From Islamic State to adult colouring–the year in booksby Sameer Rahim / December 26, 2015 / Leave a comment
In December, The Guardian asked writers and publishers to comment on cultural diversity—or rather the lack of it—in the literary world. Many contributors rightly pointed out that the industry is drawn from too small a pool of talent. But there was little recognition of how successful writers from minority backgrounds have been in 2015. As I wrote in Prospect in November, this has been the year of the migrant in literature. The Man Booker-shortlisted The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota is set in the grimy world of illegal migration in Sheffield. The Booker winner Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings is about gang violence in Jamaica in the 1970s. In his Guardian contribution, Akhil Sharma, the winner of this year’s Folio Prize for Family Life, said he thought he benefited from being an ethnic minority: “Because I am writing about a community that people are curious about, I have received a great deal of attention.”
In America, the black writer Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a surprise bestseller about racial injustice, Between the World and Me. This was also the year we learned that in her original version Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch was not the saintly white saviour he became in To Kill a Mockingbird.
The world in a year We used to have history books on long eras; then it was reduced to decades; and now it is single years. Micro-histories were all the rage in 2015: there was 1916: A Global History by Keith Jeffrey; 1956: The World in Revolt by Simon Hall; 1956: The Year that Changed Britain by Francis Beckett and Tony Russell; and 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded by Jon Savage. Why the trend? We have become distrustful of grand era-history epitomised by Eric Hobsbawm’s “Age of…” histories of the 19th and 20th centuries. By getting into the granular detail of a year’s events, you can avoid sweeping generalisations. You can also expand the focus from western Europe, as Keith Jeffrey and Simon Hall have done. But is there a danger we’re losing the big picture? Books about ISIS The dramatic rise of Islamic State (IS) has rocked the Middle East and left readers searching for answers. This year there were at least 10 books on IS published in the UK—some of them excellent. In April, Prospect reviewed Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan’s Inside the Army of Terror and Jessica Stern and JM Berger’s State of Terror. They told the story of how ex-Baathists from Saddam Hussein’s era teamed up with extremist ideologues to create a new turbo-charged terrorism that rules by absolute fear. Jason Burke’s The New Threat from Islamic Militancy argued that, like many radical groups, IS claims to want to recreate a past golden age—in their case that of the early Islamic caliphate. Abdel-Bari Atwan’s The Digital Caliphate examines the group’s skilful use of social media in spreading its propaganda. James Harkin’s Hunting Season tells the tragic story of hostage James Foley. And Charles Lister’s authoritative The Syrian Jihad examines how Bashar al-Assad’s brutality and the civil war in Syria laid the ground for IS. With so many high-quality books there is no excuse for ignorance—especially from the politicians seeking to make informed decisions. The new biography The literary genre that could be described as very long books about very important people is still going strong. Niall Ferguson on Henry Kissinger (volume one), Charles Moore on Margaret Thatcher (volume two), Adam Sisman on John le Carré—and Robert Caro’s monumental work on the New York City planner Robert Moses, which was published for the first time in this country. But away from these impressive if perhaps conventional lives there was some interesting biographical experimentation. Most notably Ruth Scurr’s book on the 17th-century biographer John Aubrey. Scurr was planning a cradle to grave life when the thought struck her to assemble the memoir he never wrote. Stitching together Aubrey’s own words with her own pastiche of his style, she creates an absorbing account of a man who so excelled in writing the lives of others. Colouring books for adults
Perhaps the most bizarre trend in books this year has been for adult colouring books. We’re used to calming down children by giving them a set of pens and the outline of a tree to fill in. And if it works for children, why not for their frazzled parents? Art therapy is an established way of helping prisoners or those with mental health issues so perhaps it isn’t so strange after all. This Christmas, I imagine plenty of adults will be receiving Anti-Stress Colouring by Christina Rose or Enchanted Forest by Johanna Basford. Instead of fiddling with their phones, they will be sitting at the cleared lunch table, pen or brush in hand, concentrating on bringing the dull outline of a scene to colourful life. What better way to cope with the holiday season?