Top Books of 2019

My reading this year continues to be diverse and unpredictable! Spanning classic novels, economic history and the art world. These are the 12 books that have stuck in my mind most this year. The books from which I find myself recalling information, recommending or that have informed my world view in some way.

My list roughly follows the order in which I read them this year.

001 A Strange Business – by James Hamilton

An insight into the life and workings of Britain in the 1800s – in particular artists and their patrons. Unsurprisingly patrons were very important. But I also learnt there were artists’ benevolent funds and pensions. JMW Turner sold his first painting for roughly what his father earnt as a hairdresser in an entire year and invested in shares.

002 The Vanishing Man – Laura Cummings

Diego Velázquez is regularly cited as one of the greatest Spanish artists of all time. This clever story traces the story of the provenance of a suspected Velázquez painting and reveals much about the artist’s life along the way. A page-turning thriller crossed with an art history biography. Gripping and illuminating.

Read my previous post this year: Getting to know Diego…

003 La Ridícula idea de No Volver a Verte – Rosa Montero

Unfortunately not yet published in English, but an excellent read. Tells the story of Marie Curie’s life – the challenges she faced as a Polish immigrant in France and a female scientist. But not just a straightforward biography, also an exploration of grief. Marie Curie’s husband died young and the author Rosa Montero started reading Curie’s diary as she was overcoming her own grief following the death of her husband.

004 Skin in the Game – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

An investigation of asymmetric risk/reward profiles in society. Taleb rages against bankers, academics, economists, and civil servants. In fact anyone he deems not to have ‘something to lose’ in the game. Surprisingly he quite likes artists and writers, as they have ‘soul in the game’.

005 Hey Day: The 1850s & the Dawn of the Global Age – Ben Wilson

Full disclosure, I am a sucker for economic history. In fact this might be my book of the year! An account of the world during the 1850s. The laying of the first transatlantic cables, development of steampower and railways, all of which changed our relationships with time, space and distance forever. Not as jingoistic and remember the good ol’ days as I thought the title may suggest. Instead incredibly well written, page-turning history, brought to life with everyday life, as well as the ‘historic’ events of the times.

006 The Leopard – Tomasi de Lampedusa

My book of 2019! A classic that tells the story of a Prince in Sicily during the reunification of Italy. Under the monarchic sun of Sicily the ruling class and political establishment is shifting. Change is in the air, yet much is dormant in the midday heat. An utter joy to read – a wonderful clarity of language and the most artfully balanced characters and plot. A masterpiece!

Pairs well with ‘Heyday’ above for some more context of the era!

007 & 008 Sally Rooney’s Novels

I read Sally Rooney’s first novel ‘Conversations with Friends’ and carried directly on to her second novel ‘Normal People’, finishing both within a few days. So yes, utterly readable and engrossing writing. What I loved most was her ability to make a whole scene feel incredibly true-to-life and recognisable with just a few small, precise details. In Normal People she particularly nails the ‘going-to -university-elsewhere’ experience and its effects on different characters.

009 A Room of One’s Own – Virginia Woolf

Part essay, part fiction, part personal story and far more than the sum of its parts. The full text of Virginia’s Woolf lecture in 1928 which gave the world her now famous premise that: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”

An excellent read, I posted some reading notes on this earlier this year.

010 Law: A Very Short Introduction – Raymond Wacks

An unexpected entry perhaps, but actually pretty illuminating. I now understand the rough differences between a common law system, like that of the UK and a civil law system, like that of say continental europe and Spain where I currently live. Suddenly major differences in cultural values and ways of doing things make much more sense!

011 A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness” … one of the best opening lines ever. Written in even chapters, with lots of cliffhangers, violence and French Revolution blood. It is clear that it was originally a weekly serial for its Victorian audience and still a page-turning read today.

012 Empire – Niall Ferguson

More Economic History, 400-odd years of it, in around 400 pages. Excellent on the development of early financial systems by the Dutch in the 1600s, which were then copied by the British and went on to underpin British imperial expansion. (And why it made my list). Much as Ferguson does endeavour to tell both sides of the story, and he is a considered writer and historian – at times it feels like a huge swathe of history, held up to the light at a very particular angle. But an interesting angle and a worthwhile read.