My books of the year

If you have the kind of shopping-basket mind that ends up at the checkout with all kinds of stuff from random parts of the shop, books beat Netflix any day for idiosyncracy and eclecticism, and they usually beat podcasts or blogs for cogency and completeness.

Didn’t quite make the list:

Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemolu, James Robinson. Useful hypothesis about about the essential elements of a prosperous nation, spoilt a little by special pleading and being a bit kludgy. Still, if the world’s politicians read this and acted on it, the world would perk up one feels.

The Beautiful Cure by Daniel M Davies. The story of advances in immunotherapy didn’t quite it spark for me. This rise of a new therapy that perhaps actually deserves the tired phrases ‘world-changing’ and ‘revolutionary’ is (at least on the evidence of this book), a Samuel Johnson still yet to find its James Boswell.

This year’s favourites

Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward. This best of White House reporters did his thing with Trump. It made my list, but at the bottom, because (a) it only confirmed what you kind of knew and (b) all the main actors had resigned already by the time I read the book and (c) it’s kinda depressing.

Chasing New Horizons by Allen Stern, David Grinspoon. Wonkish but fascinating history of how to conceive a probe to Pluto, sell it to NASA, build it, launch it, make it work: getting under the skin of how big science is done. Slight caution: history is written by the winners — but still fascinating.

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler. Sweet, witty retelling of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew which I read in a single evening and then went back to several times, just to revel in Anne Tyler’s deftness and grace as a storyteller. Plot, character, dialogue, background: everything is beautifully primped. It ain’t profound or deep but it’s funny, refreshing and satisfying.

The Mission of God’s People by Chris Wright. Compelling vision of the Church’s vocation to the world and to creation. Best mission theology title for me since Lesslie Newbiggin’s The Open Secret, which 30 years ago helped redirect my career.

Factfulness by Hans Rosling. We’ve long been fans of Hans Rosling’s TED talks in our house. But his book — his final offering to the world– about the relentless rise of good news about the world and how we are programmed to avoid and disbelieve it, is the best thing he’s done. Read it while it’s still warm (some of its stats. are as recent as 2017).

Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. The most enjoyable apocalypse I’ve ever read, and one of Terry Pratchett’s very best.

The Three-Body Problem, The Dark Forest, Death’s End by Cixin Liu. Actually this has been a couple of years’ project. This science fiction series is the best SF I’ve read in years. Like a musician who keep introducing key changes, Cixin Liu just keeps unfolding astonishing ideas, ramping them up and up. The books aren’t flawless and can drag in places, but collectively are thought-provoking hard SF that I kept boring my physicist son with.

And my favourite…

Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane by S Frederick Starr. This is the rather untold story of the oasis cities and great thinkers who (geographically) connected the Byzantines, the Arab World, China and India and (historically) kept the golden thread of rational thought and inquiry alive between the Roman Empire and the Europeans. I found it compelling and totally fascinating and would be sad if I didn’t travel through this book again. It turns out that the ‘Arab’ and Muslim empire, at its best, was powered by Central Asian and Persian thought.

In European times, discovery of a single volume by these thinkers was enough to spark off bits of our own Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution. A wonderful unearthing and piecing together of missing historical treasure. Makes you want to visit Central Asia as Frederick Starr did and see dusty one-horse Afghan cities and recite Ozymandias or something:

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The hidden plague
Daily bread, by which I mean books

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