While Hollywood studio execs rush to get out all the movies they hope the Academy will remember long enough to give awards to, I'm enjoying the calm and quiet of the week between Christmas and New Year's and remembering all the reading I've done for the last twelve months. I think I'll give some awards as well: the ex libris magnis awards for 2010.
So Good It Wouldn't Be Fair to Include Him in the Running for Any Other Awards
Charles Dickens. Dombey and Son was twice as good as I remembered it, and his delightful but little-known Christmas stories taught me a lot about Dickens and about Christmas.
Best New Read: Fiction
George MacDonald, Sir Gibbie. While I loved the first two MacDonald novels I read (by which I mean adult, nonfantastic novels: Robert Falconer and Thomas Wingfold), the last one was a bit of a disappointment (David Elginbrod). So I was glad to find another one that worked for me. Chapter 6 is amazing, with little Gibbie learning last lessons from his dying, drunken father. Through Gibbie's eyes (and MacDonald's) we see that an alcoholic can love and be loved even while his addiction horrifies us. Many other characters also mix good and bad traits like real people; MacDonald's narration scolds the Sclaters, for instance, for their religious humbuggery, and yet they end up doing good things for Gibbie. Have they truly met God? We aren't told. The book is full of quotable quotes, like this one for instance: "There is no forgetting of ourselves but in the finding of our deeper, our true self -- God's idea of us when he devised us -- the Christ in us. Nothing but that self can displace the false, greedy, whining self, of which, most of us are so fond and proud. And that self no man can find for himself; seeing of himself he does not even know what to search for." Having read Sir Gibbie, C. S. Lewis's reverence for MacDonald finally makes sense to me.
Best New Read: Religion
Tie: Upanishads and Barth's Dogmatics in Outline. The challenging and helpful central idea of Dogmatics is that the Church is here to proclaim, not to prove; that people have the message to proclaim is proof enough. It does no good, Barth says, to look at the world and try to prove God as a Creator; right thinking starts with God and sees the world as the amazing thing. What we read in the newspapers and in history -- especially Church history -- is bad. Only God is good, so proclaim Jesus, and learn to see the world his way. For a bit on the Upanishads, see an earlier post.
Philosophy Most Likely to Pop into My Mind from Day to Day
Wittgenstein. I love Aristotle and Aquinas and can barely wait to read more of each of them each year. They probably quietly influence my thinking more than any other philosophers, but Wittgenstein's analysis of language and communication will come vividly to mind many times over the years to come. (For more on my adventure with Wittgenstein, see an earlier post.)
Tolkien's Silmarillion. This book is like a cathedral in a prairie. It offers truth whose stony solidity cannot be ignored, boisterously teeming images whose beauty fascinates, dizzy heights that raise hopes, and tragic tombs whose silence evoke shame and humility. And it does it in a form that is unlike anything else around it. (For more on Tolkien's fantastic history, see the previous post.)
Best Recommended Offroading
I read quite a few things not on The List this year. One of the greatest surprising treats was The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde. In this cross between magical fantasy, science fiction, and literature review, people can jump into and out of fiction. When one steps out of a novel (or is taken out against his will), every copy in the world of that book changes to reflect the absence. In order to save Jane Eyre (both the character and the novel), heroine Thursday Next (not the wackiest name in the book!) must enter the fictional realm, get into Rochester's house, and alter the course of events before Grace Poole starts the fire. Mix Harry Potter, Peabody's Improbable History from Bullwinkle, and TV's Eureka, and you have Jasper Fforde's weird, wonderful world. If only Mr. Fforde would match nouns and pronouns by number ("If anyone forgets their instructions . . . ." AAARRRGH!), I could say I loved every word.
Biggest Disappointment on The List
The Education of Henry Adams. The book starts great; in telling of his grandfather, John Quincy Adams, walking him forcibly to school, Adams writes, "He violated the inalienable rights of boys and negated the social compact," thus dismantling the New England spirit of rebellion and the sacred words from his great-grandfather's time all at once. But the book quickly becomes a series of confusing metaphors and unexplained topical references. "His [the historian's] object is to triangulate from the widest base possible to the furthest point he thinks he can see, which is always far beyond the curve of the horizon." Does that sentence actually make sense? "The interference of the German and Russian legations, and of the Clan-na-Gael, with the press and the Senate was innocently undisguised." Huh? None of this -- none of this -- is explained. I wish someone had told me to read the first few chapters, up to where he explains the first part of his point -- that eighteenth-century education did not prepare him for twentieth-century capitalism -- and then jump to chapter 29, which finishes up his point: that all previous forms of education taught the student to seek unity, while Adams's experience had shown him only multiplicity.
So that's a brief look back at 2010. Like Janus, in the next post I'll look forward.