Favourites of 2013: Books

January 3, 2014

As the pace of my life has accelerated and my hours of sleep have dwindled in recent years, I have become a little more exacting about the books I admit to my reading queue. At the beginning of 2013 I drew up a list of about thirty titles that I intended to read over the course of the year. Looking at that list again today, I see that I only half-succeeded. Well, at least I have a good start on my list for 2014.

Part of the reason for my slow progress was that I decided, mid-year, to ease up on my explorations of that vast ocean of “Books I Have Not Read.” I paused, took a deep breath, and went back to re-read some things that I had enjoyed on first acquaintance and always meant to return to. This was a good practice, and I am planning to continue it in the new year.

Among the books I did read this year, a few stood out as being particularly good.

Non-fiction

taruskin_3DCCOxford History of Western Music, Vol.V
Richard Taruskin [2005]

Let this final volume in Taruskin’s massive, and massively enjoyable, history stand in for the whole set, which I read in its entirety over the last few years. It is an amazing tour de force of historical and critical exposition, plump with enlightening remarks and (for the most part) accessible discussion of musical developments over the past thousand years of western culture. Taruskin is reputedly one of the world’s foremost musicologists, and in these volumes he has given music lovers an invaluable gift. A treasure. [Book Note]

Into the Silent Landlaird
Martin Laird [2006]

There are many books available about Christian contemplative prayer, and I have read a few over the years. This may be the best one that has come my way, not so much for sheer profundity, but for the way it strikes a nice balance between profundity and accessibility. Laird writes with a gentle authority which seems rooted in personal experience, and with sensitivity to the impediments which the beginner can expect to encounter. I found it an instructive and edifying book. [Book Note]

wildThe Tumbler of God: Chesterton as Mystic
Robert Wild [2013]

I intend to write more about this book in the coming weeks, but I can make some brief comments here. Many books have been written about Chesterton, but Fr. Wild attempts something that I have not seen before: to describe the basic contours of Chesterton’s spiritual life. Fr. Wild argues that Chesterton is a kind of mystic, gifted with a special awareness of what he calls ‘the thereness-of-being-coming-forth’ — that is, an habitual apprehension of the contingency of creation and its dependence on God’s creative power for its continued existence. The argument is developed carefully and persuasively, drawing on a wide range of Chesterton’s writings. He goes on to argue not only that Chesterton lived this “Creator mysticism,” but that he had it in virtue of a special divine grace. That is harder to demonstrate, but the whole line of argument will surely be of special interest to the Bishop of Northampton. A stimulating read.

Fiction

Doctor FaustusDoctor Faustus
Thomas Mann [1947]

It had been about ten years since I last read this wonderful novel; I am so glad that I took the time to revisit it. It is, of course, Mann’s modernized rendering of the Faust myth. The central character, Adrian Leverkuhn, is a composer who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for a lifetime of creative genius and worldwide acclaim. I do not know why this book is not more widely read and more lavishly praised; few twentieth-century novels are its superior. Mann’s writing is superb: elegant, elaborate, and precise, with a charming loquacity that never wears out its welcome. It poses as a memoir written during the Second World War by Adrian’s childhood friend, and the events of Adrian’s life parallel Germany’s ill-starred bid for power under Hitler. But it would be crude to reduce the book to a political allegory: at its heart it is, I believe, a meditation on creativity and the sources and costs of artistic genius. The supernatural elements of the tale are handled deftly and with considerable subtlety: we are left in some doubt as to whether Adrian in fact encountered the devil or whether his genius and his eventual madness are together rooted in a physical malady, albeit one with a moral aspect. The book is a treat for music lovers too, as it contains some of the finest literary prose about music that I have ever encountered; the section on Beethoven’s last piano sonata is especially transporting. It is a great book from start to finish.

quest-holy-grailThe Quest of the Holy Grail
Anonymous [c.1225]

This year I devoted quite a lot of time to reading Thomas Malory’s Arthurian tales, most of them in the Middle English of Caxton’s original printing. In the course of doing so, I revisited this story about the adventures of Gawain, Lancelot, Galahad, and others as they search for the Holy Grail. For me this story, of all those in the Le Morte d’Arthur cycle (that I have so far read), is the most resonant and moving. It seems to me that, simply because of the nature of the story it is telling, it can be naturally interpreted as both a rousing adventure tale and as an allegory of the Christian soul’s quest for Christ. More effectively than in The Pilgrim’s Progress (which is so dourly moralistic), this story informs the inner life of prayer and devotion with magnanimity, gallantry, and the other splendid virtues of the Arthurian moral universe. It is a truly magnificent book.

Paradise Lostmilton-paradise-lost
John Milton [1674]

Speaking of dour — well, that’s not a fair way to begin, and “dour” is not quite the right word. Maclin Horton reminded me of Dr. Johnson’s comment about Paradise Lost: “None ever wished it longer than it is”, and while I admit that I cannot help smiling with recognition at the truth of that, I will also confess that there were many points at which I was truly carried away, spell-bound, by the power of Milton’s poetry. His reputation as a stern taskmaster is not the whole story. He is perhaps hard to love, but he has my respect. And we English speakers are not so richly blessed with epic poems of genius that we can afford to be cavalier toward this one. Much has been made of the alleged attractiveness of Milton’s Satan; when I first read the poem some years ago I was willing to go along with it, but this time I was less convinced; Satan may be the most characterful figure in the story (and he is certainly far less problematic than Milton’s disastrous God character), but I did not find him remotely seductive.

As I read the poem, I leaned on two sources to help me better understand and appreciate it: Yale’s “Open Courses” lectures on Milton, and C.S. Lewis’ A Preface to Paradise Lost. On balance, I do not recommend the former: the lecturer is so intent on discovering subtle and unexpected meanings that he routinely overlooks the obvious and evident (and sometimes opposite) meanings, and he too often exhibits what C.S. Lewis calls the “touching innocence” of critics who believe the claims of the father of lies; Satan’s absurd claim, for instance, that because he cannot remember his own creation he might — who can say? — be self-created is treated in these lectures as a kind of provoking paradox ripe with subversive wisdom. On the other hand, there was a very interesting discussion of how Milton, in his descriptions of pre-lapsarian Eden, uses words in such a way as to restore to them morally neutral meanings (for example, “error” is used to describe the wandering course of a river rather than a moral fault); that sort of thing I find fascinating. Lewis’ book, for its part, is outstanding; it’s an indispensable companion piece in my view, loaded with good sense and helpful background.

Children’s Books

toms midnightTom’s Midnight Garden
Philippa Pearce [1958]

We read a lot of books with the kids; given their ages, these are mostly picture books short enough to get through at bedtime. But I have also been making an effort to “scout ahead,” reading a few popular children’s books that they might be ready for in 5 or 10 years. Thus it was that I came to Philippa Pearce’s magical little novel about a boy’s nocturnal adventures in a mysterious garden behind the London house he is visiting. The story has its secrets to disclose — I guessed the general shape of them fairly early on — but for me the attraction of the book is not so much in the story as the atmosphere: the book has a dreamy, hushed quality that has lingered long in my memory. Perhaps it would be an unusually sensitive child who would apprehend that tonal dimension, but my general rule is to give the children books that have more in them than they know. As such, Tom’s Midnight Garden is for keeps.

The Tale of DespereauxTale_of_Despereaux
Kate DiCamillo [2003]

We like Kate DiCamillo for her “Bink and Gollie” book, so I thought it would be fun to try this novel about a valiant little mouse who saves a princess. We actually read the whole book to our four-year old, and she followed it all the way through. There were some thematic elements early on that made me wary — tiresome tropes about rejecting the traditions one inherits and embracing one’s unique inner mouse — but of course whether that is objectionable depends very much on what is being rejected and what is being embraced, and in the end I was won over. Despereaux, with his large ears and wide eyes, is a splendid little hero. DiCamillo sets him apart from his kind by making him especially attentive to beauty, and it is his love of beauty that ennobles him and opens up for him a world that his friends and relations do not perceive or understand. This seems an unusually terrific premise for a children’s book. The writing is lively and clear, with strong but not simplistic characters. I’ve heard that there’s a film version of the book, but I’ve also heard that it’s not very good. The book, by that measure, is better.

adventures-tom-sawyer-mark-twain-paperback-cover-artTom Sawyer
Mark Twain [1876]

Would you believe that prior to taking up Tom Sawyer I had never read anything by Mark Twain? For some reason I had assumed that he was a hack, writing “exciting” adventure stories without much substance to them. I got a fitting comeuppance. It is true that the book is fairly episodic, but when the episodes are this entertaining I can hardly complain. I did not read a funnier book all year, but I love the book chiefly for its wide-eyed evocation of boyhood: granting that Tom is unusually adventurous and mischievous and exaggerated for comic effect (few boys of his time, I imagine, played at Robinson Crusoe long enough to make an appearance at their own funerals), the writing has the ring of truth to it: the awkwardness around girls, the failure to think through consequences, the inattention to schedules and cleanliness. Chesterton once wrote that childhood was “like a hundred windows open on all sides of the head,” and something of that experience makes it into these pages. Huck Finn is on my reading list for 2014.

***

And that’s the kind of year it’s been. Comments and recommendations welcome!

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