Favourite books of 2016

Here are ten books I particularly appreciated this year – though not necessarily published in 2016 – listed in alphabetical order. I reviewed quite a few of them for various online magazines, and where applicable have provided links to the versions archived on this site.

Bowie, by Simon Critchley

I read Simon Critchley’s brilliant little book on David Bowie shortly after the Starman’s sad passing. Bowie fans seem to be a particular breed: like so many others I have never felt a celebrity death more keenly.

Philosophy professor Critchley draws on his analytical firepower to elucidate major themes within the work of this most literate of popular musicians: identity, illusion, artifice, individualism and desire. Critchley identifies and contextualises references to Nietzsche’s Übermensch, Orwell’s 1984, German Expressionism and the literary techniques of William Burroughs, and much else.

He illuminates the nature of Bowie’s particular spirituality with greater clarity than anything I’ve read elsewhere, a restless desire for the new that gained its electric charge from the singer’s absolute rejection of all religious orthodoxies. For Bowie, it might be said, a rigorous negative theology was the necessary condition for encounter with the transcendent.

I also appreciated the attention Critchley pays to Bowie’s excellent later work as well as the great sequence of albums he put out in the 1970s. The book was written shortly after Bowie released The Next Day in 2013. Perhaps one day it will be updated to include Critchley’s thoughts on Bowie’s last record, Blackstar.

Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune, by Kristin Ross

This is a fascinating exploration of the imaginative world of the Paris Communards, a precarious coalition of tradesmen, labourers, feminists, artists and intellectuals who seized control of the French capital in March 1871, fenced the city centre with barricades, and hoisted the red flag over the Hôtel de Ville.

During their brief ascendancy they sought to implement a radical participative democracy, replacing established state institutions with a federation of neighbourhood councils, and private commerce with a socialist economy based on a network of co-operatively managed producer associations. After just 72 days it was all over, the French government retaking the city through a bloody siege in which some 30,000 revolutionaries were massacred.

The Communards left a rich legacy of manifestos and treatises on which radical traditions continue to draw. They inspired William Morris and Peter Kropotkin, and influenced the late thought of Karl Marx, who wrote that with their bold experiment the Communards had ‘stormed the heavens’ and had developed the ‘political form at last discovered under which to work out the economic emancipation of labour.’

They had a holistic view of labour. For the Communards art was to be integrated into everyday life: the fine artist would escape the confines of the salon, and the aesthetic dimensions of the work of the carpenter, the gardener or the shoemaker would be acknowledged.

Ross’s book is a fine reconstruction of the thought worlds they evolved, her respectful and often moving commentary allowing the voices of the impressive self-educated workers at the heart of the uprising to be heard. I reviewed the book here.

Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics, by Richard Seymour

I very much enjoyed Richard Seymour’s characteristically unsentimental – and elegantly written – assessment of the prospects for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, which, with excellent timing, happened to appear just as the post-Brexit coup was getting underway.

Here was something new in Corbyn-era Labour commentary: a thoroughly sceptical appraisal of the Corbyn project written from a perspective somewhat to the left even of the veteran Bennite himself.

As with so much of Seymour’s work his conclusions will please no-one. His analysis of Corbyn’s rise from nowhere to the summit of the party on a wave of disenchantment with centre-left orthodoxies is merciless on the moderates. But though he respects Corbyn’s ideological clarity Seymour holds out little hope his leadership will succeed.

Seymour recognises Corbyn’s efforts to development a post-austerity platform reviving discarded elements of the social democratic tradition, and to broaden Labour’s focus from an overriding concern with short-term electoral success at all costs to the patient building of a wider social movement capable of supporting long-term progressive reform.

For Seymour, if Corbyn is to have any chance of implementing the kind of radical change to which he and his followers aspire Labour needs to be prepared to focus on the long-term, to think in terms of a project that may take a generation to bear fruit, rather than in five-year electoral cycles. And Labour, quite simply, is just not that kind of party:

[S]ince Labour is in the marrow of its soul a constitutionalist and electoral party, it is naturally built-in to the culture of the party to be obsessed with electoral outcomes to the near exclusion of other considerations.

In the final analysis, Seymour argues, ‘Corbynism will struggle to outrun the limits of Labourism.’ That seemed accurate when I read the book, and it seems accurate now. Here’s my full review.

Hope Without Optimism, by Terry Eagleton

The first book I read this year, and one of the best, this is an erudite but – as always with Eagleton – entertaining survey of how philosophers and theologians have understood the meaning of the word ’hope’.

Eagleton dismisses any simple liberal equation of hope with capital-P ‘Progress’, the belief that the world is always, necessarily, getting better. Material progress, for most, is certainly real, but continues to unearth new problems: environmental destruction, alienation, consumerism.

I was particularly interested in the chapters on the Catholic mystic Gabriel Marcel and the esoteric Marxist Ernst Bloch, for both of whom hope is an open-ended desire for some other world, the restless pursuit of a utopian gleam. For Eagleton that is too abstract: real hope must have a moral dimension, concerned with the general good as well as our own, and it must be credible, aware of the obstacles the world will present to its realisation. Real hope is addressed to and grounded in the world as it is, and open to the possibility of failure.

One on my 2017 re-read list. I reviewed it here.

How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet, by Benjamin Peters

A book I chanced upon during an idle bookshop browse, and perhaps the most interesting I read this year.

It tells the little known story of ambitious Soviet plans to automate the USSR’s command economy through a vast network of mainframe computers. The project was a particularly striking instance of Soviet utopianism, and of interest today in light of contemporary discussions about the feasibility of a digitally-enabled ‘post-capitalism’.

At the height of the Cold War the Soviet Union developed ambitious designs to automate the planning of its command economy by networking thousands of computer centres extending from Leningrad to Siberia. The All-State Automated System, inspired by the new science of cybernetics, was on the scale of the Soviet space and nuclear programmes, and helped motivate the United States – concerned that the USSR was pulling ahead in the technological race – to develop the ARPANET initiative that became today’s internet.

Peter’s book tells the hitherto untold story of the ‘Soviet internet’ and its eventual obstruction by institutions concerned to retain their existing powers over the planning of the socialist economy. But Peters does not conclude with another triumphalist indictment of the inevitable bankruptcy of socialist collective provision, condemned by an inherent hostility to private initiative.

For Peters unchecked private interests are capable of overwhelming capitalist and socialist systems alike, as demonstrated by the splintering of today’s ‘open web’. The success of large technological projects requires the regulation of self-interest common to the visions of both Smith and Marx.

Don’t worry, I have written something about the book, but it is still looking for a suitable outlet…

Judas, by Amos Oz

This is a intricate novel of ideas set in Jerusalem in late 1959, much of which I was fortunate to be able to read in the city itself. Oz skilfully evokes the crisp chill of winter in the Judean hills, the city’s labyrinthine streets and ornate, crumbling architecture.

Like several other novels published in the past few years Judas seeks to complicate the popular image of the disciple whose betrayal of Jesus culminated in his occupying a unique place in Christian demonology: the archetypal traitor, the very image of the treacherous Jew.

The story centres on five characters. A troubled young university drop-out Shmuel Ash takes a live-in job as reading companion to an incapacitated 70-year-old man, Gershom Wald, who lives with his widowed daughter-in-law Atalia Abravanel in a ramshackle house in west Jerusalem. Atalia’s late father Shealtiel Abravanel had earned notoriety as the only member of the Zionist executive committee to oppose David Ben-Gurion over the foundation of the State of Israel. Abravanel had argued that Jews and Arabs should live side by side as equals in a country under international control – an early advocate of what is today called a ‘bi-national state’ – an perspective for which he had been ostracised, prompting him to live out his days in seclusion in the gloomy house.

The fifth character is Judas himself, of whom Oz offers a fictional portrait in the form of excerpts from a book Shmuel is trying to write about the disciple. Shmuel’s thesis, following an esoteric Jewish tradition, is that Judas was a spy commissioned by the Jewish authorities to infiltrate Jesus’s circle. Enthralled by the Galilean’s teachings Judas goes native and becomes convinced of the preacher’s divinity. It is Judas who encourages Jesus to go to Jerusalem and who arranges with the chief priest for Jesus’s arrest and crucifixion, which he believes will provide the appropriate setting for the true King of the Jews to come down from the cross and reveal his Messianic identity. Instead, Jesus dies his appalling death, and a broken Judas takes his life in despair.

Oz juxtaposes this reinterpretation of Judas’s motives with Abravanel’s story, asking us to consider the meaning of treachery: both Judas and Abravanel were motivated by love of their people, however they chose to express it.

There’s much more to this polyphonic book than that: Haaretz and the Guardian have published fine reviews that illuminate some of its other dimensions. And Amos Oz speaks about the novel here.

One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States, edited by Mark LeVine and Mathias Mossberg

My time in Israel gave me an opportunity to sink into several fine tomes summarising the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and proposing various ways forward (or at least of trying to ensure things get no worse.) I became particularly interested in the technical challenges of implementing the classic ‘Two State Solution’: the partition of the land into separate Israeli and Palestinian states.

The granting of statehood to both peoples seems to me the only conceivable way forward, recognising the desire common to most Israelis and Palestinians to preserve and cultivate their own identities within the security of their own nations. I am unconvinced that two communities with such distinct identities would be willing or able to set aside their differences and live together contentedly within a unitary ‘democratic, secular’ state. Briefly, it doesn’t seem to me there are a sufficient number of ‘democratic, secular’ people on both sides to make this conceivable, at least for the foreseeable future.

But of course, time and again, finely crafted plans for the establishment of two states devised through years of painstaking negotiations brokered by world leaders, refined by the most experienced diplomats, paying exhaustive attention to every conceivable security concern, have run aground on the stubborn reluctance of both sides to compromise on the sharing of the land. It would seem that the distress a final partition of that precious geography would cause both sides is so great that each feels compelled to sabotage successive peace initiatives by persisting to act and speak in ways that make a final resolution impossible.

One intriguing line of thought suggests that if sovereignty can be reconceived as applying first and foremost to a people, rather than a territory it becomes possible to imagine that two states might be able to exist in parallel on the same land. The concept is explored in detail in Mark LeVine and Mathias Mossberg’s tough-minded book. In Mossberg’s words, the basic proposal suggests:

[O]ne Israeli state and on Palestinian, both states covering the whole area between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. In such a scenario, military, political, and economic barriers would be lifted, and a joint security and defence policy, a common and equitable economic policy, and joint and harmonised legislation would replace existing divisions. Such a structure would allow both for an independent Palestinian state and for Israel to be both Jewish and democratic at the same time. It would bring an end to the occupation and would permit free movement over the whole area for both peoples, as well as providing a vision for an end of conflict.

To be honest I can’t see the plan succeeding any time soon. But it may turn out to be the only conceivable option. The parallel states solution asks both sides to think hard whether their love of the land is more important than exclusive ownership of it, a love sufficiently compelling to motivate progress, however fraught with complexity. I thought the book worth several re-reads, and an extensive review.

Roch Winds: A Treacherous Guide to the State of Scotland, by Cailean Gallagher, Rory Scothorne and Amy Westwell

Of the many new voices that emerged during Scotland’s 2014 independence referendum the most compelling included the Mair Noch A Roch Wind blog run by three young Labour and trade union activists.

It’s unclear how many readers were convinced by the blog’s unapologetic advocacy of Marx and Machiavelli, but it shone fresh light on the referendum debate from an unexpected angle, carving out a following in a crowded field for its sharp commentary on the various complacencies to which both the mainstream Yes and No campaigns were prone – and its scintillating prose.

Those gifts for razor-sharp analysis and vivid imagery are abundantly on display in this fine collection of essays in which Gallagher et al examine the state of Scottish politics in the aftermath of the referendum.

It isn’t necessary to join them on the barricades to appreciate their caustic political insight. Much of the book is dedicated to a forensic analysis of the nebulous cluster of hopes and dreams that constitute ‘Civic Nationalism’, the habitually unchallenged ideology that increasingly sets the parameters of Scottish political discourse.

In the ongoing absence of any effective opposition to the SNP’s complete dominance at Holyrood and beyond, commentary of this quality is badly needed to puncture Scotland’s choking political consensus. I reviewed it here.

The Battle for Home: The Memoir of a Syrian Architect, by Marwa al-Sabouni

If we can no longer recognise our surroundings as a shared home it becomes easier to contemplate their destruction. Marwa al-Sabouni’s beautiful book is a profound, understated meditation on architecture’s capacity both to civilise and destroy, written while the author witnessed first-hand the destruction of her native city of Homs.

Al-Sabouni argues that years of misguided and corrupt urban planning have ripped apart the delicate urban and social fabric of Syria’s ancient cities, facilitating the conditions for violence between segregated communities living as strangers in fractured landscapes they can no longer recognise as their own.

She conjures a shimmering vision of a better Homs, a city of peace that now has the quality of myth. Al-Sabouni knows her remembered city is more than part dream, but it did once exist as a half-realised ideal, an ideal that for centuries sustained a tolerant cosmopolitanism in which citizens of many creeds, races and classes participated.

This fragile idyll began to dissolve in the 1950s when the forced-march modernisation of the Syrian economy necessitated a rapid expansion of the city to accommodate new industries and their employees, waves of Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites, Bedouins and Christians arriving from surrounding towns and villages.

This time Homs’s intricate urban ecology was unable to cope. Syria’s new generation of urban planners treated the ancient city as a tabula rasa for experimentation with western urban zoning systems, segregating the newcomers into homogenous districts disconnected from its cosmopolitan heart, where they lived in half-finished stucco towers, often without basic amenities, hastily erected by contractors in league with corrupt officials.

The city had expanded with ‘growths that turned out to be tumour-like’, turning a settlement into a loose collection of dormitories. When Syria’s tensions erupted Homs was one of the first cities to descend into chaos, its estranged populations turning on each other.

Al-Sabouni argues that when the time finally comes for rebuilding, the city needs a healing old/new architecture that avoids both a cold abstract modernism and a cliché-ridden assertion of ‘Islamic’ identity. Despite her conservatism her wariness of cliché invests her own proposals for the reconstruction of Homs with a radical edge.

This is a fine essay that sparkles with memorable images, illuminated by dozens of the author’s own illustrations. Here’s my full review.

The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-Semitism, by Dave Rich

This book could not have been more timely, appearing when Labour’s anti-Semitism crisis reached its pitch during the summer.

Rich stops short of equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, but shows how the intensity of the radical left’s focus on anti-racism can generate and blind it to sentiments which can be interpreted as anti-Semitic. Progressives tend to imagine anti-Semitism as an issue for the racist far-right, as another instance of a blanket xenophobia against minorities. But I thought Rich succeeded in showing how it is possible both to be a sincere opponent of all forms of racism and yet still fall prey to anti-Jewish stereotypes.

The book provides a fascinating history of the British left’s evolving attitudes towards Zionism and the State of Israel over the past century, disentangling a complex story including the evolution of anti-colonialist theory, the rise of the New Left, and the influence of the Stop the War Coalition on Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. I should say that the title of the book is a little misleading: Corbyn himself isn’t really the book’s focus, but rather the movements with which he has been aligned over the past few decades. I review the book here.