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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Book
edited by james raven
oxford, 480 pages, $39.95

This handsomely produced book represents both the riches and the absurdities of the academic world circa 2020. Anyone who is, as I am, besotted with books to a degree some judge unhealthy will want to have a copy at hand, along with Roger S. Bagnall’s Early Christian Books in Egypt, Richard B. Sher’s The Enlightenment and the Book, Janine Barchas’s The Lost Books of Jane Austen, and many more books about books. Readers who are interested but not at least slightly mad will want to rely on interlibrary loan or the help of professor-friends.

Connoisseurs of hate-reading will savor the introduction by James ­Raven; all others are advised to skip it and browse at will in the thirteen chapters that follow, ranging widely in time, locale, and subject matter, from Eleanor Robson on “The Ancient World” to Ann Blair on “Managing Information” to Christopher A. Reed and M. William Steele on “Modern China, Japan and Korea.” And do not miss the fascinating timeline at the outset, which runs for fourteen pages.

Now about that vexing introduction. You will be familiar with the academic fashion for insisting that nothing is what you supposed it to be. So, of course, with the book. “In an age when we might not know what a book is any more,” Raven writes, musing on this at length before arriving at this exquisite absurdity: “If we think radically, then we might ask whether a person could be a book.” His answer, of course, is yes.

—John Wilson

Origins of Catholic Words:
A Discursive Dictionary

by anthony lo bello
catholic university of america, 576 pages, $29.95

With pith and wit, Anthony Lo Bello has produced a readable reference work and a worthy compendium to the old Catholic Encyclopedia. Lovers of lexicon and liturgy, theology and trivia, vocabulary and vestments will easily find a place on their shelves for ­Origins of Catholic Words: A Discursive Dictionary.

A rare professor of mathematics literate in Latin, Hebrew, and Greek, Lo Bello informs and entertains from Aspergillum to Zouave. He selects from the expected sources (Scripture, Cardinal Newman, Dr. Johnson) and points readers to a few they should dust off for the first time, including Ferdinand Gregorovius’s Roman journals, Louis Duchesne’s histories of early Christianity, and Francis Augustus MacNutt’s name-dropping memoir.

As the former head of the Latin Mass Association, Lo Bello’s liturgical observations are brief, gentle, and entirely correct. For example, his entry for the word altar closes with the observation that the “abandonment of the old high altars that occurred after the Second Vatican Council was, from the artistic point of view, a calamity.” Every bishop, priest, and layman will struggle to suppress a smile at Lo Bello’s etymology of chancery: “The diminutive cancelli means little crabs, whence it developed the meaning, lattice work, grating.” Those ecclesiastical bureaucrats and paper pushers behind grates “were hence denominated cancellari or chancellors, that is, grating-people.”

For many readers, the most interesting entries will be the archaic titles, duties, rituals, and decorations, especially the classes of papal chamberlains (camerieri) that made Henry James “groan at the victory of civilization over color” when they disappeared at the end of the Papal States and with the reforms of the papal household under Paul VI. Readers of Anthony Lo Bello’s Discursive Dictionary will find themselves made more civilized and their language more vibrant.

Stephen Schmalhofer

Duty, the Soul of Beauty:
Henry James on the Beautiful Life

by r. r. reno
wiseblood books, 40 pages, $8

What could convince a reader to return to the late novels of Henry James after a first attempt? It might tax even the talents of Flannery O’Connor, who said that she read the great novelist out of “High Duty” (no doubt duty to her mentor, Caroline Gordon). James’s own brother described the narrative of these novels as “interminable elaboration of suggestive reference.” It took R. R. Reno many years to return to James’s late novels after he abandoned them as an undergraduate, but his essay for Wiseblood, “Duty, the Soul of Beauty,” makes such a strong case for The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl that the spell of these novels begins to seem irresistible. More remarkable still, Reno shows that duty itself, encountered with surprise by James’s characters—not to mention the contemporary reader—achieves a beauty that self-fashioning can never reach.

Self-invention is the domain of James’s counterpart in the essay, ­Oscar Wilde, whom Reno regards as the precursor (despite his late conversion) to the current understanding of “the liberating power of transgression.” Wilde’s belief that “moral limits are social constructs external to the self” can be seen everywhere today. Against Wilde’s now commonplace assertion of “new permissions,” James bracingly provides “an artful account of the role of plain, ordinary moral duty in a truly beautiful life.” As Reno shows with elegant clarity, both Lambert Strether in The Ambassadors and Maggie Verver in The Golden Bowl painfully discover the adultery of those they trust. In each case, the character awakens from the illusion of “pleasures without penalties,” but both Strether and Maggie, far from being defeated and made small, thereafter live more ­beautiful lives.

This insistence on James’s essentially conservative “belief in the beneficence of limits” rings true, but Reno’s singular accomplishment is to argue that James’s “disorienting and opaque style” in the late novels is in fact “brilliantly realistic” because it captures with such psychological accuracy the inner evasions of self-fashioning. Even contemporary conservatives who believe that “moral truth makes life beautiful,” says Reno, have imaginations that go “blurry at the edges,” exactly the condition that James enacts in his prose. It might be a high duty just now to take up the late novels of Henry James—but also, one begins to suspect, a surprising pleasure.

—Glenn Arbery

Big in Heaven:
A Collection of Short Stories

by stephen siniari
ancient faith, 256 pages, $17.95

In this exquisite collection of twenty-­four short stories, Fr. ­Stephen Siniari brings to light the hidden gem of the American Orthodox experience. Set in a contemporary industrial neighborhood in Philadelphia, the stories revolve around an Albanian Orthodox parish and its introspective pastor, Fr. Naum. In this close-knit urban community, “blood is thicker than water, and chrism is thicker than blood”—and God’s transformative grace is present even amid inescapable suffering.

From factory workers and elderly immigrants to ex-convicts and drug addicts, each story paints a raw but beautiful portrait of a lost soul or broken family searching for God’s healing. Fr. Naum has his own failings as well—as a priest, a husband, and a father—which keep him humble as he strives to serve the people around him. In each encounter, this run-down Philly neighborhood becomes the stage for the universal human drama of devastating sin and extraordinary love.

Fr. Siniari views this timeless struggle through the lens of Orthodox spirituality. In each story, the liturgy, the sacraments, and the writings of the Church Fathers serve as wellsprings of wisdom, ancient but mysteriously relevant to modern woes. Fr. Siniari presents the creed and traditions of the Church with a vision that acknowledges both the gritty, heartbreaking details of ordinary life and the ineffable power of God’s mercy. Not every story has a neat or happy ending—but all draw the reader deeper into the mystery of suffering.

Big in Heaven is religious fiction as it should be: compelling, immensely readable stories that are challenging and spiritually eye-opening. Both poignant and profound, Fr. Siniari’s collection is an impressive example of contemporary American Orthodox literature.

—Mary J. Woods