The 2022 reading year saw me lurch further towards non-fiction by raw numbers, but also tackle more challenging books (not including the holiday ritual Jack Reacher, Bosch, Ballard or Rebus tale). Those ‘chewing gum for the eyes’ titles are invaluable for decompression and scrubbing mental barnacles and plaque away, freeing cognitive space for more ‘literary’ fiction.
Non-fiction was somewhat varied by topic, generally adjacent to the aim of grasping how one might use evidence informed action to become a little more steady in habit, thinking and productivity.
Specifically, I became really interested in concentration and attention, but diving deeper into theories of mastery and how learners and educators walk the walk rather than talk the talk continued as a strong reading theme.
This aligns with a determination to use the pandemic as an opportunity for exponential growth, leaning on the long history of human endeavour and discovery rather than dismissing these lessons because too much time had passed or our current experience was too unique for them to be relevant.
In no specific order, here are some thoughts on five fiction and non-fiction titles, an honourable mention and the best education book of 2022. I hope you find something to connect with.
The Overstory by Richard Powers
This is one of my favourite reads over the last few years and worthy of savouring. Beginning with a captivating, quirky introduction to a handful of diverse characters, it builds towards their eventual crossing paths into a powerful and moving ending. On a grander level, this is a great allegory for our times and explores both current issues around climate change activism and other timeless human experiences of love and family and legacy, sprawling across space and time to deliver a profoundly compelling and ambitious tale.
In one sentence : The Hidden Life of Trees (Peter Wohlleben) as fiction.
The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles
If you read previous yearly reviews, you know I am an unashamed fan of Towles. His ability to bring a historical period to life and artfully drive stories with great plot and characterisation is truly remarkable and a joyful. Set in the 1950’s United States, this spans a rollicking ten days and reveals itself through different narrators, mainly Emmet Watson, an 18 year old just released from a prison work farm and thrust too soon into the realities and responsibilities of adult life. This poignant and lively tale unfolds with Towles’ usual collection of layered characters and interactions, making it a terrific read.
In one sentence: Road Trip meets Catcher in the Rye
The End of the Affair By Graham Greene
When a travelling friend sent me a selfie from London in front of ‘the house from the End of the Affair’ I drew a blank, revealing a gap in my knowledge of Greene’s work. The opening sentences underline everything great about his writing. As much as clipped sentences do not waste a word, his engaging plots and masterful manipulation of tension are always enjoyable. This short novel is a testament to his powers of characterisation, particularly, as he inhabits both sides of a mysteriously lost affair between writer Maurice Bendrix and Sarah Miles, who live across Clapham Common from each other. It also heavily features Henry Miles, Sarah’s cuckolded husband. Set during and after the Second World War, Greene captures the essence of complex Britishness while touching on eternal questions about being human – warts and all. As Bendrix writes early on, “this is a record of hate more than of love.” I found it a challenging and haunting read in the best possible way.
In one sentence: Things get complicated when you don’t talk about stuff
What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Shulberg
This unexpected delight tells the story of the rise, rise and eventual fall of Sammy Glick from newspaper office runner to movie mogul, recounted by uncomfortable frenemy, Al Manheim. Against the backdrop of New York City and the glamour of Hollywood in Forties, we witness the passage and consequence of relentless ambition and what it takes to reach and then stay on top. While the language and tone is somewhat dated, the core of the story remains completely relevant. Through Manheim’s focus, we struggle to make sense of Sammy’s fickle morality and unashamed ambition for power and influence, which drives him over the top of everyone he meets in the quest for more, always more, using any deception and ruthless scheme he can. Brilliant.
In one sentence: This way to the top is ugly, yet sadly effective
That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott
After watching and being inspired by the the ABC TV series ‘Books That Made Us’, I made a vow to read more Australian novels. Set in the early 19th century Western Australian coast around modern day Albany, a place once known as ‘the friendly frontier’, it is the story of cultural collision at the intersection of invasion and colonisation. Spanning decades, as the isolated settlement shifts from promising entity to the tragic certainty of progress and growth, driven by profits, the story reveals itself mainly through protagonist, Bobby Wabalanginy and his remarkable adventures straddling two cultures. Scott is active in bringing the Noongar language of the region back to life, weaving it to great effect into the story, building an engaging and in many ways unique novel.
In one sentence: A hopeful beginning turns to predictable sadness.
2022 was a year of moving through existential angst while charting a stuttering course out of the pandemic, which included experimentation with reducing screen time as a way to reduce stress. Therefore, a lot of the best non-fiction stuff related to those topics, though they also follow an interest in the concept of mastery and learning as it intersects with a life in education.
Books That Saved My Life by Michael McGirr
With the qualifying subtitle ‘Reading for wisdom, solace and pleasure’, this got me through one of those amorphous and anonymous 2023 viruses that laid me flat as a road. A genuine bookshelf bingo gem, where a quick scan became a binge, it is really a series of essays based on forty books that had an impact on the author’s life. More than that, it is a long, passionate love letter to the joy and power of reading. A great benefit of books like these is they offer direction for where one might head next, and for that I was grateful to McGirr. Don’t be fooled by the personal premise – this is a humble testament to how books can chart a life, and there are some ripping ones to discover here.
In one sentence: The power of books in a life put into words.
Adrift in Melbourne by Robyn Annear
This collection of seven self-guided walking tours of the Melbourne CBD and surrounds, artfully researched and presented by historian, Robyn Annear, scratched a number of itches. It gave me a good excuse to get out and about again after the pandemic and also satiated the love of a good historical walking tour. Delivered in a whimsical, conversational style, it masterfully brings stories and characters of lost Melbourne to life and gives context to the many things we pass and don’t think much about. My much better half and I completed all the walks throughout the year by taking turns reading aloud at each stop, which I cannot recommend enough, even if people give you the odd strange look or even eavesdrop.
In one sentence: travel through time and speak to the dead while getting your steps up!
Deep Work by Cal Newport
This was a bit of a ‘quake’ book (they shake up your brain) and I devoured it. Newport’s direct and accessible style connected with a growing frustration about how productive I was being in areas of passion rather than obligation. In fact, this title and the next were a one-two punch in the face , like when the ring rolls across the floor in the Sixth Sense. Essentially, the premise is that human beings are increasingly losing the ability to work in a deep and uninterrupted way and that this ability will have great value as a result of this fact. Newport outlines a process for putting things in place which allow us to devote time to this work, and as a result helped me build some habits and routines that both improved my ability to work deeply and scratched an existential itch.
In one sentence: To feel flow, schedule it.
Stolen Focus by Johann Hari
This was the second ‘quake’ book of the year. Johann Hari has a unique and lively style that can be grating at times because he is prone to dramatic flourish and bold generalisation, but here he explores a really important issue facing many human beings on the planet: the attention crisis. Hari’s message is clear and sobering. By speaking with experts around the globe and sharing what they know, he paints a picture which explains some part of why we feel the way we do and what we see all around us. As a measure of hope, he reveals why this distracted life is not necessarily our fault. As an educator, this message struck me hard and at times made me angry, but the message resonated on a personal and social level also. This should be required reading for educators and parents, though it wouldn’t hurt the information to be spread on a more generally either.
In one sentence: Our phones and devices are not all bad, but we have some choice and all is not lost.
Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky
Compelling, haunting and ultimately tragic, this is the translated early manuscript of what was intended to be a five part novel written by the prominent pre-WW2 French novellist. Part novel, part diary, it charts the fate of Nemirovsky, a Jewish woman, as France is invaded by the Nazis and she escapes with her family to the occupied countryside. In 1942, she was deported to Auschwitz and did not survive, making this desperate record of trying to survive all the more harrowing and real as the destructive progress to her fate is played out un seemingly innocuous and bland decrees that hold a more sinister intent than she realises.
In one sentence: Hard to read when you know the ending
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
Written by the ethereal and compelling Didion in the 1960’s, this collection of short non-fiction was a truly great example of personal writing. In particular, two essays ‘On Self Respect‘ and ‘On Keeping a Notebook‘ had been on my list and did not disappoint. Beyond those, Didion’s ability to capture life in California in that time and observe the complexities of humanity were terrific, and it is obvious why she is seen as such a significant writer and voice. If you haven’t, do.
In one sentence: take a trip guided by Joan Didion into a long lost place, but find something eternal.
Education Title of the Year
Why Don’t Students Like School? Second Edition by Daniel Willingham
Not new at all, but worthy of being called a ‘quake’ book for teachers. In this updated version of the title first released around 2010, Willingham offers a clear and accessible account of how cognitive science explains some of what we see in schools and suggests pathways to how we might use this information to be more impactful. Despite having read it before, the second time around did not disappoint at all and stands out for how it effectively bridges the gap between research and practice. This includes a new chapter on the use of technology in the classroom.
In one sentence: cognitive science Q and A for lay people.