2018 was a momentous year for me in reading. It was, perhaps, the very first time that I've managed to set a target and read up to it. 50 books in 52 weeks. I'd have done a couple more, but I wanted to give myself breathing space this year and actually complete the challenge. I'd set a challenge of 52 last year but managed only 40. This year needed to be better, for the sake of my pride as an avid consumer of literature and knowledge.
Classes and categories of books
I made it a point to log and review all the books I read this year in Goodreads. It's a lovely place for readers to be able to see how much they've managed to wade through the vast amount of literature present in the world. It's also a good way to feel very small: there's so much to read and just one lifetime!
But more than philosophising, it's a very good way of understanding your reading patterns and adjusting your reading accordingly. In my case, out of the fifty books I read this year:
- 31 books were non-fiction
- 13 were about economics, society and development. It seems I've got my priorities correct - that's something I'd love to work on policy-wise at some point in my future
- 2 were about Donald Trump and were simultaneously sad and amusing, which, incidentally, is how all politics seems today. One of them read like a gossip rag and the other like a slightly less shabby gossip rag
- 2 were philosophical treatises I did not agree with (_The Closing of the American Mind_ by Prof. Allan Bloom) or found distasteful (_12 Rules for Life_ by Prof. Jordan Peterson). One seemed to be a very typical "kids these days" kind of thing, while the other was a book with neither head nor tail. Karl Popper's description of psychology as a "pseudoscience" has never seemed more apt as when one looks at Dr. Peterson's book
- 6 were written by Indian authors or authors of Indian origin. Two of these books focussed on India, the rest had other foci. There are no conclusions to be drawn from this factoid: I'm merely pointing it out
- 6 books could be described as scientific, but only 3 of them were pure pop science books. The rest were amalgamations of science with social science. Not just methodology, but results as well. I suppose I get my daily dose of science from the journal articles I read everyday
- 19 books were fiction
- Science fiction formed an important part of my reading this year as I polished up the _Robot_ series by Issac Asimov. The only book left is _Robots and Empire_, which I intend to finish after I finish the _Empire_ series, hopefully in the first half of 2019
- Brandon Sanderson was a very very important find. My reviews of the _Stormlight Archive_ are lukewarm, now that I read them again, but I definitely did like those books. _Mistborn_ is going to be on my list for next year: it's the only significant bit of his works I haven't yet finished
- The death of Ursula le Guin was a sad event. I hadn't read anything she'd written while she was alive, so I pushed towards correcting this fundamental wrong. This led me towards the _Earthsea_ series, which I realised I would have utterly loved had I been younger
- Terry Pratchett screamed into my life with all the force of an oversized hurricane with his _Discworld_ series. A friend had been prodding me to give it a go for quite a while and having done so, I loved it
Some books definitely leave their imprint on you, leaving you wondering about the hows and whys of their working. Others make you wish to merely close them and move on. Here's my list of the top five.
1. The Making of the Middle Ages by R. W. Southern
It's hard to beat this book to the top. Written in the 1950s, this book has survived a large amount of research, obscene numbers of new discoveries and preposterously numerous revisions of theories to remain, at large, one of the best sources of our understanding of the High Middle Ages, as they're often known. The period between 984 to 1205 is the subject and the author talks about them with skill and deftness. The book never descends into unfounded speculation and petty theorising, leaving that to other, lesser authors. Instead, the author weaves a deft thread through the narrative of Western Europe and tries to explain how monastic and trading culture managed to keep alive the spirit of Europe and help it emerge from the vestiges fo the Dark Age. It would take another author prodigious skill and amazing command of language in order to get to where Dr. Southern gets, and he or she would probably have to use at least twice as many pages.
2. Against the Grain: A deep history of the earliest states by James C. Scott
The question of the origin of agriculture will perhaps always be shrouded in uncertainty (of the Heisenberg kind, for those steeped in science and metaphor), and Dr. Scott agrees with this. Picking up pieces from different parts of Mesopotamia (a choice which he explains quite well in his book), the author puts together a kind of jigsaw puzzle of how and why the early states were founded and what it took to make them stable. It's a fascinating story and completely destroys any thought one might have about the nature of progress and the linear nature of human progress. While people like Prof. Jared Diamond and Prof. Yuvah Harari try to create an interesting picture of the times, Dr. Scott brings together an interesting picture and presents a singularly well-sourced narrative. This is a must-read for anyone who's wondered about the origins of society and social norms.
3. Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
Now I'm not really a Gaiman fan, but I have to say that this book of his really hits the nail on the head. Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman create a book with the sort of hilarious narrative one would have to dryly classify as very "British" humour. The name "Good Omens" is an homage to and parody of the movie "The Omen", and the events mimic the events of the movie quite well. Of course, things don't really pan out the way they do in the movie itself. _The Omen_ is sinister. _Good Omens_ is... not. That is perhaps all I'll say, beyond stating that this book left me a lasting fan of Terry Pratchett and a deep admirer of the written word in conveying belly-aching humour.
4. Euro Tragedy by Ashoka Mody
Euro Tragedy is an interesting book because it takes something all of us take for granted in the world of leftist intellectuals and turns it upside down. The opinion it highlights (and provokes) is that the EU and the Eurozone are forces of unequivocal good. I'm not exactly certain about how one judges a book like this one: it challenges preconceived notions quite fiercely and with a deluge of properly sourced info. Walking into her arguments with one's eyes wide-open still leaves one disoriented. There are times when I literally went, "Surely not! The EU isn't that rickety, is it?" But it is. And she recounts how that came to be in detail. At the end, when she admits that she's an avowed fan of the EU and still believes that the Eurozone is a dangerous idea for its future, one is forced to look back at all the pages one has read and admit that she's possibly right.
5. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
This is a dark horse selection. When i picked it up, I had no idea what I was getting into. Within a few chapters, though, I was completely engrossed and forgot the passage of time. For someone like me, who despises writers like Robin Cook and John Grisham and can bear Frederick Forsyth only with great effort, a non-fantasy or science fiction mystery starring housewives did not sound like an enjoyable read. Imagine to my surprise that when I next pulled my head out of the book, I'd finished it. Ms Moriarty has a writing style quite unlike any other I have ever read. She expounds a certain... feminism in her writing, as a friend of mine might put it. As I write in my own Goodreads review of the same:
Certain decisions made by the characters would defy my credulity in real life. However, her effortless storytelling manages to tease out subtle details I wouldn't even have thought existed. She fleshes out characters with an almost artless deftness while going into detail about their lives, their thought processes and their impulses, making me agree with those incredulous decisions even before I knew I'd agreed.
In a sense, this book is the classic reader's trap. You know the characters, they're very cliche. But you don't know them well enough. You don't really understand them. And the author takes full advantage of that to bring you to a set point, and then bam! You're hooked.
I'm unsure, though, if I want to pick up more stuff by her. Not because I think she's a one-hit wonder, but because I'm not sure if I'd like other stuff written in the same vein, even if it's the same writer.
This was a productive year for reading. The next year is going to be about focussed reading at its best. I start off with _Glimpses of World History_ by Jawaharlal Nehru, and will move on to finish _Economics_ by Samuelson and Nordhaus and then _Capital in the 21st Century_ by Piketty. These will form part of a 12-book challenge comprising of bruising and difficult books, which itself is part of a standard 52-book challenge. Hopefully I'll be left better and wiser by this deluge of words!