Tag Archives: reading

The year of the lockdown – in books

I’ve read more books in 2020 than I have read for many years. You might think that NOT commuting means I have less time for reading, but the data clearly do not bear that out. I have finished 57 books during the year. Three of them I started during 2019. As of Boxing Day I am still reading five or six books and will not finish any of them in the year.

Of the 57, 16 were re-reads. 43 books I read in physical copy, the remainder on a Kindle.

Emily St John Mandel’s account of a young actress caught up in an apocalyptic plague – “Station Eleven” – was my first of the year, followed quickly by Adrian Tchaikovsky’s “Dogs of War”, which was about a world in which bio-engineered war-animals rebel against their corporate masters. The “collected intelligence” of a swarm of artificial bees was of particular interest in that story. Later in the year I read another high-concept novel about war, Adam Robert’s “New Model Army”, which is unusual and shocking in having descriptions of front-line warfare ravaging modern urban Britain – fighter aircraft strafing Guildford town centre, kind of thing. Some very thought-provoking ideas about direct on-line democracy there, too. Continuing the sci-fi line, I read Stephen Baxter’s “The Massacre of mankind”, being a sequel to H.G Well’s “War of the worlds”. My daughter recommended Margaret Attwood’s very readable apocalypse “Oryx and Crake”, which I perhaps oughtn’t have read during the fevered atmosphere of the first lockdown. I finally got around to reading Chinese author’s Cixin Liu’s “The three body problem”, which I didn’t find as exciting or as innovative as his earlier short stories. Of course I’m aware of the controversy relating to his views on who controls parts of central Asia, which we’ve become aware of since filming of this book was proposed. I was challenged – having had it on the shelf for years – by Ursula Le Guin’s “The left hand of darkness”. I read three Frank Herbert novels. “The dragon in the sea”, “Hellstroms Hive”, and “Dune”. A master story-teller, he. Apart from re-reading a few Heinleins (and Vernor Vinge’s startling “A fire upon the deep”), the final great sci-fi novel of the year was Robert Forward’s startling “Dragons Egg”, featuring a race of people living on a neutron star, and what happens when they encounter humankind.
Big hitters for me this year in the non-fiction space were Austin Kleon (“Steal like an artist” and “Show your work”). Kleon has written a series of short, entertaining books that encourage creativity. I’ve read American journalist Robert Kaplan. I started with his “To the ends of the earth” and “Eastwards to Tartary” and his very instructive book about the middle east, “The Arabists”. Staying in the middle east, I finally sourced a copy of Michael Elkins’ “Forged in fury”, about the creation of the State of Israel. Not a work I’d recommend to anti-zionists. I re-read Tristam Hunt on the English Civil War, I read Beevor on the Ardennes offensive. I read the engaging Andrew Marr on the history of Britain, and finished John Keay’s long and complex account of the history of China. I got through Yuval Noah Harari’s “21 questions for the 21st century” though it took me nearly a full year, and I read an inspiring account of Captain Cook’s life by my namesake Richard Hough. Anthony Beevor tells us, in his account of the Battle of the Bulge, about a certain Sergeant Salinger, who managed to write short stories whilst in the winter trenches in the Ardennes – this was before his big break with “The Catcher in the Rye”.
I re-read Tom Bingham on the Rule of Law, re-read HMS Ulysses, and read a life of Rasputin by Alex de Jonge. Remaining on the Russian side, I read P.S Nazaroff’s “Hunted through central Asia”, and Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The life of a dog”, an anti-soviet allegory whose writing – though not it’s publication – pre-dates “Animal Farm” by 20 years. The Soviets forbade it’s publication; this short and little known work did not appear until the 1960’s.
I’m still reading the official TED guide to public speaking as the year ends. I’m reading Gustav Herling’s GULAG memoir “A world apart”, Sashi Tharoor’s somewhat bitter and twisted “Inglorious empire”, and Muhammed Asaf’s “The road to Mecca”.
Reading should be a pleasure; it should be a distraction. It should entertain and it should inform. One might fall back on old favourites in times of stress. One might also, when feeling strong, test oneself with harder, more challenging material. I leave you with John Martin’s “A raid over Berlin”, an uplifting account of an RAF bomber command flyer’s time as a POW in WWII. Happy new year!

Reflections on a decade of reading

To early morning prayers on the first Saturday of this new month, this year, this new decade: outside, squirrels and magpies go about their winter business. As the day dawns, the exquisite light cheapens and becomes more banal, less delicate.

And now a look back at some of my reading over the last ten years. I have – at least according to my own records – read 491 books. Of those books, 349 I read for the first time: the rest, were books I have read before, sometimes once, sometimes more often. Tolkien’s “The Silmarillion” and C.S Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” top the re-read list, followed closely by Tolkien’s “The Children of Hurin” and R.A Heinlein’s “The cat who walks through walls” and “Friday”. Did I re-read any non-fiction? Why yes! I read twice these last ten years, Sebastian Junger’s “War” and Jon E. Lewis’s “The Making of the American West“. Also, Anthony Beevor’s account of the Spanish Civil War, and N.A.M Roger’s history of the Royal Navy, “The Safeguard of the Sea“.

I read two books called “On writing” – one – most excellent work – by Stephen King; the other, by George Orwell. I’ve read every one of Alan Furst’s dozen delicately written European spy novels set generally at the outbreak of World War II.

Alex Scarrow’s “Last light” was an apocalypse based around the end of electricity – how thin is the barrier that keeps the rule of law in place? How quickly could a person – or a society – somehow stumble through that barrier, and find themselves trampled to death by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse coming at a fast gallop in the other direction? In Scarrow’s book – about 48 hours. The Prime Minister fumbles a vital question in a press conference on a Monday morning. Wednesday afternoon, a policeman is shot dead at a motorway roadblock – and so the die-back begins. It was reminiscent of Nevil Shute’s propaganda piece “What happened to the Corbetts“, which was a fictional account written in the late 1930’s, of the bombing and destruction of the city of Southampton by an unknown enemy.

I had a re-read of Antony Beever’s masterful account of the Spanish Civil War – a book I enjoy reading, as he deals very lightly with the grey areas, the nuance and complexity of that conflict. I read a paper copy of the collected short stories of Arthur C. Clarke – always a pleasure to re-read the story of the Master, or the story of Grant and McNeil marooned on their freighter between Earth and Venus – with only enough air for one. I read and re-read Bill Bryson’s book “Mother tongue” about our great language. I was particularly impressed with “The man who went into the west“, being a biography of that sublime and yet oddly disquieting English poet, R.S Thomas. A clergyman who hid from his parishioners, a most peculiar and perhaps unlovable man, and yet, what poetry:

 The priest would come
and pull on the hoarse bell nobody
heard, and enter that place
of darkness, sour with the mould
of the years. And the spider would run
from the chalice, and the wine lie
there for a time, cold and unwanted
by all but he, while the candles
guttered as the wind picked
at the roof.

I read a number of China Mieville novels, and was most impressed by “Embassytown“, a story where the human ambassadors to a race of beings who speak with two mouths, have to be telepathic identical twins trained from birth. A very strange story – but fundamentally, all about language and communication. I read a couple of the memoirs of the late Clive James – what a writer, what a great guy. There are and have been few role models in my life, but God knows I’d regard him as one. Inspiring to me because he came from nothing. In “Unreliable memoirs” he writes of small boys throwing stones at an old lady, and compares it with Kristallnacht, noting that “the difference between mischief and murder is no greater than the law allows“.

I went through a Dennis Wheatley phase, once his material became available on Kindle, and relived some of the stories I first read in my early twenties. Evan Connell’s “Son of the morning star” was a biography of General Custer – and hence, of the development of the American west. That is a particular historical interest of mine. F.A Hayek wrote “The Road to serfdom” – a destruction of the errors of socialism – and perhaps the most influential book I’ve read this last ten years. Though oddly, it did not stand up (or has not yet done so) to re-reading.

I went through a Bond period and re-read much of Fleming’s original 007 stories. Great, spare writing. I also read a good few of Iain Banks space-opera novels, and also his de facto autobiography called “Raw Spirit” which I found encouraging. I read some of Keith Laumer’s science fiction stories, and Lord Moran’s excellent “The anatomy of courage” which every single one of us ought read. I read the journal of the Lewis and Clark expedition- that was long and tedious in places, but rivetting and exciting in others. Neal Stephenson’s work was a blessing to me – particularly “Cryptonomicon” and “The System of the World“. Nevil Shute’s “In the wet” I’d also highly recommend. I’ve mentioned elsewhere the radical and strange voting system he proposes in that story.

Who else is there to mention? Kipling, perhaps. I went through a Kipling phase after one of my daughters spent time at Simla, and later, lived for a year or so near New Delhi. “Plain tales from the hills” demonstrates that astute observer of the human condition in his best form. “Kim” I would put on the list of books everyone ought to read. Two interesting things about Kipling’s “Kim”: 1) it is available extensively in translation throughout India – but it is not available in Urdu and hence not available at all in Pakistan – where much of the story is set. I leave the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about that. 2) It is not so much the startng point of the Scout movement – that would be B.P’s “Scouting for Boys” – as the grandfather or underlying source material for Scouting. You want to understand what Scouting is about? Read “Kim”.

We may add the former astronaut Stephen Baxter. Whilst no crackerjack conspiracy theorist, he suggests that NASA exists not to faciliate human space flight but to prevent it – we could have gone to Mars in the 1980’s. I recommend “Flood” and “Ark” and especially “Moonseed” with a character whose immortal line is – after Arthur’s Seat becomes once again an active volcano – “Edinburgh is Olympus Mons now”. Also the learned Doctor Theodore Dalrymple. Never less than a pleasure – such works as “The politics and culture of decline” and “The Wilder shores of Marx”.

Tom Bingham wrote “The rule of law”, a helpful book on a vital concept. It is a book I bought and read after an oddly encouraging visit to Parliament which my wife and I won in a raffle. Up for re-reading in these interesting times, is that one. The leather-faced explorer the late Wilfred Thesiger was one of a series of Arabist explorers of the last 150 years. He was effectively guilty of opening the flood gates and allowing the desecration by oil companies of the Rubal Khali or Empty Quarter of Arabia. But he writes wonderfully of the (now doubtless long-vanished) desert Bedu. Read his autobiography “My life and travels“. Read “Arabian Sands“.

Much that perhaps ought to be included has been omitted. But I just read a book called “Steal like an artist” by Austin Kleon, and he notes that the future, in the present world where we are swamped by easily available data and information, belongs to those who know what to leave out. It was perhaps ever thus…and on that note, I bid you good day.

Nick Hough <nick@houghlife.com>Fri, 3 Jan, 18:46