To mark the end of 2019 we asked CapX’s writers and editors which books – new or old, fiction or non-fiction – they enjoyed reading this year.
My books of the year are Economics for the Many, edited by John McDonnell, and The Fall and Rise of the British Left, by Andrew Murray. These exceptional works give a masterful insight into the brilliant economic programme of our new… oh, hang on, the Tories won a landslide. So that means we can all park the Corbynite orthodoxies firmly in the ‘fiction’ section, at least for the next few years.
In which case, because we all need a break from politics, I’m going to recommend a trio of books about football. The Club by Jonathan Clegg and Joshua Robinson is a fascinating business history of the Premier League, and how a bunch of generally quite useless businessmen and administrators were prodded by a few of their savvier colleagues into creating one of Britain’s most astonishing economic and cultural success stories. Zonal Marking, by Michael Cox, delves into the details of how you should actually play the game (his first book, The Mixer, is also highly recommended). And How to be a Footballer by Peter Crouch will take you about 10 minutes to read, but you’ll certainly enjoy the experience.
My book of 2019 was the magnificent, haunting Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum. It should be required reading for every Poundshop revolutionary in a ‘CCCP’ t-shirt (that means you, Seumas).
Before I visited Kyiv earlier this year for a long CapX piece, I read Anna Reid’s Borderlands – thoroughly recommended for anyone interested in Ukraine and its long, fascinating history. On the fiction front I very much enjoyed Ian McEwan’s Nutshell. Few authors could pull off having an unborn baby narrating their novel, but McEwan manages it with some aplomb.
We may be living through a new political dawn, but the country faces some old problems. Many of these are linked to the terrible twins of an ageing population and a thinning tax base. A good place to start thinking about this is with David Willetts’ deeply prescient book The Pinch: How Baby Boomers took their children’s future – and why they should give it back. Despite the subtitle, it’s precise, nuanced and beautifully crafted. There’s a reason he’s called ‘two brains’. You can catch my CapX interview with him about the book here.
Another, slightly masochistic pleasure was James Hamilton-Paterson’s What We Have Lost – The Dismantling of Great Britain. A blistering tour of the post-1945 collapse of Britain’s global industries, this is a coruscating indictment of unions and management alike that also makes the case for a gentle industrial strategy – which, after years of being scoffed at, looks like it’s finally coming back into fashion.
For those looking to escape politics I’d suggest The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake. Dead at 26, Pancake still managed to write a slim volume stuffed with masterpieces of grit and grace. ‘Trilobites’ is one of the great – largely overlooked – short stories of the twentieth century. Think Dubliners for rural West Virginia.
After the 2019 we’ve had, taking a year off to sleep and hope life passes you by probably sounds appealing to a great number of us. In a novel that certainly not for everyone, My Year of Rest and Relaxation is a witty, sarcastic, and dead-eyed look at life through the eyes of an unnamed protagonist who just wants to all to go away. The parental loss, the mediocre career, the terrible boyfriend, she’s going to do whatever she can to skip to the next bit of life where – in theory – it gets good. Think Fleabag if Phoebe Waller-Bridge wasn’t bothered about making you laugh.
First up is What it Takes by Richard Ben Cramer, a campaign classic which whet my appetite for next year’s Presidential election. Golden Hill by Francis Spufford is a brilliant romp around old New York, while Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner deserves the mountain of praise it has accumulated.
The Dispossessed by Szilárd Borbély, who when he died by his own hand in 2014 aged 50, was a member of the Hungarian Academy, Poet Laureate, and had received all four most prestigious literary prizes in Hungary, is a stark autobiographical novel set in the post 1956 Communist days, and tells of the shattering poverty of his family in the remote Eastern Hungarian countryside. It is both elegiac and brutal, idealising no-one, a spare short book of great beauty.
Sohrab Ahmari made public his conversion to Roman Catholicism on 26 July 2016, the day the 86-year-old Father Jacques Hamel was assassinated by two Islamic terrorists as he was saying Mass in his church of Saint-Étienne du Rouvray, near Rouen. In From Fire by Water, Ahmari tells the story of his conversion, the decades-long spiritual and physical journey of a young Iranian from the Teheran mollahs-ruled dictatorship to America. Ahmari chose St Augustine as his patron when he was received into the Church, but he also read Vaclav Havel, Arthur Koestler and George Orwell for his spiritual guidance. His book is enlightening in every meaning of the word.
There have been several books written about the murder and dismemberment of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2017, but the best by far is The Killing in the Consulate by Channel Four News journalist Jonathan Rugman, looking both at the crime itself, the cover-up, and the implications rippling out from the Middle-East to Europe and the US.
This year I have read a lot of socialist nonsense such as Fully Automated Luxury Communism by Aaron Bastani, and The Socialist Manifesto by Bhaskar Sunkara, which I could not honestly recommend to anyone, unless you want to use it to troll someone for Secret Santa.
The one book I will recommend is Geoffrey M. Hodgson’s Is Socialism Feasible?, a critique of socialism, written not from a free-market liberal, but from a centre-left, social democratic perspective. It shows how the British Left could make its peace with the market economy, while still remaining recognisably and meaningfully left-wing.
The best book I read this year was NAM Rodger’s The Command of the Ocean. One way of reading it is as a simple, if detailed, history of the Royal Navy from 1649 to 1815. Another, and possibly more useful, is as the history of how a technology develops. There was nothing, nothing at all, which said that Britain should rule the waves. Yet she did. The ability to do so coming from the development of the technology which allowed her to do so.
Dr Paul Goldsmith
My book of the year was Rory Sutherland’s Alchemy – because some of the solutions to make the UK a better place are going to be psychological. Paul Collier’s The Future of Capitalism shares a theme with Rory’s book, in that Collier is an economist who recognises the historic model was psychologically illiterate.
The book that probably stayed with me the most this year was This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality by Peter Pomerantsev. In contrast to the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, authoritarian governments no longer strive for omnipotence. Instead they have embraced postmodernism: there is no objective reality, only competing visions. [You can listen to Peter talking about the book on the CapX podcast – Ed]
On the fiction front I finally got around to reading Michel Houellebecq’s Whatever, which, although published more than two decades ago, is increasingly relevant in an era when lonely, sexless men feel increasingly aggrieved by the inequality and hypergamy of the contemporary dating scene.
The best book I read this year was Coventry, a collection of essays by Rachel Cusk. On the face of it this very personal book is not about politics or economics or the state of society, but it is really about all those things. Cusk, a novelist, takes fragments of everyday existence that everyone will recognise, like standing in the security queue at an airport, or driving a country road and builds from these shards of experience a picture of the world. An unforgettable book.
Fuchsia Dunlop’s The Food of Sichuan is a wonderful exploration and guide to cooking the fiery cuisine of China’s inland Sichuan province, famous for the numbing sichuan pepper that defines many of its most famous dishes. As with Dunlop’s other cookery books, complex and exotic-seeming dishes are made easy to cook with just a handful of core ingredients, most easily available at an asian supermarket, and it is very easy to get into the habit of making dishes from it regularly, not just on special occasions.
It’s been a rocky few years for the UK’s Constitution, and so who better to shed some much needed light and perspective on it than historian and former Supreme Court justice, Jonathan Sumption? Based on his Reith Lectures, Trials of the State highlights the tensions inherent in our constitutional system between Parliament, the government, and the law courts.
On the non-politics front, Steve Brusatte’s Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs has many interesting revelations about dinosaurs: what they were, where they came from, how they lived, and how they were wiped out.
My first book of the year is Amy Alkon’s Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living With Guts & Confidence, which is a well-written, funny version of Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life. I have very little time for self-help as a genre, so the fact that this is one of my top reads for the year shows how good it is.
My next pick (and probably what you’d expect from someone like me and an outlet like CapX) is Theo Barclay’s Fighters & Quitters: Great Political Resignations. This book made me laugh so hard I had to read it in my study, away from my partner and cat — I was disturbing both of them by repeatedly dissolving in fits of the giggles. Barclay, like the best comedians, has an eye not only for humour but humanity. And given recent political upheavals, he may be driven to produce an annual edition.
During Boris’ leadership campaign he committed to defeat Corbyn, deliver Brexit and unite the country. With the first done, the second just over a month away, the key to delivering the third can be found in Arthur Brooks’ Love Your Enemies. Brooks wants to break the “outrage industrial complex” and find ways we can disagree well while not succumbing to petty hatred of each other.
The election result has once again underscored the need for understanding why towns suffer in our modern economy and how to achieve urban rejuvenation. On this, I can recommend Harvard professor Edward Glaeser’s Triumph of the City, and the more recent Order Without Design by former urban planner and NYU researcher Alain Bertaud.
Burned, by the Belfast News Letter journalist Sam McBride, was one of 2019’s surprise best-sellers. Ostensibly, the book examines a renewable heating scandal that crashed the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2017. In actuality, it’s a blistering indictment of a dysfunctional devolved government, carved up between two parties – the DUP and Sinn Féin.
Dominion is Tom Holland’s account of how Christianity shaped the world we know today. It’s an exhilarating history of the religion and the ideas it spawned. It will make you think differently about some of the assumptions we take for granted.
Mark Galeotti added We Need to Talk About Putin: How the West Gets Him Wrong to yards of books already claiming to explain the Russian president. In contrast to less insightful offerings, he challenges the various caricatures – 4D chess player, KGB placeman, crazed kleptocrat and the like – offering a simpler, more persuasive portrayal of an arch opportunist and pragmatist in charge of an ‘adhocracy’.
My first book of the year is The Madness of Crowds, Douglas Murray’s beautifully written polemic against the cult of woke intolerance. My other is Isabel Hardman’s Why We Get the Wrong Politicians – marvellous, insightful and accessible.
My books of the year were two political doorstoppers. First, For the Record, by David Cameron. Far from the chillaxing, “born to rule” caricature, this is an admirable story of someone clear on how to advance his country, proud of what he felt he achieved while also honest in chronicling his failings.
Herself Alone, Charles Moore’s third and final biography of Margaret Thatcher, is a phenomenal achievement. It is not a hagiography – awkward matters, such as the poor behaviour of her son Mark, are fearlessly included. As a Thatcherite I was also reminded that even the Iron Lady could at times be too cautious. Moore recalls that when asked to sign off abolition of the Dock Labour Scheme she delayed as “the weather is cold and a bit depressing”. It would be better to wait “until the daffodils are out”.
D.J. Taylor’s Lost Girls: Love, War & Literature, 1939-1951 ingeniously recovered the lives of the women around Cyril Connolly and Horizon magazine. Sophus Reinert’s The Academy of Fisticuffs: Political Economy and Commercial Society in Enlightenment Italy was an intellectual epic, on how Pietro Verri, Cesare Beccaria and their friends made the world safe for capitalism. Francesca Lidia Viano’s Sentinel: The Unlikely Origins of the Statue of Liberty was a marvel of archival jigsaw work on the hustlers and mystics who created an American icon.
While Turkey continues to deny the Armenian genocide, Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi’s The Thirty-Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction of its Christian Minorities, 1894-1924 is a resounding case for fact over falsity. Norman Lebrecht’s Genius & Anxiety: How the Jews Changed the World, 1847-1947 (Oneworld) was droll, tragic and brilliantly told. And William Feaver’s The Lives of Lucian Freud: Youth, 1922-1968 (Bloomsbury) was such an enthralling trove of tall tales that I suspect we’ll remember Freud as a gossip, not a painter.
The Wealth Explosion by Stephen Davies is a superb analysis of why Europe developed first and how we could accidentally be ending our highly unusual “age of dynamism”. Whereas a visitor to earth in the 1200s would have guessed China was about to experience an industrial revolution that never materialised, one of Europe’s advantages was a geography that led to competing polities. Timely reading.
In Search of Isaiah Berlin: a Literary Adventure by Henry Hardy is a charming personal guide to one of the great philosophers of the twentieth century. Best read as a postscript to Freedom and its Betrayal, Berlin’s brilliant examination of the anti-democratic strain through Fichte and Marx, it gives us a better picture of a man who should be more widely read by many who call themselves liberals.
While I have not yet but scratched its surface, the 824-page tome From Peoples Into Nations by Berkeley’s John Connelly promises to be an important and authoritative piece of scholarship on Central and Eastern European history. Connelly documents the emergence of nationalist movements in multiethnic political units in the 18th and 19th centuries, organized often around questions of language codification and language rights, and the gradual displacement of empires by ethno-nation-states.
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