As a follow-up to yesterday's post listing my favourite memoirs and biographies I read in 2021, today I'll be outlining my favourite works of non-fiction.
Books that just missed the cut include: The Unusual Suspect by Ben Machell for its thrilleresque narrative of a modern-day Robin Hood (and if you get to the end, a completely unexpected twist); Paul Fussell's Class: A Guide to the American Status System as an amusing chaser of sorts to Kate Fox's Watching the English; John Carey's Little History of Poetry for its exhilarating summation of almost four millennia of verse; David Graeber's Debt: The First 5000 Years for numerous historical insights, not least its rejoinder to our dangerously misleading view of ancient barter systems; and, although I didn't treasure everything about it, I won't hesitate to gift Pen Vogler's Scoff to a number of friends over the next year. The weakest book of non-fiction I read this year was undoubtedly Roger Scruton's How to Be a Conservative: I much preferred The Decadent Society for Ross Douthat for my yearly ration of the 'intellectual right'.
I also very much enjoyed reading a number of classic texts from academic sociology, but they are difficult to recommend or even summarise. These included One-Dimensional Man by Herbert Marcuse, Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism by Frederic Jameson and The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber. 'These are heavy books', remarks John Proctor in Arthur Miller's The Crucible...
All round-up posts for 2021: Memoir/biography, Non-fiction (this post) & Fiction (coming soon).
Hidden Valley Road (2020)
A compelling and disturbing account of the Galvin family – six of whom were diagnosed with schizophrenia – which details a journey through the study and misunderstanding of the condition. The story of the Galvin family offers a parallel history of the science of schizophrenia itself, from the era of institutionalisation, lobotomies and the 'schizo mother', to the contemporary search for genetic markers for the disease... all amidst fundamental disagreements about the nature of schizophrenia and, indeed, of all illnesses of the mind. Samples of the Galvins' DNA informed decades of research which, curiously, continues to this day, potentially offering paths to treatment, prediction and even eradication of the disease, although on this last point I fancy that I detect a kind of neo-Victorian hubris that we alone will be the ones to find a cure. Either way, a gentle yet ultimately tragic view of a curiously 'American' family, where the inherent lack of narrative satisfaction brings a frustration and sadness of its own.
Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape (2021)
In this disarmingly lyrical book, Cat Flyn addresses the twin questions of what happens after humans are gone and how far can our damage to nature be undone. From the forbidden areas of post-war France to the mining regions of Scotland, Islands of Abandonment explores the extraordinary places where humans no longer live in an attempt to give us a glimpse into what happens when mankind's impact on nature is, for one reason or another, forced to stop. Needless to say, if anxieties in this area are not curdling away in your subconscious mind, you are probably in some kind of denial.
Through a journey into desolate, eerie and ravaged areas in the world, this artfully-written study offers profound insights into human nature, eschewing the usual dry sawdust of Wikipedia trivia. Indeed, I summed it up to a close friend remarking that, through some kind of hilarious administrative error, the book's publisher accidentally dispatched a poet instead of a scientist to write this book. With glimmers of hope within the (mostly) tragic travelogue, Islands of Abandonment is not only a compelling read, but also a fascinating insight into the relationship between Nature and Man.
The Anatomy of Fascism (2004)
Robert O. Paxton
Everyone is absolutely sure they know what fascism is... or at least they feel confident choosing from a buffet of features to suit the political mood. To be sure, this is not a new phenomenon: even as 'early' as 1946, George Orwell complained in Politics and the English Language that “the word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’.” Still, it has proved uncommonly hard to define the core nature of fascism and what differentiates it from related political movements. This is still of great significance in the twenty-first century, for the definition ultimately determines where the powerful label of 'fascist' can be applied today.
Part of the enjoyment of reading this book was having my own cosy definition thoroughly dismantled and replaced with a robust system of abstractions and common themes. This is achieved through a study of the intellectual origins of fascism and how it played out in the streets of Berlin, Rome and Paris. Moreover, unlike Strongmen (see above), fascisms that failed to gain meaningful power are analysed too, including Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists. Curiously enough, Paxton's own definition of fascism is left to the final chapter, and by the time you reach it, you get an anti-climatic feeling of it being redundant. Indeed, whatever it actually is, fascism is really not quite like any other 'isms' at all, so to try and classify it like one might be a mistake.
In his introduction, Paxton warns that many of those infamous images associated with fascism (eg. Hitler in Triumph of the Will, Mussolini speaking from a balcony, etc.) have the ability to “induce facile errors” about the fascist leader and the apparent compliance of the crowd. (Contemporary accounts often record how sceptical the common man was of the leader's political message, even if they were transfixed by their oratorical bombast.) As it happens, I thus believe I had something of an advantage of reading this via an audiobook, and completely avoided re-absorbing these iconic images. To me, this was an implicit reminder that, however you choose to reduce it to a definition, fascism is undoubtedly the most visual of all political forms, presenting itself to us in vivid and iconic primary images: ranks of disciplined marching youths, coloured-shirted militants beating up members of demonised minorities; the post-war pictures from the concentration camps...
Still, regardless of you choose to read it, The Anatomy of Fascism is a powerful book that can teach a great deal about fascism in particular and history in general.
What Good are the Arts? (2005)
What Good are the Arts? takes a delightfully sceptical look at the nature of art, and cuts through the sanctimony and cant that inevitably surrounds them. It begins by revealing the flaws in lofty aesthetic theories and, along the way, debunks the claims that art makes us better people. They may certainly bring joy into your life, but by no means do the fine arts make you automatically virtuous. Carey also rejects the entire enterprise of separating things into things that are art and things that are not, making a thoroughly convincing case that there is no transcendental category containing so-called 'true' works of art.
But what is perhaps equally important to what Carey is claiming is the way he does all this. As in, this is an extremely enjoyable book to read, with not only a fine sense of pace and language, but a devilish sense of humour as well. To be clear, What Good are the Arts? it is no crotchety monograph: Leo Tolstoy's *What Is Art? (1897) is hilarious to read in similar ways, but you can't avoid feeling its cantankerous tone holds Tolstoy's argument back. By contrast, Carey makes his argument in a playful sort of manner, in a way that made me slightly sad to read other polemics throughout the year. It's definitely not that modern genre of boomer jeremiad about the young, political correctness or, heaven forbid, 'cancel culture'... which, incidentally, made Carey's 2014 memoir, The Unexpected Professor something of a disappointing follow-up.
Just for fun, Carey later undermines his own argument by arguing at length for the value of one art in particular. Literature, Carey asserts, is the only art capable of reasoning and the only art with the “ability to criticise.” Perhaps so, and Carey spends a chapter or so contending that fiction has the exclusive power to inspire the mind and move the heart towards practical ends... or at least far better than any work of conceptual art.
Whilst reading this book I found myself taking down innumerable quotations and laughing at the jokes far more than I disagreed. And the sustained and intellectual style of polemic makes this a pretty strong candidate for my favourite overall book of the year.
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