Politics & Society

Editors’ Picks: Favourite Nonfiction of 2018

recommended by Sophie Roell

Journalist and Five Books editor Sophie Roell looks back on her favourite nonfiction books read this year.

Sophie Roell

Sophie Roell is editor of Five Books. Previously she worked as a journalist in London, Beijing, Shanghai and New York.

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I’ve been asking people for book recommendations for close to a decade now (our first Five Books interview with Harvard economist Robert Barro was back in 2009), so I feel a bit sheepish admitting I don’t much like recommending books. My reading choices reflect subjects I happen to be interested in finding out more about—and that’s not necessarily what anyone else wants or needs to know more about. That disclaimer aside, these were my favourite nonfiction books of 2018.

1. Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli’s Lifelong Quest for Freedom, by Erica Benner

It’s hard not be intrigued by Niccolò Machiavelli, a man whose name is synonymous with evil genius in many European languages. His most famous work, The Prince, has been recommended a number of times on Five Books. Erica Benner’s Be Like the Fox, which came out in paperback this year, blew me away for a number of reasons. One, Niccolò comes across as such an enthusiastic, principled, humorous character; it’s hard not to find him immensely likeable as you live through the ups and downs of his life with him. Secondly, this period when Italy was the battleground of Europe, the Pope out of control and the Medicis up to this, that and the other, is just fascinating, and one I’ve long wanted to know more about. Lastly, the style Erica Benner uses to tell this story is immensely appealing. I’m a huge fan of primary sources, i.e., if you want to know about Machiavelli, just read Machiavelli. The problem is, if you don’t know enough of the history, you’re constantly looking up footnotes or doing searches on Wikipedia (“Who was Cesare Borgia?”) which is disruptive. What Erica Benner does is incorporate direct quotes of Machiavelli’s into her account. So I am reading both the original, and an interpretation at the same time. I really couldn’t put this book down.

2. Destroying a Nation: the Civil War in Syria by Nikolaos van Dam

Many awful things happen in the world, and I am always keen to understand how they happen, I suppose in the hope that will make it less likely they happen again in future. For this reason, I consider We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch, about the Rwandan genocide, one of the best books I’ve ever read. Syria’s civil war is an equally upsetting subject, and that’s why I regard this as an extremely important book. The author, Nikolaos van Dam, is a Dutch diplomat and Syria specialist. English is probably his 3rd or 4th language, so it’s not a book you turn to for its lyrical writing, nor for heart-breaking stories of individuals who have lost everything in the catastrophe. But in its analysis, it’s absolutely top notch. All the questions I had about the Syrian civil war—why it happened, whether it could have been avoided, why a UK-trained ophthalmologist could be the perpetrator of such violence and why so many people have been killed—were answered. And those were questions I felt I needed to know the answers to.

3. Talk on the Wild Side: the Untameable Nature of Language by Lane Greene

I love learning languages. Lane Greene, who is the Johnson language columnist at the Economist, is one of my favourite linguists. He speaks umpteen languages and is eerily convincing, even in languages of which he knows only a sentence or two. But I’ve never studied linguistics or thought about language as a whole. This book is an entertaining introduction to the central dilemma: on the one hand, we think its bad to spell things wrong alot and put apostrophe’s where they don’t belong. On the other hand, language is constantly changing and evolving as a response to how people actually use it. At what point should a mistake become accepted as common usage? And who makes the decisions about what’s allowed and what isn’t? This book is a lot of fun—with examples from the Sherlock Holmes TV series and Donald Trump speeches. Not only will you have a comeback when someone tries to correct your grammar, but you’ll also find out lots of interesting facts about words along the way. For example, did you know that “silly” once meant “holy”?

4. Beyond the Northlands: Viking Voyages and the Old Norse Sagas by Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough

Everyone has heard of the Vikings, but before I read this book I didn’t know what was fact and what was fiction. I didn’t know who Leif Eriksson was or whether he had really reached America. I presumed Vikings wore horned helmets and didn’t know they came as far south as Baghdad. This book, by historian Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough, separates some of the myths from reality and is also a wonderful way of going on a voyage of discovery with her. I felt like I was following in the footsteps of Erik the Red and Co. and imagined what it would be like crossing icy oceans in a longboat. I also love the photographs of sites in Greenland and her descriptions of the landscape.

5. Haig’s Enemy: Crown Prince Rupprecht and Germany’s War on the Western Front by Jonathan Boff

With the centenary of its end in November, 2018 has been a big year for commemorating World War I. On the way home from a wedding in Brabant I took my tween-aged kids to visit some of the cemeteries and sites in Flanders and Northern France and cried buckets watching Testament of Youth on TV. But because of my British education, I’ve only ever heard about World War I from the British side. This is a fantastic book because it tells the military history of World War I through German eyes, specifically the eyes of one of the German generals, Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria. German unification had happened relatively recently so Bavaria had sensibilities and interests that did not correspond exactly with the Prussian Kaiser’s. It’s a tragic tale, because while Rupprecht comes across as a man who gets on and does his duty, he loses everything. I always find in biographies I overly identify with the protagonist, so by the end I was wishing the Germans would win the war.

6. The Lost History of Liberalism by Helena Rosenblatt

Ah, liberalism! I know it’s important, but I’ve never had a firm grasp on what the word actually means. It seems to mean opposite things on different sides of the Atlantic. I loved this book for basically teaching me about liberalism the only way that could really work for me: by holding my hand and taking me through the history of the word. Starting with the Ancient Romans, “the word stems from the Latin term liber, meaning both free and generous and liberalis, “befitting a freeborn person.”

7. Ottoman Odyssey: Travels Through a Lost Empire by Alev Scott

My mother’s family were Austrian Jewish bankers and did a lot of business with the Ottoman Empire. For this reason, both my mother and my grandmother were born in Istanbul. Of course in those days it was still called Constantinople—city of Constantine and to me, a city of dreams. Just before getting married, I found boxes of stuff in my parents’ house, and in the early days of married life, I’d spend hours looking at photos and poring over letters and accounts of life in this multicultural city in the last days of the Sultan and the first decades of the Turkish Republic under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. In this book, journalist Alev Scott is banned from Turkey and takes a wonderful journey through the lands of the Ottoman Empire instead. It’s the multinational aspect of it I find so fascinating and she visits 12 countries on her travels. It’s a gentle read, and you can dip in and out of it. I love reading passages in it after a stressful day.

8. How to Be Free: An Ancient Guide to the Stoic Life by Epictetus, translated by AA Long

I was first introduced to Stoicism when I interviewed Emrys Westacott, a philosopher at Alfred University, about ‘philosophy and everyday living.’ I was fascinated by the book he recommended, William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life, and I subsequently really enjoyed Massimo Pigliucci’s How to be a Stoic, which came out in 2017, as well. I don’t think Stoicism is the right philosophy for me, but I still find it a very interesting reflection on—and approach to—life’s challenges. But, back to primary sources, it wasn’t till I came across this book that I read some Epictetus, the freed slave who was one of the early proponents of Stoicism (note: as with Socrates, what survives are words recorded by one of his pupils rather than his own writings). Like the Loeb Classical Library, this edition, part of a Princeton University Press series that also includes other Classical authors, has the ancient Greek on the left hand page and a modern translation on the right which, if you’ve studied ancient Greek, is a bonus.

9. I am Dynamite!: A Life of Friedrich Nietzsche by Sue Prideaux

This book actually is dynamite. I started reading it because our philosophy editor, Nigel Warburton, chose it as one of the best philosophy books of 2018 and I couldn’t put it down. Sue Prideaux is a biographer, not a philosopher, which is probably why it’s a nice way into Nietzsche for me, a non-philosopher. And Nietzsche is one of those people I felt I needed to know more about. I went into the book suspecting him of being a proto-Nazi and came out (following my conversation with Nigel as well) convinced he’s a proto-existentialist. One nice feature of the book is that Sue Prideaux has collected all Nietzsche’s wonderful aphorisms at the back, so you too can turn to people and say, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

10. How History Get Things Wrong: the Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories by Alex Rosenberg

I’m a big fan of Alex Rosenberg’s previous book, An Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions, and I can’t resist adding this book to my list not because I necessarily agree with its premise, but because it made me laugh and it made me think. As the saying goes, those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it, but as Rosenberg points out, even those who do remember it (e.g. military strategists who do nothing but study military history) make the same mistakes over and over and over again. What is the purpose of studying history, then? What are the lessons of history? This is a really great book for reflecting on those kinds of questions. Some of Rosenberg’s criticisms are spot on but if, like me, you’re a fan of history, it’s also quite fun to read just because it made me want to rise indignantly to history’s defence.

Wishing you a very happy holiday from all of us here at Five Books!

—Sophie Roell

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Sophie Roell

Sophie Roell is editor of Five Books. Previously she worked as a journalist in London, Beijing, Shanghai and New York.