I’ve read a lot this year, 140 books to date, but annoyingly little that was outstandingly good. I’m finding non-fiction a far much more reliable good read, though its still hard to beat a great work of fiction. Here are my top picks…
Top ten non-fiction
1. Why The West Rules – For Now by Ian Morris
An absolute tour de force of world history, economics and social studies, reminiscent of Jared Dimond’s brilliant Guns, Germs and Steel, though if anything this is even broader in scope, and richer in detail and interest. It attempts to answer why the West has generally, though not for some pretty significant periods of history, been more developed than the East.
2. Tramping : A New Zealand History by Shaun Barnett & Chris Maclean
I had to pace myself reading this as I enjoyed it so much, my daily treat was to read a chapter or two before bed. A definite, and beautifully presented, history of the classic New Zealand pastime (better known as hiking or trekking elsewhere).
3. Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story : A Life Of David Foster Wallace by D.T. Max
A beautifully written and moving biography of acclaimed novelist David Foster Wallace, who took his own life in 2008. Despite being deeply melancholic I couldn’t put this down, a hauntingly powerful read.
4. Double Down by John Heilemann & Mark Halperin
A fascinating behind the scenes account of the 2012 US Presidential election, shedding new light on the turmoil within the Republican Party desperate to enlist anyone but Mitt Romney, and Obama’s debate meltdowns.
5. The Last Train to Zona Verde by Paul Theroux
Probably the last travel book by one of the greatest travel writers of the modern age, and one of his best as he travels from South Africa to Angola. As usual he has a mostly miserable, if entertaining to read about, time in Africa, much as in Dark Star Safari. The final chapters of the book though offer reflection and insight on his career and the concept of travel writing.
6. The Origins Of Political Order by Francis Fukuyama
Part one of an ambitious but successful history of the development of political institutions, far more accessible and readable than this may sound.
7. The Almost Nearly Perfect People : Behind The Myth Of The Scandinavian Utopia by Michael Booth
As someone who has visited much of Scandinavia, and read all the Wallander and Martin Beck books, this was tailor made for my interests, achieving the rare balance of humour with insight.
8. The Isles : A History by Norman Davis
The perfect read for my trip to the UK, full of unexpected and new thinking about my home country, with facts and theories on almost every page challenging what I’d been taught or thought I knew.
9. Africa : Altered States, Ordinary Miracles by Richard Dowden
Despite a misleading quote on the cover this doesn’t paint Africa in a particularly flattering light, despite the best efforts of the author, who has spent a good part of his life travelling around and reporting on the continent.
10. Modern Romance : An Investigation by Aziz Ansari
Essential reading for anyone involved or interested in the modern dating scene, which has transformed as result of technology and people’s changing expectations.
In comparison with my top fiction list this was much more difficult to compile, as I left off some great works by Jon Krakauer, Simon Winchester and more Paul Theroux.
1. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
She’s not very prolific, three books in 21 years, but they’re worth the wait. The Goldfinch may be her best yet (though The Secret History set the bar rather high), an emotionally gripping, beautifully written, compelling story which develops in completely unexpected ways, keeping you engaged through to the satisfying finale.
2. Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? by Dave Eggers
A typically experimental in style (though not enough to distract from the content) work from one of my favourite authors. I read it in one sitting, a rarity, but just couldn’t put it down.
3. Mr Vertigo by Paul Auster
The master of making the extraordinary seem plausible, this may not be his best (hard to beat The New York Trilogy) but this was an enjoyable and gripping read from start to end.
4. Us by David Nicholls
Not particularly deep or intellectually stimulating but just a great, engaging, funny, moving read on how life can turn out.
5. The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis
A return to form after a couple of patchy works, and reminiscent, though not quite as good as Time’s Arrow, taking the Holocaust as it’s subject matter. The usual virtuoso prose is combined with as shocking a narrative as you’d expect, making this a tough but essential read.
Left off the list were the latest from Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, and Haruki Murakami, all of which were good but nowhere near the level of their best work.