Favourites of 2008: Books

December 29, 2008

It’s that time of year again. Over the next three days I’m going to review my favourite books, music, and movies from the past year.  These are not “Best of” lists, for the obvious reason that I have not read, heard, or seen most of what there was to read, hear, and see.  They are just my favourites drawn from what I did encounter.

Last year in my “Favourites of 2007” post I predicted that the number of books I would be able to read would decline in 2008, and it did, but not as precipitously as I had expected. (The plunge is scheduled to resume in 2009.)   This list covers books I read in 2008, not necessarily books published in 2008 – in fact, none of these books were published this year.


Far and away my favourite fiction of the year was Moby-Dick.  The power of Melville’s vision, the ecstatic prose, and the beautiful simplicity of the story were for me a dynamite combination.  Despite its many digressions and apparent superfluities, I found it engrossing from front to back.  (Book Note)

In the months leading up to our wedding I set myself the challenge of reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace.  This is a book that puts most others in the shade.  It is so big, so ambitious, and so competently carried out that I’m sure it is has been the despair of many an aspiring novelist.  Tolstoy has found a way to work nearly every aspect of life into the book: love, family, war, marriage, sin, death – everything.  I know that with a story of this stature once is not enough, but it is a start.  (Book Note)

A few years ago while hiking in Scotland we kept running into references to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped.  This year I finally got around to reading it, and I enjoyed it very much.  The friendship between David Balfour and Alan Breck was for me the central attraction of the story; they are one of the great duos of our literature. (Book Note)

Finally, late in the year I read Louis Hemon’s 1914 novel Maria Chapdelaine, about French Catholic peasants in Quebec.  Readers of Pride and Prejudice already know that it is possible to fall in love with a literary character, but Maria removes all doubt.  The story is simple but strong, just like the people it depicts.  An excellent book.


On the non-fiction side I will start with Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments, a witty but probing exploration of how we think about our relationship to history, and of the personal significance of historical knowledge.  Not satisfied with that alone, it is also a profound meditation on love, and contains a beautiful re-presentation of the Gospel.  (Book Note)

This year was the centenary of Chesterton’s wonderful book Orthodoxy, and so I made a point of re-reading it.  I know that this word “orthodoxy” has a musty, cramped connotation for many people, but surely not people who have read this book: in Chesterton’s hands it is spacious and inviting.  Chesterton always found a way to combine wit with wisdom, but rarely do the two work as well together as they do here.  (Book Note)

The last two books I will mention were both published in 2007.  One is The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, by Alex Ross.  It is a fascinating overview of classical music in the last century, from the hyper-romanticism of Strauss to the sleek and mechanical American minimalists, and everything in between.  More than just a history of music, Ross studies the music in context to see how the history of the twentieth century affected its music, and vice versa.  A dense but rewarding book.  (Book Note)

Lastly, I mention Early Modern Catholicism: An Anthology of Primary Sources, edited by Robert S. Miola.  It took me about six months to slowly read this book, but it was immensely enriching, and I am sure it would be fascinating to anyone with an interest in Tudor England or the English Reformation.  Miola has gathered together songs, poems, pamphlets, biographies, devotions, plays, and essays from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in England, with a special focus on the lives and culture of English Catholics.  Their story has not been well served by standard accounts of English history – though that is starting to change – and Miola’s book certainly helps to open this world up to interested readers. (Book Note forthcoming)

9 Responses to “Favourites of 2008: Books”

  1. KathyB Says:

    I had to read Maria Chapdelaine in French in high school. I remember that about 100 pages was spent describing how they plowed the fields. Is this accurate, or should I re-read it?

  2. cburrell Says:

    That’s not exactly right. It is true that the natural world is one of the most important “characters” in the book, and Hemon is very interested in how the the natural world affects the people. There is quite a lot of description of landscapes and weather, and also of manual labour around the home. But I think that at most there’s 10-20 pages of this (in a 160 page novel). Personally, I enjoyed this aspect of the novel very much.

  3. Janet Says:

    This looks like just what I would like to read at the moment. Now to try and find it!


  4. cburrell Says:

    I first heard of this novel in around August of this year (from Anthony Esolen, incidentally), and I too wondered how I would find it. Then in September I attended a second-hand book sale and thought to look for it. I found a section of Canadian lit, and then a sub-section of French Canadian lit in English translation. When I looked at it, there was Maria. It was almost too easy.

  5. Janet Says:

    I’ve found it in a university library in Memphis, so I’m pretty sure I can get it, but I’m afraid the library might be closed at the moment–and 40 miles from my house. But when I go back to work, I’ll see.

    I’ve found some of the most amazing things at book sale, and sometimes it’s just like the experience you’ve described. I find the exact book I’m looking for even though it’s something unusual.


  6. cburrell Says:

    I’m glad you were able to find a copy of the book, Janet. I hope you enjoy it. I think you will.

    I often find interesting books at used book sales, but it is rarer for me to find a particular interesting book that was on my mind going in. It’s a good feeling!

  7. Janet Says:

    Yes, like you were supposed to have that book.

  8. I recently decided that it’s time I delved into Kierkegaard. I wonder if Philosophical Fragments is a good place to start.

  9. Janet Says:

    Every year, at the Christianity in the Academy Conference, there is a man who gives a paper on something to do with Kierkegaard. I always feel like I’m hanging on to the back car of a roller coaster by my fingernails, but I manage to follow most of it. Then I tell myself that I should read something Kierkegaard wrote, but I never do.


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