’Tis the season when major transatlantic publications, such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Atlantic, Economist, Guardian, and Times Literary Supplement, feature their holiday guides and notable books of the year. Seldom pleased with the selections, I've put together my own list of best reads. Every book critic is idiosyncratic and I'm no exception. If my list were the curriculum of a liberal arts college, you'd notice that it's heavy on the humanities and light on the social sciences and natural sciences. Vocational reading—law, business, medicine—is utterly ignored. Given a choice between primary and secondary sources, I favor primary. I’ll take the great books, in new translations or editions, over the fashionable books (e.g., Jonathan Franzen's Freedom). I focus on books whose themes are perennial and whose questions are big—esotericists should look elsewhere. Expect a strong dose of religion, theology, and spirituality because these subjects rarely get attention by the secular media. Expect an overrepresentation of Protestant authors, owing to the process of “traditioning” (to use a favorite word of Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann). And finally, expect an ethnocentric bias toward “the West,” which is not a prejudice against “the rest” so much as a pursuit to understand my own “situatedness” (to use a favorite word of postmodernists).
As a reviewer by trade, I read many books every year—and come across others that I plan to read. I’ve provided short reviews of my top twelve picks corresponding, presumably, to the twelve days of Christmas and then a list of other notable books in 2010 ranging in subject from photography to philosophy. There should be a little something for everyone here. I welcome feedback that affirms or criticizes my selections, adds notable titles that are omitted—especially in missing categories—and alerts me to other reviews. May St. Nicholas generously increase the holdings in your library this Christmas.
TOP TWELVE PICKS
Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries, by Helen Vendler (Harvard). What Vendler did for Shakespeare’s sonnets, she has done again for Dickinson’s poems, demonstrating her refined skill and rare gift for loving attentiveness. When our age of hurry and perspiration threatens close reading, Vendler helps us slow down—way down until meter, word choice, punctuation, metaphors, tone, and allusion matter. She deftly reveals that form is as much a carrier of meaning as content. Review: Michael Dirda, Washington Post.
Pride and Prejudice: An Annotated Edition, edited by Patricia Meyer Spacks (Harvard). Delightful illustrations and perspicacious annotations deepen the pleasures of this great book, paradoxically showing how much we converge and diverge with Miss Austen’s world of Regency England. Spacks anticipates our questions because she has spent countless afternoon teas in the company of an author whose ear was tuned to subtleties of dialogue and whose heart was sensitive to both the machinations of romance and the meanness of wealth. Review: Sarah Emsley, Open Letters Monthly; Lauren Winner, Books & Culture.
Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, by Diarmaid MacCulloch (Viking). MacCulloch has written an unrivaled one-volume history of Christianity that is fair, comprehensive, and perceptive, overcoming the “West and the rest” ethnocentrism that besets other histories. Here, the Christian God does not belong to one corner of the globe or to one ecclesial polity. What emerges is an Author of history for all peoples in all places at all times, sovereign but not manipulative, creative but not capricious, mysterious but not unknowable, particular but not eccentric. (Also, see the superb BBC production featuring MacCulloch.) Review: Rowan Williams, Guardian; Jon Meacham, New York Times.
A New History of Western Philosophy, by Anthony Kenny (Oxford). Kenny’s authoritative work, compiling four volumes, is the finest single-author history of Western philosophy since Frederick Copleston—a Herculean task executed with erudition and entertainment. From the dream of the ancient Greeks to the deconstruction of postmodernists, he accessibly treats the major branches of philosophy: ethics, politics, religion, epistemology, language, metaphysics, aesthetics, and logic.
Darwin’s Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get It Wrong, by Conor Cunningham (Eerdmans). If you think the debate on science and religion is yesterday’s headline, think again. For evidence of entrenchment rather than engagement, consider what Albert Mohler, president of Southern Theological Baptist Seminary, wrote in an open letter this year to Karl Giberson, president of BioLogos Foundation: “The theory of evolution is incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ even as it is in direct conflict with any faithful reading of the Scriptures.” Cunningham, who wrote and presented the 2009 BBC documentary Did Darwin Kill God?, has written the best polemic against dogmatic scientism and fundamentalist religion, intervening with a rare combination of scientific competence and theological erudition. Stanley Hauerwas predicts that his “theological account of creation . . . will become a classic.” And here’s what David Bentley Hart says: "Cunningham has taken the time to immerse himself in the literature of contemporary evolutionary biology (of which he provides a far better and far more probing general treatment than does, say, Richard Dawkins), and as he is deeply grounded in the whole tradition of philosophical theology, he produces an argument that casts a brilliant light on the innumerable and inevitable intersections between evolutionary theory and metaphysical speculation. This book is a signal achievement, a wonderful antidote to the tiresome caricatures and diatribes constantly generated these days by the preening apostles of doctrinaire materialism."
The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion, edited by Peter Harrison (Cambridge). Divided into three parts—historical interactions, religion and contemporary science, and philosophical reflections—this volume of essays, written by experts in their fields, should become the gold standard on the subject for its comprehensive and cogent treatment.
The Classical Tradition, edited by Anthony Grafton, Glenn W. Most, and Salvatore Settis (Harvard). If, as some classicists say, our minds, bodies, government, law, medicine, arts, and fill-in-the-blank are unintelligible without an understanding of the Greco-Roman heritage, then do not waste another minute in ignorance and read this massive work, or at least selections of it, with urgency. A team of distinguished scholars—rivaling the number of warriors in the Battle of Thermopylae—dispenses knowledge and opinions on every imaginable topic under the Classical sun, connecting us to our ancient bloodline. Review: Michael Dirda, Washington Post; Eric Ormsby, Wall Street Journal.
The Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis, edited by Robert MacSwain & Michael Ward (Cambridge). C. S. Lewis magnetizes a lot of admirers and a few adversaries. Here is the first of its kind, a book where mainstream scholars, who are less vulnerable to passion or prejudice, envision the Narnian in 3D complexity—as literary historian, popular theologian, and creative writer. Rebuking evangelical “Jacksploitation” and academic apathy, the editors have selected contributors—beyond the “usual suspects”—who confound neat categories and advance critical scholarship, so that Lewis comes into view as a phenomenon and an anomaly.
To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, by James Davison Hunter (Oxford). Discourse on Christian cultural engagement will never be the same again. Hunter leaves us indebted, illumined, inspired, and maybe indignant—but not indifferent. Before To Change the World, there was Christ and Culture. Hunter’s book is greater than H. Richard Niebuhr’s because he combines theological sophistication with sociological rigor, persuasively challenging the prevalent views of cultural change, trenchantly criticizing the politicized witness of the contemporary church, and attractively developing a Christianly way-of-being in the world. Review: Terry Eastland, Weekly Standard; Andy Crouch, Books & Culture; James K. A. Smith, The Other Journal; Ken Myers, Mars Hill Audio.
Christian Ethics in a Technological Age, by Brian Brock (Eerdmans). Technopoly has met its match in Brock and his Triune God. Not since Neil Postman have we had a loving resistance fighter who, armed with theological maturity and philosophical gravity, raises our consciousness about the anthropocentric conceits of technology and, paradoxically, its dehumanizing effects. Going even further, he winsomely articulates how the Christian way of life, marked by its over-againstness, moves us closer to neighbor and creation. Stanley Hauerwas predicts that “Brian Brock is going to be one of the most important theologians of the future.”
Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture, by David VanDrunen (Crossway). Protestant Christianity, whether evangelical, mainline, or emergent, is beholden to the neo-Calvinist distortion of transformationalism, in which the classical Reformation doctrine of two-kingdoms—one common and the other redemptive—is collapsed into one. The vocation of the church, under this distortion, is to transform culture and thereby usher the arrival of the new creation. By contrast, the Reformers insisted that the task of the church is to preserve God’s people and to proclaim God’s gospel. Over against the transformationist vision, VanDrunen offers a much-needed biblical corrective, wisely and convincingly demonstrating why “redemption is not ‘creation regained’ but ‘re-creation gained” and why the cultural mandate of Adam is already fulfilled in Jesus Christ. The consequences of two-kingdom theology are hugely significant for education, vocation, and politics. Review: Bobby Jamieson, 9Marks.
Theology for a Troubled Believer: An Introduction to Christian Faith, by Diogenes Allen (Westminster John Knox Press). Not enough evangelicals have heard of Allen, and that is a shame because he is one of America’s leading contemporary theologians whose work in philosophical theology and spiritual theology should be read more widely. This work brings a lifetime of theological reflection to the task of increasing a critical but pious understanding of orthodox Christian teachings. Its principal strength is the holistic emphasis, uniting creeds and deeds. Whenever I am asked to recommend an introduction to the Christian faith, Allen will be my choice for a trustworthy guide.
Albrecht Dürer, by Norbert Wolf (Prestel). Review: Holland Carter, New York Times.
The Moment of Caravaggio, by Michael Fried (Princeton). Related article: Michael Kimmelman, New York Times. Review: Holland Carter, New York Times.
Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life, by Nicholas Phillipson (Yale). Review: Jeffrey Collins, Wall Street Journal.
Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas (Thomas Nelson). Review: Joseph Loconte, Wall Street Journal; Collin Hansen, Christianity Today; Andy Rowell, Books & Culture; Ken Myers, Mars Hill Audio.
Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom, by Peter Leithart (InterVarsity Press). Review: Stanley Hauerwas, Christian Century (available here); Ken Myers, Mars Hill Audio.
Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch, by Eric Miller (Eerdmans). Review: Alan Wolfe, New Republic; James Seaton, Weekly Standard; David Brown, American Conservative; Ken Myers, Mars Hill Audio.
Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow (Penguin). Review: Andrew Roberts, Wall Street Journal.
Bible: The Story of the King James Version, 1611-2011, by Gordon Campbell (Oxford). Review: Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post.
God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution, by Thomas S. Kidd (Basic Books). Review: Randall Balmer, Christian Century.
Madame Bovary, translated by Lydia Davis (Viking). Review: Kathyrn Harrison, New York Times; Sam Anderson, New York Magazine.
Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible, by Robert Alter (Princeton). Review: Mark Noll, Books & Culture; Barton Swaim, New Criterion; Stephen Miller, Wall Street Journal.
The Art of the Sonnet (Harvard), edited by Stephen Burt and David Mikics (Harvard). Review: Jeannie Vanasco, Open Letters Monthly; Lauren Winner, Books & Culture.
The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can't Do Without It, by Philip Ball (Oxford). Review: Guy Dammann, The Guardian; Bee Wilson, The Sunday Times.
The Ninth: Beethoven and the World of 1824, by Harvey Sachs (Random House). Review: Norman Lebrecht, Wall Street Journal; Michael Dirda, Washington Post.
Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order, by Charles Hill (Yale). Review: William Anthony Hay, Wall Street Journal.
The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, by Steven D. Smith (Harvard). Review: David Wolpe, Weekly Standard; Ken Myers, Mars Hill Audio.
The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America, by Andrew J. McCarthy (Encounter). Review: David Pryce-Jones, National Review.
The Republic of Grace: Augustinian Thoughts for Dark Times, by Charles Mathewes (Eerdmans).
The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism, by Pascal Bruckner (Princeton). Review: Brendan Simms, Wall Street Journal; Brian Anderson, New Criterion.
The Heart of William James, edited by Robert D. Richardson (Harvard).
Decade, by Eamonn McCabe and Terence McNamee (Phaidon).
Jazz, by Hermon Leonard (Bloomsbury USA). Review: David Rowell, Washington Post.
Villages of Britain: The Five Hundred Villages That Made the Countryside, by Clive Aslet (Bloomsbury USA). Review: Ferdinand Mount, Wall Street Journal.
Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self, by Marilynne Robinson (Yale). Review: Barton Swaim, Weekly Standard; Michael Dirda, Washington Post; David Bentley Hart, Big Questions Online; Katelyn Beaty, Christianity Today; Linda McCullough Moore, Books & Culture.
Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science, by Michael Ruse (Cambridge). Review: Charles Taliaferro, Themelios.
Good News for Anxious Christians: 10 Practical Things You Don't Have to Do, by Phillip Cary (Brazos). Review: Christopher Benson, Christianity Today.
The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture, by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (Paraclete Press). Review: Ragan Sutterfield, Books & Culture; Ken Myers, Mars Hill Audio.
The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr (Norton). Review: John Horgan, Wall Street Journal; Jonah Lehrer, New York Times.
God and the Art of Happiness, by Ellen T. Charry (Eerdmans). Review: Katelyn Beaty, Christianity Today.
Christopher Benson, a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism and the Graduate Institute of St. John’s College, is a book critic in Denver. His writing has appeared in The Weekly Standard, Christianity Today, Books & Culture, Image, Christian Scholar’s Review, Modern Reformation, and The City. He blogs at Bensonian.org.