My Favourite Books of 2020

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Last year, I listed some of my favourite Christmas music and a re-cap of the books I particularly enjoyed. Well, here we go again. Below is my roundup of my favourite books out of the 30 or so I read for pleasure this year, plus a couple of Christmas albums that I stumbled upon for this season.

Happy Holidays and happy reading 🎄

Books

When the Shooting Stops, the Cutting Begins: A Film Editor’s Story
Ralph Rosenblum & Robert Karen, 1979, Da Capo Press

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Take a second and see with how many directors’ names you can come up with. I assume for most of you the number is greater than two. Now repeat the exercise with film editors…My bet is that most of you won’t be able to name a single one (directors who edit their own films don’t count) which is nothing to be ashamed of. As far as filmmaking goes, editors are an invisible force. Turning mere footage into something that can be called a movie, they are often more important than the director — or at least this is the argument Ralph Rosenblum (a long-term editor for Woody Allen and, perhaps most famously, for “The Producers”) puts forward in his book that is part autobiography, part behind-the-scenes look at the history and secrets of a profession that belongs to the least-understood in movie-making. A must-read for film buffs.

Our Europe: Banquet of Nations
Laurent Gaudé, 2019, Europa Editions

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Recommended to me by my dear friend and colleague Mary Sanford, this book is a true gem. While I’ve been told it’s best read in the French original I had to revert to the English translation by Alison Anderson as my French is virtually non-existent. Over 192 pages (that will fly by) Gaude presents a history of Europe in free verse, making a passionate case for a European Union, not despite but because of some of the differences between its people. Two excerpts below…

“Europe was built without the enthusiasm of the people,
As a precaution,
Because the enthusiasm of the people led to crime.”
(p. 144)

“Who are we now?
What we share,
Is from having been through hell together,
Having been, each one of us,
Torturer and victim,
Gagged youth and blood-covered hands.
What we share,
Is a troubled humanism.
We know man’s inhumanity to man,
We know the abyss,
We have been swallowed by its depth.
What binds us together, is that we are an anxious people.
Who know the shadow within.”
(p. 181)

Not Born Yesterday
Hugo Mercier, 2020, Princeton University Press

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A fellow countryman of Gaudé, cognitive scientist Hugo Mercier has written one of the best science books this year. The central claim of his “Not Born Yesterday: The Science of Who We Trust and What We Believe” is fairly simple: humans, Mercier argues, are far less gullible and prone to believe crazy things than most pundits these days would have us believe. “For most of history, the concept of widespread credulity has been fundamental to our understanding of society”, he writes “[…] but far from being gullible, humans are endowed with dedicated cognitive mechanisms that allow them to carefully evaluate communicated information. Instead of blindly following prestigious individuals or the majority, we weigh many cues to decide what to believe, who knows best, who to trust, and what to feel.” At a time when large swaths seem to believe that we are hopelessly doomed because everyone else is stupid and easily misled or manipulated, Mercier’s book provides a nuanced antidote to such thinking, grounded in a careful examination of a wealth of evidence from psychology and the social sciences. If you’re keen to get a sneak preview, Henry Farrell has a good summary here

The Decline and Rise of Democracy
David Stasavage, 2020, Princeton University Press

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Unless you are a political theorist (I’m not) this book is probably not what you’d casually pick up at your local bookstore. Which is a shame really, given how good it is. David Stasavage offers a rich, international overview on the origins of democracy and the conditions under which democracy flourishes (or doesn’t). Drawing on a wealth of evidence and scholarship and examining the concept across continents and centuries, Stasavage makes the compelling case that democracy is something “common to the human condition” (at least in its early and most basic form), flowing from a deeply human instinct to have agency and restrain power from above. In an analytical tour de force the book traces the evolution of democracy, and details its preconditions and tensions, sweeping away some longstanding preconceptions along the way (Convinced that democracy was only invented by the ancient Greeks or is a uniquely Western thing? Think again). Most importantly, however, The Decline and Rise of Democracy is an outstanding piece of scholarly writing not just because of the theory it develops, but how it does so: In clear, concise, and forceful prose — the rarest of combinations, which makes this book all the more enjoyable.

Haven’t You Heard? Gossip, Politics and Power
Marie Le Conte, 2020, 535 Publishing

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We stay in politics with a book that doesn’t take the high view but instead looks at the inner workings of one of the world’s oldest surviving democracies: the fascinating, sometimes absolutely bonkers, but often just very mundane world of SW1 — better known to many as Westminster, the political district from which the United Kingdom is being ruled. Drawing on many years of experience as a political journalist at the heart of UK politics, her extensive network of contacts, and a good deal of scholarship on the more human side of politics, Le Conte addresses the lubricant that keeps the Westminster machine (and presumably many others around the globe) running: Gossip. On top of that, the reader gets an overview of how politics “works” in the UK (if you ever wanted to know what e.g. a “Whip” is, this is your chance to find out). “Haven’t You Heard?” is a highly entertaining and educative read that treats its subjects with a sense of compassion that’s hard to find these days in writings about politics. At a time when many people feel that weekly screw-ups are Westminster’s modus operandi, rather than the exception to the rule, Le Conte manages to look beyond partisan divisions and provides a tough but fair assessment of the dynamics at the epicenter of British politics.

Artificial Intelligence. A Guide for Thinking Humans
Melanie Mitchell, 2020, Pelican

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Talk of AI is everywhere these days but as but as soon as it comes to the question of what AI actually is, things get tricky. One of the main problems here is the chasm between the public perception of AI and the reality of such systems. Melanie Mitchell, one of the leading computer scientists in this field of research, addresses exactly this gap in her book. The result is a cautious and often skeptical overview of artificial intelligence technology and its application which pushes pack against some of the more outlandish claims about the impending arrival of a superintelligence or the technological singularity. Essential reading for the likes of Elon Musk.

Retooling Politics: How Digital Media Are Shaping Democracy
Andreas Jungherr, Gonzalo Rivero, & Daniel Gayo-Aveloo, 2020, Cambridge University Press

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© Andreas Jungherr: https://twitter.com/ajungherr/status/1305872890869559299/photo/1

Just as AI is beset by hype and exaggerations, so is the topic of digital media and their role in modern-day politics. Steering clear of the simplistic arguments made by both the apostles and fear-mongers of digital technology, Jungherr et al. marshal the latest evidence from across the social sciences to produce a careful, rigorous, and step-by-step analysis of why, where, how, and to what extent digital media re-shape the various aspects of contemporary politics and democracy. The central argument of “Retooling Politics” is as elegant in its simplicity as it is convincing: Focusing on the needs of political actors (that is e.g. politicians, campaigns, activists, and yes, citizens), Jungherr et al. argue that these have not fundamentally changed. Instead, campaigns still try to change minds and to mobilise people, voters still search for information, and organisations continue to face challenges in coordinating supporters, to name just a few. What has changed, however, are the tools by which these actors pursue their needs. In other words: digital media have “retooled politics” (hence the title) but not fundamentally transformed the same. What we witness is a gradual, layered change rather than a revolution as some people have argued. It’s the kind of book I want to put in the hands of anyone who talks about “social media revolutions” or claims technology corporations are solely responsible for political upheavals.

Political Entrepreneurs. The Rise of Challenger Parties in Europe
Catherine E. De Vries & Sarah B. Hobolt, 2020, Princeton University Press

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The final entry in this list is yet another book on politics, this time by professors Catherine De Vries and Sara Hobolt who address one of the most pressing and intriguing questions in European politics: How should we make sense of the decline of mainstream parties and the rise of political outsiders on both sides of the political spectrum across Europe? What explains this upheaval in European politics? De Vries and Hobolt tackle this question head on by borrowing from their colleagues in economics, namely those in industrial organisation. They effectively describe politics as a market with imperfect competition where parties compete for “market share” (just like firms). In this tug-of-war between mainstream parties seeking to protect their dominance, and challenger parties trying to break the same, it has become increasingly difficult for the incumbents to defend their territory (among other things due to decreasing voter loyalty and various wedge issues that weaken them) and easier for challengers to gain a share of the pie (by mobilising new issues such as immigration or the environment and by employing anti-establishment rhetoric). “Political Entrepreneurs” is a smart and accessible book which relies on a wealth of empirical evidence to make its case — and it shines bright as an example of great academic writing, because it does so with a clarity that looks effortless but is so hard to attain.

Music

As far as I am concerned, 2020 was a good year for new Christmas albums. The Gabriel Latchin Trio has delivered a fine jazz album in the tradition of greats like Dave Brubeck. Chilly Gonzalez turns some of the classics on their head by re-interpreting them in minor keys. Jamie Cullum’s album is a surprise hit for me with its wonderfully warm big band sound. The Exeter College Chapel Choir is among Oxford’s best (sorry Balliol) and great if you’re feeling a little more spiritual. Finally, Cory Henry is probably the last person I expected to record a Christmas album but I am glad he did.

I’ll Be Home for Christmas
Gabriel Latchin Trio, 2020, Alys Jazz

A very chilly christmas
Chilli Gonzalez, 2020, Gentle Threat

The Pianoman at Christmas
Jamie Cullum, 2020, Universal Island Records

On Christmas Night
Exeter College Chapel Choir, 2016, OxRecDIGITAL

Cory Henry. Christmas With You
Cory Henry, 2020, Culture Collective

Felix Simon is a Leverhulme Doctoral Scholar at the Oxford Internet Institute where he is researching AI in journalism and the news industry. He works as a research assistant at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and as a journalist. His tweets can be found under @_Felix Simon_.

Journalist & Researcher. DPhil student Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford. Research Assistant Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

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