My Favourite Books I Read in 2016

I tend to have at least two books on the go at any one time: one fiction, one non-fiction. I read fiction when I go to bed, since I read somewhere that fiction encourages present-state attention, which makes you feel sleepy. It works for me. I generally read non-fiction (or, more often, Pocket articles) when I’m commuting.

My Goodreads Year in Review tells me I read 33 books last year. These are the highlights.

The best book I read was John Higgs’ Stranger Than We Can Imagine, an attempt to explain the 20th century through philosophy, art and science, rather than geopolitics. I wrote a post about it which you can read if you want more detail; but if you’re willing to take my word, it comes with a strong recommendation from me.

The Inevitable, by Wired founder Kevin Kelly, looks at technologies which will shape the near future. Not specific implementations, but more general trends: sharing, remixing, tracking, etc. If you keep up to date on tech trends some of this can seem like it’s just reinforcing what you already know; even so there are enough interesting points of view and insights to make this a good and compelling read.

Time Travel, by James Gleick, is an exhaustive (and occasionally exhausting) exploration of its subject in fiction, philosophy, and physics. I didn’t enjoy it as much as his previous book, The Information, but it’s still worth your time.

Andrew Hosken’s Empire of Fear is a history and investigation of the so-called Islamic State (as the BBC put it). It really helped me better understand the complicated situation in the Middle East, and the shameful decisions by foreign powers that made it all happen.

You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life (You Are Raoul Moat), by Andrew Hankinson, is a semi-fictionalised first-person account (it uses real dialog, social services documents, and police reports) of the last days of the man hunted by police in 2010. Phenomenal true-crime writing.

In comics, Steffen Kverneland’s Munch is both an incredible biography of the Norwegian artist and his relationship with the author August Strindberg, and a fourth-wall-breaking story of how the book was written. And that barely scratches the surface. It apparently took seven years to create, and that’s apparent in the breadth and detail.

Mary Wept Over The Feet of Jesus, by Chester Brown, retells (with copious footnotes and reference) Bible stories that feature prostitutes. It’s part of the author’s ongoing attempts to contextualise and justify his own use of paid sex, and is quite fascinating.

The novel I enjoyed most was Don Winslow’s The Cartel, a story of the drug wars in South and Central Americas (and sequel to The Power of the Dog). It’s a robust thriller that only occasionally slips into cliche.

Finally, Beast, by Paul Kingsnorth, and Pig Iron, by Benjamin Myers, are very different stories but both are first-person, and use the language of the narrator, and their landscape and environment, to create a feeling of deep immersion. Both authors are poets, which shows.

I’ve got three books on the go right now which didn’t quite make it into this roundup, and another ten in my to-read list. Exciting and daunting.

Making Nature: how we see animals

A visit to the Wellcome Collection this week, for the exhibition Making Nature. It explores human interaction with animals; how we classify them, display them, observe them, and change them. From Walter Potter’s taxidermy tableaux, to tigers in Manhattan apartments, to BioSteel™ goats that lactate spider silk, it’s a well-curated, thoughtful, and eventually unsettling experience.

It starts with Linnaeus’ taxonomies, the desire to impose order on the natural world. Perhaps well-intentioned, but his racist human stereotypes (‘indolent and capricious Africans’) indicate that order is as much about opinion as fact.

Making Nature shows how our view of animals changed from asset to resource to commodity, to entertainment and decoration. This observation struck me:

Humans soon discovered they could train captive birds to sing songs that may not attract mates in the wild, but would captivate human listeners.

The songbird became a programmable musical device.

Perhaps the saddest part of the exhibit was the video installation The Great Silence, by artists Allora & Calzadilla with author Ted Chiang. It contrasts shots of two locations in Puerto Rico—the Arecibo observatory for monitoring signals of alien life, and a sanctuary for endangered parrots—simultaneously with Chiang’s eponymous short story, written from the point of view of one of those parrots.

Humans have lived alongside parrots for thousands of years, and only recently have they considered the possibility that we might be intelligent.

But parrots are more similar to humans than any extraterrestrial species will be, and humans can observe us up close; they can look us in the eye. How do they expect to recognize an alien intelligence if all they can do is eavesdrop from a hundred light years away?

The exhibition is, like everything in the Wellcome Collection, free to visit. It runs until 21st May, and is the first in a year-long series exploring our relationship with nature.