A heady brew of personal reminiscences, geopolitical commentary and insightful cultural analysis was served up by Peter Millar in The Germans and Europe: A Personal Frontline History (Arcadia Books, 460pp, £20). The book meanders and, for once, that’s no bad thing. Millar makes everything interesting, from his driving lessons in a Lada in East Berlin to sampling the delights of Alsatian cuisine, and from the bombing of Dresden to what Putin and Merkel have in common. Loving a place and understanding it are not always the same thing – but Millar pulls off the double.
Bettany Hughes took us further east in Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 832pp, £25), her outstanding study of a “place where stories and histories collide and crackle”. Hughes is particularly good on the ancient history, and it was especially rewarding to learn about the pre-Constantinian era. But she deserves enormous credit for managing to traverse swathes of time (right down to the present day) with such aplomb. Rarely have I read a book in which I learned more things that I really should have already known.
With the possible exception of Gainsborough: A Portrait by James Hamilton (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 420pp, £25), which glitters from beginning to end, my favourite biographical excursion this year was Victorians Undone: Tales of the Flesh in the Age of Decorum by Kathryn Hughes (Fourth Estate, 414pp, £20). Hughes traces the cultural meanings and trajectories of various famous 19th-century body parts: Darwin’s beard, George Eliot’s right hand, Fanny Cornforth’s mouth as depicted in the famous painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and a host of others. This may sound a little quirky, but it allows for an extraordinarily perceptive analysis of how the Victorians used the body to define class, gender and otherness, and it all results in one of the bravest, genre-hopping books I’ve read in a long while.
Mention must also be made of two volumes that took on daunting topics and emerged victorious. The Witch: A History of Fear from Ancient Times to the Present by Ronald Hutton (Yale University Press, 360pp, £25) is a densely packed study of a frequently misunderstood subject and deserves an audience far beyond university reading lists (though it will doubtless thrive there, too).
Stephen Greenblatt’s The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve (Bodley Head, 395pp, £25) reveals how one of the Bible’s most famous stories has forged a path through Western culture over millennia and, while some of the conclusions are provocative, that’s always half the fun with Greenblatt.
As we all expected, this was a year in which books about the Reformation flooded the market. Peter Marshall wrote two of the best. His 1517: Martin Luther and the Invention of the Reformation (Oxford University Press, 243pp, £16.99) sorted fact from fiction and provided an intriguing case study of the way historical memory is created. While his weighty Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation (Yale University Press, 652pp, £30) has a huge amount to offer both serious scholars and vaguely interested amateurs. Those who want to trace the longer term impact of Luther’s deeds are advised to consult Alec Ryrie’s masterful Protestants: The Radicals Who Made the Modern World (William Collins, 514pp, £25).
I’m afraid that I haven’t had the time or inclination to read a single novel, still less a book of poetry, this year but in lieu of a topical tip might I suggest that those in search of Christmas presents pay homage to Derek Walcott, that finest of poets whom we lost back in March?
Any of the individual volumes, a selection, or a collection will enrich your life immeasurably. Perhaps start with Omeros (Faber & Faber, 336pp, £17.99) and remind yourself of a time when the Nobel Prize committee made sensible decisions about crowning laureates.
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