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45 notable book lovers share their best reads of 2012 Add to ...

Which is why Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen and James Davis, the authors of Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth, have done us a great favour. Theirs is an incisive dissection of end-times thinking, and an indictment of those who, rather than tackling the serious problems the planet faces, would rather sit and wait.

Economist Raj Patel’s books include Stuffed and Starved and, most recently, The Value of Nothing.

SHEILA HETI

Debt: The First 5,000 Years. I can’t think of anyone who shouldn’t read David Graeber’s paradigm-shifting book on the ethics of debt. He’s an anthropologist and one of the Occupy movement’s greatest thinkers. Here, he shows how debt has been a central economic, political and social tool throughout human history. It’s an essential read, particularly for those who, in the wake of the financial crisis, believed we were at the beginning of “an actual public conversation about the nature of debt, of money, of the financial institutions,” and were stunned not to see that conversation happen.

The best new work of fiction I read this year was Tamara Faith Berger’s Maidenhead, which I reviewed for this newspaper. It is not only the story of a young woman’s discovery of sex, but about how, through it, she learns about politics, race and oppression. Berger vividly shows how sexuality can be a portal to the real world away from one’s home and place of protection, and that the dangers of sex are twinned with the dangers of enlightenment – not to be avoided. She’s an exciting and important writer.

Sheila Heti’s most recent book is the novel How Should a Person Be?

THEODORE DALRYMPLE

In Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty, and the Mad-Doctors in England, Sarah Wise recounts 12 cases of wrongful detention in Victorian England by alienists (as psychiatrists were then called), usually at the behest of the patient’s family for the most sordid of reasons. The stories are so arresting and well-told that one is transported across time; many of the cases aroused public passion, raising deep questions of the proper scope of personal freedom and social control. This is social history at its best, illustrating the general by means of the particular.

Theodore Dalrymple (the pen name of Anthony Daniels) is a writer and retired prison psychiatrist, author most recently of Farewell Fear, a collection of essays.

ROBERT HOUGH

I really like the kind of book that tracks a remarkable life from cradle to grave, the whole time seducing the reader into trying to understand what the purpose of existence is. One of the best is Any Human Heart, by William Boyd, all the more so because the central figure is male – a growing rarity in an industry that falls all over itself trying to please female readers. By the time I got to the end, I was reminded of that scene in Spinal Tap, in which the dufus rock stars gaze at Elvis Presley's grave. “Kind of puts things into perspective,” says one. “Yeah,” says the other. “A little too much perspective if you ask me.”

Robert Hough’s Dr. Brinkley’s Tower was short-listed for the 2012 Governor-General’s Award for fiction.

MARGARET ELPHINSTONE

Three British expeditions entered Tibet in the early 1920s, aiming for the first ascent of Everest and culminating with the enigmatic disappearance of Mallory and Irving in 1924. Wade Davis’s monumental Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest., is basically a saga of exploration and mountaineering, but Davis sets it in the context of the times. He scours letters, journals and archives across the world and traces the prewar origins of the Everest obsession to adventurers in British India and the young elite of Britain’s class-ridden Alpine Club. Both groups were seared by the horrors of the Great War.

Davis argues that the pursuit of Everest was an act of imperial redemption after the disasters of war, and gives a fascinating account of how the expeditions were planned, funded, staffed, led and executed. These men were stoical beyond imagining, eccentric to the point of caricature, capable both of petty snobberies and mystical awareness. Davis’s huge achievement is to make the reader imaginatively experience what it was like to be them. One is there with them on the mountain, compulsively caught up in their adventure as it unfolds. No participant emerges as more complex than Mallory, complete with his anti-colonial prejudices. Of Oliver Wheeler, the brilliant Canadian cartographer on the 1921 expedition, Mallory notes: “Wheeler I have hardly spoken to, but you know my complex about Canadians. I shall have to swallow before I like him, I expect. God send me the saliva.”

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