If you’re looking for beautiful writing and love history, I recommend Jill Lepore’s If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future. Don’t be intimidated by the title; I’d never heard of Simulmatics either, but this short-lived company, created in 1959 and bankrupt by 1970, mined data and tried to predict election outcomes (sound familiar?). This is a lovely read that takes you through a history of American politics and campaigning, cold war intrigue and artificial intelligence.
FT contributing editor
The most memorable read for me this year was a re-read: Stephen J Pyne’s The Ice: A Journey to Antarctica (1986), a stupendous synthesis of natural and cultural history, scientifically learned but poetically intense and — before the ice calving got really ominous — brimming with implications for how we understand and engage with our planet, even at its polar extremes. For those of you who think the ice continent doesn’t have a human history, this book will tell you otherwise, from explorations through art, literature and even politics. It’s among the most beautiful of all books about the fate of the earth, and its glimmering opening (“It appears out of the fog and low clouds like a white comet in the twilight”) is just a hint of the majestic illumination of the next 400 pages.
FT SCIENCE COMMENTATOR
Can a more prescient book than The Rules of Contagion: Why Things Spread — and Why They Stop have been published this year? Just as we were grappling to understand new terms like reproduction number and herd immunity, along comes a top biostatistican able to explain it all with simplicity and finesse. Adam Kucharski is lucid on how bad ideas seem similarly infectious and how we might “vaccinate” against viral misinformation.
FT WEEKEND EDITOR
I cannot be alone in having read more books in 2020 than in any one year in several decades. Yet counter-intuitively I have found choosing my highlights this year easier than ever. Five months on, I am still haunted by the language, tone, emotion and raw power of Hamnet. It is surely Maggie O’Farrell’s greatest novel to date — and in quite a field. An account of the death of Shakespeare’s young son to the plague, it is unfathomably sad, wrenching for its insights into a mother’s grief and more, and utterly of this moment. I can still hear and see the young Hamnet racing through his empty home shortly before he succumbs — and you want to weep at the agony of the parents’ different responses to the tragedy.
As for non-fiction, again I have a standout winner: Jack Fairweather’s The Volunteer. It is the story of a Polish army officer who infiltrates Auschwitz soon after the German invasion of Poland, determined to expose the Nazis’ crimes. It is a remarkable feat of reporting on an extraordinary story.
NOVELIST AND POET
One book that gave me a lot of pleasure this year was Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, by Alex Ross. It is a vast tome on the multi-dimensional effect of Wagner’s music on the world. This music was like the conquest of the world’s soul and it left its imprint on the art and culture and politics of our times. The English novel, French literature, American architecture, fashion, royalty, the arts and craft movement, and all manner of unsuspected things were in some manner altered because that controversial figure pursued his artistic dream with such astonishing singularity. This is simply one of the most replete books on the subject, so rich that I am not allowing myself to finish it, that I may still have the strange complex world of Wagner’s works to read about as the virus casts its dark light in the end of the year. I must also make a special mention of Bernardine Evaristo who has had a sterling year as Booker winner.
EXECUTIVE CHAIRMAN, SANTANDER
Anyone trying to reinvent a “legacy” business should read Humanocracy: Creating Organizations as Amazing as the People Inside Them. The theory is not groundbreaking, but Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini set out a practical view on how to address the transformation challenges many companies are dealing with. Two key takeaways for me: “Attitude is no substitute for competence” and “bureaucracy is evil”. But most of all, Humanocracy highlights a lesson that has never been more important: businesses are all about people, and the more human we make them, the better.
Frank Ramsey translated Wittgenstein’s Tractatus while still an undergraduate, made revolutionary contributions to philosophy, mathematics, economics and probability theory, and then died aged 26 — possibly the greatest loss to British intellectual life in the past century. He was also deeply human — a huge and gentle tennis-playing man with a “hippopotamus-laugh”. He finally has a proper biography in Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers, brilliantly researched and written by Cheryl Misak: a book that’s big enough to match the man, covering everything from his philosophy to his psychoanalysis, his disputes with Keynes to his open marriage. Simply riveting.
OUTGOING CBI DIRECTOR-GENERAL
As a fan of The Handmaid’s Tale, it was with trepidation that I embarked on Margaret Atwood’s sequel, The Testaments, but I was very glad I did. It continues to paint a dystopian world where women exist only for procreation and the clock turns back on US history in a too-close-to-truth way (timely themes when the book was published last year, and perhaps all the more relevant today). But evil characters redeem themselves and it does end on a note of hope — rather like 2020 itself. A wonderful book for our times.
The Torlonia Marbles are one of the greatest collections of Greco-Roman sculpture in the world (over 600 pieces, from a long line-up of severe Roman emperors to a clutch of languid Venuses and imposing Minervas). Closed to the public for decades, and languishing in a former granary in Rome, almost 100 highlights have recently been put on show in a special exhibition at the Capitoline Museums. Sadly this is currently off limits for most of us, but a splendid catalogue — The Torlonia Marbles: Collecting Masterpieces, edited by Salvatore Settis and Carlo Gasparri — available in English is a decent substitute.
PIMCO chief executive
Phil Klay, a US Marine veteran, published in 2014 an amazing collection of short stories called Redeployment. His new novel Missionaries is a cross between a Don DeLillo novel and Tim O’Brien. It is a reflection on US involvement in a difficult region with all of its moral complexities.
FT GLOBAL BUSINESS COLUMNIST
We live in a cognitive meritocracy in which IQ and test scores are valued much more highly than emotional intelligence or most physical abilities. We are all the poorer for it, according to David Goodhart in Head, Hand, Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century, which lays out a persuasive case that our society’s over-rewarding of “knowledge workers” relative to anyone else has created a dangerously unbalanced world, both politically and economically. If you want to understand Brexit or heartland populism in the US, read this book.
Tell us what you think
What are your favourites from this list — and what books have we missed? Tell us in the comments below
WRITER AND FORMER CABINET MINISTER
James Rebanks sketches through his family farm the evolution (and near destruction) of British agriculture in English Pastoral: An Inheritance. He writes as a naturalist (attentive to the leg of a gull), as a child (in love with the elusive profundity of his grandfather) and as a historian (of the science of agricultural progress). His complex vision of how food, nature, landscape and heritage can be made to coexist is an urgent rebuke to enthusiasts of industrial agriculture and rewilding. But above all this is a piece of good and thoughtful writing.
Nothing like a timeless myth in the hands of a great storyteller to transport you far from this grey Covid-19 year. Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s fresh verse version of a centuries-old Kenyan origin myth tells a creation story unshadowed by biblical guilt. The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gikuyu and Mumbi follows the first man and woman, Gikuyu and Mumbi, and their daughters who match their many suitors in a series of quests. I enjoyed these stirring, feminist adventures balanced by deep contemplations on creation, time, love and twists of fate — perfect for reading aloud to a captive audience of fellow pandemic prisoners.
Maria Konnikova gave up academic psychology to become a writer, and it was a good choice: her storytelling is beautiful. She cranks the jeopardy up a notch in The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Take Control and Master the Odds by deciding to seek wisdom at the card table by becoming a high-stakes poker player. With a champion as her coach, and a head full of insights from academic psychology, she feels that she is in with a shout — but poker is a cruel mistress.
FT ARTS EDITOR
It’s not the done thing to choose a book of which I’m the dedicatee: even so, RF Foster’s On Seamus Heaney, which is short but runs deep, was for me the richest food for the spirit in 2020. The great Irish poet’s immersion in a rural idyll riven by sectarian violence, a life that quickly widened from the local into cosmopolitanism and fame, the texture and detail of the poetry itself — all are brilliantly and originally conveyed by a superb historian who never shirks the tricky question of Heaney’s own position.
FT US NATIONAL EDITOR
Angrynomics is that rare pre-Covid-19 manuscript that has been made more relevant by the virus — and now Joe Biden’s coming presidency. In recent years, the toxic sense that people are voiceless and action is futile has paralysed our democracies. This book by Eric Lonergan and Mark Blyth is a rebuke to that “failure of the mind”. If we would only take the trouble to look, many solutions are hidden in plain sight.
NOVELIST AND FT CONTRIBUTOR
I loved Real Life by Brandon Taylor, a first novel that explores a newly bereaved gay black biochemist’s experience of a largely white American campus. Brandon’s rendering of the landscape of human feeling is strikingly precise and poetic. Beautifully written and Booker-shortlisted, the novel is also unexpectedly funny in a rueful way. In the week I read Real Life I carried its hero Wallace with me everywhere, wishing better things for him, better friends specifically. People who were his equals.
FT LITERARY EDITOR
It is way too early for a proper account of Covid-19 and its consequences. But among those who have made a first stab at it, Ivan Krastev is characteristically thought-provoking with Is it Tomorrow Yet?. His short take on the “paradoxes of the pandemic” — from the impact on globalisation and democracy to our sense of “home” and trust — makes for sobering reading, particularly in Europe. Looking to the past, Martyn Rady’s The Habsburgs was a welcome distraction, though some of the themes in his account of the “rise and fall of a world power” proved strangely relevant.
Among the great fiction offerings of recent months, I enjoyed John Banville’s Snow. The setting — provincial 1950s Ireland, fading Anglo-Irish gentility — may appear well-worn; the plot, a classic murder mystery that kicks off with a body in — where else? — the library. Yet, for all this familiarity, it is an atmospheric and piercing tale of social repression, concealed identities, corruption and abuse. Another delight was Jonathan Coe’s Mr Wilder & Me, an account of Billy Wilder’s later years that sweeps beautifully from Hollywood to Greece and London while all the time reflecting on the horrors of 20th-century Europe.
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