Despite the challenges, I consider myself to have been very lucky this year. I have lots of reasons to be cheerful. One of these is that I have reliable sources of book recommendations. So many people have made such excellent book recommendations that have I haven’t yet read them all. And the lockdown is the primary reason I was able to read as many as I did.
And following this somewhat upbeat introduction, I have decided to recommend to you three absolutely inspiring books about three different kinds of hopelessness. They are in reverse order:
I Will Never See The World Again
The confined world of Ahmet Altan has been seered into my mind this year and is my third recommendation.
I regret that he is incarcerated in Turkey for imagined crimes but without incarceration, this book would not have existed. He is just one person victimised by a state that victimises and incarcerates tens of thousands for the thought of thought crime. We read Altan and we also think of them, the jailed students, the imprisoned journalists and others denied liberty or rights. Those others may be Kurdish or Christian or otherwise considered potentially disloyal.
We aren’t too surprised when Altan writes ‘I find bravery disgraceful in a writer’. He explains that ‘A writer should be admired and praised for his writing alone’. But there is a contradiction because Altan is brave. I regret that we, the world without Turkey, can do little to help any of them.
We should worry that Turkish autocracy intends that Altan will never see the world again.
I loved Apeirogon by Colum McCann so much that I journaled about it several times. It informed, changed and improved the way I thought about people. It was long listed for The Booker Prize and I really wanted it to win but it wasn’t even picked for the short list. I noticed that ‘boo are the first three letters Booker; Boo Booker for their oversight.
The concept of an apeirogon is that of an infinite polygon yet the number of sides can be counted. The book Apeirogon shows us many hard sides of the hugely complex trap within which Palestine persists. And I came to see it as a trap while reading of extraordinary people in a vile situation. I came to see Palestine as a geographic-political trap constructed like a mousetrap, a mantrap a peopletrap, a nationtrap that seeks to make the citizens trespassers in their own lands.
Apeirogon is a novel but not novel-like. It’s a brilliant read and my second choice or recommendation from a year of reading excellent books.
Sadly, I’m not sure if the Palestinian issue will ever be resolved.
Until the End of Time
There can only be one winner. Following the interminable incarceration and infinite sides of the apeirogon, here is a story of our current understanding of the finite universe.
Brian Greene wrote that language is ‘one of the most pervasive and influential of human behaviours’. He proposed that ‘Storytelling may be the mind’s way of rehearsing for the real world’. This wasn’t quite what I expected to read when Until The End of Time was recommended to me by a locked-down Emeritus Professor of Psychology. Had I been more thoughtful about the provenance of the recommendation, I surely would have known to expect the unexpected. Your time with this book will be measured in hours while you will be enjoying times ranging from fractions of milliseconds to years by the trillion.
Until The End of Time is an elegantly told story of the elegant rules by which impermanence persists but probably not forever.
Greene tells his stories with such conversational ease that I think of him as Brian, someone I might have known all my life. But these stories are far from casual. They bend your mind but not in the way that illusionists bend spoons. There is pure, unadulterated, peer reviewed science on every page. And philosophy, because you need a framework in order to attempt to comprehend the astounding science.
You already know that ‘All that lives will die’ and so he reasons that ‘in the search for value and purpose, the only insights of relevance, the only answers of significance, are those of our own making.’
This book informs and educates us. It surely encourages us to explore and educate ourselves even more. I read it slowly and often re-read chapters that are so densely packed with new information, that I’m almost ashamed to admit that sometimes it was as if I hadn’t read them at all.
He explains that if you ‘turn the earth into a black hole you’d need to squeeze it down to about two centimetres across’. This book is a bit like that; information dense. It’s like the Encyclopaedia Britannica that stretches two metres on our shelves has been compressed to just 2 cm in hand. It’s a truly rewarding read.
Until The End of Time is without doubt the ‘best’ book I read this year.
‘Which news would affect you more … being told you have a year to live or that within the year Earth will be destroyed?’ Since the universe will end but so long from now, I think we should focus on living the best years we can and helping Altan and Palestine and their ilk as much as we can.
Of course, you might feel the need to keep diversions to hand. I generally keep two or three books on the go in different parts of the house, dipping in and out at different times of the day or to suit my changing moods.
Bryson’s The Body is a great trove of information and an easy read. Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees is really uplifting. And Livewired, well, if you believe Eagleman, livewired may be your future.
Resolve to read more in 2021!