My books of the year 2020 – Part 4: Non-fiction
My favourite three non–fiction books of 2020 – and a few other recommendations.
This is the fourth in a short series of articles about the best books I read in 2020. You can read the introduction here, a reflection on The Mirror & The Light here, and my selection of favourite fiction here.
I’ll kick this article off with a little cheat – three recommendations of non-fiction books that didn’t make my top three:
An exploration of what is understood and has been misunderstood about how our breath works and how we can use different techniques to aid our health: Breathe: The New Science of an Ancient Art
The Art of Rest was a clever, timely read that combined personal narrative with scientific evidence about why and how we need to have more rest in our lives.
The Essential Art of War, is a masterful translation and commentary which explained the much quoted, but much less frequently understood Art of War, by Sun Tzu (or as it turns out, likely the collective of voices that was called SunTzu).
My top three non–fiction books of 2020 are:
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, by Reni Eddo–Lodge
Daemon Voices, by Philip Pullman
Arabs: A 3,000–Year History, by Tim Mackintosh–Smith
Why I'm No Longer Talking To White People About Race, by Reni Eddo–Lodge
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, by Reni Eddo–Lodge
This is a book about structural racism. It carefully and methodically explains how racism is part of the systems that we live in, and that change has to be at a systems level. The fact that I hadn't read it until the BLM movement's surge in the summer was, I realised, evidence of one of the effects of structural racism. At some level I’d not thought it was that interesting or relevant to me. Or I’d thought it was a someone–else’s–problem sort of a deal. The same reason that despite studying history at a university known for its progressive politics, I’d missed opportunities to study black history, other than in the context of the British empire and the American Civil Rights Movement, both of which felt like the past, even though their effects and struggles are still relevant.
Systems thinking is required and systems thinking is hard. Understanding some difficult ideas and dropping your instinctive defensiveness and dampening your biases, or at least being aware of them is what is required to grasp them. The brilliance of this book is that it helped me do this – even as a white man – apparently without compromise and on its terms. It didn't hector or patronise, it just calmly – though the author's anger and frustration was not hidden – unpacked and explained systemic racism.
It is particularly useful for a British reader or someone familiar with our history, as it starts with a concise black history of the UK. Having studied history at university and – just as the book discusses – half unconsciously side–stepped any specific black or women's history courses, thinking that they were not for for me, the surprise and shock of reading about things you really should have known about before, things were about a country where we had conned ourselves was less racist and therefore less culpable than, for instance, the USA, was shocking, humbling and disarming. Once shocked, disarmed and with as much humility as you can muster, the book takes you through the concepts of white privilege and other aspects of system racism with a combination of personal experience, history and data.
Why I'm No Longer Talking To White People About Race is an inoculation against lazy thinking, apathy and abdication of responsibility when it comes to race. It is a call to arms and a practical guide to the terrible iniquity of racism with what–must–be–done advice for all (so much more useful than something–must–be–done sentiments). If you've not read it, don't hesitate. Do it now. If it is in your to read pile put it on the top. If you started it and didn't stick with it, pick it up and start again.
The book left me changed, looking back over my life and what I’d learned, at the world around me and seeing it differently. It’s the start of an education that should have started long ago for me, and I’m so glad it is being widely read now, though as Eddo–Lodge has said herself it’s tragic that the deaths of Floyd George and others are the context in which it rose to the top of the best-seller lists.
Daemon Voices, by Philip Pullman
This book is a collection of Pullman's speeches, lectures, forewords and other non–fiction articles. A lot of it concerns writing and storytelling and some of it concerns religion.
I've somehow not managed to connect with the His Dark Materials series of books. My children enjoyed them but I didn't read them with them – maybe that would have done it. However, Pullman’s writing is magnificent and his insights about his craft are wonderful. It was a nourishing book, one I came to when I wanted it in the year for a couple of sections and then went away again.
I don't know how other storytellers function, but in my case I never start with the theme of a story. My stories are about something, to be sure, but I never know what that is till I'm in the process of writing them. I have to start with pictures, images, scenes, moods – like bits of dreams, or fragments of half-forgotten films. That's how they all begin. In the case of this one I didn't realise what it could be about until after I'd discovered dæmons, which happened in the way I described just now. But more especially it was when I found that children's dæmons change and adults' dæmons don't; and I think that that idea and the theme must have leapedtowards each other like a spark and a stream of gas. I don't really know which came first, but they took fire when they came together.
The hardback of this book is a beautiful object and I will be keeping it near on my desk always. I want to have his advice literally to hand when need it.
>However, if I know anything about about writing stories, it’s this: that you have to do what your imagination wants, not what your fastidious literary taste is inclined towards, not what your finely honed judgement feels comfortable with, not what your desire for the esteem of critics advises you to. Good intentions never wrote a story worth reading: only the imagination can do that. So the imagination was going to win here, if I had anything to do with it; and what I had to do to help it win was to neutralise my uneasiness about fantasy; and the way to do that was to find a way of making fantasy serve the purposes of realism.
Arabs: A 3,000 Year History, by Tim Mackintosh Smith
I’ve still got a few hundred pages to read of this book, which runs to 700 or so, but I include it here as it has had a grip on my thoughts for months now.
After reading Louai Al-Roumani’s Lessons From a Warzone (my favourite business book of the year – see the next article in this series) I realised how little I knew about Arab culture and history. This book, which I saw on Al-Romano's Goodreads list, was a perfect first immersion into a culture that though I’d grown up close to it in West London, had always felt intimidatingly unknowable. Mackintosh–Smith writes with the passion of an outsider who is completely enthralled and fascinated by the culture.
Mackintosh–Smith writes the book from his house in his adopted country of Yemen, where war and revolution and political upheaval can literally be seen from the window where he writes. It’s a history book that takes in 3,000 years and ranges across the world, but because of the author’s location it has a sense of place, and time and timelessness, which is utterly apt to the story of the people it describes.
From the start, Arabs shows the importance of Arabic and of defining themes in the story of its people: unity and schism, the tension between nomadic and settled ways of life, North and South, and how a language can be more powerful and enduring in real terms than any of the physical wonders of the world.
As native English speaker, I’m rightly proud of my language, its diversity and richness, and there are no shortage of hagiographic books and documentaries about how it is so wonderful. Reading about Arabic, I almost feel embarrassed at its shortcomings:
All the early and subsequent diversity and accretiveness of Arabic mean that the lexicon is embarrassingly rich. Multiple synonyms include 80 for ‘honey’, 200 for ‘beard’, 500 for ‘lion’, 800 for ‘sword’, and 1,000 for ‘camel’. The last figure seems if anything rather low: an old saw among Arabists that says every Arabic word means three things – itself, its opposite, and a camel – is not entirely untrue. There are precise terms for such things that one would never imagine needed a precise term, like the droppings of bustards as opposed to ostriches, and different types of farts, categorized by loudness, and the sound of locusts eating, and the spaces between the fingers, each space having its own term.
Even before the story reaches the founding of Islam, I had learned so much about the way that Arabic and especially its poetry shapes and sustains a culture so strong that much today would be recognisable and intelligible to a time-traveller from a thousand years ago. Mackinstosh–Smith is adept in his use of analogies to give a sense of scale to all of this:
The standard English of the British empire is dissolving now. A present-day inhabitant of Kingston, Jamaica, would probably have little in common, linguistically or otherwise, with a seventh-century tribesman from Anglo-Saxon Northumbria; in contrast, despite the similarity of distance in time and space, a literate member of the black Moroccan Gnaoua in Tangier could hold a conversation with a seventh-century Meccan. Linguistic links are more powerful than genetic ones; ink is thicker than blood. For this we have to thank Islam, which never had a Pentecost, a revelation in many tongues.
So informative, revelatory, inspiring – Arabs: A 3,000 Year History is a truly magnificent work of history, but also of just good writing – the prose is so rich (partly a result, I suspect of its author having studied Arabic). Its revelations and the scale of its story gives the reader a sense of intellectual vertigo.
Like crop circles, the grand designs of geo-politics often only become apparent from the heightened perspective of future historians; at the time, on the ground, they can be invisible. Also like crop circles, the grand designs may never have been what they are claimed to be.
I suspect this won’t be the last book I read about Arabian culture – Mr Al–Roumani opened the door and Mackintosh–Smith’s flood of wonder and insight has swept me off my feet.