The good old Earth has spun around the good old Sun once more, and so again it’s time for me to present my awards for some good old books.
President of the Awards Academy: Charles Dickens
In 2019, I read one of my favorite Dickens novels, Dombey and Son; and one of my least favorite, Barnaby Rudge. I read A Christmas Carol about two-and-a-half times in preparation for a series of adult Sunday School classes I taught this last month. And I revisited Cricket on the Hearth for the first time in over thirty years. Dickens is so especially good that even some passages of Barnaby were better than anything I read by anyone else this year. Fortunately, the Great Man took himself out of the running for these awards so others would have a chance.
Most Confusing Reread: Charles Williams, Descent into Hell
Ten years ago, I wrote to myself that this book was like a firehose of stew: most of it went down my neck not understood, but what landed in my mouth was hearty and nutritious. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about Charles Williams, including the fact that his friend and champion, C. S. Lewis, thought that his figures were sometimes so individual, so impossible for the reader to unravel, as to risk being literary mistakes. So I may have swallowed more this time around, but the vegetables and sauce left on my neck just felt like a mess!
Best History: Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty
Every chapter of this history of the United States from the end of the Revolution until 1815 was full of surprising nuance. The most interesting point, made in the last chapter and led to by a thread that started on the first page, stated that neither Jefferson nor Hamilton, the two rivals on Washington’s cabinet, holding two rival agendas for the country, got their way in the end. Hamilton’s vision of entrepreneurs borrowing from banks and inventing new manufactures to trade internally certainly became more of a reality than Jefferson’s nation of agrarian gentlemen. But the people who created these businesses were not the educated elite Hamilton foresaw but common, middle-class citizens – sometimes even the farmers that Jefferson so loved. I also know that if you write to Gordon Wood with praise for his book, he’ll write back to you!
Best Pseudo-History: Ferdowsi, Shahnameh
When I read the first half of this book around ten years ago, I loved the legends. But within pages of starting the second half last January, the legendary heroes gave way, and the living legend, Alexander, came on to the scene. From then on, there were far fewer magical feats and, the editor assures me, more of something that approximates what archeology can corroborate. No more women with bodies like cedars that touch the star Canopus, but I still loved reading the ancient stories from an area we all need to understand more.
Best Short Story: Robert Louis Stevenson, “The Lantern Bearers”
OK, it may have been the only short story I read this year. But I thought about it often and found encouragement in its brilliant image.
Best Theology: Richard Hooker, Ecclesiastical Polity
Hooker argues for a Church that recognizes difference of opinion without giving up central beliefs such as those in the Nicene Creed, and he does it all without calling his enemies childish, stubborn, or traitorous. It is such a welcome relief to find that Christians can be Christian.
Best Mystery: Dorothy L. Sayers, Murder Must Advertise
Except that Harriet and Bunter don't appear, this is the perfect Peter Wimsey mystery! First, the book lacks the mistakes of the Wimsey novels written just before it. No onslaught of times. No onslaught of essential information in chapter 1. The hidden information is there and doesn't need to be recalled in detail in order to understand the solution. But the novel has plenty of positive virtues, as well. Peter's athletic prowess and sense of fun comes out more than ever. Dialogs between people of various classes and professions are full of interesting detail. And the book is replete with philosophical ruminations about the ethics of marketing. Is advertising, as Jack Gilbert said of poetry, a kind of lying, necessarily?
Best Longfellow Poem: Longfellow, “The Ladder of St. Augustine”
I wrote earlier this year about “The Bridge of Cloud.” But today, partly to mention something new, and partly because my year has been filled with such stress (a year that ends tonight!), I’ll give the award to “The Ladder.” (Longfellow can be upset if he wants to, but he still gets the statuette.)
[Do not] deem the irrevocable Past
As wholly wasted, wholly vain,
If, rising on its wrecks, at last
To something nobler we attain.
A lot happened this year, and I barely finished my reading list for 2019. There wasn’t even time to blog about anything in September, October, and November. But now the awards are handed out, and tomorrow, once the after-ceremony parties are over (Dorothy Sayers’s is usually pretty good), I’ll get started on a New Year of reading and a New Year of blogging. I hope your New Year is full of some good old books!