Reading in 2020

A very personal selection

In lieu of anything more interesting, and with an horribly inevitable and horribly painful hangover stopping me from doing anything further, here is a list of a couple of books that i enjoyed in 2020. Maybe not favourites, but books that brought some clarity at least.

Theft, Luke Brown (And Other Stories)

Not all that surprising that a book about “a white male from the north of England, small town, moribund, working class-cum-middle-class … a reader, an autodidact, a would-be escapee”, would appeal so heavily to me. But, more than that, Theft is a funny, sharp, wonderfully written novel.

Desert Notebooks, Ben Ehrenreich (Counterpoint)

The world does seem increasingly bleak this year, doesn’t it? And if there is one place that has always signified death and the coming end, with its petrified landscapes and endless vistas seemingly devoid of life, it’s the desert. Ben Ehrenreich’s brilliant and original new book is both a diary of his life in and around the Mojave desert and a series of interlinked meditations on a startling range of texts on the end of days. Yet, in both the desert landscape and the work of mystics and philosophers, Ehrenreich sees the persistence of a hope, however fragile it may seem, in the face of humanity’s destructive force. One of the most clear-eyed, beautifully written, and hopeful, books i have read in many years.

X-Risk, Thomas Moynihan (Urbanomic)

I wished I’d read this before i made my own foray into the apocalyptic. X-Risk a fascinating account of the knowledge that humanity had to gain before it could think through it’s own extinction. Whereas ideas about the end of the world have been a constant in human thought and culture, as Kermode’s sense of an ending, extinction is the ending of sense–the total evacuation of meaning, of morality, from nature. It was only with the disenchantment of nature that humans could realise that their position on Earth is so utterly precarious. After us, the world will continue, nature will not miss us, we aren’t the moral centre of the universe. In fact, we aren’t the centre of anything. And this thought is, paradoxically, the ultimate wake-up, understanding it requires a moral imperative to be good stewards for nature, and ultimately to avoid our own ends.

The Sea View Has Me Again, Patrick Wright (Repeater)

I am increasingly obsessed with place as a way to understand history and the tectonic shifts in culture and society. Very few pieces of writing have matched Patrick Wright’s new book in the ability to chart, through one place and one life, the startling shifts of the past half century. On the face of it this is a book about Uwe Johnson (the under-read and perhaps under-appreciated German writer) and his life in Sheerness on the Kentish Isle of Sheppey. But, as with all of Wright’s work over the decades, it is so much more: a study of deindustrialisation and decline, a history of England and of the Kent coast, and a stunning work of both biography and literary criticism.

I Hate the Lake District, Charlie Gere (Goldsmiths Press)

What a title! This book is both illuminating and maddening in equal measure, a kind of anti-nature writing, seeking to subvert the worst tendencies of a genre prone to awestruck romanticism of supposedly natural landscapes that either occlude, or actively ignore, the human labour and communities that have created such scenery. Gere’s book is a series of short jaunts through Britain’s Lake District that, in its own circuitous fashion, taking in Nuclear power stations and UFO sightings along the way, opens us up to an even more luminous landscape than that offered by the official guidebooks and paeans to Wordsworth Country.

Beginning to See The Light, Ellen Willis (University Of Minnesota Press)

Before this year, and to my great shame, i hadn’t read anything by the essayist and music writer Ellen Willis, who passed away in 2006. The New Yorker’s first pop music critic, her essays on Dylan, Elvis, The Velvet Underground and others managed to distill the essence of that era of great cultural and social change, somehow saying far more about the culture, politics and society of America than many book-length treatments. As a music writer she was easily a match for her far more illustrious peers Robert Christgau, Greil Marcus and Lester Bangs, but in this collection of her essays from the 1960s and ‘70s–taken from the Village Voice, New Yorker and elsewhere– it’s her keen social and political sense that really shines through. Particular highlights are the brilliant review of Deepthroat (yep, that Deepthroat) originally published in the NYRB, and covering everything from the aesthetics of porn to desire and the male gaze, and her long review essay of Tom Wolfe’s “failed optimism”. As she says, “my deepest impulses are optimistic, an attitude that seems to me as spiritually necessary and proper as it is intellectually suspect" – and it is her willingness to delve into such contradictions and aporias that makes her writing, even today, stand out.

There’s more, but they can wait. The dreadful hangover has returned. Happy new year!