The most thought-provoking works to appear in the past year were often passed over by bestsellers lists and literary prizes, writes Stuart Kelly
Each and every year I read far more books than I actually review. I shall not bore you with my thoughts on Colley Cibber’s Life Of Colley Cibber or Lord Dufferin’s Letters From High Latitudes or The Church Of Scotland Yearbook 2018-2019. Nor will I go through who won what, what spats happened or the variously overrated but best-selling books. Instead, as an indulgence to myself, I would like to draw your attention to some books of the past year which you may not have read about, but which you should read. When I thought back over the year, it struck me that this was the year when “unclassifiable” became mainstream.
Charlotte Higgins’ Red Thread is subtitled “On Mazes And Labyrinths” but is much more than that. It takes a nimble thinker to link the ancient stories of the Minotaur to archeological fabrication in the Edwardian era and to Arnold Bennett and the Potteries. Like many of the most interesting books this year, the skewer running through this is the author herself. She writes elegiacally and nostalgically about herself, while experimenting with translating the most significant classical text about the legend. It is a book which is itself a labyrinth and a maze.
Edward Wilson-Lee’s The Catalogue Of Shipwrecked Books is something of a wonder. At its centre is Hernando Columbus, son of the more famous Christopher, and his endeavour to create a universal library. Of course there are parallels with how we store, manage and preserve data in the modern day, but the joy of it is the sheer ebullience of its intelligence. “How does one make a life out of words and paper?” he asks and bravely does not answer. This wide-ranging book about a wide-ranging man takes in cartography, biography (he wrote the first one of his father), botany, bibliography and much more.
The Stopping Places by Damian Le Bas is a mixture of ethnography, memoir and folklore. As someone who grew up in a settled Traveller (or Gypsy, or Romany) community but also went to Oxford, he brings a distinct eye and a cautious wit to exploring the places where his forebears and others would stop rather than travel. The result is an astonishing work of true empathy: where hop-picking and car-wrecking are side by side, where a whole culture exists below the radar of the dominant. I found it extremely moving, and will look out with interest for what he does next.
Ann Wroe, who has previously written on Shelley, Orpheus and the Iran-Contra affair, turned her formidable gifts to the saint of Assisi in Francis: A Life In Songs. It has a remarkable structure. Each chapter begins with quotations from the earliest sources about the life of St Francis, then two poems, one about him and his life and one about the contemporary world, and then an envoi, a seven-line, haiku-like meditation (of which I am sure the saint himself would approve). It is a book which, written by one individual, manages many voices, and is almost choral in its glory. The Francis who emerges is not, in some ways, likeable – but is admirable.
I nearly promised myself not to write anything at all about this year’s biggest story – Brexit, not the cancellation of the Nobel Prize for Literature – but it seems appropriate to acknowledge Why We Get The Wrong Politicians by Isabel Hardman. Reading her forensic analysis of the culture of Westminster makes understanding the current chaos easier. She carefully analyses wealth in terms of how much it takes even to stand for elected office, and more importantly failure, when the voters shrug you off, as well as the catastrophe the toxic climate of late nights and cheap bars creates. The sensitivity towards the prevalence of depression amongst politicians is handled with genuine empathy.
I have spent much of the year re-reading classics: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton. So it was a delight to read Emily Wilson’s translation of Homer’s The Odyssey. It made news for all the wrong reasons, as it is the first translation into English by a woman. It should have made the news because it has a sparkle and wit that most other translations decidedly lack. Even the first line – which translates “polytropos” as “complicated man”, rather than “the man of twists and turns”, or “much travelled”, or “wily” – shows a kind of textured and tensile approach to the original. Most of all it makes it odd again: is Odysseus a hero or a knave, a clever warrior or a snake-tongued rogue?
Brainstorm: Detective Stories From The World Of Neurology by Suzanne O’Sullivan was, as it claimed to be, an exploration into the most complex structure in the universe, the human brain. The stories, and the bafflement, were equally engaging, from a man who sees cartoon characters skittering around to a woman who turns into a “ragdoll” at the thought of moving. Like all the best forms of non-fiction, O’Sullivan is caring towards her subjects while tough upon herself and her fellow colleagues.
A final special mention to Alan Jacobs’ The Year Of Our Lord 1943, a stunning account of how thinkers like TS Eliot, CS Lewis, Jacques Maritain, Simone Weil and WH Auden tried to deal with the experience of war in the fear that the Allies would eventually win against Nazism but lose the peace. The world of books is, like a famous person once said, bigger on the inside.