To mark the end of 2018 we asked CapX’s writers and editors which books – new or old, fiction or non-fiction – they enjoyed reading this year.
Prime Movers by Ferdinand Mount was a provocative joy all the way through – and highly educational with it. Capitalism without Capital by Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake made me and others think more deeply about the nature of the modern economy and the challenges ahead of us – even Bill Gates sang its praises.
I had the privilege recently of hearing Jonathan Haidt speak in Parliament about his new book, The Coddling of the American Mind – it’s the best diagnosis yet of how the ‘safe spaces’ culture arose, and why the rise of identity politics in the UK as well as the US is alarming so many. And Michael Calvin’s ‘Living on the Volcano’, which I finally got round to this autumn, was a reminder that there’s one job even worse than being a politician – namely, a football manager.
My book of the year is Capitalism in America by Alan Greenspan and Adrian Wooldridge. A compelling account of the past that has something to say about the present, this economic history of the United States is, in style and substance, an antidote to the stagnation holding the country back.
The standouts amongst the other books I have enjoyed this year are The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald, In a Free State by V.S. Naipaul and A Fish in the Water by Mario Vargas Llosa.
Finally, I have to mention the book I am reading at the moment. Burning the Days is the memoir of James Salter, in which he recounts an impossibly romantic life flying (and crashing) in the US Air Force before junking the jets to become a novelist. Salter has a reputation as a writer’s writer. It’s not hard to see why and it’s difficult to disagree with Richard Ford when he says “sentence for sentence, Salter is the master”.
It’s been an eclectic year of reading, from Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential to Harry Redknapp’s autobiography via Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels and work-related tomes of varying levels of wonkery. I very much enjoyed Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton’s Punch and Judy Politics, a guide to the surprisingly short history of Prime Minister’s Questions, packed with insight and colour.
My book of the year was Jonathan Tepper and Denise Hearn’s The Myth of Capitalism offered a fresh and incisive critique of how competition is no longer a hallmark of the American economy and what needs to be done. You can hear my recent interview with Jonathan here.
My book of the year was Janet Gleeson’s The Arcanum. We’re expected to read this as a piece of history, the tale of how European experimentation unlocked the secret of Chinese porcelain making. False starts, derring do, con men and the lust for the gelt and pilf available to those who crack that secret. Well done and interesting history that is. The true story is really a cautionary tale about the value of patent systems.
Over the course of a few days at university, I skim-read Vanity Fair, wrote a terrible essay on it and have resented it ever since. Having enjoyed ITV’s adaptation of Thackeray’s Regency England novel earlier this year, I decided to give it another go and was pleasantly
surprised – Thackeray’s narrator provides a biting, cynical commentary, and scheming Becky Sharpe is surely one of fiction’s great protagonists.
Other 2018 highlights included mystery novels, particularly the excellent Shardrake series by CJ Sansom and Agatha Christie’s And
Then There Were None, with its foreboding tone and ingenious conclusion. On the non fiction front, I’ve enjoyed collections of essays from George Orwell and Joan Didion. This Christmas, I’ll be reading and reviewing a book called Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism, a study of the links between female sexual pleasure and politics (100 pages in and I’m yet to be convinced).
My nomination is for Tyler Cowen’s Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals, a much-needed manifesto for a moral outlook that prioritises sustainable economic growth over most other social goals.
I’ve also enjoyed: Michele Gelfand’s Rule Makers, Rule Breakers, a fascinating account of ‘tightness’ and ‘looseness’ of social norms across societies; Posner’s and Weyl’s Radical Markets; as well as Fukuyama’s Identity, which touches on much that aches Western politics these days.
Francis Fukuyama’s Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment attempts to find deeper philosophical roots for the embittering forms of identity politics that mark our age. Roger Scruton’s Where we Are: The State of Britain Now deals with identity too, defending the idea that political allegiance is best shaped by a sense of place and ‘the accountability that binds us to our neighbours.’
Gorbachev: His Life and Times by William Taubman is a sprawling, exhaustively researched biography of the last Soviet leader, that, at times, reads like a great Russian novel. I also enjoyed Antonio Tabucchi’s novel Pereira Maintains about an unassuming newspaper editor who is drawn gradually into the politics of 1930s Portugal through his friendship with a young obituary writer – it’s something of an undiscovered classic. It’s rather hard to get an English translation of Children of the Arbat, by Anatoli Rybakov, but it’s worth the effort. The novel starts out describing the lives of some bright young things who live on the famous Moscow street, but turns into a dark exploration of Stalinist Russia.
Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman was the most amazing book I read in 2018. It’s like War and Peace,but set in the 1940s. More precisely it takes place during the battle of Stalingrad. Grossman was a war correspondent for the Red Army and wrote firsthand accounts of the battles of Moscow, Stalingrad and Berlin, among others, and his eyewitness account of the discovery of Treblinka was one of the first. While Life and Fate is fiction, it couldn’t have felt more real.
My books of the year were: Stubborn Attachments by Tyler Cowen: A compelling argument that if we care about the long run (and we should) then maximising economic growth ought to be our number one priority. The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium by Martin Gurri: The best way to understand Brexit, Trump and the Gilets Jaune. I also enjoyed The Elephant in the Brain by Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler, The Captured Economy by Brink Lindsay and Steven Teles, and The Case Against Education by Bryan Caplan.
2018 was the year of spycraft. It was the year of Sergey Skripal, and the individuals formerly known as Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov; of Jamal Khashoggi, and a hit-squad of 15 Saudi citizens; and of Maria Butina, and the first conviction of a Russian national for attempting to influence US policy in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.
In this context, two books stand out. The first is Ben Macintyre’s The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War, which tells the extraordinary story of Oleg Gordievsky. Gordievsky was a KGB insider who, for 11 years, spied for MI6. When his cover was blown in 1985, MI6 helped the Cold War superspy escape from Moscow. The second is Oliver Bullough’s Moneyland, which is a sobering expose of the role played by the West in enabling a system of global corruption. Some of the chief beneficiaries of this system are individuals from regimes who otherwise wish to do us (and our allies) harm – yet, we have welcomed them into the UK with open arms.
My book of the year was Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West. Goldberg mounts a spirited defence of liberalism and the market economy, but in the framework of a healthy civil society with strong communities and social institutions. A strong message based on a special kind of moderation.
This year I enjoyed Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography. It tells how choices, decisions, movements, and ideas are influenced, and ultimately constrained by, geography.
My book of the year, which would also make an ideal present, is The Colour of Time by Dan Jones and Marina Amaral. The authors have taken a collection of colourised photographs from 1850 to 1960, with a brief explanation of the photograph along with some historical context. I am a bit of a history geek, but the events and people of the past often seem detached and alien to me. The colourisation, along with the context, really makes these characters and situations seem very real, which, of course, they were.
I greatly enjoyed reading The Diary of Two Nobodies by Giles Wood and Mary Killen. It is a “spin off” from a TV series called Gogglebox on Channel 4 which I have never seen. The reason I was prompted to get it was Mary’s ‘Your problems solved’ column in The Spectator which I have regarded as essential reading for many years.
This book includes plenty of practical and amusing advice. But it is also poignant at times. On various domestic challenges, Giles and Mary take it in turns to write a couple of paragraphs – each chapter consisting of a ping pong of claims and counterclaims. A long and highly entertaining list of irritations they have with each other are detailed. Frictions over money and children. Domestic incompetence, memory loss, and social discourtesy – they are unsparing with each other. But the exasperation never spills over into hatred.