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.