My top 12 books of 2016
You keep asking, so here they are: the best books I read in 2016. If I were reading just 12 books in the year, these would be the dozen I’d wish I’d read.
Reading, please note, is a very personal endeavour. I am reluctant to offer “Best Of” lists as recommendations, simply because the value of a book is squarely in the mind of the reader. What I found gripping or compelling might be a turgid yawn-fest for someone else. Where I discovered enlightenment, a different reader might encounter only tedium. So this is not a list of books I think will be great for you; it’s merely my personal top twelve from the past twelve months.
Also: these were not books that were necessarily published last year; a few were, but many have an earlier birthdate. I just happened to read them last year.
Let’s start with fiction. There were some outstanding reads that passed through my night-table in 2016:
Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever? By Dave Eggers
Dave Eggers is that rare creature: an author who seems to be able to turn his eye to any subject under the sun and produce a quirky and thought-provoking novel about it, pretty much every year. The title of Your Fathers… tells you this will be an odd book, and it is odd in spades. The premise is unusual indeed: an idealistic young man kidnaps various people, chains them up and then interrogates them on the big questions facing society. It is a short book (I read it in one sitting) and told entirely in dialogue. I loved its weirdness, laughed out loud several times, and will certainly read it again.
The Name Of The Rose by Umberto Eco
This one sat on my shelf for decades. It looked dauntingly dense and erudite and esoteric, and I would always put it away for another day. Then Umberto Eco died in February, and I took that as a sign to start reading him. What a treasure The Name Of The Rose turned out to be. I don’t know of anyone else in the world who could teach you all about medieval Christianity while keeping you absorbed in a murder mystery. Eco pulled it off with style and wit and wisdom. I will certainly read another from his canon in 2017.
The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud
If you think Camus’s The Outsider (also translated as The Stranger) was a masterpiece, you can’t ignore this book. Meursault, remember, killed an Arab for no apparent reason in the original classic. This is the story as told by the murdered Arab’s brother. It is both an endearing homage to Camus, as well as a remarkable takedown. Daoud demonstrates such skill here that he matches Camus punch for punch, and in the end creates a superb mirror for the original book. It is truly excellent writing. If you love literature, do what I did: reread the original and then be absorbed by this modern riposte, back to back. Both are classics.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I don’t know what took me so long. I finally read this on holiday next to the ocean, and I was immersed in Chimamanda’s many worlds for days. She combines hilarious social satire with a biting tale of migration, difference and sameness. She has such a talent for storytelling that the tale transcends Nigeria, America and everywhere else. Simply a book for humans, about humans.
The Paperchase by Marcel Theroux
If you love literature and mysteries, this is the one for you. The (real) author reveals much about his own life by writing a book about an author who reveals much about his own life by writing a book…if that description enticed you, look for this tome. If it made you roll your eyes, stay away. This is a witty and sharp book about identity and hidden secrets. It contains one of the finest final scenes in my memory, where a father and son have a quiet conversation in which all the truth is finally told without actually saying it.
So You Don’t Get Lost In The Neighbourhood by Patrick Modiano
I admit I might never have heard of Modiano had he not won the Nobel prize for literature. But he did, and my life is richer for it. Modiano writes the same book again and again, but does this so well that you are in for the latest take every time. The themes are always the same: the illusions that memory creates; the loss of identity that trauma brings; the effect of displacement from oneself. The books are always a short 150 or so pages but very dense; I would not recommend reading any of them in one go. They are usually set in a moody and troubled Paris, and you feel you are actually walking the streets with the protagonists. They always look like detective stories, but are not. There’s nothing straightforward here: read Modiano only if you like nuance, allusion and obliquity.
Before The Fall, by Noah Hawley
Once in a while you just need to read a seat-of-your-pants thriller. Noah Hawley’s is the hands-down winner of all suspense novels released in 2016. A private jet goes down; only two people seem to survive. What happened? Flashbacks are interspersed cleverly with the present, and surprising revelations keep coming. In lesser hands this would be run-of-the-mill bestseller stuff. But Hawley can write, and some of the set-plays are delivered with such skill that you want to clap.
Moving on to non-fiction: I ran through my usual wide range in 2016. These were the best:
How Not To Be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg
First, a book about mathematics. Yes, really. Can you actually write about math(s) and hold the interest of us ordinary folk? Professor Ellenberg certainly can. He shows us how to think mathematically when considering everyday problems: from choosing a date to arguing about God; from assessing the claims of politicians to managing our investments. I found it challenging, enlightening and stimulating – and when it comes to maths, I’m neither jock nor geek. A refreshingly objective look at the world we live in, free of dogma and bias.
The Future Of The Professions by Richard Susskind & Daniel Susskind
The Susskinds – father and son – have produced a compelling vision of the future of the professions. And it’s not comfortable reading. Their strongly argued thesis is that an era has ended: the professions as they stand are antiquated, anachronistic and unaffordable. If you are a doctor, lawyer, accountant, engineer, architect, teacher or a member of the many other time-honoured professions: you’d really better wake up to what technology has already done to your line of work – and what is yet to come. Read this while you still have the time to adapt yourself to a fast-changing world.
The Three-Box Solution by Vijay Govindarajan
Innovation is the buzzword on every CEO’s lips these days, and here’s the book that has both depth and practical application. Dartmouth and Harvard professor ‘VG’ draws on ancient Hindu mythology to tell us that leaders must simultaneously create the new, optimise the present, and destroy the past. The book has many compelling examples of how to do exactly that. It was one of the standout business books of 2016.
Augmented by Brett King
Brett King is one the world’s acknowledged champions of the FinTech revolution in banking. His new book, Augmented, makes the stage bigger. He takes a sweeping look at how technology is aiding and enhancing all aspects of our lives. A though-provoking compendium of the many surprises the new tech has in store for us. If you want to understand the disruptions – and augmentations – in your future, crack this one open.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
This 2016 book became a huge seller – and rightly so. Its author was diagnosed with stage IV cancer in his thirties, just as he qualified to become a neurosurgeon. His imagined future evaporated before his eyes. He faced the little time left to him with enormous courage and wisdom, and wrote this book. He had a lifelong love of literature, and it shows – the writing is powerful and evocative, and the book was one of the few I started and finished in one night. Dr Kalanithi creates an indelible record that shows dying is part of living. We have all lost close people to the cancer scourge. This is a necessary book about difficult choices and wringing what we can out of our uncertain lives.
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