A stack of books - reads of 2019

Lots of other people are doing it so I thought I would too. Here is a stack of my favourite reads of 2019. While most have been published this year, a few are older. I originally had a bigger stack than the one here, whittled it down and also have a pile of other books waiting to be read. It’s quite varied, more so this year than previous years ‐ I think I’m spreading my wings a little.

Through the summer I binged on Rebecca Solnit and Barry Lopez, helped by relatively frequent visits to the London Review Bookshop (it’s a bolt‐hole for me on the way back to the train station after a day working down there), who stock some of their harder to get hold of books. I think these two are amazing writers ‐ I could read and re‐read their work forever and still get so much from it each time.

I picked up a copy of Kathleen Jamie’s Surfacing in Ullapool while on holiday in August. Like both her previous books of prose ‐ Findings and Sightlines ‐ I found myself reading it at every opportunity. While Surfacing is about a number of other thought‐provoking and important things, Jamie’s writing about motherhood and the changes in life it brings is incredibly insightful, original and frankly reassuring.

I have been painting a fair bit in oils this year and have really been thinking about trying to capture light. Following my nose on this has taken me all over the place, John Ruskin being one notable artist, writer and critic I have read about and whose work I have explored. I am a mathematician by education and trade ‐ quite a philistine when it comes to the arts ‐ I have no grounding in them in terms of an education perspective from the age of 14 upwards. These gaps in learning can enable wonderful discoveries for me, and this year Ruskin’s paintings have been one of them. The light in his paintings of mountains and architecture are sublime, I have loved visiting a couple of exhibitions this year, in London and York, which marked 2019 as the bi‐centenary of his birth. Susan Fagence Cooper’s To See Clearly: Why Ruskin Matters is an enlightening book that introduced me to Ruskin’s vision and work in much more detail.

I think it’s taking a while but Helen Mort’s Black Car Burning is perhaps beginning to get the recognition it deserves. While rock climbing is at least a thing (if not the thing) in the worlds many of us inhabit, as yet it’s not a mainstream activity, and maybe that’s why it’s taking a while. Helen’s book got me thinking and had me thinking a long time after I had read it. I don’t read much fiction, have no clue how to write it and admire those who write it well. How Helen has blended a story with many threads and depth with poetic writing on nature and place is brilliant.

A nod to my working life as a data scientist, I think Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Survieillance Capitalism is one of the most important books published this year. This is hopefully the start of a wake-up call regarding the ways in which machine learning and artificial intelligence are being used as tools to influence us in so many of our activities. Beyond the obvious such as the stuff we buy and who we vote for, predictive analytics is being used to influence our decision making all over the place, often before we are even consciously aware that we have a decision to make. Far greater government regulation is required, and Zuboff makes a powerful case for it.

David Gange’s The Frayed Atlantic Edge. While I saved this to be a Christmas read that I am currently about half‐way through I had to include it. Gange is a historian, kayaker and mountain goer. The frayed edge is the whole of the western coastline of the UK and Ireland exposed to the Atlantic, stretching from Shetland to the Seven Stones reef off Land’s End in Cornwall. While Gange largely traverses the edge on water, he crosses the wonderful mountains of Fisherfield and Torridon on foot. As he travels he explores the history of the places he visits and passes close to, by both spending time with locals and reading avidly, describing time spent floating in his kayak, a book in his hand. Gange’s book is very well written, the north‐west Highlands and Islands of Scotland are some of my very favourite places, I am currently loving reading his words and revisiting them in my head. His own love for all of the skills he deploys here shines through, along with wild landscape and the history and culture of those who live within it.

The book that most surprised me this year (in that I never thought I would read a book about knitting) was Esther Rutter’s This Golden Fleece. I have been knitting a bit over the past few years, recently finishing a jumper and tank-top (that both fit!). One thing I had been thinking about while knitting is the history of the craft and the ways it fits into local cultures. Esther Rutter has grown up spinning and knitting, her passion for them are evident in This Golden Fleece, along with her skills as a writer. During each month of 2017 she visited a different area of the UK known for its knitting, exploring the culture and folklore of the place through its knitting history. She visits the Yorkshire Dales and knits a pair of Dentdale gloves, the east coast and begins a Gansey jersey, writes of Virginia Woolf and the wider Bloomsbury set’s love of yarn, covering many other places and people through the year. The book is a mixture of travelogue, cultural history and memoir; I really enjoyed reading it. It has inspired me to attempt to knit a pair of Dentdale gloves and has more widely helped to get me thinking of just how many crafts and old ways that in the past had great utility and cultural importance are at risk of being forgotten as we follow the path of the industrial and now digital revolutions. This links in to some of Rebecca Solnit’s and Barry Lopez’s writing, Kathleen Jamie and David Gange write of it too.

For me the mark of a good book is that it gets me thinking, maybe showing me a way of thinking differently, pushing the boundaries of my mind and creativity. Mark Goodwin’s Rock as Gloss (beautifully produced by Longbarrow Press) has helped rekindle my love for rock and climbing (I am tentatively back on the grit after a gap of over 15 years), as well as got me thinking about both my writing and painting. This is a triple whammy as far as I am concerned. Goodwin’s work, a mixture of poetry and prose, is playful and original, full of the climbing life and its vibrancy. When you look closely at rock it is full of colour, limestone is not just grey, gritstone not only dark and brown. I did a series of close-up paintings of some of the gritstone crags on my doorstep ‐ Almscliffe, Chevin Buttress, Caley and Ilkley Quarry a few years ago. Reading Rock as Gloss has got me re-visiting these and imagining other rock and boulder paintings, along with writing about them. Thank you Mark!

Last but by no means least, Paolo Cognetti’s The Eight Mountains. I picked up a copy from the wonderful Scarthin Books near Matlock in the spring, quickly read it and then read it again. This is a story of a boy and then man’s relationship with his father, best friend and the mountains. Written in the first person, Pietro describes and explores his complex relationship with his father, a man who only ever seems to be truly happy when he is high in the moraine and peaks of the hills above the little alpine valley in which they have a house they escape to from Milan at every opportunity. The story follows Pietro as he grows up alongside his best friend Bruno, as he gets older and moves away and as he then returns, reflecting on their lives and the draw of the mountains above their valley. A book that made me cry, Cognetti’s writing of relationships, mountains and the connections between the two is beautiful.