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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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Welcome to the zoo: what it feels like to report a presidential campaign

Hatred of the mainstream media was a theme at both the Republican and Democratic conventions. Yet how much of the incipient cartoon fascism on show was our fault?

Here’s how you cover an American political convention: you get up inhumanly early to fire off your first emails, chugging down hotel coffee that tastes like burnt leather. Then you put on your least-squashed outfit and you drag yourself through crowds of sweating delegates to an event or a talk (or, if you’re unlucky, the treadless circus of the convention floor), and you watch and listen with your phone in your hand and one eye on social media until you run across something that you think might be worth writing about.

You email your editor from the phone to see if your sense is correct, and the idea is saleable. Meanwhile, you’ve started looking for somewhere to open your laptop and bang out your copy. You write it. You buy a coffee so they don’t kick you out of the café. You scramble for healthy wifi. You talk your way into the giant car park repurposed as a crèche for journalists outside the arena, where your organisation has a tiny table, and Google and Facebook have giant booths distributing free snacks, just to remind you who’s really in charge of the media.

Then you file your copy. You send the link out all over social media, because that’s part of your job, and you go in search of food with your eyes all glassy from screen glare, until you have to do it again. Whenever your editor goes to bed, you think about wrapping up and relocating to a bar where you can flirt with half of your attention while drinking beer and scrolling, constantly, through social media.

At some point around 4am, you clock off and spend an hour searching for a cab that you hope you’re going to be able to put against expenses, and you chat to the driver on your way to your overpriced, out-of-town hotel, too tired to register the shock of a conversation with an actual human being. Later on, in a hotel room that you can’t afford, you ask yourself: how does it feel to have made something that hates you?

In the two heat-drunk, deadline-crazed weeks that I spent at the Republican and Democratic conventions this summer, that line kept echoing in my mind. It’s spoken by an android to its creator in the Alex Garland film Ex Machina, but the 15,000 journalists, reporters, columnists, television crew members and media flunkies gathered to watch the biggest American political showdown of this half-decade could have asked ourselves the same question. Hatred of the mainstream media was a theme at both conventions. Yet how much of the incipient cartoon fascism on show was our fault? And what can we do to stop it?

This is a story about stories, the people who tell them and the price we pay. In all the thousands of essays, reports, video diaries, interviews and listicles produced at and around the lumbering pageant of the US presidential race, one class of person is supposed to be almost invisible, and that is the people who do the work of production: the journalists. But what is happening in politics today, particularly in the United States, and particularly in this election, has everything to do with the media – the industry, yes, but also the people in it. If the media are the message, the message is anxious, incoherent and mired in a money crisis that it has no idea how to handle. Not unlike America, as it happens.

***

Just in case you’ve had the good fortune to have spent the past two years under a rock, let’s recap. These US conventions are the official nominating ceremonies for the presidential candidates of the Democratic and Republican Parties, as well as four-day pageants at which lobbyists and media flunkies come to flirt and network and make whatever passes (in professional political terms) for friends. The candidate selection is merely the excuse for this shindig, and this time the fix was in before it had even begun.

The Democrats had chosen the former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, representing the centre-liberal status quo with a corporate feminist twist and a side order of hawkish sabre-rattling. Her main challenger was the veteran socialist Bernie Sanders, who believes in wealth redistribution, free university education and social justice and gained an enormous following among young voters who have not yet accepted that they owe their votes to any candidate with a blue ribbon.

On the Republican side, a field of whey-faced religious extremists had been cleared for Donald Trump, the real-estate tycoon and reality-television star, who stands on a platform of imposing a “complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”, building a border wall with Mexico and replacing the entire US electoral system with a giant statue of his gelatinous face, sculpted from misdirected class rage. This, more than anyone, was the man we had all come to see.

One of the liturgies of doctrinal Trumpism is that there is a thing called “the mainstream media”, which tries to control what “ordinary” people think, despite knowing next to nothing about their lives. The mainstream media are assumed to be homogeneous, cosmopolitan, well paid, based almost exclusively in New York and the Beltway of Washington, and liberal to its core. This is a more accurate description of Trump than it is of most US journalists I know.

Trump did not invent performative hostility towards the “mainstream media”. Every insurgent politician in recent years has taunted the press in public, while giving hacks hungry for copy exactly what they want: a story that draws in readers. And a great many journalists, at least those who have not yet given up on the notion of speaking truth to power, feel less comfortable when power tries to court us than we do when it pretends to hate us.

The ways in which we create and consume media today are not the same as they were even four years ago, during what was dubbed in the US as “the social media election”. Rapid changes in communications technology have reshaped the terrain more thoroughly than those employed to scry in the entrails of the internet for the future of human thought can anticipate. What is clear is that power flows to those who can understand and exploit the hysterical reality engine called the media – and that has always been the case.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt swayed the nation with his deft use of radio – and so did Adolf Hitler. In the 1960s, John F Kennedy became the first “television president”, beating his opponent, Richard Nixon, in televised debates that radio listeners felt that Nixon had won. Ronald Reagan, a professional actor, perfected that position. Barack Obama is the first US president to understand and exploit the full potential of the internet, recognising that social media can be used to reshape the calcified structures of money and messaging that are still, across the West, called democracy.

This year, Donald Trump – a reality TV mogul before he is anything else – has taken control of the narrative, understanding, like Europe’s right-wing populist pundits, that it is possible to bypass facts altogether and hit the electorate in the incoherent space of pure emotion. What, at a time like this, does journalism mean? What does it mean to be a member of the press in an age when there is no longer a clear distinction between media and meatspace, between reality and television?

***

 American political conventions are not the staid, rainwashed yearly affairs that we are used to in Britain. Every four years, the Republican and Democratic Parties throw a festival for thousands of lawmakers, lawyers, reporters, lobbyists and the occasional actual voter on their break from handing around snacks at press parties. It lasts four days, because that’s how long it took originally to count up delegates from every state, and now the rest of the time is filled up with boozing, hobnobbing and wearing clothes that make everyone look like they’re live-action role-playing the most depressing parts of the mid-1980s. There are speeches, and more speeches, musical interludes by tame celebrities, blind children singing the national anthem, and quite a lot of God-bothering – and much of the main action doesn’t start until 4pm every day, in order to give people time to recover from the night before.

This would not work in Britain. America still takes itself too seriously to consider how crass this looks to an outside world that also has reason to fear a vicious, swollen toddler with alarming hair being given access to the US nuclear codes. This year, the Republican convention in Cleveland, Ohio, came first, as befits the case for the prosecution of the political status quo. On the Saturday before it began, the airport was already lousy with journalists looking for Trump people to interview.

Armed police circled the terminal as a choir of children from local schools sang patriotic lullabies to soothe us into what would be a two-week fever dream of nativist fear-mongering and empty political pageantry. The candidates, remember, had already been decided by a grudging, deeply divided electorate. All that was left was ritual, and the dim, thrilling possibility that someone might do something off-message.

I bought the first coffee of the week and got in a cab to call my editor while my synapses soaked in diluted stimulants. The roads were jammed with thousands of hacks doing the same, some of whom already had deadlines to meet. Nothing had happened yet. That didn’t matter. We were here to create news, not report it.

“The threshold for news now is very low,” said Matt Pearce, a reporter for the LA Times and an old friend from (where else?) the internet. “There are more of us running around and there’s less to do. A lot of us were bracing for something potentially as bad as the protests at the DNC [Democratic National Convention] in Chicago in 1968 . . . That’s always the conflicted part of the business. Chaos and mayhem make for selling newspapers, but if you live here in Cleveland, you want nothing to go wrong.”

Why did we come here? To see the show. We had heard that there would be protests, which always make good copy, and dissent on the convention floor. And we knew without doubt that there would be frothing cryptofascism, which makes better copy. The more Trump claims to hate the press, the more we fall over ourselves to give him the attention he craves. He is an insider trader in the attention economy.

I heard the word “zoo” repeatedly. The reporters had “come to see the zoo”. A zoo: where you pay to see dumb and dangerous beasts in cages, and then eat ice cream. Is that where we thought we were? There were wire fences around the convention zone and the people there knew that they were on show, putting on a spectacle for the liberal media that they claimed roundly to despise. Trump’s people made it clear that this convention was about showbiz, although the celebrity roll-call was Lynyrd Skynyrd, a man from a TV show called Duck Dynasty and a handful of C-list actors. The DNC had Snoop Dogg.

As delegates, lobbyists and reporters continued to flood into Cleveland, nothing – at least nothing resembling substantive news of any kind – continued to happen relentlessly. But we were all hoping for a moment of transcendence, a big breakthrough. A great observation or piece of writing that would make our editors proud and our landlords happy, back in the places we were from – sorry, the places we were based. None of the reporters, it seemed, was from anywhere. Instead, we were based in New York, or based in Washington, or based in a small village in Finland. We were transient half-people, scrapping for meaning and a living.

It quickly became apparent that the promised protests would not be occurring. We had prepared ourselves for open-carry gun marches and riots in the streets, and so had the police of every local district, who had been shipped in to bristle on every corner, but anyone with a sensible point to make had decided to stay at home. The gun protest turned out mainly to consist of a man with two guns, with dozens of reporters circling him like hungry vultures that had heard the dying screams of political discourse.

Mark Twain is apocryphally said to have observed that there were only three real American cities – New York, New Orleans and San Francisco – and everywhere else was Cleveland. The place did look like it had been hastily constructed out of plywood and the overwhelming impression was of being backstage on a giant movie set, which helped with the sense of unreality not one jot. Nor did the way that everyone in town seemed to spend between a third and half of their waking hours staring at a phone or a laptop screen. The screen-time/real-time distinction had disintegrated completely and we had all come a long way to be in the same place, looking at our phones.

Still hazy from jet lag, I dunked myself in a basement swimming pool; its acid-blue water was the temperature of fresh urine. I dried off in the bar, chlorine tightening my skin. Next to me on an unforgiving leather sofa, Adele M Stan, a reporter from the American Prospect, was wrapped in a shawl, checking her phone. This, she told me, was the strangest political convention of the seven that she had attended. Many of the major Republican political players, unwilling to yoke themselves to Trump’s toxic popularity, had decided to skip it, and so had most activists with any sense. Instead, the space around the stadium was a clear field for ranters, ravers and swivel-eyed performance artists masquerading as political actors – just like the stage.

For two weeks, in two cities, I met almost nobody who was local. The town centres had been cleared and scrubbed for the event, the local tramps and beggars ungently encouraged to move on. Often, even the waiting staff and Uber drivers had come from out of town. Many of the real citizens had left to rent out their homes on Airbnb. 

Everyone in the action zones seemed to be from somewhere else.

I know nobody from Cleveland and yet, within an hour of arriving, I had run into five people I know. They had come to get the story. It quickly became apparent that they had also come to get laid. I have never been so consistently hit on as I was in those first three days in Cleveland. Tinder was lit with people “in town for the week, trying this out for the first time”.

I ended up having some of my most honest conversations of the trip with other reporters on the instant dating app, where we seemed to feel more free to voice our political opinions. We would start off straight-up flirting, then ease into confidences about how bizarre the experience was and intimate existential panic about the nature of sanity, bracketed in plaintive requests for the sort of sex you have with strangers as the world is ending. I matched with two people from The Daily Show. The week was a stew of pre-fascist panic: mate or die.

***

On the walk down to the convention centre in Cleveland, the streets seemed empty except for stray reporters, security guards and a giant billboard howling: “Don’t believe the liberal media!” Overhead, a chartered plane flew the slogan “Hillary for Prison”. This line was available over the next few days on buttons, badges, T-shirts, baseball caps and mugs, announcing to the world that the trolls had taken the wheel of political discourse. Hillary for Prison. Like much of what passes for political conversation in this election, it makes sense only if you say it in an American accent, and it’s not as funny as it seems.
Outside on the corner, two enterprising young men with button-down shirts and ice-white smiles that did not flicker were selling Clinton- and Trump-themed boxes of cereal for $40 each, because they had college debts that they couldn’t rely on the Democrats to cancel. I switched on the recorder, a decision I almost immediately regretted. The spiel they gave me was so polished that I was unsurprised, a quick Google search later, to find five articles about them already published.

There was still little to do but drink coffee, so a square mile of cleared city was full of reporters running around, wired and jumpy, wondering what we were missing. We were desperate for something, anything to kick off, not because we liked the idea of civil unrest but – hey, it had to be better than cluttering up the hotel lobby.

Speaking of hotel lobbies, one thing bears repeating: most of the reporters in Cleveland weren’t as fancy as we were making out. For every well-known news anchor and overpaid op-ed writer, there were dozens of production crew, staff bloggers and freelance reporters living from pay cheque to pay cheque. On Monday afternoon in the aptly named Public Square, I met up with five reporters whom I had known since we all got our start together covering Occupy Wall Street in 2011. They had driven down from New York and found a floor to crash on in the hope of making enough money covering the convention to pay for the trip. Back in 2011, it seemed that new media had the power to reframe democracy. Five years later, that turned out to be entirely true – but not in the way we expected.

We gathered to reminisce about that time, about the protests, the excitement, the arrests, the brief, gorgeous sense that a different world was possible. We’d also heard that Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine would perform an impromptu concert in the square for the protesters, so we sat at a café table, waiting for that to begin. Rage had been all over Occupy like a rash and could be relied on to drum up some modest mayhem.

In the opposite corner, a few dozen young people were gathered around a speaker stage. We spent an hour checking social ­media with one eye, while catching up on what had happened in each other’s lives – who had got married, who had broken up, who’d been made redundant, who had got custody of the dog. We met covering Occupy Wall Street; now we are, apparently, the liberal media establishment. It took us an hour to realise that the people crowded around the small stage were not the warm-up for the protest. They were the protest. By that time, it was over.

***

I turned up to the Washington Post’s convention-viewing party with a gaggle of other young hacks, all of our well-honed powers of observation focused on predicting when the snack table would be restocked and how long we could stay before somebody noticed that we were freeloading freelancers who came here to pinch the wifi. The Washington Post, underwritten by Amazon money, took over a bar near the convention centre and offered on-site massages and craft beers. There were also speaking events throughout the day. Nick Pinto of the Village Voice was not the only one to notice that those who had sponsored the shindig, including representatives of Big Oil, got to put their point of view across unchallenged at these events. So much for liberal bias.

On the big screens behind the free bar, the convention speeches were playing, but almost nobody was watching. Nobody was watching as Willie Robertson, one of the stars of the Duck Dynasty TV show, took to the stage to curse out the “mainstream media”, which lived in a different world from “regular folks like us, who like to hunt and fish and pray and actually work for a living”. “It’s been a rough year for media experts,” he said. “It must be humbling to be so wrong about so much for so long.”

At the Republican convention, I saw 15,000 reporters trying to find a new, original angle on the only story that mattered – that a dark mood of nationalist populism had taken hold in the world’s only superpower and whatever the outcome of this election, there will be suffering. There will be pain, distributed among millions. I saw the flags in the arena, the pomp and excess, the hundreds of fists raised. Country-rock music played throughout. It was like a nightmare marriage of Nuremberg in 1933 and the Eurovision Song Contest, and I knew that this story was not new.

***

Journalists have a way of acting as if we were not political animals with political appetites, as if we were spectators. There may have been a time, in a previous generation, when this was true, when commentators and editors got to play politics like it was a game. But times are changing and so is the industry, and we’ve got skin in this game. Nobody who expects to be personally unaffected by a Donald Trump presidency would, for instance, steal an entire jar of BuzzFeed-branded pens (including the jar), which is what I saw a young freelancer doing at the Washington Post party. By the end of the first week, we were all ready for a little bit of hope. But that wasn’t the story the Democrats were selling, given their reluctance to lie with such lucrative momentum as their rivals.

Philadelphia in late July was hotter than the underbelly of the sun and the air was soupy with moisture. This is not a place where Europeans should ever have settled, for a number of good reasons of which the weather is not the least. The heat sent everyone a bit loopy, as if we were walking through treacle in a dream. And, like in a dream, the narrative kept slipping out of focus. From the start, the messaging was all about the grand story of America, a nation that does not need to be made “great again” because it is already great, a nation that survives by hallucinating its own legend – but the gathered press could not help but share the sense of having been cheated. The awkward truth that Trump and his followers have tapped into is that there are millions of people for whom America is not, and never has been, all that great.

A few days before the speeches started, the crypto-justice trolls WikiLeaks dropped an enormous cache of emails from the Democratic National Committee’s server that had probably been hacked by Russian agents. These appeared to show, to the surprise of nobody, that the Democratic Party had been manoeuvring against Bernie Sanders from the start.

The convention opened with accusations of corruption and the announcement that Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic chair, was resigning. That afternoon, hundreds of Sanders supporters braved the heat to stand outside City Hall to make their feelings known. The one thing I heard from everyone I interviewed – and the one point of agreement between the Bernie supporters and Trump’s people – was that the mainstream media were not to be trusted.

The overwhelming impression of being a reporter at the DNC was of being held hostage – literally, as well as figuratively. Everyone was too tired to move and certainly too tired to flirt. Where the Republican convention was a slosh of sexual energy, of directionless desire, the Democrats’ was all about desire deferred. I deleted Tinder from my phone to make more space for interviews.

The convention centre was miles out of town and getting in involved a system of passes and checkpoints so complicated that you would have been loath to go outside the media zone, even if it weren’t more than 30°C in the shade. The press was stashed in a system of speciously air-conditioned marquees outside the convention hall, with three stinking porta-potties to service thousands of reporters and no water available. Jerry Springer was there, and I had no idea why. Is he a Democrat? Or does he simply materialise wherever reality television meets Freudian psychodrama, wherever people try to pretend that working-class people screaming at each other is entertainment?

It was, more than anything, a physical slog. The tone was set by the way in which the perimeter had been given over to Uber, so that it was hard to get close without taking the on-demand car service. Entry to the security zone was through an oasis-like Uber tent, where you could pick up free water in exchange for your lingering discomfort with Silicon Valley economics. It’s like being in a rewrite of Children of Men for the gig economy. A new adventure in bleak.

Many of the reporters in attendance had just come from Cleveland and were already worn out from a week of frantic deadline-wrangling and late-night networking – not optional in an industry in which job security is based largely on personal connections. Here, the reporters were taken for granted and so was our good coverage. The understanding was that we would encourage our readers, implicitly or explicitly, to support the nominee because we had no other option. By the end of the second day, it wasn’t clear if we would even be allowed to leave without at least a tweet declaring ourselves #WithHer.

On day two, after the roll-call of states was read out and Clinton was officially nominated, some Sanders delegates – who had hoped for something more than the status quo with a feminist varnish – staged a walkout. The first I saw of this was movement in the media tent, that unmistakable herd motion of reporters who realise potential copy is happening near them, like chickens moving as one at the rattle of the seed trough.

Finally, something off-message was happening. After days of manoeuvring to ensure that no left-wing protesters got near the press, they came right to us. T-shirted delegates from Alabama, Ohio and Tennessee stood in the press tent with hand-drawn signs and sticky tape half hanging off their mouths. They had taped their mouths shut to symbolise their silencing by the Democratic committee but were having to untape themselves every few minutes to give interviews and, after the third or fourth time of doing this, the tape started to lose its stickiness. Those trapped outside chanted: “The whole world is watching!” For once, at least for those with a broadband connection, this was true.

They played us like Slick Willie plays the saxophone. It was masterful. We heat-exhausted copy-monkeys, strung out on hours of refreshing TweetDeck, found ourselves standing on tables, holding our phones aloft like protective amulets, trying to capture whatever it was that was happening, because something, for the first time in days, was definitely happening. Something unplanned. Something off-script.

The decision to occupy the media tent was borderline genius. It was one of the best-played protest moves I had ever seen, placing the dissenters instantly in front of the world’s cameras. Like the convention, it was staged not for those who were present but for readers and viewers elsewhere. The internet was the invisible current in the room. The rest of America and the rest of the world were not here, but we were haunted by them – by the sense that real life was going on just outside the room.

Yet, like in a horror movie from the scrag-end of the 1990s, it turned out that we were the ghosts all along. It turned out that we, the delegates, the lobbyists, the spectators and the precarious, anxious press corps, were the ones haunting the real world through the internet, trying to make sense of a story that had run far ahead of us, trying to form the narratives of which material life is made. We sneer at reality TV without understanding that we are active producers in the greatest reality show of all: US politics.

It was enough. I didn’t care enough about what Hillary Clinton had to say to drag myself through the sweltering nightmare of the convention centre for another minute, so my colleague and I fought our way to a cab and watched it on TV, at home. It turned out that Clinton had little to add to the story that America has been trying to tell about itself for decades, apart from a fantastic array of pantsuits and a series of promises that she will be under no obligation to keep.

With the world facing the alternative of Donald Trump, it is now on us – those who create and sustain the narratives of identity and change in the US and beyond – to make that sell, in order to avert disaster. We may not be the establishment but we find ourselves in a position of having to advocate for it, and to do so convincingly to those for whom the prospect of a woman president is not sufficient to inspire faith in a better future. That’s what the media are good for right now, in this fever dream of an election – and it might not be enough.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser