thomas m wilson

10 best books of 2021

December 13th, 2021

As usual each December I give you my favourite 10 books of the year.

The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World Hardcover (2021) by Adrian Wooldridge 

A beautifully written history of the modern world of the last five hundred years as filtered through the lens of meritocracy as a way of organising society. Wooldridge writes with much more joie de vivre and wit than stolid academic writers usually do, which makes sense considering that his day job is that of journalist.

A very valuable companion volume to Daniel Markovits’ 2019 book The Meritocracy Trap. Wooldridge is championing meritocracy and Markovits is criticising it – at least on the face of it. But a closer reading shows that both authors are keen critics of the plutocratic perversions of what is sometimes touted as ‘meritocracy’ in today’s America and Britain. In this book Woolridge gives a better account of the idea of meritocracy through history that I’ve seen anywhere: from ancient Greece with Plato’s Republic of philosopher kings ruling society, the Jewish culture of the book, Chinese examination-based cultural history, and British exponents of the idea in the nineteenth century, and onwards.

Obviously Wooldridge frequently shows his sympathies for the idea that we should culturally celebrate brains rather than dollars – I happen to agree with him. (Although we should also celebrate those who have expertise working with their hands and those in the caring professions, as David Goodhart has argued recently.)

A very valuable book to understand the modern world, and that’s pretty high praise; but it is also an enjoyable reading experience.

T: The Story of Testosterone, the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us by Carole Hooven (2021)

A good overview of the role that this hormone plays in the life of, mainly, men around the world. Many commentators have promoted the views recently that ‘toxic masculinity’ is purely the result of socialization but the evidence that is reviewed in this book suggests that elevated testosterone levels in dominant and impulsive men do have a consistent link with hostile behaviour. The book made me reflect on the way in which experiences of ‘winning’ result in sustained high levels of testosterone, whereas losing results in a sustained drop in the hormone, both in humans and many other animals. This made me think of Trump’s obsession with being a ‘winner’, and his obsession with praising what he calls ‘big men’. Testosterone is involved in many dark aspects of male behaviour, and yet the book demonstrates its morally neutral roles in building muscles mass, heightening sexual drive and ambition. As Hooven finishes the book, T is best consumed responsibly. At the Basilica of San Lorenzo, Florence, Italy, dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, you will find the Tomb of Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici with a sculpture of Lorenzo carved by Michael Angelo. The figure is the warrior intellectual, a muscular man in a contemplative posture. This is perhaps the kind of testosterone influenced vision of man we should look favourably on, rather than the unreflectively violent status guarding man involved in a road rage incident (yes there is an irony in me saying this considering the Medici this sculpture celebrates was clearly wanting to elevate his social status through art).

Architecture: From Prehistory to Climate Emergency by Barnabas Calder (2021)

A good attempt at summing up the global history of architecture with reference to its use of energy. I’ve done Mark Zarzombek’s global history of architecture course from MIT and enjoy this genre of writing and material, blending ancient history with aesthetics and design. This book is worth reading even for those who know the path it will tread more or less. Calder has a bit of a focus on Liverpool when he’s illustrating architectural changes in the eighteenth and nineteenth century – as a case study – and I noticed that he teaches at Liverpool University so that makes sense. I have to admit I got a little bored after Corbusier and he repudiation of all ornament in the first decades of the twentieth century (interesting to hear that Calder thinks this modernism hangs over many architects to this day in a similar way in which classical vocabulary and style hung over architects for centuries after Greece and Rome were no more). The focus on the book is the energy required to create architecture in different societies at different times, and I found it admirable that Calder thinks we need to look, in our current age of climate emergency, to the examples of low energy agrarian societies like ancient Rome in a building for the future.

Henry James by Leon Edel (first published as five volumes that appeared between 1953 and 1972).

One of the best literary biographies that I know of in existence, period. James was nothing if not a highly sensitive observer and experiencer of old Europe, and Edel understands and shares this aspect of the expatriate’s rapture. I also enjoyed reading James’ short story The Passionate Pilgrim this year about a young man who goes to England from America and falls in love with the aged patina of English architecture, old taverns, country houses, and Oxford quads and lawns:

” It’s well there should be such places, shaped in the interest of factitious needs, invented to minister to the book-begotten longing for a medium in which one may dream unwaked and believe unconfuted; to foster the sweet illusion that all’s well in a world where so much is so damnable, all right and rounded, smooth and fair, in this sphere of the rough and ragged, the pitiful unachieved especially, and the dreadful uncommenced. The world’s made–work’s over. Now for leisure! England’s safe–now for Theocritus and Horace, for lawn and sky! “

These days very few university campuses seem to be full of scholars lounging on the lawn chatting about poetry, but rather are places of grimly aspiring meritocrats with their eyes on the dollar.

Oxford again: “The plain perpendicular of the so mildly conventual fronts, masking blest seraglios of culture and leisure, irritates the imagination scarce less than the harem-walls of Eastern towns. Within their arching portals, however, you discover more sacred and sunless courts, and the dark verdure soothing and cooling to bookish eyes. The grey-green quadrangles stand for ever open with a trustful hospitality. The seat of the humanities is stronger in her own good manners than in a marshalled host of wardens and beadles. “

When James wrote this short story, as Leon Edel tells us in his biography, he was back in the US after some time in England and Italy and felt like he was disinherited of the great European treasure house of culture and history. Interesting to transpose Australians like Peter Porter and Clive James into the place of James and his characters. Australians have often been passionate pilgrims to European cathedrals and manor houses, museums and galleries, piazzas and ruins. Australians too have sometimes felt dispossessed of European culture and history on their southern continent.

Interestingly James wrote the Passionate Pilgrim just 8 years after Thoreau had died just around the corner from where James was living. Henry James literary and cultural sensibility was superb, but he remained unresponsive to the inspiring ecology of New England. Thankfully this world is big enough for both a Henry James and a Henry Thoreau, and readers are richer for having both.

The biography I read in its two volume guise (both together make 1800 pages!). I often felt I empathised with James as he cared for his parents, and then experienced their passing away, and later his wanting to find an anchorage point in the world, and moving into a house in the country in Rhye. James missed his physically contiguity with the flux of urban life and drama as he departed London – and again I empathise with this having felt the thrill of arriving in an apartment in Paris years ago and feeling suddenly part of the world.

Selected Poems: Tennyson (Penguin Classics) by Alfred Lord Tennyson

It was thanks to reading Harold Bloom’s last book (Take Arms against a Sea of Troubles: The Power of the Reader’s Mind over a Universe of Death, 2020) that I revisited Tennyson’s poetry and discovered some of his importance as a poet. Alerting readers to important poetry should be part of the job of a literary critic, and Bloom’s book, written as he was dying in hospital in part, is thus a good example of this. Reading this tenor of Victorian poetry, its high-flown and lush character, is a strange but enjoyable experience for a twenty-first century person used to cynicism, irony and understatement.

To watch the crisping ripples on the beach,

And tender curving lines of creamy spray;

To lend our hearts and spirits wholly

To the influence of mild-minded melancholy;

To muse and brood and live again in memory,

With those old faces of our infancy

Heap’d over with a mound of grass,

Two handfuls of white dust, shut in an urn of brass!

As Bloom says in his aforementioned book:

“The great poems, plays, novels, stories teach us how to go on living. . . . Your own mistakes, accidents, failures at otherness beat you down. Rise up at dawn and read something that matters as soon as you can.”

Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge by Richard Ovenden (2020)

This book is essentially a global history of the library. Librarians in training should be prescribed this book in their studies to give them a grounding in the long history of preserving knowledge. From the sands of the Middle East to the port of Alexandria, to the monasteries of north-western Europe, and forwards to today, Ovenden moves at a brisk pace in recounting the long history of preserving knowledge from the deluge. Read it and feel a renewed sense of wonder and appreciation for the institution of the library in your life. In the age of distraction by digital flotsam and jetsam such a historical grounding, and renewed understanding of the importance of libraries, is needed more than ever before.  The burning of the beautiful and ancient library of the the University of Leuven during both world wars was a particularly poignant episode narrated by Ovenden. 

Vietnam: Rising Dragon by Bill Hayton (2020)

Bill Hayton wanders into the alleys of Hanoi, the suburbs of Saigon, into the huts of tea pickers, into the villages of rice growers, and reports what their health and wealth is like, and what their hopes and dreams might be. Greatly deepened my understanding of the people of Vietnam, as well as the reality of working the fields, and dreaming of making more money in the city.

These Are My Rivers: New & Selected Poems, 1955-1993 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1994)

In the year of his demise, 2021, I thought I should honour Ferlinghetti’s life and vision by reading a selected poems. So many of his poems have the lightness of the wings of fancy lifting off the pavement of pedestrian common sense. So often he reorientates me and reminds me of the spirit of play and freedom that can be crushed out of us by duty and suburbia. Thanks for your legacy, I treasure it.

The Devil Drives: A Life of Sir Richard Burton by Fawn M. Brodie (1984)

An engagingly written biography of one of the most interesting men in English history. Burton wrote so much and so little is published in easily available selections that having the guided tour of his long and eventful career by a biographer is crucial. Brodie writes well and has an appreciation and critical distance for and from her subject. What Burton had done, learned, seen and achieved by the age of 43 puts most of us shame. His thirst for the world’s variety and colour was immense and he slaked that thirst at a time – the mid nineteenth century – when the world was full of mysteries.

Four Thousand Weeks: Time and How to Use It by Oliver Burkeman (2021)

This book is a good little heir to the spirit of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. His prose isn’t as lapidary, but Burkeman’s sense of humour and his concern to avoid distraction and spent more of our life in the present moment seem to continue Thoreau’s philosophy. This is my favourite philosophy book of 2021. Although it covers some of the same topics as self-help books on time management, it comes to more philosophical conclusions than the self-help gurus do. Yes we only have 4000 weeks in the average life. But this is not a cause to cram more into your efficiency obsessed, productivity glorifying life. Embrace our limitations as finite humans. Become a practitioner of the art of creative neglect, and accept that you are never going to win by becoming more busy.