As we enter a new decade, this is the time of year for round-ups, most of which, in the literary sphere, take the form of best-books lists. Editors, critics, authors, and celebrities discuss the books that meant most to them, or that they thought were most important (or that they should have read) in the past year.
You can always count on business people to push themselves, their friends, or their product in these lists. So Michael Iger, head of Disney, mentions Ta-Nehisi Coates The Water Dancer so he can plug his Black Panther franchise (for which Coates writes). And Marc Benioff, head of Salesforce, plugs his friend Robert Iger’s forgettable The Ride of a Lifetime, in addition to books that excoriate his corporate frienemies, like Roger McNamaee’s Zucked (a critique of Mark Zuckerberg, above). Business people are the worst.
Except for politicians, who never seem to read about anything not directly related to their profession, and even then read to support rather than challenge their thinking. And novelists. A quick glance at the Guardian’s survey of what prize-winning writers read shows that poets and novelists mostly read like-minded poets and novelists. If you want to see an astonishingly predictable list, try this one from a bunch of Canadians.
We rate lists on the basis of originality, range, and surprise. We like people with minds open to good books on any subject, from any direction.
Bill Gates, for instance, is always surprising and a great exception to everything we said above about business people. He reads a lot of books and blogs about them here. Some of the books Bill likes are business books, or business-related books, but not the ego-inflating, back-scratching kind. Gates not only read Paul Collier’s The Future of Capitalism, he told us what the author is saying and what he (Bill) thinks about it. Yes, capitalism is in crisis, says Bill, because it is greedy, selfish, and corrupt, and we all need to recognize new obligations to one another.
Bill (above with author Stephen Pinker) also reads novels, sociology, history, science, and it’s interesting to hear him on all of them. I’m a Mac person but Bill the reader is pushing me PC.
Here’s his top five for 2019, and we’ve bolded the Jill Lepore book because she made a historical survey a delight to read which is no mean feat:
The novel An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones.
These Truths: A History of the United States, by Jill Lepore
Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities, by Vaclav Smil
Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life, by Diane Tavenner
Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, by Matthew Walker
Another great list-maker this year is the choreographer Twyla Tharp. Invited by the Wall Street Journal to give her best reads of 2019, she started with former NYU president John Sexton’s Standing for Reason: The University in a Dogmatic Age because it “demonstrates the commitment needed from adults to support the development of knowledgeable and inquisitive young thinkers.”
Tharp followed with Hisham Matar’s A Month In Siena, in which the author studies paintings (such as Lorenzetti’s above) in the Italian city while struggling with the loss of his father. (Matar’s book came up so often in the choices of people we respect that we ordered it). Finally, Tharp recommended Jozef Czapski’s Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp, which is much as it sounds, and brilliant.
If Bill Gates is the exception who proves the rule among business readers, Rory Stewart, candidate for mayor of London is his counterpart in politics. He told the Financial Times he enjoyed Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time because it “brings the most difficult ideas alive in clear, appealing language. It is as close as I’ve come to a physics lesson that almost suggests the meaning of life.”
Before we return to who read what, take a look at the new trailer for Misbehavior, the upcoming movie from the makers of The Crown, inspired by the life of Jennifer Hosten, author of Miss World 1970, coming from Sutherland House in March:
Jennifer Szalai is a New York Times book critic who always has something unexpected to suggest. This year she likes a lot of books including one of the lesser-known Trump entries: America Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump by journalist Tim Alberta. Says Szalai: “This is just another drop in the deluge of Trump books; in fact, it isn’t really a Trump book at all. Instead, it’s a fascinating look at a Republican Party that initially scoffed at the incursion of a philandering reality-TV star with zero political experience and now readily accommodates him.”
And, finally, a third exception to prove a rule, novelist Zadie Smith (top of the page). Like a lot of people, she read Toni Morrison this year, but she lists the late author’s The Bluest Eye rather than the more familiar Song of Solomon and Beloved.
Smith had some solid current affairs picks with Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism and Frischmann & Selinger’s Re-engineering Humanity, two great discussions of the human implications of advanced technology.
She says she wished she wrote Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole’s The Politics of Pain: Postwar England and the Rise of Nationalism, which traces the sometimes lunatic line from the collapse of the British Empire to Brexit.
Smith also plucked out the sixteenth-century Spanish novella Life of Lazarillo de Tormes, author unknown, recently published in a new translation by W.S. Merwin. She marvels at how “a long-departed consciousness can still feel present” in this story of a servant revealing the corruption of his masters. This is clearly a writer reading hard to understand the whole of the world around her.