Next in these reviews of the year is the year in books. I read a lot in 2018, and it was a vintage year: for books published in 2018, for those I finally caught up on, and (best of all) all those unexpected surprises from times past. I’ve put the highlights into nine categories, with a favourite title in each.
My top choice among the books published this year is a three-way tie, though if you pinned me down and said pick one, it would be Edward Wilson-Lee’s The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, simply for having the finest title. This is a history-cum-biography so extraordinary in theme that I had to check quite carefully to see that it wasn’t all some ingenious literary hoax. But no, Christopher Columbus’s son Hernando really did try to create the universal library, and the all-purpose library catalogue while he was about it. It feels like the theme for an Umberto Eco novel. The research behind it is tremendous, yet it is never over-bearing, it reads easily, and it artfully links the worlds of physical and intellectual exploration, with important things to tell us about how knowledge is created, shared and perpetuated.
Other fine biographies read over the year were A Tokyo Romance, the ever-reliable Ian Buruma writing about his extraordinary time as a young man spent with Japanese avant garde theatre; Sally Smith’s Marshall Hall: A Law Unto Himself, on the most romantic of lawyers; the impatient but so observant diary of Mirza Abul Hassan Khan, A Persian at the Court of King George, 1809-1810, marvellously translated and annotated by Margaret Morris Cloake and giving something of a Martian’s view of the strange land of England; and Philip Webster Souer’s quaint but thorough The Matchless Orinda, a 1931 biography of the 17th-century poet Katherine Philips. Jennie Erdhal’s Ghosting, her 2005 account of the time she spent as ghostwriter to the publisher Naim Attallah, stood out in particular – a little unkind, but flawlessly executed, from someone coming out of the shadows to produce the one good book they knew they had in them.
Second in the three-way tie for best new books of the year is William Atkins, The Immeasurable World: Journeys in Desert Places. This is a travel book of sorts, where the quest is as much internal as external, with rich prose to match. Atkins visits assorted deserts across the globe, from abandoned nuclear test-grounds in Australia, to the dried-out Aral Sea in Kazakhstan, to the Burning Man festival in Nevada. Early on one tends to side with his guides to these remote spots, who look on with bemusement at this mad Englishman staying for a while in some utterly inhospitable spot for no clear reason at all, but gradually you are drawn into this view of the world in extremis. Atkins is particularly good at linking history to geography, being especially acute on the religious ascetics, St Jerome among them, whose urge for escape, denial and discovery forms the background to a remarkable work.
Among other travel books read this year, I was delighted to stumble across Brazzaville Charms (2007), a portrait of Congo Brazzaville (the less-known Congo) from charity worker Cassie Knight, who is a person of great enterprise and courage, but also a first-rate writer. You weep at what human beings do to one another, but are uplifted by how they survive and still have hope. Owen Hatherley’s Trans-Europe Express: Tours of a Lost Continent, a view of Europe through the architecture of selected cities, makes you think more deeply of the places you too have visited and yearn to see those you haven’t, but is too upset by the UK’s planned departure from the EU to produce as good a book as he could have done. One of a number of recent books that focus on odd corners of the globe, Bjørn Berge’s Nowherelands: An Atlas of Vanished Countries 1840-1975 is an entertaining tour through countries now gone from the map, often largely wiped from history as well. J. Edward Chamberlin’s Island: How Islands Transform the World is an absolute delight, a sort of history of everything seen through the world in microcosm that is the island. Indeed, relatively speaking, we all live on islands, of one size or another.
Third in the three-way tie is David Patrikarakos’ War in 140 Characters: How Social Media Is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century. I have already written in praise of this journalistic study of how war has been changed by social media. Victory lies not on the battlefield but in management of the story, and while once there were armies and civilians, now we are all combatants, or participants, of one kind or another. It takes us through new battlefronts in Israel/Palestine, Ukraine, Russia and the Islamic State. It leaves the reader not so much worried as bewildered, knowing though that only those who understand the new warfare will be the winners, and they are winning now.
Professionally, I have to read a lot of books on news, but for pleasure also. I was particularly pleased to see Future-Proofing the News: Preserving the First Draft of History, by Katherine A. Hansen and Nora Paul, which considers the different forms of news – newspapers, newsreels, radio, TV, web – and what is being done to preserve them. The book doesn’t ask questions about what news is, and is very American-focussed, but it is a handy, practical guide for anyone looking across the different news media (as we all should). Of course, I’m pleased to see that they have included newsreels, and Researching Newsreels, edited by Ciara Chambers, Mats Jönsson, Roel Vande Winkel may help to wake up interest in the forgotten medium that played such an important part in 20th-century communications. Among older works, First Lady of Fleet Street, by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev, is a highly readable biography of Rachel Beer, overlooked editor of The Sunday Times and The Observer (and aunt of Siegfried Sassoon). The Mass-Observation study The Press & Its Readers (1949) is such fun for how it focusses on how people actually read (or do not read) newspapers, which is seldom as many champions and critics of newspapers believe they are read. James T. Hamilton’s Democracy’s Detectives (2016) is an excellent study of investigative journalism in the USA, telling our impatient age how investment in journalism enriches us all.
I’ve always got a history book of one sort or another on the go. One that stood out in particular for its novel theme so ably executed was Daniel’s Kalder’s Dictator Literature: A History of Despots Through Their Writing. Yes, it’s a study of the turgid, risible outpourings of Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Mussolini and Gadaffi, read and dissected by Kalder so that you will never have to. It tells the sad story of our times in an inspired way, especially good when most contemptuous of the yawning gap between theory and cruel reality. Required reading for anyone who says they believe in an -ism.
Praise too for great research combined with clear writing from the always excellent Taylor Downing, whose 1983: The World at the Brink tells how close we can to nuclear destruction in said year; Charlie English’s The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu, which tells the heroic tale of how librarians (of a kind) saved the historical manuscripts of Timbuktu from religious-inspired destruction, then trips you up by questioning everything you have just read; and Robin Waterfield’s Creators, Conquerors & Citizens, which is a good, plain, helpful history of ancient Greece. Lastly, two histories of modern Germany with a similar style, documenting a short period in time through the experiences of different characters, famous and obscure, derived from diaries and memoirs: Oliver Hilmes, Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August (on the Berlin Olympic Games) and Volker Weidermann, Dreamers: When the Writers Took Power, Germany 1918 (on the brief, doomed socialist regime in Bavaria at the end of the First World War). Both humanise the history through the multiple perspectives, but leave you wanting to read a plainer account afterwards to work out what exactly happened. They are not really histories if the story is told through those who did not yet know what was truly happening to them.
Why did I end up reading three books on German history this year? Anyway, I’ve jumped categories for a fine film book (and there aren’t nearly enough if those), Bill Niven’s Hitler and Film: The Fuhrer’s Hidden Passion. It documents Hitler’s enthusiasm for film (including newsreels, of course) in a cogent, straightforward manner, combining great depth of knowledge with a clarity of style from which you wish a few others, indeed many others, indeed myself, would learn. Keep the sentences short, drop that second adjective, say simply what is needed. That said, Francesco Casetti’s Eye of the Century Film, Experience, Modernity (2008) is not light reading, but it is rich in ideas that make you look and think again.
I finally got round to reading John Yorke’s celebrated Into The Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them (2013), which focusses for the most part on film and television narratives. It takes a long time to make just a few points, but the conclusions have much to tell us about why we need stories, and the analyses on individual plots and plot sequences are a treat. Also a treat is Stephen Herbert’s Industry, Liberty and a Vision, first published in paperback in 1998 and now expanded into hardback. The limited edition is already difficult to find, but this account of how proto-film pioneer Wordsworth Donisthorpe made some of the first motion pictures turns a footnote into an extraordinary alternative history, combining industry, anarchism, photography, chess and language. A whole world pours out of just ten frames of film. There is no other film history (if that what it is) quite like it.
I found no new poets this year, but got much pleasure from old friends and more recent discoveries. Among the latter, Lavinia Greenlaw’s A Double Sorrow, a free interpretation of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, is inspired. It tells the love story not in detail but in glimpses, alternating between he and she, while in the background the fall of Troy becomes inevitable, a love doomed by extraordinary circumstance. As in the best re-tellings of classical myths, it makes the subject romantically remote yet strangely of our time too. An old favourite is the scientist-turned-poet Miroslav Holub, whose final volume The Rampage is as clever, as clear, and as arresting as anything he wrote. You laugh at the precise observation, then ask yourself what exactly it is that you are laughing at. Disappointing, alas, was Derek Mahon’s latest, Against the Clock. A few of the poems are among the best he has written in ages; too many are ramblings and complaints that have nothing to tell us, and do so poorly. Best to concentrate on the few, such as ‘Stuff’:
Woodshavings, oil and canvas, sand and stone,
atoms aswirl like barn dust in the sun,
already hold the paper, glass and artefacts
they’re destined to become in a short while.
All that’s required is skill, a sense of style
and a concrete devotion to the facts.
Stuff grows around us – jotter, ink and slate –
with an interior life keen to create;
the picture above the table, the cracked plate,
broken specs, defaced books on the shelves
and the stuff dreams are made of, we ourselves
whose dancing atoms share a similar fate.
I’m persevering with novels, but now I have to convince myself of their worth, when once this was obvious. Worth the time spent on them, that is. I got round to reading Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, in the 1931 Eugene Jolas translation, which they say has been greatly superseded by Michael Hofmann’s new version. Doubtless this is so, but even through a faltering interpretation the phantasmagorical story of a released prisoner’s journey through Berlin’s underworld feels as radical as ever it would have done in 1929. It’s a wonder that it was written, that it was published, and that it was popular.
Otherwise I continued my struggle with Balzac, but he whose writings once thrilled me now failed to convince me on so many levels. Not even the cast-iron classic Old Goriot works. Maybe it’s the wrong translation, again. After thirty years or so, I looked again at Alice Thomas Ellis, whose odd slim novels once intrigued me, but The Inn at the Edge of World is notable mostly for having no connection to any convincing reality at all. I did enjoy the poet (see above) Lavinia Greenlaw’s In the City of Love’s Sleep, which is a sort of a prose complement to her A Double Sorrow, with a Troilus and Criseyde in the person of two museum curators in London. The thought of any novel with curators as its protagonists makes this curator snigger, alas, but it is hauntingly and distinctively told, with a poet’s belief in all that words can do. Oh, and I finally opened up a Harry Potter book to see what the fuss has been all about. After reading the first volume, I am none the wiser.
Other books were one-offs rather than fitting into any other the above categories. I particularly liked Alberto Manguel’s The Traveler, the Tower, and the Worm: The Reader as Metaphor. He’s an author who never lets you down, and there was no way I could resist a book which opens with the statement, “As far as one can tell, human beings are the only species for which the world seems made up of stories”. What John Yorke took a book to say, Manguel delivers in a single sentence. It takes us on a metaphorical journey through histories of readership, maybe a little reactionary in places (Manguel does not like online reading) but more good ideas in a concentrated space (just 144 pages) than just about anything else I read all year.
Jack Hamilton’s Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination is a great, passionate account of how black Americans lost rock’n’roll to white Americans (and Britons) then fought back with soul. First-rate pop musicology. I enjoyed (and continue to enjoy) the essays of Simon Leys, collected under the arresting title of The Hall of Uselessness, but struggled through Swiss poet Philippe Jaccottet’s The Second Seedtime, a notebook collection of observations that mostly prove that even a great poet can be undone by the plainer needs of prose. While I’m recording the disappointments, Books Do Furnish a Painting, by Jamie Camplin and Maria Ranauro, ought to have been one of the year’s highlights. How can you go wrong with a book about books in paintings, richly illustrated and with the picture researcher given a co-author credit? Then you try and read it. How can you have so much knowledge yet apply it so badly? Oh dear. Lastly, I read A Brief History of Time, at long long last. I had not expected it to be so very good.
The great adventure for me this year was, of course, visiting St Helena. I read a great deal about the place before and during my two weeks spent on the remote Atlantic island. The best travel account that I know of is Julia Blackburn’s The Emperor’s Last Island (1997), which concentrates on the island’s most famous resident. It combines history with travel particularly well, though her account of her visit to the island has a peculiarly downbeat tone to it. I recommend that she returns – she’ll find that it has brightened up considerably. Similarly titled is Thomas Keneally’s novel Napoleon’s Last Island, which has an imaginative spin on the off-told tales of Napoleon surrounded by his loyal familars on the island, all trying to keep up the illusion of his continuing greatness. Intriguingly the book includes details of the island which only someone who has been there could appreciate. It also had a lurid finale of sexual misbehaviour with surprise participants – it is said that you cannot slander the dead, but Keneally has a damn good try.
But then there was my overall book of the year (above those merely published this year). David J. Jeremiah, a former attorney general of St Helena, in 2015 independently published Shakespeare’s Island: St. Helena and The Tempest. It is an investigation into the remote possibility that William Shakespeare was inspired by some stories of St Helena (first discovered in 1502, it is believed) to write The Tempest. It’s not an argument that you will find in any other Shakespeare study, to the best of my knowledge, and you could easily dismiss it as an eccentric amateur diversion (Shakespearean studies have been littered with thousands of those). But then you read it. It is sensible, soundly argued, quite ingenious, and credible. On the balance of probabilities it’s unlikely that Shakespeare based Caliban on the wretched Fernão Lopes, St Helena’s first resident, or that he knew of the navigator Edward Fenton‘s wish to colonise St Helena and make himself king of it, but it could be so. Jeremiah never oversells his case, and relates only that which is verifiable and reasonable. Any Shakespearean would read it with a smile, and with an appreciation of fine research lightly worn and elegantly expressed.
Shipwrecked books, the island as a world in microcosm, the key to Shakespeare’s island. There’s a theme in all this. I must explore further.