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Best books about ideas of 2020

Steven Poole
·7-min read

This having been such a terrible year, many readers might be in search of a little consolation. Joe Moran’s If You Should Fail: A Book of Solace (Viking) is a beautifully written meditation on life’s inevitable setbacks and what he sardonically terms “the failing well movement”. You know, the kind of people who complacently cite Beckett’s “fail better”, which was never meant as an inspirational meme.

Moran encourages us to accept our impostor syndromes, to avoid becoming a “sporting masochist” for whom winning is everything, and to admire the history of West End musicals that were instant, notorious flops. Or the Soho-haunting writer Paul Potts, a kind of poet, who said of one of his own books that it wasn’t really a book at all, “just some writing as long as a book”: a description that could come in useful for more than a few supposedly more respectable volumes published today.

At one point Moran cites Virginia Woolf’s use of the term “brain merit” to describe the supposed intellectual gifts of those awarded worldly honours. The words imply that it is absurd, Moran notes, “to reward people for having a well-functioning body organ, as absurd as awarding medals for outstanding livers or exceptional spleens”. If your organs are all functioning normally at the end of 2020, you have done better than a lot of people.

You are also doing better than a lot of people if your primary complaint during lockdown has been one of boredom, a state of mind afforded a thorough analysis by James Danckert and John D Eastwood in Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom (Harvard). According to their description, boredom is a “failure to launch”: a desire to be mentally engaged with something, allied to an inability to find something to engage with. At the same time, they agree with philosophers such as Arthur Schopenhauer that without boredom people might never be prompted to do surprising and creative things, which seems to be supported by the pleasing rise this year in people deciding to learn new arts and crafts, or to play more chess.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger also considered boredom an important existential mood, since it plunges us into authentic grappling with the nature of being and time, although he was presumably less bored after he became a member of the Nazi party in 1933. That is still in the future, though, in Wolfram Eilenberger’s Time of the Magicians: The Invention of Modern Thought 1919-29 (Allen Lane), which tells with gossipy verve the stories of Heidegger along with Ludwig Wittgenstein, Walter Benjamin and Ernst Cassirer, and the intersections and contradictions of their respective thinking. One might not be persuaded by the attempt at intellectual synthesis, but the details are often very funny. A shabby and probably malodorous Wittgenstein once showed up in a hotel lobby for a conference, only for one academic to tell him: “I’m afraid there is a gathering of philosophers going on in here.” The genius replied: “So am I.”

Reminiscent of Walter Benjamin in his intellectual flâneurship is Mark O’Connell, whose Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back (Granta) is a wryly gonzo travelogue around the culture of “preppers” – people stocking bunkers in the certainty that some form of armageddon is nigh – with visits also to an eco-warrior camp and the Instagram-friendly wasteland of Chernobyl. The book mixes cultural argument with confessional bathos, as well as intriguing asides on writers’ hairstyles. Don’t we all, he suggests, on some level actually desire the end of the world as we know it? Perhaps a post-Covid normality will come as a disappointment to some.

Jayaben Desai on the picket line in 1977
Fully rounded and fierce ... Jayaben Desai in 1977. Photograph: Graham Wood/Getty Images

Virginia Woolf also crops up in Helen Lewis’s Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights (Cape), specifically her essay “Three Guineas”, which demanded that women be paid properly. Fittingly for a book that exhorts fellow feminists to struggle against the “tyranny of niceness”, it is a punchy and sarcastic read. “Women’s history should not be a shallow hunt for heroines,” Lewis writes at the start. She makes good on the promise by treating her subjects – including Christabel Pankhurst, Marie Stopes, Barbara Castle and Jayaben Desai, who organised the strike at the Grunwick photo-processing plant in 1976 – as fully rounded, fierce and sometimes annoying human beings: in other words how history usually treats men.

Anti-feminism, meanwhile, is the subject of Laura Bates’s searing exposé of the vast boglands of online misogyny, Men Who Hate Women (Simon & Schuster). As she reports, slogans such as “feminism is cancer” have been normalised by internet forums to become common currency among teenage boys, and a man who went on a woman-killing spree is celebrated as “the perfect gentleman”. Meanwhile powerful men protect other powerful men accused of sexual assault, and women are routinely shouted down for speaking about their own experiences.

Not taking any bullshit either is Otegha Uwagba, her sharp and stylish essay Whites: On Race and Other Falsehoods (4th Estate) being a response to the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman in May, and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests. “Watching so many white people grapple with the reality of racism for the very first time,” she writes, “I could think only of the fact that white people were grappling with the reality of racism for the very first time.”

She is also brutal about the idea of anti-racist reading lists, because they demote the books included to the status of “medicinal”, and assign black writers to “the position of race educator whether they like it or not”. She describes vividly her own experiences of casual racism at the hands of east London agency creatives, or “white people who consider themselves socially progressive because they have mildly counter-cultural tastes and have been to G-A-Y a few times”. One might direct them towards Layla F Saad’s Me and White Supremacy (Quercus), a Twitter thread-become-bestseller in the form of a therapy workbook with journalling prompts to help the reader improve their anti-racism, and which could be used as a pointed Christmas gift.

The silliness of awarding prizes for efficient bodily organs is accorded a more rigorous treatment in the philosopher Michael J Sandel’s patient and elegant demolition of The Tyranny of Merit (Allen Lane). He asks why exactly people should be rewarded for having the sheer luck to be intelligent or able to work hard, and points out that even if you do that it is no guarantee of success, since inherited social privileges are so powerful. In place of an illusory “equality of opportunity”, then, he suggests a radical vision of a good society in which one’s material condition does not depend on one’s social rank.

One route towards this, he says, is to recognise the “dignity” of all work. He mentions the sudden realisation by many people at the beginning of the pandemic that jobs society had long undervalued – such as food delivery – were in fact crucially important, while many other jobs could as easily be done remotely by laptop or, er, not at all. That this was a revelation to some tells its own story.

Doctors, nurses and other care-givers are central to Madeleine Bunting’s Labours of Love: The Crisis of Care (Granta, £20), which is about the lamentable state of care homes, starkly exacerbated by Covid-19. But it also about parenting and its reverse, the care for parents by their children, as well as hospice care, and in general the vast historical invisibility of women’s labour. A reckoning is long overdue over the real value of this work, Bunting argues, in a deeply reported book that is the more affecting for its lack of sentimentality. As one care worker tells her: “I don’t do pity – you can’t do that. When I was ill, I didn’t want pity.”

Cats don’t do pity, but are an animal that, in the view of philosopher John Gray, have much to teach us about living. His slender Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life (Allen Lane) exhorts the reader to stop worrying about the future and to sleep for pleasure rather than for productivity, culminating in a rather Jordan Peterson-esque list of rules.

According to readerly taste, Gray’s gloomy view of the human condition might be more comforting than Rutger Bregman’s heavily hyped Humankind: A Hopeful History (Bloomsbury), according to which we as a species are fundamentally nice. Perhaps, by contrast, the magnificent aloofness of the feline is its own kind of consolation.

Browse the best books of 2020 at the Guardian Bookshop.