One of my worst reading habits is to start a book and then get distracted by a new book and start that, and then get distracted by something new again, until I have a big pile of half-read books by my bed. This pile can stay there for years. So this year I’ve tried to finish the books I started. I have been mostly successful. It means I’ve started reading far fewer books this year but have finished a lot more.
The best novel I read in 2016 was Under the Skin by Michael Farber, published back in 2000. (It inspired a pretty good, quite odd film of the same name, notable for being a movie in which Scarlett Johansson takes off all her clothes and the effect is unsettling and unpleasant and weird). All of Farber’s books seem to be very unalike, so if you’ve read The Book of Strange New Things (which I enjoyed) or The Crimson Petal and the White (which I didn’t) you’ll probably have a different reaction to Under the Skin.
I’ve mentioned them before but I also enjoyed two early Ballard novels: Vermilion Sands and The Drowned World.
The least interesting books I read this year were celebrated/award-winning contemporary literary novels. A few literary people I talked to at end-of-year parties admitted they found contemporary literature incredibly boring at the moment, and that they’re reading more genre and non-fiction. I’m the same. Other than Mantel I struggle to think of a single contemporary literary novelist who’s work I’m buy-on-sight interested in.
Two of the best non-fiction books I read this year were Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Emperor of all Maladies and Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. (both authors have new books out this year which I haven’t read yet). The most important, for me, was Mukherjee’s book, which is ‘a biography of cancer’. It’s about a lot of different things, but the strongest message I got out of it was the deep fallibility of medical science through much of the twentieth century. I intend to re-read Sapiens. Lots of good insights: I especially liked the bit on the value of gossip in human societies and its role in the evolution of language.
I think the worst book I read was Justin Cronin’s City of Mirrors. Best popular novels: Peyton Place and Stephen King’s Firestarter. Most upsetting book: Silberman’s Neurotribes, a history of autism, often a history of psychologists and other scientists torturing autistic children. Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction was also very depressing. (All of the animals are dying.)
The largest book was the Figes book about the Russian Revolution A People’s Tragedy. I’m a slow reader so this took me much of the winter. Recommended. This lead to a whole lot of secondary reading about Marxism and Critical Theory and Trotsky. I’m not sure I’d recommend any of those books, except perhaps the Peter Singer book about Marx. It’s all nonsense, I think, although when it came to Critical Theory I must admit I simply couldn’t understand an awful lot of it. There’s a widespread perception outside (and sometimes inside) the humanities that Critical Theory is an intellectual hoax, designed to sound complex to conceal a lack of substance, and this is my impression too.
Favourite book overall: Path to Power, the first Caro biography of Lyndon Johnson.
I have a large stack of books I planned to read over the break, but for the past couple of days I’ve just been baking and cooking, and watching movies and going for walks, and have barely read anything, so that might not work out.
I also spent the year reading less commentary on the internet, or at least trying to. One quote I picked up this year which really stuck with me is from William James: ‘Our life experience would ultimately amount to whatever we had paid attention to.’ I think that’s true. The internet gives you the ability to pay attention to a wide range of superficially amusing, distracting nonsense, but if you let yourself pay attention to it all day, every day, your life will amount to distracting nonsense. Giving up Twitter was the best nonsense-minimising step I took this year, although I undid some of that by getting way too invested in the US election, only to find out with the outcome that almost all of the commentary I read about it was worthless.
Ballard once observed that sex and paranoia were the leitmotifs of the twentieth century. It feels as if anxiety and outrage are the motifs of the 21st, possibly because they’re the most effective ways to monetise our attention for clicks and ad impressions. Which is not to say that we shouldn’t be anxious and outraged (All of the animals are dying!). But my goal next year is to be more selective about the things I pay attention to, and to try and be anxious and outraged about things I can do something about.
Hope you all had a good year, and thanks for reading.