Some big, impressive books this year, hard on the wrist but stimulating. Consilience (Little, Brown, £18.99) by Edward O Wilson does more than keep the Darwinian debate going. It moves it along with gusto. Plenty to argue with, but ideas not to miss. Dark Continent: Europe's 20th century by Mark Mazower (Allen Lane, £20) is a fascinating and detailed examination of our century, whose history offers new and perceptive insights. Early Visions, the first volume in Richard Holmes's fine biography of Coleridge, made me as keen on its subject as his biographer is. Now the second volume, Coleridge: darker reflections (HarperCollins, £19.99), confirms Coleridge's stature and renews our interest in his work.
Ethel and Ernest (Jonathan Cape, £14.99) by Raymond Briggs is the only book this year that moved me to tears: a simple idea (the story of Briggs's parents' marriage), executed with artistry and truthfulness. It deserves to be a huge Christmas best-seller. The Treatment (Faber & Faber, £9.99) by Daniel Menaker made me laugh out loud. It milks psychoanalysis for all its comic possibilities, then deepens into something graver than satire. Russell Celyn Jones's The Eros Hunter (Abacus, £9.99) is a terrific contemporary thriller, a fast, funny, merciless probing of male anxieties about fatherhood and the modern family.
Richard Holmes's Coleridge: darker reflections is an emotionally rich, wise and compassionate portrait of the second half of the poet's life. The rocket may be falling from the sky, but it still has a few more pyrotechnic sparkles to shoot out. Darker passages, like the bitter falling-out with Wordsworth, contrast with the heroically supportive patrons Coleridge found in later life. The story of Claire Tomalin's discovery, in an Italian palazzo, of Maurice, or the Fisher's Cot (Viking, £9.99), an unpublished Mary Shelley tale, is more romantic even than the text itself. Tomalin's critical apparatus is delectable. Pat Barker's Another World (Viking, £16.99) was one of the most striking novels of the year, combining bitter dialogue, judicious supernatural effects and wisdom. The publication of Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters (Faber & Faber, £14.99) was the literary event of the year. I think time will judge it to be more self-serving than it seems now, but a good dozen of its poems are brilliant.
The most absorbing (and sobering) book I read was Peter Hart's The IRA and its Enemies: violence and community in Cork 1916-21 (Oxford University Press, £40). Using an astonishing range of sources Hart reconstructs Cork society 80 years ago, anatomising Black- and-Tan outrages, IRA ambushes and tit-for-tat killings, and registering the sinister pulse of a subdued but implacable intercommunal antagonism. Hart writes with sensitivity, sociological insight and, when necessary, controlled passion. Above all, he records how selective memory fixes celebrated (or traumatic) events into a rigid framework that often diverges sharply from the actual context of time. An instant classic.
The work of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath is hemmed in by the excoriation and apotheosis that followed her death. Hughes's Birthday Letters goes beyond this to describe more broadly what people do to each other and what poetry does to those who write it. These unflinching narratives gather up the incidentals of each irrevocable moment and then spring like a trap. Given how the world blamed Hughes, this is his most generous gift to us. How sad that it is to be his last. Gwyneth Lewis's Zero Gravity (Bloodaxe, £6.95) follows the trajectories of a space shuttle, a comet and a death. These plain-speaking, freely imaginative, intricately formed poems dispense with metaphysical glitter and science's grand facades to get to the heart of the matter.
Serious history is making a comeback and, although not everyone's choice for the Christmas stocking, the first volume of Ian Kershaw's magnificent biography of Hitler, Hubris: 1889-1936 (Allen Lane, £20), is one of the great books of the year. I also enjoyed Alan Clark's The Tories: Conservatives and the nation state 1922-97 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20), much of which, in the skilled hands of a participant-observer, is sheer delight, even for Labour supporters. The publisher Serpent's Tail deserves a special prize for recovering one of the great Latin American novels of the century, Roberto Arlt's The Seven Madmen (£9.99), first published in 1929, which casts a powerful beam on the seedground of third world fascism.
Under one of his many literary aliases, the great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa produced a fictional biography, The Book of Disquietude (Carcanet, £9.95; translated by Richard Zenith). One of the novels by this year's winner of the Nobel prize for literature, Jose Saramago's The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (Harvest, £6.99; translated by Giovanni Pontiero), concerns another of Pessoa's invented personae and his conversations with the ghost of his creator. Both books are inexhaustibly curious, sad and delightful.
The Rt Revd Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford
In Laughter at the Foot of the Cross (Allen Lane, £30), Michael Screech explores the ambiguities and profundities of laughter when faced by evil and suffering. Suffering is also present, as well as humour, in Iris: a memory of Iris Murdoch (Duckworth, £16.95) by her husband, John Bayley. For those who are aware of the utter insignificance of an individual life but at the same time are haunted by the possibility that we might be of infinite value, The Silence of Divine Love (DLT, £9.95) by Brendan Smith does justice to both aspects. Jon Stallworthy's Singing School: the making of a poet (John Murray, £16.99) is an engaging autobiography, which coincides with the publication of his Rounding the Horn: collected poems (Carcanet, £14.95). Why has he not been mentioned for the laureateship?
I was impressed by Mark Mazower's Dark Continent. Anyone who still thinks of the history of Europe as the triumph of liberalism and democracy should read this sombre survey of 20th-century Europe as the cradle of barbarity. Edward Luttwak's Turbo Capitalism: winners and losers in the global economy (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12) is a look at what globalisation does by someone with an original mind and a sense of black humour who keeps his eyes wide open. Strongly recommended as holiday reading for cabinet ministers. In The Corrosion of Character: the personal consequences of work in the new capitalism (W W Norton, £14.95), Richard Sennett shows what happens to people in an economy which systematically destroys what has given meaning to human life. This beautiful and moving book by one of our finest sociologists describes, explains and warns Europe against following the road already taken by the US and, perhaps not quite so irreversibly, by Britain.
The three books that most impressed me are all American - not surprising since I spent a lot of my time reading and writing about the United States. Who else but Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan could turn a committee report on what to do about the billions of over-classified documents clogging up Washington into such a compelling essay? His Secrecy (Yale University Press, £15) begins with an insight, that "secrecy is a form of regulation", and ends with a judgement: secrecy is for losers. Tamar Jacoby's book about what's happened to race since the civil rights movement in New York, Detroit and Atlanta, Someone Else's House, (Free Press, US$30) is (mainly) depressing but will become a classic. Bill Bundy's elegant unravelling of A Tangled Web (I B Tauris, £24.50) says what I've been waiting 26 years for someone other than myself to say: that Watergate grew directly out of Nixon's and Henry Kissinger's solution to Vietnam: lie about it.
I tend to enjoy most of the books I have not been sent for review, so my list is topped by Archangel by Robert Harris (Hutchinson, £16.99), followed by Buster's Diaries as told by Roy Hattersley (Little, Brown, £9.99) and - just to demonstrate that not all my off-duty moments are spent frivolously - Isaiah Berlin: a life by Michael Ignatieff (Chatto & Windus, £20).
This has been a better year for non-fiction than for novels, and if you believe V S Naipaul that will be true of every year hereafter: the literary novel, according to Naipaul, has done its great work and is now kept alive only by the life-support systems - marketing, publicity - of the publishing trade. I enjoyed and admired his Beyond Belief: Islamic excursions among the converted peoples (Little, Brown, £20). This is his 23rd book and, though it isn't his best, it contains long stretches of beautifully expressed observation and thought (sometimes prescient - about, for example, Indonesia). A scandal that he hasn't won the Nobel prize.
"It is given to few men to kill two major poets," according to Lord Byron's Jackal: a life of Edward John Trelawny by David Crane (HarperCollins, £19.99). Trelawny was a dangerous member of the Byron-Shelley circle. Demonically energetic, madly handsome and a congenital liar, his bravery in the war for Greek independence silences criticism. Crane is scarcely less courageous, a scholar who left his study to scramble up precipitous Parnassian slopes in his subject's footsteps. A study of the revolutionary spirit, and biography as real discovery - I loved this book. Deja Dead by Kathy Reichs (Arrow, £5.99) is a murder thriller set in Quebec. Grisly forensics, tough-but-believable female narrator, 500 unputdownable pages of gripping tension - what "literary" fiction offers as much?
Philip Gould's appalling The Unfinished Revolution (Little, Brown, £16.99) - a hubristic and vainglorious account of the packaging and marketing of new Labour by the prince of the focus group - is the stuff of political nightmares. In the Gould vision, power is all and victory self-justifying. Democratic politics has been reduced to an elaborate farce, in which politicians play back to the voters what they know the voters want to hear. The only difference between new and old Labour is that the former are more effective tribalists than the latter. But with all its horrors, the book is a must for anyone interested in politics. It may not be an accurate description of 1990s politics, but there is no doubt that it is an awful warning. Michael Ignatieff's Isaiah Berlin is a marvellous antidote - wise, warm, elegant and civilised. It is also an antidote to the cultural self-hatred characteristic of this dismal decade.The culture that produced and honoured Berlin can't be all bad. In the age of the people's princess, it is worth clinging to that thought.
Tom Paulin's The Day-Star of Liberty (Faber & Faber, £22.50) made me look at Hazlitt afresh, reflect on the place of painting in his life and go back to his writing - committed, pithy, pointed. Hazlitt was captivated by the young Coleridge and despaired of the old Coleridge. Richard Holmes's Coleridge: darker reflections understands, explains, feels boundless sympathy for young and old: a great life, a warm, witty work of art in its own right and a grenade lobbed at the battalions of hack biographers. Ian McEwan's Amsterdam (Jonathan Cape, £14.99) was a wonderful read and, whatever the doomsters say, a worthy Booker winner: funny, astute, sharp-eyed satire. And how delightful that a former foreign secretary should hand over the prize, to applause from all the George Lanes and Vernon Hallidays in the audience.
First, a confession: I have not read a lot this year. But from what I have read I recommend William Boyd's Armadillo (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99). Boyd is a beautiful writer, a pleasure to read. This account of the life of a loss adjuster makes you fully feel his hopes and his pain. Boyd sucks you into the scenes he describes and makes you experience them for yourself far more than most writers. Seamus Deane's collection of short stories, Reading in the Dark (Vintage, £6.99), is tough but definitely worth the effort: very moving and brilliantly written. Finally, I think anything by Patricia Cornwell, Ruth Rendell, Sarah Paretsky, John Grisham or John le Carre is worth reading.
For me, Isaiah Berlin: a life by Michael Ignatieff does full justice to one of this century's great men, who wrote: "We are doomed to choose, and every choice may entail an irreparable loss." Sebastian Faulks' Charlotte Gray (Hutchinson, £16.99), set in Vichy, has the charm of Birdsong but a greater relevance for those of us who are always trying to understand the French. In bold words, General Sir Michael Rose in Fighting for Peace (Harvill, £18) goes a long way towards restoring confidence in the UN so comprehensively scapegoated by the Clinton administration. An anthology of Favourite Prayers, compiled by Deborah Cassidi (Cassell, £9.99), is a gem.
Prime ministers, like policemen, are getting younger all the time. Alan Watkins, doyen of political columnists, provides a fascinating route-map to the top in The Road to Number Ten (Duckworth, £25) - a must for the Christmas stockings of budding Wilsons, Blairs and Hagues. One traditional way is via the house next door - a point brought out in Roy Jenkins' elegant The Chancellors (Macmillan, £25), suitable for would-be Browns. This collection of sketches of office-holders from Randolph Churchill to Hugh Dalton reflects the author's personal experience, and keeps returning to the often fraught relationship between the two leading members of the government.
A good year for biographies. Richard Holmes's Coleridge: darker reflections is as engrossing as the first volume was enchanting, in a more melancholy key, but full of rich writing and extraordinary characters. Michael Ignatieff's Isaiah Berlin: a life is another remarkable achievement, managing to convey the wit and vitality of the man as if he were talking through the book, while providing a serious analysis of his thinking. And Orlando Figes' A People's Tragedy (Jonathan Cape, £25), about the Russian revolution up to 1924, is a masterpiece of historical writing, telling the political story with verve and scholarship while interweaving Russian writers to give a wider perspective.
Propagandists for science and faint-hearted romantics who still see science as somewhat neutral and value-free should avoid Sandra Harding's Is Science Multicultural? (Indiana University Press, £11.99). Harding, a real scholar who does not take any prisoners, argues that science is culturally situated and provides some really original arguments for fresh thinking on objectivity. John Reader's Africa: a biography of the continent (Penguin, £14.99) does a similar job on African history. Almost everything we know about how to be human, including how to live peacefully together without nation states, we have learnt from Africa, says Reader. While Europe dubbed Africa the "dark continent", it saw the Ottomans as its "darkest enemy". In Lords of the Horizons (Chatto & Windus, £18.99), John Goodwin provides a vivid account of the history and achievements of the Ottoman empire. They kept the light of civilisation burning, it turns out, for some 600 years.
Charles Tomlinson's Selected Poems (Oxford University Press, £11.99) had two equal and opposite effects: quiet, lyrical, at rest in a landscape while fully aware of all that is gathering to destroy it. It also contains what is surely the finest description of hay in the English language. I was impressed, as always, by Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan, and also by A N Wilson's novel Dream Children (John Murray, £15.99), which shows so clearly that, in an age of sexual liberation, there are no defences against paedophilia. And Irvine Welsh's Filth (Jonathan Cape, £9.99) deserves some kind of notice, if only because bad writing about loathsome people doing evil things is so rarely correctly described - namely, as filth.
I would like to offer up my books of the year but unfortunately, since last month when he sent me a copy, I have belonged to Ralph Steadman's collection of his inestimable artwork, Gonzo: the art (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25). I wanted to recommend graphic work by David Shrigley, Why We Got the Sack from the Museum (Redstone Press, £9.95), and Graham Rawle's Diary of an Amateur Photographer (Picador, £14.95), but this has not been possible since every time I move, Gonzo: the art clubs me round the head.
D J Taylor
I've admired Alan Watkins' political commentaries ever since coming across them as a schoolboy, and The Road to Number Ten offered the usual mix of shrewd analysis and ripe anecdote. Watkins ought now to update Brief Lives, his penetrating collection of profiles which is a decade and a half old. Mark Amory's Lord Berners (Chatto & Windus, £20) illuminated many areas of bygone upper-class cultural life while giving substance to a figure all too easily written off as a moneyed trifler. Justin Cartwright's novel Leading the Cheers (Sceptre, £16.99) rekindled some of the Anglo-American themes of his earlier Look at it This Way (1990; Pan, £5.99) to scintillating effect.
Three fat jobs - it takes almost a year to read them. Don DeLillo's Underworld (Picador, £18), like most big novels, languishes a little in the middle, but its prose keeps you going regardless of the plot. Peter Conrad's Modern Times, Modern Places (Thames & Hudson, £24.95), like the century he describes, has no plot. And David Landes' The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (Little, Brown, £20): "My aim is to do world history," says the author, a Harvard professor, with the modesty of his calling. But he really does it.
An easy choice after the long-awaited arrival of The Complete Works of George Orwell (Secker & Warburg, 20 vols, £750 - I bought at a discount). John Carey's question about Shaw - "He was a great something, but a great what?" - also applies to Orwell. He wasn't a great novelist, but he was a truly great writer, a towering literary, political and moral critic. The author of Down and Out in Paris and London would have liked the latest posthumous collection of Richard Cobb's essays, Paris and Elsewhere (edited by David Gilmour, John Murray, £20). And as the scourge of Stalinism, Orwell would also have enjoyed Archangel, Robert Harris's stimulating thriller-with-attitude about Stalin's legacy.
A N Wilson
The first volume of Ian Kershaw's life of Hitler, Hubris: 1889-1936 is undoubtedly the most fascinating book I have read this year. The story of how a penniless, opera-crazed Austrian drop-out came to replace Field Marshal von Hindenburg as the leader of Germany and transform it into a Fuhrer-worshipping, National Socialist state is compulsive reading. His analysis of Hitler's extraordinary character has the fascination of a novel; but he places his struggle and rise in the context of meticulously researched history. As Kershaw demonstrates in page after page, Hitler's success was less a triumph of the will (as he called it himself), and more a matter of luck (for him) and the fervent longing of huge numbers of Germans for just such a leader. Deeply disturbing. Unforgettable.
The Hungarian-American historian John Lukacs is little known in Britain, particularly on the left. His latest work, A Thread of Years (Yale University Press, £19.95), is so original and evocative, however, that I can recommend it for all political tastes. It is a history of the years 1901-69, with each year given a separate chapter, including a vignette of an imagined conversation which perfectly illustrates the climate of that period. Roger Scruton's On Hunting (Yellow Jersey Press, £10) is a little classic - a cross between Surtees, Nietzsche and Anna Sewell's Black Beauty. Another of this most prolific author's three works this year, The Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture (Duckworth, £12.95), is also outstanding. It is time Scruton was recognised as a major writer who transcends the political and ideological divide. I learnt much, too, from Mark Mazower's Dark Continent. Particularly interesting was his reminder of what happened to Italy and Germany, whose leaders also sought to put them through a modernising process.