Favourites of 2017: Books

January 2, 2018

All things considered, 2017 was a pretty good year for reading. Long, difficult books were mostly off the table — there’s that volume of Kierkegaard I’ve been seeping through for 8 months — but I found some quite good, short, easier books that were worth reading.

For this year-end reflection, I’ve selected ten good books from among those I read this year. I list them randomly, or nearly so. Links, where present, usually go to my more extensive notes on the book.

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I’ll begin with Livy, whose writing was a thread that ran through my whole year. I began the first volume of his great Roman history Ab urbe condita in January or February, and I finished the fifth and last volume in December. This was a great book with which to kick off my Roman reading project; although it breaks off in the 160s BC, with much of the greatest drama still ahead, my understanding of the history of Republican Rome has improved greatly. I now feel I have context and at least some depth when I see a reference to Cincinnatus, or Camillus, or Hannibal, or Scipio, and a much better sense of how Rome grew from an Italian city among other, comparable, Italian cities to a superpower of the ancient world. I wrote fairly extensively about this history as I was reading. I am looking forward to continuing this reading project in 2018; I expect that much of the year will be spent in the company of Cicero and Julius Caesar.

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I was given as a gift a huge volume of Anglo-Saxon poetry this year, and I expect that it will be the center of gravity of my medieval reading in 2018, but this year my favourite medieval literature was The Song of Roland, a splendid heroic poem about a battle between the rearguard of Charlemagne’s army, led by Roland, and the Islamic army besetting them as they pass through the Alps. Although not a scrupulously historical poem, it does teach us about the attitudes of Christians toward Muslims a thousand years ago, gives us an intriguing example of the medieval effort to baptize the military virtues, and presents us with a wonderful portrait of Roland, a figure who loomed large in the European imagination for centuries.

*

With my son I have been reading Thornton Burgess’ books about the inhabitants of the Green Forest and the Green Meadows. Beginning with Old Mother West Wind and continuing through the adventures of one little friend after another — Old Man Coyote, Paddy the Beaver, Chatterer the Red Squirrel, Sammy Jay, Jerry Muskrat, Grandfather Frog, and others — we have gradually come to feel quite at home in those woods. Though he is certainly less mercurial and virtuosic than, for example, Kenneth Grahame, Burgess nonetheless has a fine talent for diverting tales with memorable characters and moral weight. He wrote, I believe, about 100 of these books, and so our explorations are far from over. So long as my son is content to continue, I am as well.

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This year I continued my habit of reading — or seeing staged — one Shakespearean play each month. I ventured off the beaten trail and read “Pericles”, a late-ish play (probably c.1608) that was new to me. It was a very pleasant surprise. It has something of the character of a fable, complete with riddles, a beautiful princess, an evil king, miraculous events, and a happy ending. For some time I’ve been interested in the relationship between Shakespeare’s art and medieval literature and drama (I’ve been meaning to read this book, for example), and in no other Shakespeare play have I had such a powerful sense of being on medieval terrain, as though he had adapted a story from The Canterbury Tales. In fact the play is based on a poem of John Gower, Chaucer’s contemporary, and Gower himself appears in the play in a role something like that of a Greek chorus, commenting on the action. It’s delightful. Thematically the play is about, among other things, what it means to be a good father, and in particular about the relationships of fathers to their daughters. The final act has a reunion scene that brought tears into my eyes. Highly recommended.

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Over the past few years I’ve been reading the Aubrey-Maturin sea-faring novels, and greatly enjoying them, but this year I also read The Voyage of the Beagle, a real-life account of a circumnavigation voyage in the 1830s, and I enjoyed it at least as much. It is true that Charles Darwin, the ship’s talented young naturalist, doesn’t tell us much about life at sea, but this particular voyage landed ashore at numerous locations along the Argentine and Chilean coasts, as well as at a few island archipelagos in the Pacific, and I found his many observations on natural history fascinating. The same author went on to write a number of other books on related topics, and it would be interesting to look into those some day as well.

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Perhaps because I spent a few months this year homeschooling our kids, I read several books on education. Among these the best was Stratford Caldecott’s Beauty in the Word, a remarkably rich and thoughtful exploration of the classical educational trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Some descriptions of classical education merely correlate these three subjects with the developmental capacities of children (as Dorothy Sayers did in an influential essay), but Caldecott goes much further, digging deeply into the relevance this general schema has for the child’s intellectual, moral, social, and even metaphysical formation. His organizing question is “What kind of education would enable a child to progress in the rational understanding of the world without losing his poetic and artistic appreciation of it?”, and it leads him to rewarding discussions of tradition, drama, technology, and liturgy, among many other things. If you think that education ought to be richly human, concerned with what kind of persons we should be rather than just what sort of things we might do, calling for the best and wisest counsel we can muster, this is a book for you.

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The conversion memoir is a genre with a distinguished history stretching back, for English speakers, to John Henry Newman, and further back, to St Augustine, in the wider tradition. These memoirs tend to have certain elements in common, and perhaps the most distinctive thing about Sally Read’s Night’s Bright Darkness is that it doesn’t follow the usual patterns at all. It’s an account of her conversion from comfortable atheism to astounded Catholicism in which, instead of passing over the ground between the two, as a normal person would do, she somehow tunnelled or teleported from one side to the other. This is a poor metaphor for the real substance of her story, which is grace. The other distinctive feature of this book is how beautifully written it is; Read is a poet, and brings a literary sensibility to the manner in which she tells her story.

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English speakers continue to receive, in translation, by dribs and drabs, literary crumbs that fell from the table of the great German Thomist and intellectual historian Josef Pieper. This year I sat down with a volume that appeared, a few years ago now, under the title The Silence of Goethe. As is so often the case with Pieper, the slender profile of the book belies its rich content, which consists of meditations on the value of reticence and silence for both public and private life, as culled from the voluminous writings of Pieper’s great countryman. Counsel to the effect that “You live properly only if you live a hidden life” has particular value for those of us living in the age of social media, in which the temptation to live even our private lives in public is seductive. That this, and allied, advice comes from a man who was himself one of the best-known figures of his age gives it a certain tried-and-true authority.

*

I read a handful of Wodehouse’s Jeeves novels this year, and Thank You, Jeeves can stand in, on this list, for the lot of them. Published in 1934, it was the first of Wodehouse’s full-length Jeeves novels, and is a delightful tale about Bertie’s retreat to a country cottage in which to practice the banjolele. Jeeves is unable to abide the instrument, and so enters the employ of one or another of the characters circling around Bertie throughout the story, being replaced by a homicidal, drunk valet called Brinkley. Among the most pleasing characters in this mélange is Pauline Stoker, an American girl possessed of a “pre-eminent pulchritude”, to whom Bertie was briefly engaged on a prior trip to America, and for whom he now tries to play matchmaker. At stake are the sale of a run-down manor house and the future married happiness of several of Bertie’s friends. As usual with Wodehouse, the writing is superb and the invention never flagging. Some might take offense at the plot element involving Bertie and the “loony doctor” Sir Roderick Glossop wandering the grounds in black-face, but we are not so censorious.

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This was yet another year in which I did not read much theology or philosophy, but I did manage one of the early classics of Christian theology in St Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. The aim of the book is to provide a defence of the fittingness of the Incarnation, death, and Resurrection of Christ against those who contended that these centerpieces of the Christian story had an arbitrary or even blasphemous character. Athanasius brings out beautifully the drama of Christ’s saving action as a descent into the world, a battle against evil, and a triumphant elevation of all things into the everlasting and unconquerable life of the Holy Trinity. It is a book that has become a touchstone for a Christian metaphysics of the good, in which Creation itself is caught up into the mystery of Christ.

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As in past years, it is fun to look at the original publication dates of the books (or plays) I read this year. Here is the histogram:

I skewed modern, as usual, but not so severely as in past years, and the classical and medieval books can at least be said to have made a decent showing. The 20th century was the big winner, as might be expected, but even there it was the early 1900s which got much of my attention, with the average post-1900 publication date being 1955.

Finally, a bit of trivia:

Most books by a single author: Thornton Burgess (12), Shakespeare (12), Terence (6), Wodehouse (5).

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