My Book of the Year

My reading this year has been all over the place, from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet to a new book on Mannerheim, to a literary biography of Arthur Conan Doyle, and oodles of Japanese-language books about the animation business.

In the meantime, among the dozens of books I read this year, there have been a few stand-out successes. I began the year nose-deep in Massimo SoumarĂ©’s Japan in Five Ancient Chinese Chronicles, a superb survey of the occurences of the term “Land of the Rising Sun” (and indeed “Hairy Dwarves of Wa”) in mainland dynastic chronicles. Jamie Bisher’s White Terror: Cossack Warlords of the Trans-Siberian, is a gripping documentary history of the last survivors of Tsarist Russia as they fought a losing battle across Asia, along the length of a railway line that terminated in Vladivostok. It may form part of a book I am supposed to be writing next year, so it was a wonderful resource. I can’t get enough of the White Russians, which added bonus excitement to my reading of Martin Booth’s Gweilo: Memories of a Hong Kong Childhood. I stumbled across Booth while Googling him as the original author of the George Clooney vehicle The American. But I stayed for Gweilo, in particular for its reminiscences of the “Queen of Kowloon”, a senile, opium-addled vagrant in 1950s Hong Kong, who seemed to have once been a beautiful Tsarist duchess. Meanwhile, an interest in blockade runners (don’t ask) led me to Eric Graham’s Clyde Built: Blockade Runners, Cruisers and Armored Rams of the American Civil War, which retells the North-South conflict from the point of view of the Scottish shipbuilders and profiteers whose tricked-out steamers were smuggling supplies into the South from Bermuda.

But my 2010 Book of the Year was another part of my Scottish haul from ten days at the Scotland Loves Anime film festival. It’s Scott-Land: The Man Who Invented a Nation by Stuart Kelly, a biography and “thanatography” of Sir Walter Scott. There are other books about Scott, but they all too often skirt around the issue that his books are unreadable. Kelly is a happily hostile witness to his subject, intrigued by the career and output of an author who was a global celebrity during his own lifetime, to the extent that his Edinburgh monument is still the largest memorial to an author anywhere in the world. And yet Scott today is largely unread, confined to the bargain bin of literary history, his works written off as risible whimsy, his style dismissed as florid and twee. That’s where the thanatography comes in, with Kelly charting the fame and fortune of Scott after his death, with his works forming fundamental building blocks of the Scottish national identity, and indeed that of America – did you know that “Hail to the Chief” began as a song from an unauthorised musical, based on a Scott book about Highland bandits?

Kelly’s book opens a fascinating window on the bestsellers of yesteryear, treating Scott as the tin-eared, ham-fisted, yet inexplicably popular Dan Brown of his day, as well as a cunning literary wheeler-dealer, whose ownership of his publisher’s printing company allowed him to double-dip from his books’ profits. Literary biography is fast becoming my favourite genre, as I unwind from writing my own books by reading about other people writing theirs. On which note, thanks to one publication being six months late, another being six months early, and a third being bang on time, I ended up publishing three books in the calendar year 2010: A Brief History of the Samurai, Admiral Togo: Nelson of the East, and A Brief History of Khubilai Khan. You’ll have to keep busy with those, because for the first time in a decade, I won’t be publishing a single book next calendar year. But there’s already something on the slate for 2012, and for 2013, too, which seems far off in the future, even though I am already working on it. Other projects may slot in in the interim. In fact, one of the things that kept me busy in 2010 was the writing of large-scale proposals for big book projects for publication in 2014. See, planning ahead: no news on those yet, but why should there be when publishers wouldn’t need delivery for another two years? If I were really smart, I would buy up 50% of a printing company, like Walter Scott.

Then again, Scott ended up losing his shirt. Maybe I should invest in print-on-demand instead…

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