Reading log for 2019

The end of a year usually brings with it a rash of people reflecting on the past year and planning for the next. Rather than comment on the various aspects of my life which are woven too completely to entirely separate, I thought I’d post the list of books I read in the year, and a few comments. In 2019 I read 62 books, down from the 80-90 that I read most years. I’m not sure why that is, but several of these were quite long and took weeks to finish.

A few themes emerged: The downsides of the tech age, pre-Columbian America, practical philosophy, long-form adventurous travel. But plenty of these books were chosen for random reasons, or because I realised that I don’t know enought about a particular topic.

I hope this is helpful to some people. There were some utter standouts this year, and several that I’d enjoyed so much that I decided to read again.

James Hawes

The shortest history of Germany

Started the year off with a bang. This is an excellent short history of Germany which doesn’t pay undue attention to the events of the 20th century.  Fascinating main thesis, that essentially all of Germany’s woes stem from a geographical line approximating the cold war borders, which divides Germany into two cultural, economic and psychological zones, and which dates back to a division between Romanised and “Barbarian” Germany.
James Le Fanu

Too many pills

Mildly forgettable book about the over-prescription of medication.
Kassia St Clair

The secret lives of colour

A gift from a friend. Gloriously printed in extremely full colour, with a short essay about the history and cultural background of a couple of dozen particularly important shades.
Brendan Leonard

The new American road trip mixtape

I’ve read a lot of Brendan’s writing about outdoorsey things. This is a kind of an autobiography, about a time in his life where he basically drove around America, rock climbing and sleeping on friends’ sofas. Feels a bit like a sophomore effort, because it is. Fairly enjoyable though.
Orlando Soria

Get it together

What? A book about interior design? I saw this in the library and grabbed it, mainly because I loved the author’s super-snarky commentary on various design techniques, woven in with a flamboyantly revealing account of his own personal failures.
Cixin Liu

The Wandering Earth

China’s Hugo award-winning Sci Fi author has written a book of short stories. I found them far more enjoyable than his longer works, and rather grave and fatalistic in places. Unmistakeably not from the West, and all the more interesting for that. Avoid the movie though.
Patrick Nunn

The Edge of Memory

Quite a strange book. The author tries to interpret ancient Aboriginal myths and legends in order to gain an insight into the world at the time of the ice ages, and immediately afterwards. I think he’s probably on to something, but I found it hard to engage with what should be a fascinating topic.
David Armitage

Civil Wars – a history in ideas

Not quite as monumental as it sounds, this relatively short book puts together a policial theory of civil war, particularly in light of why they can be so damaging and destablilising. The main focus is on the Roman Republic
Adrian Goldsworthy

Hadrian’s Wall – Rome and the limits of Empire

Only for the real fans of the ancient world, this one. A short but well-illustrated work about Hadrian’s Wall, the Roman defensive fortification that spans the north of England. Loads of detail. Would make a great handbook for an archaeologically-minded visitor.
G.K. Chesterton

The Man who was Thursday

What a strange book. Originally conceived as an extended Catholic allegory set in a world paralysed by fears of anarchists, it feels much more like a Philip K. Dick hallucination to the modern reader. Quite fun but feels heavy-handed to those not brought up in a world where theology is much thought about.
Cal Newport

Deep work

 I read this one because I felt slightly obliged, due to so many people recommending it. A well-written and clearly expressed plan for how to get real work done and avoid the ephemera that the world seems to want to inject into your working day.
Erica Benner

Be like the fox – Machiavelli’s lifelong quest for freedom

I enjoyed this biography of Machiavelli, and used it as source material for a post on my other blog.It does have the slight tang of special pleading on behalf of deceased people though. Really good on the culture of Florence in the 15th century.
Jim Masselos

The Great Empires of Asia

I mainly read this to try to get a better understanding of the Khmer empire, which is anything but clear to me. Nicely produced but an awkward combination of being too brief to do the topic justice and too academic to be really engaging.
Banana Yoshimoto

Asleep

Japanese fiction is great. There always seems to be an aura of spookiness about it. I first read this years ago, so this was a re-read. Several short stories revolving around the idea of sleeping, and the overlap of the dream world, the real world and death.
Max Hastings

The Korean War

Classic military history. Dry as a chip, but thorough.
Nick Hunt

Walking the woods and the water

Nick Hunt walked the same path in the 2000s that Patrick Leigh Fermor did in the 1930s – Holland to Istanbul by foot. Then they both wrote books about it. It’s very tricky not to compare it with the original, which is a pity because it doesn’t stand up to it, either in quality of writing or insight. But it’s a perfectly fun bit of the modern adventure genre.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The bed of Procrustes

The aphorisms here compress Taleb’s thought down into a couple of hundred brief gems. I have re-read this book many, many times and I love it. Some of the aphorisms make absolutely no sense, but on re-reading years later are perfectly clear and very insightful. Taleb’s obsessions with chance and living a heroic life are highly idiosyncratic and on full display, but it’s such a pleasure to read someone who is brilliant and hasn’t been neutered.
Charles Mann

1491 – New revelations of the Americas before Columbus

This is another re-read. A fabulously entertaining treasure chest of knowledge about the people of the pre-Columbian Americas. Mann is a journalist who writes beautifully and has gathered together a vast trove of information that show that the Americas were both far more heavily populated than we used to think, and also far more sophisticated.
Dan John

40 years with whistle

Dan John is a strength coach with quite a reputation for being both a massive beast and also very reasonable in how he does things. This is a reflection on his time doing that job, and worth it for the life lessons, even if the coaching isn’t really your thing.
Timothy R. Pauketat

Cahokia- Ancient America’s great city on the Mississippi

I wanted to like this, really I did. Cahokia is a pre-Columbian city in Minnesota, the only major settlement north of Mexico. Huge earth mounds remain and give us an insight into how these vanished people lived.

Unfortunately this book is dull as dishwater and very hard to read.

Kyoko Nakajima

The little house

Japanese family saga set in the pre-war era. Couldn’t get into it.
Alastair Humphreys

Grand Adventures

Alastair Humphreys once rode a bike around the world, and now spends his time encouraging others to undertake adventures large and small. This is a book about the large ones – major journeys and year-long odysseys, but all undertaken by normal people.
Serghii Plokhy

The last empire – the final days of the Soviet Union

Brilliant. Plokhy writes an utterly gripping book about the last few years of the Soviet Union, and its dissolution into various republics. In his reading Yeltsin is malevolent, Gorbachev is perpetually flat-footed, and the separatist movement in Ukraine is what gave birth to the whole thing.
Alastair Humphreys

My midsummer morning

Alastair Humphreys’ most recent journey is a different sort of trip. Instead of a years-long sufferfest, he busked across Spain playing the violin terribly, as an entirely different kind of challenge. Interwoven with this is a touching story about trying to find a balance between the rugged life of an adventurer and that of a family man with responsibilities.
Cal Newport

Digital Mininimalism

Swearing off social media and phones is very on-trend at the moment. Newport is one of many people who have written about it, but he’s unusually sensible and level headed. Ever the pragmatist he has some very practical methods of trying to reduce Silicon Valley’s hold on you, rather than just abandoning tech entirely.
James C Scott

Against the grain

A really interesting interpretation of how settled civilization arose in Mesopotamia. According to Scott, the area between the rivers was a paradise for hunter gatherers, but they were forced into settling down and growing cereal grains by local warlords as a way of amassing wealth. Naturally many of them tried to escape, indicating that civilization isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Artemis Cooper

Patrick Leigh Fermor – An adventure

Superb. I first read this about five years ago and I thought it was time for a revisit. Patrick Leigh Fermor is about the most interesting person you would ever want to meet. He walked from Holland to Istanbul as an 18 year old man, then got involved in some local wars, fought for the British as a spy/guerrilla in Crete in the Second World War, then settled down as a writer of ornate travel books. This was all possible because of his ferocious intellect, charm beyond compare, and general swashbuckling attitude. I kind of want to be him, or at least bask in his radiance. Artemis Cooper knew him from childhood and has written a tremendously sympathetic and honest biography.
Anna Sherman

The bells of old Tokyo – Travels in Japanese time

I picked this up on a whim at The Paperback Books in the City, thinking it would be an interesting insight into the perennially fascinating topic of Japan. However it fits better in the literary category of “isn’t Japan weird and quirky”, rather than bringing something new to the table. Kind of like Lost in Translation if Scarlett Johanssen’s character were played by Anna Kendrick.
David Epstein

Range

I generally agree with the thesis, that early specialisation in skills to the exclusion of all else is a bad idea, and that in most parts of life it’s better to be a generalist. However this is basically a collection of just-so stories on the theme, and not very convincing about something which should be easy to prove.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Antifragile

Taleb is a fascinating character. Brilliant, iconoclastic, obnoxious and charming in equal measure. I believe that his is his masterwork – basically a book of philosophy dealing with how to live, disguised as a discussion of randomness, interspersed with strange vignettes and moments from the author’s life. I read this at least once a year.
Serghii Plokhy

Chernobyl – history of a tragedy

Another brilliant book by Serghii Plokhy, this time about the days and months following the Chernobyl disaster. The bones of the Soviet state are laid bare. Thrilling.
Patrick Leigh Fermor

Three Letters from the Andes

Leigh Fermor, discussed at length above, went on a trip to the Andes with some friends in the 1970s. They took climbing gear and an awful lot of whisky. He wrote letters back to his wife, and here they are, as baroque as the rest of his work.
Alex Kerr

Another Tokyo

Alex Kerr is an American who has lived in Japan for decades, and famously wrote a book called Lost Japan lamenting the disappearance of old Japanese culture under a sea of concrete and electricity wires. This is not a sequel per se – more like a handbook for visitors to Japan to interpret the art and architecture around them. I wish I’d had it when I visited, it would have saved a lot of shrugging.
Bertrand Russell

The conquest of happiness

Born in the Victorian era, died in the space age, Bertrand Russell was something else. He wrote a lot of very formal philosophy, but this isn’t it. The Conquest of Happiness is basically his handbook for how to live a good life, the most interesting kind of philosophy in my view. If you excuse a few passages that have a distinctly Victorian attitude to them (particularly around family matters), this is eminently sensible and valuable. This time round was a re-read, since I liked it so much.
Bruce Chatwin

The Songlines

Apparently this book made a bit of a splash when it was first published. Chatwin was a rootless English author fascinated with nomads and their life. When he got to Australia he wrote this book about the Aboriginal people and their methods of navigating across huge areas using song. It’s a strange mishmash of styles and fuses memoir with history, but fascinating and an enjoyable read.
Mark Boyle

The way home – Tales from a life without technology

My god this book is obnoxious. The author moves to a block of land in Ireland and lives entirely off it, abandoning all technology more recent than the internal combustion engine, all in the name of utter paranoia around the environment. He drives his girlfriend away halfway through the book, and I sympathised.
Artemis Cooper

Cairo in the war 1939-45

Having read her book on Patrick Leigh Fermor, I thought I’d give this one a crack. Well researched, but for my tastes it leaned a bit towards the political developments of the period rather than portraits of the constellation of highly unusual characters that lived in Cairo.
Evelyn Waugh

Vile bodies

Continuing on with the theme of British aristocrats from the 1920s and 30s, this parody of the romantic novel is wonderfully written, but didn’t quite grab me. I suspect that it’s because enough time has passed that the implicit needs to be made explicit to a modern audience.
Richard C Francis

Domesticated – Evolution in a man made world

The animals that we commonly see around us are not wild – they are domesticated to some degree. This book looks at common farm and domestic animals (dogs, horses, camels, reindeer, etc) and how they came to be the useful creatures that they are now. It turns out that they all have unique biology that humans have found cunning ways to exploit.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Skin in the game

The sequel to Antifragile, it’s a little less punchy and feels a bit padded, but still a great read.
Erling Kagge

Walking – One step at a time

Erling Kagge is an interesting man, having made all sorts of polar and mountain-climbing expeditions. Here he writes a short book of philosophy about walking – how it feels, what it does to you, what it means.  A quick read, but potent if opened in the right mood.
Scott H Young

Ultralearning

A couple of hundred pages of condensed literature on how people learn things, and how to structure your study effectively to take advantage of that information. This book made me want to immediately go out and start another degree just to put it into practice.
Simon Winchester

Bomb, book and compass – Joseph Needham and the great secrets of China

A biography of Joseph Needham, the English academic who spent 50 years writing a definitive and voluminous series of books on Chinese culture – the standard reference in English. This book was written engagingly enough but felt a little padded out and the didn’t really make it clear why Needham was important.
Tim Flannery

Here on earth

I’m not quite sure how to describe this book. A diatribe on human-caused environmental catastrophe? A history of the evolution of scientific thought about evolution? A description of what archaeology and anthropology tell us about early humans? A sociological work about the structures of power in the modern world?

All of these things, probably.

Raoul McLaughlan

The Roman Empire and the Indian Ocean

An academic work, collating what is known about Rome’s contact with the non-Roman east via the Indian ocean. It turns out that trade was rather a big deal, accounting for enormous trade deficits where Roman gold was exchanged for spices and silks. Had the Roman aristocracy not had such an appetite for luxury, they may have had more money to go around for the army.
Robert Twigger

Micromastery

After Ultralearning I was excited to understand more about skills acquisition. I heard about this book on a podcast and thought it might be interesting, but actually it’s just a description of a series of small skills and how to master them – like making an omlette. Not as profound or as transferrable as the author thinks, perhaps.
Luke Benedictus

The Fatherhood

Reading this expensively graphic-designed collection of odds-and-ends about modern fatherhood makes me feel much better about how I parent my own kids. There are some pretty low bars out there.
Simon Winchester

Korea – A walk through the land of miracles

After reading about Joseph Needham I looked back into the other books that Simon Winchester has written (I’ve read several). Turns out that he wrote a book about walking the length of South Korea in the 80s. A really interesting historical artefact, as during this period recovery from the Korean war wasn’t complete and the tech miracle hadn’t happened yet. A very different, rather shittier Korea than the one we’re used to.
Annabel Crabb

Quarterly Essay 75 – Men at work – Australia’s parenthood trap

Annabel Crabb continues her writings on families, child-rearing, and how this creates patterns of work life that seem ineradicable. Her key idea is that modern corporate life demands such dedication, that only people with support staff at home, i.e. wives, can make it happen. Therefore if men are allowed more flexibility from work to look after family life, that is probably the best thing possible for helping women address issues like unequal pay and limited career advancement.
Christina Thompson

Sea Peoples – the puzzle of Polynesia

I read this in anticipation of, and during, a trip to Fiji. An eloquent, lyrical assessment of the ancient seafaring skills of Polynesian navigators, and how they were ridiculed, doubted, tested, and finally accepted by the West.
James Clear

Atomic Habits

One of those books which has been generated from a blog, this is nonetheless a thorough approach to changing and creating habits, the subtle gears on which our days turn. The atomic in the title refers to them being fundamental, not nuclear.
Leon McCarron

The land beyond

Another re-read, this one a travelogue of a walk from Jerusalem, north into the West Bank, then south through Jordan all the way to Sinai in Egypt. McCarron tries hard to be even handed and fair to all parties, but the cruelty and intransigence of some Israelis he met is jaw-dropping. A great adventure, one I’d love to do myself.
Peter Watson

The Great Divide

Fascinating but very strange. Peter Watson is a shockingly, upsettingly erudite man who specialises in absorbing vast amounts of information on a huge topic, then producing a masterful synthesis. In this book he tries to answer the question of why the cultures of the pre-Columbian Americas were so different to those of Eurasia. Along the way he tackles the Toba Eruption, flood mythology, genetic bottlenecks, the American lack of livestock but excess of hallucinogenic plants, and the induction of a trance state by pulling a rope made of thorns through the meat of one’s tongue. Recommended.
Ryan Holiday

Stillness is the key

Ryan Holiday has made a name for himself in internetty silicon valley circles by producing highly readable reformulations of ancient Stoic philosophy, and also by being extremely good at marketing himself. This is a product of both of these talents and is quite good. But I don’t think it’s as fabulous as various podcasters seem to think it is. Still worth a read though.
Laurence Freedman

Strategy – A history

This is an absolute monster of a book. I went into it expecting it to be about military history through the ages, but it is far broader and more abstract than that. Freedman considers strategy in all human endeavours – warfare, politics, the weak against the strong, and every other combination you could think of – and comes up with a truly insightful analysis. There are MANY underlined passages in my copy, even though it took me about three weeks to read.
Erling Kagge

Under Manhattan

Erling Kagge, mentioned about in regard to his book about the philosophy of walking, also wrote a book about exploring the sewers and underground tunnels of Manhattan. Perhaps it’s the translation from Norwegian, but I truly don’t know how he managed to transform such an interesting adventure into such a tedious book.
Art DeVany

The new evolution diet

A quick re-read to remind me of a few things I was trying to look up. Namely, many of the manifestations of modern society are bad, but matching our behaviour to our biological inheritance usually leads to good outcomes. To wit: get plenty of exercise, eat animals and plants but leave out the grains and sugars, get some sun, have some friends, occasionally don’t eat.
Paul Theroux

The pillars of Hercules

I love Paul Theroux’s writing on travel. He undertakes these huge trips, just because, appears to hate a lot of where he goes and who he meets, but crafts these utterly compelling books. So incredibly entertaining and riddled with brilliant observations and witty turns of phrase. Even better he doesn’t try to make his travels mean anything – he just goes.
Jenny Odell

How to do nothing

Expected: Self-help on the topic of working less hard and not being a corporate slave.

Received: A well-written book-length essay on alienation from modern life, finding joy in small things, understanding how our new tech masters are just like our old political masters, and more.

Freya Stark

The Valleys of the Assassins

Freya Stark was yet another of those fascinating Edwardian British people who explored exotic places – except that she was a woman and she mostly went alone, spending forty years travelling through the Middle East. This book recounts several journeys into the hills what today is Iran. She claims it was exploration and archaeology, but what she actually did looks a lot like treasure hunting to modern eyes.
Helen McDonald

H is for Hawk

Woman’s father dies. She is distraught. Having a long interest in falconry and birds of prey, she trains a goshawk to hunt small mammals, and decides to write a book about her experiences. Fearing that it’s not interesting enough, she interweaves vignettes from the life of T.H. White, a far more interesting author and hawk-operator than she, to pad it out. Her book is universally praised, to my mystification.
Nick Hughes

How to be your own bodyguard

Easily the dumbest book I’ve read all year. The author is an ex-French Foreign Legion soldier, and following that, a professional bodyguard. I have no doubt about his bodyguarding skills or expertise with weapons and hand-to-hand combat, but this book is terrible. Could have been fantastic with a halfway decent proof-reader. A strange combination of obvious and paranoid.
Phillip Ball

The water kingdom – a secret history of China

Fascinating. The history of China as seen through the lens of water management. The key thesis is that throughout Chinese history, dynasties rose and fell in accordance with their success in managing floods and droughts, and surviving the wild behaviour of the Yellow and Yangtze rivers. A really unusual way of looking at such a monolithic state, but it makes sense given that Eastern China is basically one huge floodplain.