I’m not someone who keeps a catalogue of the books I read (though perhaps this is the start of one, in a half-arsed way). So I can’t say for sure that these are all books I read in the last year, though I think they are. It is certainly not an exhaustive list: there will be some I read and promptly forgot about and some I picked up and put down after a few pages (I’m not a great persister with books I’m not enjoying, at least not if I’ve identified exactly why I’m not enjoying them). What follows is in no particular order.
Outline, Rachel Cusk. Shimmering, taut, mysterious. Penetratingly intelligent. Unexpectedly funny.
Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Carlo Rovelli. Beautifully written, a masterpiece of elegant compression. Mind-opening. I felt like I understood the radicalism of Einstein’s big insight for the first time.
The Numbers Game, Chris Anderson and David Sally. What statistical analysis can tell us about football. Lucid and stimulating overview of a really interesting topic, if you’re interested in that kind of thing.
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind. Just started this and it’s fantastic, but you probably know that. Can’t believe I didn’t get round to it before.
Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari. Disappointing. Quite a lot of interesting material, but the philosophising is sophomoric and trite and unduly pleased with itself.
The Most Human Human, Brian Christian. One of the best ‘ideas-based non-fiction’ books I’ve read in years. Endlessly interesting on the difference between machine and human intelligence, spans tech, philosophy, poetry.
Zealot, Reza Aslan. One of my favourite reads of the year. Stylishly narrated history of early Christianity, in the guise of a biography of Jesus Christ. I learnt a lot and really enjoyed doing so. Strong rec.
Moral Tribes, Joshua Greene. Grand overview of the basis of human morality and a defence of utilitarianism. Haidt with a bit more heft. Very nicely written too — the learning is lightly worn. Good time to read it.
Two Hours, Ed Caesar. Deeply reported and superbly told, this gripped me despite being on a subject on which I previously had little interest.
Elizabeth Costello, J.M. Coetzee. One of those books that I didn’t exactly enjoy but did admire. He is (obviously) a master and so you never feel you’re wasting time. But it’s a little dry. A lot dry.
Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald. The best novel I read this year, and one of the best I’ve ever read. I wouldn’t say I got anywhere close to ‘understanding’ it, but…it just glows.
Pedigree, Lauren Rivera. An academic book, but if you’re interested in the subtle ways that elites hoard all the goodies to themselves without even realising that that is what they’re doing, read it. Really interesting, sharply observed work.
You Never Give Me Your Money, Pete Doggett.The story of the Beatles told from the point it started going sour, in 1967: the break-up and beyond. Pleasurable and painful at the same time. Really well told. Changed my view of McCartney and Lennon.
Psychoanalysis, The Impossible Profession, Janet Malcolm. Feel embarrassed to admit in liberal elite company that I didn’t enjoy this so much. Felt like she was just reporting on this guy without imposing herself on the material…
In The Freud Archives, Janet Malcolm. …whereas I really enjoyed this one. There’s a story, there are terrific characters, there’s Malcolm’s subtle, ominous narrative voice.
Promised You a Miracle, UK 1980–1982, Andy Beckett. Expertly written series of vignettes in search of a governing thesis.
The Year of Reading Dangerously, Andy Miller. Lovely — lots of fun for book nerds and a new reading list.
Being Mortal, Atul Gawande. This is one book where the reviewers were right, it really is as good and necessary as everyone says. Just read it.
Do No Harm, Henry Marsh. See above.
The Gruffalo, Donaldson and Scheffler. I found myself returning to it again and again.