For the eighth year running I am introducing my series of blogs with some recommendations on books I have read during the year. As last year my reading was well below my normal 50 books or so. This year I only read 25, partly because as I explained last year that I read a great deal when on holiday and we didn’t manage a proper holiday in the year. A cruise on the Danube was of course cancelled and I might well have read six or seven books then. Another reason is that I take several periodicals and usually read those on frequent train rides into London. This year there has been very little of that so some of my reading time has been catching up on magazines. But some of the 25 were excellent.
I’ll start with some works of history. As a student of history, I find that history is the best way to understand the present and even what the future might hold.
Nearly all Americans will recognise the source of the title. The second sentence of the Declaration of Independence, originally drafted by Thomas Jefferson, reads: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. “
But in Lepore’s magnificent one-volume history of the United States, she questions whether America has lived up to the ideas of the founders of the Republic. After all, Jefferson, Washington and many of the others owned slaves. Lepore writes, “The real dispute is between ‘these truths’ and the course of events: Does American history prove these truths, or does it belie them?” Clearly one of the first promises to be broken was slavery. Some states such as Massachusetts took the words literally and abolished slavery. But most others, particularly those in the South would not. “The Declaration that Congress did adopt was a stunning rhetorical feat, an act of extraordinary political courage,” Lepore writes. “It also marked a colossal failure of political will. In holding back the tide of opposition to slavery, by ignoring it, for the sake of a union that, in the end, could not and would not last.”
But the book does not only deal with slavery or the other groups who were not given fair treatment like Indians and women. It is organised by both time and theme; she has sections that focus on industrialisation, mass communication, modernism and so on. Thus she places these subjects in fresh, but always accurate contexts.
Ferguson uses the metaphor of the town Square to represent networks and that of the Tower to represent hierarchies. In some cities like Siena with its famous Piazza del Campo the Tower stands at the corner of the Square. In this fascinating and wide spreading work Ferguson, one of Britain’s best historians, shows how history is shaped by the push and pull of hierarchies and networks, two phenomena that share some basic traits. They are both made up of interconnected nodes, which are people, trading ports or family members. We can be united with others when we share certain things, such as a common background or religion. Protestantism spread so rapidly owing to the invention of the printing press. That created a network that changed Europe. The British Empire expanded and built networks to spread their influence across the world. The Empire may be gone but through soft power much of the networks are still there.
Global economic networks emerged with the advent of steamships and railways, or communication networks centred around telephones or the internet. Networks differ from hierarchies in one key way. Networks operate horizontally while hierarches operate vertically, invariably downwards. Hence Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China are vertical hierarchies with command and control while most Western democracies for all their flaws operate by consent. But then Donald Trump’s use of Twitter helped him beat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.
Scheim was a director of Management Information Systems. He was on the board of advisors of the assassination archives and research centre in Washington. He is the author of several books on the murders of John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. This includes Contract on America: The Mafia murders of John and Robert Kennedy (1983)
and The Mafia killed President Kennedy (1988)
In 1989 Shine told Blaine Taylor he thought Carlos Marcella, Santos Trevor Canty and Jimmy Hoffa ordered the assassination of John F. Kennedy. He added: “All three of them were very close friends and, when we look at Jack Ruby’s telephone records, we find an astonishing peak in the number of out-of-state calls in the months before the assassination-it’s actually 25-fold greater than in the month of the previous January. Most of those calls are to organised crime figures, in particular to top associates of Marcella, Trafficante and Hoffa.”
I realise this is a highly controversial subject with many conspiratorial theories circulating the world. I also realise that the affair was investigated and the conclusion reached that there was a single gunman. But this author put together with great and meticulous care a totally convincing argument with significant evidence.
4. Intelligence in War
From the beginning of recorded history commanders have sought knowledge of the enemy, his strengths and weaknesses, his dispositions and intentions. But how much effect in the real-time battle or campaign, does this knowledge have?
Keegan is one of our best military historians and in this magisterial study he goes to the heart of a series of important conflicts to develop a powerful argument about intelligence and war. His narrative sweep is enthralling, whether betraying the dilemmas of Nelson seeking Napoleon’s fleet, Stonewall Jackson and the American Civil War, Bletchley as it seeks to crack Ultra during the Battle of the Atlantic, the realities of the secret war in the Falklands or the numerous intelligence issues in the contemporary fight against terrorism.
And now a superb biography:
5. A Certain Idea of France – The Life of Charles de Gaulle
Winner of the Duff Cooper Prize for History, the Elizabeth Longford Prize for Historical Biography, the American Library in Paris Award, the Franco-British Society Literary Prize and the Grand Prix de la Biographie Politique du Touquet.
This outstanding biography of by far the greatest leader of France since Napoleon details his extraordinary achievements, drawing on a vast range of published and unpublished memoirs and documents-including the recently opened de Gaulle archives. After the fall of France in 1940 de Gaulle emerged from obscurity to enter into history. He refused to accept defeat and from London spoke to his compatriots over the BBC urging them to rally to him. He quarrelled violently with Churchill and Roosevelt but through sheer force of personality and bloody mindedness he managed to have France recognised as one of the victorious allies, occupying its own zone in defeated Germany. In the post-war years France faced many challenges but Gaulle returned to lead it in 1958 as President of the Fifth Republic which he created and which has lasted to this day.
And now an excellent book on economics:
6. Greed is Dead: Politics After Individualism
Paul Collier, John Kay
Successful societies have created institutions which channel competition and cooperation to achieve complex goals of general benefit. These institutions make the difference between societies that thrive and those that are paralysed by discord, simply the difference between prosperous and poor economies. Such societies are pluralist but that pluralism is disciplined.
But successful societies are somewhat rare and fragile. In recent decades the balance between competitive and cooperative instincts has become dangerously unstable: mutuality has been undermined by an extreme individualism which has weakened cooperation and polarised politics.
Two excellent economists, Collier and Kay show how a reaffirmation of the values of mutuality could refresh and restore politics, business and the environments in which people live. Politics could reverse the moves to extremism and tribalism; businesses could replace the greed that has degraded corporate culture; the communities and decaying places that are home to many could overcome despondency and again be prosperous and purposeful. As the world emerges from an unprecedented crisis we have the chance to examine society afresh and build a politics beyond individualism.
On a related theme:
7. The Lonely Century: A Call to Reconnect
This ambitious and brilliant book skilfully examines the roots of the worldwide loneliness epidemic which was well-established before the lockdowns of the past two years. The fabric of community is unravelling and personal relationships are under threat. Technology isn’t the only culprit; equally to blame are the dismantling of civic institutions, the radical reorganisation of the workplace, mass migration to cities and across boundaries and decades of policies that have placed self-interest above the collective good.
It is not just a mental health crisis. Loneliness increases our risk of heart disease, cancer and dementia. Statistically, it is as bad for our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It’s also an economic crisis, costing us billions annually, and a political crisis with feelings of marginalisation fuelling divisiveness and extremism around the world.
But it's also one we have the power to reverse. Hertz offers bold solutions ranging from compassionate AI to innovative models for urban living to new ways of reinvigorating our neighbourhoods and reconciling our differences. Despite the very serious problems described in this book it still contains an empowering vision for how to heal our fractured communities and restore connection in our lives.
One I blogged on in the year:[i]
8. Fake Law: The Truth About Justice in an Age of Lies
The Secret Barrister
The Secret Barrister is a junior barrister specialising in criminal law. He or she writes for many publications and are the author of the award-winning blog of the same name. They were named Independent Blogger of the Year at the Editorial Intelligence Comment Awards (2016 and 2017) and Legal Personality of the Year at the Law Society Awards (2018).
Their first book, The Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken
, was a Sunday Times
number-one bestseller and spent more than a year in the top-ten bestseller list. I read this book and it made a deep impression on me. Now their second book Fake Law: The Truth About Justice in an Age of Lies
was also an instant Sunday Times top-ten bestseller on publication. I have also read this book and it has made an even deeper impression.
It is both a spirited defence of the legal system and also an exposé of agenda-driven politicians, click-hungry tabloid editors and powerful corporate interests who persuade us that the system is stacked in favour of criminals and the undeserving. This leads to changes in the law which means that our own fundamental rights - for example, to legal aid - are being quietly eroded and in some cases extinguished.
And one by a friend:
9. Sri Lanka: Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained
Michael Morris, The Rt Hon. The Lord Naseby PC
Lord Naseby is the Chairman of the Cofradia del Vino Chileno of which I am a member. The club meets for the sole purpose of celebrating and promoting Chilean wine. But Before Lord Naseby fell in love with Chile after he lost his seat as an MP in 1997 he had long fallen in love with Sri Lanka. He first went there as a businessman to solve a crisis in 1963 when he worked as a marketing man for Reckitt & Colman. He has visited the country at least 20 times, often as an official observer at a number of presidential and general elections, he witnessed the opening of the Victoria Dam as an official guest, supported the Sri Lanka government and people through a near 30-year civil war and was deeply involved in the U.K.’s aid response to the devastating Tsunami of 2004. Indeed a year later the President of Sri Lanka presented him with the nation’s highest award for non-nationals, the Sri Lanka Ratna (titular). This is a powerful memoir of one man’s very special relationship with a beautiful island and its people, his recollections from 50 years of a unique friendship between a British politician and the people of Sri Lanka.
Fiction: I read a number of works of fiction by several of my usual favourites: Ken Follett, John Grisham (3), Robert Harris, Alexander Kent, Ian McEwan and Jo Nesbo, but by far the best novel I read this year was:
This is the final book of the trilogy which began with her outstanding Booker-Prize-winning novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. She covers the years 1536 to 1540 following the execution of Anne Boleyn. Thomas Cromwell is one of the most remarkable figures in English history as he rose from obscurity as a blacksmith’s son to the most powerful position in the land, except of course for the King. Cromwell gains wealth as well as power but not enough to pay for his own private army as someone from a landed family might have done. In the end he lives by his wits and at the King’s pleasure. The trilogy is one of the finest works of its kind.
And lastly forgive me if I mention my own book that was published this year. Threads and Patches is not a chronological tale of my life but instead my idea was to develop themes – ‘threads’ in computer speak – and to embellish them with ‘patches’, which in computer speak means fixes or Band Aids. It is not an autobiography, but it is autobiographical.