Because Americans love awards, on this last day of 2018, as I have at the end of each of the last several years, I offer you my list of encomiums on the highlights of my twenty-second year of planned reading.
Most Deserving of His Own Category: Charles Dickens
Yes, once again, I enjoyed Dickens so much (The Old Curiosity Shop on this circuit of the merry sun), it just wouldn’t be fair to others in the fiction category if they had to compete with the Inimitable.
Best Reread, Fiction: White, The Once and Future King
And since Dickens has his own category, E. B. White is able graciously to accept this well deserved award. When I first read this Arthurian work, I thought White made up a lot of the zanier material to keep it all a little irreverently weird. After all, in the first part, “The Sword in the Stone,” Merlin lives backwards, turns Wart into a fish, and transports himself by accident to Bermuda. Oh, yeah: and Arthur is called “Wart.” So naturally I thought White made up episodes like Lancelot rescuing a girl from a bath that she had been unable to get out of for five years. But now that I’ve read so many of the original Arthurian sources, I can say, Nope, that’s right from Malory. It just hadn’t been in the children’s version by Lanier that I had read.
Best New (to me) Poetry: Horace, Odes
Speaking of Sidney Lanier, I had assumed for years that I would enjoy all of his poetry as much as I did his King Arthur and the handful of his poems I had read before. But on the whole they disappointed me and certainly didn’t stand up to the Odes by the ancient Roman. Whether singing to the gods themselves, country life, drinking, or a lowly fellow whose girlfriend no longer likes him, the activity and character and presence of the gods is always in Horace’s mind, as are geography and flora and fauna and weather. Here is a man whose mental world is made constantly richer by the ever-present context of both nature and supernature.
Best New Read, Fiction: Anthony Trollope, The Prime Minister
This novel of wealth and ethical dilemma in the highest political offices seemed terribly relevant.
Best History: Christopher Duggan, The Force of Destiny
I learned amazing things on every page about the last two-hundred years in Italy. My only disappointment is that alongside Napoleon, schools, rebels, the Cosa Nostra, bandits, kings, railroads, poetry, Fascists, economics, and football, Duggan didn’t have much to say about food.
Weirdest Drama: Charles Williams, Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury
You’d think that Tom Stoppard would win this award with his multiple timelines sharing the stage simultaneously and his plays-within-plays that aren’t really plays. But Williams’s unique (and uniquely opaque) poetic vision coupled with a personified death wins out. In fact, it received 14 of 19 votes in this category, many of which were cast in the Stoppard plays.
Best New Read, Religion: Justin Martyr, “Hortatory Address to the Greeks”
Justin read the classics and taught Greek philosophy. Then he became a Christian and continued to teach philosophy, even opening up his own school in Rome. His basic point in the Address is that no ancient follower of Greek philosophy should have any trouble accepting the truth of Christianity since Plato and company lead us right to the brink. The Roman authorities did have trouble, though, and killed him for his faith.
Best New Read, Nonfiction: C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism
Since it changed the way I think about reading, I should actually just call it the best new book, period.
Three Others Who Need to Be Mentioned Without Unfairly Competing for Prizes
(1) Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers: Beautiful, heart-wrenching, funny, exciting, and inspiring.
(2) Jane Austen, Mansfield Park: Beautiful, heart-wrenching, funny, exciting, and inspiring, except here all the swashbuckling adventure takes place within Fanny Price’s heart.
(3) Dante, The Divine Comedy: Beautiful, heart-wrenching, funny, exciting, and inspiring, except here all the adventure takes place literally everywhere in the physical, spiritual, and moral universe.
Who will receive awards in the coming year? Robert Louis Stevenson? Isaac Asimov? Evelyn Waugh? Henry Wadsworth Longfellow? Abu ‘l-Qasim Firdowsi Tusi? Come back in a year, and we’ll find out together!