For all that BookMachine is emphatically not a site about the merits of individual books, it hopefully doesn’t come as a shock to any regular visitors that we’re all readers nonetheless, and that, as readers, we enjoy some books more than others. For my last post of the year, then – and, to be honest, mainly so I seemed less onanistic than if I had done this alone – I asked my fellow contributors to the site to pitch in on the best things we read this year. Stick two fingers up to the Mayans and join us when we return in January.
It’s been said that the song of 2012 is “Gangnam Style”, and if this is the case then there’s no doubt in my mind that the book of 2012 is 50 Shades of Grey. But we don’t need to despair that the yearly output of these two incredibly creative industries has been reduced to a shitty dance and lip biting porn, because there were plenty of good books released in 2012. My book of the year is probably Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway. The story of a clockwork specialist and gangster’s son, a doomsday device that imparts knowledge, and a cast of characters so thoroughly loved by the author and precisely detailed I felt I’d run into them in the street while I was reading proved to me that there’s still some good in this world. Bring on 2013.
The best book I’ve read by far this year is Into the Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes. To be honest with you I was terrified – hands gripped onto the sofa; the kind of book that you could devour in a couple of days. For a first novel it is incredibly well written, with two timelines running through the book. I’m not really a crime thriller fan, but this book just grips you right from the start. The author was working as a crime analyst at the time of writing the book which must have helped her really capture the essence of the characters in the book. Since publishing Into the Darkest Corner, she has also published Revenge of the Tide, which is in the top 5 of my Christmas reading list for this year.
This year I’ve mostly been reading up on how to improve memory, and how our memories are being destroyed.
Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer delves into the sub-culture of memory ‘athletes’, who compete against each other worldwide to prove their mettle. It’s also a detailed look at the science of memory and how it makes us who we are, and gives a few techniques for remembering the shopping list.
Meanwhile, The Shallows by Nicholas Carr was either a terrifying look at how the internet is turning us into a race of permanently distracted stupid people, or a life affirming tale of how we have successfully transitioned from requiring a 300 page tome in order to grasp an idea, to become experts in quickly scanning vast amounts of information, with memory outsourced to our smartphones. Hmm.
Long-time readers of the site may remember that at the start of this year, we put up a post about the books we got for Christmas, in which I vowed that this would be the year in which I finally read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Well, kind of. I should really probably have started reading it then and there if I wanted to finish it before 2013, because having started some time in June, I finally decided to take a break from it at some point in October. I was a third of the way through. This thing is huge. Not just in volume – although 981 densely-packed pages of ten-point type plus another 98 of even smaller-print footnotes is up there for a single novel – but in scope, range, virtuosity. It’s exhausting and overwhelming and enervating and deliriously exhilarating – like one of those journeys down an internet rabbit hole you take accidentally then look up and realise three hours have passed. It demands extended periods of time and concentration to absorb fully, neither of which I was able to give it in the amounts required. I will go back and finish it. Next year.
As you might expect, that didn’t leave me as much time as I’d like to catch up on books that were actually published this year, but I will put in a shout for Talking Heads frontman David Byrne’s How Music Works as a lucid primer on every aspect of music, from composition and live performance to recording and making money from it, illustrated with enlightening examples from his own storied career, and for the wonderful Edinburgh Book Festival-commissioned four volume boxset of short stories Elsewhere, which found the likes of Alasdair Gray, Roddy Doyle, Ali Smith and A L Kennedy expounding upon the titular notion to great effect.