I managed to increase the amount of non-fiction I read this year once again – I seem to be going up by one or two NF books per year! So in 2019 I read 33 non-fiction books (up to 25 December), making 25.3% of the total this year.
Thanks to taking part in the Wellcome Book Prize shadow group again this year, medical books, most of them medical memoirs, dominated. Two in particular stood out for me:
- The Train in the Night by Nick Coleman. This book won the Wellcome Book Prize in 2012, and recounts how music journalist Coleman was struck down by a mystery virus that robbed him of his hearing in one ear completely and left him with disablingly severe tinnitus. For a man whose job relied on his hearing, it was a bitter pill and a long way. learning to live with tinnitus.
- This Really Isn’t About You by Jean Hannah Edelstein. This was my first choice for the Wellcome Prize, but it didn’t make the shortlist. Edelstein’s memoir reads like no other similar one about cancer and grief that I’ve read. It’s her style – bright, breezy, self-deprecating, witty and largely unsentimental that made this book a delight.
Other memoirs and biographies make up another third of my non-fiction reads. From Charlotte Bingham’s frothy teenage years in MI5 and Me to Julie Andrews’ second volume of memoir of her Hollywood years, Home Work and Gerald Scarfe’s Long Drawn Out Trip to Alice Vinten’s years as a police officer On the Line, I’ve read a variety – but there were two stand outs, both made more poignant by the death of main characters this year:
- No Minor Chords by André Previn. When Previn died this February, the world of music lost one of its real nice guys. I immediately dug out my copy of his Hollywood memoir which was published back in 1991 to revisit his stories of the early days of his career. This book is a real treat.
- Gloucester Crescent – Me, My Dad and Other Grown Ups by William Miller. Miller’s father was, of course, Jonathan MIller, and he looms large in his son’s memoir of his childhood growing up in that London literary hotspot.
The final third combines several books of lit crit with an assortment of history and reportage. from Joe Nutt’s The Point of Poetry and Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm to Emily Maitlis’s Airhead, but my favourite is a small book – an extended essay:
- William Blake Now : Why He Matters More Than Ever by John Higgs. William Blake seems to exert a hold on people in a way that our greatest authors can’t hope for? He’s everywhere, and Higgs explores the lasting effect that this visionary painter and philosopher has on us still. A superb read.