2015: the year in books

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The traditional composite illustration above – which is always fetching, a smart line of book covers – might convey to the untrained eye that I have chosen nine of my favourite books from this year. In fact, it depicts 100% of all the books I read this year. And of those books, only four were published this year. This, if you’re a regular browser, is fairly typical. I’m not a voracious book-reader, certainly not like I used to be, but I always blame that with cast-iron certainty on the New Yorker, and this year has been no different. (One of the books up there, The Unwinding, is by a New Yorker writer, but I find I’m still slogging through it. I haven’t given up yet, though, which is why it’s still pictured, and still by my bedside.)

Capital

Three of them, I read on holiday, during an intensive fortnight of downtime. It’s what holidays are for (something I’d forgotten). All three were old, not that it matters, and two of them novels. I found Capital compulsive to begin with, as it’s set in a street in South London, which is my quarter, at the time of the 2008 crash, which I lived through, but felt the thriller element was a distraction from the social history and by the end I was reading out of a sense of dogged loyalty. When it appeared on TV last month, I was able to pick fault with the adaptation in a way that I am never normally qualified to do. Room, I purchased because I was due to see a preview of the film, by Lenny Abrahamson, and fancied seeing how it worked on the page. Brilliantly. It’s my second favourite book of 2015 (it was published, and raved about by the rest of the readerati, in 2010, but I have never claimed to be a tastemaker). The film is out in January.

TheCorrections

My first favourite book was The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, a novel that took the world by storm in 2001. It’s been in our house for at least a couple of years, and the holiday enabled me to tackle it. I couldn’t put it down. But most people probably knew that already. I don’t care. It was a revelation, and not a book that should ever be turned into a film or a TV series (as was once mooted). It’s pure literature. It needs to be read, not adapted. Oddly, I followed up this edifying and electrifying experience by starting Freedom by the same author, and it just did not click with me. I put it down. Maybe, like Lionel Shriver, he has one masterpiece in him, which is one more than the rest of us.

ISISbook

The book about ISIS, one of many rushed out this year for obvious reasons, is a useful guide, but inevitably out of date already. I’ve appreciated it as a potted history, as much of it takes place after The 9/11 Wars and The Looming Tower, when al-Qaeda were the ones to watch.

 

Billy Bragg’s book is a compendium of his lyrics, and a lovely thing to have if you’re a fan. Jim Bob’s second Frank Derrick novel is a lovely, humane social comedy about ageing that really should be turned into a film or a TV series, and you don’t have to be a fan of his music (although why wouldn’t you be?) to appreciate its lyricality. Talking of being a fan, if a single image sums up my year in books, it’s this one.

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It’s a thrill to be able to say I had a book out this year. My name may not be on the cover of the Gogglebook, but it’s in full view inside, and I really did write it, except for the bits that are taken from the TV show, clearly. If you’d like to order it but not from the biggest online bookshop in the world, this link takes you to Hive, and means you can send custom to a local bookshop, an initiative I fully support.

EndOfACentury

My name was on the cover of another book, too. Less mass-market, it’s an art book, End Of A Century, another beautifully designed and illustrated tome, which I was delighted to be asked to edit: a tribute to the amazing artwork of my late friend John Wrake, better known as Run, who died in October 2012. To research the book with his wife Lisa, who designed it and provided footnotes from his original notebooks and diaries, was a labour of love, and allowed us to spend two days in the NME’s archive in November 2014 (all the illustrations in the book are for the NME’s lead album review – I reprint one below). It’s a hefty chap, but something I’m proud to put my name to. You can order it and sample some more of Run’s work here.

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Not as bookish a year as it might have been, but full of words and pictures.

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Whatever | November 2010

Whatever | In praise of print
The printed word is so last century. But you’ll miss the airport novel and the boarding pass when they’re gone

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I am against the Kindle. There, I’ve said it. As lightweight and graphite-cool as Amazon’s proprietary e-reader clearly is, I simply don’t want an electronic device designed primarily for the purpose of reading digital books. But please don’t equate my antipathy with Ned Ludd’s violent decommissioning of two mechanical knitting machines in the early 19th century. My aversion to the e-reader is rooted not in ideological proletarian revenge or technological nostalgia, but in the simple truth that choosing which paperbacks to pack for my holiday gives me an inordinate amount of pleasure.

One year I used up most of my Ryanair baggage allowance by selecting Ian Kershaw’s Hitler for a relaxing week in Ireland; it defined my stay as much as the choice of cottage or location, and you can see it in the holiday snaps – unlike whatever’s on a Kindle screen. I have no beef with progress. But with each incremental tweak of our eternally rechargeable daily lives by stubbled geeks riding scooters around a place of work they genuinely believe to be a “campus”, we inch further from culture’s moorings: tactility, intimacy, fallibility and, yes, its occasionally musty smell. My bullshit detector always starts to twitch whenever an electronic device is advertised as having the same qualities as previously adequate acoustic delivery systems, such as talking, reading or doing. (“iPad is … delicious … playful … friendly … literary,” lies the commercial.)

We live in a word that’s shredding its paper. We’re glued to touch-screens and reliant on the mystical power of unseen hard drives, mainframes and servers to remember everything; utility companies offer rebates for “paper-free” billing; album “artwork” is merely an unclicked file document; and we recently learned that the third edition of the voluminous Oxford English Dictionary, due for completion in ten years, will only be available online.

Meanwhile, last June I cancelled my subscription to The Ecologist magazine. Not in a fit of purple-faced pique – the decision was forced upon me when, with laudable eco-intent, its print edition ceased production after 39 years and moved exclusively online. I’m old-skool enough to consider a “digital edition” an option and not a fait accompli.

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It was Massachusetts doctor Duncan MacDougal who discovered that the human body instantaneously loses 21 grams when we die; hence the attractive hippy myth that the departing human soul weighs 21 grams. If you delete the “digital edition” of a magazine, or drag an eBook to the trash, your tablet computer’s weight remains constant. Ergo, the laptop has no soul.

This July, although he didn’t live to see it, Stieg Larsson became the first author to sell a million eBooks on Amazon, a milestone dutifully fanfared in the national print media, an industry staring down the barrel of extinction because of the cleverly marketed convenience and alpha status of, well, e-readers. I for one am in predictive mourning. James Brown, who made his name in the 1990s by selling a whole stack of magazines when that’s all we knew, talks up Sabotage Times, his new online venture, by denouncing what he calls “dead tree publishing”; the very phrase makes me sad.

I hope it’s not just my age, but in common I think with many of my generation I grew up in a home full of felt tips, pads and propelling pencils; my dad brought home carbon paper, hole punches and other exotica from work; and I was educated by way of chalk, red pen and whiteboards. When I wrote my dissertation for college, Mum typed it up for me; to be “printed” bestowed legitimacy – it was proper.

My first fanzine was furtively designed at the office photocopier and printed at Kall Kwik; with it, I secured a foot in the door of the NME, where my first job involved laying out pages – that is, sticking Letraset and Xeroxed pics onto paper grids with carcinogenic aerosol glue. Perhaps I am masochistically wedded to an outmoded ideal of inconvenience. I certainly equate what you put in with what you get out. Kershaw’s Hitler is available as an eBook, as easy to cart around and read on the train as an idea or a vibration. But where’s the commitment? And if you have every book at your 3G fingertips, where’s the fun?

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American business and IT expert Nicholas Carr wrote an essay for Atlantic magazine entitled Is Google Making Us Stupid? It now forms the bones of a book, The Shallows, whose subtitle is less inflammatory: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember. Never mind changing – according to Carr, who blames scrolling screens for rewiring our neural pathways, leading tocursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning,” it’s doing to our patience what Ned Ludd did to those knitting machines.

It will only be by active and militant conservation that printed matter will defy the dustbin of history. We must protect magazines, maps, documents and Post-Its as we do tracts of marshland and designated places of historic interest and natural beauty. I recently returned to Ireland – having booked my flights online but printed out the boarding passes on paper – and found myself blissfully out of wi-fi range. More grateful than ever for paperbacks to thumb and newspapers to luxuriate in, I started filling in crosswords, something I haven’t done since I was a boy. I even bought a propelling pencil.

Sure, you can pull up an infinite catalogue of crosswords online, enter and re-enter the answers without recourse to a pencil eraser, and even click on words to see if you’re right. But where are you meant to scribble out the anagrams?

Now, as is my idiosyncratic wont, before delivering this column electronically, I will print it out in order to read it back. Because only then will it be proper.

First published in Word magazine, November 2010

2014: My Top 50 books

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I did not read 50 books in 2014. But then, neither did I in 2013. Or 2012, so there’s a pattern forming. In truth, I haven’t read ten books in any year since 2005 when Stuart Maconie gave me a subscription to the New Yorker for my birthday, which I have slavishly renewed every year. Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, one of the books I did read this year was The Unwinding, by New Yorker scribe George Packer, a patchwork quilt of American stories that cumulatively and incrementally describe the fall of a once great nation. Oh, and when I say “read this year” I don’t mean read to the end. That’s another cold, hard reality of my literary life. I am about halfway through The Unwinding, as it’s a hardback and thus too cumbersome to cart around in my bag, and I find I get tired much earlier than I used to, so late-nite reading is at a premium. I like the cut of its jib, but I find it difficult to get back into each true and meticulously researched story as the book’s narrative cuts back and forth between, and I have to re-read the previous installment to get back in the groove. My guess is that to read The Unwinding in one sitting would be preferable to the way I’m doing it. (You can see why I have only part-read eight books!)

You can find fuller reviews of my friend Jim Bob’s latest novel (the only work of fiction I read in 2014 and thus number one) and my friend Mark Ellen’s life story here. I finished both of them, which says something about them. I also finished the nerdily entertaining history of TV Armchair Nation, even though it was a hardback, which says something about The Unwinding. This may have come out in 2013, but such administration means nothing to me. I bought Martin Gilbert’s self-explanatory slice of history Kristallnacht a couple of years ago (it was published in 2006), but picked it up this year after a documentary on TV inspired me to and I hope to finish it – cheery as it isn’t – before Christmas. I accept that I will never read Capital In The Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty, one of the most talked-about books of the year in its English translation, even though, as advertised, it is a readable tome about the failure of capitalism; it’s just too forbidding, and a hardback, which actually hurts my wrists when I try to hold it up to read in bed. But I’m happy to have it in my house. I read Kevin Bridges’ likeable but premature memoir (he turned 28 while writing it) on a train journey to Glasgow, which seems apt.

James Meek’s Private Island isn’t really a book; it’s the collected essays of James Meek from the London Review Of Books and the Guardian about the failure of privatisation, and it’s a proper page turner. I loved it, and couldn’t put it down. (It was a paperback, so I didn’t have to put it down in order to protect the joints in my old hands.) I recommend it highly if you’re in the mood to shake your fists at the sky and scream, “Why?” at regular intervals. Meek thinks there are some things in this world that shouldn’t be privatised. Most the ones he writes about in detail have been, and the others are in the process of being done. I happen to agree with him, but he did the research and we on the left should be truly thankful.

I am just about to renew my subscription to the New Yorker. Sorry, books. But congratulations to the eight that managed to break through the barrier around me that looks a bit like the Manhattan skyline.

An education #1: The Supreme Court

Here’s the deal. Two thoughts have conflated. One occurred while watching the excellent final of Euro 2012 last night, before and after which we were invited to look back upon what has been a memorable tournament. It was at this point, as if to illustrate the deficiencies of my non-footballing brain, that I realised that I can’t even remember the scores, or the goal-scorers, from most of the matches I have watched over the last three weeks. This is not just my 47-year-old mind going, as I can remember the names of actors from way down the cast of films that I shouldn’t even remember. It’s just that my brain isn’t tuned to football the way serious football fans’ brains are. (When I sat down to watch this one, after my traditional two-year sabbatical, I seriously couldn’t remember off the top of my head who’d won the 2010 World Cup, or Euro 2008. Both are imprinted there now, but ask me in a year’s time.)

The other thought was this: with the sad closure of Word magazine, a couple of people looking down the barrel of a dystopia with less printed words in have asked if a subscription to the New Yorker (one of a number of influences on Word in its prenatal stage) might help ease the pain. I have been a subscriber to the New Yorker since March 2005, when Stuart Maconie thoughtfully bought me a year’s subscription as a 40th birthday present. Once it started arriving on my mat once a week, I became quickly hooked. I can’t imagine a world without it. (It’s particularly handy at Presidential Election time, but not just, as I sincerely believe that to be disinterested in US politics is to be disinterested in global politics. And if anyone’s going to report from the frontline of American life, I’d prefer it to be a bunch of die-hard liberals.)

Anyway, it’s a struggle most weeks to get through the whole magazine. (I recycle mine by passing them on to a friend at Radio Times, who, when she’s done with them, passes them on again – I rarely give an issue up to this value-added cycle within a week of receiving it.) As such, I’m always in intellectual arrears. There’s enough brain food in a single issue to last a month. This means serious reading, and serious staying power. If you don’t know already, the pieces in the New Yorker are long. And detailed. To put them into context, the cover story I wrote about the Stone Roses for a recent issue of Word, which by definition will have been about the longest story in the issue, was 4,000 words. The double-page spread I write for Radio Times most weeks comes in at around 800. The New Yorker doesn’t have a cover story (it doesn’t even tell you what’s inside the issue on the cover), but its longest pieces can be more like 12,000 words. That’s a tenth of Where Did It All Go Right?

The New Yorker article I’m about to disseminate is about 5,000 words.

So, in order to counter the erosion of my memory, and to perhaps pass on some interesting information from a magazine that is jam-packed full of information (its fact-checking culture is legendary), I have decided to run an occasional series on this blog of articles about articles I have read.

This one, by Jill Lepore, was tucked away at the back of the Jun 18 issue (cover image above), and entitled, with typical elan and economy, Benched. It’s about the Supreme Court and was written before this august and powerful institution voted for “Obamacare” and surprised everybody. (I can’t wait to read this week’s New Yorker and its editors’ thoughts on what might be a turning point for Obama’s re-election chances.)

Essentially a history of the Supreme Court of the United States, forged in New York (then the nation’s capital; still the nation’s capital according to the New Yorker!) in 1789 when George Washington appointed six Supreme Court Justices, Lepore’s end-point is, clearly, the Affordable Care Act and whether or not today’s bench of nine decide that it violates the Constitution or not, vis-a-vis “commerce.” (Can the government constitutionally force its citizens to take out health insurance? Spoiler alert: yes it can.)

As Lepore states early on, “under the Constitution, the power of the Supreme Court is quite limited.” Its executive branch “holds the sword”, the legislative branch “the purse”, and the judiciary, neither; “no direction either of the strength or of the wealth of the society”. It’s tough for us Limeys to understand the Supreme Court, as we don’t have one, but if there’s one subject that comes up more frequently in the New Yorker than baseball and/or whatever Malcolm Gladwell is thinking about, it’s the Supreme Court, so it’s as well to do some homework, which is what this feature turned out to be, and why I ploughed through all 5,000 words of it.

I discovered that, under George Washington, the Justices of the Supreme Court were expected to “ride circuit” (one of those great phrases that make reading this magazine such a thrill), in other words, they were expected to judge ordinary cases as well as supreme ones, as it were. But this was scrapped. It’s basic stuff to American history students, but I now know that in 1800, the capital moved to Washington, D.C., and the following year president John Adams (Paul Giamatti) was the first to live in the White House, while Congress met at the Capitol. His Chief Justice ensured that all the Justices rented rooms at the same boarding house, “so that they could at least have someplace to talk together, unobserved.”

Under Adams, the 1801 Judiciary Act reduced the number of Supreme Court Justices to five. I’m afraid I didn’t quite catch when this was engorged to the present nine. Under Jefferson, the Supreme Court was granted the right to decide whether laws passed by Congress are constitutional. (“This was such an astonishing thing to do that the Court didn’t declare another federal law unconstitutional for fifty-four years.”) Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution: “Congress shall have power … to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.” During the New Deal in the 1930s, the “power to regulate commerce,” along with the definition of “commerce” itself, became the chief means by which Congress passed legislation “protecting people against an unbridled market.” (In 1964, the commerce clause formed part of the basis for the Civil Rights Act.) As you can guess, the solid Democrat base of the New Yorker means that the Supreme Court’s power to fiddle with commerce – that “unbridled market” which gives Republicans such an under-the-desk hard-on – is taken on trust as a good thing. To the right, it’s bad.

There are lots of landmark rulings cited along the way – Lochner v. New York in 1905, where the Court “voided a state law establishing that bakers could work no longer than ten hours a day, six days a week”, on the grounds that the law violated a “liberty of contract” (cue: sound of employers rubbing their hands in glee); U.S. v. Lopez, in which it was decreed that gun ownership is not commerce, “because it is in no sense an economic activity”; U.S. v. Morrison, in which parts of the federal Violence Against Women Act were judged unconstitutional; and one that is enshrined in US lore: Dred Scott v. Sandford (“Dred Scott”), which in 1857 voided the Missouri Compromise by arguing that Congress could not prohibit slavery in the territories, and effectively put slaves and their descendents outside of the constitution.

Lepore’s thesis, neatly woven through this chunky history, is simply that the Court is getting more political. Under game-changing arch-Federalist Chief Justice John Marshall’s 35 years in office – that’s six administrations from Adams to Jackson 1801-35 – we learn that the Court struck down only one act of Congress; by comparison, in the seven years since John G. Roberts, Jr. (a Bush appointee) took the job in 2005, the Court has struck down “a sizable number of federal laws, including one reforming the funding of political campaigns.” She describes it as “the most conservative court in modern times”, its rulings under Roberts pleasing the right 60% of the time, according to figures, which is way up basically.

We go back to the early American colonists, “who inherited from England a tradition in which the courts, like the legislature, were extensions of the crown.” Over here, a “defiant Parliament had been challenging the royal prerogative, demanding that judicial appointments be made not ‘at the king’s pleasure’ but ‘during good behavior.'” (This phrase “good behaviour”, which means, effectively, for life, recurs.) The Justices are chosen by the President and confirmed by the Senate, and it’s a gig for life. But who judges the judges?

Since it successfully rubbed out a “labor” law protecting the health of employees in favour of the employer, the aforementioned “Lochner” (known by just the one name) is said to have become “likely the most disreputable case in modern constitutional discourse.” (From where I’m sitting the American right are all for the individual, as long as that individual is an employer, not an employee.) In 1906, legal scholars rounded on it, one of them writing, “Putting courts into politics, and compelling judges to become politicians … has almost destroyed the traditional respect for the Bench.”

As ever with a New Yorker piece, you learn some things off the bat, and you have to do a bit of further reading to understand others. It’s casually referred to, but I had no idea what Theodore Roosevelt’s “Bull Moose campaign” was, for instance. So I checked. It was the nickname of a political party (the Progressive Party) he set up in 1912 after a Republican split, and after he’d been shot but claimed to be as fit as a bull moose. The building that still houses the Court across from the Capitol had its cornerstone laid on October 13, 1932, by Herbert Hoover and marble was shipped in from Spain, Italy, and Africa. Three weeks later, Franklin Roosevelt was elected in an actual landslide and those battles between Congress and the New Deal began. Exciting trivia: by June of 1933, less than 100 days after his inauguration, FDR had proposed 15 legislative elements and each had been made law, passed by the Court, whose four-out-of-nine conservative Justices were known as the Four Horsemen. During the passing of the 16th, one of the horsemen is said to have burst out, “The Constitution is gone!” (“a comment so unseemly that it was stricken from the record”).

The Supreme Court’s new building opened for business in 1935, described in the press as “a classical icebox decorated for some surreal reason by an insane upholsterer.” In the following 18 months, the newly-housed Justices struck down more than a dozen laws. “Congress kept passing them; the Court kept striking them down, generally 5-4. At one point, FDR’s Solicitor General fainted, right there in the courtroom.” You’ve got to love the way the best New Yorker writers humanise otherwise husk-dry material. It’s a detail like the fainting Solicitor General that could help you remember the trouble FDR had in the mid-30s.

Lepore sums up beautifully. “The Supreme Court has been deliberating in a temple of marble for three-quarters of a century. In March, it heard oral arguments about the Affordable Care Act. No one rode there in a horse and buggy.” She goes on, “The separation of law from politics for which the Revolution was fought has proved elusive. That’s not surprising – no such separation being wholly possible – but some years have been better than others. One of the worst was 2000, when the Court determined the outcome of a disputed Presidential election.”

I started reading the New Yorker in 2005, when Bush was into the second term of that “disputed” election. His presidency gave the magazine’s liberals something to push against. They do not, though, let Obama off the hook, and a 9,500-word piece by Ryan Lizza in the same issue about what the President might do if re-elected (again, written before the Supreme Court judgement went Obamacare’s way) is, although hopeful, honestly argued and superbly contextual. But that’s enough learning for one day.

The full, six-page Supreme Court piece is available online. So have a read. The 12-page Obama re-election piece also happens to be online, in full. (They aren’t always, so this is a bit of luck.) The New Yorker is available in full, digitally, to subscribers and as an iPad edition. It’s almost 90 years old, but it moves with the times. However, with such a lot of words to read, I couldn’t possibly read it offscreen. I need my paper copy. And long may it abide.