Twenty-twenty-three: an economic bust, but a reading boom
Quite frankly, 2023 didn’t have the feel of a year when I’d manage to read more books than in previous years. But what with a new career to build up from scratch and the vast volume of information I have to absorb to do that, I can now get away with reading during work time without feeling guilty. And of course any books I read to further my career are going on my list too. See how I did that?
So, while this year was pretty much a bust for me from a business point of view, it was a reading boom. Here are the shining jewels I found on the way…
At a glance (with links):
5. GEO Epoche – Der spanische Bürgerkrieg (The Spanish Civil War), various authors
4. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee (2nd reading)
5. GEO Epoche – Der spanische Bürgerkrieg (The Spanish Civil War), various authors
For anyone not familiar with publications in the German-speaking area, “GEO” is similar to National Geographic and publishes magazines on a whole range of non-fiction issues, from health and psychology to nature and history.
GEO Epoche magazines offer a deep dive for interested, curious readers wanting to learn about a particular aspect of history, i.e. the Bronze Age, ancient Rome or the Vikings.
Now, I know this is not technically a book and therefore doesn’t fit squarely into an article about the best books I read this year. But, looking back at the general insanity of 2023, including a magazine in a list of books of the year seems like a fairly unremarkable thing to do. The GEO Epoche magazine about the Spanish Civil War has a significant number of pages (about 160) devoted to a single subject. That’s “book” enough for me.
Preparing to meet a masterpiece
In November, I made a small art-pilgrimage to Madrid, the central goal of which was to see Pablo Picasso’s epic painting “Guernica” in the Museo Nacionale Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. And I thought it might be a good idea to do some reading around the subject matter (i.e. the bombing of the small Basque town in April 1937 by the Nazi Luftwaffe and the Fascist Italian Aviazione Legionaria at Franco’s request) beforehand.
Besides a whole chapter dedicated to this gruesome episode, the magazine covers the societal tensions which culminated in the civil war, the failure of Franco to conquer the whole of Spain in his initial lightening campaign, the participation of international volunteer soldiers and the brief reign of the anarchists in Barcelona.
It also details the post-war Franco dictatorship as well the long-term impact on Spanish society; still a long way from having fully processed a war which not only tore their country apart but served as a proxy battleground for the political factions which would dominate geopolitics for the rest of the 20th century.
Well-researched, well-written, and essential reading for anyone with even a passing interest in Spain, 20th century European history, or geopolitics in general.
4. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee (2nd reading)
I’ve been doing a lot of re-reads this year (as you can see from the full list of books I’ve read this year at the end of this article). Ostensibly to see which books I can finally shunt off to the charity shop – but also to refresh my relationship with certain old literary friends.
And, it is true: I did “read” and study “To Kill a Mockingbird” in the late 1990s for GCSE English. And by “read”, I mean READ. For, when you study a book at school, you over-read it. At age 16, any literary analysis skills you might have are so rudimentary and blunt that you probably butcher the subject matter of your ruminations – albeit in a highly earnest and well-meaning way.
So it was with “To Kill a Mockingbird”, but I enjoyed the book despite the strained analysis. The characters were compelling and likeable, and I took a particular shine to Miss Maudie Atkinson. I instinctively related to her straightforward manner and stout refusal to succumb to the frills and fripperies of being “a lady”. Yes, I understood that completely.
A timeless American classic
I always meant to read the book again and bought a fresh copy a couple of years ago. This year, it finally got its moment back in the sun.
After 25 years, it was comforting to find that I still feel that connection to Miss Maudie. Some things clearly don’t change! My appreciation for Lee’s skill as an author has only grown. The way she finds a way to tell us the truth about the events in Maycomb – even though the narrator of the story, Scout, is too young to fully comprehend the gravity of the situation – is the mark of a truly masterful writer. Lee steps seamlessly inside the mind of the child and speaks convincingly in her voice, while never obscuring the message that the story should transport.
Yet it is the figure of Atticus Finch who towers over this classic story. Taciturn, disciplined, loving, and a moral pole star for the ages – it is impossible not to admire his quiet dignity and commitment to principle. And how he maintains that stance in the face of personal danger and almost certain defeat as the defence attorney in the trial concerning the alleged rape of Mayella Ewell by the black man Tom Robinson.
Atticus reminds us that great change, including racial equality, are never achieved overnight, but by many, many tiny steps. Some of which may seem like crushing defeats in the moment, but which come to together to form a complete transformation. In these turbulent times of widespread upheaval and acrimony, we should all aspire to the courage, calm and far-sightedness of Atticus Finch.
3. Agent Sonya – Ben MacIntyre
Ben MacIntyre is a firm favourite in our household. There are very few historians who can write about their chosen subject in such an accessible, exciting way as he does. Combining a firm grasp of his subject with meticulous research and peerless storytelling skills, MacIntyre ensures that diving into history never felt so easy or entertaining.
Our gateway drug to the world of Ben MacIntyre was “The Spy and the Traitor”, about the Soviet spy Oleg Gordievsky. So impressed was The Other Half at this book, that he purchased and read “Colditz”, “The SAS” and “Agent Sonya” in short order. Now I’m working my way through them too.
MacIntyre certainly knows how to pick his subjects and this story is so incredible that it reads more like a James Bond than actual historical fact. Agent Sonya (aka Ursula Kuczynski) was a German Communist spy who worked for the Soviet Union through the 1930s and 1940s in China, Poland, Switzerland and England before “returning” to the GDR.
A formidably intelligent woman and gifted spy, she found herself on some of the most daring and dangerous missions going – sometimes avoiding death by pure luck. Moving fluently from lover to lover, the charismatic Kuczynski was also a devoted mother to three children, who were never aware of their mother’s double life – or the danger they were in. Ursula died in 2000 in Berlin, having witnessed the fall of communism and the collapse of the political system to which she had devoted her life.
Agent Sonya is a must for anyone wanting to get a glimpse inside the fascinating world of Cold War espionage – and the life of one of the 20th century’s gutsiest and most extraordinary women.
2. Presidents: A Biographical Dictionary – Neil A. Hamilton (3rd edition)
Seriously – how can you not be fascinated by the USA? Whether you look at it with unalloyed admiration, or profound disgust – or perhaps a bit of both – it’s a country which cannot leave you unmoved.
At age 41, I am too young to remember anything other than American hegemony – cultural, economic, military. My childhood, youth and early adulthood were full of American music, American TV shows, American slang, and misguided American wars. Whatever new idea was making waves in the States would, sooner or later, come slopping over The Pond and drench the British through and through.
Even though my feelings about these offerings were mixed – there was always a comforting “there-ness” about the USA. Uncle Sam was good at getting on your nerves, but nothing really bad could ever happen while he was around. America was omnipresent – and it seemed invincible.
Until it didn’t. The clownish vulgarity of Donald Trump followed by the cognitively-challenged Biden and the ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan were the clearest signals to me: here begins the end of the American empire.
The way to world power
Oddly, it has been the realisation that American power and influence are receding that has pushed me into gaining a better understanding of how we got here in the first place.
Coming off the back of a 2nd reading of “Lincoln’s Melancholy” by Joshua Wolf Shenk, I decided that the biographical dictionary of the first 44 presidents of the USA* might be a good place to start that quest. You can, after all, tell a great deal about a country by looking at who its people choose to lead them.
From the revolutionary hero George Washington through to the US’s first non-white president, Barack Obama, Hamilton presents a broad overview of how the young upstart country breaking free of British power grew to become the world’s undisputed hegemon, even coming to dominate its former colonial master. All through the prism of its presidents’ personal and political biographies.
We also learn how the faults of the two most recent occupants of the White House aren’t quite so novel as excitable 21st century media would have us believe. Andrew Jackson was behaving like a thug and a bully long before Trump’s forbears even stepped off the boat. And Biden isn’t the first POTUS who staff are anxious to keep out of the public eye so as not to put off voters and torpedo their own election chances – Warren G. Harding got there first!
Lincoln: a giant among men
Forty-six men of more or less talent have now held America’s highest political office. Some achieved great things, saw the country through tough times and left a permanent mark on its history. Some of them I’d never heard of before (errr…Millard Fillmore?) Yet very few of them can be said to have been exceptional leaders. In this respect, Abraham Lincoln stands a head and shoulders above the rest.
While his peers were often held back by their personal shortcomings or blinded to the common good by their own egos – Lincoln was almost unique in his ability to look beyond himself to see the big picture and what was to be done in the common national interest. What’s more, he had the humility to understand that, while he was currently the most powerful man in the country, he was but a tiny bit-player in the juggernaut of an epic national story.
And what a great story it is.
FUN FACT: no fewer than three US presidents have died on 4th July – a remarkable patriotic feat. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on 4th July 1826, while James Monroe shuffled off the mortal coil on 4th July 1831. Zachary Taylor almost managed to join this elite club of American patriots in 1850. He fell ill on 4th July of that year after consuming a surfeit of cherries and milk at Independence Day celebrations, but hung on until the 9th of July when he died of “intestinal distress”.
[*The book was lent to me by my dad, who bought it while living in Savannah, Georgia – WAY before the Trump saga was even a speck on the horizon.]
1. With The End in Mind: How to Live and Die Well – Dr. Kathryn Mannix
“No-one is getting out of this life alive.”
“The only things you can be certain of in this life are death and taxes.”
Just because we flippantly throw around truisms about our own inevitable demise, it does not mean we have engaged with or understood the issue. In fact, Western cultures have now so successfully shunted the final paragraphs of the human life out of sight that it has become something of a taboo subject.
Whereas, in years gone by, the vast majority of people died at home among their nearest and dearest, the dying are now often moved into hospitals and hospices. Removing death from life’s domestic routines has reintroduced an element of mystery to it – and allowed shame and fear to attach themselves to any discussion about the end of life.
All of which has landed us with an uncomfortable paradox: of course, we all know that we will eventually die. But we don’t know death anymore, or the process by which it occurs. Such is our distance from it that we tend not to think of death as a process at all, but as a single moment.
It begs the question: if we do not know how death occurs, how can we expect to die – or indeed live – well?
Learning to look death in the eye
As a palliative doctor, Dr. Kathryn Mannix spends her working days with the dying and their loved ones.
Through a series of stories from her career, she throws the doors open on death for us to come in and quietly reacquaint ourselves. From a young mother dying of cervical cancer going through a pre-mortem surge to the advanced skin cancer patient who refused to acknowledge her own condition even hours from death – through these unique and personal experiences, we are invited to contemplate and better understand life’s last great event.
While the tone of the book never drifts off into the clinical more than is necessary, Mannix’s voice occasionally feels a little too calm and detached. One’s instinct says that this is not entirely fitting for a book about death. There should be far more feeling, surely?
Think again: this is exactly the intention of the author. Mannix wants us to be able to look death, and all the grief and fear which it naturally entails – and neither recoil nor look away but learn. And accept.
After reading “With The End of Mind”, one feels deeply moved and sad at the individual fates described. At the same time, one feels lifted and serene. Here, we have the fundamental contradiction at the heart of any discussion about the end of life: we must learn how to look death in the eye to understand the gift of the life we have been given and to enjoy it fully while it lasts. That’s a lesson I’m happy to relearn every day.
Full list of books I read in 2023:
(Titles written in italics indicate books/publications read in a foreign language)
- To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee (2nd reading)
- Count to Ten – James Patterson
- Don’t Make Me Think (Revisited) – Steve Krug
- Lincoln’s Melancholy – Joshua Wolf Shenk (2nd reading)
- Real Leaders Don’t Follow – Steve Tobak (2nd reading)
- Cycling Home From Siberia – Rob Lilwall (2nd reading)
- Penguin Book of English Short Stories – Edited by Christopher Dolley
- The Book Thief – Markus Zusak
- The Choice Factory – Richard Shotton
- Big Sky – Kate Atkinson
- It Ends With Us – Colleen Hoover
- Still Life – Sarah Winman
- The Lucky One – Nicholas Sparks
- The Value of SEO – Andrew Holland
- I May Be Wrong – Björn Natthiko Lindeblad
- The Books of Jacob – Olga Tokarczuk
- 29 Wiener Kurzgeschichten – Div. Autoren
- Why Has Nobody Told Me This Before? – Julie Smith
- Product-Led SEO – Eli Schwartz
- With The End in Mind: How To Live and Die Well – Kathryn Mannix
- A Hero Of Our Time – Mikhail Lermontov
- Islands of Mercy – Rose Tremain
- Cilka’s Journey – Heather Morris
- Salt – Mark Kurlansky
- The Dry – Jane Harper
- Siddartha – Hermann Hesse
- Women & Power – Mary Beard
- Sweet Tooth – Ian McEwan
- Presidents: A Biographical Dictionary – Neil A. Hamilton
- Honeybee – Craig Silvey
- If Walls Could Talk – Lucy Worsley
- Business Model Generation – Alexander Osterwalder, Yves Pigneur
- Agent Sonya – Ben MacIntyre
- Money Men – Dan McCrum
- Emma – Jane Austen
- The Last Lecture – Randy Pausch (2nd reading)
- Der spanische Bürgerkrieg – GEO Epoche
- Lessons in Chemistry – Bonnie Garmus
- Drink? – Dr. David Nutt
- Tuesdays With Morrie – Mitch Albom
- Will The Cat Eat My Eyeballs? – Caitlin Doughty
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