Last Year’s Books

The books of 2006, listed in the order I read them—as best I can remember it. Not included are: books I haven’t finished yet, books I’d read before, and books I can’t find anything worth saying about. As well, of course, all the books I’ve simply forgotten about.

It was a slow year: usually I read more. This year I intend to cut my deficit substantially. Included in the list are a couple of philosophy books, various biographies, and a number of works of fiction—some of which I liked better than others. If you asked me to pick a favourite from the year, I’d find it quite hard, so I’m not going to try.


Thinking About Mathematics: The Philosophy of Mathematics

Stewart Shapiro’s excellent introduction to the philosophy of mathematics is accessible and quite readable. I bought it for the explanations of logicism, which I was studying at the time, but ended up going through the whole thing. Recommended for philosophers and mathematicians alike, as well as anyone using applied maths (for instance, physicists and engineers—my copy is currently on loan with my brother, who’s studying Aerospace Engineering).


I finally made it to the fourth novel of the five in the Philip K. Dick compilation first mentioned here. Ubik is a masterpiece that, in true Dickian style, both transcends and revels in its genre. Reading his biography brought to mind the various curses of prophets; whatever the power of their visions, as people they are as limited and broken as the rest of us (and if Dick is in any way representative, decidedly more so). I’ll find time for A Scanner Darkly some time this year.


The Push Man and Other Stories

An English translation of Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s manga, this collection of sixteen stories from 1969 is about as far as it’s possible to get from spiky-haired teens and giant robots. Sad, funny, bleak, and bizarrely cheering. Tatsumi’s understated style is perfectly suited to these black comedies about the humiliations of everyday life at the bottom of the food chain.

I probably shouldn’t have identified (with the mood, if not the content) as much as I did, but strangely the book was a positive force during a tough time. Bought on the basis of recommendations from Messrs. Hill and Greenfield, the book as a physical object is fantastic: thick and heavy, this is sumptuous work from publishers Drawn & Quarterly. I particularly like the way the black cloth spine protrudes from the paper cover.

Naming and Necessity

A philosophical classic from 1970, Saul Kripke’s three lectures at Princeton University on naming and necessity made metaphysics respectable again. Incredibly influential and, as lectures, a lot more readable than some of the critical literature that came afterwards. I’d read bits and pieces before, but decided it was time to get a copy of my own and read it all the way through. Doing it over a four-day period when I had two major examinations was possibly not the most sensible idea, but it was a welcome distraction when I couldn’t take another moment of superpositions or truth-in-a-model.

Frankenstein Unbound

Brian Aldiss’ updating of and homage to one of the progenitors of science fiction occasionally smacks of wish fulfilment. While the blend of time travel and fictional universe is a novel conceit that Aldiss handles well, the way in which the hero manages not only to meet Mary Shelley but also to sleep with her makes it obvious the author’s priorities lay with his grand concept rather than the fundamentals of a good story. In consequence, we are left with a fragmentary series of episodes populated by historical caricatures and cardboard bit-players. Enjoyable enough in its way, but doesn’t reach the literary heights it aspires to.


H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life

Misanthrope-in-chief Michel Houellebecq is a far better essayist than he is a novelist, and this extended paean to the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft is a thoroughly enjoyable, entertaining and enlightening read—whatever your views of his subject. Bringing the passion of a fan and the judgement of a scholar, Houellebecq has crafted an enthralling mixture of biography and critical analysis. Unabashedly partisan and honest to a fault, the title is no exaggeration: Lovecraft’s life and work are taken as a radical manifesto, against the world and against life.

The work of his mature years remains faithful to the physical prostration of his youth, transfiguring it. This is the profound secret of Lovecraft’s genius, and the pure source of his poetry: he succeeded in transforming his aversion for life into an effective hostility.

To offer an alternative to life in all its forms constitutes a permanent opposition, a permanent recourse to life—this is the poet’s highest mission on this earth.

Beast and Man

I finished reading this on the train home from Frankfurt. The ICE really is the way to travel: comfortable, clean and fast, with all announcements made in four languages (French, German, Dutch and English); the Eurostar isn’t half as nice, or as spacious. But enough about trains—you know I like them already.

Mary Midgeley’s Beast and Man is no less needed than when it was first written, addressing as it does such fundamental questions about human beings, our nature, and our relationship with other animals. Despite the lip service we pay to biology, and some change in the way we treat animals, we still perceive ourselves as utterly distinct, both in our powers and in our motivations.

Beast and Man demonstrates the falsity of this position, and serves as an example of the vital role philosophers have to play in bridging disciplinary boundaries. Midgeley takes a hard look at the often mistaken assumptions made by both scientists and sociologists, and argues compellingly that we must comprehend our nature and that of animals holistically, rather than surrendering to narrow-mindedness and bigotry—whichever side of the debate it stems from.

I Am Alive and You Are Dead:
A Journey Inside the Mind of Philip K. Dick

Recently mentioned in this very column, Emmanuel Carrère’s biography of Philip K. Dick was both a pleasure to read and an ongoing trial during the weeks in which I struggled to complete it. Not because it was hard to read—far from it—but because, as a writer whose works I know well, Dick was already a strong presence. I couldn’t simply follow the story: I had to continually pause, to absorb the episodes of his life and the impact on his work, and to rework my understanding of each novel in turn as it appeared.

The story itself is fairly traumatic, which didn’t help matters. Every time his life improved, he finished a novel, he found a new wife, it seemed pre-ordained to end in failure and catastrophe: they would leave him, and he would end up crazy and depressed and alone. A painful emotional rollercoaster—and that was just reading it. Not that I regret it: it really was fascinating, absorbing, and thought-provoking.

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

The events surrounding Flow My Tears (named for a John Dowland song) figure fairly largely in the latter stages of Dick’s biography, so I picked it up a couple of days after finally finishing that. I ended up speeding through it in an evening: it’s not that long, and in contrast to the struggle I experienced with I Am Alive and You Are Dead, was a quick and untaxing read. I often find this with Dick’s books: they’re generally nowhere near as tough to get through as, say, Kafka—although they do have an unsettling capacity for staying in one’s mind for a long time afterwards, working on one.

In a departure from Dick’s usual tendency to have an everyman figure as his protagonist, the central character is a television star. However, Dick deftly overcomes this oddity right at the beginning by making all record of his existence disappear from the memory banks, and all memories of him fade from people’s minds…


The French Lieutenant’s Woman

I’m certain that John Fowles was conscious, when he penned this commentary on Victorian fiction and morality, of the irony of presenting via an omniscient narrator a story centred on such an opaque character—the eponymous French Lieutenant’s Woman. While moving in passages, the novel as a whole felt like a cunningly-constructed trap, both for the characters and for the reader. There are few likeable people, and if the narrator’s attitude is any indicator of the feelings of the novelist, he despised them all as much as I ended up doing: for their naïvete, their stupidity, their arrogance, their barbarism hidden behind a veil of propriety. Perhaps this was the intention, and while it’s certainly a well-written novel, I cannot say I particularly enjoyed it.

Berlin: The Downfall 1945

I think I actually got this, the sequel to Anthony Beevor’s salutary Stalingrad, last Christmas; happily, I can say I completed before the end of this, mostly while lying on the sofa suffering through various stages of ‘flu. A thoroughly absorbing—if depressing—read, the story of the Soviet Union’s siege and final conquest of the German capital is full of every drama of war: courage and cowardice, appalling atrocities committed by both sides, the magnanimity of victors towards their defeated foes as well as the brutal way in which the spoils of war—whether material or human—were exploited. It’s impossible to sum up a book so colossal both in detail and in scope, and I shall not try, save to say that it was a rewarding, troubling and mesmerising read. The legacy of those last few months of war are still with us in so many ways. We should not forget.

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zomg its panth. I can certify that your site works perfectly from my mobile phone, even whilst cruising down the thames as i write. gg. Mobilefish? Priceless.

I’m about halfway through Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, which I started last year. It’s interesting stuff, and his presentation - public, prominent atheism - is both unusual and well defended. The only problem is, he’s not going to convince anyone who really needs convincing.

I can’t really comment on the book itself, not having read it, but I find Dawkins tremendously irritating. His science writing is far better than his atheist rantings, and I don’t really think we need any more fundamentalists in the world.

This is a great-looking site, easy on the eye, fast and slick. And you read books, too. Now I’ve got to cook a meal for friends arriving in a couple of hours, but I’ll be back real quick, soon as I can grab a minute.
(Hey, people, I’ve just found another great blog.)


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