In 2012 I read everything from Anglo-Saxon history to a Japanese cookery book and managed to keep my reading almost 50/50 fiction and non-fiction, hurrah! I read so widely that drawing out my favourites has reminded me that to include more biographies next year (I read almost none in 2012), mix the history in with other topics rather than binging on it at the start of the year and then ignoring it the rest of the year (oops!) and actually, while I read a lot of contemporary fiction I don’t read that many published-this-year non-fiction – but I am working on it. :)
Here are the most notable non-fiction books I read in 2012, links will take you to my full reviews:
‘People who believe they are going there often wonder what they will do with themselves in Heaven. They make the mistake of assuming the place will be all complete, finished to the last bit of gilding, before they arrive. But of course it won’t be, and there will have to be lots of Cosy Planning.’
My favourite non-fiction book of the year has to be Delight by J B Priestley. Priestley was rather famously a grumbler and as an apology to his family he wrote this funny, touching collection of mini-essays and fragments, each focusing on one of the things that gave him delight. Ranging from ‘cosy planning’ to turning down reading review copies of books and the pleasures of leaving New York, it’s a wonderful slice of autobiography and beautifully written. A rare 10/10 for me.
Gossip From The Forest was definitely the book I recommended most this year though and my favourite of the 2012 published non-fiction books I read. Perfect for curling up with in front of a fire, it’s a history of the ties between fairytales and England’s forests. Sara Maitland blends together stories of exploring historic woodlands, literary theory and criticism and a selection of her own, brand new fairytales. For all those who love fairytales or wonder about the origins of myths this is essential reading.
I haven’t reviewed it here yet but re-reading James Wood’s How Fiction Works reminded me just how important this book is as a tool for examining reading tastes and understanding what’s going on behind the words. I love it and would recommend it to any writer or anyone interested in literary theory.
The Bayeux Tapestry: The Life Story of a Masterpiece by Carola Hicks turned out to be far more absorbing than the title suggested and involved historical mystery, dodging Nazis and insight into those who have protected and imperiled the tapestry (which is actually an embroidery) over the years. It’s all remarkably true too.
I don’t read many travel books these days but I do love to explore other lives and four very different ‘travelogues’ really stood out for me this year:
‘I left my home one evening in February. I wore my own clothes which were shabby, but not ragged. I had watertight shoes and a raincoat – and not one penny in my pocket. I had determined to start life from an entirely new angle. I would arrive in London with nothing but my personality between me and starvation.’
How then does the outcast live?
I have answered the question, in some degree at least, in these pages.’
In Darkest London was a 1926 book documenting Ada Chesterton’s experiences of living on the streets of London for three weeks. Chesterton was a journalist, in her forties and not particularly adventurous so it’s an unusual book and very eye-opening.
Meanwhile J B Priestley’s English Journey deserves a mention too – his travelogue around 1930s, depression-era England makes a great comparison piece to Orwell’s The Road To Wigan Pier and Priestley balances the politics with the travel better. It’s a shame this isn’t more widely read today as it’s a real gem of English travel writing and surprisingly relevant even today.
On a lighter note, Japanese Farm Food by Nancy Singleton Hachisu was a great introduction to simple, authentic Japanese food from a woman who married a Japanese farmer and has a kitchen to die for. Along with the recipes there are stories about life on the farm and plenty of photos – perfect for armchair travellers as well as cooks.
I also re-read True Pleasures: A Memoir of Women in Paris with pleasure during the Paris in July reading event and was reminded again how quirky a book it is – one part history, one part love song to the city and one part book about books. It’s not a perfect book but it was just what I needed to read and be refreshed by at the time.
A little more niche:
If you’re interested in urban design or architecture at all you should check out Jan Gehl’s Cities for People as it’s fascinating. Including plenty of case studies and evidence it focuses on what makes a city feel welcoming, inclusive or successful.
I loved both Jacqueline Pearson’s Women’s Reading in Britain 1750-1835 and Kate Flint’s The Woman Reader 1837-1914. Similar in title but not at all in writing style, these two books address very different issues in the different eras ranging from male critics, the coming of public libraries, the fluctuating cost of books and changing tastes in authors and subjects. If you’re interested in reading experience and the history of the novel both books come highly recommended.