To mark the end of 2020 we asked CapX’s writers and editors which books – new or old, fiction or non-fiction – they enjoyed reading this year.
My most CapX-friendly recommendation is definitely Matt Ridley’s How Innovation Works, which I reviewed for the Times – a series of wonderful vignettes of technological advancement with a powerful central thesis.
The fall of Dominic Cummings sent me back to Damian McBride’s Power Trip, an eye-opening account of how British government really works, or more often doesn’t. And given that Jürgen Norbert Klopp has brought more joy to my life recently than anyone apart from my children, I’ll also recommend Raphael Honigstein’s excellent biography of the Liverpool manager, Bring The Noise.
You wouldn’t have thought reading about refugee camps and prisons would cheer you up in a year as bleak as this, but the incredible stories of human resilience in Richard Davies’ Extreme Economies reassured me that the Covid-ravaged world will recover. You can listen to my interview with him for the CapX podcast here.
Between having a small baby and a rather anxiety-inducing pandemic, I’ve struggled to concentrate on novels, so I’ve been getting my fiction in bite-sized chunks. The Golden Age of the British Short Story is a great anthology, beautifully produced, and edited by Philip Hensher (and by the way his King of the Badgers is an absolute belter). With museums closed for much of the year most people won’t have been able to see the fabulously gory Artemisia Gentileschi exhibition at the National Gallery, but Letizia Treves’ catalogue is the next best thing.
I have a penchant for grimly fascinating Soviet history, and very much admired Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: A History, which should be required reading for every goon with a ‘CCCP’ t-shirt. Altogether lighter was Arts and Minds, Anton Howes’ fascinating history of the RSA, absolutely packed with fascinating nuggets and anecdotes, with some great insights on the society’s influence on modern Britain. Paul Marshall’s 10 1/2 Lessons From Experience delves into what makes a successful investor, and what doesn’t – with the cheery conclusion that “most fund management careers end in failure”!
On the politics front, Ed West’s Small Men On The Wrong Side of History proved that you can still write about the ‘culture wars’ in a humane, hysterically funny way. Finally I’ll give a shout-out for Call to Order, Sebastian Whale’s excellent, meticulously researched biography of John Bercow.
My first book of the year is Helen Pluckrose & James Lindsay’s Cynical Theories: How Universities Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity – and Why This Harms Everybody. It’s a genuinely helpful guide for the perplexed (which is most of us) when it comes to the world of the woke.
My next pick (and probably what you’d expect from someone like me and an outlet like CapX) is Vernon Bogdanor’s Britain and Europe in a Troubled World, the best short introduction to both the political realignment that produced the 2016 Referendum result and the immense fallout since.
In tumultuous times, the pleasures of reading have kept us engaged with the world as well as informed about our predicament. Anti-Vaxxers: How to Challenge a Misinformed Movement by Jonathan M Berman could not be more topical. It combines a scientifically expert account of what vaccines are and the history of opposition to them. Most important, it makes sensible recommendations for how to win public consent for this vital public-health measure.
Trumpocalypse: How to Restore American Democracy by David Frum is a cogent and remorselessly incisive assessment of the damage wreaked by the worst human being ever to occupy the White House. My year was made more palatable by the publication of Robert Harris’s latest novel V2. His historical research is exemplary and his latest, in a return to the WW2 era, is one to relish.
War for Eternity: the Return of Traditionalism and the Rise of the Populist Right, by Benjamin Teitelbaum, dives into the politics of Steve Bannon, who was largely responsible for Donald Trump’s four years as U.S. President. It’s a fascinating journey, that links Trump’s chief strategist with an obscure philosophy called Traditionalism, which marries conservative scepticism about the modern world with a quasi-mystical emphasis on spirituality.
Closer to home, The Northern Ireland Question: Perspectives on Nationalism and Unionism is the latest in a series of books of historical essays edited by Patrick J. Roche and Brian Barton. The academics challenge persistent myths about the history of the province and its Troubles.
Everyone daydreams that they will one day be successful but you are rarely handed a practical guide to getting there. In Unreasonable Success and How to Achieve It, author and entrepreneur Richard Koch sets some lofty but very specific goals and clearly explains how anyone – with the right combination of attitudes, beliefs, and an aptitude for turning situations to your advantage – can supercharge their lives.
And my one piece of escapism this year – aside from the requisite production line of banana bread – was Good Omens by Terry Pratchett. Good and evil fighting over the end of the world is a tried and tested trope but the Antichrist isn’t usually a fairly middle class child called Adam being raised in rural England. As mix ups go, losing track of the harbinger of the apocalypse is a fairly big one, but it’s enough to kick off a book which more than justifies its cult status.
In The New Class War, Michael Lind writes that neither populism nor technocratic liberalism can address the hole at the heart of democracies. His attachment is to ‘democratic pluralism’, a way of giving citizens the power to govern and the need to learn responsibility, overseen by a state with the power to arbitrate and secure rights.
James Baldwin, still much read, was a man both expansive and angry, as Talking at the Gates, Jim Campbell’s biography of the black American writer amply shows. This is a fluent biography, admiring but with a measure of Glaswegian astringency.
Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life is an astounding overview of, well, pretty much every aspect of Western culture of the last 500 years – religious, political, scientific, artistic and social history all woven together.
For fiction, it’s been Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard. If Barzun’s masterpiece is a pointillistic survey of tens of thousands of infinitesimal moments in our history, Lampedusa zooms right in, exploring the range and subtlety of human experiences through the story of a single family — the aristocratic Salinas of Sicily.
My book of the year is One Two Three Four by Craig Brown. This is a book for people who have read too many Beatles books. At times, it is about people who have read too many Beatles books. Brown takes well worn tales about the Fabs, twists them, adds some obscure detail, and makes you appreciate their genius anew.
I also enjoyed Stuart Ritchie’s Science Fictions, a takedown of some of the worst junk science from the world of psychology. From media hype to outright fraud, Ritchie shows how easy it is to get fake scientific claims into circulation. It seems that the more memorable the findings, the more likely they are to be untrue.
The Decadent Society: How We Became Victims Of Our Own Success by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat pushes back against the narcissistic idea that Americans are living through a time of unprecedented disruption and drama. The less exciting truth, according to Douthat, is that we are stuck in a period of economic stasis, political sclerosis and cultural repetition.
The Omni-Americans is not a new book but it felt as relevant in 2020 as anything else I read this year. The late social critic and writer Albert Murray wrote the book’s title essay more than 50 years ago. It is a brilliant provocation that takes aim at “race-based propagandists” and in which Murray argues that “the United States is in actuality not a nation of black people and white people. It is a nation of multicolored people. There are white Americans so to speak and black Americans. But any fool can see that the white people are not really white, and the black people are not black.”
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