Literature in 2009
William Crawley on his favourite books of the year
I read many books this year that entertained and even inspired me, but only one that made me want to buy multiple copies and give them to everyone I know. The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better (Allen Lane), by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, was a revelation. We've always known that eradicating income inequality would help the poor, but The Spirit Level demonstrates, cooly and almost clinically, that more equal societies help everyone, rich and poor.
Across a score of indicators - from physical and mental health, to education, to crime levels, to happiness levels, to, well, just about everything - the world's most equal societies are the most successful and the world's least equal are the most deprived. I suspect this will prove to be the most important book published in 2009; and if heeded, it has the potential to change the way we approach social and political life in the future.
I have two favourite history books of the year: Diarmaid McCullough's A History of Christianity (Allen Lane) is, in both senses, monumental. It's a big theme and a massive book, but McCullough is a master storyteller with an encyclopedic knowledge of his subject and an impish sense of wit; the result is extraordinary.
My other history selection is The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (HarperPress) by Richard Holmes. Expect to be transported to the 18th and 19th centuries to encounter some of the most colourful figures in the history of modern science engaged in a passionate, obsessive quest for knowledge. And plan to do nothing else until you've finished the book.
My biography of the year is William Golding: The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies by John Carey (Faber and Faber). Golding's life would be fascinating in the hands of most decent biographers; add John Carey to the mix and the result is a model of literary biography.
My novel of the year is Colm Tóibín's Brooklyn - but then it seems to be everyone's novel of the year. Suffice to say, everything you have read about this stunning literary performance is true.
Susan Neiman's Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists (The Bodley Head) is my philosophy pick of the year. Postmodernism may seem to have won the hearts of most intellectuals, but Neiman makes a powerful argument for restored faith in the Enlightenment project. And she writes with brilliant clarity about the values lurking behind the ideas we all talk about but often fail to acknowledge.
I broke the habit of a lifetime and read a graphic novel this year. The multiple creators of Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth (Bloomsbury) introduce us to the philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell, his complex personal story, his even more complex friends (from Frege to Wittgenstein), and his lifelong fear of insanity. They perhaps overstate Russell's efforts to bring mathematical rigour to the task of philosophy as psychological redirection, but this glorified comic is nevertheless a magnificent achievement.
2009 has given us some terrific poetry, but the book I will remember most from this year is Chris Agee's Next to Nothing (Salt Publishing). A profoundly personal response to the death of Agee's four-year-old daughter in 2001, Agee's sparse, careful, disciplined word-choices unite technical brilliance with emotional intensity; the work echoes with a sense of loss, but it is anything but Nothing. In fact, I think, Next to Nothing bears close comparison, in both subject-matter and execution, to CS Lewis's A Grief Observed.