It has always annoyed me, when I read the Sunday papers, that they publish books of the year round-ups which always feature the same people, usually puffing each others' books, or books by people they share an agent with. I don't mind this as such - I just want to break into that charmed circle. I was once accused by an activist for a particular cause (oh go on then, a pro life activist) of being a member of the Liberal Elite. This thrilled me immensely. Where is my membership card? The invitation for drinks chez Lord Bragg or Gore Vidal - had it gone astray in the post? Oh well.
Since no books editor has asked me for my list of books to read this year - again - here are some I enjoyed and would recommend warmly to you.
Books by Friends
If I cannot puff my friends books here, where can I?
1. Piers Benn's Commitment appeared this year in Acumen's excellent "Art of Living" series. Piers and I were colleagues at Imperial College, an environment which didn't exactly encourage thoughtful, literate reflection on the meaning of life. It was more interested in sequencing it. So it was a great joy to see this book appear, after a long-ish gestation. And it is characteristically well written, thoughtful and interesting. It is also concise. Why waste words!
2. Alondra Nelson's Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination was a real eye-opener. I don't know much about Black American radical politics, but this book convinced me I should be interested. At a time when the State is rolling back its commitments to free, public medical care, and at a time when the drift of healthcare is towards what can turn a profit rather than what might actually benefit Ordinary Working People, this book really inspired me to think harder about community activism and practical healthcare by and for the people. And the sheer sense of possibility which the Panthers shared was deeply impressive, and a real contrast with the rather windy rhetoric of today's Occupy movement.
3. Abdallah Daar and Peter Singer's The Grandest Challenge takes a much more biomedical approach to problem solving, but its importance is that they have an energetic and determined approach to focussing biomedical innovation on interventions which can significantly benefit the poor. They don't buy (or reject entirely) the idea that development and health must mean "good enough" healthcare using "appropriate technologies" - nor the idea that "new" technologies must be expensive, "hi tech" or impractical outside the shiny urban private hospitals for the rich. As the subtitle says, they want to take "Life-Saving Science from Lab to Village".
4. Chloe Silverman's Understanding Autism: Parents, Doctors, and the History of a Disorder and Stuart Murray's Autism are two wonderful, thoughtful books about the culture and history of autism as a disorder/disability, the meanings of the condition, the shaping of autistic lives by people with autism and the families and services around them, and the nature of the controversies around autism today. Both are subtle, sophisticated books which deserve wide readerships, and even if you don't have a personal or professional interest in autism, you would find them stimulating for thinking about personal identity and family life and the culture of "neurodiversity".
Books by Other People
In no particular order, I found these books particuarly engaging and thought-provoking:
1. Andrew Mango, Ataturk
2. Julia Lovell, The Great Wall
3. Frank Dikotter, Mao's Great Famine
4. Adam Roberts, The History of Science Fiction
5. Andrew Smith, Moon Dust
6. Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire
7. Alice Oswald, Dart
8. Neil Ascherson, Black Sea
9. Jason Goodwin's Ottoman crime fictions (starting with The Janissary Tree)
10. Lawrence Lessig, Code 2.0
A book I really want to read
David Graeber, Debt: A 5000 Year History
A book I bought but just cannot face reading
Derek Parfit, On What Matters