Favourites in 2016: Books

December 27, 2016

The end of the year is nearly finally here, and, as is my custom, I’m devoting a few days to reflection on the best of the books, music, and films that I enjoyed this year.

Today my theme is books. Despite the ever greater difficulty of finding the conjunction of quiet time and consciousness, I had a pretty good year of reading. Where I have included links, they in most cases go to my longer notes on the books in question.


I noted last year that I had begun a habit of reading a Shakespeare play every month, and I continued that practice this year, with much enjoyment. Inspired by the BBC series The Hollow Crown, I read the second Henriad (the Henry VI plays and Richard III), with all but the last being new to me. Also new to me was the probably-co-authored Henry VIII, along with Timon of Athens and Cymbeline. This last was a delightful discovery, with good characters and lively situations, and I’m surprised it’s not better known. I also revisited a number of the more popular plays, such as Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth, and King Lear. I had a really vexing time with Lear, finding it distressingly hard to parse large sections of it, and I’ll need to try it again in 2017, or perhaps in 2027, when I’m not so tired. I also ventured off-stage to a few of Shakespeare’s non-dramatic poems, “Venus and Adonis” and “The Phoenix and the Turtle”. I recommend them, as they are quite short.

I also said last year that I was going to make a special effort to memorize some Shakespearean passages this year. This did not go well at all.

By way of compensation, perhaps, I read one of the classics of Shakespearean criticism in Samuel Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare. The attraction here is not only Shakespeare, but Johnson too, who makes a number of irreverent judgments about the Bard, such as that his plots have easily remediable faults, that he writes poor speeches (!), and that he lacks moral clarity. Johnson thinks Shakespeare a more natural comedian than tragedian, a view with which I have some sympathy. The Johnsonian aspects of the essay touch especially on matters of literary judgment.

Sticking with verse for a moment, I made a brief study of Ovid’s love poetry, reading his Amores, the Ars Amatoria, and the Remedia Amoris. Though I had a good translation (in the sense of enjoyable and smart), this poetry didn’t make a strong appeal to me. The witty and debonair persona that Ovid projects has its charms, but next to nothing really sunk in. I also read, and appreciated, Wordsworth and Coleridge’s famous collection Lyrical Ballads, and, since I received a giant annotated edition of T.S. Eliot’s poetry for my birthday, I spent quite a bit of time with him. I also indulged in some book-length poetry: I staggered, bloodied and bruised, through Piers Plowman, and, since what didn’t kill me made me stronger, I fairly wafted through the Nibelungenlied.

As usual, classical and medieval texts were important to me this year, and I’ve just mentioned a few of them. I re-read Plato’s Protagoras during summer vacation; this is a dialogue that I’ve admired for years, partly for the comical description Socrates gives us of the titular sophist and his acolytes, but mostly for an exchange early in the dialogue in which Socrates counsels young Hippocrates to be careful about what influences he exposes his soul to, for the soul, after all, is not a shopping basket from which items can be removed as easily as added; this good counsel I have long taken to heart in my own conduct, or at least I hope I have. Also, since it had been some years since I read Aristotle, this year I tackled the Politics, and, to my considerable surprise, found it rather tedious. There were some good bits, to be sure, especially in Book VIII, which treats education, but for the most part it went deeper into the policy weeds than I cared to go.

The only other philosophy I read this year consisted of a few books on Heidegger, and I wrote at some length about that encounter at the time. Though I do not feel that I understand him well, I do appreciate that he addressed himself to perhaps the most basic philosophical question (“what is being?”), and that he encouraged his readers to reconsider their own attitude toward the being of the world in all of its apparently gratuitous splendour. That he adopted a phenomenological approach to a deep metaphysical question lends his philosophy a “first person” quality that is attractive, but I confess I remain unconvinced that it is ultimately a fruitful strategy. His exploration of the quality of temporality in human experience, of the way the past and future collide in the lived present, is likewise quite rich and suggestive, and the way he pits the subjectivity of experience against the putative objectivity of a scientific age is audacious. But I think what I appreciated most was his advocacy of a patient, receptive attentiveness to the unveiling of being, to its appearances and surfaces, as a prelude to understanding, for this I think can be naturally integrated into a practice of contemplation and prayer (or so I imagine).

As an adjunct to this Begegnung with Heidegger, I watched a brace of Terrence Malick’s films, and as an adjunct to those I read Peter Leithart’s wonderful book on The Tree of Life, a book that I would warmly recommend to lovers of that film. Leithart brings out a number of themes, and is especially good on clarifying the overall structure, which can be elusive on first (and second, and perhaps third) viewings. He also helped me to better understand and appreciate the final section of the film, which had previously been for me the least persuasive part.

For my Lenten reading in 2016 I took up John Donne’s Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, an artful extended meditation on sickness, both physical and spiritual. Donne’s eloquence is splendid, and the book is justly counted a classic, but I found myself not well attuned to its mood, and it was rather hard going. In contrast, I had a roaring good time with William Cobbett’s History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland, a scathing assault on the white-washed historiography of the English Reformation that prevailed in Cobbett’s day. He wrote as a Protestant, but with withering disdain for the lies the English told themselves about their past. Surprisingly, he was more interested in the social and economic aspects of the Reformation than the religious. This was my first encounter with Cobbett, and I found him sufficiently intriguing to pick up Chesterton’s biography, from which I learned a good deal, and which has convinced me to explore his writing more in future. It seems I was rather keen on biographies this year, as I also read Margery Kempe’s fifteenth-century autobiography — the earliest in English — and, stretching the definition a little, Bernard McGunn’s bibliographic “biography” of the Summa Theologiae. Returning to Chesterton, I notice that though last year I read a whole armful of his books I was this year reduced to just two: the Cobbett biography and his travelogue What I Saw in America. The latter is one of his minor works, but still worthwhile, as Chesterton usually is. For more exotic travels I turned to Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Mani, recounting his mid-century voyage around Greece’s southernmost peninsula, an appreciative journey into a vanishing traditional society. Even apart from the intrinsic interest of its subject, this book is a treasure for the mellifluous prose. And I squeezed in Roger Scruton’s Culture Counts, a lesser book than those just noted but valuable for its stimulating ideas about the role of education in modern society and the importance of culture, especially high culture, to a healthy society and a healthy soul. Scruton is one of the conservative voices most worth heeding these days, since, given developments, his unapologetically elitist conservatism is likely to be a precious commodity over the next few years.

A new, or revived, theme this year was reading on physics and related subjects, at a more or less technical level. I thoroughly enjoyed testing my mettle against a set of oral exam questions used in Berkeley’s graduate program, and had a wonderful time exploring a book which tackled modern physics topics using standard techniques of classical mechanics. Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics has been a bestseller, with some warrant, for it gives an elegant overview of the leading accomplishments and challenges in fundamental physics. Straying from my comfort zone, I tackled, with some success and no little appreciation, William Briggs’ Uncertainty, an extended plea for the application of right reason in statistical thinking.


On the fiction front I was mostly preoccupied with two authors: Patrick O’Brian and P.G. Wodehouse. I’ve been sailing through O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin stories for a few years now, and, despite a spell in the doldrums, I added a few more volumes this year; if all goes well I should complete the voyage in 2017. I’ve been enjoying these books tremendously, mostly of course on account of the characters, but also because O’Brian is a superb craftsman, with a gift for conjuring up a world that is wholly believable. Not only is the sea-faring jargon delivered with apparent fluency, but O’Brian’s ear for authentic nineteenth-century English is unerring; never does one experience the jarring anachronisms that ambush less able authors of historical fiction. As for Wodehouse, I’ve been prancing my way through the Jeeves and Wooster books, and enjoying every ridiculous minute of it. Wodehouse’s stories are froth, but effervescent froth, and his prose cannot be improved. The long-form stories (rather than the single-chapter short stories) have made the strongest appeal to me, and my favourites thus far have been The Code of the Woosters and Joy in the Morning. Wodehouse wrote about 100 books, so this reading project is going to continue for the foreseeable future.

Although I’ve noticed in myself a growing preference for short books, I did tackle one big book this year: Dombey and Son. I think it is not usually classed with the top tier of Dickens’ novels, but I had a wonderful time with it, and I’d rank young Florence Dombey with his best female characters: smart, winsome, and kind. The comedy of the book is excellent, and the characterization of Florence’s ruthless father I found really effective. Speaking of ruthlessness: I also read Cormac McCarthy’s decidedly un-Dickensian No Country for Old Men. I’m an admirer of the Coen Brothers’ film adaptation, and had been meaning to read the book for several years. To say that I was delighted with it would be inept, but I was pleased to find that the book is thematically even richer than the film, especially on account of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, the good man, whose role in the book is wider and deeper than in the adaptation. This is now, I think, my favourite of McCarthy’s novels (though I am far from having read them all).

This year I focused some of my reading on “Catholic novels”, broadly understood. The Knot of Vipers was my first encounter with François Mauriac, a Nobel Prize-winning novelist whom I’ve been meaning to get to know for a long time now. The Catholic element in this story, which is about a spiteful man preparing to disinherit his wife and children, is subtle, but, on reflection, not so peripheral as I had initially thought. It’s beautifully written (insofar as this can be judged in translation) and the characterization is deep and involving. Characterization is not so central to Robert Hugh Benson’s Lord of the World, a nonetheless excellent novel that imagines a future confrontation between an ascendant temporal political power and a beleaguered Catholic faithful. Though it was written a century ago, the spiritual conflict it dramatizes remains pertinent, and the book as a whole has been very well-conceived. Alas, the same cannot be said of Benson’s follow-up novel, The Dawn of All, which imagines an alternate future in which Catholicism is triumphant and informs all aspects of world politics. It tries to grapple with the obligations that come with power, and with their potential to conflict with Catholic commitments to charity, mercy, and peace, but the net effect is weirdly off-putting, and the book seems to me a distinct failure. Rounding out my Catholic novels for the year, I enjoyed Newman’s Loss and Gain, a book that I think is not very widely read, even among those who read Newman, but which is a superb account of what conversion to Catholicism entailed for an educated Englishman in the middle of the nineteenth century, something Newman knew a thing or two about, and something which retains much of its relevance for converts today.

I read some short stories as well, including Russell Kirk’s excellent collection of ghost stories, Ancestral Shadows, which I wrote about at Halloween. Kirk was an intellectual who wrote mostly about politics and culture, but he proved himself a fine storyteller with this set of “experiments in the moral imagination” involving ghosts and other uncanny entities. And, on the recommendation of David Bentley Hart, who called it “the funniest short story in the English language”, I read Max Beerbohm’s “Enoch Soames”, about a third-rate poet who sells his soul to the Devil not, as Faust and Leverkühn did, in exchange for greatness, but merely in exchange for the chance to learn whether he will achieve greatness. It is a good story, though I’d not praise it so highly as Hart does.


Children’s books

Reading with the kids is a regular part of life in our family, and this year we read quite a few good books. Our toddler was pretty happy with Goodnight Moon and books with pictures of trucks. Our five year old is very much in the picture-book stage, and his favourites this year were Peter Spier’s The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night, an illustrated version of the English folksong, Janell Cannon’s Stellaluna, about a bat raised as a songbird, and Aaron Becker’s marvellous Journey trilogy (which came to a slightly underwhelming conclusion this year with the publication of Return). He has also been enthusiastic about Thornton Burgess’ animal stories; we’ve enjoyed the adventures of Peter Rabbit, Old Mr Toad, and Prickly Porky so far.

With our eldest, now seven, we spent most of the year on chapter books, and the best of them were George MacDonald’s atmospheric fantasy The Princess and the Goblin and Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Indeed, the kids took to Tolkien’s legendarium like bees to honey: they can talk enthusiastically about hobbits, elves, Black Riders, wizards, and rings. We’ve actually taken the plunge into The Lord of the Rings, but in three months have only progressed halfway through The Fellowship of the Ring, so I don’t know if we’re going to have the stamina to see it through to its conclusion.

I also enjoyed a few children’s books on my own. I revisited The Wind in the Willows and loved it as much as ever. I greatly enjoyed Ian Serraillier’s poetic adaptation Beowulf the Warrior, as well as his WWII road story The Silver Sword, and I relished Abbie Farwell Brown’s old collection The Book of Saints and Friendly Beasts, first published in 1900. I’ve been meaning to write about these books, but for the most part haven’t got around to it yet.


And those are the highlights of my year in books. Comments welcome! Tomorrow I’ll look back at my year in popular music, I think.

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