The books of 2014, like the books of any year, utterly exceed our grasp. In one aspect, they suggest (they mimic, we could say) the divinely gratuitous excess of Creation; seen from another angle, their multiplicity reflects our fallenness, our propensity to error, our confusion. We need to hold those rival truths in tension, but plentitude can be intimidating, disorienting. Hence the seductive appeal of Theories of Everything, invoking “modernity,” say, or the decadence of “late capitalism” and winding up with “the Benedict Option.” Far better to hunker down with Beetles of Eastern North America, a massive and handsomely illustrated volume by the entomologist Arthur V. Evans covering more than 1,400 species. Keep it handy in your workspace or at your bedside, maybe next to your book of the Daily Hours. Though he was probably not intending to do so, Evans has given us a devotional. The Lord of sea and sky is also the Lord of the beetles.
Speaking of creeping things that creepeth upon the earth, and whirring, buzzing things that zip about in the air, Scott Richard Shaw’s Planet of the Bugs: Evolution and the Rise of Insects is another of the glories of 2014. Start with the back flap (savoring the delightfully textured insectoid endpapers). Below a jokey photo of the author in the field, there’s a brief bio, from which we learn that Shaw “has discovered more than one hundred fifty insect species, including a number of parasitic wasps named after cultural icons such as David Letterman, Jimmy Fallon, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Ellen DeGeneres, and Shakira—the last of which, Aleiodes shakirae, causes its host caterpillar to contort as if belly dancing.” Turn then to the front flap: “Dinosaurs, however toothy, did not rule the earth—and neither do humans. But what were and are the true potentates of our planet? Insects, says Scott Richard Shaw—millions and millions of insect species.” In short, the book offers a mixture of great learning, passion, wit, and arrested development. Early in the second chapter, Shaw fumes about the term “age of invertebrates” for the Cambrian Period (instead of “age of arthropods” or “age of trilobites”): “Calling it the ‘age of invertebrates’ is a bit like calling it ‘the age of no humans.’ The name subtly derides the success of arthropods by noting the absence of vertebrae rather than touting the evolution of exoskeletons.” Ah, well. I wish I could flick a switch now and then to see with Scott Richard Shaw’s eyes. His book is the next best thing.
Or take up Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit. Alison Hawthorne Deming writes with freshness about one of the salient themes of the year and of our time: “I am tired of the conventional palette with which the lives of animals are painted. Most renderings feel too saturated with gratuitous piety, weighted down by ceaseless elegy, or boastful about heroic encounters on the last islands of wildness. I want something closer to the marrow of our lived days, as in childhood, when an animal story or encounter could make me wonderstruck. In that mind I could feel my responses to animals inviting me into continuity and connection with forces larger than myself, a feeling for which I hunger today.”
Such a hunger, Billy Graham would say, can be ultimately satisfied only by God—which brings us to America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation. The year 2014 wasn’t the Year of Evangelicals; that was 1976, or so we’ve been told. But many books about Evangelicals were published in the year just ended, some of them quite good, others marred by the peculiar loathing for their subject that appears to afflict many observers. Among the good ones the most important is Grant Wacker’s on Billy Graham and his era, many years in the writing. (Ignore the grandiose subtitle, which has more to do with marketing than with the book itself.) There’s no conspiratorial framing to Wacker’s narrative, but neither is there a whiff of hagiography. What distinguishes the book, along with the meticulous research that went into it, is its fair-mindedness as in this passage: “The high-powered European theologian Helmut Thielicke visited Graham’s crusade in Los Angeles in 1963 [which was, by the way, the only Graham crusade I attended in person]. After the crusade, Thielicke wrote Graham: ‘When I have been asked . . . about your preaching, I have certainly not been too modest to make one or two theological observations.’ One can almost see the grin. But Thielicke went on: ‘My evening with you made clear to me . . . that the question should be asked in the reverse form: What is lacking in me and in my colleagues in the pulpit . . . that makes Billy Graham so necessary?’ He concluded: ‘We learn to see ourselves as various dabs of paint upon the incredibly colorful palette of God.’”
The same quality of fair-mindedness appears in the work of three other historians who figured among the Books of 2014: George Marsden, Mark Noll, and David Bebbington. It’s good to read side by side Wacker on Graham, Marsden’s The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief, Noll’s From Every Tribe and Nation: A Historian’s Discovery of the Global Christian Story, and Eileen Bebbington’s concise biography of her husband, A Patterned Life: Faith, History, and David Bebbington, the title of which alludes to Bebbington’s Patterns of History: A Christian Perspective on Historical Thought, first published in 1979. (It’s worth adding that 2014 marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of Bebbington’s Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, a landmark occasioning a festschrift to be published in due course, assessing how well his famous “quadrilateral” definition of Evangelicalism stands up after a quarter-century.) Of these four scholars, only two, I think, are Evangelicals strictly speaking, but all four fall within what David Martin would call the Evangelical penumbra.
In the introduction to his book, Noll credits those who, against all his inclinations, persuaded him to write “a personal narrative to describe the process by which I came to share their belief that full attention to the non-Western world had become essential for any responsible grasp of the history of Christianity.” It was the emphasis on a “personal” narrative that Noll balked at (he admits to “grave suspicion about personal memoir as a genre and real reluctance to become introspective”), but finally he agreed, for which we can be grateful. The first sentence of his first chapter was particularly resonant for me: “At Calvary Baptist Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where I grew up, missionaries were conspicuous—both in the flesh and as idealized exemplars of what the Christian life could be.” I wish everyone who set out to write about Evangelicals and Evangelicalism in the contemporary U.S. would read this chapter—for its candor, its irony, its affection, and its insight: “Just as I was beginning to get serious about other kinds of history generally, and soon other kinds of church history specifically, I abandoned mission history as in any way relevant to those developing historical interests. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.” But that wasn’t the end of the story, as the remainder of Noll’s book attests.
While we’re on the subject of history, I must mention my choice for Book of the Year in 2014: Timothy Larsen’s The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith. Over the course of a number of books, Larsen has developed a wonderfully flexible style of history writing. His previous books treat their subjects through a series of case studies that take the form of concise intellectual biographies. So, for example, Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth-Century England (2006) relates the experience of seven British individuals who had written and spoken prominently against Christianity but had then accepted the faith they had scorned; those seven stories are bookended by chapters setting them in a larger context. Larsen is lovingly attentive to the quirks of the people whose lives he is recounting; they are never forced into a mold, whatever they may share, and from his accounts the reader always comes away with a strong sense of the unexpected contours of any life closely examined. And yet, taken cumulatively, the case studies make the argument—always in a way that upsets conventional wisdom.
In The Slain God (a marvelous title), the subjects are a half-dozen British social anthropologists: Edward Burnett Tylor, James George Frazer, E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Mary Douglas, and Victor Turner and Edith Turner (husband and wife are given a single chapter). The conventional wisdom to be upset is that anthropology has demolished the claims for Christianity. “This is not a story,” Larsen writes at the very end of the book, “of this question [that is, the truthfulness of the Christian faith] having been answered decisively in one way or the other and thereafter receding into the background. Rather it is a story of the question of the credibility of the claims of Christianity being earnestly asked over and over again by some leading anthropologists in each generation. . . . The salient point is thus no longer merely that so-called ‘primitive’ peoples are drawn to the theme of the slain God. What is no less telling is that anthropologists themselves . . . continue to be caught up in the ever-recurring drama of the divine death and resurrection.”
You’ve been wondering about The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book: Where does that figure in our story? Peter Finn and Petra Couvée’s account of Cold War literary politics was one of the books of 2014 that struck a personal note with me. I can remember reading in the newspaper about the furor when the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Pasternak in 1958 (I was ten years old). I remember my first date with my wife to be, Wendy: We saw Doctor Zhivago, which reached Chico, California, some months after its screening in major cities (I was eighteen years old). I remember being partway through a rereading of Doctor Zhivago (in a battered paperback that I still have, somewhere) the night that our son, Andrew, was born (I was thirty years old). I remember reading Pasternak’s poetry—in translation—and reading about him over the decades as a lover of Russian literature. And I remember the Cold War, and the experience of talking with younger people for whom it is merely history.
The Zhivago Affair is workmanlike, the result of much digging. It is not a “literary thriller,” and the notion that it “takes us back . . . to a time when literature had the power to stir the world” is fatuous. (The Satanic Verses, after all, had “the power to stir the world.”) It’s good to read about a CIA operation that (despite some glitches) was reasonably successful: The Russian-language version of the novel funded by the agency was smuggled into the U.S.S.R., where readers fortunate enough to obtain a copy devoured it. Pasternak himself, who was a great writer, is not an entirely attractive figure here—his sense of entitlement is staggering—and the chronicle of his involvement with Olga Ivinskaya, in part the inspiration for Lara in Doctor Zhivago, is squirm-inducing. The assorted Soviet bureaucrats who sought to vilify Pasternak and make what remained of his life a hellish misery were a slimy bunch. Now and then the book manages to convey, without hyperbole or cant, what the Cold War was about.
There were other items of interest for Slavophiles in 2014, including two new translations of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, published almost simultaneously: one by Rosamund Bartlett, from Oxford University Press, the other by Marian Schwartz, from Yale University Press in the Margellos World Republic of Letters series. By far the most noteworthy, though, was Daniel Todes’s Ivan Pavlov: A Russian Life in Science, just short of nine hundred pages. Todes clears away misconceptions about Pavlov (the apocryphal bell, for instance, which appeared in the first mention I encountered of Pavlov, way back when, in a comic book—the bell that was supposed to trigger the reflex of the poor dog). He adds significantly to the growing body of work that is revising our understanding of the fate of science in the Soviet era. And he tells the story of a fascinating man: the son of a priest, himself starting out as a seminarian before turning away from the Church and toward a career as a scientist unswervingly committed to materialism. This is an extraordinary book.
I’ve been reading fiction for more than sixty years—since I began to read anything at all. And yet even now when I am into the first pages of a novel, I feel something very like I did as a boy, entering another world. But I reflect on the experience in a way I couldn’t have as a boy. It is, of course, a fictional world I’m entering, and yet part of the trick is that while you are reading, that awareness is not at the front of your mind. I’m aware not only of entering another world, the world of the story, but also of being in connection with another consciousness, that of the author.
The fiction that I most value invites a deeper connection; almost always when I finish a novel that I have greatly enjoyed, I will read it again right away. My favorite novels of 2014—Christopher Beha’s Arts & Entertainments, Stephen Carter’s Back Channel, Ruth Rendell’s The Girl Next Door, Marly Youmans’s Glimmerglass, Ayelet Waldman’s Love and Treasure, and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven—are all ones I’ve read at least twice by now, and in a couple of cases, three times.
Christopher Beha is a young writer recently returned to the Catholic Church. Arts & Entertainments is his second novel. Comparisons to other writers are often misleading, but if you like the work of Muriel Spark (one of my favorite writers), there’s a good chance that you will enjoy this book, set in contemporary New York City.
You know of Stephen Carter, whether you’ve read him much or not, as a consummate public intellectual. You may be vaguely aware that he also started writing fiction some years ago. You may not be aware that he has become a superb novelist. An ambitious, bright, young black woman is the protagonist of Back Channel, set around the Cuban missile crisis. Ruth Rendell, well into her eighties now, is the author of more than sixty novels. Her first novel was published in 1964; The Girl Next Door, her latest, fifty years later. If (like me) you are struck by the fiction that’s being written by Old Masters—sometimes explicitly reflecting on aging and the way it is perceived—you will not want to miss this one.
Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times but in tune with the ages. Glimmerglass is set in the present in a fictional village patterned on Cooperstown. It’s a sweetly uncanny mix of the quotidian and the magical, a portrait of the artist (and this is such a refreshing change) as a middle-aged woman recovering her vocation. There’s a very odd house, too, with Gothic chambers, and a family secret, and much more. Ayelet Waldman’s Love and Treasure is in a very different key, ranging from the present to wartime Europe (and the Holocaust) to the early years of the twentieth century, and yet—like Glimmerglass—it centers on an enigmatic lost painting. This uncompromising atheist’s book balances disillusionment with hope (Waldman doesn’t want to fool herself, or her readers). The main action of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven takes place after a plague has wiped out much of the world’s population. A doughty band makes a circuit in the upper Midwest, traveling from one tiny settlement to another, performing music and Shakespeare at each stop. A wonderfully fey book, despite the presence of a wacko “prophet,” the only significant religious presence in the story; it’s informed throughout by faith in the imagination.
Finally, poetry: The book that stood above all others for me is Michael Robbins’s The Second Sex. Why? Try the last poem in the book, “Out Here in the Fields,” which moves briskly from Anna Wintour to the Desert Fathers (“This is rocket science / in the Desert Father style. / Those weirdos in their caves— / man, you should read their file”), winding up thus: “And I’d be more like them / if I were less like this, / a billion points of glitter / in a fathomless abyss.” I don’t know any other contemporary poet whose lines stick in my head the way Robbins’s do.
These are (some of) the Books of 2014. Good reading and Godspeed.
John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture and editor at large for Christianity Today magazine.