Favourites of 2011: Books

December 27, 2011

It is that time of year again. Today and for the rest of this week, I’ll be reflecting on the best of the books, music, and film that I read, heard, and saw in 2011. I make these lists for my own enjoyment and edification, but I post them in the hope that they will be a spur to conversation.

The topic for today is books. Only two books I read this year (Richard Panek’s The 4% Universe and Sarah Ruden’s Paul Among the People) were actually published this year, so I am admitting for consideration anything that happened across my path, regardless of when it was first published.

On the fiction side of things, Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game was fascinating. Its story, turning on themes of philosophy and art in a far distant future, won me over decisively [Book Note]. I also thought highly of Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy, which explored the consequences of an unexpected (and unwanted) irruption of the transcendent into the routine of ordinary lives [Book Note]. And I re-read this year Victor Hugo’s great Les Miserables, finding it as good as ever it was — which was very good indeed.

Edward Grant’s The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages was an absorbing scholarly study of medieval contributions to the sciences and the influence of the same on developments in early modern science. It cast new light on that important period of transition, and challenged the simple portrait of medieval science that is common in our culture [Book Note]. In The Sovereignty of Good, Iris Murdoch articulated a vision of the moral life greatly beholden to Plato but addressed to us and our contemporaries. The book is not without problems, but overall I found it a heartening and instructive read [Book Note]. Back in February I carried on a month-long blog-a-thon about Antarctica, and of the six or eight Antaractica-related books I read at that time, two stood out: Scott of the Antarctic consisted of Captain Scott’s heart-breaking journals which he kept during his ill-fated expedition to the South Pole in 1912-13, and Alfred Lansing’s Endurance was about Shackleton’s harrowing 1914-16 expedition. Both were excellent [Book Note, Book Note].

Since this last week of the year is a time for idleness, I have made a histogram showing the year of publication (or performance) for the books (or plays) I read this year.On the far left are the Greek tragedians, whom I have been slowly (and silently) working through. A few medieval books, then a smattering of Shakespeare at around 1600. A couple of nineteenth-century novels, and then a pile of recent books. This chart nicely illustrates just how provincial I really am.

Tomorrow I’ll write about music — and at considerably greater length.

One Response to “Favourites of 2011: Books”

  1. Mac Says:

    “this last week of the year is a time for idleness” Humph. Alas, it was far from so for me, which is why I’m just now catching up with your best-ofs. Books and music tomorrow.

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