The year’s reading has been among my least studious. The troubles of the year have robbed me of time and concentration to read deeply and widely, and there has been less discovery of new topics or rediscovery of old masters than in recent years.
Yet still if I document my reading I may discover curiosities about my self.
Following the impeachment hearings and my own investigation of the bizarre political mirage of the Russia Gate and Ukraine (non)scandals, I read Lee Smith, The plot against the President: the true story of how Congressman Devin Nunes uncovered the biggest political scandal in US history. For years I have largely avoided reading anything about US politics and Donald Trump. The endless, breathless reporting of the moral weaknesses and the inevitable fall of Donald Trump by a biassed press and a deranged commentariat only made me want to turn away. I always had a concern about the shrill and absurd talk about Russia as an enemy, and was deeply sceptical of the great excuse of Russian interference as the explanation for the defeat of Hilary Clinton. After all, I predicted Donald Trump’s victory six months out from the election. That post also predicted that Trump would “bring to white heat a burning political system.” It did not foresee a paper coup by the permanent political class in collusion with police, intelligence agencies and a degraded news media. Yet Smith makes a strong case that is exactly what happened. A close reading of the Inspector-General’s report on FISA abuse bears out the case that, far more than the latest impeachment charade, this conspiracy of intertwined elites who had their power threatened is the true scandal of our democratic republics in distress.
Ian Kershaw, Roller Coaster: Euope 1950-2017 gave a compelling account of the events and large changes in a time and a region that Kershaw never pretends to be cohesive. Reading this book as the British Parliament became a quagmire for Brexit was an education, of course. Kershaw makes clear the long held reluctance of the British to cede to Europe, and the protracted difficulties of the European project. Boris Johnson’s ultimate victory for Brexit would be no surprise to a reader of Roller Coaster, even though Kershaw viewed Brexit as a recipe for making the country poorer and less secure. It is the new age of insecurity, and the difficulties that Europe faces in responding to these insecurities with which Kershaw ends his account. Yet for me the abiding memory of this book is the replaying of fragmentary memories of childhood and adulthood that have shaped my outlook on the world. Margaret Thatcher makes an appearance as do many others Willy Brandt, Vaclav Havel, Gorbachev, Lech Walesa, and more minor figures. It was the inconclusive roller coaster of my life that I experienced through this book.
Felipe Fernandez-Armesto published Out of our Minds: what we think and how we came to think it, and I read about a quarter of it, which reprised many of the ideas in some of his other recent books on change, imagination and deep history. His message of the centrality of imagination is perhaps the most important redeeming message that I can take at this troubled time.
Richard Haas A world in disarray: American foreign policy and the crisis of the old order sets out the official world view of the American foreign policy elite, and I made my way through 18 per cent of this book on my kindle. I also watched the documentary with its teaching notes by Haas. My reading reflected a curiosity about realism and the strengthening of the multi-polar threat to the American empire. I remain unconvinced by the liberal globalists and their delusion of a world order. They really should read After Tamerlane. And I have been surprised by the sense spoken by Steven K Bannon, and other critics of the American empire.
Along the same line of interest John Mearsheimer, Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities. It was a compelling if surprisingly theoretical book. But he makes the observation that “Perhaps the greatest cost of liberal hegemony … [is] the damage it does to the American political and social fabric. Individual rights and the rules of law will not fare well in a country addicted to fighting wars.” This statement is surely a coda to the great hoax of Russia Gate and the Ukraine impeachment: fabricated hysteria launched by the war factions of the Democratic Party and the deep state.
I enjoyed Douglas Murray, The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity as a blessed disdain for the insanity of identity politics and intersectionality. I have found this mimetic radicalism has poisoned the institutions that I work in, but Murray’s intelligent, empathetic scepticism has helped inoculate me against this poison.
During the year I also completed reading Kevin Rudd, The PM Years, which I had begun last year but dropped for the sheer tedium of it all. I think I resumed reading because I wanted to talk with Terry Moran about Rudd, a wish I think I have now abandoned. Rudd makes a case that Gillard was a very bad Prime Minister, and a leader with no ideas, only political instincts of the most venal kind. But he does not convince that he himself was a capable Prime Minister. An historian sometime should work their way through the many memoirs, and tangled briars with their bitter berries, and write an account of the disaster of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd Governments, and what they really meant for our governing institutions. I have sketched a fragment, Frankenstein’s Children, but cannot devote more time to the bitterness of a failed republic.
On reflection, the year’s reading has been too dominated by politics. There have been some exceptions. I reread the first one or two books of the Song of Fire and Ice series, after the disappointing end of the narrative on TV of Game of Thrones. I started reading Andrei Bely Petersburg, when in St Petersburg. I read some of Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet when in Lisbon, and a new translation of Kafka’s The Castle on the way to Prague. But deep culture this year has been pushed aside by distress, the dark sisterhood and the deep state. There have been fragments: one of two stories by Borges; a chapter or two of The Name of the Rose, after watching the new television drama of the book; the start of Sagaland, Slezkine’s The House of Government: a sage of the Russian Revolution, and Dalrymple’s history of the East India Company; poems; poetics; travel notes; essays squealing dismay at the world.
Next year needs to be a better way of reading that takes me to deeper and more satisfying places – less politics, more culture. Less diagnosis, and more remedies.
Image credit: The burning of books outside Mosul public library