Favourites of 2022: Books

December 27, 2022

C.S. Lewis once said that an unliterary person may be defined as someone who reads books only once. It’s a remark that’s always stung a little, but in 2022 I enjoyed, for a limited time at least, the pleasure of being a literary person according to Lewis’ standard, for I did a good deal of re-reading. In fact,  my favourite books of the year — Homer’s Odyssey and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment — were both re-reads, and I wrote at some length about them in this space.

It was also a year in which I completed the Roman reading project in which I’d been engaged for a few years, and launched a similar Greek reading project that will occupy me for a few years more, if all goes as planned.

But today I’d like to highlight my favourites of the books I read for the first time this year. There are plays, biographies, novels, and a few nonfiction titles. It was a great year of reading!


In alphabetical order:

Blake: A Biography
Peter Ackroyd

I like to pick a particular poet and spend a few months with him. I began the year in the company of Robert Frost, was irritated for quite a while by Walt Whitman, and am ending the year perplexed by Gerard Manley Hopkins’ grammar, but mid-year I spent time with William Blake, and read this biography as an adjunct. Neglected in his own lifetime, we now look back on him as an important figure, not only on account of his positive achievements, but for how his figure stands out against the historical ground, and Ackroyd’s careful and meticulous biography greatly improved my understanding and appreciation of the man.


Susanna Clarke

Susanna Clarke’s slender Piranesi unfolds as a kind of metaphysical science fiction story, where the setting and the situation are so strange and unfamiliar that it takes time for us to get our bearings, and longer still to understand where the story is going. Yet it’s also a compelling tale from the outset because of its winsome central character. The book is concerned with such matters as the honour we owe the dead, the duties of friendship, and the virtues that make a man great. It adds up to a thoughtful exploration and presentation of natural piety in the guise of a cosmic mystery. A remarkably beautiful book.


I have continued my tour of early-ish modern drama, reading mostly lesser-known playwrights of the generation or two after Shakespeare, both in England and on the continent. Of the dozen or so plays I read in 2022, two stood out for their excellence and, as it happens, for their opposite tendencies. John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, from 1633, is a sordid business that puts disturbing sexual depravity on the stage, and John Milton’s Comus, from 1634, is a celebration of chastity and purity. Both are beautifully written, both, I would think, dramatically effective, and both, though by contrary means, a portrait of the destructive power of lust in action. A brilliant double-bill!


The Mayor of Casterbridge
Thomas Hardy

Another trip to Wessex, another tragic tale. It’s a story about a man who rides fortune’s wheel up, then down again, but is fundamentally, I think, about the importance of truth-telling, and of the dangers that attend concealment and deception, especially between those who love one another. Hardy is a master, and it was a consolation just to read such a superbly well-written novel.


Kenogaia: A Gnostic Tale
David Bentley Hart

In a world where authority keeps a strict watch on its people, and access to information is restricted and curated, sometimes the thing to do is to train your eyes on things above. Maybe you’ll see something. That’s what happens to the hero of this rousing adventure story, and it sends him careening through a series of amazing discoveries en route to a revelation that breaks his world open, almost literally. I’ve had a hard time keeping up with Hart’s breakneck pace of publication over the past few years, but I’m glad I found the time for this one. [notes]


Child of God
Cormac McCarthy

McCarthy’s novels are often dark and disturbing, and Child of God is more dark and disturbing than most. It’s a truly harrowing tale about a man who commits unspeakable acts of violence and disgrace. We have a right to ask why we should trouble ourselves to read it, much less to recommend it to others, as I am doing here. McCarthy has an established habit of introducing into his bleak and troubling stories some glimmer of light, some shred of hope, some rumour of grace or justice. It can be slight and subtle — it is certainly so here — but it is there nonetheless. We are to see, I think, that evil can never be completely triumphant, A green shoot always arises from the ashes. And that is worth knowing. A second reason to endure the tale is the tough, spare beauty of the prose; nobody else writes like this.


Art & Scholasticism
Jacques Maritain

Over the years I’ve accumulated a sizable stack of books by Jacques Maritain, but for one reason or another I’ve not got around to reading them. This year I pulled down this relatively slender volume in which he gathers up various scraps of commentary about the arts let fall from the workbenches of the scholastic philosophers, especially Thomas Aquinas, and arranges them into something like a systematic treatment. I found it a fruitful enterprise. Despite a certain amount of pedantry about species and genus, the book contains lively analyses of, among other things, what counts as art, how art relates to beauty, how art relates to morality, and how the arts can be corrupted. Do the scholastics ever disappoint?


The Figure of Beatrice
Charles Williams

Beatrice was for Dante much more than just a love interest, and in this study of Dante Charles Williams explores what we can learn from Dante about what he learned from her. In so doing, he develops a kind of theology of romantic love that I found surprisingly creative and insightful, and which helped me to deepen my understanding of my own experience of love. Much food for thought, and a fine guide to the Divine Comedy as well. Beautifully written.


A Pelican at Blandings
P.G. Wodehouse

This was the last Blandings novel that Wodehouse completed, and, since I was reading them in order, it has served for me as a kind of milestone. I have walked the extensive grounds, but have now reached a neighbouring hilltop where I stand, looking back. I see Beach, the butler, arranging flower pots on the balcony. The Hon. Freddie Threepwood is on the lawn, setting out a bowl of Donaldson’s dog biscuits for somebody’s pooch. Rupert Baxter, secretary to Lord Emsworth, is around back of the house studying the eaves, and he appears to be wearing yellow pyjamas. I see Galahad Threepwood lounging easily on a chair down by the fish pond. Away in the distance, partly concealed behind a tree, I think I see Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe with binoculars pointed in the direction of the pig-pen. And, yes, sure enough, following his gaze, there is Lord Emsworth himself, plying the Empress of Blandings with apples and potatoes. I’m going to miss this place. [notes]


Read again: Plato: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Gorgias, Protagoras, Meno; Shakespeare: The Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado About Nothing, Macbeth; Homer: Iliad, Odyssey; Aeschylus: Oresteia; Sophocles: Theban Plays, Philoctetes; Euripides: Medea, Hippolytus, The Trojan Women, The Bacchae; Lewis: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, The Magician’s Nephew; Dostoyevsky: Crime and Punishment; Tolkien: The Hobbit; MacLachlan: Sarah, Plain and Tall; Herodotus: Histories; Burgess: The Adventures of Prickly Porky, The Adventures of Grandfather Frog; Pressfield: Gates of Fire.

Multiple things by the same author: Plato (12), Sophocles (5), Aeschylus (4), Euripides (4), Robert Frost (4), William Shakespeare (3), Gene Wolfe (3), Arthur Conan Doyle (3), Homer (2), Hesiod (2), P.G. Wodehouse (2), Philip Massinger (2), C.S. Lewis (2), Pedro Calderon (2), Thornton Burgess (2).


As is my custom, I made a bar graph of the publication dates of the books I read this year. It looks like this:

This year I had a double-humped distribution: the cluster on the left contains the things I’ve read for the Greek reading project, and the cluster on the right is everything else. Coverage since 1500 was not too shabby this year. That yawning gap in the medieval years is sad.

All in all, though, it was a pretty good year of reading.

3 Responses to “Favourites of 2022: Books”

  1. Janet Says:

    I loved Piranesi. I read it in less than 24 hours. I think it’s probably time to read it again.

    Have you read Everything Sad is Untrue. It’s the best book I read last year. It’s best to listen to it because Daniel Nayeri, the author and narrator is a world class storyteller.


    • cburrell Says:

      Merry Christmas, Janet! So good to hear from you. Best wishes to you and your family.

      Piranesi was recommended to me by a friend, and, though I had read and enjoyed her earlier novel about Jonathan Strange, I was still very pleasantly surprised by how good it was.

      I hadn’t heard of Everything Sad is Untrue, but I’ll add it to my audiobook queue. Thanks for the suggestion!

    • cburrell Says:

      I see that Everything Sad is Untrue only won these awards:

      Winner of the Michael L. Printz Award
      Christopher Award Winner
      Middle East Book Award Winner
      National Indie Bestseller
      NPR Best Book of the Year
      New York Times Best of the Year
      Amazon Best of the Year
      Booklist Editors’ Choice
      BookPage Best of the Year
      NECBA Windows & Mirrors Selection
      Publishers Weekly Best of the Year
      Wall Street Journal Best of the Year
      Today.com Best of the Year
      Walter Awards Honor Book

      No wonder I had not heard of it, here, under my rock.

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