Monday, 15 December 2014

Best of 2014

Here are some of the books I read this year, presented in rough chronological order, that I have felt were particularly good. Where I have written about them here or elsewhere at greater length I have included links. I suggest that instead of doing whatever you planned on doing in the next two months or so, you just read all of them.

Poor Economics - Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo

Economics is a subject that people don't really understand, but, because of its proximity to political issues of all kinds, feel the need to hold opinions about. Writing about economics, be it for newspapers, journals or books, is often dogmatic, ideological and ill-informed; it is also so often big picture. Banerjee and Duflo take a different approach: from the ideological starting point of 'we want alleviate poverty', they attend to the details and the evidence, run randomised controlled trials for different policies, and explain why the very poorest make decisions that seem to those of us lucky enough to have money so irrational. Poor Economics is a great introduction to a number of economic ideas for a general reader, but, more importantly, it encourages a kind of empathy that is so often lacking in political and politicised discourse, by emphasising the differences circumstance can have on decision making. It is easy to think that we are rich because we are wise, and that, were we made poor, we would be able to act to become rich again; perhaps we should give more thanks that we were not born poor.


Free Culture - Lawrence Lessig

Lessig's book on the system of intellectual property is about a decade old now, and he has subsequently turned his attention to electoral reform. But his points about intellectual property laws remain pertinent and unaddressed. Lessig does not argue for piracy or the abolition of intellectual property, but for flexibility within the law to benefit the population at large. What value, he asks, is there to protecting the intellectual property of creators who care so little about their work that it is being lost? He writes about films: many early films are now being lost because they remain in copyright, but are too unprofitable for commercial entities or rights holders to maintain them, so the film is slowly decaying. He writes, too, about how Hollywood, now the strongest voice for the protection of intellectual property, originally fled to California to avoid intellectual property claims that were harming its profitability. It is valuable to be reminded of intellectual property's history, if only to remember that intellectual property is not an inalienable natural right, and that society can decide the balance between rewarding creators and offering work to society at large. (Download it legally for free here.)

Glow - Ned Beauman

I have been a keen follower of Ned Beauman for a couple of years now, and, in truth, Glow does not reach the heights of his previous novel, The Teleportation Accident; but then, few things do. Glow continues to showcase Beauman's felicity with language and imagery, and his ability to defamiliarise the world not with fantasy, but with the innate weirdness of reality. Glow is mostly set in south London, and I have thought of it every time I have gone there, and that has made long night time cycles down unfamiliar roads a little less bleak and a little more charming.

The Savage Detectives - Roberto BolaƱo

The characters in The Savage Detectives are mostly poets and writers who don't do much writing, don't publish, and aren't successful. They spend their time running around Mexico City, drinking and smoking, begging espresso from waitresses in bars, sleeping with each other just to have somewhere to spend the night, trying to be in love with the world or with literature or with their bodies or with each other. They are glamorous failures, and the novel has made me think seriously about what I consider success to be. I wish I were less bourgeois, and more able to acknowledge a life lived savagely as successful; perhaps I will be able to if I move to Mexico and become a poet.

Command and Control - Eric Schlosser

Schlosser's book is a history of the safety of nuclear weapons, both their technical aspects - how do you stop them from blowing up when you drop them, etc.? - and the bureaucracies in place to control them - how do you stop someone stealing a bomb, how do you ensure that in wartime you can still give orders? It is terrifying. Neither technical nor bureaucratic systems were at all effective, and Schlosser argues that it is a small miracle there wasn't a large scale nuclear accident. The USSR installed a new radar system and it was set off, warning of an imminent attack. The officials did not react; the system had mistaken the sun rising over Norway for a fleet of US nuclear missiles. A US bomber crashed into a cliff in Greenland, its bomb didn't detonate, but did spread fissile material over a glacier; the heat of the impact melted the ice, before the cold froze it again. US troops from a nearby base had to go out, in the blackness of the Arctic winter, in extreme cold, to chip away contaminated ice from the glacier and carry it back to base, where it was flown to Nevada and buried underground.

My Struggle Volume 3: Boyhood Island - Karl Ove Knausgaard

When I first read Knausgaard I didn't understand why he had been praised so widely for being hypnotic. When I read the third volume, which is mostly about Knausgaard's childhood, I got it. Knausgaard's style, which is loose and open and attentive and consciously anti-aesthetic, and sort of flat, lacking demarcations of worth or irony, is perfectly suited to writing from the perspective of a child. He inhabits his childhood self utterly, and treats minor incidents with the emotional awe they received at the time. The result is a kind of powerful presentness, a feeling of being in the moment, not playing between a remembered past moment and a future adult self. This does weird things with time, that dilates and flows and jumps and skips much like in Richard Linklater's film Boyhood, and the passage from child to adolescent takes you by surprise.

10:04 - Ben Lerner

Ben Lerner is interested in time too, in the opposite way to Knausgaard: in how time can be a palimpsest, how moments layer on top of one another, on how they can gain and lose significances. 10:04, like My Struggle, is something of a pseudo-autobiography, a novel written from life, but keenly aware of the fabrications and in authenticities involved in such an endeavour. The main character in 10:04, Ben, has more similarities with the author than is worth listing, but is not the author. The effect again is one of layering, of identities and histories as well as of moments. Selfhood is someone amongst the layers, but the self is probably a story that we tell ourselves, and like all stories all the best bits are lies.

Bad Pharma - Ben Goldacre

In Bad Pharma Ben Goldacre offers an extended and detailed analysis of the ways in which the structure of healthcare, which includes the media, academia, journals, doctors and the pharmaceutical industry, creates perverse incentives for actors to do things that go against the provision of fair, high quality information to inform decisions about prescriptions and treatments. These perverse incentives are sometimes fairly benign, like there being more desire to publish positive than negative results, and sometimes corrupt, like the regulatory capture of the regulators of the pharmaceutical industry. Goldacre is optimistic about the potential for more data, and more public and professional attention, to identify and resolve these problems; his book and its relentless fairness and meticulous compilation of evidence, is an effective demonstration of the virtues of such an approach. I hope he is right.

Indigo - Clemens J. Setz

Setz is an Austrian writer and Indigo is the first thing he has written that has been translated into English. Having read it I am now anxiously awaiting the rest; I am considering learning German to translate him myself. His writing is strange and lucid and commits fully to its belief in the events it describes. It also has a deconstructive impulse: Indigo is a Montageroman, an assemblage of scraps and documents rather than a flowing narrative, and a vehicle for doubt in authority and interpretation. It is a novel about a medical condition whose sufferers are known as Indigo children. It is not clear whether the condition actual exists in the novel's world, but that scarcely matters. Setz writes with beauty about things that are very close to how things are in reality (whatever that is), but sort of different, just different enough that you notice. He is hard to describe. Go and read him now.