Like every year, it is time for my list of some of my favourite new Christmas albums as well as a couple of books I read for pleasure and particularly enjoyed over the last year (see also the 2020 & 2019 edition). While I did not get as much reading done as I had hoped to (and in all honesty, there were more important things to worry about in the last year than reading as many books as possible), I managed to get through a couple of volumes, a selection of which features below. As for the Christmas albums, 2021 did not produce a great harvest, but I found three that I did enjoy a lot and I hope you will too (and perhaps this list is also helpful for those of you who are still searching for Christmas presents).
A very happy Christmas to you all and happy reading & listening 🎄
Superior: The Return of Race Science
Angela Saini, 2019, Beacon Press
I was fairly late to this book by science writer Angela Saini and that’s a shame as its a forceful examination of race science past and present that everyone should read. I won’t repeat Saini’s main arguments here (Wikipedia provides a decent summary) but I’d recommend “Superior” to anyone who searchers for an easy-to-understand and very readable primer on (and a critique of) scientific racism, its origins and its modern-day proponents.
I Hate Men
Pauline Harmanage, 2020, Monstrograph
Worth buying and reading for the title only which pretty much sums up the main argument. Harmanage hates men and deftly explains why (and why this is justified) on 96 short pages (and her argument is lot more nuanced than the title suggests). You don’t have to agree with everything but its worth considering her points.
The Enigma of Reason: A New Theory of Human Understanding
Hugo Mercier & Dan Sperber, 2017, Penguin Books
A book that challenged me on every step of the way — it’s dense, deep, and very much not what you’d call a quick read. But if asked, I would do it again. Mercier and Sperber have provided an impressive argument that has thoroughly challenged how I think about reasoning and thinking. Their argument in a nutshell is that reasoning has evolved to enhance social interactions in an environment that is inherently unstable, where trust has to be earned and remains limited and fragile. This is why we produce reasons to justify ourselves and our actions and to convince others. The biases, flaws, and fallacies that crop up along the way, they argue, are features and about efficiency. Our reasoning is biased because we try to find reasons that support our point of view and help us to justify our actions and convince others to share our beliefs. And we are often lazy in our reasoning because in most social interactions it is the most energy-efficient way to proceed (not only do you not have to make much of an effort: you know that your counterpart will provide the counterarguments). For a longer and better written summary, do read Henry Farrell’s piece on Crooked Timber.
Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain
Sathnam Sanghera, 2021, Viking
While I hate rankings, if pressed I’d probably name Sathnam Sanghera’s “Empireland” as the best book I’ve read in 2021 (hat tip to the FT’s Siddharth Venkataramakrishnan — follow him here — to whom I owe this pleasure). The book provides a broad, erudite overview of what the British Empire was, how it came into existence, what it did and what its lasting effects are. Sanghera’s main argument is that the effects of the empire on modern Britain are vast and that its legacy should be taught properly. Weaving together personal experience and secondary material, he has written a book that “offers a new critique of the history of the British Empire and its continuing impact on British society” that is indeed “candid and informed […] and deserving of all the plaudits heaped on it” as Ramnik Shah writes in the LSE Review of Books. I could not agree more.
The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Has Reclaimed Russia
Masha Gessen, 2017, Granta
I must admit I stumbled across this book rather by accident (the bright red cover caught my attention), but it turned out to be a happy accident. In this book, journalist Masha Gessen processes and combines eyewitness accounts with extensive secondary literature. I was not overly convinced by Gessen’s attempt to identify a “homo sovieticus” at work behind Russia’s demise and her mixture of political science, sociology, and psychoanalysis is — at least in my reading — often a bit shallow, but the book is worth reading for its rich personal accounts of life under Putin (although these skew heavily towards people like Gessen herself — educated and liberal — and largely eschew others who fall outside this bucket).
Cogs and Monsters: What Economics Is, And What It Should Be
Diane Coyle, 2021, Princeton University Press
Diane Coyle has long been one of the non-fiction authors I most admire. There are two reasons for this. The first is that Coyle seems to effortlessly manage to make a complicated subject, in her case her own discipline of economics, understandable to the uninitiated and bring it to life. The second reason is that she attempts to do just that, and in doing so, does not shy away from repeatedly making harsh but justified criticisms of the same. Following in the tradition of her earlier works (see e.g. “The Soulful Science”), “Cogs and Monsters” provides an insider account of where modern economics has gone wrong (and where it has been right) and points to the many problems that have befallen the discipline as a whole. Undoubtedly, Coyle’s books has its flaws, too (e.g. her view of macroeconomics as a lost cause is perhaps a bit too unforgiving) and economists will likely find things in her account that they are unhappy with (for good and more nuanced reviews of Coyle’s arguments, click here and here), but this should not distract from the fact that Coyle’s book is more than just a hatched-job or an outright dismissal of the discipline as a whole (something that often cannot be said for the critiques of the “Economics = bad”-fraction often found in e.g. humanities departments). Instead, she delivers a very approachable account of what economics is good for and how it can and needs to be improved.
Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945
Tony Judt, 2005, Penguin Books
Tony Judt’s “Postwar” is the epitomy of “slow reading”. It comes in at a whopping 878 pages (and in a very small font, at least in my copy) and reading it makes you feel as if you’re living through all the years Judt covers in real time. Then again, perhaps this is the point and what makes the book so excellent. It forces you to engage with the material in a slow and deliberate manner. Judt is sadly no longer with us and I regret that I didn’t discover this book earlier, for it is not only an excellent example of good and crisp writing but also a sweeping overview of the the continent’s history after the war. I am not a historian so I can impossibly comment on the academic rigour of “Postwar” but at least from my point of view Judt’s personal account of the developments that shaped modern Europe is a deep, nuanced, and very impressive achievement.
Seamus Heaney, 2018, Faber
I’ve been a Heaney fan for a long time but if you’ve never heard of him, this posthumous selection chosen by his family is a good place to start. I still don’t get many of them (which brings us to the question if one can ever really “get” a poem) but his elegant writing and beautiful imagery makes me want to try again and again.
Admittedly, 2021 hasn’t produced any Christmas album that I would consider an instant classic. But there were still some good ones. Norah Jones has produced a fine album although it’s not quite my cup of tea. Drummer Jeff Hamilton’s album wins the prize for worst album cover but is eminently listenable for those of you who are after that jazz lounge feeling for Christmas. Finally, German trumpeter Till Brönner has a new album out, too — eponymously titled “Till Christmas” — that is definitely worth your time and money, not least for its warm and comforting sound.
I Dream of Christmas
Norah Jones, 2021, Blue Note Records
Merry & Bright
Jeff Hamilton Trio, 2021, Capri Records
Till Brönner, 2021, Masterworks
Felix Simon is a Leverhulme Doctoral Scholar at the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) and a Knight News Innovation Fellow at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism 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. His tweets can be found under @_Felix Simon_.