The end of the year has come, so it’s time for a review, once again in the form of awards. I don’t have consistent categories in mind for these. I just make up the awards so I can talk one last time about some of my favorite reading from the past year.
Out of the Running for Any Category Because He’s in the exlibrismagnis Hall of Fame
Charles Dickens. ’Nuff said.
Best New Read: History
Durant on the Florentine Renaissance. After living an hour from Florence for four-and-a-half months, I came home to find that my Durant for the year covered the Renaissance there. I’d call it the perfect coincidence except that I wish I had read it just before we went, if only so I could have known that I needed to go just one block from where I stood several times to a church with some masterpieces by del Sarto. The voice of LOST’s Jack Shephard has been in my mind for months: “We have to go BAAAACK!”
Best New Read: Religion
Sermons by John Chrysostom. The Golden Mouth goes verse by verse, sometimes phrase by phrase, through the book of Romans and reveals nuances, implications, attitudes, and excluded alternatives. The last twenty to fifty percent of each sermon builds on the Biblical text to give wisdom and exhortation to lead a better life. "It is not suffering ill, but doing it, that is really suffering ill."
Most Pleasant Surprise
Don Juan. Byron’s poem had all the lush imagery and beautiful language I expected plus all the humor, philosophy, and morality I didn’t.
Best New Read: Drama
Wild Duck, Peer Gynt. Ibsen seemed to have changed a lot between college days and now. When I was twenty, I didn’t see why Hedda Gabler needed to shoot herself. But this year I read plays with deep, nuanced, and very sympathetic characters.
Best New Read: Fiction
Graham Greene, The End of the Affair. I think the title exerts undue influence on some reviewers: the affair is only a small part of this beautiful tale of Everyman’s descent into sin.
Best New Read: Biography
Hoogenboom, Rutherford B. Hayes. Just this Thanksgiving, I played a game with my family called Evil Baby Orphanage, in which each player tries to take care of naughty little babies who will grow up to become infamous villains. Hitler, Caligula, Lizzie Borden, and all their bloodthirsty little baby friends are there. But so is Rutherford B. Hayes. “Oh, you know what he did,” says the card cryptically. I was horrified – but not by Baby Rud. OK, so he promised to pull occupation troops out of the southern states in return for their agreement to give him the electors in our history’s most disputed election. But, first, those troops had had only negative influence on long-term respect for Black’s voting rights. And second, the confusion in that election far outstripped the weirdness of 2000, and no one else had any workable solutions. Other than that deal, Hayes just appointed many women to federal posts, brought on an economic boom, stood against monopolies, and worked tirelessly for prison reform, citizenship for Indians, and civil rights and education for Blacks. Hardly evil.
Best New Read that Crosses Categories
Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Theology, history, economics, philosophy, politics, cultural studies: every angle is fascinating.
Roy and Lesley Adkins, The War for All the Oceans. Hefty quotations from source material feature on every page of this history of the naval side of the Napoleonic wars. It was a little strange to read several pages on the Battle of New Orleans and only a few lines on Waterloo, but then all the British troops in Louisiana came directly off of ships, and it is a history of the war for the oceans. It was also a little strange reading about the War of 1812 from a British point of view: they call it our Great Mistake.
Almost Perfect Fantasy
Summa Elvetica by Theodore Beale (Marcher Lord Press). This Christian fantasy book centers on a theological debate over whether elves have immortal souls, worded in Latin and patterned after the dialogical arguments of Thomas Aquinas. A novel's premise could not possibly appeal to me on more levels. If only it weren’t missing an absolutely essential “non” in a couple of crucial places!
Charles Williams, The Place of the Lion. I didn’t know enough about theology, Plato, psychology, or life to understand this book the first time I read it. I don’t understand it all now, either, but I definitely got more. Just hold your bucket under Williams’s wild, spraying fountain of mystical light. Most of it will miss your bucket, but what you catch will cleanse and satisfy.
And that’s it for 2012. Readers, may your New Year be filled with great books!