As we approach Christmas, we offer selections from Lowy Institute staff and Interpreter contributors for the best book they have read this year.
Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann. Selected by Interpreter contributor and BBC correspondent Nick Bryant.
Ashamedly, it's taken a long time for me to get to the novels of the Irish writer Colum McCann, but this year I've been working my way through his backlist. For readers of this site I'd strongly recommend TransAtlantic, not least because of its fictionalised rendering of George Mitchell's role in the Northern Ireland peace talks (the mild-mannered former Senator had the ideal temperament for the patient diplomacy required to forge the Good Friday Agreement, as McCann elegantly shows). The novel that has stayed with me, though, is McCann's lyrical opus, Let the Great World Spin, which chronicles the life of a group of previously unrelated New Yorkers on the day that Philippe Petit walked on a high-wire between the towers of the World Trade Centre, 'a dark toy against the cloudy sky.' In a crowded field of post 9/11 works, some of them brilliant like Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, its been described as the finest Twin Towers novel. For me, it's also become my favourite New York novel. As a fairly new arrival in the city, this quote had especial resonance: 'one of the beauties of New York is that you can be from anywhere and within moments of landing it's yours.'
Ibn Battutah trilogy, by Tim Mackintosh-Smith. Selected by Interpreter contributor Andrew Selth.
This year I finally got around to reading the award-winning trilogy by British Arabist Tim Mackintosh-Smith in which he describes his attempts to trace the route of Ibn Battuta, the 14th century Moroccan scholar who spent 30 years touring North Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and China. The reputation of these three books is well deserved, revealing as they do the author's erudition, sense of humour and writing skills. I also managed to catch up at last with Flaws in the Jewel, Roderick Matthews' provocative reassessment of the UK's 350-year presence in India. Matthews claims British rule was essentially based on military power and that 'rather too much has been heard, and believed, about the virtues of the English and of Englishness'.
Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words, by Randall Munroe. Selected by Non-Resident Fellow Mike Callaghan.
The concept for this book is intriguing: how to explain a wide variety of things — such as microwaves, human cells, helicopters, smart phones and the US Constitution — using only the 1000 most common words in the English language. But what really attracted me to this book is why Randall Munroe wrote it. He says in the 'Page before the book starts' that he was often worried that if he used a small word when explaining something, someone might think he didn't know the large words. This struck a nerve. The book is fun to read and challenges you to think how you would explain something complicated using simple words. And you also learn how many things work.