Contradicting my previous post on blogging less, I want to end this year (like last year) by sharing the books I’ve been reading and some thoughts on them.
Listed below are the books I finished reading this year, ordered chronologically. Then there’s a list of books I read a lot of and enjoyed but did not read in full this year (this excludes books I dipped in and out of for the PhD and other projects). This is followed by a bunch of comments and recommendations about the ones I finished, because I greatly hope you enjoy some of these books too.
Books I’ve finished reading in 2019:
America vs the West, by Kori Schake
LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media, by P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking
On Grand Strategy, by John Lewis Gaddis
Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson (fiction)
The Age of Capital: 1848-1875, by Eric Hobsbawm
City Life: The New Urban Australia, by Seamus O’Hanlon
Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, by Steve Coll
The French Art of War, by Alexis Jenni (fiction)
Out of the Wreckage, by George Monbiot
The Traveller’s Guide to Classical Philosophy, by John Gaskin
Net Loss: The Inner Life in the Digital Age, by Sebastian Smee
Strange Birth of Colonial Democracy, by John Hirst
The Age of Empire: 1875-1914, by Eric Hobsbawm
The Memory Chalet, by Tony Judt
A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles (fiction)
Use of Weapons, by Iain M. Banks (fiction)
The Overstory, by Richard Powers (fiction)
Van Diemen’s Land, by James Boyce
Men at Work: Australia’s Parenthood Trap, by Annabel Crabb
The Art of Time Travel: Historians and their Craft, by Tom Griffiths
Rebel Sell: How the Counterculture Became Consumer Culture, by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter
Changing Jobs: The Fair Go in the New Machine Age, Jim Chalmers and Mike Quigley
Agent Running in the Field, by John le Carré
Books I’ve been reading (or re-reading) large sections of, but did not finish this year:
Seapower States: Maritime Culture, Continental Empires and the Conflict That Made the Modern World, by Andrew Lambert
The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian Culture, History and Identity, by Amartya Sen
The Cold War: A World History, by Odd Arne Westad
Xanana: Leader of the Struggle for Independent Timor-Leste, by Sara Niner
Highways to a War, by Christopher Koch (fiction)
Red Storm Rising, by Tom Clancy (fiction)
The Mind of God, by Paul Davies
Ruling Class, Ruling Culture: Studies of Conflict, Power and Hegemony in Australian Life, by R. W. Connell
I enjoyed my first book for the year, Kori Schake’s America vs the West. It’s largely a defence of the idea of “liberal international order” against realist critics such as Patrick Porter, and a call for action to sustain remnants of that order. Though I tended to agree with its position, I’m not sure how compelling it would be for a sceptical audience, and it would have been better if the book engaged more with people who critiqued the idea of liberal international order from the left.
The next book, LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media, was incredibly fun and informative. It had a bold and even evangelical tone at times, and made some big over-simplifications, but it was a great book that covered so many different examples of how social media has created new arenas for transnational conflict. I strongly recommend it as an engaging introduction to the topic.
John Lewis Gaddis’s book On Grand Strategy was enjoyable, and contained several interesting historical snapshots, but it often wasn’t clear what the overall argument holding it together was. I also wasn’t sure what Gaddis’s use of Isaiah Berlin’s “foxes and hedgehogs” framing really added. I plan to revisit some of the chapters to see if I get more out of this book on a second read.
Steve Coll’s Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan was compelling, though a bit of a slog to read. I recommend it, and wrote much more about it here. The book certainly provides the necessary context for the Afghanistan Papers.
This books were all the sort of books I often read, non-fiction books on various international security issues. But I’m glad I didn’t just stick with that sort of reading for the year. John Gaskin’s The Traveller’s Guide to Classical Philosophy, Sebastian Smee’s Net Loss: The Inner Life in the Digital Age, and Tony Judt’s The Memory Chalet were quite different to my usual sort of reading. In different ways the three books all focused on the notion of inner life and asked whether it is under challenge these days, and were quite informative about classical history, art, and 20th century history respectively.
I’ve also found myself increasingly interested in economics; not the academic discipline but histories of how economic changes shape daily life and transform politics. Eric Hobsbawm’s classics, The Age of Capital and The Age of Empires, and the more recent and local focus of Seamus O’Hanlon’s City Life on Melbourne and Sydney, were all valuable for this.
John Hirst’s The Strange Birth of Colonial Democracy was a hidden gem and I definitely recommend it. It similarly had a strong economic focus, but also paid a lot of attention to the personalities of key political participants, and covered a lot of angles that I don’t normally see highlighted when people discuss how democracy evolved in Australia. As a conservative historian, Hirst has quite different takes from most other Australian historians which means that you can find ideas in his work which are hard to come across elsewhere.
However, the best history books (and the best non-fiction books altogether) I read this year were James Boyce’s Van Diemen’s Land and Tom Griffith’s The Art of Time Travel.
Van Diemen’s Land made me look at entire section of Australian history in a new way. The book is about the colonisation of Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) in the early 1800s.
Instead of the common story of privation, Boyce starts by describing how the island was abundant in fresh water and food (particularly wallabies and kangaroos that could be easily hunted on grasslands maintained by Aboriginal fire-stick farming), though it also had formidable mountainous terrain and thick bushlands. This meant that it was easy for individuals to live off the land, but hard for the nascent state institutions to govern the territory as a tightly-controlled British colony.
As a result, many of the colonists (mostly convicts but also some other settlers, along with the sealers and whalers) gained a remarkable level of economic and social independence. Bush-ranging became rife at times, and the government’s direct authority did not stretch far. Yet society functioned well due to various chains of inter-dependencies (Boyce explains this effectively when describing the sheep economy) and because officials found inventive ways to govern. At this stage, colonial authorities were also cautious about venturing too far across the land, to avoid inflaming too much conflict with the native communities (for practical, not moral, reasons).
From 1803 until the mid-1820s, the new society’s social order grew increasingly different from that in the mother country. While Britain began to experience the industrial revolution and became more urbanised, stratified and gradually puritanical, Van Diemen’s Land remained pre-industrial and was seen by the colonial elite (and new British settlers) as anarchic and degenerate.
By the 1820s there was a concerted effort to crush this perceived widespread deviance and turn the island into a Little England. The establishment of Port Arthur was part of this process.
By the 1830s, Little England had triumphed. As Boyce tells it, this violent reshaping of the social order transformed “Van Diemen’s Land” into “Tasmania”. So the book tells a story of competing social orders, of a clash between pre-industrial and industrial value systems, of the ruthlessness of state-building, and of the natural environment shaping political developments.
It also tells a story the brutal impact of colonisation, so Boyce includes a lengthy appendix to delve deeper into the genocide of the Aboriginal population. A key component of the effort to crush “Van Diemen’s Land” was an increase in the migration of free settlers, which helped lead to the genocide as these newer settlers not only spread out over much more of the land but asserted exclusive ownership of it. That said, Boyce also covers atrocities against Indigenous population, and acts of resistance, before the 1820s. He does not suggest any natural affinity between the convicts and the original inhabitants, or prospects of them joining forces against the free settlers.
It’s hard to explain quite how compelling this book was. It has been called an “ecologically based social history of colonial Australia”, which describes it well but doesn’t quite capture how unique this book felt.
Tom Griffiths’ book The Art of Time Travel was even more exceptional. It is a meta-history of approaches to Australia history, which might not sound like something that could be written in a deeply moving way, but it was. Each chapter discusses the life and work of a different Australian historian. It defines historians broadly and encompasses adjacent crafts and disciplines such as archeology, art and fiction, because one its underlying questions is “what is a historian?”. Like Boyce’s book, Griffiths’ book has a strong focus on environmental history, as well as social and political history. The chapters were mostly self-contained, so you can read them out of order, but Griffiths threads a coherent meditation on the craft of history throughout the whole book.
My best reading decision this year (with my wife’s encouragement) was to read more fiction, and specifically to read different types of fiction from what I used to normally read (spy novels). Two of the novels I read this year, Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow and Richard Powers’ The Overstory, were simply stunning.
The Overstory is not an easy book to explain. It is essentially a novel about trees, told through the stories of nine human characters. Each of these characters’ lives are shaped by trees in different ways, and the novel follows these characters as their lives intersect and they come together to try to save the natural world.
The novel draws heavily on real historic events and on a large body of scientific literature (using pseudonyms for the authors) and essentially creates an entire philosophy to underpin its story. I’ll provide a few quotes for a taste, but it’s no substitute for reading it.
First, it treats trees as components of giant systems which sustain natural life across the planet:
Trees even farther away join in: All the ways you imagine us – bewitched mangroves up on stilts, a nutmeg’s inverted spade, gnarled baja elephant trunks, the straight-up missile of a sal – are always amputations. Your kind never sees us whole. You miss the half of it and more. There’s always as much belowground as above.
That’s the trouble with people, their root problem. Life runs alongside them unseen. Right here, right next. Creating the soil. Cycling water. Trading in nutrients. Making weather. Building atmosphere. Feeding and curing and sheltering more kinds of creatures than people know how to count.
The book also uses trees as a central metaphor, drawing analogies with all aspects of human society, including technological development. For example, character Neelay (a tech genius who builds a hugely-successful game that’s like a combination of Minecraft and Second Life) often sees trees in terms of computer programming:
The father lays it out: All the world’s trunks come from the same root and are rushing outward, down the spreading branches of the one tree, trying for something.
Think of the code that made this gigantic thing, my Neelay. How many cells inside? How many programs is it running? What do they all do? Where are they trying to reach?
And this is how it describes Neelay watching a stop-motion video of a chestnut tree growing (created from photos taken once per year, for well over a hundred years, by another character and his paternal ancestors):
He starts the clip again. The tree fountains up once more into a crown. The upward-wavering twigs reach for the light, for things hidden in plain sight. Branches fork and thicken in the air. At this speed, he sees the tree’s central aim, the math behind the phloem and xylem, the intermeshed and seething geometries, and that thin layer of living cambium swelling outward.
Code – wildly branching code pruned back by failure – builds up this great spiraling column from out of instructions that Vishnu managed to cram into something smaller than a boy’s fingernail.
So it’s an unusual story. I like to think that the book’s central philosophy could be called something like “arbornetics”, as it uses trees as a central metaphor for complex systems and focuses on how human societies survive in tree-dependent eco-systems, much like the idea of cybernetics uses the machine as its central metaphor and looks at interactions between machine systems and human systems.
I’ve no clue how well-formed that idea is, but that’s part of the fun of reading well outside my research area. It’s a thought-provoking novel and absolutely worth reading.
My favourite novel for the year, A Gentleman in Moscow, had a much simpler premise. It is about a Count who is sentenced by the Bolsheviks to house arrest in the Hotel Metropole shortly after the Russian Revolution.
He survives and thrives for decades confined inside the hotel, determined to master his circumstances. I was given the book as a Christmas present last year (possibly because the title and cover makes it look like a spy novel) and was not sure what to expect. The book was not plot-driven, as it was focused on the Count’s inner life, which sat really well with the books I’d been reading by Gaskin, Smee and Judt.
So rather than reading with an urge to rush through and find out what happened next, I found I greatly enjoyed almost every paragraph. The Count was just such an interesting and admirable character, and there was something both calming and exciting about the story.
In short, I began this year by reading the sort of books I normally read (security-related non-fiction books) but then broadened to try some other options, which absolutely paid off.
For fiction, my number one recommendation is A Gentleman in Moscow, followed by The Overstory. For non-fiction, I recommend The Art of Time Travel: Historians and their Craft followed by Van Diemen’s Land, probably followed by LikeWar. The natural environment turned out to be a key theme in this year’s reading, as did technology, both in fiction and non-fiction.
There aren’t any books listed here that I would say aren’t worth reading. Feel free to ask any questions (through here, Twitter, or elsewhere) about any of these books, including those not mentioned in these concluding thoughts.
I hope you enjoy reading some of these too, and thanks for reading this blog!