It’s time for my traditional roundup of the books I wish I’d read this year. It was a brilliant literary year, packed with exciting new publications that I really wish I’d got around to reading. Right now, in my in-tray are new books about Joseph Beuys and Ian Hamilton Finlay – although, to be precise, the Beuys book, “Coyote” (Thames and Hudson), is a lovely-looking reprint of a photo-diary originally published in the 1970s by Caroline Tisdall of the great shaman’s encounter with a live coyote in a New York art gallery. The nice thing about picture books is that you can enjoy them without actually having to read them, and I like the look of this one. But will I give it close study? Only time will tell.

Art books this year have also included – so I gather – a magisterial essay by the great American critic Michael Fried on why photography matters as art, as never before. It is actually called Why Photography Matters As Art As Never Before. This title is a gift to the would-be reader of all the latest books. Even without seeing a copy in a bookshop, let alone reading it, I know that Fried is saying something provocative – at least, it is provocative if you are at all familiar with Michael Fried’s previous books.

In the 1960s, Fried published a controversial attack on the then-new style of minimalism. The art of Donald Judd and Carl Andre, he argued, is “theatrical” – meaning that it adopts a highly self-conscious relationship with the beholder. It performs, preciously. Great art, by implication, is anti-theatrical and ignores the beholder. This critique is still immediately recognisable as a description of much of the art of today. But Fried went on to pursue his theory across centuries of art history.

In a series of brilliant books that began with “Absorption and Theatricality”, on art and the beholder in eighteenth century France, he has pursued his theme through the art of Gustave Courbet, Édouard Manet and Thomas Eakins. He has been caricatured as a conservative. But now here he is, discerning anti-theatrical virtue in the camera-based art of Jeff Wall and Douglas Gordon. Sounds fascinating.

The book I most regret not having read this year is Richard Fortey’s Dry Store Room No 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum. I love Fortey’s books and I love the Natural History Museum. Not only is it London’s loveliest and most rambling Victorian knowledge emporium, and the most marvellous place on earth to introduce a child to science, but it is a vital research centre whose staff include both Fortey and the authority on human evolution Chris Stringer. The strength of Fortey as a popular science writer (his previous books include Life, The Earth, and Trilobite!) is that he is a real writer. His prose is playful, seductive, digressive and literate.

Fortey communicates science’s subtle pleasures. In his field of paleontology, he is constantly pushing the reader away from dinosaurs towards tiny arthropods and obscure anatomies. To let this rambling poet of a science writer loose on the Natural History Museum seems a recipe for a truly magical book.

Jonathan Jones
Guardian Unlimited