This year I bought more books than I read so the pile of books that I want to read has grown even further. I did manage to read one book per week on average and that includes the 1,200 page Die Verwandlung der Welt by Jürgen Osterhammel.

The Best of the Best

Jürgen Osterhammel: Die Verwandlung der Welt. Eine Geschichte des 19. Jahrhunderts
Giulia Foscari [Ed.]: Antarctic Resolution
Merlin Sheldrake: Entangled Life
Jürgen Kaube: Hegel’s Welt
P.M.S. Hacker: The Intellectual Powers

Jürgen Osterhammel’s panoramic global history of the nineteenth century would top the list in any year. It is astonishing in breadth and scope. The same goes for P.M.S. Hacker's four volume study in philosophical anthropology.

Best Art and Photography

Giulia Foscari [Ed.]: Antarctic Resolution
Juergen Teller: Donkey Man and Other Stories
Christine Y Kim and Rujeko Heckley [Eds.]: Julie Mehretu
Jessica Wynne: Do Not Erase. Mathematicians and Their Chalkboards

Because of the Covid-19 pandemic I was unable to travel to the US so I missed the Julie Mehretu retrospective organised by the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The Marian Goodman bookstore in Paris was so kind as to get me a copy of the exhibition catalogue. Donkey Man and Other Stories provides a retrospective of Juergen Teller’s work of the past thirty or so years. I don’t actually “like” all of his work, but his photographs serve as a reminder to look differently and at different things. It is subtitled Editorial Works Volume I which suggests that there will be another volume at some point. Jessica Wynne’s Do Not Erase is a tribute to the chalkboard. I was happy to see that she included an interview with each of the mathematician’s whose chalkboard she pictured. Last but not least Antarctic Resolution is a 1000 page interdisciplinary compendium of Antarctica. Encyclopedic in scope and with contributions by authors from numerous disciplines it documents the continent’s geography, cultural and architectural history, geopolitical significance and scientific relevance.

Best Fiction

Tove Ditlevsen: The Copenhagen Trilogy
Annie Ernaux: Les années
Maggie O’Farrell: Hamnet
Clemens J. Setz: Der Trost runder Dinge
Nicolas Mathieu: Leurs enfants après eux

Knowing that The Copenhagen Trilogy is actually an autobiography makes it all the more heartbreaking. I’d been planning to read something by Clemens J. Setz for quite a while. When I learned that he had been awarded the 2021 Georg Büchner Preis I got myself a copy of his latest short story collection. Upon finishing it I instantly read another of his short story collections. He is indeed one of the most interesting German writers of the moment and I look forward to reading more of his work. Les années (The years) by Annie Ernaux is a masterpiece. I loved the let's call it auto-socio-biographic style and again will be reading more of her work.

Best Philosophy

P.M.S. Hacker: The Intellectual Powers

The Intellectual Powers. A Study of Human Nature is the second volume of P.M.S. Hacker’s study in philosophical anthropology. I have yet to read the third volume, The Passions, but in my view this quartet is one of the most significant contributions to philosophy of the 21st century so far. There is much that I disagree with, but Hacker has thrown down the gauntlet.

Best History

Jürgen Osterhammel: Die Verwandlung der Welt. Eine Geschichte des 19. Jahrhunderts

I used the second lockdown to finally read The Transformation of the World by Jürgen Osterhammel. I’ve got little to add to the praise that it has received. It is a phenomenal book, dense with information with nuggets of insight on every page.

Best Science

Merlin Sheldrake: Entangled Life
Matthew Cobb: The Idea of the Brain
Joseph Henrich: The Weirdest People in the World

I greatly enjoyed Merlin Sheldrake’s mind-bending journey into the hidden universe of fungi. As Matthew Cobb writes in the introduction to The Idea of the Brain, “despite the tsunami of brain-related data being produced by laboratories around the world, we are in a crisis of ideas about what to do with all the data, about what it all means.”

Best Economics

Philippe Aghion: Le pouvoir de la destruction créatrice

Possibly the best case for the Schumpeterian notion of creative destruction.

Best Biography

Jürgen Kaube: Hegel’s Welt

When I studied philosophy the general tenet regarding a philosopher’s biography was Heidegger’s famous statement that “our only interest is that he was born at a certain time, that he worked, and that he died”. However, I’ve since come to think that to understand the work of a philosopher it certainly helps to understand the time at which he or she lived and worked. Jürgen Kaube’s excellent Hegel’s Welt (Hegel’s World) is both a biography of and introduction to Hegel and a lively portrait of the time in which he lived.

Most Disappointing

Ottessa Moshfegh: My Year of Rest and Relaxation
Ben Lerner: The Topeka School
David Foster Wallace: Girl with Curious Hair

My Year of Rest and Relaxation has received near universal critical and popular acclaim, but I found it thoroughly disappointing. It could have been a good novel. The starting point is interesting, but the execution is just incredibly poor. Like A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, which I also found massively disappointing, it is completely overdone. The third volume of The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen is the real thing. Infinite Jest remains one of my favourite novels, but like Brief Interviews with Hideous Men I found Girl With Curious Hair pretty bad. I quite enjoyed Ben Lerner’s 10:04 but was underwhelmed by Leaving the Atocha Station. Based on the good reviews I picked up The Topeka School, but like so much contemporary American literature I found it of no interest.