My Favourite Books I Read in 2017

I read 25 books in 2017, eight few­er than I did in 2016; I think this is because I read a lot more arti­cles (saved to Pock­et, on my Kobo eRead­er) as research for my job and my newslet­ter. Still, 25 books in 12 months isn’t a bad return, and I aim to read around the same num­ber this year.

Of all the books I read, these were the notable ones.


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.


My Favourite Books I Read in 2015

Many peo­ple have made a New Year’s res­o­lu­tion to read more. I won’t. I already read a lot. Accord­ing to my Goodreads list, I read 24 books last year (and that’s on top of all the arti­cles pub­lished across the web). I can’t pos­si­bly review all of them, but these were my high­lights of 2015.

By far the best book, because it blew my mind, was Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapi­ens: A Brief His­to­ry of Humankind. It’s more a his­to­ry of cul­ture and soci­ety than it is ‘hard’ his­to­ry, but is filled with rev­e­la­to­ry ways of look­ing at our species and beliefs. It con­tains so many high­lights that I’ve start­ed to blog a review in mul­ti­ple parts. I’ve already bought a copy for a friend, and would rec­om­mend you get one too.

Anoth­er book that had a huge impact on me was Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Pub­licly Shamed, a look at mob jus­tice on social media, its his­tor­i­cal con­text, and its impli­ca­tions, all told in the author’s humor­ous­ly under­stat­ed way. If I were Face­book or Twit­ter (I’m not) I would strike a deal to get a copy of this to every user.

War­ren Ellis’ Cun­ning Plans is a short col­lec­tion of tran­scripts from talks giv­en by the author at var­i­ous con­fer­ences in the past few years. What Ellis is good at is find­ing con­nec­tions; many of these pieces tie togeth­er tech­nol­o­gy and British folk­lore, things that you wouldn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly think were relat­ed.

Anoth­er short book I enjoyed great­ly was Clay Shirky’s Lit­tle Rice: Smart­phones, Xiao­mi, and The Chi­nese Dream. A look at Chi­na through the lens of its grow­ing smart­phone indus­try, using the man­u­fac­tur­er Xiao­mi as a case study. Full of fas­ci­nat­ing cul­tur­al insight, espe­cial­ly with regards to the sheer scale of the Chi­nese mar­ket.

In comics, I huge­ly admired Richard McGuire’s Here. It’s an exper­i­men­tal piece, where your field of view remains fixed on the same point in space but trav­els through dif­fer­ent times, with themes play­ing them­selves out through the ages inside dif­fer­ent pan­els of the com­ic.

Adri­an Tomine’s Killing and Dying is a col­lec­tion of short slice of life sto­ries, each in a dif­fer­ent art and sto­ry­telling style. What the author excels at is por­tray­ing com­plex emo­tion in a very min­i­mal, under­stat­ed way.

My favourite nov­el I read this year was Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things. The plot involves a man sent as a mis­sion­ary to a recent­ly dis­cov­ered alien race, but its also about dis­tance and long­ing and the things we leave behind. It also fea­tures a won­der­ful trick where each chapter’s title is the last sen­tence of that chap­ter, but sub­vert­ed from your pre­sump­tion by the time you get to it.

I’ve already got a fur­ther ten books to read or in progress. Time to get on with them.


Blogging The Highlights: Sapiens [Part One]

Ear­li­er this year I read Yuval Noah Harari’s book, Sapi­ens: A Brief His­to­ry of Humankind. It is, with­out a doubt, one of the most amaz­ing, eye-open­ing, mind-expand­ing books I’ve ever read. I’ve want­ed for some time to write a review of it, but have been slight­ly daunt­ed by the thought of try­ing to do it jus­tice. Even using quotes from the book to illus­trate the themes, as I’ve done before, faces me with a prob­lem: I’ve high­light­ed so many pas­sages, even edit­ing them to a man­age­able length would be a job in itself.

But I can pre­var­i­cate no longer, so I’m going to attempt a loose review, based around quotes from the book, bro­ken into mul­ti­ple posts. I’ll theme them loose­ly around hap­pi­ness, con­sumerism, and the agri­cul­tur­al rev­o­lu­tion; and, in this first part, around fic­tions.

Sapi­ens is a book about humankind, but not a hard his­to­ry; it’s about cul­ture, about the sys­tems we’ve evolved to cre­ate this amaz­ing, pow­er­ful, ter­ri­fy­ing glob­al race. Above all, it’s about fic­tions: the sto­ries that we all choose to believe in that define and make pos­si­ble soci­ety and its achieve­ments.

Telling effec­tive sto­ries is not easy. The dif­fi­cul­ty lies not in telling the sto­ry, but in con­vinc­ing every­one else to believe it. Much of his­to­ry revolves around this ques­tion: how does one con­vince mil­lions of peo­ple to believe par­tic­u­lar sto­ries about gods, or nations, or lim­it­ed lia­bil­i­ty com­pa­nies? Yet when it suc­ceeds, it gives Sapi­ens immense pow­er, because it enables mil­lions of strangers to coop­er­ate and work towards com­mon goals. Just try to imag­ine how dif­fi­cult it would have been to cre­ate states, or church­es, or legal sys­tems if we could speak only about things that real­ly exist, such as rivers, trees and lions.

As time has passed, these fic­tions have tak­en on more impor­tance:

Ever since the Cog­ni­tive Rev­o­lu­tion, Sapi­ens have thus been liv­ing in a dual real­i­ty. On the one hand, the objec­tive real­i­ty of rivers, trees and lions; and on the oth­er hand, the imag­ined real­i­ty of gods, nations and cor­po­ra­tions. As time went by, the imag­ined real­i­ty became ever more pow­er­ful, so that today the very sur­vival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imag­ined enti­ties such as the Unit­ed States and Google.

These fic­tions extend even to our laws and rights; bio­log­i­cal­ly speak­ing, we are not all born equal:

If we do not believe in the Chris­t­ian myths about God, cre­ation and souls, what does it mean that all peo­ple are ‘equal’? Evo­lu­tion is based on dif­fer­ence, not on equal­i­ty.

How­ev­er, we choose to believe in nat­ur­al equal­i­ty because it pro­motes sta­bil­i­ty and social order:

We believe in a par­tic­u­lar order not because it is objec­tive­ly true, but because believ­ing in it enables us to coop­er­ate effec­tive­ly and forge a bet­ter soci­ety.

Belief is what enables fic­tions, and fic­tions enable orders:

An imag­ined order can be main­tained only if large seg­ments of the pop­u­la­tion – and in par­tic­u­lar large seg­ments of the elite and the secu­ri­ty forces – tru­ly believe in it. Chris­tian­i­ty would not have last­ed 2,000 years if the major­i­ty of bish­ops and priests failed to believe in Christ. The mod­ern eco­nom­ic sys­tem would not have last­ed a sin­gle day if the major­i­ty of investors and bankers failed to believe in cap­i­tal­ism.

The fic­tions shared between groups of peo­ple are passed on through leg­ends: myths and sto­ries, laws and rules. Peo­ple in dif­fer­ent soci­eties cre­at­ed dif­fer­ent leg­ends.

Myths and fic­tions accus­tomed peo­ple, near­ly from the moment of birth, to think in cer­tain ways, to behave in accor­dance with cer­tain stan­dards, to want cer­tain things, and to observe cer­tain rules. They there­by cre­at­ed arti­fi­cial instincts that enabled mil­lions of strangers to coop­er­ate effec­tive­ly. This net­work of arti­fi­cial instincts is called ‘cul­ture’.

Aside: I saw Scott Berkun sum this up with a neat for­mu­la: cul­ture = some ideas > oth­er ideas. But back to Harari. He says that what dri­ves cul­ture is the con­tra­dic­tions of soci­ety: for exam­ple, try­ing to rec­on­cile per­son­al free­dom with the desire for every­one to be equal.

The mod­ern world fails to square lib­er­ty with equal­i­ty. But this is no defect. Such con­tra­dic­tions are an insep­a­ra­ble part of every human cul­ture. In fact, they are culture’s engines, respon­si­ble for the cre­ativ­i­ty and dynamism of our species.

To prop­a­gate cul­ture we had to make it pos­si­ble to store mem­o­ries beyond our genes; this could be in sim­ple shared ideas passed down through gen­er­a­tions:

Human teenagers have no genes for foot­ball. They can nev­er­the­less play the game with com­plete strangers because they have all learned an iden­ti­cal set of ideas about foot­ball. These ideas are entire­ly imag­i­nary, but if every­one shares them, we can all play the game.

The prob­lem with imag­i­nary ideas is that you need to active­ly enforce them:

Hives can be very com­plex social struc­tures, con­tain­ing many dif­fer­ent kinds of work­ers, such as har­vesters, nurs­es and clean­ers. But so far researchers have failed to locate lawyer bees. Bees don’t need lawyers, because there is no dan­ger that they might for­get or vio­late the hive con­sti­tu­tion.

But writ­ten laws and con­sti­tu­tions have had an impact on us:

The most impor­tant impact of script on human his­to­ry is pre­cise­ly this: it has grad­u­al­ly changed the way humans think and view the world. Free asso­ci­a­tion and holis­tic thought have giv­en way to com­part­men­tal­i­sa­tion and bureau­cra­cy.

This is why the study of his­to­ry, and books like Sapi­ens, are so vital:

We study his­to­ry not to know the future but to widen our hori­zons, to under­stand that our present sit­u­a­tion is nei­ther nat­ur­al nor inevitable, and that we con­se­quent­ly have many more pos­si­bil­i­ties before us than we imag­ine.

As I said at the start, I’m going to write a few more posts about Sapiens—but hon­est­ly, just save your­self the trou­ble of read­ing them and buy a copy of the book instead. I high­ly doubt that you’ll regret it.