Seven Superb Books I Read Despite 2021

I’ve read 43 books so far this year, 21 fiction and 22 non-fiction. This is a slight decline on last year, but still the second highest total since records began in 2013.

For some bone-headed reason, I always finish the fiction I start reading, but there are 4 other non-fiction titles that I started and gave up part-way through.

14 of the books I’ve read this year were by female or non-binary authors, another was by a collective of non-binary, female and male authors. 6 of these female or non-binary-written books were fiction; 8 were non-fiction.

All of the books I gave up on were written by men. Make of that what you will.

The stand-out worst book I read all year was the horribly racist and sexist Neither Here Nor There by Bill Bryson. If you were being generous, you could say that it was ‘of its time’. In the same way that slavery or the guillotine was ‘of its time’.

Moving rapidly on.

The meaningless average year of publication was 1994 — meaningless because I read zero books published in 1994. (But a stunning hattrick from 1995: Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson, High Fidelity by Nick Hornby and Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh. Wonderful.)

The mode (most frequent) year of publication was, surprisingly, 2021. I don’t think of myself as a hot-off-the-press kinda guy, but this is a symptom of my lockdown habit of buying books instead of waiting for the library to open, as well as an attachment to certain authors, including friends.

Here are the seven books I’ve read that were published this year:

Although all were highly enjoyable and/or instructive, only one of these books also appears in my list of seven absolute corkers that I read this year. Tension.

So here, finally, is that list.

The Chinese zodiac might insist that 2021 was the year of the ox, but for me it was the year of the wolf, as I devoured To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Woolf and Feral by George Monbiot.

Naturally I had to follow that pack of wolves with the splendid The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd.

Heimat by Nora Krug taught me history, A World Without Email by Cal Newport taught me technology and Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez taught me perspective.

You could do a lot worse than putting any of those seven books on your Christmas list, but, in the generous spirit of overdelivering, this year I also re-read two books that I remember enjoying decades ago, way back, before I had a beard.

I was relieved to discover that both A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson are indeed appealing and enduring works of the highest order.

Dare I re-read Catch-22 in ‘22?

Invisible Women // Caroline Criado Perez Exposing data bias in a world designed for men

Although Invisible Women supplies women with an enormous cache of ammunition to use to fight for justice at home and at work, the people who really need this book are men.

I say this after a conversation about the book with a female friend who said that she found the book rather repetitive: each chapter—excellent in isolation—drills home the same central idea over and over and over again: that there is a systematic gender data gap that not only inconveniences women, but actually kills them.

I observed that repetition into submission is exactly what men will need before they’ll get the message.

I imagine that a lot of women will find Perez’s barrage of statistics tremendously validating, but I don’t think many women will be surprised to learn that, globally, females do twice the unpaid childcare work and four times the unpaid housework compared to their male counterparts.

Nor will it comes as a surprise to women that this unpaid care work, irrefutably essential for the smooth running of society, is not accounted for when designing transport systems, workplaces and public services. Bus routes that don’t connect the places women need to go, insufficient and poorly paid care leave, a tax regime that penalises women’s economic activity.

None of this will come as a surprise to any human woman—and that’s kind of the point of the book.

The gender data gap is there because fifty percent of data isn’t collected and fifty percent of stories aren’t told. The pervasive ‘default male’ approach scientific research, product design, news media and the arts means that, most often, women simply aren’t consulted.

I could rant on, but I’ll leave you with one powerful contrast that nimbly demonstrates the yawning gap between women’s experience and the design of our societies.

‘Staring, touching, groping, ejaculation, exposing genitalia and full rape’: women get sexually harassed on public transport. A lot. A 2016 survey of 6,000 French women found that 90 percent had been victims of sexual harassment while travelling on public transport.

From conversations with female friends, I knew that men had a serious problem with sexual violence on public transport, but I had never truly grasped the extent of our problem. I’m beginning to now.

The powerful contrast that Perez draws is this: although I’m better informed about sexual violence against women on public transport, I still have no idea how to go about reporting this criminal behaviour. For a violation so serious and affecting so many people, I have never once seen any public information posters or heard any announcements telling victims and witnesses what to do.

This lack of clear information goes part way to explaining why, according to Transport for London’s estimates, ‘90% of unwanted sexual behaviour on London transport goes unreported’.

On the other hand, as Perez points out:

Most authorities seem to have managed to install clear signage about what to do in the event of spotting a suspicious package.

In the case of the UK’s ‘See it, say it, sort it’ anti-terrorism campaign, with its frequent loud announcements at every train station and on every train, it’s almost impossible to evade knowledge of what to do.

I would love to compare the number of victims of sexual violence with the number of victims of terrorist attacks on public transport over the past ten years. But I can’t because one of those statistics only affects women and thus isn’t properly collected.

Rather than terrifying the populace about the occasional abandoned backpack, our society would be much better served by public information campaigns that aim to eliminate the constant daily abuse suffered by half our population.

Tonight is World Book Night. Men: do yourself a favour and buy Invisible Women.

~

Thanks to G.C. and N.C. for the inspiration.