The books I think I read in 2018
I’m not very systematic about how or what I read, though I suppose this is a step towards that. Last year I left at least a couple of books I really enjoyed off the list by accident, so there may be one or two I’ve missed this time too. We’ll never know.
Latecomers, Anita Brookner. A novel rooted in European history in a way that’s quite unusual for British authors. I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as Look At Me, which I read last year, but I admired it. Happy to read my way through the rest of Brookner.
Then We Came To The End, Joshua Ferris. Brilliant, original, funny and sad. Maybe 20% too long (I think that about most books). A seriously talented author, I’d be happy to pick up another.
Common Sense, The Turing Test, and the Quest for Real AI, Hector J. Levesque. I had high hopes for this but it’s a bit of a snooze.
How Emotions Are Made, Lisa Feldman Barrett. Interesting critique of conventional thinking on emotion, although as a new theory I found it disappointing, full of woolly concepts and sloppy thinking.
The Vital Question, Nick Lane. This book was too dense for me, or rather I was too dense for it. I think I know what a eukaryotic cell is now.
A Very English Scandal, John Preston. Pure reading pleasure from beginning to end. Astonishments on every page. A vivid portrait of England back when it really was run by the Establishment.
How Should a Person Be? Sheila Heti. Some books are all about “voice” — this is definitely one of those, and Heti’s voice is so free and fearless and funny. The spell wore off a bit in the last third but I’d still recommend.
Petty: The Biography, Warren Zanes. One of the best rock biographies I’ve ever read, and I’m not even a Petty fan in particular. It’s about more than just Petty; it’s a meditation on the politics of rock bands. Which inspired me to write this.
The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes. I haven’t read any JB for years and this reminded me why I stopped. Small, predictable, parochial. Every metaphor laboriously explained. Sunday evening TV.
The Honor Code; How Moral Revolutions Happen, Kwame Anthony Appiah. Interesting exploration of how countries changed their minds on slavery, duelling, foot-binding.
Prediction Machines, Ajay Agrawal and Joshua Gans. Not bad but I read it for work and would not recommend reading it for pleasure.
Beatles ’66: The Revolutionary Year, Steve Turner. Well researched, well crafted account of what you will agree, after reading it, was the pivotal year in the band’s artistic development.
Erving Goffman, Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behaviour. Academic work, quite dry, but perceptive and penetrating about human interaction. Everything Goffman wrote is interesting.
Selected Essays, Virginia Woolf. In my opinion, this kid can write.
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida. Dense, opaque, jargon-ridden, yet somehow moving and melancholic.
The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Ben Horowitz. One of the best business books I’ve read, well written, fascinating on the pressures, problems and politics of running a business.
Algorithms To Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions, Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths. This is very clever and enjoyable, challenging and mind-stretching at times if you are not used to thinking in comp-sci or statistical terms, but that exactly is why I found it valuable.
The Kingdom, Emmanuel Carrère. Bonkers and brilliant.
The Lessons of History, Will & Ariel Durant. The truth is that you can’t really learn anything from history, except why we got here (which is why you should read it). But I enjoyed the authors’ old-fashioned, sweepingly imperious confidence.
How To Think, Alan Jacobs. Loved this. Condenses half a century or so of one man’s thinking about thinking into a short and stimulating read. Richly eclectic set of reference points.
I Am Dynamite! A Life of Friedrich Nietzsche, Sue Prideaux. Enjoyable biography of Nietzsche, which makes him likeable as well as bizarre and brilliant. Less sympathetic portrayal of Richard and Cosima Wagner.
The Enigma of Reason: A New Theory of Human Understanding, Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier. Every bit as ambitious as its sub-title suggests — and they carry it off. An intellectual thriller, rigorously argued and elegantly written.