It’s that time again.
I typically read about 100 books a year. Everything from travel literature to poetry, history, psychology, fiction and memoir.
I love reading lists and recommendations, and I bet a few of you do, too. So at year’s end, I like to take a moment to share my top reads of the past twelve months.
They made my list because they were either memorable, important, or just thoroughly enjoyable. Some are current, some were older, and each is worth your time. I hope you’ll track them down.
As you can see, I read a lot of travel literature this year, and I found some great ones.
Here are the books that got my Road Wisdom Stamp of Approval in 2018, from one book lover to another.
First up, my Top Pick of the Year. This wasn’t just the best book I read, it might just be the most important…
Seven Types of Atheism by John Gray [TOP PICK]
It’s incredible how much Gray covers in such a slim book, and all without being obscure or getting bogged down in incomprehensible philosophizing.
What I found most interesting was the connection between the belief in human progress and monotheism / Christianity, and this notion of linear human progress (redemption?) towards a better state is rooted in a Judeo Christian worldview.
As Gray writes, we only need to consult the pre-Christian classics to realize that this point of view isn’t generally accepted:
“For the ancient Greeks and Romans, history revealed no pattern other than the regular growth and decline of civilizations. […] There was no prospect of indefinite improvement. Judged by the standards of the time, civilization might improve for a while. But eventually the process would stall, then go into reverse. Rooted in the innate defects of the human animal, cycles of this kind could not be overcome.”
I also really enjoyed his discussion of the different ways in which we’ve simply swapped out theism for something else, and how the end point of history always ends up being what that group or person is advocating, whether it be communism, science, a libertarian world, etc.
“As in the past the world contains a variety of regimes — liberal and illiberal democracies, theocracies and secular republics, nation-states and empires, zones of anarchy and all manner of tyrannies. Nothing suggests that the future will be any different.”
If nothing else, it underlines the value of studying history and the classics. And all that variety keeps travel interesting.
I highly recommend Seven Types of Atheism. It goes beyond discussions of atheism vs. faith, and grapples with what it means to be human. Get your copy here.
In the category of travel literature…
Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova
Kassabova has a poet’s eye for landscape, an instinct for finding exactly the right people, and the ability to fade into the background to let their stories shine through, all while shading her journey with her own stories and questions. It’s a delicate balance.
She introduces her readers to a fascinating but little-known part of Europe: that strange and often overrun corner where the borders of Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece meet, and where rusting barbed wire and abandoned guard towers are being slowly consumed by forests and mountains that slide into the Black Sea.
But Kassabova doesn’t just straddle these physical borders. Her story also straddles the borders of mystery and superstition, and the unexplainable events that can happen in a place as marginal as this. Get your copy here.
The Last Gentleman Adventurer: Coming of Age in the Arctic by Edward Beauclerk Maurice
With no prospects and no money, Edward Beauclerk Maurice signed on with the Hudson’s Bay Company. He was 16 years old. He sailed across the Atlantic from England for the first time, and after a period of training in Montreal, he was sent to his first posting: Pangnirtung on Baffin Island. In those days, these settlements were completely cut off. One ship a year brought supplies, mail, and news of the outside world.
That first year sees him falling through ice and nearly falling off cliffs, but he also falls under the spell of the Inuit, and begins to learn their language. The book really comes alive in the second half, when Maurice is placed in charge of the Hudson’s Bay Company post at Ward Inlet in Frobisher Bay. He lives and hunts with the Inuit, sets out trap lines, helps the community survive an outbreak of influenza, takes a native “wife”, and is given the name Issumatak, “he who thinks.”
The ending left me with a profound sense of loss. As Maurice sails away from Ward Inlet to his next post, leaving behind the friends with whom he shared such hardships and joys, and knowing he will never see them again, we close the last page knowing that this is also the story of a lost world.
Sadly, this was Edward Beauclerk Maurice’s only book. It was being prepared for publication when he died in 2003. He poured his entire life into it, and what a life it was. Get your copy here.
Berlin: Portrait of the City Through the Centuries by Rory Maclean
I thoroughly enjoyed this, by far my favourite of Maclean’s books. He did a wonderful job of capturing the many facets of this city — its darkness, its bleak winters, its magnetism and creativity, and the ability of Berlin to constantly reinvent itself — through the stories of those who have lived here, both historical figures and everyday people.
Maclean’s writing style is engaging, and he’s great at telling a compelling story. Critics of his earlier works have occasionally complained about his blending of factual journeys with fictional narratives, and I can see how it might leave you feeling feeling misled as a reader, especially if you only learned about it afterwards. But with Berlin, MacLean is explicit about his methodology from the start, and it works.
This book captures the feel of the city for me. Then again, I might be biased. Like Maclean, I am one of those who fell under Berlin’s spell. Get your copy here.
Old Glory by Jonathan Raban
After a childhood of river dreams inspired by readings of Huckleberry Finn, Jonathan Raban set out to travel the length of the Mississippi from north to south in a 16-foot open aluminum boat. The waters he drifted down were much more dangerous than the river of his childhood imagination, but Huck’s urge to escape, to light out for the Territory before someone — some woman — civilizes him was very much the same.
This isn’t a new book. After 37 years, it has become a travel classic. But it remains vital reading. As the publisher, Barnaby Rogerson, told me one sunny London morning, “Anyone who has read Old Glory would not be surprised by the election of Donald Trump.”
Coasting by Jonathan Raban
In 1982, Jonathan Raban bought a wooden two-masted sailing boat and circumnavigated England in a slow, wandering, unhurried way.
He called this manner of travel “coasting”: moving along with the tide, letting the wind decide the direction of travel, and living “on the shifting frontier where the land meets the water and the water shades into the land.”
According to his childhood schoolmaster, coasting is what he had always done. “Raban has coasted through yet another term,” his housemaster’s report said, “and I can hold out little hope for prospects in the forthcoming examinations.”
But what may have been a disadvantageous temperament in early education is an ideal mode for the writer and observer.
Sailing along the coast with charts and a hand bearing-compass, and talking to the people he meets in harbour towns and failing fishing ports, Raban comes to understand England and the English, and his own sense of national belonging.
The Falklands War breaks out in the midst of his journey, and he observes from a distance as a sort of national hysteria breaks out, a poorer version of Churchillian resistance, stubborn Britain against the world.
“You only had to look at the atlas,” he writes, “to see that the identity of the Falklanders, like that of the British, was bound up in endless aggressive assertions of their differences from the continental giant across the water.”
Great travel literature has a way of shining a light on deep truths, those fundamental aspects of a culture that reveal themselves again and again. But Coasting does more than expose the English national subconscious. It is the way Raban mixes the personal past with his present journey that stayed with me after I turned the last page.
Journey to the Jade Sea by John Hillaby
In the early 1960’s, John Hillaby, a total camel novice, decided to make a 1,000 mile walk through northern Kenya. His destination was Lake Turkana and the Chalbi Desert: a scorching land of lava beds, soda lakes, volcanoes, gale force winds, and raiding tribes.
This is a wonderful book about a desert journey that had me reaching for my atlas and dreaming of the life of the trail. Get your copy here.
The Horizontal Everest: Extreme Journeys on Ellesmere Island by Jerry Kobalenko
Jerry Kobalenko has racked up a lot of miles on foot and on ski as he traced the stories of explorers, Inuit peoples and famous Mounties in Canada’s High Arctic islands. And when it comes to Ellesmere — a 196,235 km2 island at the very top of this vast country, and one of the harshest places on earth — he’s covered more ground and made more visits than anyone else living or dead.
Best accompanied by a very large map of the High Arctic islands spread out on a table. Get your copy here.
West With The Night by Beryl Markham
Beryl Markham writes of her life as an aviator and racehorse trainer in 1920’s and 30’s Kenya. Here’s what Ernest Hemingway had to say about it, in a letter he wrote to Maxwell Perkins:
“Did you read Beryl Markham’s book, West with the Night? I knew her fairly well in Africa and never would have suspected that she could and would put pen to paper except to write in her flyer’s log book. As it is, she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But [she] can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves writers. The only parts of it that I know about personally, on account of having been there at the time and heard the other people’s stories, are absolutely true . . . I wish you would get it and read it because it is really a bloody wonderful book.”
Superbly written. Wonderfully observed. Unforgettable. What a life, and what a gift for describing it. Get your copy here.
Europe: A History by Norman Davies
This mammoth 1,300 plus page single-volume history of Europe is a serious undertaking for even dedicated readers.
The print is small. There are some 300 fascinating “asides” scattered throughout the book in separate text boxes. And the end is buffeted by approximately 140 pages of Appendices that cover everything from maps (ancient Greek colonies, the Republic of Venice, WWII, the Thirty Years War, etc etc etc) to tables of Roman Emperors, Polish Kings, language groups, runic scripts, scientific inventions, and everything else you never knew you’d want to know.
It does presume some previous level of understanding on the part of the reader, so this is probably best for those who have already read more detailed books covering specific phases and regions in European history. But it’s perfect for tying a very complicated Continental story together into an understandable big picture.
A thoroughly enjoyable read. I was sorry to reach the end. Get your copy here.
Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis
I read a lot of early to mid-twentieth century fiction, and Sinclair Lewis is one of the giants of this period. He’s best known for exposing the hypocrisies and pretence of middle class American life.
Arrowsmith tells the story of the physician Martin Arrowsmith as he makes his way from poor medical student to dedicated researcher. He starts out with high ideals and a noble view of his profession, as so many of us do. And he encounters greed and opportunism in private practice, public health and scientific research institutes that test his commitment to his ideals at every step of the way. Get your copy here.
The Stories of John Cheever
A wonderful read. This quote, from the author’s Preface, will give you a sense of what to expect:
“These stories seem at times to be stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river of light, when you heard the Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner of a stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat. Here is the last of that generation of chain smokers who woke the world in the morning with their coughing, who used to get stoned at cocktail parties and perform obsolete dance steps like “the Cleveland Chicken”, sail for Europe on ships…” Get your copy here.
Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin
The classic novel of the Weimar Republic. Published in 1929, it tells the story of convicted murderer Franz Biberkopf (“Frank Beaverhead”). Released from Berlin’s Tegel Penitentiary, he tries to turn over a new leaf, but life has other plans. As he deals with misery, poverty, lack of employment opportunities, and the gradual rise of Nazism, he slips into a criminal underworld from which he is unable to extricate himself.
I tried getting into this novel last year but found the first 50 pages a bit of a slog. And then I read a review that compared Döblin’s narrative technique with James Joyce’s Ulysses. If you approach the book with that in mind, then the author’s use of multiple points of view, contemporary songs, and newspaper articles will make sense. And you will enjoy it immensely, as I did. Get your copy here.
Death of a Hero by Richard Aldington
Possibly the best novel I’ve read about the First World War. I’d forgotten it was here on my shelf until I saw it mentioned on Armistice Day.
Aldington paints a vivid picture of the exhaustion, the physical and mental breakdown, the fears and the boredom, the miseries and filth of trench warfare, based on his own experiences on the Western Front. But also he offers us a scathing indictment of the hypocrisies of British society, both those who sent so many off to die, and those at home who remained completely detached from the realities of their struggles.
I don’t know why this book isn’t more widely read today. Get your copy here.
And finally, in general nonfiction…
The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt
This brilliant book is vital reading if you want to understand what’s been happening on university campuses in the west, and how we got to a point where speakers are being deplatformed, where so-called “social justice warriors” use public shaming to attack anyone with opposing views, and where professors and public figures are afraid to speak honestly.
Based on extensive research, the authors do a convincing job of demonstrating that these recent trends have their origin in three terrible ideas which have been woven into childhood in the West: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; always trust your feelings; and life is a battle between good people and evil people.
The result is a culture of safetyism that tries so hard to protect young people from anything that might make them uncomfortable, but that is instead preventing them from becoming autonomous anti-fragile adults. Get your copy here.
Patrick Leigh Fermor by Artemis Cooper
A wonderful, engaging biography about a fascinating individual, and one of our greatest travel writers.
A Second World War hero who fought with the resistance in Crete, Paddy Leigh Fermor and local partisans kidnapped the island’s top Nazi general, drove him across Crete through countless checkpoints in his own staff car, and exfiltrated him to Cairo.
But in the literary world, Paddy is best know for his posthumously completed trilogy. In 1933, at the age of 18, he set out to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. His timing couldn’t have been more interesting. It was the early 1930’s, Hitler had already come to power in Germany, and Paddy was trudging through a vanishing world.
He would sleep under a haystack one night in a field, and the next he’d be put up at the chateau of some aristocrat. A chance meeting with a German early in his trip and a letter of introduction saw him handed from noble house to noble house, where he would feast like royalty, be given access to vast libraries, pick up new languages, and talk to people whose way of life was about to be shattered by the Second World War.
Paddy didn’t begin to write up these experiences for another 30 years. But the three books he produced about his trip — A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water, and the unfinished final instalment The Broken Road — became classics of the genre.
Artemis Cooper has done a superb job of capturing the life of this remarkable man. Get your copy here.
So there you have it. My top reads from the past year.
I also really liked For Love & Money: Writing, Reading Travelling 1967-87 by Jonathan Raban; The Jungle and The Damned by Hassoldt Davis; The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse; and Zuckerman Unbound by Philip Roth.
What stood out for you in 2018? Please share your best reads of last year in the comments below. I’m always looking for recommendations.