Image: Lori Nix (Library)
Show Hide image

Read all about it: NS Books of the Year 2012

The New Statesman’s friends and contributors choose their favourite books of 2012.

Each year, in November, we ask regular contributors to the Critics pages of the New Statesman, together with other friends of the magazine, to write about their favourite books of year. There are no constraints on what kinds of books they are able to choose, so the results are often intriguing. Consensus is largely elusive, although this year a couple of titles were chosen by several of the participants - What Money Can't Buy, the political philosopher Michael Sandel's assault on the logic of market fundamentalism (the Labour leader Ed Miliband was among those to nominate Sandel) and John Jeremiah Sullivan's essay collection Pulphead.

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

 

Rowan Williams

Two books this year have struck me as overwhelming in different ways. Marian Partington’s If You Sit Very Still (Vala, £15.99) is an account of coming to terms with the most appalling sort of bereavement imaginable: Marian’s sister, Lucy, was abused and murdered by Fred and Rosemary West. Her spiritual journey to a place where it is possible to contemplate all this without hatred or despair is as moving as anything I’ve ever read on such a subject.

Alan Garner’s novel Boneland (Fourth Estate, £16.99), an adult continuation of his children’s fantasies of the 1960s, is a distillation of all that makes Garner such a unique genius – written with intense, spare vividness, terrifying psychological subtlety and the kind of visual imagination that makes everything, from stones to stars, strange.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo:Nationaal Historisch Museum via Creative Commons)

A S Byatt

Jenny Uglow’s The Pinecone (Faber & Faber, £20) is about the language of carving, objects containing ideas. It is the story of Sarah Losh, a north country heiress in the early 19th century, forceful, learned, independent, who built a church full of fascinating images. The tale is mysterious because Uglow worked with almost no manuscript remains and scrupulously invented nothing. She has turned this central silence into a kind of force by describing stones, glass, things constructed, so precisely that they become not exactly alive but strangely present on the page. Their world – business, weather, politics, poets, marriages, deaths – becomes a revenant around them. I don’t know another book that feels quite like this one.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

(Photo: Getty Images)

Ed Miliband

The Fear Index by Robert Harris (Arrow, £7.99) is a great story set in the world of finance about markets being manipulated, how technology has changed financial markets and greed. Entirely fictional, of course. In What Money Can’t Buy: the Moral Limits of Markets (Allen Lane, £20), Michael Sandel makes a powerful argument that applying market values where they don’t belong – whether in government, education, art or personal relations – can corrode our ideas of right and wrong. The book argues that when we don’t observe the boundaries of markets, we corrupt the values we share. I was proud to have Michael at the Labour party conference this year, encouraging delegates to argue and debate. This is a book that can persuade people that the rules of the economy don’t just reflect our values, they help to determine them – and that is a powerful argument for change.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

 

Ali Smith

I think Peter Hobbs is one of the most fearless, most original and most graceful novelists at work right now. His second novel, In the Orchard, the Swallows (Faber & Faber, £10.99), came out quietly at the beginning of the year. A story of impossible and dangerous love across class, politics and hierarchy in Pakistan and about the risks, the importance and the unexpected hospitality in the act of storytelling, it’s even more proof, if we needed it after his striking debut, The Short Day Dying, of his ability to do anything he likes with voice and to treat form with the elegance and resonance that delivers both these novels as contemporary classics.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

Melvyn Bragg

It’s been a very strong year for fiction with some surprising omissions from the Man Book­er Prize longlist. It’s tempting to discuss at least three of the novels I’ve enjoyed but I’d rather concentrate on one – Pat Barker’s Toby’s Room (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99). Barker has steadily built up (beginning with Regeneration) what has a fair chance of turning out to be a great and lasting series of fiction based on the First World War. Toby’s Room can be seen as a companion piece to an earlier novel of hers, Life Class. We’re in the world of art students at the Slade and then the furnace of the trenches. The plot unfurls to a devastating conclusion. It is a very fine piece of work.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

Margaret Drabble

Two memoirs of our time: Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton (Jonathan Cape, £25), an indispensable text that needs no description, and Martin Bernal’s Geography of a Life (Xlibris, £17.99), which rambles through an extraordinary academic career. Chronologically and stylistically chaotic – he ascribes the polished prose of his controversial book Black Athena to the talents of his then editor – it is a mixture of unworldly self-revelation and intellectual perseverance, with a cast that includes his father, J D Bernal, his formidable mother, Margaret Gardiner, Elias Canetti, W H Auden, Jessica Mitford, Noam Chomsky, Eric Hobsbawm, Edward Said and many more. I found it gripping, as I have found his work on Eurocentrism, anti-Semitism and the roots of Greek civilisation. It’s the exemplary tale of a cradle leftist, fighting to the end. Known to students and colleagues as “a pasty-faced Maoist” and “that devil Bernal”, he is at once self-deprecating and utterly confident. Not unlike Salman Rushdie.

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

Ed Balls

One of my earliest childhood memories is reading a sensory storybook with my mum. You could scratch it like a chicken in the yard and smell the lavender as you turned the page. It worked every time! Nigel Slater writes adult versions of those childhood books. And he does it not with texture, potions or even many pictures but simply with words. As you read his descriptive prose – “mild, elusive, savoury yet sweet” – you can just smell that aroma of bay and garlic as the pork shoulder cooks in milk, Italian style. It works every time. This year, I have loved reading Slater’s The Kitchen Diaries II (Fourth Estate, £30). The recipes work. The seasonal chapters are fun. And the writing is just fabulous and so, so aromatic.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: MidnightLounge via Creative Commons)

Tracey Thorn

I loved Zadie Smith’s NW (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99) but it is Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99) – a brilliant psychological thriller of unreliable narrators and shifting sympathies – that has been my book of the year. A married couple, Nick and Amy, take turns to tell their story through diary entries and first-person narrative, after she has mysteriously disappeared. One of them is an idiot, the other a psychopath; it’s up to you to guess which. When it becomes clear, you then have to decide who you’re rooting for and it’s not as clear cut as you might imagine. Among the page-turning plot twists, Flynn makes room for outbursts of feminist invective that will have you punching the air in solidarity, then remembering whose side you’re on. Exhilarating and creepy, it has sent me rushing off to her other novels.
 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

Colm Tóibín

The value of the new edition of The Book of Kells (Thames & Hudson, £60) is not merely in the quality of the illustrations but the lu­cidity of the explanatory texts by Bernard Meehan. Although my ancestors came to Ireland some centuries after its creation and thus I cannot claim credit for it, I bask in pride that we did not destroy this masterpiece of European art. Another key book that helps to explain Ireland, this time in all its dark tragedy, is Atlas of the Great Irish Famine, edited by John Crowley, William J Smyth and Mike Murphy (Cork University Press, £55) – an enormous tome that sets out the scope of contemporary scholarship on the famine. Amos Oz’s How to Cure a Fanatic (Vintage, £3.99) is a very short book compared to the other two but is invaluable because of his wisdom and the passionate nature of his engagement and his sane effort to find the outlines of an agreement in the Middle East.
 

 

 

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

 

Jesse Norman

My book of 2012 is The New Few: or Very British Oligarchy (Simon & Schuster, £18.99) by Ferdinand Mount. It’s short, ironic, beautifully written and infused with a slow-burning anger at how the fat cats have taken over – in finance, in business, in officialdom, in politics. Starting with the parable of William F Aldinger (who was paid £35m over three years by HSBC for selling them a business on which it lost £40bn), the book elegantly dissects the failures of shareholder capitalism, oligarchy and the centralisation and resistance to change of the Whitehall (and euro-) blob. The result is a formidable and distinctively conservative critique of crony capitalism and its political and economic growth factors. Much to agree with, yet more to admire.
 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

 

Richard J Evans

My book of the year is Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (Allen Lane, £30). It’s an enormously engrossing study of the personalities and politics of the many different European states that plunged into the disastrous conflict of the First World War. Clark makes the decision-makers come alive, exposes their personal foibles and ambitions and puts them in the context of an increasingly polarised European states system. He has used almost every national archive in Europe and brings some startling new facts to light. And he focuses far more than most historians do on the violent and unstable political maelstrom of the Balkans, where the fuse that led to August 1914 was lit. Clark has got in early for the centenary commemorations and delivered an original and startlingly revisionist work that all the other studies of the war’s origins that will doubtless appear over the next two years will have to take into account.
 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

 

Alain de Botton

This year, I was touched by Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense (Faber & Faber, £12.99). As a non-Christian, indeed a committed atheist, I was worried about how I’d feel about this book but it pulled off a rare feat: making Christianity seem appealing to those who have no interest in ever being Christians. A number of Christian writers have over the past decade tried to write books defending their faith against the onslaughts of the new atheists – but they’ve generally failed. Spufford understands that the trick isn’t to try to convince the reader that Christianity is true but rather to show why it’s interesting, wise and sometimes consoling.

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Syniq via Creative Commons)

Laura Kuenssberg

To anyone who is fond of a good snooze, the title alone of Sue Townsend’s The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year (Penguin, £7.99) is ample reason to pick it up. Yet the reward is far more than the pleasure of pondering months cocooned in your duvet. The decision of the improbably named Eva Beaver, a middle-aged librarian from Leicester, to take to her bed for many months gives the creator of suburban teen anti-hero Adrian Mole plenty of scope for gags. Yet it stands out not for those (or the tips on how to avoid bed sores) but for the way it explores the entirely terrifying prospect that if you stop and comprehensively examine your life, you might not like what you see. Unexpectedly memorable and enticingly tough.

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

Douglas Alexander

Old friends know you well enough to know the books you’ll love. In September, while at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, David Miliband urged me to read Our Divided Political Heart by the Washington Post columnist E J Dionne Jr (Bloomsbury, £19.99). It was good advice. Dionne argues that the US was forged by both individualistic and communitarian impulses and that today’s polarised disagreements about the country’s future reflect fundamentally different and contradictory accounts of America’s history. Its lucid and insightful plea for a new and more balanced public discourse is one that politicians on both sides of the Atlantic would do well to consider. With its broad historical sweep, Dionne’s book reminds us that today’s politics reflects yesterday’s history. Yet in contemporary America, historical accuracy has too often been the victim of partisan passion. If the public realm is filled simply with shouting, the public will simply retreat further from it. Instead, we need politicians brave enough to level with the public, to be honest about the past and candid about the future. What Our Divided Political Heart expresses eloquently is the simple truth that politics as usual just doesn’t cut it.
 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Jenny Diski

Anakana Schofield’s Malarky (Biblioasis, $19.95) and Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home (Faber & Faber, £7.99) are quite different novels, each with their own notable style and imaginative power. Good new novels are rare and here are two of them. Diana Souhami’s Murder at Wrotham Hill (Quercus, £18.99) is a brilliantly formulated and well-written account of a tawdry murder that shines a bright light on postwar austerity England.
 

 

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

Jon Snow

We continue to live through more than challenging economic times – times in which we begin to wonder if anyone in the financial world actually understands anything at all. Hence my resort to the exceptional Lords of Finance: 1929, the Great Depression and the Bankers Who Broke the World (Windmill Books, £9.99). At times, Liaquat Ahamed’s account of the great crash of the 1920s reads like fiction. More than anything else, he reminds us eloquently how, particularly in banking, history repeats itself. No one, its seems, ever learns.

The death of Eric Hobsbawm provoked me to pick up his wonderful autobiography, Interesting Times: a Twentieth-Century Life (Abacus, £12.99). It is an unexpectedly eclectic, beautifully observed journey through a complex century in which Hobsbawm renders the idea of a great intellectual remaining a communist for 50 years to have been nothing less than normal. Reading this touchingly human book, I learned so much about the history that simply dried up when we were at school.

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

 

Julie Myerson

By far the most intense experience I had as a reader this year was with David Vann’s Dirt (Heinemann, £12.99). Words and ideas seem almost dangerous in his hands and yet his work is full of heart. For me that’s probably the definition of perfection in fiction. Emily Perkins also did something brilliantly and differently boundary-smashing with The Forrests (Bloomsbury, £12.99), an ambitious and unerringly feminine family saga flooded with light and life. Her description of how it feels to get a small child dressed after swimming is still with me months after reading.
 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

 

Simon Heffer

Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (Allen Lane, £30) is the best book I have read this year, or indeed for several years. His depth of scholarship, his power of analysis and his ease of style make me pity other lesser historians who will be traversing this ground before the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War in 2014. In the same league, and almost as good, is Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: the Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 (Allen Lane, £25), which tells how Hitler’s evil was supplanted by Stalin’s, and details the murder, theft and destruction advanced in the name of Stalin’s ideology. All those minded to excuse the late Eric Hobsbawm’s offensive views on this question should read this book. I also learned much from Reflections: the Piano Music of Maurice Ravel by Paul Roberts (Amadeus Press, £22.95), which illuminates some of the most important work of this great composer.
 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

James Wood

Karl Ove Knausgård’s extraordinary book, A Death in the Family (Harvill Secker, £17.99), the first volume of My Struggle, didn’t get the attention in English translation that it deserved. Not quite a memoir but not really a novel either, this account of the Norwegian writer’s struggle to become a writer, and his struggle to remain one while dealing with the blows and joys of life (marriage, children, the death of a distant and alcoholic father) is something more like a long dramatic essay, full of description, philosophy, self-examination and pitiless honesty. It creates room for both the lyrical and the prosaic, the shocking and the banal; there are reflections on experiences as diverse as playing in a rock band, looking at Constable’s drawings, reading Adorno, the passage of time, the disappearance of death from our everyday experience and the grim business of clearing up a deceased father’s empty vodka bottles.

Two novels also stood out: Zadie Smith’s NW (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99) may have an interrupted and sometimes peripatetic form but there are passages of writing about London (long ones: sections and scenes) more vital and achieved than anything else she has written. Like Knausgård, she is a risk-taker, restless with old forms. Patrick McGuinness’s The Last Hundred Days (Seren, £8.99) was published last year but I only got to it this year. It’s a brilliant first novel set in 1989, in the writhing demise of communist Bucharest – dark, immaculately written, bitterly lucid and very gripping.
 

 

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

Joan Bakewell

Seasons in the Sun: the Battle for Britain 1974-1979 by Dominic Sandbrook (Allen Lane, £30) is an enthralling account of turbulent times with detail that is both surprising (the degree of Harold Wilson’s paranoia) and beguiling (punk’s greatest legacy was today’s close-cropped hair). This will stand as the definitive history for a good long time.

Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain by Tom Watson and Martin Hickman (Penguin, £8.99) is a jaw-dropping read charting the way a global media giant infiltrated and influenced our political culture and debased our values. And the story probably isn’t over yet.

In From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg: What You Really Need to Know About the Internet (Quercus, £10.99), John Naughton’s easy journalistic style gives me all the information I sort of knew and facts I hadn’t joined up. He also looks ahead to what might come and offers a timely warning.
 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

Mark Damazer

Michael Sandel’s jargon-free and witty What Money Can’t Buy: the Moral Limits of Markets (Allen Lane, £20) corrals examples of how we have allowed the language of difficult moral choice to be crowded out by the apparently neutral mechanism of money. Sandel recognises that markets are often the best way to allocate resources but points to areas where the creation of new markets has had unpalatable consequences for fairness and solidarity. His case studies touch on queuing, health care, insurance, advertising and much else. They are often laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes disturbing and always thought-provoking.

I discovered The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth (Granta Books, £9.99) 80 years after its publication. It is a fantastic evocation of the Austro-Hungarian empire heading towards defeat and collapse. It spans three generations of Austrian male officialdom, and both describes and penetrates the traditions and mores of a society in gentle decay. This is a beautiful novel that does not rely on fireworks to achieve its impact. Roth’s portrayal of the buttoned-up Trotta family is unflinching but he leaves you with sympathy for many of his characters – including Emperor Franz Joseph himself.
 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

John Gray

Ray Monk’s Inside the Centre: the Life of J Robert Oppenheimer (Jonathan Cape, £30), does what nothing so far written on the enigmatic physicist has attempted: integrating into a seamless whole a profound inquiry into the formative influences on Oppenheimer’s character, a definitive account of his complex role in the development of the atomic bomb and a penetrating analysis of the philosophical implications of the new physics. It is not just a great biography but a powerful work of art.

Will Self’s Umbrella (Bloomsbury, £18.99) has been hailed as a brilliant exercise in high modernism, and so it is; but it is also a superbly realised exemplar of an older and rarer genre – a metaphysical novel in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, exploring the evanescence of consciousness in a material world that can never be finally understood.
 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

David Willetts

I was fortunate to chair the panel for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction this year. The worthy winner was Into the Silence: the Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest (Vintage, £12.99) by the Canadian Wade Davis, which sheds new light on history that we thought we knew. It is meticulously detailed and very readable. During the judging process I was struck by how many excellent English-language writers there are at the moment.

Another book that left a deep impression was Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature: a History of Violence and Humanity (Penguin, £12.99). It is an optimistic take on the human condition that shows we are less likely to die at someone else’s hands than ever before.

Donavan Hohn’s Moby-Duck (Union Books, £8.99) had the best title. It is the story of 29,000 rubber ducks that fell off a container ship while making its way from China to the US. By the end, this seemingly narrow story had encompassed geography, science and business.
 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

 

Ruth Padel

There is no one like the poet Selima Hill. She gets to the heart of a feeling or a thought or a relationship via a symbolism so near the bone, but also so confidingly warm, that you only realise its achievement on second reading. She celebrates the all-too-humanly conflicted unconscious with surrealism and a uniquely lucid, but also lurid, inventiveness. Her tough, chaotic, truthful voice juxtaposes nanoseconds of intimate confidentiality (“having sex with someone when you’re sleepy/is hard enough, as we all know”) with mad zoology (“a tadpole I called Muriel/would look me in the eye as if to say/Give me back my jellied palisades”). Her new book, People Who Like Meatballs (Bloodaxe, £9.95), contains two sequences, one addressed by a woman to a man, one by a woman to her mother, from infant dependence to old age: brilliant, uncompromising, beguiling, painful and very funny. A triumph.
 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: PalFest via Creative Commons)

Pankaj Mishra

Original novels by Tabish Khair – How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position (Fourth Estate, £6.99) – and Jerry Pinto – Em and the Big Hoom (Aleph Book Company, £24.99) – revitalised Indian writing in English, a genre that has been subjected lately to premature obituaries. In The World of Persian Literary Humanism (Harvard University Press, £25.95), Hamid Dabashi revealed, with his usual brilliance, yet more aspects of a sophisticated culture to an Anglophone readership. Marwan Bishara’s The Invisible Arab (Nation Books, £17.99) is one of the most insightful accounts of the ongoing transformations in west Asia.
 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

Jane Shilling

Seldom can a book have been more recklessly titled than Ian Sansom’s remarkable tour de force, Paper: an Elegy (Fourth Estate, £14.99). “Imagine for a moment,” Sansom urges his readers, “that paper were to disappear. Would anything be lost? Everything would be lost.” In fact, he comes not to bury paper but to praise it, for its many enchantments: its seductive versatility, its fragile power, its pernicious spread, since its origins in China 2,000 years ago, “like alarm and disease and dreams and despondency”. Sansom’s book (the product, he notes, of “one entire tree”) is vastly knowledgeable, beautifully written, very funny and, as you might expect, a remarkably handsome object in its own right. Probably best not to read it on a Kindle.

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

Norman Lamont

My favourite reading this year was Christopher Tyerman’s history of the Crusades, God’s War (Penguin, £16.99). The Crusades were an astounding phenomenon that lasted centuries and had a profound impact on medieval European society. For much of the European nobility, the world was as international as it is today. The behaviour of the crusaders was at times shocking, yet piety and devotion were also present. Tyerman stitches together a masterly tapestry of crowns, empires, massacres, chivalry and papal realpolitik. These events cast their shadow today and one is left wondering how George W Bush ever dared utter the word “crusade” in his response to 9/11.

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: WikiCommons)

Simon Blackburn

In anticipation of a trip to Ecuador, I picked up Edward Whymper’s Travels Amongst the Great Andes of The Equator (BiblioBazaaar, £22.99), first published in 1892. Part ripping yarn, part scientific investigation, part mountaineering epic, part showcase for Whymper’s own illustrations, it is a reminder of just how versatile, curious and many-sided the great mountaineer was. Few modern travellers could imagine facing the difficulties and dangers that he took in his stride. The final illustration, of a “selection” of his bedfellows in Guayaquil, shows 50 horrendous bugs carefully catalogued by their zoological families but with the disarming comment that the larger species have been omitted because of their size. Awesome.
 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Michael Holroyd

Michael Morpurgo: War Child to War Horse (Fourth Estate, £18.99) is an extraordinary hybrid of a book, with seven brilliant chapters written by Maggie Fergusson, one of our most subtly gifted biographers, and responses from her celebrated subject. Her chapters are skilful orchestrations of truth and tact that offer the Morpurgo family an opportunity of finding relief from their troubles. His replies would have been all the stronger on a CD, allowing us to hear the voice that has entranced innumerable children. Jérôme Ferrari’s Where I Left My Soul (MacLehose Press, £12) is a powerful short novel, taking us from Buchenwald and Vietnam to Algeria, and leading to the conclusion that those who suffer most go on to cause most suffering. Anyone who still believes that we should be sending people to American-style jails should read the description of the violent Texas prison in Gary Mulgrew’s Gang of One (Hodder, £8.99).
 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

John Banville

David Thomson is the greatest living writer on the movies – or “movie”, as he prefers – and The Big Screen (Allen Lane, £25) is surely his magnum opus. He starts way back, with the stop-motion photographs of Eadweard Muybridge, and ends with the so-called social network – “Facebook already takes our earnest admissions about ourselves and trades them for advertising” – and other latter-day horrors of the large and small screen. A joyful, passionate and worried book. Other ways of looking are proposed in Caspar David Friedrich, by Johannes Grave (Prestel, £80), a magnificent and uniquely detailed overview of the paintings of this dark and daring master of German Romanticism.

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Laurie Penny

Debt: the First 5,000 Years by David Graeber (Melville House, £14.99), is the most important theory book I’ve read this year – an essential take on the current crisis by an anarchist anthropologist who combines credentials with readability. Kate Zambreno’s Heroines (MIT Press, £12.95) is a lush, lyrical feminist memoir structured around a rereading of the lives of the wives of the great modernist novelists who were locked up in institutions when they tried to write themselves. And by far the most fun I’ve had with fiction this year was Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker (Windmill Books, £7.99). Gorgeous prose and a rollicking steampunk spy thriller. Brilliant.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

(Photo: Getty Images)

Geoff Dyer

The claims made by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, £14.99) at first seem thoroughly implausible: that America’s criminal justice system, especially the launch of the “war on drugs”, has functioned to recreate racial segregation of a kind that the civil rights movement was thought to have brought to an end. And this is not just an accidental side effect (of poverty, rising crime rates, lack of education and so on) but a deliberate policy and goal. One is dragged to the middle of the book kicking and screaming – in the time of Obama, this can’t be! – but by the end, the weight of evidence, the extraordinary statistics (a prison population that has leapt from 350,000 to 2.3 million in 25 years) and the subtle power of Alexander’s analysis of “mass incarceration as a racial caste system, not as a system of crime control” prove overwhelming.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Amanda Craig

A novel which stood out for me is Susie Boyt’s The Small Hours (Virago, £14.99), about an eccentric woman who tries to overcome the misery of her own childhood by founding an idyllic nursery for little girls. Like Edward St Aubyn and Henry James, Boyt has an acute sense of how even the rich can live in despair, and the result is an exquisitely written black comedy about innocence, evil and financial ruin. For children of eight and over, Kate Saunders’s The Whizz Pop Chocolate Shop (Marion Lloyd Books, £6.99), about a poor family who inherit a shabby shop a stone’s throw away from Ed Miliband’s home, is a must-have. With haunted wallpaper, a talking cat and magical chocolate, it is pure joy for any imaginative child with a sense of humour.

 

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

 

Leo Robson

Nadine Gordimer’s No Time Like the Present (Bloomsbury, £18.99), which uses a mixed-race marriage to explore South Africa under Mbeki and Zuma, is a masterpiece. Philip Hensher apparently cannot stop writing novels, nor, when they are as rich as Scenes from Early Life (Fourth Estate, £18.99), would we want him to; he is becoming the most dependable of English novelists. Michael Anesko’s Monopolising the Master: Henry James and the Politics of Modern Literary Scholarship (Stanford University Press, £30.50), about Leon Edel’s manipulation of Henry James’s descendants, is a gripping and groundbreaking book. The essay collection continues to thrive; of the many I came across this year, the best were Jonathan Meades’s Museum Without Walls (Unbound, £18.99), Dwight Macdonald’s Mass­cult and Midcult (New York Review Books Classics, £9.99), Tom Bissell’s Magic Hours (McSweeney’s, £9.99) and John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead (Vintage, £9.99).

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Sketch: Dan Murrell for the New Statesman)

Tim Soutphommasane

In The Passage of Power (Bodley Head, £35), the fourth volume of his epic study of Lyndon B Johnson, Robert Caro sets the gold standard for modern political biography. And with each instalment of this biography, the complex legend of Johnson grows. Caro, now in the twilight of his life, has said that the final volume of “the years of Lyndon Johnson” is not to be completed by anyone other than himself. We can only hope that we are fortunate enough to see this monumental work reach its long-awaited conclusion. In The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (Allen Lane, £20), the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains the limits of rationality with flair. The prestige of universal reason dates back to Plato but Haidt sides with David Hume’s contention that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them”. Intuitions and the unconscious ultimately sway us more than reasons – at least that’s the thesis. When it comes to arguments, you have to think about being able to tell a compelling story and pushing the right buttons. It seems obvious enough; yet do we not often fall victim to the hubris of reason?

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

 

Olivia Laing

Two magnificent books this year: Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan (Vintage, £9.99) and Fire in the Belly by Cynthia Carr (Bloomsbury, £25). Both illuminate the divisions in American culture; both are elegant, engaged and full of feeling. Pulphead is a collection of essays drawn from Sullivan’s adventures in America’s heartland. I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve pressed it on while raving about the portraits of Axl Rose and Michael Jackson, or the one about the blues, or the cave art hidden beneath Carolina. Strictly speaking, Fire in the Belly is a biography of the 1980s New York artist and Aids activist David Wojnarowicz. Inspiring, angry and meticulously researched, it also serves as a brutally revealing account of the Aids years, among the more shameful periods in American history. Biography of the year, without a shadow of a doubt.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Sam Bradley for the New Statesman)

Ed Smith

Two books about the state we’re in: Antifragile: How To Live in a World We Don’t Understand (Allen Lane, £25) by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Ferdinand Mount’s The New Few: or a Very British Oligarchy (Simon & Schuster, £18.99). Mount’s elegant essay explains how capitalism has been corrupted and corroded, leaving us with disempowered shareholders, confused savers and vastly overpaid executives. Where Mount’s book is controlled, Taleb’s insatiable polymathic curiosity knows no bounds. He is as trenchant and persuasive about diet as he is about debt. Taleb is always provocative (“If you see fraud and do not say fraud you are a fraud”), but he is also wise and emboldening. You finish the book feeling braver and uplifted.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

Colin MacCabe

Susan Sontag’s second volume of diaries, As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99), covering the years 1964-1980, was a continuous delight. It provides a wonderful record of those years both politically and intellectually, including a trip to North Vietnam in 1968. But it is also laced with personal reflections that offer a portrait of one of the most remarkable intellects of our time.

 

 

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

 

Adam Mars-Jones

I admired a first novel that didn’t seem to get the attention it deserved, I J Kay’s Mountains of the Moon (Jonathan Cape, £16.99). The book has a strong plot but it’s kept in the background, almost suppressed, so as to fix attention on the narrator-heroine, an extraordinary creation, feral and tender. The writing is highly coloured though carefully controlled, full of pain with a strange backwash of joy. Christopher Reid is the least assertive poet of his generation, but unassertiveness can be a persona like any other and his voice is piercing and memorable. Nonsense (Faber and Faber, £12.99) is a strong collection, continuing his explorations of narrative verse. It’s highly entertaining but very far from throwaway.

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

 

David Marquand

Two books have stood out for me this year. I was bowled over by Hilary Mantel’s masterpiece Bring Up the Bodies (Fourth Estate, £20). Professional historians often look down their noses at historical novels, and I dare say university teachers of literature do so too. But the latest addition to the Mantel canon is superb history as well as magnificent literature. It has pace, excitement, astonishing insight into human psychology (much of it extremely nasty) and a wonderful ability to re-create a savage world, halfway between magic and modernity, in which heretics were burned at the stake and traitors were hanged, drawn and quartered. A must. The second is Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (Routledge, £12.99) – a long overdue part of my education but better late than never. I disagree with almost everything it says, but I have to admit that it is a work of genius, crackling with intellectual passion and barely suppressed rage. Nothing produced by liberals or social democrats in the past 60 years equals it for forensic power. After reading it, it is not difficult to see why the Hayekian New Right found it so easy to step into the breach left by the collapse of postwar Keynesian social democracy in the terrible decade of the 1970s – or why the crisis of our time has not yet produced a comparable counterattack.

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Toby Litt

One book amazed me: Sharon Olds’s Stag’s Leap (Jonathan Cape, £10). It would be easy to be cynical and say that this is exactly the book one might have expected Olds to write, given the circumstances (Olds’s husband left her). Yes, this is exactly the great, heartfelt, monumental book – so much better than anything a cynic might write. There’s something of Emily Dickinson’s scour in this summation: “I was not driven/Against the grate of a mortal life, but/just the slowly shut gate/of preference.” The folk poem “Left-Wife Goose” is unlikely to be left out of any future anthology of 21st-century poetry. It even smuggles a Cocteau Twins lyric into its sorrowful clapping song. “Inter, Mitzy, Titzy, Tool,/Ira, Dura, Dominee,/Ocker, Poker, Dominocker,/Out Goes Me.” Stag’s Leap reads as the obverse of Robert Lowell’s auto­biographical wankathons. This is the other, better side.

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

(Photo: Getty Images)

Adam Gopnik

Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: a History of Violence and Humanity (Allen Lane, £12.99) got some ferociously nasty reviews when it came out. It was easy to see why: its argument that violence has diminished, and pretty drastically, over human history in general and over the past few centuries in particular – mostly owing to the spread of Enlightenment doctrines of kindness, tolerance and fair procedure – seemed counterintuitive, even fatuous, in the century after the Gulag and Treblinka. Though already a Pinker fan, I read it with some suspicion, but my doubts were soon dissuaded by the sheer weight, detail and quiet eloquence of the data Pinker marshals in support of his argument. Most of the time, when we read even a very good book with a theory we don’t like we come away unconvinced; only time, friends and many rereadings move us off home base in its direction. With this one, the rarest thing that can happen with a book happened: I began sceptical, sat up halfway through to consider and ended persuaded.

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Editorial Intelligence via Creative Commons)

Sarah Churchwell

Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece (W W Norton, £20) is the latest in a growing list of books that reconstruct the making of novels – the literary critic’s version of a DVD film commentary, offering behind-the-scenes contexts and insights into a masterpiece, in this case James’s The Portrait of a Lady. Gorra’s book contributes to another welcome trend as well, the turn away from turgid, jargon-ridden literary criticism and back towards the belle-lettristic essay. Blending biography, history, travelogue and review essay, Gorra opens up James’s classic novel with elegance, nuance and grace, and reminds us what the master still has to teach us about art, free will, choice and America along the way.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

Douglas Hurd

After the death of Edward VII in 1910, people began to ask how far he was responsible for the Anglo-French Entente Cordiale. In her excellent biography, Bertie (Chatto & Windus, £30), Jane Ridley puts this argument to bed. She concedes that Edward, unlike his father, did not amend official documents but in 1903 he had driven through the streets of Paris and proclaimed that this was a city where he felt at home. In 1914, while the diplomats played their ambiguous games, the French people remembered the king who had been their friend. The king had spoken and for them this was the voice of Britain.

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

Adam Thirlwell

Of new things, I think I most loved Chris Ware’s Building Stories (Jonathan Cape, £30), where the sadness of the narrative is fractured by the fizziness of its construction: a gorgeous box full of miniature overlapping stories. The best prose was in Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue (Fourth Estate, £18.99), while I’ve found myself rereading Alejandro Zambra’s Ways of Going Home (Granta Books, £12.99), which comes out early next year, trying to work out this short novel’s intricate structure of gaps and holes. As for old things, the new complete version of Witold Gombrowicz’s Diary (Yale University Press, £15.99) is one jubilant, gruesome, unsparing self-portrait; while another is contained in The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard (Library of America, $35), whose prose is as deadpan good as Warhol’s or Gertrude Stein’s, but funnier than both of them.

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Talitha Stevenson

The books that most expanded my soul this year are proof of the power of non-fiction to defamiliarise the ordinary and familiarise the strange. John Jeremiah Sullivan’s collection of essays, Pulphead (Vintage, £9.99), is a Cadillac-on-the-freeway tour of Americana. In my favourite essay, about a Christian rock festival, he combines irreverence with reverence as only the holiest fools know how. Gerald Hughes’s Ted and I: a Brother’s Memoir (The Robson Press, £16.99) is the genesis story of Ted Hughes’s gods. Misty accounts of Ted as a child, keeping little fish in jars, marvelling at Gerald’s mature rat-shooting skills, show the vulnerability of a man whose excess of talent and beauty ensured that one day his failings would be deemed a universal threat.

 

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

John Sutherland

The best thriller of the year was Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99). The plot is as sexually edgy as a potato embedded with razor blades. At the risk of heading Private Eye’s logroller list of shame, the most impressive scholarly work I have read this year is my former colleague Rosemary Ashton’s Victorian Bloomsbury (Yale University Press, £25). There is a library’s worth of research compressed between its covers. The finest memorial volume was Peter Campbell’s Artwork (Profile Books, £30), a rich collection of his watercolours with feeling introductions about their late colleague by Bill Manhire and Jeremy Harding. I miss him too.

 

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

Andrew Adonis

My book of the year is Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn From Educational Change in Finland? by Pasi Sahlberg (Teachers College Press, $34.95), an inspirational story of social progress that masquerades as a technical account of the Finnish education system. It includes data from Finnish social surveys showing that Finnish men view teaching as the most desirable profession for a spouse, ahead of nursing, medicine or architecture; and that among Finnish women only medical doctors and vets rate higher than teachers in what Sahlberg calls the “Finnish mating markets”. “This clearly documents both the high professional and social status teachers have attained in Finland,” he adds with dry wit. If only the same were true of England. We could make it so, with a collective will.

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Christopher Ricks

David Ferry is a transcendent American poet who has not had his due over here, where, until now, only his eloquent translation of Gilgamesh has been published. At last, one of the UK’s best publishers of poetry does right by him, with On This Side of the River: Selected Poems (Waywiser, £12.99), a handsome representation of his life’s work at its best, up to this very year. Ferry’s cadences are firm and touchingly tentative, his phrasing individually turned, his poignancies unsentimental. The true voice, or rather the true voices, of feeling, as clear as a bell, from a great poet, now of a great age. Alive with stoicism’s wit, “Turning Eighty-Eight, a Birthday Poem”, a recent one-line poem, is no flat line: “It is a breath-taking, near-death, experience.”

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Jonathan Derbyshire

John Jeremiah Sullivan pulls off quite a trick in the essays collected in Pulphead (Vintage, £9.99) – he mines the residual weirdnesses and oddities of the “other side of America” without ever condescending to his subjects. His piece on Michael Jackson, in particular, is a miracle of imaginative sympathy, as well as being the best bit of writing about music I’ve read in years. Sullivan’s big subject is the search for self-definition. It’s Ben Lerner’s, too. In his first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station (Granta Books, £14.99), Lerner makes a kind of refined comedy out of his grad student narrator’s gnawing sense of his own inauthenticity.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

(Photo: WikiCommons)

John Burnside

David Gilbert may have spent the past 30 years in jail for his part in an attempted appropriation of funds by the Black Liberation Army in 1981 but his analytical powers, compassion and imagination are as keen as ever. In Love and Struggle: My Life in SDS, the Weather Underground, and Beyond (PM Press, £15.99), he offers more of the urgent yet cool-headed political analysis that made his No Surrender (2004) vital reading for a new generation of activists. This time, it is more personal on the surface but don’t mistake this for yet another memoir of the 1960s – it’s a masterclass in political analysis and activism from someone whose integrity and lack of ego have allowed him to learn crucial lessons from the failures of his time in the Weather Underground and from the continuing struggles for justice and dignity in the various prisons where he has been incarcerated for far too long.

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Geoffrey Wheatcroft

One of the most informative and also entertaining books I have read this year is Mr Churchill’s Profession: Statesman, Orator, Writer by Peter Clarke (Bloomsbury, £20), an account of Churchill’s career as journalist and author. It was a remarkably highly paid career: he made the modern equivalent of £10,000 a month as a 25-year-old correspondent in the Boer war, then, 30 years later, the same for frankly lightweight pieces in the News of the World and he dealt with his publishers in a way that was sometimes barely honest.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Craig Raine

Julia Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic (Penguin, £12.99) is about Japanese women who came to America to marry Japanese husbands in 1900 – perhaps the first mail-order brides. This very short, entirely original novel, narrated in the first-person plural, an incantatory “we”, adumbrates lives, traumas, years with poetic brevity. A paragraph of only three or four sentences, for example, will tell you about a mother who has left an illegitimate daughter behind – the daughter she will dream about for the rest of her life, at always the same age, mesmerised by a dead bee in a puddle of dirty water. Here, a sentence, a swift, exact brushstroke, can capture pain with the paint still wet. A masterpiece.

 

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Peter Wilby

Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy: the Moral Limits of Markets (Allen Lane, £20) is the most effective demolition of the neoliberal project I have read, all the better because it prefers cool analysis to passionate denunciation. Dial M for Murdoch by Tom Watson and Martin Hickman (Allen Lane, £8.99) is a lucid, riveting and sometimes frightening account of the hacking scandal. I enjoyed reading Ed Smith’s Luck (Bloomsbury, £16.99) far more than I enjoyed watching him bat. The Life and Death of Secondary Education for All by Richard Pring (Routledge, £24.99) is a salutary reminder from Oxford’s professor of education of how much damage successive education ministers have done.

 

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

 

Benjamin Kunkel

Part of the nature of contemporary life seems to be to take for granted and project into the future conditions that are in fact rare and fleeting. Two recent books struck me as especially welcome corrections to this habit. Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (Verso, £16.99) examines the simultaneous rise of fossil-fuelled capitalism and mass democracy, and asks very intelligent questions about the fate of democracy when oil production declines. And From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia (Allen Lane, £20) by Pankaj Mishra, is a reminder, by way of an intellectual history of Asian responses to imperialism, that European intellectual and political predominance was a freak of history unlikely to be sustained. Whatever else may distinguish this century from the last one, the geographies of thought, politics, and energy are all being remade.

 

 

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Jason Cowley

No book has absorbed me more this year than D T Max’s biography of the American writer David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story (Granta Books, £20). Wallace was a novelist, essayist and teenage tennis champion. He was also clinically depressed for much of his life. His fiction is exuberantly experimental – cerebral, hilarious, sad, slightly bonkers – and his magazine essays and narrative reports are tremendously good. He collected pathologies. One Californian summer day in 2008 he hanged himself in the house he shared with his wife. He was 46. Another strange, tormented man of remarkable gifts is Tiger Woods, the greatest and most self-demanding player ever to strike a golf ball. In The Big Miss (Crown Archetype, £17.99), Hank Haney breaks all confidences as he tells the story of the years he spent as Woods’s coach. The end of their time together coincided with the golfer’s public disgrace and catastrophic loss of form. Woods is revealed to be an unfathomably remote narcissist who yearned to be not just the best player of his generation – he’s certainly that – but a champion for all the ages and a moral example to all men.

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Writers Centre Norwich via Creative Commons)

Alex Preston

Olga Slavnikova’s 2017 (Duckworth, £9.99) is a dystopian novel about scientists speculating for gems in the fictional Riphean Mountains. There are breathtaking, baroque descriptions of the natural world, a love story set against a desolate cityscape, exquisite touches of magic realism and science fiction. It is one of the most bizarre, beautiful books I’ve read in years.

 

 

 

 

 

Amanda Edwards/Getty Images
Show Hide image

“Never be afraid of stridency”: Richard Dawkins’ interview with Christopher Hitchens

Is America heading for theocracy? How worrying is the rise of the Tea Party? Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins discuss God and US politics.

The 2011 Christmas issue of the New Statesman was guest edited by Richard Dawkins. This is his interview with Christopher Hitchens from that issue. It was to be Hitchens' final interview; he died as it was published. A sensation at the time, it is now available to read online for the first time.

Richard Dawkins (left) and Christopher Hitchens in conversation

Richard Dawkins Do you have any memories of life at the New Statesman?

Christopher Hitchens Not that I want to impart. It seems like a different world and a different magazine and it happened to a different person. I’d love them to interview me one day about it, for an edition about the role of the Statesman, but I’d really rather you and I focus on the pulse of the issue, which is obviously our common cause.

RD I’ve been reading some of your recent collections of essays – I’m astounded by your sheer erudition. You seem to have read absolutely everything. I can’t think of anybody since Aldous Huxley who’s so well read.

CH It may strike some people as being broad but it’s possibly at the cost of being a bit shallow. I became a journalist because one didn’t have to specialise. I remember once going to an evening with Umberto Eco talking to Susan Sontag and the definition of the word “polymath” came up. Eco said it was his ambition to be a polymath; Sontag challenged him and said the definition of a polymath is someone who’s interested in everything and nothing else. I was encouraged in my training to read widely – to flit and sip, as Bertie [Wooster] puts it – and I think I’ve got good memory retention. I retain what’s interesting to me, but I don’t have a lot of strategic depth. A lot of reviewers have said, to the point of embarrassing me, that I’m in the class of Edmund Wilson or even George Orwell. It really does remind me that I’m not. But it’s something to at least have had the comparison made – it’s better than I expected when I started.

RD As an Orwell scholar, you must have a particular view of North Korea, Stalin, the Soviet Union, and you must get irritated – perhaps even more than I do – by the constant refrain we hear: “Stalin was an atheist.”

CH We don’t know for sure that he was. Hitler definitely wasn’t. There is a possibility that Himmler was. It’s very unlikely but it wouldn’t make any difference, either way. There’s no mandate in atheism for any particular kind of politics, anyway.

RD The people who did Hitler’s dirty work were almost all religious.

CH I’m afraid the SS’s relationship with the Catholic Church is something the Church still has to deal with and does not deny.

RD Can you talk a bit about that – the relationship of Nazism with the Catholic Church?

CH The way I put it is this: if you’re writing about the history of the 1930s and the rise of totalitarianism, you can take out the word “fascist”, if you want, for Italy, Portugal, Spain, Czechoslovakia and Austria and replace it with “extremeright Catholic party”. Almost all of those regimes were in place with the help of the Vatican and with understandings from the Holy See. It’s not denied. These understandings quite often persisted after the Second World War was over and extended to comparable regimes in Argentina and elsewhere.

RD But there were individual priests who did good things.

CH Not very many. You would know their names if there were more of them. When it comes to National Socialism, there’s no question there’s a mutation, a big one – the Nazis wanted their own form of worship. Just as they thought they were a separate race, they wanted their own religion. They dug out the Norse gods, all kinds of extraordinary myths and legends from the old sagas. They wanted to control the churches. They were willing to make a deal with them. The first deal Hitler made with the Catholic Church was the Konkordat. The Church agreed to dissolve its political party and he got control over German education, which was a pretty good deal. Celebrations of his birthday were actually by order from the pulpit. When Hitler survived an assassination attempt, prayers were said, and so forth. But there’s no doubt about it, [the Nazis] wanted control – and they were willing to clash with the churches to get it. There’s another example. You swore on Almighty God that you would never break your oath to the Führer. This is not even secular, let alone atheist.

RD There was also grace before meals, personally thanking Adolf Hitler.

CH I believe there was. Certainly, you can hear the oath being taken – there are recordings of it – but this, Richard, is a red herring. It’s not even secular. They’re changing the subject.

RD But it comes up over and over again.

CH You mentioned North Korea. It is, in every sense, a theocratic state. It’s almost supernatural, in that the births of the [ruling] Kim family are considered to be mysterious and accompanied by happenings. It’s a necrocracy or mausolocracy, but there’s no possible way you could say it’s a secular state, let alone an atheist one. Attempts to found new religions should attract our scorn just as much as the alliances with the old ones do. All they’re saying is that you can’t claim Hitler was distinctively or specifically Christian: “Maybe if he had gone on much longer, he would have de-Christianised a bit more.” This is all a complete fog of nonsense. It’s bad history and it’s bad propaganda.

RD And bad logic, because there’s no connection between atheism and doing horrible things, whereas there easily can be a connection in the case of religion, as we see with modern Islam.

CH To the extent that they are new religions – Stalin worship and Kim Il-sungism – we, like all atheists, regard them with horror.

RD You debated with Tony Blair. I’m not sure I watched that. I love listening to you [but] I can’t bear listening to . . . Well, I mustn’t say that. I think he did come over as rather nice on that evening.

CH He was charming, that evening. And during the day, as well.

RD What was your impression of him?

CH You can only have one aim per debate. I had two in debating with Tony Blair. The first one was to get him to admit that it was not done – the stuff we complain of – in only the name of religion. That’s a cop-out. The authority is in the text. Second, I wanted to get him to admit, if possible, that giving money to a charity or organising a charity does not vindicate a cause. I got him to the first one and I admired his honesty. He was asked by the interlocutor at about half-time: “Which of Christopher’s points strikes you as the best?” He said: “I have to admit, he’s made his case, he’s right. This stuff, there is authority for it in the canonical texts, in Islam, Judaism.” At that point, I’m ready to fold – I’ve done what I want for the evening. We did debate whether Catholic charities and so on were a good thing and I said: “They are but they don’t prove any point and some of them are only making up for damage done.” For example, the Church had better spend a lot of money doing repair work on its Aids policy in Africa, [to make up for preaching] that condoms don’t prevent disease or, in some cases, that they spread it. It is iniquitous. It has led to a lot of people dying, horribly. Also, I’ve never looked at some of the ground operations of these charities – apart from Mother Teresa – but they do involve a lot of proselytising, a lot of propaganda. They’re not just giving out free stuff. They’re doing work to recruit.

RD And Mother Teresa was one of the worst offenders?

CH She preached that poverty was a gift from God. And she believed that women should not be given control over the reproductive cycle. Mother Teresa spent her whole life making sure that the one cure for poverty we know is sound was not implemented. So Tony Blair knows this but he doesn’t have an answer. If I say, “Your Church preaches against the one cure for poverty,” he doesn’t deny it, but he doesn’t affirm it either. But remember, I did start with a text and I asked him to comment on it first, but he never did. Cardinal Newman said he would rather the whole world and everyone in it be painfully destroyed and condemned for ever to eternal torture than one sinner go unrebuked for the stealing of a sixpence. It’s right there in the centre of the Apologia. The man whose canonisation Tony had been campaigning for. You put these discrepancies in front of him and he’s like all the others. He keeps two sets of books. And this is also, even in an honest person, shady.

RD It’s like two minds, really. One notices this with some scientists.

CH I think we all do it a bit.

RD Do we?

CH We’re all great self-persuaders.

RD But do we hold such extreme contradictions in our heads?

CH We like to think our colleagues would point them out, in our group, anyway. No one’s pointed out to me in reviewing my God book God Is Not Great that there’s a flat discrepancy between the affirmation he makes on page X and the affirmation he makes on page Y.

RD But they do accuse you of being a contrarian, which you’ve called yourself . . .

CH Well, no, I haven’t. I’ve disowned it. I was asked to address the idea of it and I began by saying it’s got grave shortcomings as an idea, but I am a bit saddled with it.

RD I’ve always been very suspicious of the leftright dimension in politics.

CH Yes; it’s broken down with me.

RD It’s astonishing how much traction the left-right continuum [has] . . . If you know what someone thinks about the death penalty or abortion, then you generally know what they think about everything else. But you clearly break that rule.

CH I have one consistency, which is [being] against the totalitarian – on the left and on the right. The totalitarian, to me, is the enemy – the one that’s absolute, the one that wants control over the inside of your head, not just your actions and your taxes. And the origins of that are theocratic, obviously. The beginning of that is the idea that there is a supreme leader, or infallible pope, or a chief rabbi, or whatever, who can ventriloquise the divine and tell us what to do. That has secular forms with gurus and dictators, of course, but it’s essentially the same. There have been some thinkers – Orwell is pre-eminent – who understood that, unfortunately, there is innate in humans a strong tendency to worship, to become abject. So we’re not just fighting the dictators. We’re criticising our fellow humans for trying to short-cut, to make their lives simpler, by surrendering and saying, “[If] you offer me bliss, of course I’m going to give up some of my mental freedom for that.” We say it’s a false bargain: you’ll get nothing. You’re a fool.

RD That part of you that was, or is, of the radical left is always against the totalitarian dictators.

CH Yes. I was a member of the Trotskyist group – for us, the socialist movement could only be revived if it was purged of Stalinism . . . It’s very much a point for our view that Stalinism was a theocracy.

RD One of my main beefs with religion is the way they label children as a “Catholic child” or a “Muslim child”. I’ve become a bit of a bore about it.

CH You must never be afraid of that charge, any more than stridency.

RD I will remember that.

CH If I was strident, it doesn’t matter – I was a jobbing hack, I bang my drum. You have a discipline in which you are very distinguished. You’ve educated a lot of people; nobody denies that, not even your worst enemies. You see your discipline being attacked and defamed and attempts made to drive it out.

Stridency is the least you should muster . . . It’s the shame of your colleagues that they don’t form ranks and say, “Listen, we’re going to defend our colleagues from these appalling and obfuscating elements.” If you go on about something, the worst thing the English will say about you, as we both know – as we can say of them, by the way – is that they’re boring.

RD Indeed. Only this morning, I was sent a copy of [advice from] a British government website, called something like “The Responsibilities of Parents”. One of these responsibilities was “determine the child’s religion”. Literally, determine. It means establish, cause . . . I couldn’t ask for a clearer illustration, because, sometimes, when I make my complaint about this, I’m told nobody actually does label children Catholic children or Muslim children.

CH Well, the government does. It’s borrowed, as far as I can see, in part from British imperial policy, in turn borrowed from Ottoman and previous empires – you classify your new subjects according to their faith. You can be an Ottoman citizen but you’re a Jewish one or an Armenian Christian one. And some of these faiths tell their children that the children of other faiths are going to hell. I think we can’t ban that, nor can we call it “hate speech”, which I’m dubious about anyway, but there should be a wrinkle of disapproval.

RD I would call it mental child abuse.

CH I can’t find a way, as a libertarian, of saying that people can’t raise their children, as they say, according to their rights. But the child has rights and society does, too. We don’t allow female – and I don’t think we should countenance male – genital mutilation.

Now, it would be very hard to say that you can’t tell your child that they are lucky and they have joined the one true faith. I don’t see how you stop it. I only think the rest of society should look at it with a bit of disapproval, which it doesn’t. If you’re a Mormon and you run for office and say, “Do you believe in the golden plates that were dug up by Joseph Smith?” – which [Mitt] Romney hasn’t been asked yet – sorry, you’re going to get mocked. You’re going to get laughed at.

RD There is a tendency among liberals to feel that religion should be off the table.

CH Or even that there’s anti-religious racism, which I think is a terrible limitation.

RD Romney has questions to answer.

CH Certainly, he does. The question of Mormon racism did come up, to be fair, and the Church did very belatedly make amends for saying what, in effect, it had been saying: that black people’s souls weren’t human, quite. They timed it suspiciously for the passage of legislation. Well, OK, then they grant the right of society to amend [the legislation]. To that extent, they’re opportunists.

RD But what about the daftness of Mormonism? The fact that Joseph Smith was clearly a charlatan –

CH I know, it’s extraordinary.

RD I think there is a convention in America that you don’t tackle somebody about their religion.

CH Yes, and in a way it’s attributed to pluralism. And so, to that extent, one wants to respect it, but I think it can be exploited. By many people, including splinter-group Mormons who still do things like plural marriage and, very repulsively, compulsory dowries – they basically give away their daughters, often to blood relatives. And also kinship marriages that are too close. This actually won’t quite do. When it is important, they tend to take refuge in: “You’re attacking my fundamental right.” I don’t think they really should be allowed that.

RD Do you think America is in danger of becoming a theocracy?

CH No, I don’t. The people who we mean when we talk about that – maybe the extreme Protestant evangelicals, who do want a God-run America and believe it was founded on essentially fundamentalist Protestant principles – I think they may be the most overrated threat in the country.

RD Oh, good.

CH They’ve been defeated everywhere. Why is this? In the 1920s, they had a string of victories. They banned the sale, manufacture and distribution and consumption of alcohol. They made it the constitution. They more or less managed to ban immigration from countries that had non-Protestant, non-white majorities. From these victories, they have never recovered. They’ll never recover from [the failure of] Prohibition. It was their biggest defeat. They’ll never recover from the Scopes trial. Every time they’ve tried [to introduce the teaching of creationism], the local school board or the parents or the courts have thrown it out and it’s usually because of the work of people like you, who have shown that it’s nonsense. They try to make a free speech question out of it but they will fail with that, also. People don’t want to come from the town or the state or the county that gets laughed at.

RD Yes.

CH In all my tours around the South, it’s amazing how many people – Christians as well – want to disprove the idea that they’re all in thrall to people like [the fundamentalist preacher Jerry] Falwell. They don’t want to be a laughing stock.

RD Yes.

CH And if they passed an ordinance saying there will be prayer in school every morning from now on, one of two things would happen: it would be overthrown in no time by all the courts, with barrels of laughter heaped over it, or people would say: “Very well, we’re starting with Hindu prayer on Monday.” They would regret it so bitterly that there are days when I wish they would have their own way for a short time.

RD Oh, that’s very cheering.

CH I’m a bit more worried about the extreme, reactionary nature of the papacy now. But that again doesn’t seem to command very big allegiance among the American congregation. They are disobedient on contraception, flagrantly; on divorce; on gay marriage, to an extraordinary degree that I wouldn’t have predicted; and they’re only holding firm on abortion, which, in my opinion, is actually a very strong moral question and shouldn’t be decided lightly. I feel very squeamish about it. I believe that the unborn child is a real concept, in other words. We needn’t go there, but I’m not a complete abortion-on-demand fanatic. I think it requires a bit of reflection. But anyway, even on that, the Catholic Communion is very agonised. And also, [when] you go and debate with them, very few of them could tell you very much about what the catechism really is. It’s increasingly cultural Catholicism.

RD That is true, of course.

CH So, really, the only threat from religious force in America is the same as it is, I’m afraid, in many other countries – from outside. And it’s jihadism, some of it home-grown, but some of that is so weak and so self-discrediting.

RD It’s more of a problem in Britain.

CH And many other European countries, where its alleged root causes are being allowed slightly too friendly an interrogation, I think. Make that much too friendly.

RD Some of our friends are so worried about Islam that they’re prepared to lend support to Christianity as a kind of bulwark against it.

CH I know many Muslims who, in leaving the faith, have opted to go . . . to Christianity or via it to non-belief. Some of them say it’s the personality of Jesus of Nazareth. The mild and meek one, as compared to the rather farouche, physical, martial, rather greedy . . .

RD Warlord.

CH . . . Muhammad. I can see that that might have an effect.

RD Do you ever worry that if we win and, so to speak, destroy Christianity, that vacuum would be filled by Islam?

CH No, in a funny way, I don’t worry that we’ll win. All that we can do is make absolutely sure that people know there’s a much more wonderful and interesting and beautiful alternative. No, I don’t think that Europe would fill up with Muslims as it emptied of Christians. Christianity has defeated itself in that it has become a cultural thing. There really aren’t believing Christians in the way there were generations ago.

RD Certainly in Europe that’s true – but in America?

CH There are revivals, of course, and among Jews as well. But I think there’s a very longrunning tendency in the developed world and in large areas elsewhere for people to see the virtue of secularism, the separation of church and state, because they’ve tried the alternatives . . . Every time something like a jihad or a sharia movement has taken over any country – admittedly they’ve only been able to do it in very primitive cases – it’s a smouldering wreck with no productivity.

RD Total failure. If you look at religiosity across countries of the world and, indeed, across the states of the US, you find that religiosity tends to correlate with poverty and with various other indices of social deprivation.

CH Yes. That’s also what it feeds on. But I don’t want to condescend about that. I know a lot of very educated, very prosperous, very thoughtful people who believe.

RD Do you think [Thomas] Jefferson and [James] Madison were deists, as is often said?

CH I think they fluctuated, one by one. Jefferson is the one I’m more happy to pronounce on. The furthest he would go in public was to incline to a theistic enlightened view but, in his private correspondence, he goes much further. He says he wishes we could return to the wisdom of more than 2,000 years ago. That’s in his discussion of his own Jefferson Bible, where he cuts out everything supernatural relating to Jesus. But also, very importantly, he says to his nephew Peter Carr in a private letter [on the subject of belief]: “Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise and the love of others which it will procure you.” Now, that can only be written by someone who’s had that experience.

RD It’s very good, isn’t it?

CH In my judgement, it’s an internal reading, but I think it’s a close one. There was certainly no priest at his bedside. But he did violate a rule of C S Lewis’s and here I’m on Lewis’s side. Lewis says it is a cop-out to say Jesus was a great moralist. He said it’s the one thing we must not say; it is a wicked thing to say. If he wasn’t the Son of God, he was a very evil impostor and his teachings were vain and fraudulent. You may not take the easy route here and say: “He may not have been the Son of God and he may not have been the Redeemer, but he was a wonderful moralist.” Lewis is more honest than Jefferson in this point. I admire Lewis for saying that. Rick Perry said it the other day.

RD Jesus could just have been mistaken.

CH He could. It’s not unknown for people to have the illusion that they’re God or the Son. It’s a common delusion but, again, I don’t think we need to condescend. Rick Perry once said: “Not only do I believe that Jesus is my personal saviour but I believe that those who don’t are going to eternal punishment.” He was challenged at least on the last bit and he said, “I don’t have the right to alter the doctrine. I can’t say it’s fine for me and not for others.”

RD So we ought to be on the side of these fundamentalists?

CH Not “on the side”, but I think we should say that there’s something about their honesty that we wish we could find.

RD Which we don’t get in bishops . . .

CH Our soft-centred bishops at Oxford and other people, yes.

RD I’m often asked why it is that this republic [of America], founded in secularism, is so much more religious than those western European countries that have an official state religion, like Scandinavia and Britain.

CH [Alexis] de Tocqueville has it exactly right. If you want a church in America, you have to build it by the sweat of your own brow and many have. That’s why they’re attached to them.

RD Yes.

CH [Look at] the Greek Orthodox community in Brooklyn. What’s the first thing it will do? It will build itself a little shrine. The Jews – not all of them – remarkably abandoned their religion very soon after arriving from the shtetl.

RD Are you saying that most Jews have abandoned their religion?

CH Increasingly in America. When you came to escape religious persecution and you didn’t want to replicate it, that’s a strong memory. The Jews very quickly secularised when they came. American Jews must be the most secular force on the planet now, as a collective. If they are a collective –which they’re not, really.

RD While not being religious, they often still observe the Sabbath and that kind of thing.

CH There’s got to be something cultural. I go to Passover every year. Sometimes, even I have a seder, because I want my child to know that she does come very distantly from another tradition. It would explain if she met her greatgrandfather why he spoke Yiddish. It’s cultural, but the Passover seder is also the Socratic forum. It’s dialectical. It’s accompanied by wine. It’s got the bones of quite a good discussion in it. And then there is manifest destiny. People feel America is just so lucky. It’s between two oceans, filled with minerals, wealth, beauty. It does seem providential to many people.

RD Promised land, city on a hill.

CH All that and the desire for another Eden. Some secular utopians came here with the same idea. Thomas Paine and others all thought of America as a great new start for the species.

RD But that was all secular.

CH A lot of it was, but you can’t get away from the liturgy: it’s too powerful. You will end up saying things like “promised land” and it can be mobilised for sinister purposes. But in a lot of cases, it’s a mild belief. It’s just: “We should share our good luck.”

RD I’ve heard another theory that, America being a country of immigrants, people coming from Europe, where they left their extended family and left their support system, were alone and they needed something.

CH Surely that was contained in what I just . . .

RD Maybe it was.

CH The reason why most of my friends are non-believers is not particularly that they were engaged in the arguments you and I have been having, but they were made indifferent by compulsory religion at school.

RD They got bored by it.

CH They’d had enough of it. They took from it occasionally whatever they needed – if you needed to get married, you knew where to go. Some of them, of course, are religious and some of them like the music but, generally speaking, the British people are benignly indifferent to religion.

RD And the fact that there is an established church increases that effect. Churches should not be tax-free the way that they are. Not automatically, anyway.

CH No, certainly not. If the Church has demanded that equal time be given to creationist or pseudo-creationist speculations . . . any Church that teaches that in its school and is in receipt of federal money from the faith-based initiative must, by law, also teach Darwinism and alternative teachings, in order that the debate is being taught. I don’t think they want this.

RD No.

CH Tell them if they want equal time, we’ll jolly well have it. That’s why they’ve always been against comparative religion.

RD Comparative religion would be one of the best weapons, I suspect.

CH It’s got so insipid in parts of America now that a lot of children are brought up – as their parents aren’t doing it and leave it to the schools and the schools are afraid of it – with no knowledge of any religion of any kind. I would like children to know what religion is about because [otherwise] some guru or cult or revivalists will sweep them up.

RD They’re vulnerable. I also would like them to know the Bible for literary reasons.

CH Precisely. We both, I was pleased to see, have written pieces about the King James Bible. The AV [Authorised Version], as it was called in my boyhood. A huge amount of English literature would be opaque if people didn’t know it.

RD Absolutely, yes. Have you read some of the modern translations? “Futile, said the preacher. Utterly futile.”

CH He doesn’t!

RD He does, honestly. “Futile, futile said the priest. It’s all futile.”

CH That’s Lamentations.

RD No, it’s Ecclesiastes. “Vanity, vanity.”

CH “Vanity, vanity.” Good God. That’s the least religious book in the Bible. That’s the one that Orwell wanted at his funeral.

RD I bet he did. I sometimes think the poetry comes from the intriguing obscurity of mistranslation. “When the sound of the grinding is low, the grasshopper is heard in the land . . . The grasshopper shall be a burden.” What the hell?

CH The Book of Job is the other great non-religious one, I always feel. “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.” Try to do without that. No, I’m glad we’re on the same page there. People tell me that the recitation of the Quran can have the same effect if you understand the original language. I wish I did. Some of the Catholic liturgy is attractive.

RD I don’t know enough Latin to judge that.

CH Sometimes one has just enough to be irritated.

RD Yes [laughs]. Can you say anything about Christmas?

CH Yes. There was going to be a winter solstice holiday for sure. The dominant religion was going to take it over and that would have happened without Dickens and without others.

RD The Christmas tree comes from Prince Albert; the shepherds and the wise men are all made up.

CH Cyrenius wasn’t governor of Syria, all of that. Increasingly, it’s secularised itself. This “Happy Holidays” – I don’t particularly like that, either.

RD Horrible, isn’t it? “Happy holiday season.”

CH I prefer our stuff about the cosmos.

***

The day after this interview, I was honoured to present an award to Christopher Hitchens in the presence of a large audience in Texas that gave him a standing ovation, first as he entered the hall and again at the end of his deeply moving speech. My own presentation speech ended with a tribute, in which I said that every day he demonstrates the falsehood of the lie that there are no atheists in foxholes: “Hitch is in a foxhole, and he is dealing with it with a courage, an honesty and a dignity that any of us would be, and should be, proud to muster.”