Because I write fairly extensively about books on this blog, and have either already written or am planning to write about most of my favourite books from this year, I will be brief today. In 2012 I read only one book which bore a 2012 publication date, so these are simply my favourites chosen from what I happened to read, without regard to date of publication. A short section on children’s books follows.
In his classic work on the philosophy of science, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science, E.A. Burtt re-examines the history of early modern science. His particular interest is to trace the emergence of the mechanistic view of the natural world, to examine the arguments and motivations of its architects, and to explore its implications. The key sentence of the book is perhaps this: “[the scientist is] under a strong and constant temptation to make a metaphysics out of his method, that is, to suppose the universe ultimately of such a sort that his method must be appropriate and successful.” It is an illuminating book that encourages the reader to critically examine assumptions that are too often passed over quietly. [Book Note]
A Time to Keep Silence is Patrick Leigh Fermor’s mid-century account of his sojourns at several prominent monastic sites: Fontenelle Abbey, La Grande Trappe, and the deserted rock monasteries of Cappadocia. Fermor was not a practicing Christian, and in the beginning he had more disdain than affection for Western monastics, but the book traces the slow undoing of those prejudices. It is a short book, but full of interest, and the writing is of the highest quality. [Book Note]
Chesterton’s Charles Dickens, from 1906, is not much read these days, and that is a pity, for I am convinced it is one of his best works of literary criticism. It would be hard to imagine a better pairing of author with subject; there was a reason why Everyman’s Library asked GKC to write prefaces for all of Dickens’ novels. Dickens was for Chesterton not only a literary polestar but an existential one, for Chesterton saw him giving shape and expression to the deep comedy and irrepressible vitality of life. Chesterton considers Dickens’ finest achievements to be his early novels, especially The Pickwick Papers, and argues that while in some sense he became a better novelist as he aged, he also became more conventional and world-weary. Biographical details in this volume are slight, but for a probing interpretation of Dickens’ place in literature and life it is an excellent book, full of delights.
Finally, I made my first acquaintance this year with one of the great works of classical history in Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War. My education in the classics proceeds by fits and starts, and these days mostly crawls, so I was pleased to get through such a substantial work. The story of the war’s progress is absorbing, but extremely complex, and without the helpful maps, marginal notes, and summaries in my Landmark Thucydides edition I’d have been lost. As it was, however, I enjoyed the ride immensely. [Book Note]
My favourite fiction of the year was David Bentley Hart’s The Devil and Pierre Gernet, a collection of short pieces which is a feast for the mind and the heart, and a delight to the ear as well. Hart is a stimulating and often provocative thinker, and an able stylist (to say the least), and he demonstrates those qualities to good effect in these stories. His writing is serious, and is both intellectually and morally probing, but the lush glory of his prose never loses its sense of play. It is a winning combination. Hart jokes in the preface about the “dismaying” prospect of reading stories of ideas, but when the stories are this well put together, and this absorbing, and this memorable, I can find no grounds for complaint. More, please. [Book Note]
Over the course of the year I slowly worked my way through Sigrid Undset’s medieval tetralogy The Master of Hestviken. This is the poor cousin to her more popular trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter, but in fact the two sets have much in common: both are set in fourteenth-century Norway, both put the dramatic focus on the moral and spiritual lives of the characters, and both were plausibly cited as justifying Undset’s Nobel Prize in Literature. They are also — not to miss the main point — both excellent. The Master of Hestviken tells the story of Olav Audunsson, a moderately wealthy Norwegian land-owner, the focus very much on portraying the inner drama and moral significance of his life. Olav commits a wrong as a young man, and it dogs him throughout his days, leading to one sin upon another, until it seems to have shaped his entire life. It is a sad and difficult story, but not finally a bleak one — quite the opposite. It is difficult to do justice to the richness of Undset’s story-telling, or the depth and believability of her characters. She is sometimes stern — certainly there is nothing sentimental in these pages — but she seems to love these men and women she writes about, and I grew to love them too.
I do not remember where I first heard of Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov, but I am grateful that I heard of it somewhere. Though quite a bit too long for the story it has to tell, it nonetheless impressed me greatly with its portrait of a man grown incapable of decisive action and become a ghost or a shadow in the world. His hand is unsteady on the tiller, and even when the wind blows he brings his sail in. It is a brilliant, darkly comedic character study. It had been a long time since a novel gave me so much to think about as I was reading, and Oblomov haunts me still. The story has the clean lines and satisfying shape that give it the character of an especially successful fable. [Book Note]
Hannah Coulter was my introduction to Port William and the Port William fellowship, and a welcome introduction it was. Wendell Berry’s portrait of Hannah, an 80-year old woman looking back on her life in a small Kentucky town, is one of the warmest and most thoughtful novels that I can remember. Berry’s prose is quiet and plain spoken — a good foil for Hart’s above — but that doesn’t prevent its touching deep places in the heart. The book is a small wonder. [Book Note]
Finally, I thoroughly enjoyed my romp through Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities in this, the year of its silver anniversary. (Can a book have an anniversary?? Is there such a thing as a silver birthday? Ayyyyiii!) Wolfe’s writing is all that I tend to dislike: sloppy, informal, laden with vulgarity — bereft entirely of poise or decorum. Yet somehow its reckless abandon won me over. It had been long since I laughed as heartily with a book. Pass the styrofoam peanuts, please. [Book Note]
Last year in an idle moment I put together a histogram showing the original publication dates of the books I had been reading. That Matlab code works just as well for the books I read this year:
Notable features: A fair bit of Euripides; a smattering of medieval works; no Shakespeare; some nineteenth-century novels, and a big pile-up in the twentieth century. I am a provincial reader. We can unpack that right-most bar of the histogram to see more detail:
I certainly do seem to have a liking for things glossy and new. The 1920s gave the 2000s a run for their money, mostly due to my reading Belloc, Chesterton, Undset, and Lovecraft, but it was not enough.
We read an untold number of children’s books this year. The librarians at our local branch have by now memorized our library card number, and I believe we have single-handedly employed a half-dozen interlibrary loan truck drivers. Here are some of the books we enjoyed the most.
With our three-year old:
Sylvester and the Magic Pebble
William Steig (1969)
This is a sweet tale about a donkey who finds a wish-granting magic pebble while out walking and, when surprised by a lion crouching behind some tall grass, foolishly wishes himself transformed into a rock. The end? Not quite. It’s a surprisingly affecting book, maybe a little too sad in the middle sections for very young kids (but parents can paraphrase). The illustrations are wonderful — Steig is one of our favourite illustrators — and the text bears up well under repeated readings.
One Potato, Two Potato
Andrea U’Ren (Illus.) (2006)
This is a truly wonderful story about a poor, elderly couple living alone on a desolate stretch of Irish countryside who discover a magic pot buried in their garden: the pot makes a duplicate of whatever one puts inside it. After a few hilarious misadventures, the tale comes around to an affirmation of the attractions of simplicity and the importance of love and friendship. The text is terrific: I cannot read it without lapsing into an exuberant (if atrocious) brogue. The illustrations are beautifully done, with a gentle but unsentimental quality.
The Wolf of Gubbio
Murray Kimber (Illus.) (2000)
Books about St. Francis are legion, and we’ve looked at a few, but so far this has been our favourite. It recounts the famous legend about how St. Francis tamed the fearsome wolf that was terrorizing the good people of Gubbio. The illustrations are magnificent, with vivid colours and a style reminiscent of medieval masters, albeit with more naturalism. The text, too, is notable for its haunting cadences; certainly it is several steps above the usual fare in children’s books. I won’t claim that this story is an especially good introduction to St. Francis — throughout the story, he is simply called Il Poverello — but it is a good story nonetheless, and an addendum makes the St. Francis connection explicit.
Where the Wild Things Are
Maurice Sendak (1963)
This is obviously a well-known classic, but it seems to me still worth remarking on. Our daughter loves it, and, though I do find it unsettling to some extent, I find it alluring as well. I do not tire of reading it. Sendak has been called “the picture-book psychologist”, and this book certainly could be cited as evidence. It has unspoken depths that prevent re-readings from becoming rote. Perhaps parents and young children, when reading this book together, are really reading different books to a much greater extent than is normally the case. It helps too that the whole book takes less than five minutes to read, making it perfect for bedtime. The illustrations are superb.
Mo Willems (2004)
Although it is a simple little story, about a toddler who forgets her favourite bunny in the washing machine at the laundromat, it is told with such panache and humour that we never tire of it. The illustrations consist of hand-drawn figures integrated into black and white photographs, which is a style that I’ve not seen elsewhere. The chief delight, for parents, is in the small humorous touches and the spot-on portrayal of toddler antics. It is also one of the best father/daughter stories that we have found.
The Brothers Grimm
Paul O. Zelinksy (Illus.) (1998)
There are many re-tellings of stories from the Brothers Grimm, covering a vast swath of quality. This is probably the best we’ve found so far. The text adheres closely to the original, and preserves its forthright elegance and elevated tone. The illustrations, though, by Paul Zelinsky, are the real attraction: each page is beautifully rendered, roughly in the style of Renaissance masters like Masaccio or Piero della Francesca. The tower in which Rapunzel is confined looks as though it was designed by Brunelleschi. The book is flat-out gorgeous to look at, and we return to it again and again.
With our one-year old:
It is only recently that our little guy has begun wanting to read books. He is fond of books in the “lift-the-flap” genre; probably the greatest such so far is Where’s Spot? He also likes nursery rhymes, and our favourite collection is this one illustrated by Barbara Reid; the pictures are photographs of modelling clay originals, and they are really interesting to look at. Finally, he likes Goodnight Moon; I have the readers of this blog to thank for telling me about that book.
Finally, several friends had books published this year. I do plan to read them, though I have not yet done so:
- Rosemary McCracken: Safe Harbor (Imajin Books)
- James Farney: Social Conservatives and Party Politics in Canada and the United States (University of Toronto Press)
- Tom Angier (Ed.): Ethics: The Key Thinkers (Continuum)
To finish a book is no small matter, and I offer my warm congratulations!