30 July 2018

What CapX is reading this summer


The World Cup is a distant memory, Parliament has risen for the summer and thoughts are inevitably turning to the sun lounger. We asked CapX contributors for some of their favourite reads for a lazy summer day.

Oliver Wiseman

David Edgerton’s The Rise and Fall of the British Nation is a challenging but hugely rewarding thematic history of the UK in the 20th century. Barely a page goes by without a surprising detail or bold challenge to received wisdom. You won’t agree with all of it, but Edgerton will make you reconsider what you thought you knew about the last hundred years. Labour founded the welfare state in 1945? Wrong. The Second World War as the people’s war? Not quite. The British elite were aloof and hostile to new ideas and science? Couldn’t be further from the truth.

Next up in the non-fiction pile are two well-reviewed and ambitious-sounding accounts of recent economic and political turbulence: Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World by Adam Tooze and EuroTragedy: A Drama in Nine Acts by Ashoka Mody.

I wish I had discovered Mario Vargas Llosa sooner. This spring I was completely captivated by the Nobel Prize winning novelist’s memoir, A Fish in the Water. It follows an unusual structure in which the narrative alternatives between his life story and his experience helping to found Peru’s free market, anti-corruption Movimiento Libertad in 1987 and running as its (unsuccessful) presidential candidate in 1990. Thankfully, the transformation from novelist to politician was never complete, making this account of a short time at the heart of politics truer and far more believable than most.

The violence and depravity on display in The Feast of the Goat, Vargas Llosa’s unsparing fictional account of the demise of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, will make your stomach turn. But you won’t find a better reminder that power corrupts.

John Ashmore

I’ve enjoyed a lot of books this year but none more so than Robert Twigger’s Micromasterya wonderful guide to how to learn new skills by starting with something very specific – making the perfect omelette, say —  and working outwards. On the non-fiction front, Howard French’s Everything Under the Heavens is an excellent overview of Chinese history, and Paul Kenyon’s Dictatorland is a grimly enjoyable run through the worst of Africa’s post-colonial dictators.

I’d let it pass me by until his sad recent demise, but Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential was an absolute joy, the kind of book one is bound to return to.  A book I didn’t really expect to enjoy but ended up loving was Joe Nocera’s A Piece of the Action, in which he sets out how consumer credit, banking and money funds developed in the second half of the 20th century. The technical details are interesting, but it’s the cultural changes in the way Americans think about money that really grab you.

As for fiction, I’ve been tearing through Edward St Aubyn’s brilliant Patrick Melrose novels and will be re-reading my all-time favourite book, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. It’s fantastical, funny and bitingly satirical but also very moving. Summer also usually means a Graham Greene – this year I’ve gone for The Human Factor. 

Oliver Kamm

The three books I’ve most enjoyed so far in 2018 are these (I disclose that the authors are all friends of mine but I genuinely love the books).

Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now is a detailed and compelling case for the urgency of Enlightenment values in dark times of populism, xenophobia and hostility to science. Agnès Poirier’s Left Bank is a rich cultural and intellectual history of her native Paris from 1940-50, the decade beginning with the catastrophe of Nazi occupation and ending with the first stirrings of European integration under the Schuman declaration. Elise Valmorbida’s The Madonna of the Mountains is a beautifully written novel of an ordinary young woman in Fascist Italy in the 1920s; it’s closely observed both psychologically and historically.

Anne-Elisabeth Moutet

Every summer needs a great novel to submerge yourself into, and this year I am at last fully immersed in Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy, the pre-WWI novel of the last days of Austro-Hungary, seen from a Hungarian eye. Translated into English about a decade ago by the author’s daughter and the British writer Patrick Thursfield, it is recognisably autobiographical: Bánffy, who later became Foreign Secretary in 1922, draws the portrait of both a class and a generation, between 1904 and 1914, with the elegiac tone of a Lampedusa and a Trollopian political eye.

Unrecognisable to Bánffy yet operating in many of the same lands: Double Lives: Spies and Writers in the Secret Soviet War of Ideas Against the West, Stephen Koch’s history of Stalin’s agents of influence. The most fascinating of these secret cultural Commissars is undoubtedly Willi Münzenberg (1889-1940): “…His goal was to create for the right-thinking non-communist West the dominating political prejudice of the era: the belief that any opinion that happened to serve the foreign policy of the Soviet Union was derived from the most essential elements of human decency. He wanted to instil the feeling, like a truth of nature, that seriously to criticise or challenge Soviet policy was the unfailing mark of a bad, bigoted, and probably stupid person, while support was equally infallible proof of a forward-looking mind committed to all that was best for humanity and marked by an uplifting refinement of sensibility…” which sounds eerily familiar today.

And the recent Faux Départ by the 28-year-old Marion Messina, an autobiographical first novel on a young provincial discovering that elitist Paris has no use for her and the education dispensed her by the supposedly egalitarian French system. Messina throws at you the terrifying alphabet soup the benevolent state uses to coat every stage of a semi-subsidised existence – the sheer accumulation of acronyms shakes you out of the system, Matrix-like. It’s quite remarkable, new and familiar at the same time, tight with an anger that only comes out in a feeling of wasted potential and pervasive desultoriness.

Harry Phibbs

At the moment I’m halfway through Progressively Worse by Robert Peal. It offers a clear and fascinating account of how theories of “progressive education” became dominant and the disastrous results. The absurdities that took place at such schools as Summerhill, Dartington Hall and William Tyndale are entertaining – except that children had their lives blighted by attending such institutions. Yet despite the failure of such experiments being quickly apparent their influence spread and by the 1970s a “typical” comprehensive school in London could be a dangerous place.

A safe bet for more relaxing summer reading is any PG Wodehouse novel. Perfect for the beach or a long train journey. There are a huge number of them and I have probably read them all – but it’s fine to read them all again. I’ve just finished Ring for Jeeves which was first published in 1953. The impoverished state of the aristocracy is a principal theme. Jeeves says: “We are living now in what is known as the Welfare State, which means – broadly – that everybody is completely destitute.” I think I’ll reread Young Men in Spats next.

If it ever arrives I will also read Conrad Black’s biography of Trump. It’s title A President Like No Other is hard to dispute. It’s been published in the United States and is being shipped over (rather slowly) by Amazon. Black’s own memoirs, A Matter of Principle, were excellent – fizzing with humour and indignation. Given that Black is an old friend of Trump I expect the latest volume will also prove provocative.

Matt Singh

If you’re interested in politics and public opinion, you’re going to want to read Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box and its sequel More Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box, edited by Philip Cowley and Rob Ford. Contributions come from a variety of academics, pollsters, analysts and one chapter from yours truly.

The two volumes tackle everything from turnout to tribalism, the importance of households, the economy and the weather. We also hear about the north-south divide, racism at the ballot box and how the internet has changed campaigning. The books’ USP is the way they cover some fairly technical topics in an accessible way. And despite the title, it’s (mostly) safe for work. But if you’d like to learn about romance across party lines, and which party’s supporters like what in bed, that’s all there too.

Ben Ramanauskas

Last year marked the 100 year anniversary of the Russian Revolution which rekindled my interest in Russian history – The Romanovs by Simon Sebag-Montefiore is a thoroughly entertaining story of debauchery, excess, intrigue, brutality, and, ultimately, decline. I then ploughed my way through 960 pages of A People’s Tragedy, Orlando Figes’ heartbreaking story of the human cost of the Russian Revolution. I’m looking forward to reading The Last of the Tsars by Robert Service. It tells the story of Nicholas II, a man so out of his depth and so thoroughly unsuited to leading a country, and certainly not during one of the most turbulent periods in world history.

On a completely different theme, I have started re-reading Why England Lose by Stefan Szymanski and Simon Kuper. Given England’s excellent performance in the World Cup, and despite the fact that football is still not coming home, it has been fascinating to read about the surprising statistics behind the beautiful game.

Robert Colvile

Given the febrile state of British politics, there’s a strong temptation to go for pure escapism — re-reading the collected Wodehouse, say. But looking at my to-read pile, an accidental theme emerges: big thinking, past and present, about the nature and purpose of the economy. For example, I’ve just started on Ferdinand Mount’s Prime Movers, a deeply personal analysis of the great political thinkers that’s had stunningly good reviews. After that, I want to see how his take on Adam Smith compares to Jesse Norman’s.

Also on the list are Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake’s Capitalism without Capital, Brink Lindsay and Steven M Teles’s The Captured Economy, and Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics. Away from economics, On Grand Strategy by John Lewis Gaddis has had stunning reviews – as with Mount, it’s a lifetime of learning distilled into one volume by a great mind of the age.

A word of caution, however: all of the books I mentioned this time last year remain magnificently unread. So apologies in advance to Jesse, Ferdie et al if the lure of Blandings Castle proves too strong.

Madeline Grant

This year, I particularly enjoyed reading Alan Hollinghurst, including The Stranger’s Child and his masterly The Line of Beauty – and revisiting some classic du Maurier thrillers and Lampedusa’s The Leopard. Other fiction highlights included Waugh’s The Loved One, Houellebecq’s Platform and Edward St Aubyn’s brilliant Patrick Melrose series.

On the non-fiction front, I loved Yuval Harari’s Sapiens, which is bursting with thought-provoking factoids. I also read two excellent histories of the UK, Albion, by Peter Ackroyd, and The English and their History by Robert Tombs – both as lucid and gripping as they are expansive. But by far the best non-fiction I encountered this year was Factfulness, by the late Hans Rosling, a book that helps conceptualise capitalism’s unparalleled success in alleviating poverty around the world, and our widespread tendency to underestimate it.

And what next? I’ll be reading Eamonn Butler’s latest primer on capitalism – as all self-respecting free marketeers should!

Dominic Green

The best works of non-fiction I’ve read so far this year are Martin Gayford’s Modernists and Mavericks: Bacon, Freud, Hockney and the London Painters, which is full of fascinating details about postwar British art; and John Pemble’s The Rome We Have Lost, a wonderfully erudite and various reflection on the modern transformation of Rome.

I plan my summer reading around my destinations. I’ve just returned from Greece. I especially enjoyed a new book, Christopher King’s Lament From Epirus: An Odyssey into Europe’s Oldest Folk Music, and an old book, Kevin Andrews’ The Flight of Ikaros: Travels in Greece During the Civil War (1959).

Sometimes, though, the book comes to you. As a child, I spent many happy summers with my grandmother in exotic Bognor Regis. So I was fascinated by Cressida Connolly’s new novel, After the Party, much of which is set in the summer camps that British Union of Fascists ran near Bognor the area in the Thirties.

For similar reasons, the novels of Deborah Levy travel well. Going to Vienna? That’ll be Black Vodka. South of France? You’ll need Swimming Home. Staying at home in the heat? How about An Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell?

Every summer I try to do justice to a classic that I skimmed long ago and didn’t enjoy. Last summer, and the summer before that, it was The Portrait of a Lady. This summer, the book I’ll be feeling guilty about is Middlemarch.

Graeme Archer

The Sparsholt Affair is Alan Hollinghurst’s best, I’d say his masterpiece, even better than The Swimming Pool Library. I won’t summarise Sparsholt’s plot because it’s almost a McGuffin — what matters in this novel is the characters, how much you care for them, and the trajectory of their stories is what gives the novel life.

Reading the book felt like watching the work of a master film-maker; as though my act of reading was to be Hollinghurst’s camera, so strongly did he direct what I was “looking at” as the pages of the novel sped by. I was pushed so close to some of the characters that I felt their breath on my cheek, before being pulled back in a giddy temporal arc, and forced to confront, to see, how little most lives count. The acts which define one generation are a matter of supreme irrelevance for those who come later, even though those later lives are directly shaped by the now-forgotten earlier dramas. Exquisite truth; delicious irony.  Sublime.

Sam Dumitriu

I’ve recently enjoyed reading both The Elephant in the Brain by Robin Hanson & Kevin Simler and The Case Against Education by Bryan Caplan. I’d categorise both books as the best kind of cynicism. Caplan sets out the strongest case I’ve seen for the idea that education is less about learning skills and more about signalling your ability. Hanson and Simler go further and highlight our extraordinary evolved ability to self-deceive in all domains. It’s applications are fascinating and the chapter on healthcare is perhaps the best route to understanding how the NHS became a national religion.

Over the summer, I’m planning to read Martin Gurri’s The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium, Doug Irwin’s much-praised Clashing over Commerce: A History of US Trade Policy, and if I have time Against the Grain by James C. Scott.

Bob Seely MP

Alexander Duma’s The Count of Monte Cristo – perhaps the best novel ever written.

US District Court, District of Columbia, Indictment, 13 July 2018: Indictments against 12 Russian Military Intelligence operatives accused of hacking into the servers of the Clinton campaign, the Democratic National Committee and others, including US election officials, in order to steal information. At 25 pages, it’s as short as it is fascinating. This, and other indictments, may yet change history. Fall Out: A Year of Political Mayhem, Tim Shipman. I need to learn about the duplicitousness of politicians. Tim describes it so well!

Earthly Powers, Anthony Burgess – a great book

Adam Smith: What He Thought and Why It Matters, Jesse Norman MP – a brilliantly engaging political philosopher and one of the best thinkers in politics.

Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stephenson – I love the opening pages so much.

John Ashmore is Deputy Editor of CapX.