Books of 2017. In Short.
Reading is hard when you’re encumbered by children and Twitter. I was quite proud of having got through 20+ books in 2017 until I discovered that Sarah Ditum had matched that by June. Anyway here’s my paltry list, in order of reading:
Wonderland, Steven Johnson. Maybe the best book yet from one of my favourite authors, delights and discoveries on every page and a whole new theory of human progress to boot.
The Lonely City, Olivia Laing. Powerful, elegant writing on loneliness and art. It taught me how to appreciate Hopper and Warhol at a much deeper level. Maybe fades a bit in the last quarter but don’t we all.
The Upstarts, Brad Stone. Reviewed for the New Statesman.
Hit Makers, Derek Thompson. Really good, packed with stories and real thinking about the global entertainment mall.
Criminal, Tom Gash. I wanted this to be better than it was. Lots of quite interesting stuff without quite adding up to something unmissable.
Love’s Work, Gillian Rose. Grabs you by the throat, in its highly cultured way, and won’t let you go until you’ve stared misery and death in the face and decided to go on anyway.
Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance. You can forget the arguments over this (and actually it slackens when it becomes more directly about politics). Read it as a superbly drawn picture of a particular subculture, warts and all; a peep into a world you’d otherwise never see. That’s what books are for.
So Long, See You Tomorrow, William Maxwell. Masterpiece. Short — my kind of masterpiece. Will re-read.
HhhH, Laurent Binet. I wasn’t quite as taken by this as many people have been. I did enjoy it but mainly for the actual historical story it tells; I found the po-mo meta stuff a bit meh. (Also, when I did look up one episode of the history that was told straight — the football match — it turned out to false.)
The Return, Hisham Matar. Spellbinding. Enlightening. Great storytelling. One of my books of the year.
Prisoners of Geography, Tim Marshall. Put the “concept” aside and read this for what it is: a useful, trenchant, lucidly written primer on twenty-first century geopolitics.
Beethoven For a Later Age, Edward Dusinberre. Read this and listen to the quartets at the same time and there’s probably no better way to spend your precious time.
Powerhouse, James Andrew Miller. The story of the start-up talent agency that came to dominate Hollywood, as told by its participants, including many of the biggest names in the business. If it was half as long, it would be a better book. Still, it has many incredible stories about 1970s/1980s movie-world.
The Master Algorithm, Pedro Domingos. An introduction to machine learning of which I probably understood about 50%. That’s only partly my fault: the author is a leading expert in his field and can write really well but he’s a poor explainer. Needed a better/stronger editor. Still, I enjoyed it.
Pragmatics of Human Communication, Paul Watzlawick et al. Read this for a thing I’m working on and blown away by how interesting it is. Explains so much about why we piss each other off all the time.
Alone In Berlin, Hans Fallada. Amazing. Masterful storytelling.
Tribe, Sebastian Junger. Absolutely loved this. It is a short book crammed with big ideas about the human condition. Adore the way he writes. I’ll be recommending it to people for years to come.
Rational Ritual, Michael Suk-Young. This is short (are you detecting a theme? I bet Sarah Ditum scorns short books) and brilliant. It’s an academic book about an abstract idea and yet it’s a joy to read. Explains so much about the world.
Look At Me, Anita Brookner. My novel of the year. Oh man, the sentences, the characters, the unsentimental penetration of human hearts. The mystery. Nothing happens, yet it reads like a thriller. Yes, it’s short.
Transit, Rachel Cusk. I loved its predecessor, Outline, which was exciting and radical. I enjoyed this less, and I can’t tell if that’s because it doesn’t have the advantage of novelty or if it is just not as good.