My favourite books of 2016

There are some chaps who are no good for anything but books. I plead guilty to being such a chap. EM Forster, A Room With A View

Indeed. 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.

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Another look at The Man Who Fell To Earth

And so it was I entered the broken world
To trace the visionary company of love, its voice
An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled)
But not for long to hold each desperate choice.

Those enigmatic lines from Hart Crane’s The Broken Tower preface Walter Tevis’ 1963 novel The Man Who Fell To Earth, a sci-fi classic that has been somewhat overshadowed by Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 film adaptation, currently being replayed in British cinemas.

That’s unfortunate. Roeg’s interpretation has many memorable scenes and images that entangle themselves in the mind, and is electrified by a charismatic lead performance by David Bowie, an elegant alien presence. But while the film captures something of the book’s strangeness, Roeg’s habitual desire to shock through the shoehorning of several gratuitous scenes into his movie adds nothing to Tevis’ subtle tale. Since the film has gathered so much attention I thought it worth writing a few lines about the novel.

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‘The Idea of Europe’

If Britain does indeed vote ‘Leave’, and the gradual disintegration of the European Union were to gather pace, what would be left of ‘the idea of Europe’? What sense of collective identity and purpose, if any, predated the EU, and would it be strong enough to survive its breakup?

The extraordinary complexity of European history and its multidimensional culture makes the character of any such common identity notoriously hard to articulate. But in these uneasy times, amidst the swirl of dark fears that the collapse of the EU would presage the dissolution of any wider sense of a shared ‘Europe’, it is a question worth asking.

One classic answer, George Steiner’s newly republished 2004 essay The Idea of Europe, cuts through the infinitude of words that have been written about the pragmatic merits or otherwise of the EU – the transparency of its democratic and bureaucratic processes, the rights and wrongs of freedom of movement, the minutiae of its economic policy – to the deeper question of precisely what entity the EU represents: what is Europe, and why is it worth preserving?

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The Romantic poets in Rome

Every so often you visit a place with high expectations, and those expectations are exceeded. So it was for me when I visited the Protestant Cemetery in Rome a couple of days ago.

The cemetery is a relatively small plot adjacent to the ancient Pyramid of Cestius, an Egyptian-style tomb built in 30BC that is now incorporated into a corner of the Aurelian Walls that border the site. It is best known perhaps as the location of the graves of the English poets John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley, though many other artists and writers are buried there, including the political theorist Antonio Gramsci, the Russian painter Alexander Ivanov, Goethe’s son, and several friends of the novelist Henry James.

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Radical hope

What is hope? What would it mean to wish that 2016 will be any better than 2015? As we enter the New Year the latest book by the prolific Terry Eagleton, Hope Without Optimism, offers a brief but wide-ranging meditation on the meaning of a seemingly simple concept that escapes easy definition.

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