Books 2016

I set myself two goals for 2016 and I failed at both. The first was to run 1000km over the course of the year. At the beginning of December I was well ahead of target at 985km, but then I fell off a climbing wall and badly sprained my ankle, so I finished the year at 985km as well.

My second goal was to read a book every week. I failed this by a bigger margin than the running, managing 43 books in total. But this was still more books than I’ve read in a single year since I was about 20, so I’m still pretty happy. On the whole I was quite lucky in my choices and I read some really good books last year. I’ve written a little bit about some of the best ones below. The full list of books is here.

The Greenlanders, Jane Smiley.
Smiley seems to not be very well-known in the UK; I found this book on a list of famous authors’ favourite under-appreciated novels. It turned out to be probably my favourite of all the books I read last year. The Greenlanders is a multi-generational family saga set among the medieval Norse colony on Greenland. Told in plain language that evokes the sagas, this is a wonderful portrait of a people forgotten by the outside world and barely clinging to life in the face of creeping ecological catastrophe.

My Struggle 3,4,5, Karl Ove Knausgård.
I read the first two volumes of Knausgård’s groundbreaking autobiography in 2015, and the next three over the course of 2016. Over the course of six volumes, Knausgård writes everything of significance that has ever happened to him (and plenty more that is not significant). In doing so he reveals his most shameful self in the hope of saying something true. Anything that attracts as much critical acclaim as My Struggle inevitably suffers a backlash, but I can’t say that these are overrated. They’re not to everyone’s taste perhaps, but I think the acclaim is well-deserved. Comparisons are usually drawn with Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series; I haven’t read those yet, but I’m looking forward to comparing them.

An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It, Jessie Greengrass.
Fantastic debut collection of short stories. I have a hard time describing exactly what I liked about these stories, except that they expertly capture certain atmospheres (especially the title story, which was my favourite). I tried to write something earlier this year about how we should read fewer thinkpieces, or thinkpiece stand-ins, and more things like this that are actually nourishing. The catalyst for writing that was because I read about half of a really shit book about the blockchain, and I wanted to argue for a return to reading for pleasure. But I gave up because I couldn’t find anything interesting to say: Hacker-News-fodder books are obviously bad. These stories are good though; give them a go.

The Outrun, Amy Liptrot.
Stark and moving memoir of the author’s return to Orkney and recovery from alcoholism. The writing cuts back and forth between Liptrot’s busy, disintegrating life in London and her sober days wandering the Scottish islands. There are some particularly nice descriptions of the island landscape and wildlife. I’ve long been a fan of the psychogeography writing of Deakin, Macfarlane, Tallach, and others. What I liked most about Liptrot’s book is that it attempts to reconcile a love of the outdoors and romantic traditionalism with a modern life lived online.

Aurora, Kim Stanley Robinson.
A modern hard sci-fi set on a generation ship headed to colonise another world. I read it on the strength of a boing boing essay by Robinson: Our Generation Ships Will Sink, so maybe read that first as a taster. The book didn’t disappoint. I worry a lot that the tech utopianism driving Elon Musk’s spaceX (and similar enterprises) is drawing attention away from the very real environmental problems we face, in favour of an uncertain solution. Aurora is pessimistic about space colonisation and makes a strong case for ecological stewardship of the Earth.

Eichmann in Jerusalem: a report on the banality of evil, Hannah Arendt.
Arendt’s classic report from Adolf Eichmann’s trial by the Israel government for enabling the genocide of the jews by the holocaust. Lots of good and deep questions about the nature of law, jurisdiction, intent, and evil. Mainly this book made me redouble my intention to spend more time trying to understand thorny sociological problems of importance and less time trying to understand the dynamics of niche online communities.

Ludwig Wittgenstein: the Duty of Genius, Ray Monk.
The best biography of the best philosopher of the 20th century. What is interesting about Wittgenstein is that while he was clearly a difficult person, his intentions never seem to be lacking. His soul was somehow pure, he was a walking argument against consequentialism. Meanwhile, Monk has since made it clear that (Wittgenstein’s teacher) Bertand Russel’s outward moral purity covered an ugly personality. This is an excellent biography, and a useful first look at Wittgenstein’s philosophy.


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