Another poor reading year. Same excuse I gave last year. Nevertheless I did manage to read some really interesting things.
I am not sure this was the best book I read in 2014. I think it’s the best book I have ever read, period. If everyone writes history like Alan Taylor does, it will be a far more interesting subject than it currently is.
This is the untold story of slaves in America – around 3,400 in all – who escaped from Virginia to side with the British and fight against their former American owners. It is a bit more complicated than that, but you get the gist. In the end, this is a tale about the unlimited capacity that humans have for hypocrisy – just because something is evil (and most people know it’s evil) doesn’t mean it can’t continue for hundreds of years.
This epic bit of trolling by a slave – Bartlet Shanklyn – who escaped and then wrote a letter to his former owner was one of my favourite bits of the book
I really loved this book and its one I will go back to again.
The thing about China is that the Communist Party really really controls the flow of information in the country. So unless you live in China, it really is impossible to know certain things. Records are erased to the point where you can never find them anywhere anymore.
Evan Osnos spent 8 years living in China and documented a lot of what he saw. The result is an immensely enjoyable book that follows the lives and ambitions of actual ordinary Chinese people living in a time of almost breakneck speed.
You have absolutely nothing to lose by reading this book. Some really excellent writing by a fine journalist
Professor Thomas Sowell remains one of my ideological lodestars so from time to time I go back to read something he wrote a long time. They never disappoint.
This book was written in 1990 and it’s fresh as ever. If you really want to understand how ‘good intentioned’ policies can create the problems they were intended to solve, then you should read this. Using empirical example after empirical example from India, Nigeria, South Africa and the USA among others, he causes you to think hard about so many things that are as sacrosanct as gospel these days
Bring all your priors, knowledge and beliefs and allow Peter Thiel to challenge them for you. It’s not too difficult to be a contrarian – just oppose whatever the consensus is. What is not so easy is to make a convincing argument for thinking the opposite of what everyone accepts as conventional wisdom.
You won’t agree with everything he says – I am still struggling with his arguments on monopolies – but you will not be able to dismiss the points he makes easily. He is formidable as an intellectual.
And he is interesting
Teju Cole really knows how to own the English language. Not everyone can think something in their head and then write it down in a way that brings the reader into their head.
This is also a depressing read about how Nigeria doesn’t change much – he wrote the book in 2007 before the critical acclaim that came with Open City. It remains as true then as it was in 2014 when it was published again.
It’s a work of fiction. Or is it?
Last year was the 100th anniversary of the Great War that killed millions and millions of people in Europe. Yet, a century later, few people are agreed on what exactly it was that caused the war.
Max Hastings does his best though and the result is this magnificent chronicle of the first year of the war and everything that led up to it. Even African conflicts look like child’s play compared to the killing spree that went on in the first 5 months of the war alone – 329,000 French deaths and 800,000 German casualties among many others.
It is amusing then to see Scotland and several other small ‘nations’ agitate for independence in 2014. Europe used to be a place where it was really dangerous to be a small country.
How the times have changed
It sometimes felt as if 2014 was the most racist year in history, ever. Every week on twitter there was one ‘racist’ event or the other, complete with its own hashtag.
What’s the real story? Is the world evidently more racist than it has ever been? Who knows. But Jason Riley writes from America (where the majority of these arguments emanate) in a way that isn’t very popular outside of Conservative circles.
Staying with the data and avoiding emotional arguments, he makes the case (like Thomas Sowell) that many people who wanted to help blacks in the 60s ended up harming them.
Skip if this something you are not interested in. I am biased and I thought it was a really good and timely book
I thought to add some articles I read and enjoyed in 2014 as well. I really got into New Yorker magazine and they gave me some really enjoyable reads in the year.
1. What do you know about Angela Merkel, one of the most powerful politicians in the world? After reading George Packer’s piece on her, you’ll realise the answer to that question is ‘not much’.
2. There is something about this piece on a (non-existent) Goldman Sachs aluminium that I really liked. When I read it, I tweeted it below
I am glad that I wrote my most popular piece in 2014 and it was an explainer. If you read that piece and shared it, thank you very much.
3. This 5 part piece on the future of the book by The Economist magazine was excellent.
4. I got into some arguments about GMO crops in 2014 (I’m a believer in them) so this piece was of interest to me. I think it perfectly describes the motivations of the people behind a lot of scaremongering about GM foods. Also from the New Yorker
5. In 2014 I discovered Professor Ricardo Hausmann. He blogs once a month at the Project Syndicate (bookmark him) website and everything he writes is excellent.
It’s hard to pick a favourite but if I must, it will be the one below
6. Professor Deirdre McCloskey is another one of my ideological lodestars. As someone said, she appears to have read everything worth reading and is never ever boring to read.
She did a 55 page review of Thomas Piketty’s ‘Capital’ and it did not disappoint. I haven’t read the book itself but I suspect Professor McCloskey’s review is more interesting than it is.
That’s it. Books continue to enrich my life and I hope they do yours too.
See you in a year (no, this blog will still be here. I mean the next review).