2022 – the year in books

As 2022 winds its way to its ignominious close, it’s time to look back at some of the things that were good about the year, despite war, weather, viruses, the meteoric rise in the cost of living, and a revolving door of prime ministers. We’ll start off with books, which were the greatest solace. In previous years I’ve highlighted a few of the works I enjoyed the most, but for 2022 here’s a list of every book that I read (or part-read), or that I can remember reading, with comments thrown in. They are roughly in chronological order of reading.

  • Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe – a re-read after many years. Were it not for the obsession with his accounts it would be greatest of all novels
  • Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding – the essential guide to the above. Written in 1957 and as essential as ever. Its command of ideas is perfect
  • Alison Light, Mrs Woolf and the Servants – great research, great writing – poor Virginia wanted to comprehend the mind but couldn’t deal with those who served her
  • Mark Rutherford, Catherine Furze – 1893 novel from the overlooked ‘Mark Rutherford’ (William Hale White). Veers from the sublime to the strange
  • Stanislaw Lem, Solaris – brilliant, but Tarkovsky’s film is greater and Lem couldn’t quite see why
  • Charles Spencer, Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I – first of two books read on chasing down assassins, and much the better of the two
  • Peter Stothard, Alexandria: The Last Nights of Cleopatra – travel, history and autobiography, awkwardly bundled together
  • Jackie Harrison and Luke McKernan, Breaking the News: 500 Yeas of News and Britain – if I hadn’t co-edited it I would still have bought it, read it, and greatly enjoyed it
  • Tobias Smollett, Humphry Clinker – I find epistolatory novels a challenge, and too much of the humour is slapstick, which seldom reads well
  • Mark Rutherford, Clara Hopgood – second Rutherford novel, from 1896, it is a quietly feminist challenge to Victorian morality. I thought it to be as good as a minor novel can be. It was a rich pleasure on every page. My old book of the year

  • Gerard Reve, The Evenings – Dutch classic novel, from 1947, about alienation and the absurdity of bourgeois life. Memorable, but I ended up feeling sorry for the hero’s harmless parents
  • Mark Rutherford, Miriam’s Schooling – a third and final Rutherford novel. Minor stuff this time
  • William Atkins, Exiles: Three Island Journeys – travels to three islands seeking out those who were once exiled there: Louise Michel (New Caledonia), Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo (St Helena), Lev Shternberg (Sakhalin). A compelling read
  • Horace, Odes and Epodes – dusting down my Latin with a Loeb dual-language edition. Peerless use of language even where I can’t follow it. It is euphonious
  • Roger Ebert, Awake in the Dark: Forty Years of Reviews, Essays, and Interviews – the American film critic never wrote a dull word
  • Peter Stothard, The Last Assassin: The Hunt for the Killers of Julius Caesar – gripping story, killed by a style that feels like it has been translated, not entirely successfully, from Latin
  • Janice Elliott, Magic – revisiting a former favourite novelist, here a 1983 piece of magic realism sitting a little uneasily among its middle class English subjects
  • Emmanuel Gerard and Bruce Kuklick, Death in the Congo: Murdering Patrice Lumumba – a very fine historical study, exhaustively researched, on the would-be shining leader that everyone wanted to see dead
  • Christopher Isherwood, Prater Violet – 1945 novel, cleverly written, with a sharp view of the world of filmmaking
  • Bruce Chatwin, What Am I Doing Here – of course it’s good, though I wasn’t so enamoured of the profiles of exotic notables. The piece on a boat journey down the Volga is as good as travel writing can be
  • Marjoleine Kars, Blood on the River: A Chronicle of Mutiny and Freedom on the Wild Coast – the forgotten history of a 1763 slave rebellion in the Dutch colony of Berbice (now Guyana). Exceptional research, cogently applied. The voices she finds gives use a new history. My new publication of the year

  • Luke McKernan, Picturegoers: A Critical Anthology of Eyewitness Experiences – I like it. I hope someone else does
  • Henry Irwin Jenkinson, Jenkinson’s Practical Guide to the English Lakes – among the most successful of Lake District guides, compiled Jenkinson in 1872. Not exactly readable, but extraordinarily detailed. The guidebook as science
  • Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader – it looks so good on the shelves
  • Toby Lester, The Fourth Part of the World: The Epic Story of History’s Greatest Map – tmapping of the world leading up to the creation of the Waldseemüller world map of 1507, which gave America its name. An outstanding piece of investigation and explanation
  • W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz – partly exceptional, partly a sort of treasure hunt
  • Herbert van Thal, Eliza Lynn Linton – evasive biography of the Victorian novelist and first professional British woman journalist, whose anti-feminism was partly sincere and partly for sales
  • Jonathan D. Spence, The Death of Woman Wang: Rural Life in China in the seventeenth century – the model micro-historical study (from 1978). Seventeenth-century China was not a good time or place in which to live
  • Jaroslav Hašek, The Good Soldier Švejk – I read it ages ago and got halfway through. Same result second time around. So funny in places, but so much padding
  • Fernando Cervantes, Conquistadores: A New History – an excellent read, a model illustration of what a thorough modern historical study can be
  • Nick Hornby, Dickens and Prince – a droll comparison between two celebrities each possessed of extraordinary creative energy. Whatever the similarities, they would probably have hated one another
  • Christoph Ransmayr, The Flying Mountain – a 2006 novel, translated from German, about two Irish brothers climbing a hidden mountain in China. It’s in free verse. Though a bit ripe in places, it is haunting, romantic and convincing. And it’s easy to read

  • Bob Dylan, The Philosophy of Modern Song – Bob rambles on about songs that make him think, with mixed results. Chronicles it ain’t
  • M.J.C. Hodgart, The Ballads – a favourite academic text book from my university days, as insightful and useful as ever it was
  • Umberto Eco, Inventing the Enemy – press-ups for the mind
  • Marie Louise Berneri, Journey Through Utopia – another old favourite, a 1950 critical study on the dangers of Utopias, from an enterprising anarchist writer who died too young
  • Roger Lonsdale, The New Oxford Book of Eighteenth Century Verse – and another favourite revisited – I bought a fresh copy and there is something surprising and engaging on every page
  • Anton de Kom, We Slaves of Suriname – 1934 polemic, translated this year into English for the first time. Uneven, but you can see how it has become revered by one nation and has shamed another
  • Francis Coventry, Pompey the Little – peculiar 1751 satire about a lapdog’s adventures through British society. Despite the clumsiness, it gives you such a vivid sense of how people were
  • Dilys Powell, The Villa Ariadne – one-time Sunday Times film critic Powell writes about the Cretan archaeologists she knew in her younger years, and their heroic role in the Cretan resistance during World War Two. It is meticulously well written
  • Clare Jackson, Devil-Land: England Under Siege 1588-1688 – it’s 683 pages and it’s taking so long to read. Great theme – the upheavals in British society between the Armada and the Glorious Revolution, seen from viewpoint of bewildered European observers. I may finish it by 2024
  • Charles Dickens, Bleak House – my current reading, and it flows so well. It will flow into 2023


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6 thoughts on “2022 – the year in books

  1. Be not afraid – this will not be a list of the books I’VE read this year; one that would pale when matched to your impressive one anyway. I can at least say I too have read the Isherwood novella (is it even that)?
    Two books this year though, both re-reads, took me back to grey KCC exercise books and my 60’s education.
    ‘The Bafut Beagles’ (Gerald Durrell) was on the syllabus and suffered as a result. Reading it again from choice revealed a world thankfully no longer there of funny little natives and capturing animals for a zoo; the acceptable attrition rate for both was alarming. That said, I loved it, but it needs to be read in the context of its times and would be cancelled in the blink of an eye now. The other is ‘The Otterbury Incident’ (C Day-Lewis) which was read to us each week as a treat and reading it again now was a touchstone to Class 2A at the Technical School.
    I’ve made a note of ‘Exiles: Three Islands’ which is right up my strasse and thanks for sharing details of it.

    1. Thank you for this. I’ve not read either, though had to think twice about it, because both are such familiar titles that you can feel you have read them even though you can’t remember having done so.

      I can warmly recommend any of William Atkins’ travel books – The Moor and The Immeasurable World are the others. As I was leaving St Helena in 2018, he arrived, researching material for the Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo section of Exiles. We met up later.

    1. That’s nice to know. I always love seeing other people’s book lists and resolving to seek out at least one of them.

  2. If you haven’t read it already, I recommend THE CELESTINA, by Fernando de Rojas. I’ve read two translations (from the Spanish): Lesley Byrd Simpson (University of California Press) and Margaret Sayers Peden (Yale University Press). The latter is the most recent translation and the one I enjoyed more. The CELESTINA predates Don Quixote and is considered the first Spanish novel, although it is written in dialogue form. Bitter, misogynistic, cynical, energetic, it reads las la completely modern work.

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