As we prepare once more to greet the two-faced Janus, we mortals also tend to look both backward and forward. Among the good things of this past year, I’m most thankful for my daughter’s move to Tennessee, my successful cancer surgery, and our driving trip to St. John’s Newfoundland. (Driving, mind you!) Coming up next year are a trip to Ireland (we decided not to drive there, though) and full retirement in December 2016. But of course having a Ten-Year Reading Plan prompt me to think back over the last twelve months of books and to anticipate the next twelve. As I’ve done for several years now, I offer my retrospective in the form of awards.
Hall of Fame: Charles Dickens
I used to think that if I didn’t place Dickens in his own honorific category, no one else could ever win the Best Reread. But I found this year that I’m perfectly happy announcing a four-way tie in that category.
Best New Read, Religion: Pascal, The Provincial Letters
Although his Pensées is one of my very favorite books, I had to put down Pascal’s Provincial Letters unfinished when its turn came up in the original ten-year plan that came with my Britannica Great Books set. And I find it very difficult to give up on a book; I’ve probably done it only three or four times in my whole life. But this year as I enjoyed the rest of these public letters, I couldn’t figure out how I lost interest the first time. Maybe it helped that my reading schedule has kept the Reformation on one of the closest back burners for several months. As Pascal exposes “Christian” theological theories that bribery is not sinful, that receiving forgiveness doesn’t require contrition, and that loving God is not necessary for salvation, you’d think he was writing satire except that he offered quotation after quotation from actually published books.
Best New Read, History: Foner, The Fiery Trial
Eric Foner understands that our country’s oldest and most persistent problem can’t be effectively treated in the sound bytes of postmodern politics. Through extensive quotations and careful analysis of historical context, the author does an amazing job setting out and balancing the delicate nuances of Lincoln’s feelings, thoughts, judgments, words, and actions concerning race relations and slavery. While the Great Emancipator didn’t have a twenty-first-century liberal view of race in America, it is a relief to find him consistently and emphatically denouncing American slavery as an unmitigated evil over all the decades of his public life. The high point of the book came when Foner distinguished feeling and belief and then made it clear that Lincoln valued the latter over the former, a point that I don’t normally encounter in any writing after, say, 1800.
Best Payoff for the Wait: Malory
In contrast to my experience with The Provincial Letters, when I put down Morte d’Arthur unfinished years ago, I knew I’d get back to it, and I knew I’d love it. I didn’t know it would take thirty years to get back to it, and I didn’t know I would love the last part as much as I do. The book starts out being really good, and then when Galahad and the story of the Grail shows up, it gets great. When the surprises in that story play out, though, it becomes something even greater than great. I didn’t see Malory’s tale of the knights of the Round Table on any Great Books list when I drew up my schedule ten years ago; I just planned it because I like King Arthur. Now I’m wondering how no one else recognizes this deeply moving classic.
Biggest Disappointment: Bede
I thought that by reading Bede, I’d read an inspiring history of the early Church in England. But in books II and III, Bede reveals an axe that I don’t care to see ground: the monk known as the Venerable wants to make it clear that the Celts, because they calculate the date of Easter differently from the English, are rude and barbaric. Hey, Bede, in the words of Paul, “One man esteems one day as better than another, while another man esteems all days alike. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another?”
Most Changed Author: Hume
I learned in college about Hume’s far-reaching skepticism. I’ve read about his skepticism. I’ve read Hume himself and thought he was a skeptic, although it seemed clear to me that he was uncomfortable with his skepticism. But after reading Hume this year, I came away convinced that he fully believed that we should trust our senses, believe in God, and pursue science. All he was skeptical of, it seems to me now, is reason as the basis for these assurances.
Most Challenging Nonfiction: Lewis, “Christianity and Culture”
When C. S. Lewis starts wondering what good it does anyone for him to teach culture, the dimmer mind in this lesser professor has to sit up and take notice.
Best Return Visit: (tie) Lord of the Rings, Tristram Shandy, Don Quixote, Orthodoxy
Why did I plan four of my very favorite books for the same year? Maybe, when I drew up my ten-year plan a decade ago, I put them all in year 9 thinking of each them (at four different times spread over several weeks, no doubt) that I should read new things and difficult things before I indulge myself – and then couldn’t bear to put any of them off all the way to year 10. If books were food and chocolate were completely nourishing, these four books would be chocolate to me.
Best Offroading: A History of the World in 6 Glasses
I learned something new and fascinating in almost every paragraph. I didn’t know that beer had so much to do with the beginnings of writing. I didn’t know that Enlightenment philosophers considered coffee vital to their discussions and thinking. I didn’t know that Coca-Cola is so closely associated with the U.S. that Pepsi often finds ready foreign markets in countries that don’t like us.
Tomorrow I begin the last year of my ten-year reading plan. It’s the weirdest, most extensive self-educating plan I’ve ever heard of, and I’ve reached the 90% mark right on schedule. Oh, wait. I remember now reading that Thomas Edison vowed as a boy to read every book in his library. Oh! And there’s the classic Twilight Zone episode where the avid reader finds himself the only survivor of the holocaust. I watched that episode recently, and I couldn’t believe how much I resembled Burgess Meredith’s character. Not only does he love Dickens; he lays out stacks of books on the steps of the library and arranges them according to the year he plans to read them. If I want to finish my plan next December, I guess I’d better not break my glasses!