For the ninth year running I am introducing my new series of blogs with some recommendations on books I have read during the year. Last year I read some 40 books, fewer than my long-term average of 50, but more than the previous two Covid affected years. This year my wife and I did take two holidays in which I read extensively. But travel into London is still restricted so much of my allocated reading time was catching up on several periodicals that I take. But there were some crackers.
I normally begin with works of history and in an historic year I read some splendid ones, more focussed on modern history and, to some extent, current affairs.
The Impossible Office? The History of the British Prime Minister. Sir Anthony Seldon
I blogged on this early in the year when Boris Johnson was still in the role.[i]
One could perhaps see that he was struggling to hold on but little did we know that there would be two more in the year, perhaps demonstrating that indeed the office is impossible. Sir Anthony is the acknowledged national authority on all matters to do with Number 10, Downing Street and prime ministers. He wrote the book during the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020 so the book was not a judgement on Boris Johnson. Indeed, I was on a Zoom call with Sir Anthony where I asked him if he would now write about Johnson quite the same way given all that had happened in the previous two years. He thought it an excellent question and confessed that he was already working on a second edition but would go no further than that. I imagine he might question the dubious way in which the party leader is elected by a small number of party members who may not know the candidates particularly well while colleagues in Westminster prefer other candidates that they do know well.
Why We’re Polarized Ezra Klein
I have just finished this one and will blog separately about it because it’s the best book of its kind I have come across. It is also timely and was published in the USA in 2020. The author has added an afterword in the edition I read to reflect on the 2020 Presidential Election. His aim is not so much to develop an answer for the problems as a framework for understanding them. He says, “If I’ve done my job well, this book will offer a model that helps make sense of an era in American politics that can seem senseless.”
He shows that the polarization of American politics is a direct result of what was planned. When I first lived in the USA in 1967-8 at a time of great upheaval, nevertheless the difference between the two main parties was not so great. It has gradually become huge. One of the biggest changes was when the Democrats gave up their dominance of the Southern States because Civil Rights had become so significant a part of their agenda. Naturally white people began to vote more for the Republicans in the South while blacks voted for the Democrats. That trend has strengthened. It is not the only reason for this polarization. I will go into more detail in a separate blog but if you want to understand what has gone wrong with American politics then read this book.
The War on the West Douglas Murray
Murray is another outstanding writer and I’ve recommended his books on these pages before. He says “The anti-Western revisionists have been out in recent years. It is high time that we revise them in turn…” He asks: if the history of humankind is a history of slavery, conquest, prejudice, genocide and exploitation, why are only Western nations taking the blame for it? It’s become, he explains, perfectly acceptable to celebrate the contributions of non-Western cultures, but discussing their flaws and crimes is called hate speech. In contrast it has become acceptable to discuss the flaws and crimes of western culture, but celebrating their contributions is also called hate speech.
One review I read said “The War on the West
is one of the most important books for a generation, cementing Murray as one of the world’s foremost political writers.”
Wake Up Piers Morgan
Piers Morgan is without doubt one of our most successful journalists and TV presenters. He is perhaps something of a marmite figure but in this brave and timely book he tracks what happened during the pandemic and showed how it both brought out the worst and then the best of people. He starts with the premise that the world has gone nuts and gives outstanding examples of wokery. He cites an American white woman named Rachel Dolezal who self-identified as black on national television despite both her parents being white. Nearer to home, and indeed my own home when I was growing up in Cheshire, he cites Altrincham Grammar School for Girls which asked staff to refrain from calling female pupils ‘girls’ because it might offend transgender pupils – yet didn’t change the gender specific name of the school.
Morgan shows how the pandemic in the UK exposed deep divisions within society. While lockdown cheats revealed our awful levels of self-interest, attention-seeking celebrities sought focus on their struggle, and the virtue-signalling woke brigade continued their furious assault on free speech, shutting down debate on key issues like gender, racism and feminism.
But coronavirus also revealed our strengths. There was selfless bravery by our healthcare staff. There was the return of local community spirit and inspiring acts from members of the public.
Beyond Order Jordan B. Peterson
This is a follow up to Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life
on which I blogged in 2018[ii]
and included in my reading list for that year. That book concentrated on dealing with chaos. This one balances that by seeking to avoid the risk of too much structure. It comprises twelve chapters, the titles of which suggest "rules for life".
"Do not carelessly denigrate social institutions or creative achievement."
"Imagine who you could be and then aim single-mindedly at that."
"Do not hide unwanted things in the fog."
"Notice that opportunity lurks where responsibility has been abdicated."
"Do not do what you hate."
"Work as hard as you possibly can on at least one thing and see what happens."
"Try to make one room in your home as beautiful as possible."
"If old memories still upset you, write them down carefully and completely."
"Plan and work diligently to maintain the romance in your relationship."
"Do not allow yourself to become resentful, deceitful, or arrogant."
"Be grateful in spite of your suffering."
I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Peterson when he launched the first book and I am not surprised that he now has tens of millions of followers.
Soil - The incredible story of what keeps the earth, and us, healthy. Matthew Evans
I recently blogged twice on this remarkable book[iii]
and plan to do so again in the near future as I only covered part of the story. It is one of the best books I have ever read. The importance of soil cannot be overstated. There is no human health without plant health and there is no plant health without soil health. There are more living things in a teaspoon of healthy soil than there are humans on earth. You don’t need to be a keen gardener to read and enjoy this book – I am certainly not one – but if you are you will learn a great deal about how to tend your garden.
Wagner-ism – Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music Alex Ross
Richard Wagner is the most widely influential figure in the history of music. A procession of writers, occultists, feminists and gay-rights pioneers saw him as a kindred spirit. But this artist, who might have rivalled Shakespeare in universal reach, is implicated in an ideology of hate.
Alex Ross restores the magnificent confusion of what it means to love Wagner, tracing his lingering shadow over Western culture from architecture to the mystic motifs that course through superhero films. This is an epic, extraordinary work urging us towards a more honest idea of how art acts in the world.
And one by a friend of mine:
The Few Who Flew Michael Morris (now Lord Naseby)
I know Lord Naseby through a mutual interest in Chilean wine and recommended his book on Sri Lanka in another of these lists. The Few Who Flew is an evocative memoir by one of the last young men to train as an RAF pilot, gaining his ‘Wings’ in April 1957 just days before the end of National Service. Michael was selected to do his flying training in Canada alongside fellow British and NATO pilots from seven different countries. The book reflects Michael’s inherent love of all aspects of aviation. To celebrate his 80th birthday he flew from ‘Churchill’s Secret Airfield’, RAF Tempsford, Bedfordshire near his home. He finishes with some provocative thoughts of a one-year ‘Service to the Nation’ for all young school leavers, which I for one would favour.
I read fiction by my usual favourites including Simon Brett, Lee Child (2), Clive Cussler, Michael Dibdin, John Grisham (2), Robert Harris and John Le Carré (2, including his final work.) I also introduced myself to the publishing phenomenon Richard Osman and read his first two The Thursday Murder Club and The Man Who Died Twice and found them great fun. I look forward to reading his third The Bullet That Missed.
I did not publish any books this year, but I am writing one. However, it has a very select target audience. My daughter gave me a book last Christmas called “Tell Me Your Story, Grandpa.” I have to write the book. It lists 59 chapter titles covering family, holidays, school, personal strengths and weaknesses, food, philosophy, leisure, health, career, homes, books, toys and other childhood memories. I am just over halfway through so may be in a position to give it to my grandchildren next Christmas.