2021 has been another year of poor concentration, which has made me a poor reader. While I finished 57 books, I’ve flailed around within those, sometimes taking months to finish an individual book – this pandemic is not proving good for my focus. As usual, I am going to pick 10 favourite books for the year, the ones whose signal came through the year’s noise. They are listed in alphabetical order of their titles.
Coasting by Elise Downing: There’s a load of books about people running or walking or cycling the British coast, and I’ve read more of them than I should have done. This one felt different because of how Elise Downing approaches the journey. She sets out on her adventure with little preparation, and blunders through it. She gets lost, and misses a talk at a school with a hangover. She’s imperfect; and this honesty makes the book more interesting and real than other such accounts. It’s an approachable attitude to adventure, with a weird, funny optimism.
Effective remote working (beta) by James Stanier: A really important book for the times, in which James Stanier gives practical advice for remote working. I was surprised at how much I gained from this. I wrote a full review of this back in November.
From Manchester with Love by Paul Morley Why read yet another book about Factory Records? Morley’s new book is long-winded, but he takes some amazing diversions, such as a history of British regional TV or the 80s UK fashion industry. Morley writes a fascinating portrait of a man who “was still having schoolboy crushes on things and people in his forties and fifties, right up to his last disintegrating moments alive”. Wilson is placed in a context with Situationism, in particular, its connections with urbanism. The book argues that Wilson was as important as “an unelected spokesman for an unofficial city” as he was for his musical acts. Wilson died too early at 57, and Morley’s account of his death is heartbreaking.
The Gallows Pole by Ben Myers: Myers is a spellbinding writer, and here he tells the story of King David Hartley, leader of the Craggvale Coiners. The book is set in the area where I’m now living, and it’s vivid and atmospheric. There’s also an official walking trail for the book, which I’ll be doing next month.
Kitchenley 434 by Alan Warner was a fun novel, which I indulgently brought in hardback and really enjoyed. I wrote about this back in June.
Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson is a sci-fi novel about climate change which manages to be optimistic – despite an incredibly bleak opening. The book tells a story with many strands and multiple voices. The greatest achievement is that Robinson has written a serious novel that has something positive to say about climate change – although the book suggests the solution involves cryptocoins based on carbon sequestration; mass civil disobedience; and targeted assassination of senior staff in polluting organisations.
No-one is talking about this by Patricia Lockwood is probably my favourite book of the year – although it’s a very close run thing. Lockwood sustains a novel using the fractured style of social media. You have to read this book!
Piranesi by Susannah Clarke: A young man lives inside a structure of endless hallways, containing countless statues. This is a strange, haunting little book. When I wrote about it originally, I said that “This sort of high-concept novel makes me nervous, as it can easily collapse into what literary critics refer to as ‘wank’. I was sure any revelation would break the book, but Clarke delivered a satisfying conclusion.”
William Blake vs the World by John Higgs – In his review of this book, magician Dave Lee wrote that Higgs’ ‘emergent project’ was “to give the English some good things to be proud of, an Englishness not in thrall to some shabby chauvinistic nationalism based on disappointment and outrage”. While I’ve not absorbed Higgs’ love for Blake, John has managed the most difficult thing for a critic – to communicate why one loves an artist while never being dull or boring.
Wintering by Katharine May – Wintering was a perfect pandemic read at the start of 2021 (review from January here). And, weirdly enough, it was being read on the radio as I drove up the M1 to get my new housekeys. The book is full of quiet wisdom: “We have seasons when we flourish, and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones. Given time, they grow again”. I think I am going to read it again at the start of this year.