For me, 2019 was a year rather of »re-reads« than of new literary discoveries. Maybe I was just not very lucky with my selection, maybe my judgement was less lenient or my patience shorter than in other years.
The Shining Three
In any case, there were only three first-time reads last year that I liked without any reservation. My favourite was, without doubt, Michael Palin’s »Erebus«. Palin is not only a great actor and screen writer, but also a consummate raconteur. He tells the story of a ship, the »Erebus«. It’s a story inextricably linked with polar exploration, combining the glory of great achievements and discoveries with the gloom of failure, death and disaster. A wonderful book and, for me personally, a happy followup for my polar mood earlier in the year.
Second and third come two classics. Émile Zola’s gripping novel »Germinal« about the life of coal miners in 19th-century France and their desperate efforts to improve their lot. And »On Liberty« by John Stuart Mill – a book that is as topical today as ever. It should be read at school wherever possible. I need not say more about these two works – they’re classics and they deserve to be.
All the other books that I read for the first time last year were at least partly disappointing, some totally. Gottfried Keller’s classic »Der grüne Heinrich« (Green Henry), for example, bored me almost to brain death and was – even compared with other works of the time – sentimental and silly in a degree that I started to despise its main character and gave up reading after the first chapters of the second volume. Émile Zola’s »The Fortune of the Rougons« was a very similar success with me.
In the realm of non-fiction it was »Masse und Macht« (Crowds and Power) by Elias Canetti that was most sobering. I had expected a more tangible psychological analysis of group dynamics, society, hierarchy, and power but found Canetti’s thoughts rather – well: lyrical. A lot of hypotheses, but scarcely any validation and neither much reference to the real world of Canetti’s days. (I concede, though, that in all probability it’s me who misjudges the book and not the Nobel Prize committee …)
Light and Shadow
These were the extreme cases. Most of my other first-time reads in 2019, however, were rather a mixed pleasure for me than outright bad. Each had at least one aspect, one chapter that was inspiring or entertaining. I’d like to even recommend two of these books because I find the good sections so very brillant that they outshine what I liked less.
The first is »Enemies of Promise« by Cyril Connolly. While the first part with its historical and stylistic analyses of (British) literature did not interest me much and even less so the autobiographical description of the author’s school and college days, it’s the second part of the book that fascinated me and even inspired me to publish a blog article and drawing.
The second book is »The Captive Mind« by Czesław Miłosz. It’s not an easy read and some chapters – for me – were overly dry or cryptic. I’d expected something more coherent, something closer to a narrative. Nonetheless »The Captive Mind« is a meticulous study of the workings of totalitarian regimes and societies and especially of intellectuals in such environments. I wish Miłosz’s book was more accessible. It would be an excellent complement for Mill’s »On Liberty«. To protect and strengthen liberty we must know the evil looming without it, and thus be able to discern and avert that evil (and not only where expected or convenient!).
So much for the books I read for the first time.
Again and Again
At the outset, I spoke of a year of »re-reads«. So finally, as the most conspicious sample, I should mention Norman Davies’ formidable tome »Europe: A History«. I’ve read it for the third time now (once again having forgotten 80 per cent of the plethora of information it contains) and I will read it yet another time. It’s not only that Davies is an accomplished narrator and his book has an original structure (allowing Davies to throw spotlights on selected details of all areas of culture and science). There is more I find praiseworthy: Davies is an historian who does not equate European history with that of Western Europe but who covers Eastern and South-Eastern Europe as well and as an integral part of the continent’s past and present. And I’ve seldom read more acute and more concise thoughts on historiography as a science than those of Davies’ preface. Neither a more original and profound discussion of what Europe is.
Well – this was my last year expressed in books. After all, my 2019 literary crop seems to have been not that bad, huh?