When I decided I was going to write a review of my reading year, I had a bit of an anxious moment: totting up my annual literary consumption, it seemed that I hadn’t read very much at all. I was wrong, it was just that I’d blanked out the 4,576 pages of George RR Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire sequence that dominated my recreation hours between March and September. My original plan was to read just the first novel, then pick up the second after the second TV series, and so on. I did not do that.
Instead, I became a dragon-fevered fantasy obsessive for a season, tugged along from book to book by some downright cynical plotting – Martin breaks the story up into various POV chapters, and he exploits this constantly to withhold information and generate cliffhangers. As much as I couldn’t stop reading, I’m not sure if I’d definitely recommend to anyone else. For one thing, at least two books’ worth of plot points are invented just to be whimsically annihilated later on. For another, the story still isn’t finished, meaning there’s an outside chance that I could be cheated out of an ending even after reading all those pages.
And last of all, in between the pulsating action and dazzling magic scenes, there’s some of the most abysmal sex writing you have ever read. Breeches tent. Nipples stiffen. I don’t know how that’s more unpleasant that the beheadings and eviscerations, but there you are. Unlike Sady Doyle, I didn’t feel like Westeros was just some kind of rape culture theme park – it’s a dense, backstabbing world of enticing characters, which happens to feature quite a lot of rape. Also some pretty broad strokes of orientalism, and a little dash of old-fashioned racism.
But even if I felt ambivalent about Martin by the end of a Dance With Dragons, I’d at least developed a profound respect for fantasy readers, and their willingness to crawl through miles of type with only the vague promise of an ending decades away. Also in the fantastical mode, I finished off Titus Alone, the third and final part of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy. After the heavy gothic of the first two, Alone is romantic Bildungsroman – the hero making his way in the world, while that world appears to be falling to bits. It’s an extraordinary object, more 18th century than 20th, even if the contemporary uncertainties of devastating war and receding empire are clear within the grotesque and anachronistic world of the Groans.
My greatest reading pleasure last year was introducing my children to the Moomin books. They’re perfect for shared reading, because Tove Jansson’s funny world of hippo-like trolls is pitched precisely at children, but contains all the wisdom of adulthood. As an emotional observer, she’s every bit as acute as Katherine Mansfield or George Eliot, regardless the tails and fur her characters wear; I’ve written more about a favourite part of Moominland Midwinter here.
In non-fiction, my reading was mostly focused on trying to understand the economic crisis (John Lanchester’s Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone And No One Can Pay was invaluable in that regard), considering alternative systems (GA Cohen’s Why Not Socialism? is an elegant, persuasive and concise tract for anyone wondering if neo-liberal capitalism is actually inevitable), and understanding what we’re liable to lose in this rule of cuts (The Five Giants: A Biography Of The Welfare State by Nicholas Timmins, started but not yet finished; it’s really big).
But Cordelia Fine’s Delusions Of Gender: The Real Science Of Sex Difference is probably the most important book I’ve read this year, at least in terms of my own politics: I’ve written about it several times, and continue to be impressed with how sharp, supple, thoughtful and witty it is, even while it’s dismantling the most wearisomely pervasive tropes of neurosexism. In between George RR Martin novels (and swallowed by them in my memory of last year, so I’m editing to add this) I galloped through Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman, which was just about funny and wise enough to get away with the odd “needless to say, I had the last laugh”-ism, until I got to the chapter about Moran’s abortion, at which point I wanted to paint her splendid sentences all over city walls. (Edit ends.)
Also on the feminism shelf, Half The Sky was semi-satisfying: as a journalistic exposé of global misogyny, it was vital and shocking, but its prescriptions for improving conditions were suspiciously glib and flattering to individual heroes, some of whom weren’t exactly honest. And then there was Pornland by Gail Dines, a clanging polemic against pornography which mixed scaremongering (porn will turn you into a paedo!) with shockingly bad evidence. (Who says porn makes paedos? An incarcerated paedophile – always a source of moral wisdom and honest self analysis, those ones.)
Another book I didn’t much enjoy was Robin Harvie’s Why We Run. I love running, and I love reading about it; pity then, despite the universalist claims of the title, that this book was really just a memoir of the not-so-interesting author. Running an ultramarathon is impressive. Turning it into a cloying emotional journey, less so. Pegging it to the death of your father in law? Embarrassing. And the weird pride Harvie takes in pissing blood when a badly-planned run ends in dehydration is probably why he, personally, shouldn’t run at all.
If you want to read about running, the book you need is Born To Run by Christopher McDougall – not just the best sports books I’ve ever read (slim field), but one of the best works of long-form journalism on any subject. McDougall’s private efforts to overcome injury bring him to the ultrarunning Tarahumara tribe of Mexico and an extraordinary race. By the end, you’ll be prepared to believe that running could be the foundational act of humanity; but if you’re not, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s Mothers And Others: The Evolutionary Origins Of Mutual Understanding is a more scholarly take on anthropology, arguing that our species’ social instincts go deeper than you ever thought.
This year, I’ll be reading Alasdair Gray’s insanely rich A Life In Pictures (a Christmas present), catching up on a couple of things from 2011 I didn’t quite get round to (Chavs for one, The Coalition Chronicles for another), and re-reading Middlemarch. Plus, of course, anything you’d care to recommend in the comments – just so long as the author definitely isn’t going to die before they get to the finish.
Text © Sarah Ditum, 2012