2018 reading: Ten recommendations

I started 2018 with the aim of reading 50 books. Unfortunately, I failed to hit this target . Excluding photography books, computing books (which I never read cover to cover anyway) and children’s books, I managed to finish 48 books. Of these, 44 were non-fiction, 4 fiction; the largest category was hillwalking and the outdoors (12 books) followed by science (11 books). I only gave up on 1 book (The Quarry Wood, by Nan Shepherd) but there were a 3 or 4 more where I wasn’t very impressed and came close to abandoning them.

I prefer to read paper books but 10 were Kindle books. I prefer to take Kindle books when travelling. Writing this list brought home to me an important difference between Kindle and paper books. While I only had to check an occasional detail in the paper books that I’d forgotten, it was much harder to recall the essence of the Kindle books.

I won’t list all of my reading but I’ve chosen 10 of my 2018 books that I’d recommend.

Quiet: Susan Cain
This is a book about introverts and how introversion is a positive rather than a negative characteristic. The key point that Cain makes is that, as a society, we have tended to favour extroverts and people who push forward with their views. In doing so, the contributions of introverts who tend to be quieter may be ignored but these are often more thoughtful and considered opinions.

As a natural introvert who does not feel the need to constantly socialise, I related strongly to this book. I forced myself to be more extrovert because it was clear that this was the route to career progression but have never felt comfortable with this approach.

Bothy Tales: John Burns
I read this book in my tent during the TGO Challenge, a walk from the west coast to the east coast of Scotland.

Burns recounts his experiences of 40-odd years hillwalking and visits to various Highland bothies. These are (I suspect) embellished for the reader’s entertainment and it really is excellent light reading – just what you want after a day’s walk. It was certainly the most entertaining outdoors book that I read this year.

I really related to Burns’s writing – not only had I visited many of the bothies he visited but it was great to find that I am not the only person who makes no attempt to record Munro ascents and who doesn’t give a stuff about tick lists.

Natural Born Learners: Alex Beard
I spent a lot of time working in education and over the years became increasingly disillusioned with the processes and metrics imposed on the system by various governments. This book, written by an ex-teacher, argues that education is the key to facing the challenges of the 21st century and describes various different approaches to learning around the world. He presents a manifesto for learning that rejects metrics, emphasises the importance of human teachers and creativity in the learning process. Should be read by all Ministers for Education although I suspect many of them might struggle to read a whole book.

Bit Rot: Douglas Coupland
Coupland writes very odd books that resonate with the spirt of the age and that reflect (and sometimes distort) popular culture. He is credited with inventing the terms Generation X and Mcjob (a dead-end job) and I particularly enjoyed his novel Microserfs about working at Microsoft.

This is a collection of stories and essays in which he suggests that our brains are being rewired by digital technologies and that 20th century notions of the future have to be reimagined. Coupland is an acquired taste and the book is a bit of a mixed bag – some insightful essays and some dross. But it makes you think.

Poacher’s Pilgrimage: Alastair Macintosh
Alastair Macintosh is an environmentalist and campaigner from the island of Lewis and he recounts, in this book, a walk through the island from Rodel in the south of Harris to the Butt of Lewis. He uses the walk as a device to talk about the people of the islands that he met and to reflect on the past, present and possible futures for these islands.

I admire some of the work that Macintosh has done, such as his support for the Eigg buyout, but I have found his other books to be rather earnest and I can’t relate to his religious perspective. This book is different – more light-hearted and self-deprecating – and a more enjoyable read.

Fire in the Night: Stephen McGinty
This book is about the 1987 fire on the Piper Alpha oil platform where 17x men died in horrific circumstances. I’ve often visited the Piper Alpha memorial rose garden in Aberdeen and this book really brought home the scale of the disaster. It made me very angry as it was an avoidable disaster where commercial considerations overrode safety; it is disgraceful that there were no prosecutions here for corporate manslaughter.

Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain’s Underclass: Darren McGarvey
The policies of UK Governments from Thatcher’s government in the 1980s to the current ‘austerity’ has led to the creation of an underclass – people who have no money, no or very intermittent employment, live in poor housing, have poor health and little hope for improvement. Over the years, there have been many initiatives where outsiders have tried to change these communities but these have largely failed.

McGarvey, a musician from a deprived area of Glasgow, discusses the justifiable anger in these communities and argues that many initiatives have failed because they have simply not listened to the people involved. He also makes the valid point (as does Vance in his book Hillbilly Elegy) that individuals have agency; people must also try to avoid making choices that are actively harmful to themselves and their communities.

A Legacy of Spies: John le Carre
I don’t read much fiction but I enjoy le Carre’s exquisitely crafted stories. This book brings back characters from his Cold War novels. It looks back at incidents from these novels with the plot based on the notion that children of people killed in bungled security service operations might now sue MI5.

Along the Divide: Chris Townsend
Townsend is, perhaps, the foremost long-distance backpacker in the UK and this book is an account of how walk along the Scottish watershed from the Borders to the north coast. I enjoyed this book much more than ‘Ribbon of Wildness’, an earlier book on the same topic because it is not just simply a diary of a walk. The book is organised geographically, from south to north, but as well as describing his walk, Townsend also talks about politics, nature and environmental issues, particularly the threat to wild places by developments such as wind farms.

Scotland: A Rewilding Journey: Susan Wright, Peter Cairns and Nick Underdown
I am a long-term believer in rewilding in Scotland – bringing back species that have become extinct or threatened through human actions. This is a beautifully illustrated book with a series of essays on how both the natural environment and the Highland economy can gain from rewilding – from encouraging native plants to reintroducing large mammals. I see rewilding as wholly positive and hope to live long enough to hear the howling of wolves in the Highlands.

3 thoughts on “2018 reading: Ten recommendations

  • January 3, 2019 at 10:25 pm

    Thanks very much for including Bothy Tales on your list. I am glad to hear that you enjoyed it and you read it in exactly the right place!

  • January 4, 2019 at 6:03 am

    What a great idea for a blog post. I’m incredibly busy at present but this has inspired me to want to write something similar about my 2018 reading and to comment further on your favourites, especially ‘Quiet’ by Susan Cain. As a fellow introvert, but not having read the book, I currently have a different take on introspection.

    Finally, I’m a very slow reader but managed 42 in 2018. Of these 35 were fiction. I’ve got a list of every book I have read since starting university in September 1975 and my previous highest was 35 in 2016 so I was very pleased with last year’s total.

  • January 15, 2019 at 2:03 pm

    A great list of books, Ian. To my shame I don’t think I managed to read anywhere near as many as you in 2018. Must up my game!


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