My Book of the Year

Since I do this for a living and have to keep my receipts, I know exactly how much I spend on books — about two thousand pounds a year. Huge stacks of my most recent acquisitions are still awaiting my attention, although things I have enjoyed this year include The Penguin History of Canada, far too many books about Chinese immigrants abroad (the harvestings of trips to about six different Chinatowns this year), and the cleverest of them all, Holder of the White Lotus, a biography of that immortal sage the Dalai Lama, told through all of his previous incarnations. Wish I had thought of it. Meanwhile, in one of those bizarre moments of alchemy, The Emergence of Japanese Kingship suddenly made sense to me, becoming relevant and gripping after two years gathering dust and ignored on the shelf.

I have also seen the inside of a lot of airports. Few things are more depressing to the professional author than travelling to eight different countries in a row and finding the same old shit on sale in the departure lounge. I understand, believe me, only a handful of people really want to read a biography of Paul Pelliot while wedged in between two Potterheads in coach class, but the economics are dispiriting. The average British book buyer buys one book a year, to read on the plane when they head off on their holidays. It’s usually a giant brick of a book written with someone’s predictive text function. But I have spent a lot of time in airports this year, and have gamely tried to interest myself in the kind of books that everybody else appears to read. Fiction drew a blank; but sometimes in the world of facts there was something that didn’t make me want to hurl. Stars of my airport-bought reading this year include the second volume of diaries by that nice Michael Palin, and Clive James’s surprisingly technical account of his years in television: The Blaze of Obscurity.

But the absolute star of my reading this year, the book that held my rapt attention from beginning to end, which I finished with a distinct desire to go back to the beginning and start all over again, was Invading Australia by Peter Stanley. As the name suggests, it’s a book about the Second World War, and the belief in Australia that the Japanese were poised, ready to come ashore and seize the entire land. But Stanley’s account goes much deeper, surveying the fictional history of the Yellow Peril, and analysing the power of previous works of fiction in which the Japanese invaded Australia. The result is a history book half taken up with a study of science fiction pre-1942, with blatantly racist tales of evil oriental invaders, and armchair generals’ analysis of how Australia might best be defended against a putative attack. Stanley goes on to analyse not only the facts of the Japanese threat, but also the rhetoric employed against it. As entertaining extracts from Stanley’s own hate mail make abundantly clear, this remains an emotive issue among Australians, who were encouraged to swallow a national myth of holding a particular line against an invasion that, argues Stanley, was fated never to come, at least not in the manner that the Australians were led to believe.

Science fiction, alternative histories, stirring tales of Far Eastern derring-do… with my reputation? I was bound to love it. And since it was published by Penguin Australia, I was lucky that I was in Melbourne this year and able to stumble across it, because I sure as hell wasn’t going to see it on sale at Heathrow.

But anyway, in 2010 I have an entire shelf of books on American First Nations to get through, before I start looking for what’s new. The first books of next year are already on the shelves. The Poison King is in shops already, but has a 2010 copyright date at the front, as if we are already shopping in the future. I shall be getting that sooner rather than later, I expect, because it is one of those rarest items, a book I wish I had written myself. This week, I have mainly looking for a good biography of Alexander Nevsky, and I can’t seem to find one. Always more books to read; always more books to write.

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