As the new year dawned, the global economy seemed on the brink of collapse. The publishing industry has provided a bridge across the ravine: never have so many books been produced so quickly to explain how the financial world had come to dominate all of our lives.
Most of these books will plummet into oblivion – but a few fine works will survive. And even as markets recover and consumer confidence returns, this publishing trend will continue: we have been reminded that we are all part of the financial world now – and that it was not terrorism but our own actions that took the economy to the precipice.
The year also saw the first – less successful – forays into credit crunch fiction. We have yet to find the Dickens for our time to conjure the economic crisis as a sympathetic backdrop for a great novel. Until then, we continue to seek solace in historical fiction: book prizes were dominated by works set in the past, including Hilary Mantel’s magisterial recreation of the court of Henry VIII, winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize. In a triumph of literary fiction over the mass market, Mantel’s Wolf Hall briefly topped Amazon’s bestseller list and knocked Dan Brown’s blockbuster The Lost Symbol off the number one spot. A popular classic got a modern twist in the year’s most surprising hit, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which squeezed new blood out of Jane Austen’s work.
In non-fiction, the publishing world showed its continuing obsession with anniversaries. A flurry of books tracked the lives of Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln, born 200 years ago this year. Others tackled more recent turning points: 70 years since the second world war began; 40 from man’s first steps on the Moon; 20 since the Berlin wall fell and communism crumbled in Europe. The choice of what to read is rich, varied and confusing, but the FT’s critics will help you decide.
Rosie Blau is the FT’s books editor
Compiled by George Pendle
The Defence of the Realm: The Authorised History
By Christopher Andrew
Allen Lane, £30
Andrew was granted complete access to MI5’s records to write this monumental book that charts 100 years of subterfuge. His scrutiny of the British secret service is fascinating – from rooting out the Kaiser’s spies to uncovering al-Qaeda plots to the rise of women, who changed this archetypal male outfit irreversibly.
D-Day: The Battle for Normandy
By Antony Beevor
This well-known story is revivified by Beevor’s expert grasp of complex detail. He masterfully describes not only the killing zone of the Dunkirk beaches and the “dirty bush war” fought in the fields beyond but the uncertainty and infighting of the British and American generals, and the courage of the people of Normandy caught in the middle of it all.
The Rise and Fall of Communism
By Archie Brown
Bodley Head, £25
One of Britain’s leading experts on communism provides a grimly humorous and richly anecdotal study of what was in origin a peasant ideology. Brown questions how the revolution was ever going to triumph in the industrial west when American agitators had to begin their speeches with such exhortations as, “Workers and peasants of Brooklyn!”
The Three Emperors: Three Cousins, Three Empires
and the Road to World War One
By Miranda Carter
Fig Tree, £25
The parallel, interrelated lives of Kaiser Wilhelm II, George V and Nicholas II provide a grotesque prism through which to study the march to war and the creation of the modern industrial world. This book is a depiction of bloated power and outsize personalities in which Carter picks apart the strutting absurdity of the last emperors on the eve of catastrophe.
My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times –
By Harold Evans
Little, Brown, £25
Amid the gloom surrounding the future of newspapers, Harold Evans’s memoir lifts the spirits. The locomotive driver’s son became a pioneer of hard-hitting investigative journalism as editor of the Sunday Times, before crossing the Atlantic and forming, with his wife Tina Brown, one-half of New York’s most influential media couple.
Inside Central Asia
By Dilip Hiro
Overlook Duckworth, £25
For those who still get their “-stans” mixed up, Hiro’s book provides a detailed and nuanced overview of the region of central Asia. He explains the ethnic tensions, religious intolerance and struggle for political identity in the lands caught between two behemoths – the splintered Soviet empire and the rising Chinese one.
Who Will Write Our History? Rediscovering a
Hidden Archive from the Warsaw Ghetto
By Samuel Kassow
Allen Lane, £10.99
The first book for English-speaking readers on the buried archives compiled by the inhabitants of the Warsaw Ghetto. This compendium of Jewish life, consisting of “candy wrappers, tram tickets, ration cards, invitations to concerts and lectures”, was discovered in buried milk churns and soldered tins. Life, in all its variety, fighting to exist.
Family Britain: 1951-1957
By David Kynaston
Covering a period of just six years in nearly 800 pages, Kynaston evokes “booming, buoyant Britain” through hundreds of voices. From Westminster politicians and Whitehall civil servants to bus drivers, farm labourers and beady-eyed housewives, the author portrays a true sense of “community”.
America, Empire of Liberty: A New History
By David Reynolds
Allen Lane, £30
When America looks in the mirror it sees “liberty”, never “empire”, says Reynolds. The discord between this ideal and reality forms the foundation of his sweeping study of the US, in which he describes an empire forged by anti-imperialists, a land of liberty fuelled by slavery and a secular state energised by godly ambition.
The Arabs: A History
By Eugene Rogan
Allen Lane, £25
Rogan’s thorough history traces the Arabs’ triumphs and disappointments, from the 16th century to the present day. He shows how western interference and corrupt domestic leadership have not only disenfranchised the Arab world but turned it against itself.
Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary
By Miri Rubin
Jewish girl makes good or, rather, God in a highly original take on the veneration of Mary over 2,000 years. Rubin describes how Mary, a slender scriptural figure – she appears more often in the Koran than the Gospels – became a protean presence, affixing herself to myriad cultures as a symbol of infidelity, a bourgeois housewife or a queen.
After Mandela: The Battle for the Soul of South
By Alec Russell
Focusing on the presidencies of the cultured but deeply flawed Thabo Mbeki and the genial but bellicose Jacob Zuma, the FT’s world news editor Alec Russell charts the course of South Africa’s “second struggle” built on the foundation of Nelson Mandela’s visionary leadership. A picture of a nation teetering between Eden and Sodom.
Hitler’s Private Library: The Books That Shaped
By Timothy Ryback
Bodley Head, £18.99
Tracing Hitler’s intellectual growth through the books he owned, Ryback has created an intelligent companion to the countless existing biographies of Hitler. While Hitler flirted with Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, his own theories were “cobbled together from cheap, tendentious paperbacks and esoteric hardcovers”.
1989: The Struggle to Create Postwar Europe
By Mary Elise Sarotte
Princeton University Press, $29.95
On the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Sarotte questions the settlement that followed its destruction, and articulates what she sees as the west’s failure to construct a new international order from the crumbling of communism. At the book’s heart is Mikhail Gorbachev, a Lear-esque hero, who gave away what he should have retained to a west bent less on emancipation than exploitation.
The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius
By TJ Stiles
Any recent misgivings about unbridled American capitalism should really come as no surprise. Stiles’s superbly written book argues that the main legacy of the “robber baron” and “railroad king” was the giant but invisible corporation, so big that it was able to crush its competitors.
The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-Shek and the
Struggle for Modern China
By Jay Taylor
The traditional view of “General Cash-My-Check” as a corrupt and incompetent bit-part player in the story of modern Chinese history is overturned here. Taylor suggests that far from being an incompetent dictator he was actually a shrewd and even noble man, making the best out of a bad hand.
Mary Tudor: England’s First Queen
By Anna Whitelock
A half-sibling of Elizabeth I, Mary has suffered from invidious comparisons, and often been blamed for much of the intolerance and violence that racked England throughout the Tudor period. Whitelock reassesses Mary’s achievements, particularly her attempts to promote religious tolerance, as well as her groundbreaking work in persuading parliament to take a woman seriously.
George Pendle is author of ‘Death: A Life’ (Three Rivers)