1. Roger Osborne, Iron, Steam, and Money: The Making of the Industrial Revolution. A good popular overview of the British industrial revolution, focusing on inventors, coal, and engineering innovations.
2. John D. Barrow, Mathletics: A Scientist Explains 100 Amazing Things About Sport. I found half of this book to be fun, a pretty high hit rate given its style of many short chapters. I learned how basketball players create the illusion of “hang time” (their bodies are falling parabolically, but their heads don’t have to be), that Mark Spitz would not qualify for U.S. Olympic trials today, and why the best discus throws are into the wind.
3. Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries. I’ve read 200 pages of this 800 pp. novel and am not sure whether I should continue. It is set in 19th century Otago, New Zealand, it focuses on the obscure criminal activities of some migrant derelicts (and elites), and it has superb writing and plot. It could be one of the books of the year. But do I care? Perhaps this FT review nails it.
4. The Silent Wife: A Novel, by A.S.A. Harrison. Fun, a good short plane read, you toy with the idea that the guy really does deserve to die.
5. The Divine Comedy, by Dante and Clive James. This really is a co-authored work. It is the most beautiful poetic treatment of Dante in the English language, yet I fear it is no longer Dante. I would prefer it if the book were simply marketed as Clive James. In fact I fear it will displace “the real Dante” in my memories. I am conflicted, and may not finish it for this reason, besides I already know how it ends. Some of you will love this, however.
6. Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials. I had never read this trilogy before, thinking it was a “fun but not essential” story for teens. In reality it is as close as we moderns are going to get to Milton, Blake, and Dante. For me it is one of the better literary creations of the last twenty years.