Happy New Year’s Eve! If I don’t publish the awards for Year 8 today, I’ll be a year late! So let’s get to it.
Hall of Fame: Charles Dickens
I reread my favorite book, this year: A Tale of Two Cities. So, as usual, I just placed Dickens in his own category so no one else has to compete with him.
Best New Read, Philosophy: Thomas Reid
Reid answered a question that had needled me for almost thirty years. Locke and Hume came to doubt many things because of the images we see. Our thought, they said, is thought of a picture, and that picture, in a second relationship, is a picture of a thing; how do we know, they asked, that these images represent things faithfully or that the things exist at all? Reid’s solution: to doubt the existence of the images themselves. My mental activity is not the sight of a mediating image which itself represents (or doesn’t) an object. My mental activity is that image, and that image is the thought of the visible object. Changes of perspective, rather than making us doubt the reliability of our senses as Locke and Hume argued, prove their reliability by following the rules of geometry.
Best New Read, Poetry: G. K. Chesterton, Ballad of the White Horse
I had to read it twice, but the second time was magical. Alfred the Great asks a vision of Mary to show him what will happen on earth, since knowledge of Heaven lies beyond him. You have it all backwards, replies Mary: any schoolgirl can know about Heaven, but God has placed tomorrow’s earthly events outside our reach. We must simply do what’s right without knowing if it will achieve results. Alfred ends up successful, but like the chalk horse, his success will fade to oblivion if people don’t continue to refresh the memory.
Best New Read, Fiction: Trollope, The Last Chronicle of Barset
As if the first five books in the series weren’t joy enough, the sixth book brings back all the characters and stories and makes them all glow with twice as much warmth of wisdom, wit, and cheer.
Best New Read, Theology: Bonaventure, Journey of the Mind into God
I had once before tried this book and couldn’t make any sense out of it. This time, it all fell into place. Bonaventure outlines a plan for mental activity at six levels, showing how even the most basic daily thought about the most mundane things can reveal God and bring us closer to Him.
Best Comparative Read: Electra x 2
While Sophocles presents some interesting alternatives, he simply accepts the idea that Apollo might rightly tell Orestes to kill his mother. But Euripides, struggling with belief, has Castor and Pollux tell Orestes that Apollo’s command itself was evil. Euripides gets better with every play!
Best Second Visit: Williams, The Greater Trumps
Yes, I already said that Bonaventure greatly improved on rereading. But I only read a few pages of that one the first time. I read all of The Greater Trumps several years ago, but I was feverish, so Williams’s mystical narration was two times as confusing. This time around, he was only obscure, not opaque. And I received wisdom from watching the dance of the figures and smiling with the Fool.
Lowest Wait-to-Payoff Ratio: Husserl, The Crisis of the European Sciences
After waiting twenty years to try to finish this dense book, I had to wait one-hundred more pages before Husserl finally stated his purpose: his view of philosophical history will provide the ground for solving all philosophical problems. All. Then a few score pages later, he says he can’t solve the problem of the existence of the world. That’s a pretty big exception to “all.” He should have read Thomas Reid.
Best Answer to an Old Question: (Tie) Edward Gibbon, Julian Havil
(1) I’d heard that Gibbon wasn’t kind to Christianity in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Now I see why people have said it, but it seems Gibbon really just wanted to correct some popular notions: the persecutions weren’t continuous and widespread, Constantine wasn’t all good, and Julian the Apostate wasn’t all bad. No argument here. (2) The first chapter of Julian Havil’s The Irrationals explained why Euclid teaches so much algebra with lines and shapes: he couldn’t accept the idea of irrational numbers, but he did acquiesce to the existence of incommensurable lengths.
Best Offroading: Charles Williams and C. S. Lewis, Taliessen Through Logres
It’s confusing even knowing what the book is that you’re reading. It’s a book of three books, and the third book has two parts, one by Williams and one by Lewis. And then the editor says in the introduction that you should read Lewis – the last part – first and then read the rest of the volume all out of order. Then you read according to the instructions, and you find yourself immersed in the bewildering world of Charles Williams without the touches of realism that necessarily ground the novels. But Lewis’s guide makes sense of it all, opens the door to exquisitely moving poetry, explains Charles Williams in a way that makes sense of his poems and his novels, and outlines Lewis’s basic method of poetic criticism. Fans of Lewis and Williams: this last part is a must read! Why didn’t anyone tell me before?
And that wraps up the year. Tomorrow Year 9 officially begins (although I’ve already started the first two items on the list). May our New Year be filled with great reading!