The Read

The Books To Read In 2019

A head start on the cultural touchstones of the coming year

Farewell, 2018, and hello, 2019. As the new year peeps around the corner and we’re shuffling all those nice book tokens Mr Claus brought us, we at MR PORTER thought it might be worth giving you the heads-up on a carefully selected handful of the best and most exciting things to spend them on. In a year already shaping up to be full of literary riches, here are a few of the hottest properties and most intriguing pairings of subject and author that will be coming soon to a bookshop near you.

Among these titles are books that will make us wiser, happier, more knowledgeable and more thoughtful – books that we’ll press on our significant others, drone on about at dinner parties and leave lying around our downstairs conveniences so that our friends admire us for being both clever, up to the minute and well-read. Happy New Year and happy reading.

Non-fiction

Underland: A Deep Time Journey

by Mr Robert Macfarlane

He’s forever going on a walk is that Mr Robert Macfarlane. First it was up mountains, then it was in wild places, then it was along the old ways. And now, in the words of Mr Paul Weller, he’s going underground. Underland, due out in May, is our greatest pedestrian’s investigation into all things subterranean, from the catacombs in Paris to ancient Norwegian sea caves, from the fungal networks through which trees communicate to the places we bury our nuclear waste. And being a work by Mr Macfarlane it will be as rich in mythological, linguistic and poetic rumination as in facts and figures or documentary detail. And since this book is claimed to cover a time span between the birth of the universe and the “post-human future”, one has to wonder where he’s going to go for his next book. Nice potter around the vegetable patch will do it.

Winds Of Change: Britain In The Sixties

by Lord Peter Hennessy

Lord Peter Hennessy is a well-polished Rolls-Royce among political and social historians – a man who, in addition to silky prose, enjoys permanent loitering rights in the corridors of power. So anything he writes about events in living memory is usually informed by confidential access to those who were in the thick of it, and he’s as good a guide to the machinery of 20th-century government as pretty much anyone I’ve read. That makes his Winds Of Change, due out in September and following his histories of previous decades Never Again and Having It So Good, a book for every history buff to anticipate with great excitement. Lord Hennessy has the range to sweep with brio between Carnaby Street and Downing Street and – having written a superb history of Britain’s Cold War – he’s better able than anyone to keep in mind that the biggest threat to our society in the early 1960s wasn’t brown nylon ties, but instant nuclear annihilation.

The Creativity Code: How AI Is Learning To Write, Paint And Think

by Mr Marcus du Sautoy

If you’re employed in the screwing-the-caps-on-toothpaste or widget-making industries, you will by now be pretty much resigned to the idea that a robot is going to take your job. Taxi drivers and long-distance truckers are feeling slightly sweaty-palmed, too. But writers, poets, composers and visual artists? We’ll be fine – won’t we? That’s where Mr Marcus du Sautoy, one of our most lucid and penetrating explainers of difficult science and maths to the science-challenged, comes in – offering an up-to-the-minute discussion of how cutting-edge developments in artificial intelligence might change or even replace our notions of the uniqueness of human creativity. Already, computers are getting better and better at the so-called Turing test, designed to differentiate them from humans; and when a computer composes a piece of music, or paints a picture, or writes a poem that humans can enjoy without realising it’s not the work of a fellow ape... Well, what then?

Time Song: Searching For Doggerland

by Ms Julia Blackburn

Where’s Doggerland? I hear you ask. Under the North Sea is the answer that Ms Julia Blackburn is here to give you in Time Song, out in February. Doggerland is the name given to the landscape that, until about 7,000 years ago, connected the UK to mainland Europe. Dogger Bank is the main bit of it that we can see – but we know it to have been crossed and settled by early man and by all manner of animals that no longer walk these parts of the Earth. Ms Blackburn’s poetic description of her attempt to rediscover it – using archaeological objects from arrowheads to fossilised hyena poo, and using scholarship and imagination – is at once a memoir in fragments, a collection of the author’s own “time songs” and an attempt to gaze into deep time to connect, however tenuously, with the long-dead ancestors who walked Doggerland before us.

Fiction

Lanny

by Mr Max Porter

Mr Max Porter’s debut Grief Is The Thing With Feathers – which described how a giant crow helps a widowed father and his young sons recover from their loss – was one of the most original and best received new works of fiction in recent memory: scabrous, funny, sad and formally groundbreaking. And it won gazillions of prizes. So the arrival of his next book, Lanny, in March, is hotly anticipated. This one has been described as “Under Milk Wood meets Broadchurch” by an early reader. It follows the just-awakened spirit of Dead Papa Toothwort as he listens to the life of a rural village and takes a special interest in a boy called Lanny. Is this Mr Porter’s take on the Green Man myth? It will be gripping to see what this brilliant and wayward talent does with it.

You Know You Want This

by Ms Kristen Roupenian

The last time a short story writer was this hot, it was probably Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. When Ms Kristen Roupenian’s short story “Cat Person” was published in The New Yorker at the end of 2017, it was read by more than two and a half million people online. That story about a terrible date – the weird disconnectedness of a generation that dates online, and the misogyny that can be found below the “nice guy” surface – is included in her debut collection of stories You Know You Want This, coming in February. Here are windows into the lives and troubled loves of modern young women. It promises to be essential reading for women, who will yelp with recognition, and perhaps even more essential for men, who may just understand themselves and the women they relate to a bit better for seeing the world through Ms Roupenian’s eyes.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf

by Mr Marlon James

Mr Marlon James’s Man Booker prize-winning novel A Brief History Of Seven Killings, which traced a three-decade history of political violence from 1970s Jamaica to the Miami and New York drug wars, was a complete tour de force of literary energy, linguistic pizzazz and ferociously gripping storytelling. He dives off in a fresh direction with this, the first part in a projected trilogy set in a mythological ancient Africa, which follows the adventures of Tracker, who is dispatched into the heart of the wilderness in search of a missing boy. Sounds like a fantasy potboiler? In the same way, perhaps, that Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy is a family saga. Nothing is a potboiler in the hands of the extraordinary Mr James, one of the most powerfully talented and original writers of our time.

Mr Sam Leith is literary editor of The Spectator and author of Write To The Point: How To Be Clear, Correct And Persuasive On The Page (Profile)

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