Looking back on the past year, I can say it was full of good reads. Besides countless scholarly titles and articles we academics have to read (or skim through, if I’m honest) throughout the year, I enjoyed two dozen or so carefully selected books. For the most part, they didn’t disappoint. For this post, I have chosen six titles, half of which truly moved or enlightened me; the remaining three, while they weren’t bad, didn’t exactly set my world alight with excitement.
The Not-So-Good Three
Let me first write about the books that I felt could’ve done a bit better. I feel bad about starting with a novel by one of my all time favourite authors, Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1, but when I closed this doorstopper of a book the feeling I remember having was that of relief – rather than excitement or sadness – at having finished it. This is not to say the book is very bad or boring ; to the contrary, even in a 800+ page book, Auster, in his usual masterful manner, manages to excite and entice the reader. Without spoiling the book too much, I’d describe it as a 4-in-1 novel – it consists of four versions of one young New Yorker’s life that are strung together in an arbitrary and hence somewhat confusing way. Confusing, that is, until you realize Auster’s idea – until I did so I genuinely considered colour-coding chapters. However, in my view the book fails to take advantage of this brilliant idea and, as a result, the brilliance is soon lost in tedious repetitions, confusing asides, and the bits that perhaps excite Auster fanboys but left me indifferent at best.
The two other books in this category, to my shame, are also by titans of world literature. Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God is by no means a bad book, but judged against his own canon I wouldn’t rank it very high. I read it mostly on trains and hotel rooms in the travel-filled spring of 2017. Don’t get me wrong – in my view McCarthy is the greatest Anglophone novelist alive, without exaggeration, and perhaps my most favourite writer of all time – but this short book was perhaps the weirdest of his works I’ve encountered. Endo Shusaku’s Silence was brought back from obscurity by Martin Scorsese’s 2016 screen adaptation, and perhaps for this reason, while I’d read (and enjoyed) Endo’s macabre Sea and Poison, I’d been wilfully ignoring Silence for some time. I did enjoy parts of the book, especially the way Endo accounts for the gradual transition in the protagonist’s mind, the crumbling of his worldview. However, perhaps because I read it in translation, I found the book much less exciting than I’d imagined – and expected – it to be.
The Good Three
I bought David Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere as part of a “buy-one-get-one-half-price” deal, not because I was dying to read it but because I felt it would help me make better sense of the mess in which Britain currently finds itself. And the book did help understand a lot, although it managed to infuriate me in equal measure. If I am pedantic, I would say Goodhart’s division of Britain into two groups – “anywheres” and “somewheres” – is overly simplistic, and he concedes as much. And it is a bit too appeasing in relation to the closed, xenophobic worldviews for my liking. But it helps understand some of the main issues that divide this country, and highlights the mistakes that led to Brexit and other upheavals. I disagree with many of his solutions, but this is an important book.
W. G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn is a wonder of a book. It consists of melancholic accounts of the author’s travels – mainly walks – across Suffolk County, but the journey he takes you along is hardly limited to East Anglia. “Mental travel” is the phrase often used to describe his work, and I think it is very accurate, although it, too, fails to do justice to the depth and breadth of Sebald’s bleak yet beautiful world. As someone who has an office in the building where Sebald worked for three decades and was moved greatly by his masterpiece, Austerlitz, I was enchanted by Rings of Saturn, and I would recommend it to anyone, and everyone.
Finally, I can safely say I enjoyed John le Carré’s The Pigeon Tunnel more than any other book I read in the past year. The book is so well-written that I would’ve finished it even if it weren’t packed with delightful vignettes, encounters and memories that the author has accumulated throughout his long life. But the book is such an enjoyable concoction of first-hand anecdotes retold with self-deprecation and wit that you will hardly be able to put it down. The book reminded me that I had only read, before it, one title by le Carré – The Constant Gardener – and that I should probably pick up more of his books this year.