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Why 2012 is starting to look like 1984


Between SOPA, NDAA, telecommunications surveillance, and people’s willingness to share endlessly via social networking, will 2012 mark the year consumers irreversibly surrender their privacy and freedoms?

A mantra of the Internet age, articulated in 1984 by WELL founder Stewart Brand, is that “information wants to be free.” Back then — the days of 360K floppies and 1200 baud modems — Brand was referring to digital technology making information ever easier to distribute, copy, and remix than their old-school analog counterparts. The oft-forgotten corollary Brand offered at the same time was “Information also wants to be expensive,” because particular items, while perhaps of no interest to one person, can be “immeasurably valuable” to someone else.

As we head into 2012, the conflict Brand articulated between information’s “want” to be both free and expensive is taking on new dimensions. So-called “digital content” like books, music, and television is increasingly falling into the expensive category, thanks to online stores, digital distribution, copyright, and DRM. Meanwhile, information about ourselves — like our location, habits, activities, possessions, transactions, preferences, and personal information — is increasingly becoming “free,” often accessible to advertisers, corporations, and governments without our explicit consent. Or, in many cases, proffered up willingly in exchange for things like coupons.

As we enter 2012, the tension between “free” and “expensive” information is becoming more charged than ever. What could 2012 bring… and will it end up resembling Orwell’s 1984? Here are a few of the threats on the horizon.

Stop Online Piracy Act

The Stop Online Piracy Act and its companion piece, the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) are bills currently being crafted by U.S. Congress aiming to expand the capabilities of U.S. law enforcement agencies to combat copyright and intellectual property infringement — piracy. The proposed legislation is aimed at both the piracy of digital goods (books, movies, television shows, games, and things like live broadcasts), but also the use of the Internet and online marketplaces to traffic in physical counterfeit goods. That means pirated DVDs, Blu-rays, and CDs, but also fake drugs, fashion and accessories, electronics, antiques, collectibles, and many more items.

At a basic level, most people accept that piracy and counterfeiting are bad. It’s theft, and theft is rarely justifiable. So, on the surface, the notions behind SOPA don’t seem that onerous. The devil is, of course, in the details — or lack of details, given the very broad language in SOPA as it exists today. As originally proposed, SOPA would enable copyright holders to seek court orders against Web sites they believe are infringing on copyrights or either enabling or facilitating copyright infringement. Depending on one’s definitions, merely linking to a site that contained allegedly infringing content could be construed as “facilitating” infringement, so copyright holders could demand the site or account with that link be taken down.

In a worst-case scenario, Internet users who share a link to a cool video with their friends might find their social networking accounts suspended for “facilitating” alleged copyright infringement. Similarly, journalists writing about piracy could find their sites or publications suspended. And if a legitimate site or account were to get hijacked, transferred, or sold (because that never happens, right?) anyone who linked to or did business with once-legitimate content or sites might suddenly find themselves in violation of the law.

Under SOPA, a court could require ISPs to take down sites accused of infringement, order search engines to drop the sites from their listings, or bar online advertising and payment services (like AdSense or PayPal) from doing business with the site. The goal of those measures is ostensibly to shut down online marketplaces for pirated and counterfeit goods: Get them offline, and shut off access to their sources of online revenue. Although the bill provides for penalties against copyright holders who knowingly make false accusations of infringement (emphasis mine), the bill also grants immunity to ISPs who proactively take down accused sites. In other words, there’s no penalty to ISPs who take down sites because they’re accused of infringement, even if those claims are false. That’s a significant weakening of “safe harbor” provisions created by 1998′s still-controversial Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DCMA). Similarly, the process of requesting or obtaining a court order over alleged infringement would largely take place outside the public eye, likely with the owners of the accused site unaware action was being taken against it. If the order were granted, one morning a site or service operator could wake up and find their site gone. Site owners can file a counter-claim if they’re barred from ad or payment services, but the counter-claim would have no force.

That’s not the full course of SOPA. It also has broad implications for cybersecurity and DNSSEC, a new security layer for DNS. However, provisions like the ones outlined above obviously have tremendous implications for search engines and services that host user-generated content — think Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and the like, but also for personal sites, blogs, small businesses, and (really) any person, organization, or business with a website. Under SOPA, merely linking to other sites could become a dangerous proposition, lest the site at the other end of the link be accused of copyright infringement.

Opponents of SOPA argue these provisions would fundamentally break the Internet and stifle innovation, and could lead to many sites and services migrating their infrastructure out of the U.S. to escape potential liability. Further, it seems unlikely SOPA’s provisions would do much to combat online piracy and trafficking in counterfeit goods, since site operators are already adept at moving to new hosting services in the space of a few hours: Even SOPA’s proposed streamlining of takedowns would still move at glacial speeds compared to the Internet world.

Proponents of the legislation argue SOPA’s provisions would protect revenues of content creators that would otherwise be lost and, hence, preserve jobs — an important buzzword in today’s political and economic climate. Supporters also note SOPA is not intended to go after single instances of links on blogs, social networking feeds, or other sites; rather, the bill is meant to offer law enforcement and rights holders tools to go after bigger fish, like substantial piracy and counterfeiting operations. However, the language of the bill as it stands today contains no such limits, implicitly relying on barriers to entry (court costs, attorneys’ fees, documentation, etc.) to curb potential abuses.


SOPA (and PIPA) are not law. Both bills are proposed legislation that has yet to make it out of committee for votes before the House and Senate, let alone be signed by the president. Nonetheless, the proposed legislation has drawn a wealth of criticism, with domain registrar GoDaddy bearing the brunt of anti-SOPA sentiment by first endorsing the bill, then retracting its support. A handful of gaming companies have also apparently withdrawn their explicit support, although it’s not clear whether that’s a genuine reassessment of their stance or merely a PR move in the wake of the GoDaddy fracas. Many other top-line Internet companies—Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter, eBay, Wikimedia Foundation — oppose SOPA, as do the EFF, Human Rights Watch, and the ACLU.

The bottom line is that if legislation like SOPA and PIPA become law, the way the Internet works for most Americans could change substantially. Much of the information we understand to be “free” today, even to the level of tweets and status updates, could suddenly come with enormous consequences. The weight of those consequences will tend to suppress Internet users’ willingness to speak, communicate, link, and share — and that’s why opponents say SOPA will “break” the Internet.

National Defense Authorization Act

SOPA is not yet law, but the most recent National Defense Authorization Act is. The NDAA is an annual bill passed by the U.S. Congress authorizing the budget of the U.S. Defense Department. It’s always a bit of a political hot potato because few presidents can justify failing authorizing revenue for the Defense Department, particularly when tens of thousands of U.S. troops are overseas serving in extended conflicts. Since the President does not have a line-item veto, lawmakers try to attach all sorts of things to the NDAA, knowing the President will almost certainly have to sign them all through into law.

This year, the NDAA contains a doozy: It enables the U.S. military to conduct anti-terrorist operations on U.S. soil, and authorizes indefinite detention of terror suspects, including U.S. citizens, without trial. The law is not entirely clear whether the military can indefinitely detain U.S. citizens domestically, but it can certainly do so overseas, and foreigners can be detained whether overseas or within U.S. borders.

In signing this year’s NDAA, President Obama included a signing statement attempting to clarify his position on the law. “The fact that I support this bill as a whole does not mean I agree with everything in it. In particular, I have signed this bill despite having serious reservations with certain provisions that regulate the detention, interrogation, and prosecution of suspected terrorists.”

In essence, this year’s NDAA expands on provisions granted into the Patriot Act and extends the military’s role in domestic law enforcement. Now, the U.S. military can detain anyone, anywhere in the world, without trial or process, simply because they’re suspected of terrorist activities.

lulzsec arrested

This may not seem to have anything to do with the Internet — until you think about groups like Anonymous and Wikileaks. Could Anonymous (or groups within Anonymous) attacking credit card operators, the threatening the NYSE, law enforcement organizations, or other organizations constitute terrorist activity? Similarly, would Wikileaks’ publication of classified U.S. diplomatic cables constitute terrorist activity? Suddenly, everyday Internet users speaking up in support of groups like Anonymous and Wikileaks might find themselves accused of aiding and facilitating terrorists. Similarly, if U.S. authorities decide these or similar groups’ activities constitute terrorism, members or alleged members might find themselves shipped to Guantanamo. No trial, no process, no appeal.

The Obama administration says it does not intend to exercise these powers. Even if that’s true, now that they’re law the only way they can be undone is with additional legislation that repeals the provisions, or through a court challenge, which would almost certainly ensure if the powers were ever utilized. But just because the Obama administration says it won’t use the powers doesn’t mean future administrations won’t. And let’s not forget that, at least in the case of Anwar al-Awlaki, the Obama administration concluded it has the power to assassinate U.S. citizens without trail. (The American-born al-Awlaki was killed in Yemen by a targeted U.S. drone strike in September 2011.)

The bottom line here is that it doesn’t matter whether the U.S. government ever exercises the powers granted under this year’s NDAA: the very fact they exist suppresses American civil liberties by explicitly authorizing the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens without trial, anywhere in the world. For folks who hold unpopular views, or merely know people who do, that’s a sobering thing to consider.

Telecom Immunity

Confused yet? Things get weirder. Late last month a U.S. Court of Appeals panel upheld the constitutionality of a law that makes telecommunications operators immune to lawsuits for assisting the federal government’s surveillance of American citizens. In other words, if your cell phone, telephone, or Internet provider turns over information about you, your activities, and use of their services over to the Federal government — even illegally — you’d have no grounds to sue. Communications companies face no sanctions for disclosing personal information to the federal government, including account information and even usage data like sites visited, account names, and location data.

When can the federal government require communications companies to hand over customer information? Essentially, anytime it likes: As part of anti-terrorist measures enacted by the Bush administration, the federal government has been engaging in warrantless wiretapping of individuals it has reason to believe may be connected to terrorist activities. Although originally revealed back in late 2005, the practice was sustained by the Bush administration and continues under the Obama administration. The activities include tapping phone calls, as well as intercepting Internet traffic (email, Web use, etc.) VoIP traffic, and text messages. The government is the sole arbiter of what individuals are surveilled, and is under no requirement to disclose its activities.

However, there is an upshot to the appeals court ruling. The court only finds the immunity granted to telecommunications operators to be legal; a case against the government challenging the legality of warrantless wiretapping practices can still proceed. That case, Jewel v. NSA, alleged that the National Security Agency set up secure facilities within AT&T facilities across the United States to engage in an “unprecedented suspicionless general search” of digital communications.

“The federal courts remain a forum to consider the constitutionality of the wiretapping scheme and other claims, including claims for injunctive relief,” wrote Judge Margaret McKeown of the 9th Circuit.

However, even if the Justice Department does not appeal the ruling that Jewel vs. NSA can proceed, it is likely to move the case be dismissed on state secrets grounds. Given the volume of information that has already been disclosed about the NSA’s domestic surveillance operations, the Justice Department may have a difficult time asserting a state secret privilege, but it does mean key proceedings of the case could take place outside public view.

The true value of privacy

Does any of this actually matter? Some might argue that talking about preserving privacy and civil liberties is pointless in an age when many everyday citizens regularly share intimate details of their daily lives with the entire world, including who they know, where they are, what they’re doing, what they like, what they’re looking for, and what they buy. Couple that with personal information about most people squirreled away in private and government databases (think health care providers, credit reporting agencies, banks, credit card companies, even grocery stores, not to mention the erstwhile efforts of online advertisers to track your every move across every site on the Internet) and it’s easy to see why former Sun head Scott McNealy said “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.” And that was way back in 1999, before things like smartphones, Facebook, and Foursquare.


Fundamentally, the value of privacy comes down to whether individuals consider personal information to be free or expensive. It’s easy to consider information about other people “free,” after all, most of the time, it doesn’t matter to us. That leads to the comforting fallacy that individuals have nothing to worry about if they have nothing to hide. Perhaps, for a handful of people who have absolutely no qualms about living their entire lives in the public eye, that might be true.

However, there’s a distinct difference between having something to hide (like, say, terrorist connections), and not wanting every iota of personal information available to anyone, at any time. Few people would want their entire medical histories made public—which could lead to problems with insurance, health care, job prospects, and more. Similarly, few people would want their communications or financial records available to anyone, or consent to having their location monitored at all times. Is it acceptable to live our lives constantly wondering how our actions might be interpreted by the myriad of other people, organizations, and governments who might be watching?

Simply put, most people believe that information about themselves belongs to them, and ought to be under their control. We find information about ourselves to be “immeasurably valuable.” Sure, we’re free to share details if we like. But we should also be free not to share information, or to have information about ourselves collected and used with no right of recourse, appeal, deletion, or correction, because we recognize that information could be misused by others, to our detriment.

Unfortunately, in the world of 2012, it looks like Americans — and most other people — are finding themselves with less and less choice in the matter. And if you’re a marketer or a government, maybe that’s doubleplusgood.

By Geoff Duncan



Filed under: Article of the Week,

Books of the year 2011

A novel about a dinner-party guest who won’t leave, a history of Henry VII, an inquiry into madness … Which books have most impressed our writers this year?
Books of the year, 2011

Photograph: David McCoy for GNM imaging

Chimamanda Adichie

Sebastian Barry, On Canaan's Side

I admired the lovely sentences and moving story in Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side (Faber), about an Irish-American woman looking back at her life. Binyavanga Wainaina’s One Day I Will Write About This Place (Granta) is a strange, allusive, tender memoir about growing up in middle-class Kenya. Tracy K Smith’s poems in Life on Mars (Turnaround) are startling and exquisite.

Tariq Ali

Thomas Penn, Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England

Shifting alliances at home and abroad, ruthless accumulation of capital and endless court intrigues form the backdrop to Thomas Penn’s Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England (Allen Lane), a chilling and enticing portrait of Henry VII, the founder of the Tudor dynasty that created a centralised English state. Well written and well researched, the book helps us understand why Shakespeare decided to give this Henry a miss. It would have been difficult to prettify him. The Royal National Theatre should seek to remedy this omission rapidly: Winter King has a very modern feel.

A winter nightmare is the subject of Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89 (Profile) by Rodric Braithwaite. Written largely from material obtained from Soviet archives, this account explains why the Afghans hate being occupied and each chapter offers a warning to the Nato occupiers of today.

Elias Khoury’s latest novel, As Though She Were Sleeping (Maclehose Press), returns to a golden age. Beirut in the 30s, unoccupied Palestine and a love affair recalled through a set of dream sequences: an Arab spring of a very different sort.

Simon Armitage

Although most people knew him as a novelist and indeed a painter, Glyn Hughes had been quietly publishing poetry since the 60s. A Year in the Bull-Box (Arc Publications) is a poem-sequence detailing the turning of the seasons and the eternal processes of nature from the vantage point of a "bull-box" (that’s a stone hut to you and me) in the Ribble Valley. It is also a meditation on mortality, written as Hughes succumbed to the cancer that was to take his life earlier this year. In those last 12 months he seemed to have found a grace and contentment that is both humbling and inspiring, and I don’t ever remember being as moved by a book of poems. I also want to mention a pamphlet, Pages from Bee Journal (Isinglass) by Sean Borodale. A lot of poets seem to be writing about bees these days, but like the honey he describes, "disconcerting, / solid broth / of forest flora full of fox", these are poems so dense and rich you could stand a spoon in them.

John Banville

Eileen Battersby, Ordinary Dogs

Eileen Battersby’s Ordinary Dogs (Faber) must be the most reticent autobiography ever written, since the author is no more than a shadowy presence behind the figures of the two dogs, Bilbo and Frodo – "the guys", as she calls them – who shared her life for more than 20 years. It is a wonderful book, cleanly and honestly written, funny, wise and valiant, and entirely free of sentimentality. Writing Beckett’s Letters by George Craig (Sylph Editions) is, strictly speaking, a pamphlet rather than a book, but it speaks volumes. Craig is the translator of the Beckett correspondence, the second volume of which was recently published, and his account of the joys and miseries of the task is elegant, exemplary and enlightening. In Harold Bloom’s The Anatomy of Influence (Yale) the great American critic returns to an old theme – artists form themselves out of an agon with their illustrious predecessors – and, in his 80th year, is as provocative, as gloriously preposterous and as captivating as ever.

Julian Barnes

Alice Munro, New Selected Stories

Is there a better short story writer in the world than Alice Munro? In her New Selected Stories (Chatto & Windus) she gives the long story the meatiness of a novel, and moves through time with an ease few can match. The Wine of Solitude (Chatto & Windus) continues our rediscovery (in Sandra Smith’s fine translations) of Irène Némirovsky‘s work: it’s an unerring portrait of a neglected, baleful and punitive daughter. Among homegrown fiction, I most admired Edward St Aubyn’s At Last (Picador), and Alan Hollinghurst‘s The Stranger’s Child (Picador) – the most originally and brilliantly structured novel I’ve read in a long time.

Sebastian Barry

Ali Smith, There But For The

Seething with inventiveness, humanity, wit and language fit for the Big Rock Candy Mountain, indomitable and adroit, full of angelic swagger and pretend pratfalls, Ali Smith’s gleaming There but for the (Hamish Hamilton) took the biscuit this year.

A book that moved the heart and soul and head down into a sombre gear, and recalled to some degree the purposes of Primo Levi – to shine a clear, bare light on what happened in historical darkness – Steve Sem-Sandberg’s novel The Emperor of Lies (Faber) is both a remembrance of vanished evils, and a warning to modern kings and conquerors.

Belinda McKeon’s subtle Solace (Picador) and Kevin Barry’s rampaging City of Bohane (Jonathan Cape) put up two gallant new flags for the Irish novel.

William Boyd

Sarah Raven, Sarah Raven's Wild Flowers

Sarah Raven’s Wild Flowers (Bloomsbury) is a complete delight. Massive, all-encompassing, superbly illustrated with Jonathan Buckley’s photographs, it is clearly a labour of love – and the evidence of that is there on every page, not least in Raven’s tirelessly informative, absolutely precise and beautifully vivid prose.

If Wild Flowers is the reference book of the year then Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life (Penguin Viking) takes the biography laurels. Written with immense knowledge and literary poise, it presents a portrait of the novelist unrivalled in its complex humanity. Dickens lives and breathes in these pages; Tomalin’s instinctive grasp of the man himself is engrossing.

Seek out Jim Clark’s Dream Repairman (easily available online), one of the best books written about the movie business – but seen from the film editor’s angle, which makes it very rare. Also very candid, very shrewd and very funny.

AS Byatt

Philip Hensher, King of the Badgers

There but for the is a brilliant title for a brilliant novel. Ali Smith invents new forms of fiction in the interstices between parts of a sentence – commenting "but the thing I particularly like about the word but … is that it always takes you off to the side …" The story is about a man who leaves a tedious dinner party, locks himself into a bedroom and refuses to leave. His hostess calls in the press and he becomes a cause celebre. He is put together in a series of stories from different, tangential points of view. The novel is both funny and moving – it succeeds because of Smith’s extraordinary skill with ordinary language. I also loved Philip Hensher’s King of the Badgers (Fourth Estate), a tale about the disappearance of a child from an English coastal town. Hensher is both maliciously witty and ultimately generous – difficult to pull off, but he does it with authority.

Jonathan Coe

Richard Lloyd Parry, People Who Eat Darkness: The Fate of Lucie Blackman

People Who Eat Darkness (Jonathan Cape) by Richard Lloyd Parry is a chilling account of the murder of Lucie Blackman in Japan 11 years ago. Parry shows a rare compassion and a refusal to judge: despite the horrors of the crime, almost the most upsetting feature of his story is the blameless ordinariness of the life Blackman left behind in England.

I thought the Man Booker judges – intentionally or not – played a brilliant game this year. They chose a diverse and challenging shortlist and then, having royally offended the literary establishment by excluding so many of their current favourites, they proceeded to wrongfoot everybody by choosing a winner of impeccable merit. Result! However, it’s depressing to see that some novels continue simply to pass under the radar. In a year when the judges were looking for "readability" and books that "zip along", it was sad they overlooked a novel which had these qualities, as well as being wise, funny and sometimes distressing – It Had to Be You (Harper), the 18th novel by David Nobbs. I’m sure they would have loved it if they had noticed it.

Julia Donaldson

Nicola Killen, Fluff and Billy

I was inspired to read Elen Caldecott’s Operation Eiffel Tower (Bloomsbury) when I saw her talk about it at the Edinburgh book festival and was as entranced as all the eight-to-twelves. The book is about three siblings who try to raise money for their parents (on the verge of breaking up) to have a romantic weekend in Paris. Some scenes are funny (the children’s attempted forgery is hilarious); others are poignant, particularly their visit to a B&B when they can’t think what to say to their dad.

My favourite picture books were both about friendship. Fluff and Billy by Nicola Killen (Egmont), a young, simple story of two penguins who fall out and make up, has beautiful illustrations and a satisfying patterned text. The more sophisticated I Don’t Want to be a Pea! by Ann Bonwill and Simon Rickerty (OUP) features a hippo and a bird arguing about what to wear for a fancy-dress party. It’s all in dialogue, so parents and children can have fun doing the voices.

Illustrated books don’t have to be for the very young. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and Siobhan Dowd (Walker) is a novel about a teenager whose mother is dying of cancer. The idea of a yew-tree monster telling stories to the boy was conceived by Dowd shortly before her own death. Ness responded to the challenge of writing the book. It’s a powerful story, made unforgettable by Jim Kay’s inky illustrations.

Roddy Doyle

Daniel Woodrell, Outlaw Album

We live in a time of deep recession but, here in Dublin, things still start at "brilliant" and work their way up. The Outlaw Album (Sceptre) is a collection of stories by one of the world’s great novelists, Daniel Woodrell, and it’s brilliant. I’m fond of big dark Russian books, so I loved Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (Granta). It’s exhilarating, funny and … brilliant. Jennifer Egan’s novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad (Corsair), is so good, so original, so surprising and wonderful – it’s just absolutely fuckin’ brilliant.

Margaret Drabble

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

Two remarkable short novels, one of which won the Man Booker prize, one of which is yet to find a publisher, though it is so good it surely will. Julian Barnes‘s The Sense of an Ending (Jonathan Cape) has rightly been highly praised for its economy and elegance. Some also found it funny, but I found it melancholy, as it explored paths not taken, disasters not averted, sadnesses never accommodated. I then read Barnes’s short stories, Pulse (Jonathan Cape), some of which are wickedly funny, but I liked best the sad Scottish landscapes of "Marriage Lines". The unpublished novel by my Cambridge contemporary Bernadine Bishop is about bowel cancer, but it is not sad at all, it is full of wit, good humour, interesting characters, a wonderfully imagined baby, and a deftness of plotting that seems effortlessly natural. It’s astonishingly fresh and real.

Helen Dunmore

Sean O'Brien, November

November (Picador) by Sean O’Brien is a sombre and beautiful collection of poems, shot through with his sardonic humour. The elegies for his mother and father are perhaps the most moving poems that he has yet written, and, like the best of such poems, they are both intimate and universal.

Irène Némirovsky’s The Wine of Solitude is a brilliant coming-of-age novel and the most autobiographical of Némirovsky’s works. Many people now know Suite Française, but her other novels shouldn’t be overshadowed by it. I particularly loved the scenes set in Finland during the civil war, and the portrait of a loveless relationship between a young girl and her mother. Némirovsky is so honest and she never fluffs a line.

Geoff Dyer

I had some reservations about Pulphead, a collection of essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan (FSG, USA). The David Foster Wallace influence seemed so pronounced, there was the conspicuously dubious taste and a fondness for deranged critical hyperbole – I mean, who would even bother to listen to Guns N’ Roses, let alone claim that Axl Rose achieved "the greatest white male rock dance moment of the video age"? But then I thought: hey, what a great category of praise to invent! By then the DFW doubt had retired itself and JJS’s prose was working its own hard-to-fathom magic. It has a ramshackle loquacity, a down-home hyper-eloquence and an off-the-wallishness that is almost lapidary. I’m still puzzling my way though the life – Sullivan was born and lives in the American South; as a teen he went through an evangelical Christian phase (beautifully revealed in the opening piece, "Upon this Rock") – and the writing that’s resulting from it, but am feeling the way publishers do when they come across a new voice, fully formed and quite distinctive. Assuming a UK edition is forthcoming, might I pitch in with the suggestion that the cover features a William Christenberry photograph?

Jonathan Franzen

Ben Lerner, Leaving the Atocha Station

Ben Lerner’s recent novel Leaving the Atocha Station (Coffee House Press)and Joshua Cody’s new memoir [sic] (Bloomsbury) are undoubtedly the kind of books that the former Swedish Academy secretary Horace Engdahl had in mind when he faulted American authors for their insularity and self-involvement. Both books are also hilarious and cracklingly intelligent, fully alive and original in every sentence, and abuzz with the feel of our late-late-modern moment; and one senses that these are the qualities of American literature that actually annoyed Engdahl.

Leaving the Atocha Station is the story of a mentally unstable, substance-dependent young poet brilliantly and excruciatingly wasting a fellowship year in Madrid. [sic] is the story of a moderately depraved young musical prodigy who is suddenly stricken with near-fatal cancer. The former is worth whatever Amazonian contortions are required for a British reader to lay hands on it.

John Gray

Norman Davies, Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe

Norman Davies’s Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe (Allen Lane) is many rare things, rolled into one. An exercise in salvage and retrieval, recalling from oblivion some of history’s losers; an encyclopedia of unremembered Europe, recounting the stories of Europe’s failed states, some never having had a chance of survival, others casualties of events or folly; a personal ramble, by a great historian, through some of the continent’s lost byways – it’s all of these, and a book that any reader interested in modern Europe will be sorry to finish. It’s also – though Davies is too civilised and graceful a writer to labour the point – a warning. "Successful statehood," he writes, "is, in fact, a rare blessing." I only wish that this wonderfully exhilarating and melancholy book would be read by our leaders, and borne in mind when they next consider exporting our accidentally successful arrangements by military force to some other country.

David Hare

Simon Hoggart, A Long Lunch: My Stories and I'm Sticking to Them

The title of the biggest ego in American letters is never anyone’s for long, but with her shameless book of essays The Professor and Other Writings (Harper) Terry Castle grabs the crown and hugs it to her. This is the critic as narcissist, literature just the stuff you stand on to get a better look in the mirror. But the techniques and strategies honed by such sumptuous self-love make this Stanford academic murderous when she sets about other great egos – chiefly those of her exes, her mother and Susan Sontag.

Two British memoirs seem reticent by comparison. Simon Hoggart denies that A Long Lunch (John Murray) is an autobiography, but it clearly is, and all the better for being hilarious. Fascinating, the degree to which his time spent reporting Northern Ireland in the 1970s shaped Hoggart’s valiant view of life. And Michael Frayn’s My Father’s Fortune: A Life (Faber) retrieves a complicated suburban childhood in Surrey in the 1940s. Everything about it rings familiar, funny and true.

Robert Harris

Alexandra Styron, Reading My Father: A Memoir

I was fascinated by Alexandra Styron’s memoir of William Styron, Reading My Father (Scribner): an intimate and unsparing account of what it was like to be the youngest daughter not only of an illustrious novelist – difficult enough in itself, I would have thought – but of a profound depressive, who also seems to have been friends with just about everyone famous in America. Two novels published this year have particularly lingered in my mind: David Lodge‘s portrait of HG Wells, A Man of Parts (Harvill Secker), succeeded in fusing the best bits of fiction and biography to bring the man and his erotic adventures to life; and Justin Cartwright’s Other People’s Money (Bloomsbury) created a believable, fictional private bank on the brink of destruction. Finally, Max Hastings once again demonstrated his pre-eminence as a chronicler of the second world war with All Hell Let Loose (Harper), a masterly one-volume account of that epic conflict – a book which the rulers of Europe would do well to read at the end of this melancholy year.

Eric Hobsbawm

Owen Jones, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class

Among the 2011 books that came my way I particularly welcomed Owen Jones’s Chavs (Verso), a passionate and well-documented denunciation of the upper-class contempt for the proles that has recently become so visible in the British class system. Unaccountably neglected, Göran Therborn’s The World: A Beginners Guide (Polity), a survey of the present state, problems and outlook of the globe by a Swedish master sociologist, is one of the rare books that lives up to its title. It is lucid, intelligent about the future and admirably researched. The book I have enjoyed most is Karl Miller’s Tretower to Clyro (Quercus), a collection of characteristically pawky essays by one of the great literary editors of our time, combined with a wonderful account of explorations à trois of the Celtic parts of Great Britain.

Alan Hollinghurst

Susie Harries, Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life

Two books this year gave me the almost dreamlike pleasure of finding out things that I’d long wanted to know. Susie Harries’s Nikolaus Pevsner (Chatto) may justly be subtitled "The Life": it shows a complete mastery of the many different areas, cultural, political and artistic, in which this complex and essential figure moved and made his mark. The book’s very fitting scale and tirelessness are more than matched by its wit, subtlety and human understanding. In Duncan Fallowell’s How to Disappear (Ditto) travel and its chance encounters provide the pretext for pursuit of much more marginal figures: in "Who was Alastair Graham?" he explores the post-Oxford life of Evelyn Waugh’s Oxford boyfriend in a way that throws light into dim corners of British social history. In "The Curious Case of Bapsy Pavry", an Indian lady who became the Marchioness of Winchester and lived out a long widowhood in a Firbankian fantasy of social aspiration is chased down with a tenderly marvelling mordancy that is a keynote of Fallowell’s brilliant and haunting book.

Michael Holroyd

Alan Hollinghurst, The Stranger's Child

Alan Hollinghurst’s novel The Stranger’s Child tracks the cultural, sexual, biographical and social changes that took place in 20th-century Britain. He has a versatile wit and enjoys playing with figures from the past as well as with his readers, teasing them and misleading them until, drawn into the story, they almost become additional characters in it. This is a modern version of the novel EM Forster would have wished to write.

A most ingenious and original solution to the moral and aesthetic problems thrown up by the cult of biographical fiction is given in John Spurling’s A Book of Liszts (Seagull Books) – a brilliant set of supple variations encircling the life and career of the great virtuoso Franz Liszt. Those who believe that such speculative and experimental hybrids mark the end of more traditional biography should read Fiona MacCarthy’s wonderful The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination (Faber). This is a perfect coming together of biographer and subject.

Nick Hornby

Claire Tomalin, Charles Dickens: A Life

Everyone else will pick Claire Tomalin’s superb Charles Dickens, so I won’t. But I’ve read three terrific novels this year, all of them funny, all of them sad. Joe Dunthorne’s Wild Abandon (Hamish Hamilton), like Kevin Wilson’s The Family Fang (Picador), is about what happens to children when parents become consumed by their beliefs. In Wild Abandon it’s communal living that causes all the trouble, in The Family Fang it’s performance art; both books are populated by flawed, occasionally exasperating, lovable and, above all, thoroughly imagined characters. James Hynes’s Next (Reagan Arthur) is, mystifyingly, still without a publisher in the UK, but don’t let that put you off. It’s dark, comic, real and, in the end, terrifying, and there are many, many men in their late 40s and 50s who would wince with recognition at Hynes’s Kevin Quinn.

Hampton Sides’s Hellhound on His Trail (Allen Lane), a gripping account of the hunt for James Earl Ray, reminds us once again that a lot of Americans in the 1960s were living through a nightmare, not through a long, dreamy summer of love.

Hari Kunzru

Teju Cole, Open City

As ever a lot of my reading has been books that haven’t been released this year – many titles in the wonderful New York Review Books classics series, whose multicoloured spines now take up a good two feet of bookshelf in my apartment. Teju Cole’s Open City (Faber), a Sebaldesque wander through New York, and Hisham Matar’s Anatomy of a Disappearance (Viking) both stood out in fiction, as did David Foster Wallace’s unfinished The Pale King (Hamish Hamilton). I also enjoyed McKenzie Wark’s tour through the legacy of Situationism, The Beach Beneath the Street (Verso), and Manuel DeLanda’s attempt at a unified description of everything in Philosophy and Simulation (Continuum). Sonia Faleiro’s Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay Dance Bars (Canongate) also did what every good piece of reportage ought to – took me to a place I couldn’t have gone by myself.

Hanif Kureishi

Hanan Al-Shaykh, One Thousand and One Nights

Hanan Al-Shaykh’s vivid "reimagining" of the One Thousand and One Nights (Bloomsbury) is a treat and a trap for story lovers. Like a contemporary Shahrazad, Al-Shaykh has rendered 19 little masterpieces into a wondrously warm, ribald and hilarious concoction, reminding us of how bang up to date these stories can be.

If we might forget how central these tales are to our culture, Marina Warner’s wondrous Stranger Magic (Chatto & Windus) is a scholarly excursion around some of the stories, her mind as rich and fascinating as the stories themselves, taking us on a magic carpet from Borges and Goethe, to Edward Said and the movies.

In his magisterial What is Madness? (Hamish Hamilton), Darian Leader explains that the "irrational" delusions and hallucinations of the mad are their attempts at sense: a good story is a good symptom, and can make a life possible. As Virginia Woolf said: "The whole world is a work of art."

John Lanchester

Nicola Shulman, Graven with Diamonds

Non-fiction: I loved two very different books of criticism, Nicola Shulman’s beautifully lucid study of Thomas Wyatt, Graven with Diamonds (Short Books), and Owen Hatherley’s furiously pro-Modernist A Guide to the New Ruins of Britain (Verso). Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (Allen Lane) seems to me a genuinely important book. Fiction: A four-way tie between Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (Fourth Estate), Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists (Quercus), and Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding (Fourth Estate, January). Guilty pleasure: George RR Martin’s fantasy sequence A Song of Fire and Ice. I’m now on volume five, A Dance with Dragons (HarperVoyager), and fear the withdrawal symptoms when it’s finished.

Mark Lawson

Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot

Belatedly and deservedly, this was the year of Julian Barnes: winner of the Man Booker and the David Cohen prizes and shortlisted for the Costa – as close as a Leicester City fan will get to doing the triple. Although ideally, for literary posterity, Barnes’s mastery of the short form in The Sense of an Ending would have seen a Nadal-Federer showdown in the Booker finals with Alan Hollinghurst’s mastery of the long form in The Stranger’s Child. In a UK-US prize, they could also have slugged it out with The Marriage Plot (Fourth Estate), with which Jeffrey Eugenides again showed the benefits of taking almost a decade between books. Two great veterans of the suspense form made us glad that there’s no gold watch or golden handshake for novelists: PD James with Death Comes to Pemberley (Faber) and Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery (Harvill Secker). David Lodge wrote a fine novel in the form of a literary biography – anatomising HG Wells in A Man of Parts – and Jeanette Winterson an extraordinary tragic-comic literary autobiography: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Jonathan Cape).

David Lodge

Jennifer Egan, A Visit From the Goon Squad

Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad revived memories of the days, decades ago, when American fiction seemed so much more vital and innovative than our own. It is unusual in structure, presenting a number of stories, most of them about people in the music business, which seem to be freestanding but prove to have surprising connections with each other, and the style effortlessly hits its targets again and again. Raymond Tallis’s Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis, and the Misrepresentation of Humanity (Acumen) is a trenchant, lucid and witty attack on the reductive materialism of many scientific accounts of consciousness – not from a religious point of view, but that of an atheist humanist with a distinguished record in medicine and neuroscience. The book that gave me most pleasure, however, was one I bought in 2010 and didn’t get round to reading until this year. Philip Larkin’s Letters to Monica, edited by Anthony Thwaite (Faber), make a remarkable human document that is, by turns, bad-tempered, self-lacerating, tender, sad and irresistibly funny.

Robert Macfarlane

Philip Connors, Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout

Two books of fire and one of water: Philip Connors’s Fire Season (Picador), about his seasons spent as a fire-watcher in the Gila Wilderness; Jocelyn Brooke’s cracklingly bizarre The Military Orchid, a memoir-satire-nature-quest about orchids and home-made fireworks, first published in 1948, and just reissued in a beautiful edition by Little Toller Press; and Susie Parr’s The Story of Swimming (Dewi Lewis), a superbly illustrated cultural history of bathing – dipping, watering, wild swimming – in Britain. I also greatly admired Matthew Hollis’s biography of Edward Thomas, Now All Roads Lead to France (Faber), and was fascinated by much of the work gathered in Harriet Tarlo’s anthology of experimental landscape poetry, The Ground Aslant (Shearsman).

Hilary Mantel

Thomas Penn, Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England

Two history books written with flair and dash, both gripping and enjoyable, both filling gaps in the imagination. Thomas Penn’s Winter King is a lively and alarming study of the strange and ferocious Henry VII, the first Tudor king. Helen Castor’s She-Wolves (Faber) is subtitled The Women Who Ruled England before Elizabeth, and includes a fascinating study of Margaret of Anjou, who rages through Shakespeare’s history plays, dauntless and ferociously energetic, battling on behalf of her fragile husband Henry VI. Penn shows us how an instinctive Machiavellian with a feeble claim to kingship transformed himself into a despot and founded a dynasty. Castor shows how her heroines fought and flourished, despite the affront to the moral order represented by women on the battlefield and women on the throne.

Pankaj Mishra

Aravind Adiga, Last Man in Tower

In 15th-century Benares, the iconoclastic Indian poet Kabi inadvertently began one of the world’s oldest literary collaborative projects. The poems attributed to him have been enriched by the renderings of Ezra Pound and Czesław Miłosz as well as those of Rajasthan’s bard singers. A stylishly contemporary contribution to this work-in-progress is Songs of Kabir, the translations by the poet and essayist Arvind Krishna Mehrotra (NYRB Classics). Yu Hua’s China in Ten Words (Pantheon) offers something very rare: a boldly ironic, even caustic, perspective on Chinese society by a literary novelist still resident in China and privy to its innermost everyday tensions. Liberalism: A Counter-History by Domenico Losurdo (Verso) stimulatingly uncovers the contradictions of an ideology that is much too self-righteously invoked. I also enjoyed Aravind Adiga’s novel Last Man in Tower (Atlantic) and Gyan Prakash’s essay Mumbai Fables (Princeton) – both books set in Mumbai and exceptionally alert to the exuberance and malignity of the city’s gangsterish capitalism.

Lorrie Moore

Ta Obreht, Tea Obreht, The Tiger's Wife

I read two books that won prizes in the UK this year, Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife (Phoenix) and Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, and found them exquisitely written and deeply engaging. Obreht’s novel is written so authoritatively if obliquely, one of its themes being what it is to have once been on the right side of history and then find oneself later on the wrong, but the writing, sentence by sentence, is what really impresses. The same is true of The Sense of an Ending, with which in some ways it shares a theme.

Blake Morrison

Christopher Hitchens, Arguably

In his polemic Reality Hunger (Penguin), David Shields argues for the pleasures of the "lyric essay" – part-autobiographical, part-narrative, part-intellectual inquiry. Three collections of essays this year help his case. First, Caryl Phillips’s Colour Me English (Harvill Secker), which reflects on race, migration, Islamophobia and (in one scary essay) mountaineering, with telling passages on his upbringing in Leeds in the 1960s and arrival in New York round 9/11. Second, Tretower to Clyro, in which Karl Miller celebrates country themes (from lambs to foxes) and country writers (from John McGahern to Ted Hughes); there’s the bonus of a long preface by Andrew O’Hagan, describing journeys to the Celtic fringes that he and Miller took with Seamus Heaney. Third, Arguably by Christopher Hitchens (Atlantic), a selection from one of the great polemical journalists of our age and the ideal complement to his memoir of last year Hitch 22 (Atlantic).

The most chilling full-length work of non-fiction I read this year was Richard Lloyd Parry’s People Who Eat Darkness, about the murder of Lucie Blackman in Tokyo.

Patrick Ness

Ali Smith, There But For The

By far the best novel I read this year – and I read the entire Booker longlist out of increasingly perplexed curiosity – was Ali Smith’s There but for the. It’s smart, warm, experimental, and surprisingly moving; I’m dismayed it hasn’t received more recognition. Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, on the other hand, has taken numerous awards, but deserves every one. It’s the first book in a long time that made me jealous. And for adults, for teenagers, for anyone at all, Mal Peet’s Life: An Exploded Diagram (Walker Books) must be sought out. Concerning the pursuit of virginity loss in 1960s Norfolk against the background of the Cuban missile crisis, it’s fresh, vital and with an ending that still stuns, 11 months after I read it.

David Nicholls

Jennifer Egan, A Visit From the Goon Squad

Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad managed to be both inventive and hugely entertaining, and I also enjoyed Edward St Aubyn’s At Last, the final instalment of the consistently excellent Patrick Melrose series. Read them all, now. Stewart Lee’s How I Escaped My Certain Fate (Faber) restored at least a little of my faith in stand-up comedy, and two current reads are late additions to the list of favourites; Claire Tomalin’s admirably brisk and entertaining Dickens biography and Craig Taylor’s Londoners (Granta)an epic portrait in eighty voices that shows the city to be just as … well … Dickensian as it has ever been.

Jeremy Paxman

Jamil Ahmad, The Wandering Falcon

The most memorable fiction I read this year was Jamil Ahmad’s The Wandering Falcon (Hamish Hamilton), a series of loosely connected stories set on the frontiers of Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. The author was nearly 80 before his book was published, having spent his working life among the tribes of Balochistan, whose stories he obviously absorbed over the years. In this captivating book you can feel them blow off the page like dry desert air.

Steven Pinker

Matthew White, Atrocitology: Humanity's 100 Deadliest Achievements

Roy F Baumeister and John Tierney, Willpower (Allen Lane). The counterculture was wrong: your problem is not that you’re uptight and repressed and should let it all hang out, but that you’re profligate and impulsive and need to bulk up your self-control. Baumeister’s ingenious experiments, enlivened with Tierney’s vignettes from history and technology, show you how. Joshua S Goldstein, Winning the War on War (Dutton); John Mueller, War and Ideas (Routledge); Andrew Mack, Human Security Report 2009/2010 (OUP USA). Believe it or not, war is going out of style, according to these updates from some of the sources I used in my own recent book. Matthew White, Atrocitology (Canongate). A serious book, written with a light touch, on the hundred worst things humans have done to each other (that we know of). Erica Chenoweth and Maria J Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works (Columbia). Gandhi was right, not just morally but empirically: nonviolent resistance is three times more effective than violence.

Craig Raine

Alice Oswald, Memorial

In Alice Oswald’s Homer (Memorial, Faber), the nameless are named. Oswald has excised the main Homeric narrative – Achilles, Patroclus, Agamemnon, Helen, Paris. True, Hector gets a mention, but only to say that he, too, died like the little people, the bit-players who bite the dust. Homer’s brief lives: "Euphorbus died / Leaving his silver hairclip on the battlefield." Oswald shares with Christopher Logue fearless anachronism – Oswald’s Hector, "Like a man rushing in leaving his motorbike running" – but Memorial, though good, isn’t a patch on Logue’s Homer. A better editor would have dissuaded her from monotonously repeating her epic similes. Towards the end, there are 10 unrepeated similes. So the final, 11th simile, which closes the poem, is the more forceful for being repeated – like a closing, extended chord. And it is brilliant in its own right: a shooting star as a "whip of stars". Memorial has 15 or so perfect touches that show Oswald to be a considerable poet: for example "flower-lit cliffs", "the darkness hit him with a dull clang", the sea "just lifted and flattened lifted and flattened", "fire with its loose hair flying rushes through a city".

Kamila Shamsie

Michael Ondaatje, The Cat's Table

It’s impossible to explain through any discussion of plot and character the hypnotic brilliance of Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table (Jonathan Cape). The joy of boyhood and the darkness at its edges are conveyed in scenes of extraordinary imagination – boys lashed to a deck in a storm, a dog biting down on the throat of a man, a girl skating across the deck of a ship in the early morning, a prisoner in chains walking its length at night. It is entirely … well, Ondaatje-esque.

Helen Simpson

Yiyun Li, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl

Among the best collections of short stories I’ve read this year is Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (Pocket Books), where the form is used to explore character in a way I haven’t seen done before, examining the heroine from story to story via different viewpoints and time perspectives. Yiyun Li’s Gold Boy, Emerald Girl (Fourth Estate) tells sad, graceful stories of love and savage loneliness, beginning with the haunting almost-novella-length "Kindness". The title story of Margaret Drabble‘s A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman (Penguin Classic) is worth the cover price alone. After several novels Sarah Hall has this year published The Beautiful Indifference (Faber), seven skilfully adrenalised stories, precise and sensual, in which the scent of violence is a constant. And from half a century ago comes Vasily Grossman’s The Road (Quercus), whose title story can be read as a 4,000-word distillation of his epic novel Life and Fate (Vintage), written the year following the confiscation of that novel’s typescript by the Soviet authorities.

Ahdaf Soueif

I’m delighted to see Selma Dabbagh’s book Out of It published (Bloomsbury). Driven, fast-paced, edgy, this is Dabbagh’s first novel – although she’s written excellent short stories. A narrative of Gaza, it brings a very welcome new voice and a new consciousness to the Palestinian story.

Amjad Naser’s Haythu la Tasqut al-Amtar, or Where the Rain doesn’t Fall (Dar al-Adab, Beirut), is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Naser is an inspired poet and this work takes the precision and economy of his language into prose narrative for the first time. Gentle, sad, hopeful – a poet writing prose at his mature best. Watch out for the English translation. I’m reading Chris Harman’s A People’s History of the World (Verso). It’s really helpful to zoom out from time to time when you’re living massive events at very close quarters.

For bilingual readers I cannot end without mentioning Tamim al-Barghouti and Amin Haddad’s poems born of the Egyptian revolution – even though they are as yet uncollected. These were the poems that were read and sung in Tahrir Square and the other public spaces of Egypt. They still keep us going.

Colm Tóibín

Joan Didion, Blue Nights

Three books by literary stylists which dealt with grief and loss raised fascinating questions about style and tone and storytelling under fierce pressure. I found all three books affecting and disturbing. One was Joan Didion’s Blue Nights (Fourth Estate), which is even more raw and filled with loss than her previous memoir; the second is Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name (Grove Press), a masterpiece of storytelling and scene-setting; the third is Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s Heavenly Questions (Bloodaxe), poems with her customary eloquence and gravity now filled with shock and hurt, certainly the most beautiful work she has made. In the meantime, Jeffrey Eugenides and Alan Hollinghurst produced two supremely confident novels; their ambiguous versions of destiny and desire in The Marriage Plot and The Stranger’s Child made me laugh at certain moments and sit up and shiver at others.

Rose Tremain

Andrew Miller, Pure

Two historical novels achieve quiet distinction this year: Andrew Miller’s Pure (Sceptre) and Barry Unsworth’s The Quality of Mercy (Hutchinson). While Miller’s prose is poetic and impressionistic, Unsworth’s is formal and dense, yet both novels unfold highly dramatic stories in a measured and unfussy way. Pure gives to a young engineer, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, the gruesome task of digging up and carting away the mountains of the dead who lie in the Cemetery of Les Innocents in Paris in 1785, polluting its surrounding air and water. Over Baratte’s terrible enterprise lies the shadow of the coming revolution, thus giving to Miller’s vivid images of "purification" a fine historical ambiguity. Unsworth’s novel, picking up the story of the 18th century slave-ship mutiny told in Sacred Hunger, has Erasmus Kemp, son of the disgraced ship owner, trying to bring the mutineers to trial in England, but finding himself thwarted not only by one slippery fugitive, but also by his own conscience, made suddenly manifest to him by his love for the reforming sister of a liberal lawyer. Both books are notable for their subtle meditations on kindness and compassion.

Jeanette Winterson

Carol Ann Duffy, The Bees

Carol Ann Duffy, The Bees (Picador). Take one line, "What will you do with the gift of your left life?" Beautiful and moving poetry for the real world.

Ali Smith, There but for the. What would you do if an uninvited guest locked himself in the bathroom and refused to come out? She writes so well, distinctive, a bit crazy, compelling in the way that language should be, with surprises everywhere.

Darian Leader, What Is Madness? Our madness-measure is always changing. This is a thought-provoking book about how we diagnose and differentiate our many kinds of insanities. In spite of the Freud/Lacan obsession with the phallus as a central psychic symbol (oy vey), this is a book posing necessary questions and offering genuine insights.

Leo Hollis, The Stones of London: A History in Twelve Buildings (Weidenfeld & Nicolson). A clever tour through London’s long life using her built architecture and the stories found there. From Westminster Abbey through Regent Street and Wembley Stadium to the Gherkin. Absorbing and enjoyable.
• Compiled by Ginny Hooker.

• To order books mentioned, with free UK p&p, call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to

• What have you enjoyed reading in the past 12 months? Send us your recommendations (including details of the publisher) in no more than 150 words, by email to or write to us at Readers’ Books of the Year, Review, The Guardian, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU, to arrive no later than Sunday 11 December. We would most like to hear about recent titles. Please include a postal address and telephone number or email address. We will publish a selection of your choices in the paper and on the website – or join the books of the year debate here



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KV Pattom Annual Day 2011: Images

KV Pattom (Shift-I): 21 December 2011

(click to enlarge to get print quality images)



Inauguration: Shri Venugopal P. Nair IPS ADGP(Admn)




Annual Report: Shri C.P.Kumaran, Principal


Keynote address: Shri Venugopal P Nair IPS, ADGP (Admn)

































KV Pattom (Shift-II): 20 December 2011




Inauguration: Dr. D. Babu Paul IAS, Additional Chief Secretary (Rtd)


Annual Report: Shri C.P.Kumaran, Principal


Keynote address: Dr. D. Babu Paul IAS, Additional Chief Secretary (Rtd)









































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KVS Prayer (Daya kar daan vidya ka ….)

Click to download

Daya kar daan vidya ka hame parmatma dena

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“Sarmada”: The Essential Novel of the Syrian Spring Read more




Fadi Azzam

Last summer, as the Arab Spring protests in Libya and Egypt were in full swing, a sector of the literary world was abuzz with hopes about Arabic literature. Words Without Borders, a literary magazine with an international focus, dedicated two issues to the literature coming out of the turbulence. The Moroccan novelist Ben Taher Jelloun, who published a collection of essays about the Arab Spring, predicted that there would be a creative boom in the countries whose citizens now enjoyed greater freedom.

So it’s both surprising and fitting that an author from Syria, a country where the protests haven’t been successful, has written the gem of the Arabic literature of dissent. Fadi Azzam, a journalist who has been exiled in Dubai since 2001, has published a book “Sarmada,” which is in the running for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction.

Azzam’s book is ambitious for a début novel, and it wasn’t shocking to learn that his editor and mentor was one of the most celebrated Syrian novelists in exile, Rafik Schami. Last year, Schami was looking for a novel for Swallow Editions, a new literary series devoted to publishing Arabic-language novels by young writers and translating them into English. Schami’s books are banned in Syria, and he wanted to build a literary platform that would completely circumvent the Arab publishing world, which he believes is overly influenced by the government and oil sheiks, and is full of publishers that “have never heard of an author’s dignity.” His motto for the series would eventually become “free of oil, tedium, and dictatorship.”

The story of “Sarmada” traces the lives of three Druze women living in an isolated town in the Syrian hills—not, at first glance, the stuff of political literature. The book isn’t narrowly political and doesn’t paint a portrait of the uprisings themselves. Instead, it gives us something much more valuable: a detailed view of the entire mechanism of a culture—its connection to the land, its way of telling stories, and its idiosyncrasies.

Azzam eases us into “Sarmada” with a familiar setting—Paris in 2010—and a narrator named Rafi, whom we feel we have met before in many of our own modern novels: he’s cosmopolitan, skeptical, intrusive, a reporter. But right away his skepticism is put to the test when a woman scientist tells him that she has the soul of another woman from Sarmada, his hometown, living inside of her. This woman was brutally murdered by her brothers. Here, the narrator explains how transmigration in the Druze religion “gives the community a feeling of blood purity and unadulterated lineage because Druze souls only ever transmigrate into Druze bodies.” This is the first clue that the story won’t continue in a realistic vein. Yet the narrator’s view is still aligned with our own: “Not once in my life had I ever given the topic the slightest thought. I just considered it to be one of the many charming religious spectacles that Syria takes such pleasure in.” Still, when the woman asks him to return to Sarmada to investigate the killing, he agrees to go and listen to the townspeople’s stories.

When the setting moves to Sarmada, Azzam lets loose. While the story of Hela, the woman living inside of the scientist, is still told with the narrator’s distrustful eye and realist perspective, it soon melts into the tale of a second woman. The voice of the narrator retreats after he tells us, “I’d better disappear and let the place tell its own story. I’ll watch from a distance, silent but with every sense piqued.” Then, as if the story just couldn’t be told straight and still evoke the land, religion, and local lore of the town, the entire world of the novel shifts from realism to magical realism.

Channeling Marquez and Borges, Azzam winds the plot audaciously, bringing the story to highly surreal and disquieting places. The second story begins with an act of senseless violence: at the wedding of a townsperson to the main character of the story, Farida, a stray bullet fired in celebration ends up in the groom’s chest, killing him. As the man’s mother grieves for her son, her breasts begin to swell up with a substance called grief milk. One morning, the man’s widow Farida has a mystical dream, and when she wakes up, she walks over to her mother-in-law and slits her breasts with a razor, pouring the spurting grief milk into several bottles. Later she uses it in sweets, and feeds them to the villagers, who are all suffering from a curse of melancholia after the death of the woman’s son. Upon eating the desserts, they writhe and cry for hours before experiencing catharsis and a sense of peace. Later, in some of the graphic sex scenes that caused Azzam’s first translator to pull out of the project, she feeds the sweets to teen-age boys in her home before taking their virginities.

The story only gets more bizarre from there, but it remains rooted in the topography of the mountainous terrain and the history and culture of the Druze village. Through a conversation early in the book that the narrator has with an old man in the village, Azzam gives us justification of the book’s surrealist elements. The narrator has just responded with incredulity to the man’s claim that soon after the death of Farida’s first husband, her second husband dies in bed on their wedding night. The old man scolds him, saying, “You know, a little emotion can melt away cold reason. If you just listen and pay attention, you’ll discover how ridiculous death is, how cheap. Why would I lie?” Of course, the narrator and the old man both know the answer: he would lie because lying is sometimes the only way to express a larger truth or ask a difficult question—an old trope from oral storytelling.

Under repressive regimes, truths and hard questions are entangled with politics: Syria’s turbulent, violent history under French colonial rule and the Ba’ath Party is at the core of this otherworldly story, but surfaces only at rare, glimmering points in the narration. These large-scale political and historical events that at first seem external to the insular world of the village are absorbed and accepted into the consciousness of the characters through Azzam’s surreal devices. The beginning of Farida’s story is set shortly after the Six Day War, when “the people of Sarmada were living with a shooting pain that seemed to burn at something inside of them.” We soon understand that the violent, absurd act at the beginning of the story is a parallel to the war, and in the magical-realism realm the villagers’ pain takes a material form in the concept of grief milk. Through this and similar strange contrivances, Azzam develops the central dilemma of the book: how the member of a small, geographically concentrated sect can reconcile the effects of modern Syrian and Arab conflicts—often involving rarefied concepts like Pan-Arabism—with the traditional beliefs and culture of their community.

The world of Azzam’s Druze characters is small and seemingly not representative of Syria as a whole, considering the Druze make up only three per cent of the country’s population. But Syria’s political situation—and arguably more than a few other conflicts in the rest of the Arab world—is tied up in the struggles of minority sects like the Druze, of the people in villages like Sarmada. A fact that is central to the past rhetoric of Bashar Assad is that he belongs to the Alawite sect and supposedly protects the interests of Syria’s minority groups. Now, as the U.S. and Turkey discuss the possibility of civil war in Syria between the sects should Assad be overthrown, the major question of Azzam’s book is politically imperative. The struggle of the Syrian citizen to come to terms with the history and political truths of Syria and the interests and beliefs of his or her sect is at the heart of the story of how Syria will forge a national identity, and how any future government will achieve legitimacy. So while “Sarmada” may not be full of the immediate thrills of riots or protests, it’s politically meaningful. The novel’s gaze reaches toward an understanding of what Syria will need to grapple with in order to bring about a true Syrian Spring.


Reviewed by Alexia Nader


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10 Solutions for Climate Change

The enormity of global warming can be daunting and dispiriting. What can one person, or even one nation, do on their own to slow and reverse climate change? But just as ecologist Stephen Pacala and physicist Robert Socolow, both at Princeton University, came up with 15 so-called "wedges" for nations to utilize toward this goal—each of which is challenging but feasible and, in some combination, could reduce greenhouse gas emissions to safer levels—there are personal lifestyle changes that you can make too that, in some combination, can help reduce your carbon impact. Not all are right for everybody. Some you may already be doing or absolutely abhor. But implementing just a few of them could make a difference.

Forego Fossil Fuels—The first challenge is eliminating the burning of coal, oil and, eventually, natural gas. This is perhaps the most daunting challenge as denizens of richer nations literally eat, wear, work, play and even sleep on the products made from such fossilized sunshine. And citizens of developing nations want and arguably deserve the same comforts, which are largely thanks to the energy stored in such fuels.

Oil is the lubricant of the global economy, hidden inside such ubiquitous items as plastic and corn, and fundamental to the transportation of both consumers and goods. Coal is the substrate, supplying roughly half of the electricity used in the U.S. and nearly that much worldwide—a percentage that is likely to grow, according to the International Energy Agency. There are no perfect solutions for reducing dependence on fossil fuels (for example, carbon neutral biofuels can drive up the price of food and lead to forest destruction, and while nuclear power does not emit greenhouse gases, it does produce radioactive waste), but every bit counts.

So try to employ alternatives when possible—plant-derived plastics, biodiesel, wind power—and to invest in the change, be it by divesting from oil stocks or investing in companies practicing carbon capture and storage.

Infrastructure Upgrade—Buildings worldwide contribute around one third of all greenhouse gas emissions (43 percent in the U.S. alone), even though investing in thicker insulation and other cost-effective, temperature-regulating steps can save money in the long run. Electric grids are at capacity or overloaded, but power demands continue to rise. And bad roads can lower the fuel economy of even the most efficient vehicle. Investing in new infrastructure, or radically upgrading existing highways and transmission lines, would help cut greenhouse gas emissions and drive economic growth in developing countries.

Of course, it takes a lot of cement, a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, to construct new buildings and roads. The U.S. alone contributed 50.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere in 2005 from cement production, which requires heating limestone and other ingredients to 1,450 degrees Celsius (2,642 degrees Fahrenheit). Mining copper and other elements needed for electrical wiring and transmission also causes globe-warming pollution.

But energy-efficient buildings and improved cement-making processes (such as using alternative fuels to fire up the kiln) could reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the developed world and prevent them in the developing world.

Move Closer to WorkTransportation is the second leading source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. (burning a single gallon of gasoline produces 20 pounds of CO2). But it doesn’t have to be that way.

One way to dramatically curtail transportation fuel needs is to move closer to work, use mass transit, or switch to walking, cycling or some other mode of transport that does not require anything other than human energy. There is also the option of working from home and telecommuting several days a week.

Cutting down on long-distance travel would also help, most notably airplane flights, which are one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions and a source that arguably releases such emissions in the worst possible spot (higher in the atmosphere). Flights are also one of the few sources of globe-warming pollution for which there isn’t already a viable alternative: jets rely on kerosene, because it packs the most energy per pound, allowing them to travel far and fast, yet it takes roughly 10 gallons of oil to make one gallon of JetA fuel. Restricting flying to only critical, long-distance trips—in many parts of the world, trains can replace planes for short- to medium-distance trips—would help curb airplane emissions.

Consume Less—The easiest way to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions is simply to buy less stuff. Whether by forgoing an automobile or employing a reusable grocery sack, cutting back on consumption results in fewer fossil fuels being burned to extract, produce and ship products around the globe.

Think green when making purchases. For instance, if you are in the market for a new car, buy one that will last the longest and have the least impact on the environment. Thus, a used vehicle with a hybrid engine offers superior fuel efficiency over the long haul while saving the environmental impact of new car manufacture.

Paradoxically, when purchasing essentials, such as groceries, buying in bulk can reduce the amount of packaging—plastic wrapping, cardboard boxes and other unnecessary materials. Sometimes buying more means consuming less.

Be Efficient—A potentially simpler and even bigger impact can be made by doing more with less. Citizens of many developed countries are profligate wasters of energy, whether by speeding in a gas-guzzling sport-utility vehicle or leaving the lights on when not in a room.

Good driving—and good car maintenance, such as making sure tires are properly inflated—can limit the amount of greenhouse gas emissions from a vehicle and, perhaps more importantly, lower the frequency of payment at the pump.

Similarly, employing more efficient refrigerators, air conditioners and other appliances, such as those rated highly under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program, can cut electric bills while something as simple as weatherproofing the windows of a home can reduce heating and cooling bills. Such efforts can also be usefully employed at work, whether that means installing more efficient turbines at the power plant or turning the lights off when you leave the office.

Eat Smart, Go Vegetarian?—Corn grown in the U.S. requires barrels of oil for the fertilizer to grow it and the diesel fuel to harvest and transport it. Some grocery stores stock organic produce that do not require such fertilizers, but it is often shipped from halfway across the globe. And meat, whether beef, chicken or pork, requires pounds of feed to produce a pound of protein.

Choosing food items that balance nutrition, taste and ecological impact is no easy task. Foodstuffs often bear some nutritional information, but there is little to reveal how far a head of lettuce, for example, has traveled.

University of Chicago researchers estimate that each meat-eating American produces 1.5 tons more greenhouse gases through their food choice than do their vegetarian peers. It would also take far less land to grow the crops necessary to feed humans than livestock, allowing more room for planting trees.

Stop Cutting Down Trees—Every year, 33 million acres of forests are cut down. Timber harvesting in the tropics alone contributes 1.5 billion metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere. That represents 20 percent of human-made greenhouse gas emissions and a source that could be avoided relatively easily.

Improved agricultural practices along with paper recycling and forest management—balancing the amount of wood taken out with the amount of new trees growing—could quickly eliminate this significant chunk of emissions.

And when purchasing wood products, such as furniture or flooring, buy used goods or, failing that, wood certified to have been sustainably harvested. The Amazon and other forests are not just the lungs of the earth, they may also be humanity’s best short-term hope for limiting climate change.

Unplug—Believe it or not, U.S. citizens spend more money on electricity to power devices when off than when on. Televisions, stereo equipment, computers, battery chargers and a host of other gadgets and appliances consume more energy when seemingly switched off, so unplug them instead.

Purchasing energy-efficient gadgets can also save both energy and money—and thus prevent more greenhouse gas emissions. To take but one example, efficient battery chargers could save more than one billion kilowatt-hours of electricity—$100 million at today’s electricity prices—and thus prevent the release of more than one million metric tons of greenhouse gases.

Swapping old incandescent lightbulbs for more efficient replacements, such as compact fluorescents (warning: these lightbulbs contain mercury and must be properly disposed of at the end of their long life), would save billions of kilowatt-hours. In fact, according to the EPA, replacing just one incandescent lightbulb in every American home would save enough energy to provide electricity to three million American homes.

One Child—There are at least 6.6 billion people living today, a number that is predicted by the United Nations to grow to at least nine billion by mid-century. The U.N. Environmental Program estimates that it requires 54 acres to sustain an average human being today—food, clothing and other resources extracted from the planet. Continuing such population growth seems unsustainable.

Falling birth rates in some developed and developing countries (a significant portion of which are due to government-imposed limits on the number of children a couple can have) have begun to reduce or reverse the population explosion. It remains unclear how many people the planet can comfortably sustain, but it is clear that per capita energy consumption must go down if climate change is to be controlled.

Ultimately, a one child per couple rule is not sustainable either and there is no perfect number for human population. But it is clear that more humans means more greenhouse gas emissions.

Future Fuels—Replacing fossil fuels may prove the great challenge of the 21st century. Many contenders exist, ranging from ethanol derived from crops to hydrogen electrolyzed out of water, but all of them have some drawbacks, too, and none are immediately available at the scale needed.

Biofuels can have a host of negative impacts, from driving up food prices to sucking up more energy than they produce. Hydrogen must be created, requiring either reforming natural gas or electricity to crack water molecules. Biodiesel hybrid electric vehicles (that can plug into the grid overnight) may offer the best transportation solution in the short term, given the energy density of diesel and the carbon neutral ramifications of fuel from plants as well as the emissions of electric engines. A recent study found that the present amount of electricity generation in the U.S. could provide enough energy for the country’s entire fleet of automobiles to switch to plug-in hybrids, reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the process.

But plug-in hybrids would still rely on electricity, now predominantly generated by burning dirty coal. Massive investment in low-emission energy generation, whether solar-thermal power or nuclear fission, would be required to radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And even more speculative energy sources—hyperefficient photovoltaic cells, solar energy stations in orbit or even fusion—may ultimately be required.

The solutions above offer the outline of a plan to personally avoid contributing to global warming. But should such individual and national efforts fail, there is another, potentially desperate solution:

Experiment Earth—Climate change represents humanity’s first planetwide experiment. But, if all else fails, it may not be the last. So-called geoengineering, radical interventions to either block sunlight or reduce greenhouse gases, is a potential last resort for addressing the challenge of climate change.

Among the ideas: releasing sulfate particles in the air to mimic the cooling effects of a massive volcanic eruption; placing millions of small mirrors or lenses in space to deflect sunlight; covering portions of the planet with reflective films to bounce sunlight back into space; fertilizing the oceans with iron or other nutrients to enable plankton to absorb more carbon; and increasing cloud cover or the reflectivity of clouds that already form.

All may have unintended consequences, making the solution worse than the original problem. But it is clear that at least some form of geoengineering will likely be required: capturing carbon dioxide before it is released and storing it in some fashion, either deep beneath the earth, at the bottom of the ocean or in carbonate minerals. Such carbon capture and storage is critical to any serious effort to combat climate change.

Additional reporting by Larry Greenemeier and Nikhil Swaminathan.


By David Biello  | November 26, 2007

Courtesy: Scientific American,

Filed under: Article of the Week,

World Book Night 2012, Top 100 Popular Books

For World Book Night 2012 we want to find out about the nation’s favourite books. We’re compiling the top 10s of thousands of readers to see what books people love to read, share and give. Below is an ever changing top 100 which will ultimately inform the 25 books chosen for World Book Night 2012. Why not see if your favourites are here and, if you haven’t already, tell us your top 10 and share your favourite books with thousands of others.

Click on a book’s cover to see reasons people have given for choosing it and to choose it yourself without needing to go through the search page.

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