Every December I provide an brief overview of my ten favourite books published over the course of the year. Its always very different to lists such as those put out by the editors of the New York Times and other big publications.
Night School (Penguin Poets) by Carl Dennis
The latest work from one of the best contemporary poets in the English-speaking world. As usual Dennis strikes the perfect balance between literary and historical allusions, and attention to the ordinary world of lived experience. A deeply philosophical and entertaining collection of poems.
Chasing the Sun: The New Science of Sunlight and How it Shapes Our Bodies and Minds by Linda Geddes
A must-read book for 2019. Linda Geddes’s book has changed the way I relate to the sun. After reading it I make sure I spend more of my days getting a high level of sunlight exposure because of its role in regulating my circadian rhythms, improving my mood and shielding myself from diseases such as rickets and multiple sclerosis.
From Microbes to Millipedes, Camel Crickets, and Honeybees, the Natural History of Where We Live by Rob Dunn
The best bit of nature writing I’ve read in the last year. Its about a previously mostly unknown world of microscopic organisms in your home. Don’t worry most of them have no effect on your health, or are actively benign. Some of the learnings from Dunn’s deep study on the spiders, insects and microbes in our home environments include the need to leave our windows open to let in beneficial microbes. We learn about the need to not use pesticides to eradicate things like cockroaches – by doing so we are speeding up evolutionary selection pressures and creating more resistant and hardy organisms. Better to allow, for example, spiders to live in our homes, as they will kill the smaller bugs we dislike. Rewild your house.
The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier by Ian Urbina
A thriller that is all real, and all set in places you and I have never and probably will never visit. Welcome to the world of the high seas and international waters. First class journalism about something most of us know vanishingly little about. A must read for 2019. My runner up for the category of journalistic reporting (which actually hit the book shops at the end of 2018, although I read it in 2019) was Poached: Inside the Dark World of Wildlife Trafficking by Rachel Love Nuwer. I live in Australia and work in an area of Perth inhabited by many Vietnamese people. I have an affection for Vietnam and its landscapes and cultures, but I was shocked to read about the long running cultural attitudes there towards the eating of endangered wildlife in the forests of south-east Asia. South-east Asia is heading towards – or has already arrived at in many areas – Silent forest syndrome.
Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment by Francis Fukuyama
If you’re confused about the place of national identity vs identity politics based on gender, race and other group characteristics in the contemporary West, then you can find fewer deeply learned guides than Fukuyama through this terrain. A call to develop a kind of inclusive nationalism, and a reminder of the dangers of ethno-nationalism from the right and diversity celebration without recognition of civic virtues by some on the left. Fukuyama reminds us of the importance of citizenship in a nation that is based on some common commitments such as the rule of law, speaking a common language and knowing something about the history of the country one is living in. (I admit that this was actually published at the end of 2018, but I’m sneaking it into my 2019 list as that’s when I had time to read it.)
The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution by Richard Wrangham
A powerful new vision of how morality evolved over the past tens of thousand years among humans. As small groups of hunter-gatherers ostracise and then in some cases execute overly domineering humans, the overall gene pool is altered so that we become a more peaceful species. In other words, Wrangham argues that we have domesticated ourselves. Entertainingly written and deeply learned – a must read for 2019.
Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society by Nicholas A. Christakis
A cross-cultural account of friendship, love and social connections. One of the best books to be published in 2019 for its towering ambition and reach.
The Assault on American Excellence by Anthony T. Kronman
The image on the book cover is perfectly emblematic of the book’s content: the contemporary university’s soul has died. The relentless emphasis on diversity as well as the distrust of excellence (the canon is just an elitist notion entrenching power asymmetries of dead white men) has changed university culture in the twenty first century. And yet Kronman rightly argues that universities should be places where excellence – in the sense of more developed and cultured humans – can flourish and be respected. This book is a strong rallying cry for the immense value of universities as places where students can study the humanities and be exposed to greatness and complexity and wonder and grow as humans. The ivory tower can, and traditionally has, housed an aristocracy of the spirit.
The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feed Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite by David Markovitz
Most of us have been taken in by the charisma of the concept of meritocracy, however as Professor of Law at Yale University Daniel Markovitz shows, behind the gloss of this idea lies a world of woe. The rich used to be leisured but now they’re working 65 hour weeks, while the middle class have been left increasingly without jobs and thus hollowed out. The rich pass their privilege onto their progeny through intense and expensive educations, and simply reproduce their ranks. Nobody is winning, and we should stop championing this idea. As Markovitz points out, progressives are unable to fully grasp what is going on in our world of increasing economic inequality as they are “under meritocracy’s thumb . . . captives who embrace their captor, through a sort of ideological Stockholm syndrome”. This book gives us a previously missing bit of the puzzle in understanding the growing gap between the haves and the have nots.
Living with Limericks by Garrison Keillor
Perhaps the most well known contemporary practitioner in literature of the great American virtue of cheerfulness. Keillor manages to weave a frank autobiography between fragments of poetry. I don’t know many literary characters who are so committed to moving their audience from sadness and despondency to exuberance and exhilaration. Thank you Garrison.
Other books published for the first time in 2019 that I thought were of interest included The Madness of Crowds by Douglas Murray; White Shift by Eric Kaufman; Moneyland by Oliver Bullough; The Age of Addiction by David Courtwright; A Short History of Europe: From Pericles to Putin by Simon Jenkins; and Happy Ever After: Escaping the Myths of the Perfect Life by Paul Dolan.
Of course I’ve read much this year that has excited me that was published long before this year. Some of these books include: In Search of Civilization: Remaking a Tarnished Idea (2009) by John Armstrong, Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America (1961) by Theodora Kroeber, and Words of Mercury: Tales from a Lifetime of Travel (2003) by Patrick Leigh Fermor. Another rich year of reading.