Favourites in 2020: Books

January 8, 2021

‘Twas a tough year for book reading in 2020. I had a few reading projects on the go, with middling success. One ambitious project — to read the Bible in one year — foundered somewhere in the Book of Proverbs. I had planned to read a half dozen of Thomas Hardy’s novels, but only got through two — both excellent! I’ve been exploring playwrights contemporary with Shakespeare, and that went well until the autumn, when it didn’t. The one thread that I managed to maintain consistently was my ongoing exploration of Roman history and literature.

Since I’ve written, or intend to write, about these books at greater length, I’ll content myself today with brief notice of my favourites from the past year. WordPress’ formatting has gone haywire in recent months, and I don’t know how to fix the wayward image wrapping below; my apologies. In alphabetical order:

Beethoven: Impressions by his Contemporaries

I was fascinated to read this collection of first-hand accounts of meetings with Beethoven written by friends, rivals, and musical tourists. It provides a nicely rounded portrait of the man, and was one of the highlights of my observance of Beethoven’s anniversary year.

*

Boswell & Johnson: Journeys to the Western Isles

I found great enjoyment in these two books which were the literary fruit of the journey Boswell and Johnson took together through the wilds of Scotland. Johnson’s focus is mostly on Scotland, and Boswell’s is mostly on Johnson, and the latter is the better of the two.

*

Esolen: The Hundredfold

A book-length religious poem in which Esolen reaches back to verse forms that once had a wide appeal — hymns, lyrics, and dramatic monologues — to create an insightful and involving meditation on the life of Christ. A book full of music, in more ways than one.

*

Gribbin: Six Impossible Things

A slim, non-technical introduction to issues in the interpretation of quantum mechanics. I appreciated the clarity of the writing, and was left in amazement at our radical uncertainty about what this immensely successful theory actually means. One of the better popular science books I’ve read in some years.

*

Hardy: Far from the Madding Crowd

A wonderful novel about the complexities of love, and a meditation on what makes for a good marriage partner. Splendidly written on every page.

*

Hardy: The Return of the Native

A darker, moodier exploration of romance and love, with a variety of interesting formal elements adding to the appeal. Also splendidly written. I wish I had had more time for Hardy this year!

*

von Hildebrand: Trojan Horse in the City of God

Written shortly after Vatican II, this is a very curious and valuable commentary on the aftermath of the Council from an author usually classed with the reformers, but here found to be a sharp critic.

*

Statius: Thebaid

An epic poem from Rome’s first century AD which re-tells an old Greek story about a fraternal rivalry for power in Thebes. It might sound unpromising, but the poem has a lot of personality and a number of things on its mind. A happy surprise.

*

Tacitus: Annals

A narrative overview of the Julio-Claudian dynasty from Augustus to Nero (14-68 AD), this is a sternly written, fiercely intelligent history. One could hardly ask for a better guide to the strange concatenation of emperors through this perennially-interesting period. One of the highlights of my Roman history project so far.

*

Wodehouse: Blandings and Uncle Fred

Not one book here, but an assortment. I polished off the Uncle Fred books, and continued my long, pleasant meander through the Blandings Castle series. When the world’s gone bonkers, and circumstances might reasonably get you down, Wodehouse stands ready to ease the heart and delight the mind.

***

Prospects for reading in 2021 are not looking particularly auspicious, but I am nonetheless looking forward with anticipation, drafting plans in hope rather than assurance. Setting aside with relief my disastrous efforts to spend a year with Yeats, I’m retreating this year to the safety and comfort of Wordsworth; Wodehouse will, I hope, continue to grace my bedside table; and my years-long Roman history project will reach a crescendo, or perhaps a long diminuendo, with a traversal of Gibbon’s gargantuan Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Such, at least, is the plan. We’ll see how it turns out!

Popular authors: Shakespeare (6), Wodehouse (5), Tacitus (3), Seneca (2), Hardy (2).

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