Geoff Dyer picks out the highlights of his year of reading, from Alan Hollinghurst to Malcolm Xby Geoff Dyer / November 16, 2011 / Leave a comment
Max Hastings’s All Hell Let Loose tells the history of the second world war from the point of view of ordinary people
Looking at my year’s list of “Books Read”—a custom that has remained quaintly unchanged since the knowledge-hungry years of late teens—reminds me that I now make an active effort to free myself from the tyranny of the new, from the compulsion to keep up with the latest thing. And while a more astute observer might be able to detect underlying trends in publishing—less historical fiction, more biography or whatever—I can’t discern any pattern in my own reading other than a continuing increase in the portion occupied by non-fiction. But here are the highlights from my reading of this year’s new books.
Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (Allen Lane) does not have quite the breadth and sweep of Taylor Branch’s trilogy about “America in the King Years”—how could it?—but is, inevitably, about more than just one man. Partly this is because Malcolm seemed to lead so many different lives in the brief span of his 39 years; partly it’s because he was so susceptible to whatever he encountered—even when what he encountered was largely shaped by his own participation. It is striking, in Marable’s account, how many calamitously bad decisions and pronouncements Malcolm made, not just with the benefit of hindsight but within the range of options available to him at any one time—and yet there was a constant forward and ameliorative momentum to his life. Marable is intensely sympathetic but always conscious of the contradictions of his subject, not least regarding his eventually fatal relationship with the Nation of Islam. For all its emancipatory imperatives, one of the attractions of Elijah Muhammad’s organisation was that it demanded a slave-ish adherence to orders. And while Malcolm became famous and feared for his violent rhetoric—much of it directed against the principle of non-violence—by 1963 “the only real damage the Nation had inflicted in the past half decade had targeted its own misbehaving members.” Marable died just before his book was published; it was sad, of course, that he did not live to enjoy the acclaim that was his due but it is a cause for celebration that he completed the book which felt like the fulfilment of a life’s work.
Do you remember that joke from the 1980s? “How many radical feminists does it take to change…