into account resulted in needless damage to people’s economic and mental well-being.
Most of you have encountered quite a few book reviews from me, both in CapX and elsewhere. For that reason, I’m going to presage two bits of reading I plan to do during my Christmas-New Year social media detox.
I’ve never read The Federalist Papers, so when Liberty Fund (the US non-profit) sent me a scholarly edition as part of a generous Christmas present, I realised this lapse needed to be remedied. Until the book came through my mail box, the closest I’d come to this famous publication is the musical Hamilton, which tells you how little I’ve read about what’s sometimes considered America’s most dangerous export: its republican and presidential system of government.
Because too much policy-wonkery makes Helen a dull girl, the other book at the top of my to-read list is Mary Beard’s Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern, which promises not only to be a useful update on Suetonius’s and Michael Grant’s famed accounts, but is also a physically lovely object (yes, I’m a child, I love beautifully illustrated books).
I’ve been stuck at home for most of the year, thanks to the combination of Covid and leukaemia. I’ve come to appreciate the instant availability of books on my Kindle even more than ever.
The most powerful book I’ve read has been David Baddiel’s Jews Don’t Count – a brilliant, punchy polemic on how for so-called progressives the one form of racism that isn’t treated as racism is antisemitism.
The book I’ve probably enjoyed most is Joshua Cohen’s The Netanyahus, a genuinely hilarious account of a ‘minor and ultimately even negligible episode in the history of a very famous family’, as the cover puts it.
Cohen constructs a masterpiece out of the (true) story of the visit of Benzion Netanyahu (Benjamin’s father) to Cornell. This becomes Corbin college in New York state and Harold Bloom, who really did host Netanyahu, becomes Ruben Blum. It made me want to read every word Cohen – who is only 40 – has ever written.
For sheer turn-the-page-quickly-in-gripped-horror, Barbara Amiel’s memoir Friends and Enemies would be hard to beat. She clearly had great fun settling scores and it’s almost as much fun reading her doing so.
I have a soft-spot for historical fiction and very much enjoyed Gavin McCrea’s Mrs Engels. The novel is a first person narrative about the life and times of Lizzie Burns – an illiterate, working-class Irish mill worker who became Friedrich Engels’ longtime common-law partner. It isn’t a romance, but a story of companionship and mutual understanding despite class differences. Also, it manages to cleverly convey how Marxist theory – for all its preoccupation with ‘justice’ and ‘equality’ – fails to appreciate the female experience. McCrea is such a beautiful writer who understands women incredibly well (a skill not shared by many male authors). He also describes industrial Manchester vividly and expertly.
EM Cioran’s The Trouble with Being Born, a collection of aphorisms grouped on vaguely thematic lines, proved extremely readable and often quotable despite the rather maudlin tone of his thinking. Robert Peal’s Progressively Worse is an excellent summary of what decades of ‘trendy teaching’, and Tory neglect thereof, has done to our schools. Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology is a very interesting exploration of what exactly ‘sovereignty’ is – very timely given the current dispute over Northern Ireland.
In the main though, this was another year for fiction rather than ‘improving’ reading: I ploughed on with Steven Erikson’s first-class Malazan Book of the Fallen cycle and polished off Best Served Cold and Red Country by Joe Abercrombie. Not a long list, I know, but ask me about the books I bought this year…
Dark, complicated, sometimes uncomfortable, but always fascinating, My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell is about the victim of a paedophile who sees their affair as the romance of her life. One of the intriguing things about this book, which is a kind of companion piece to Nabokov’s Lolita, is how wilfully blinkered the narrator is – but that reflects the complicated feelings many victims of abuse have. This is an eye-opening book which stayed with me long after I’d finished it.
Julius by Daphne Du Maurier is a book thatcould never be written today, and one of the reasons I’ve put this on my list is because I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing or not. It’s a brilliantly written, occasionally melodramatic, story of the French-born son of an Algerian Jew and a Catholic mother who suffers horrendous antisemitism throughout his life. His upbringing is appalling; his beloved grandfather is shot in front of his eyes and his parents are killed soon after. He reinvents himself in London and ascends to the very top of society – but is somehow always an outsider. He turns that hatred towards those he loves with horrific consequences. I like the uneasy and complex idea of a non-Jewish writer creating such a difficult character.
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