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The top fifteen books I read in 2019

At the beginning of this year, I decided to keep a record of the books I read and now, at the end of 2019, it seems a good time to join in with all those making lists of their favourite books of the year. However, my list is made up of books I read this year, not just books which came out this year, and so it is less a top fifteen of 2019 than a top fifteen of my 2019. I’m employing my own idiosyncratic system in this record-keeping but the books I’ve listed below are all ones I completed within the bounds of this year. Also, I simply couldn’t pare my list down to ten, hence the slightly unusual ‘top fifteen’. My picks are very subjective, and I reserve the right to change my mind on a whim, so don’t see this list as some sort of benchmark for me; finally, this list is in no particular order (I tried and failed to rank the books).

The List

1. Unweaving the Rainbow (1998) by Richard Dawkins. There are few prose stylists as elegant and poetic as Dawkins, in fiction or nonfiction, and this is one of his very best; a beautiful and vivid argument for seeing science as inherently poetic. If only more people, whether elitist guardians of literature or academics in the humanities, could remove the blinkers they see as protectors and embrace a whole new world of sublimity!

2. The Blind Watchmaker (1986) by Richard Dawkins. Excellent and cogent description and analysis of the most beautiful human discovery of all: evolution by natural selection.

3. The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life by Richard Dawkins and Yan Wong (2016 second edition; first edition came out in 2004, where Wong was credited only in certain parts of the book). Iona Italia has described this as her favourite novel. And it is wonderful- a scientific pilgrimage, an evolutionary story, a tracing of life’s ancestry all the way back to the beginning. A big and daunting book, which Dawkins admitted he struggled with at first, it is well worth the effort. It’s the last Dawkins on the list too, I promise!

4. God Is Not Great (2007) by Christopher Hitchens. I’d read this years before but my appreciation for Hitchens’s writing and arguments only increased this time around. A slice of blockbuster atheism, it’s a serious yet delicious book.

5. The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever selected and with introductions by Christopher Hitchens (2007). I’ve picked an anthology to cheat- this collection contains so much elegant writing and argumentation that to pick favourites would be impossible. From Lucretius to Ian McEwan by way of David Hume and Bertrand Russell, it’s indispensable whether you’re an atheist or not. (Incidentally, I wrote about the New Atheists for Uncommon Ground, here.)

6. Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine (1990). Adams was the main writer of this book chronicling his and naturalist Mark Carwardine’s travels around the world to visit species on the edge of extinction. As such it is brilliantly funny, deeply insightful, and movingly humane. It is, for all that, also sad, because we have not learned our lesson- at least one of the species Adams and Carwardine sought out is now extinct, to our shame. I wrote about Adams and this book for The National Student, here.

7. Decline and Fall (1928) by Evelyn Waugh. I finally got around to reading some more Waugh this year, having read Scoop some years ago, and I was not disappointed. This is a great comic novel, with undertones of satire and critique, full of wonderful characters.

8. Citizen Tom Paine by Howard Fast (1943). It’s a travesty that this book is barely remembered now for it is a rip-roaring piece of historical fiction as well as a moving and accurate portrayal of a complex and brilliant man. I wrote about it for Areo Magazine here.

9. The History of Philosophy (2019) by A.C. Grayling. I reviewed this new book for Areo– positively, otherwise, it wouldn’t be on this list! A hefty tome covering western philosophy from Thales to the present, with outlines of Indian, Arabic-Persian, Chinese, and African philosophy, it might seem a difficult book to get into. But it isn’t- it is written with Grayling’s characteristic clarity, and you will learn much of value from it, and find a deeper appreciation of the uses philosophy- so often derided as a dead discipline- can be put to and the value it had and has.

10. The Satanic Verses (1988) by Salman Rushdie. Infamous for the fatwa hurled at its author, this book deserves more- it deserves literary appreciation, for it is a fine work of the imagination, deep and wise and written with the rainbow beauty of which Rushdie is a master. I’ve written about the fatwa, and the book, for The National Student and Quillette, here and here. (And I have to mention his latest book, released this year, Quichotte, another brilliant addition to his oeuvre, which I reviewed for Areo. While I’m plugging things, I also wrote, for The Broad, this account of the Edinburgh International Book Festival launch event for Quichotte, and Gordon Brown’s talk there too).

11. Joseph Anton: A Memoir (2012) by Salman Rushdie. Much more than just an account of the fatwa years, this is one of my favourite books ever; it is a defence of literature and the free mind and free speech, a tale of life and love and loss and beauty and identity, a kaleidoscope of colour and feeling, and, above all, a story of endurance and victory, but one which warns us to be on guard- for the free, cosmopolitan mind is forever under threat.

12. Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale: The Final Chapter by Russell T Davies and Benjamin Cook (2010, original version published 2008). The email correspondence between journalist Cook and godlike TV writer Davies is full of the pain and joy of the writer’s life, as well as an intriguing look at how television is made. I saw Davies in Edinburgh at the TV Festival this year and wrote about it here (I also reviewed his latest, and brilliant, show here.)

13. Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel García Márquez (1981). I read this for a university course and adored it- it’s a powerful work of the imagination and lyrical in its style, a deep and complex story of tradition and complicity.

14. Unfollow: A Journey From Hatred to Hope, Leaving The Westboro Baptist Church by Megan Phelps-Roper (2019). I reviewed this here. A moving memoir of indoctrination and freedom, a testament to the power of reason, and a reminder that religion can mandate, with full textual authority, the cruellest and most hideous of actions and corrupt intelligent and good people.

15. The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells (1898). What a book! We couldn’t even fly and cars and electricity were barely a thing when Wells wrote this scientific romance of alien invasion. It holds up today as an exciting and thrilling piece of fiction, full of action, dazzle, description, and vigour, and its grounding in real science only adds to the reader’s delight. Still better than most science fiction produced today. It is also very clever, using alien invasion as a way to critique imperialism, the undertaking of which was a shibboleth among many in Wells’s day, and exploring the nature of evolution by natural selection, both generally and for humans, by applying its principles to the Martians.

As I said this list is whimsical and subjective. It was very hard to pare down my favourite books of the year for I’ve read many excellent ones. Hopefully, that trend continues into 2020, for which I wish you good fortune and happiness.


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