Books I read in 2019: Educated, by Tara Westover – on her education after a childhood kept out of school, but also about the dynamics of a difficult family in which her story was not allowed to be told or heard; The Infinite Game, by Nikki Harre – on playing life as an open-ended, infinite game rather than playing games to win, offering new ways of thinking about just about anything. I particularly liked how a game of paper darts changed depending on what kinds of rules were set up and how creatively it was played without rules at all, which made me think about poetry, and how we can play it in terms of catching darts and keeping them moving, keeping all the moves in play; Bad Science, by Ben Goldacre (favourite bit when he quotes Harry Frankfurt on bullshit: “The liar knows the truth, but deliberately sets out to mislead; the bullshitter does not care about the truth and simply aims to impress…The bullshitter is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says” – obviously very relevant to thinking about contemporary politics, but it also reminded me a bit of me, in arguments with my brother, and I found it nice to be distinguished from a liar, since I never feel I am lying exactly, just winning (and not even cheating since bullshitting is basically the game I am playing); Nevermoor, by Jessica Townsend; Some Rain Must Fall, by Karl Ove Knausgaard, part of my on-going reading of all his books, which will make him the author I’ve read more words of than any other including Shakespeare; Volpone, by Ben Jonson; Spring, by Knausgaard, one of my favourites of his; Wundersmith, by Jessica Townsend – now I’m waiting for her next; You, Too, Could Write a Poem, by David Orr, but not really about how to write a poem; Pretentiousness, by Dan Fox – an argument for it, which is a position I had come round to but I don’t remember the book being particularly memorable; The Fifth Risk, by Michael Lewis – brilliantly illuminating like all his books and quite terrifying, an account of all the unpicking the Trump administration has been doing of a whole range of essential government services; Transcription, by Kate Atkinson; Like – the brilliant latest collection by poet A.E. Stallings; Three Poems, by Hannah Sullivan; Summer, Knausgaard; The End – Knausgaard’s most extraordinary, enormous concluding volume of the Struggle series with a 300 page digression on the early life of Adolf Hitler, at once riveting, wonderful and boring, like the best of his writing; Ladylike, by Kate Lilley; Enchanted Glass, by Diana Wynne Jones, one of hers I hadn’t read for a long time, one of the few writers I reread; House of Many Ways, Diana Wynne Jones – I must have got started on a new run of rereading; 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth, by Xiaolu Guo – oh this was quite wonderful, I am quite interested in fragmentary story-telling though this was episodic as much as it was fragmentary, I saw a more fragmentary novel in the library yesterday I must sgo back for; 12 Rules for Life, by Jordan B Peterson – had to find out what he was on about, and it was a good read, a comical combination of the obvious, the quite sensible, the madcap and the obsessive detail, a summary of how to live with no obvious sense of proportion, although there’s some truth that the apparently trivial, such as making your bed in the morning (I don’t, I want Simon to, he doesn’t either) or standing straight can be a way of setting up larger shifts in how you live with larger consequences. Very much for an audience of adolescent boys, the specific advice such as honour your mother and, one day, honour your wife is all to the good in itself, I just balk at the framework in which she is honoured in her role as helpmeet and birth-giver to the dominant male – dominant, that is, so long as he models himself on the lobster and maintains a dominant posture. Still, a straight back is a good idea, must remember not to hunch so much over the laptop; Too Much and Not the Mood, by Durga Chew-Bose – ought to remember this more than the Peterson but nope; Odd and the Frost Giants, by Neil Gaiman; Lost Connections, by Johann Hari – about the social causes of depression, and a call for greater social connection; Beautiful and Pointless, another book on poetry by David Orr, with the most perfect title, a title the book itself didn’t live up to; Thought Diary, by Jan Morris, one of my favourite books of the year, particularly for her constantly recurring thoughts of Ibsen, her much missed Norwegian forest cat; Old at Art School, by Nell Painter, which I’d liked to have been more inspiring than it was, given I’d rather like to be old at art school myself and could not be more interested in art school politics and practices as well as education, particularly education undertaken later in life. I just didn’t particularly take to Nell Painter as a writer or, regrettably, as an artist. Good name for an artist, though; Cart and Cwidder, by Diana Wynne Jones; Mouth Full of Blood, Toni Morrison; Baby, Annaleese Jochems – I shared a ride with Annaleese to the Titirangi Writers Festival and could have spent the day happily in a car with her just to listen to her always surprising and offbeat replies to questions and comments, and her session at the Festival was glorious. I’m interested too in the character type that seems to be typical of contemporary NZ fiction – the rather mean, acerbic, hapless, unsentimental, judgemental, unsympathetic young woman, unkind to dogs – found in this year’s (and other year’s) books by Pip Adam, Carl Shuker, Anne Kennedy, even Elizabeth Knox’s The Abosolute Book, kind of – what is this about? Is it some kind of compensation for how women are actually presenting themselves in real life, or is it more an effect of a particular kind of writing style either learned or being employed for some other purpose, some combination of social commentary and personal observation that creates this kind of character as an unintended effect, the way the minimalist style of the 80s created dispassionate, materialistic characters? In any case, a bad time to be a fictional dog; Good Bones, by Maggie Smith; several books by Terrance Hayes – American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin, Lighthead, How to be Drawn, and the brilliant long work of criticism that is essayistic, journalistic, autobiographical and biographical, To Float in the Space Between, on Etheridge Knight; So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo – from which I will select some essays for my course on American literature, a brilliant way of reading about American race politics; More Than Real Art – The Digital Age, edited by Daniel Birnbaum and Michelle Kuo (Douglas Coupland in this book: “Maybe books were just a necessary interim technology that had to happened in order to get us used to Virtual Reality and now we can get rid of them” – or maybe let’s not); Proofs and Theories by Louise Gluck – a rereading of a book I return to often; Re-Verse, David Slavitt; Spellcoast, Diana Wynne Jones –one of her best; At the Existentialist Café – Sarah Bakewell – a brilliant and lively combination of biography and philosophy; Philosophy in Turbulent Times, by Elisabeth Roudinesco – which covered some of the same ground with more rigour and different anecdotes, a wonderful complement to the Bakewell book; Bukowski in a Sundress, by Kim Addonizio; The Secret Life of Cows, by Rosamund Young, the most wonderful book about cow relationships; Identity by Francis Fukuyama – largely an extended argument against identity politics but it usefully bases its argument in a concept of lived identity that interests me, Simone de Beauvoir’s “l’experience vecue”; and so the next book was Simone de Beauvoir’s very wonderful memoir of her mother’s last illness, A Very Easy Death, particularly interesting because of the reading I had done in previous years about ethical consent and medical secrecy and after reading in particular David Rieff’s harrowing account of Susan Sontag’s very difficult death – de Beauvoir’s mother died believing she was convalescing and everything she suffered was in order to get well; The Improv Handbook, by Tom Salinsky and Deborah Frances-White – I never want to go on stage and improvise a comedy routine in front of an audience but the techniques are quite good techniques for ordinary life (but the absolutely best book on improv theory as a way of life is The Chairs Are Where The People Go, by Sheila Heti and Misha Glouberman, also just one of my favourite books ever, and another approach to the short essay form, just brief conversational commentaries on all sorts of things, with Sheila Heti recording what Misha Glouberman said); Lethal White, by Robert Galbraith – combines pretty awful writing with compelling story-writing, except I think this is the one that particularly annoyed me by having a twist to it that the reader couldn’t have worked out; The Lies That Bind, Kwame Anthony Appiah, a more complex and interesting account of identity politics by a writer who is always subtle, informed and interesting; Necroromanticism, by Paul Westover – about readers' interest in writers' graves, the romanticising of the dead author and authors’ deaths; The Hazards of Time Travel, Joyce Carol Oates; Eros the Bittersweet, a rereading of Anne Carson’s wonderful collection of short connected essays on love, desire, writing and the boundaries between people and between forms, a book I read in pieces all year; Ways of Being: Advice for Artists by Artists, ed James Cahill; Once Upon A River, by Diane Setterfield – this was nicely strange and also thoroughly satisfying in a way it looked like it wasn’t going to be able to be; Unto Us A Son is Given, Donna Leon; Spring – Ali Smith – glorious of course; John Donne: Life, Mind and Art, John Carey’s detailed biography of life as a Catholic and then an Anglican at a time of high stakes religious conversions and choices; Bury It, Sam Sax – compelling collection of poetry; The Sight of Death, by T. J. Clark – extraordinary book of diary entries all on the two Poussin paintings he revisits throughout the year, finding more to write every time, focusing on one detail and then another. After reading this book all the trees I encountered started looking like Poussin trees, or it was the trees that look like Poussin trees that became the trees I noticed, and I noticed the wind move through them and the light play on them, which is particularly interesting since in a painting of course that movement is exactly what is missing, and yet it is so implied that to see them move is what made them so Poussin-like even though his own were still. I thought reading the book would be a way for me of meditating on death but no, mostly trees; Fawkes, by Nadine Brandes – looked like it would be terrific but I’m not sure I finished it; The Afterlife, by Samuel Scheffler – oh but this was brilliant, and about exactly the question I’ve pondered for some years, about what it would mean to live in a world which wasn’t going to continue, or in a world in which humanity was at its end – what would you be living for? And, p.s., for a book on possible afterlives you can’t do better than Sum, by David Eagleman, a series of imagined afterlives brilliantly inventive in themselves but interesting mainly for how they offer startling fresh perspectives on the strangeness of how life is actually lived; Virginia Woolf: The Modernist Path, by Barbara Lounsbery, the third in her critical studies of Woof’s diaries, which read the diaries as literary works in their own right, brilliantly tracing lines of influence and the development of aesthetic principles and strategies; Solitude, by Michael Harris – I’ve noted this down but can’t remember anything about it; This Fight Is Our Fight, by Elizabeth Warren, what a fine president she would make; The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, Theodora Goss; I Love Poetry, by Michael Farrell; The Rose Fairy Book by Andrew Lang! I’d forgotten reading this! I loved those books when I was small, and still do; Inadvertent, by Karl Ove Knausgaard – running out of Knausgaard, though I’ve still got the early novels I could read. This was about writing, and interesting the way everything he writes is; The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray, Chris Wooding; Once Upon a Time in Aotearoa, by Tina Makereti; Wind City, by Summer Wigmore; The Anxiety of Influence, by Harold Bloom – to remind myself what it was; Walking, Eling Kagge, but I’d rather just go for a walk; The Theban Mystery, by Amanda Cross; Big Sky, by Kate Atkinson – I read everything she writes; Calypso, David Sedaris; The Graverobber’s Apprentice, Allan Stratton, a terrific children’s book, very intricately worked out, like a fully realised elaborated story from the Andrew Lang world; Children of Men, P.D. James, because of the Samuel Scheffler book – this is a novel based on exactly that premise, what would the world be like if humanity was almost over, somewhat derailed by the thriller story that takes over as our protagonist becomes part of a group keeping safe the only woman to become pregnant in decades, and ending weirdly and very pleasingly with our protagonist about to rule the world, probably not entirely well, though probably as well as anyone else. Wonderfully compelling, so that I remembered parts of the story a long, long time later and couldn’t remember where I’d read them or if they were from a dream, but was haunted by the intensity of feeling they evoked. A book I’d read decades ago but is newly strange to come back to; The Heavens, by Sandra Newman – the most brilliant novel I read I think in 2019; Melmoth, by Sarah Perry; Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefwater; Earthsea, by Ursula Le Gruin; The First 20 Hours – How to Learn Anything Fast, by Josh Kaufman. I don’t think I learnt anything fast in any of the 20 hours I could have learned things in all year despite reading this; The Crown of Dalemark, by Diana Wynne Jones; Women Rowing North, by Mary Pipher (favourite quotes: “Habit has a kind of poetry” Simone de Beauvoir (I should just spend next year reading Simone de Beauvoir), and “One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats” – Iris Murdoch); The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, in readiness for The Testaments which I still haven’t read; Pen In Hand, Tim Parks – terrific set of essays on translation; How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes , by Chris Tse, a rereading of a collection of poetry that well repays rereading; The Transition by Luke Kennard, interesting premise though I can’t remember it, not particularly interestingly worked out,, without the verve and velocity of his brilliant poems; Translation by Umberto Eco; The Absolute Book, by Elizabeth Knox; The Age of Consent – George Monbiot’s brilliant and compelling case for w world democracy, elegiac to read now and he himself seems to have moved right on from this vision, but along the way it presents well reasoned arguments against communism and amarchy and a hundred other things besides; On Eating Meat, by Matthew Evans, the case for reduced but ethical meat eating; Art World Prestige: Arguing Cultural Value, by Timothy Van Laar and Leanard Dieperseen, some interesting case studies; Out of the Wreckage, by Geoge Monbiot, a later, reduced vision of what we can do; The Rooftoppers, by Katharine Rundell; Heat, by George Monbiot; The Book of Dust: The Secret Commonwealth, by Philip Pullman – rather better than the one before even I think, and a more complex but also more restrained series than the earlier series, the first Lyra books; The Odyssey, translated by Emily Wilson; Trick Mirror, Jia Tolentino; Ecstasy and Terror, more brilliant essays and reviews by Daniel Mendelsohn; Don Paterson, The Poem; The Room on the Roof, Ruskin Bond; Memories of the Future, by Siri Hustvedt – the annotated diaries of her possibly fictional, possibly true girlhood, strange, complelling, beautifully structured and worked out narrative, and a weird and successfully invention of a new form of story-telling; The Sentence is Death, by Anthony Horowitz, and we’d been watching Foyle’s War on TV too, so nicely metafictional, though a fairly pedestrian murder mystery really; Moral Sloth, by Nick Ascroft, master of formal poetry but also just very funny; Neon Daze, by Amy Brown, a wonderfully loose and creative account of the intense days of early motherhood and what it is like losing and recreating a sense of self under this kind of uncanny pressure; Wild Honey, Paula Green's magisterial book about New Zealand women's poetry; The Track, also by Paula Green, a collection of long, sprawling alphabet-based poems which she composed in her head to get her out of the bush after she broke an ankle; Deep Light, latest extraordinary fantasy by Frances Hardinge; How To Do Nothing by Jenny Odell, with a gorgeous cover, and so inspiring that I had to start planning some kind of community project at once; From the Heart by Susan Hill, a very oddly paced and oddly affectless account of a girl’s life, stilted yet somehow quite compelling, very interesting to read in the way it combined an apparently conventional narrative style with an oddly unexpected reading experience, something just slightly different about the pacing and story-telling that was hard to point to, it was rather like reading Muriel Spark but without the Sparkiness, but I liked it; Moth Hour, by Anne Kennedy; When I Grow Up I Want To Be A List of Future Possibilities by Chen Chen, which I read again after meeting Chen Chen and hearing him read in Wellington, and understanding the importance of pacing to this poems, the ways they unfold as poems told against time; Late-life love, by Susan Gubar, but I was really more interested in her exhaustive account of her uterine cancer; The Odyssey, translated by Emily Wilson; The Music of Time: Poetry in the Twentieth Century, John Burnside; A Handbook of Disappointed Fate, Anne Boyer; There There, by Tommy Orange – a powerful novel told as a series of stories from the point of view of very different characters, every single character presented sympathetically, so that you desperately want the best for every one of them; Edvard Munch, by Karl Ove Knausgaard – exactly conveys my sense of the copies Munch made of his paintings, that they weirdly copy the forms without carrying over the meaning or sense of them; and, finally, Friday’s Tunnel and February’s Road, both by John Verney who also illustrated them, the perfect birthday present to me from Phoebe, just when I needed exactly these books to carry me through hard times, the way books can do. And so this list of books must have ended in October, or a little later given how long a birthday present can sometimes take to arrive.