Sunday, December 31, 2017

Book Awards – 2017

In keeping my tradition of wrapping up the year with a list of awards (and of course the world doesn’t have enough annual awards), I’ve cheated slightly and favored things that I didn’t blog about earlier in this slim year for posts. Without further ado (you won’t catch me spelling the wrong word there), here are my awards from Year 1 of my Third Decade reading plan.

Author Who Is with Me in Spirit at My Elbow: Charles Dickens
I always make a special place for Charles Dickens in my awards and then let someone else win the fiction award. Dickens doesn’t mind it as long as he gets to play Master of Ceremony. I listened to the marvelous Mil Nicholson reading Nicholas Nickleby in the car driving to and from work in the early months of this year, and I read A Christmas Carol yet again in the last week of the year. Needless to say . . . . (I want to use that phrase honestly for once.)

Best Reread: Daniel Boorstin, The Discoverers
I remember loving this book the first time I read it, but I had forgotten 99.9% of the details. In a celebration of minds that have breakthrough moments (some of which have shaped our world and some of which have been mostly forgotten), Boorstin tells the story of Su Sung’s twelfth-century astronomical clock, of Santorio Santorio refuting the dichotomy of hot and cold by marking temperature on a continuous scale, of Aldus Manutius numbering the pages of the books he printed, and of the scientifically untrained Christian Thomsen intuiting three anthropological ages by looking at artifacts of stone, bronze, and iron. Amazing! Of course Columbus and Galileo and Gutenberg and William Harvey are there, too.

Weirdest Reread: Tie – Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Verne, Hector Servadac
I didn’t like either of these books as much as I did when I was fourteen. And yet, according to my faulty memory, my adolescent self was smart enough to get the main ideas from each. It’s hard to say whether I truly enjoyed reading them again since I spent so much time asking myself, “Did I understand that? What did I think about that? How was the translation I read forty years ago better? Worse?” And on and on.

Best New Read, Religion: Mark Noll, America’s God
This book may have been about religion in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America, but it sure explains a lot of things about today.

Best New Read, Fiction: Galsworthy, A Man of Property
It’s a good thing I liked it, because the other eight novels of The Forsyte Saga are all on my plan. I don’t know what possessed Galsworthy to devote so much time to exposing these eminently flawed people, but I know a Forsyte or two, and clearly he knew whom he was writing about.

Best New Read, History: Thomas Lawrence Connelly, Army of the Heartland
Living in Knoxville now, I found this Southern perspective on the Civil War especially interesting. The western armies fought over this heartland (essentially Tennessee) because of its natural resources and because Confederate loyalty didn’t blanket the state. I live in a section that was Union sympathetic, and I’ve driven several times on the Andrew Johnson highway, named for a southern man who stayed in the U.S. Senate even after secession and toured eastern Tennessee recruiting Union soldiers. Slightly comforting.

Best Off-List Read: Margo Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures
OK, so the movie collapsed calendar time quite a bit: those victories did not all happen during the planning of John Glenn’s mission. Still, everything in the wonderful film was essentially true. But why didn’t it mention the fact that the computer calculations Katherine Johnson double-checked for Glenn came from equations that Johnson had herself developed earlier? And how could it not tell the story of Mary Jackson’s son winning the Soap Box Derby and then telling reporters he wanted to grow up to be an engineer just like his mom?

Read Leading to the Most New Reading: Brown, History of Victorian Literature
I have always thought of nineteenth-century novels as the Real Thing, and the introduction to James Eli Brown’s history explained why: the social forces of the time grew and shaped the middle-class that became both the central subject matter and the new audience for the surging literary form. It also helped that Great Britain finally nixed that Stamp Act that we got so angry about, thus making paper – and novels – cheaper. Now they’re electronic, and, after buying computers and paying for the internet, all those Victorian novels are free. It’s a good thing, because I put at least forty on a list that will form the core of my Fourth Decade.

Most Ludicrous Not-So-Great Book: Burroughs, Pirates of Venus
A lot of my Third Decade list is designed to help me revisit my adolescent reading experience. If Dumas and Verne didn’t write capitalized Great Books, I can at least say that these authors put research and skill into their books. Edgar Rice Burroughs, on the other hand, wrote pure fantasy based on an error-laden misunderstanding of science and geography. But I have fun even thinking about the mistakes. Am I really supposed to believe that Carson Napier is smart enough to build his own rocket for a trip to Mars and yet could forget the gravitational pull of the Moon in his trajectory calculations? And then am I supposed to believe that his mistake would conveniently land him on Venus instead? It would have been a better book if Napier had just aimed for the Planet of Love to begin with, but it wouldn’t have been as enjoyable.

Most Comforting-yet-Disturbing Read: Durant, The Reformation
I love Will Durant’s history, as the briefest survey of my past posts will show, and his elegant prose, nose for memorable detail, and flair for inspiring analysis provided five weeks of lunch-time comfort during a frustrating semester of teaching. On the other hand, reading about the political perversions of Christianity that led to so much bloodshed didn’t exactly improve the digestion of those lunches.

Belated Award for Most Satisfying Moment: Will Durant, re: Charles V and Francis I
I’m terrible at memorizing quotations. I often can’t even remember who said them. So when I want to sound learned, I’m left having to say something like, “Someone important once said something along the lines of this . . . .” I’m not even sure I’m quoting myself accurately there. Pathetic. For decades, the most frequent example of this total lack of the skills of scholarship involved me saying, “Somebody, I think it was Napoleon, said that the greatest enemies have to agree on one thing: they have to agree on the value of the thing they’re fighting over.” I even said it once here in this blog. Well, in Year 9, while reading Will Durant, I came across what I’m sure was the original that I had heard many winters ago. It was Holy Roman Emperor Charles V who said, and I quote verbatim, “King Francis and I are in complete agreement; we both want Milan.” Perfect.

So there you have it: all the awards for 2017 and even one from 2016. I promise nothing about the coming year, but I might find myself putting up the list for my Third Decade of planned reading. And I may end up publishing awards for Year 2 next December. In any case, that’s it for 2017, so without further adieu (wink), may your 2018 be filled with entertaining, enlightening, and inspiring reading! Happy New Year!

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