As always with these annual roundups, please note that these are the best books I’ve read last year, not the best book published last year, as I never buy new books and so very rarely get my hands on a copy in the year of publication (with one notable exception below). Also, this list should more accurately be called the best non-fiction books I’ve read. I do read some fiction, but it’s less than 10 per cent of my book intake, tends to be middle-brow, and is restricted to just a few favourite authors, hence I don’t feel there is enough there for me to make any meaningful recommendations (though Christos Tsiolkas’ “Damascus”, a non-believer’s poignant retelling of the life of St Paul and those close to him, is very much of note).
With all that in mind, here are the best three books in no particular order, followed by the other 22, also in no particular order:
“Germany: Memories of a Nation” Neil MacGregor (2014)
Bouncing of an exhibition of the same title, this book looks at the history and the culture – the civilization – of Germany and the German people through a series of objects and artefacts. It’s a true and tried trope, but in this case is a hundred times better than MacGregor’s previous “A History of the World in 100 Objects”, which was too scattered and general, trying to be all things to all people. This, by contrast, is an engrossing journey into the very soul of controversial but consequential people. Every other nation should be so lucky to find their MacGregor to perform a similar exercise.
“The Body: A guide for occupants” Bill Bryson (2019)
Forget Bryson the travel writer; Bryson the science populariser is much much better, as his previous “A Short History of Nearly Everything” and “At Home: A Short History of Private Life” demonstrate. I’m not very interested in science, but this book surely deserves its top spot if only on the account of a countless number of utterly fascinating trivia about every part of your body and its functions.
“The Ratline: Love, lies and justice on the trail of a Nazi fugitive” Philippe Sands (2020)
This is a return by Sands to the annual top three, which he previously scored with “East West Street”, a part detective work delving into the fate of his Jewish family caught in the Holocaust, and a part meditation on the intersecting lives of two Jewish legal scholars who gave us the concepts of “crimes against humanity” and “genocide”, all revolving around the city of Lwow. His new book is another journey to uncover the past, this time through the life and crimes – and mysterious death – of one of the perpetrators, Otto von Wachter, the Nazi administrator in Krakow and Lwow. It’s impossible to give this book any justice in a sentence or two.
“Arnhem: The battle for the bridges, 1944” Anthony Beevor (2018)
Beevor’s best book in a while, close to home for me on account of my grandfather’s involvement. Operation Market Garden was a monumental clusterf*** from the moment of inception to its sad end, and yet it very nearly succeeded, thanks to the incredible courage of Allied soldiers. Makes you utterly furious at the quality of military leadership though, once again lions being led by donkeys.
Apropos, Brian Urquhart, the intelligence officer who strenuously opposed the operation, passed away yesterday, aged 101.
“Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain’s Underclass” Darren McGarvey (2017)
McGarvey, addict, rapper, leftie, is one of those very rare people – a member of the underclass with a voice. This is a fascinating look at the life and problems of the poor, without the filter almost always provided by the progressive intelligencia. A sort of a left-wing equivalent of “Hillbilly Elegy”.
“Factfulness: The reasons we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than we think” Dr Hans Rosling with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund (2018)
Every journalist, commentator, scientist, everyone involved in public policy should be required to read this book, be examined on its contents – and, of course, absorb its lessons about numerous cognitive biases that skew our collective view of the world.
“Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade” Adam Minter (2013)
Such an obscure topic, such a fascinating read. We really don’t pay much attention to our rubbish, but there is a whole global industry out there turning trash into treasurer. Minter comes from a family in scrap metal trade, which gives him a great insight to write about the history, evolution and economics of recycling, particularly of metal.
“El Narco: The bloody rise of Mexican drug cartels” Ioan Grillo (2011) and “Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields and the New Politics of Latin America” Ioan Grillo (2016)
A double act from probably the best Western journalist covering the Latin American drug wars on the ground. Hundreds of thousands dead, hundreds of billions of dollars at stake, corruption, cruelty, despair. Depressing but fascinating reading, particularly if you’ve been hooked on “Narcos” or “El Chapo”, like I have been.
“The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam” Douglas Murray (2017)
At what point does Europe cease to be Europe as elites disdain its heritage and welcome mass immigration? Why is Europe the only society in the world where you’re not allowed to worry about and protect your identity and culture? A bit of classic now, in tradition of Christopher Caldwell’s “Reflections on the Revolution in Europe”, Claire Berlinski’s “Menace in Europe” and Bruce Bower’s “Surrender”.
“The Rule of the Clan: What an ancient form of social organization reveals about the future of individual freedom” Mark S Weiner (2013)
Written from a centre-left (American liberal) perspective but nevertheless contains interesting reflections on the legal, social, economic, and political consequences of the fact that the West (and particularly the English-speaking part of it) is shaped by individualism while for most of the rest of the world, a family or a clan are the basic social unit. Partly explains why the developing world is so hard to, well, develop and reform.
“Deep Sea and Foreign Going: Inside shipping, the invisible industry that brings you 90% of everything” Rose George (2013)
In case you didn’t notice (“Junkyard Planet”), I like books that explore those aspects of how our society/economy work we normally take for granted and don’t give much thought, yet without them modern life as we know it would be impossible. Here, George travels on a container cargo ship from the UK to Asia, giving her an opportunity to explore the industry and its people that keep the world going.
“The Mold in Dr Florey’s Coat: The story of the penicillin miracle” Eric Lax (2004)
Another book of popular science done in an accessible and engaging way: the amazing story of how an Australian scientist and his team gave us antibiotics under the most challenging conditions (during the Second World War), saving hundreds of millions of lives over the subsequent eight decades. Unsung heroes.
“Energy: A Human History” Richard Rhodes (2018)
Rhodes has written a lot about nuclear weapons and nuclear energy (he’s very much a proponent of the latter) but “Energy” takes a broader look on how we tried to power our civilization over centuries. It is an exciting journey – the story of how we got unleaded petrol was a page-turner, I kid you not, which is a sign of a very good writer indeed.
“The Roads to Modernity: The British, French and American Enlightenments” Gertrude Himmelfarb (2008)
Don’t let the French monopolise the Enlightenment – there were many others, and the British and the American ones proved vastly superior in practice and consequences.
“Elon Musk: How the billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is shaping our future” Ashlee Vance (2015)
An interesting character to say the least, and now one of the great moguls of the new millennium. Whatever you think of Musk, he certainly stands out among his peers for the sheer breadth and audacity of his vision – the exploration and colonization of space – towards which his every project is just one small step (so to speak).
“Anything Goes: A biography of the Roaring Twenties” Lucy Moore (2008)
What a decade. What a book. A mostly social and cultural history of America a century ago.
“The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus movement became the world’s largest religion” Rodney Stark (2011)
A very interesting and iconoclastic look at the growth of Christianity not through a prism of theology or traditional history but sociology: who, how and why.
“To the end of the Rhine” Bernard Levin (1987)
An oldie but a goodie, a mostly cultural travel from Switzerland to the North Sea, along one of the world’s most interesting rivers. On my bucket list.
“Selling Hitler” Robert Harris (1986)
Probably the most famous fraud in newspaper publishing industry history, Hitler’s purported lost diaries. Harris, who went on to write thrillers (“Fatherland” and so on) wrote a book of reportage that reads like a thriller.
“First to Fight: The Polish War 1939” Roger Moorhouse (2019)
Mind-bogglingly, this is the first book ever about the opening campaign of the Second World War – the German and the Soviet invasions of Poland – written by a historian. The massive lacuna in war bibliography had to wait eight decades to be filled, but it’s been worth the wait.
“White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America” Don Jordan and Michael Walsh (2007)
For a century before America started importing African slaves on a large scale, hundreds of thousands of undesirable Britons (orphans, poor, prisoners, outcasts) have been sold and sent to toil in the New World as bonded labour, de facto slaves often treated worse than de jure slaves of later times.
“Lost Connections: Uncovering the real causes of depression – and the unexpected solution” Johann Hari (2018)
It would be easy to caricature this book as “neoliberalism gives us sads”, but it’s clear that in the rush to blame depression on out-of-whack brain chemistry, we seemed to have forgotten that there are many things about how we live that surely contribute to making us miserable. Pills might help, but those who suffer also badly need to change their circumstances.
“1942: The Year That Tried Men’s Souls” Winston Groom (2005)
The man who created Forrest Gump happens to be a very readable popular military historian. This one is pretty self-explanatory, basically the darkest year for the United States and how the country went from the disaster of Pearl Harbor to the first victories of Midway and Guadalcanal.
“Tip of the Iceberg: Mt 3,000-Mile Journey Around Wild Alaska, the Last Great American Frontier” Mark Adams (2018)
Good travel books make you want to visit places you never previously thought you wanted to visit. Fascinating place full of fascinating characters, but undoubtedly it’s the stark natural beauty that is the main star of the show.