Here continueth a tradition I started way back in 2013, having resolved at the beginning of that year to read less internet and more books. I present a review of the twenty-three titles that I got though in 2015, in the order that they were read.
Sagely, I advised myself back in January to sketch my impression of each book as soon as I’d finished it. Stupidly, I didn’t stick to the plan. Where I was able to crank out a longer review there is a link in the title of the short commentaries below.
1. Open access and the humanities, Martin Paul Eve
One for aficionados of the open access revolution in scholarly publishing, which aims to make all academic research free to read. Truth be told, it’s a rather slow revolution and slowest of all in the humanities, as the changes impelled by information technology collide with the culture and practice of the academy. Martin Paul Eve, English lecturer and founder of the Open Library of Humanities, makes a compelling (and freely available) case for humanities scholars joining in with the open access project.
2. All that is, James Salter
I was beguiled by Salter’s The Hunters in 2013. All that is, published shortly before he died, is similarly spare, stylish and masculine. Salter’s touch is sure but his protagonist’s, ultimately, is not. Philip Bowman exudes confidence in his easy transition from his war years in the navy to a successful career in publishing, and in his many relationships with women, but no amount of self-possession can prevent his life unraveling in this haunting, lonely novel.
3. Unweaving the Rainbow, Richard Dawkins
Dawkins is better known these days for his wayward tweets but he is still rightly revered as one of the greatest stylists of modern popular science. Sadly, this isn’t one of his better efforts. Unweaving the Rainbow posits that science can be as poetic as art, but while it contains several fascinating elements, Dawkins’ inelegant mix of argument and score-settling had too many tangled threads and loose ends to satisfy this reader.
4. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, John le Carré
Le Carré’s breakthrough spy thriller is as old as I am and it does me no credit to have taken so long to get around to reading it. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is tautly composed and damp with the dour cynicism of 1960s cold war Britain and Germany. Alec Leamas, the eponymous spy, may be every bit as coolly calculating as James Bond but is a very different kind of man. You will find no distraction in glamour and gadgets here, but a human heart that leaves a more lasting impression.
5. Being Mortal, Atul Gawande
Never send to know for whom the bell tolls and don’t pick up Being Mortal if you aren’t prepared to hold your gaze on the face of death. Gawande, a gifted writer, casts a physician’s forensic eye over end-of-life care and charges modern medicine with a loss of humanity. But there is no lack of humanity in the shining examples he finds of those who have brought heart and innovation to the care of the elderly or the terminally ill, or in the candid and moving account of his own struggles to look after his dying father.
6. Francis Crick, Matt Ridley
It is unfashionable for histories of science to be peopled with heroes and in most cases with good reason. But Francis Crick towers over the 20th Century story of DNA and molecular biology in much the same way that the institute named after him looks set to dominate UK biomedical research. At just over 200 pages Ridley’s biography provides a brisk but highly serviceable introduction to Crick’s achievements and influence without glossing over the great man’s foibles.
7. From Hell, Alan Moore
Can someone help me out here? Moore has many admirers but I must be missing something. From Hell is the second of his graphic novels that I have read – I tackled Watchmen a few years ago – but once again I was left cold. Moore’s re-telling of the Jack the Ripper story is unrelentingly grim and I could not find it in myself to buy into his masonic conspiracy theory. Heartless.
8. The Water Book, Alok Jha
Water is so common in our everyday experience that you could be forgiven for thinking it has no new stories to tell, but Jha’s book delights with novelty. Blended into the account of his voyage aboard the Academik Shokalskiy to the icescapes of Antarctica are fascinating tales of the creation of water in the early universe, the life-giving cycles of water in all its forms here on earth and the tantalising possibilities raised by the discovery of liquid water in the dark recesses of our solar system.
9. The Pinch, David Willetts
“Good government values the future; bad government takes from it,” warns former Conservative MP and minister, David Willetts, in The Pinch. Willetts examines the inter-generational contract and finds it to be some way out of balance in a society where families, once the backbone of social and economic order, are fragmenting. This is no political polemic but a cool, collected analysis, as might be expected from someone of Willetts’ intellectual heft. Nor is it excessively dry. The Pinch is enlivened by Willetts’ wit and surprisingly broad cultural references, including The Monkees, The Simpsons, and Bladerunner.
10. The Vital Question, Nick Lane
What will it take for me to persuade you to read Lane’s rip-roaring tale of the most fundamental problem in biology? The origin of life on Earth derives not from the breath of God, or any vital spark, but – in all probability (since none were there to witness the moment) – from the accretion of the energy and the first simple compounds in a molecular dance that has only become more elaborate in time. The Vital Question is not for fair-weather readers but Lane’s knowledge and passion for his subject will transport those made of sterner stuff.
11. Life’s Greatest Secret, Matthew Cobb
Life’s greatest secret produced one of the year’s greatest science books. Cobb angles in on the story of DNA from an unexpected direction to recount the clash of ideas and scientists from the emergent worlds of cybernetics and molecular biology that finally unlocked the genetic code. It’s a gripping and colourful tale that provides one of the best accounts I have read of the fits and starts through which science really works.
12. Serving the Reich, Philip Ball
The rise of Nazism presented the scientists of early 20th Century Germany with a dilemma. Caught between their love of country and of research, giants of physics such as Planck, Heisenberg and Debye largely failed in their struggle with the Nazi debasement of science and their Jewish colleagues. Ball’s historical analysis is meticulous and wise, and his disappointment tempered with human sympathy. The Nazis may have exited the historical stage, but Serving the Reich is a potent reminder to scientists that devotion to research provides no escape from the moral choices thrown up by a cruel world.
13. The Third Policeman, Flann O’Brien
Narrated by a nameless author who commits a murder to steal the funds to publish his great treatise on the scientist and philosopher, de Selby, The Third Policeman is a work of surreal genius that left me smiling, discombobulated and aghast. Constructed in equal parts of logic and illogic, O’Brien’s novel nevertheless has a beguiling self-consistency. I can’t make any more sense of it than that, though I do remember particularly enjoying the footnotes on de Selby, which brilliantly skewer the high pretensions of academic writing. Only one thing is for sure: it’s definitely not about a bicycle.
14. The Value of the Humanities, Helen Small
Debates about open access and research funding tend to be dominated by the interests of natural scientists, so I turned to Small’s slender tome in search of an alternative perspective. Her argument for the distinctive value and utility of the humanities is subtle, wide-ranging and convincingly weighty. However, it is a rather dryly academic (every footnote brought to mind the twinkle in Flann O’Brien’s eye), and I could not help thinking that Small had missed an opportunity to win friends in a broader audience.
15. You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson
Social media has the capacity to excite the worst facets of human behaviour. When Nobel laureate Tim Hunt’s ill-judged joke erupted across Twitter and the blogosphere in the early summer, few combatants in the ensuing crusades distinguished themselves by keeping a cold eye on proceedings. In the wake of these protracted hostilities I turned to Ronson’s book for enlightenment. The case histories he documents are no less bilious or depressing but Ronson is a witty and insightful guide and even, in the end, has a glimmer of hope to offer.
16. The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler
I try to treat myself to at least one Chandler a year and Philip Marlowe, his wise-cracking private detective, remains a firm favourite. Marlowe is every bit as cynical, embittered and humane as Le Carré’s Leamas, but he is a sharper and more loquacious observer of human life. Wickedly joyous.
17. Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson
Housekeeping, rated by some as one of the top 100 novels of all time, tells the story of Ruthie and her childhood struggles with the strange forces of family and place. Though I preferred Robinson’s Gilead (my favourite book of last year), Housekeeping astonishes by adopting a similarly simple style and structure to support its weighty themes, in this case the ache of the transience and loneliness of human life.
18. Photograph 51, Anna Ziegler
Ziegler’s play took me back to the story of DNA, this time with Rosalind Franklin as the central character. The history of Franklin’s “usurpation” by Watson, Crick and Wilkins en route to a Nobel prize in which she did not share is widely misunderstood. For dramatic effect Photograph 51 may not set the record straight, but it is nevertheless a moving exploration of the perturbing effects of human frailties on the process of scientific discovery, brought memorably to life by Nicole Kidman in this year’s West End production.
19. Essays, George Orwell
This is another one of those books, full of wisdom and fire, that I wish I’d read thirty years ago. Orwell died aged only 46, younger than I am now, and I can only wonder and the breadth of his accomplishments. His Essays range over topics as varied as life at boarding school, the death penalty, saucy postcards, literary analysis, and the drudge of book reviewing. Orwell is occasionally wide of the mark – his expectations for the socialist transformation of Britain after the war never materialised – but everywhere else he lacerates hypocrisy and humbug with analytical powers that retain a vigour sadly denied to him in life.
20. The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker
Pinker’s guide to writing initially has plenty of fun at the expense of the self-appointed guardians of grammar, and the bureaucrats and academics who specialise in elaborate but meaningless prose. Eventually it settles down as a serious manual on how to write with clarity and purpose. I could have done without some of Pinker’s theoretical baggage, but that is easily forgiven because The Sense of Style is so clever and commonsensical. I am determined that in 2016 my sentences will be shorter and sharper.
21. The Only Woman in the Room, Eileen Pollack
Pollack doesn’t come across as the most likeable protagonist in this account of her struggles with science at school and at university – she is at times too candid for her own good. Ultimately, however, the honesty is disarming. The personal details of her story provide a vivid backdrop to the problem of sexism within science that she supports in the later chapters with a thorough examination of the evidence. Some may prefer to focus entirely on the data but The Only Woman in the Room brings useful colour to an important and current debate.
22. Herding Hemingway’s Cats, Kat Arney
Arney’s chirpy tour through the mysteries of modern genetics is engrossing and fun – and my fourth DNA book of the year. The story of DNA may be over sixty years old but the secrets of how biological information is structured and controlled in living cells continue to surprise. Arney has talked to many of the scientists working at the forefront of the field, and produces a lively update on the phenomenal complexity of the molecular inheritance that makes us us.
23. Seven Brief Lessons in Physics, Carlo Rovelli
OK, I cheated a little with this one to boost my tally for the year. This is such a slim volume that it took me the commute of a single day to finish it. Rovelli’s lessons may be brief but they do not want for ambition, covering the big questions of physics – relativity, quantum mechanics, the cosmos and the sub-atomic structure of matter. In seven short chapters he has little space for details but the treatment is never trite. It is amazing that such a short book can dig to such satisfyingly depths.
And that’s it for 2015. I am presently enjoying What’s Left, Nick Cohen’s polemic on the loss of purpose in left-wing politics. Looking back over the list, I can’t decide whether my choices are eclectic or plough the predictable furrow of a middle-aged liberal academic. Please feel free to point me in new and interesting directions for 2016.
When not reading books @Stephen_Curry works as a professor of structural biology at Imperial College,