We asked some of our writers to contribute a paragraph about the most memorable books they read this year.
There is a special chagrin when we belatedly discover the greatness of some author we have been perversely avoiding for decades—in my case, Dostoevsky and Jane Austen. But there are those writers who don’t make us want to read more but to know more, whose voices are so intimate and startling that they evoke a complete personality, overshadowing the particular story they were telling. This happened when I read Charles Lamb’s indescribable Dream Children, which sent me racing to find out what weird life ordeal could have produced such a sad sweet gentleness. And now it has happened again with Lament for a Maker (1938) by Michael Innes, a writer whose restraint and intensity recalls Lamb. It would be misleading to call it the most deftly constructed mystery I have ever read (although it is), because even without its plot, the imaginative darting wordplay and rogue’s gallery of Scottish eccentrics would put it in a class of its own. Do not be put off by the book’s first narrator—simply copy the unfamiliar words and look them up later; the subsequent narrators do not speak in Scottish dialect. Highly recommended.
As a professor at Wheaton College, I sometimes wonder if students in my classes are undercover secular anthropologists hoping to study real live evangelicals (this actually happens to evangelicals often). But what most undercover agents fail to realize is that evangelicals have often beaten them to the punch. For example, Tim Larsen just finished his undercover work among anthropologists. In The Slain God, he showed that the major architects of the discipline of anthropology were themselves serious Christians. Larsen tells the story beautifully in his narrative biographical style, earning positive reviews, among other places, from the Times Literary Supplement. Perhaps scholarship like Larsen’s helps explain why recent studies of evangelicalism, such as Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason, are so much more positive than one might expect. I had anticipated the book to be a full scale dismantling of the movement. And while Worthen pulls no punches, her assessment of it actually points to what she calls the “genius” of the evangelical imagination, as evidenced by the English, Art, and Philosophy Departments at Wheaton, which foster a “culture in which God might be found in all creation, and intellectual exploration was no longer threatening.”
The Wheaton theology department has taken stabs at making their field relevant to ordinary Christians in Keith Johnson’s Theology as Discipleship and Beth Jones’s Practicing Christian Doctrine. In the same vein, Zondervan’s “ordinary theology” series thus far has issued Noah Toly’s theology of urban life, Beth Jones’s theology of sex, Vince Bacote on public life, and Gene Green's theology of surgery. Although Wheaton’s famed English department lost two professors this year, Brett Foster and Roger Lundin, they live on in the books they left behind, and in the peers they influenced. Consider, for example, Rick Gibson on Victorians and forgiveness, Christina Bieber Lake’s Prophets of the Posthuman (still basking in the glow of the Aldersgate prize), or Tiffany Kriner’s Eschatology of Reading. Indeed, the evangelical imagination has been so active of late that there is so much to enjoy from my colleagues in this publication cycle alone that I have no time left to wring my hands about the scandal of the evangelical mind.
Too much of my time in 2015 was spent on online articles like this one, but I did manage to read a few books. The first great one was Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, a novel about how we taste eternity in mutable forms. “Everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same,” is the unforgettable refrain. Boccacio’s Decameron chronicles ten days spent by ten friends telling ten stories per day. I read Charles Singleton's beautiful updated edition of John Payne's translation at the same pace this summer and imagined myself back in the gardens of Fiesole. I then visited the English seaside with Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, an account of how even Heaven and Hell are allied against liberalism After this I couldn’t help but return to The End of the Affair. John Cheever brought me back to America—shetlands and surcingles and all. Is there any more haunting story than “The Swimmer”? In October I took up The Case Against Satan, a precursor to The Exorcist that boasts one of my favorite opening sentences. Martin Mosebach’s What Was Before, a novel about chance and necessity, accident and essence, reminded me this Advent that order emerges from chaos. Over Christmas I plan to finish the stunning new edition of Martin Gardner’s Annotated Alice. I can’t imagine a book that would make a better gift.
One of the best works of political instruction in recent times is William F. Buckley's The Unmaking of a Mayor. It was first published in 1966, not long after Buckley's celebrated run for New York City mayor—Republican John Lindsay eventually won—and now reprinted by Encounter Books. If you want to see why Buckley's campaign was so electrifying for conservatives (and journalists), take a look at this episode of Meet the Press and enjoy Buckley's remarkable blending of political ideas and practical realities.
The Unmaking of a Mayor is a reflection on the whole episode, and it contains all the ingredients that we see in our politics today: a dishonest partisan press; two disappointing major political parties; ordinary conservatives disaffected from the Republican establishment; bloc votings; and clientism. Buckley adds savvy analysis of local conditions, not just moral disgust at cronyism and corruption and compromise, but reasoned awareness of the real pressures that lead to those abominations.
Here is a specimen from early in the account:
My own estimate is that some of New York's problems cannot be solved by politics, and that those that can will first require tweaking a few taboos by the nose. But since political taboos exist precisely for the benefit of one or another class of voters, it is unlikely that the taboos will be violated, and therefore unlikely that the problems will be solved; and I expect that it is the general intuition of that dilemma that lies at the heart of the demoralization that New York's critics have so eloquently berated in article after article, book after book.
I managed to beat everyone else in the DC Public Library system to put a hold in for Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich on the morning her Nobel Prize for Literature was announced. It was excellent, but maybe don't do what I did and start it over the course of a cross-city walk to meet a friend for dinner. I turned up in tears. Secondly, H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald is another extraordinary memoir of mourning, but the scale of the loss is a single person (her father) and she manages her grief by buying and training an enormous goshawk. I kept reading passages aloud to my mother on a trip, and, when she had a copy of her own, she kept reading more aloud to me. On a lighter note (I promise), Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker's War, 1941-1945 by Leo Marks was a delightful read. While others worked on breaking Enigma, Marks worked on finding ways for British covert agents to communicate securely with their spymasters, and, according to Marks's wry retelling, that tended to involve conning the bureaucrats supervising him as often as it involved moments of mathematical brilliance. The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming by Henri J.M. Nouwen is the book I read, and then made all my friends read this year, and this meditation on forgiveness and reconciliation had become my go-to gift for Christian friends (though, if a friend of yours already has it or wants a much archer take on the themes, pick up Eve Tushnet's Amends instead).
I keep searching for the book that will help me grapple well with the matter of homosexuality in the church, which is also, for me, a deeply personal issue. I haven’t yet found that book, but in the meantime, I’ve discovered a few that have given me hope. This past year, I read Covenant and Calling: Towards a Theology of Same-Sex Relationships by Robert Song, an Anglican theological ethicist at Durham University. Song is wrong, I think, to argue for the Christian legitimacy of sexually active same-sex partnerships, but he’s wrong in an important, salutary way. His arguments are rooted in Scripture and tradition and drove me back to reconsider familiar texts in a new light. I would say the same for Sarah Coakley, another Anglican theologian, and her remarkable book The New Asceticism: Gender, Sexuality and the Quest for God. If more liberal Christians were in the habit of making arguments like Coakley and Song’s (and if conservatives would follow suit), we would be having much richer, more Christologically-oriented debates about the matters of the hour. Among the other noteworthy books I read this year, John M. G. Barclay’s Paul and the Gift stands near the head of the list. It is a monumental treatment, years in the making, of a theme near the heart of the apostle’s theology. Future scholars, as well as students and pastors, will remember it as the harbinger of a bright new season in the study of Paul’s letters—one in which history, sociology, church history, and dogmatic theology are held creatively and productively together. Oh, and 2015 was the year I discovered Wodehouse: I started with The Code of the Woosters, and it’s been like one long wine-drenched, witticism-laden English dinner party ever since.
This was a year of journals, biographies, and autobiographies for me. Probably the most striking was a fat little book with a sorely outdated magenta cover that I found at the Theology section of The Strand bookstore. I had never heard of it; I’m not sure why I picked it up. It’s called Raissa’s Journal, and it’s the personal diary of the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain’s wife. Jacques is relatively well-known, of course, but his wife is not. She never meant another soul to see these pages, and yet, after her death, Jacques found the journal and was so struck by it that he thought it must be shared. It is riddled with poetry, Scripture, the writings of the saints, starkness, suffering, and love; aside from helping her husband with his academic philosophical work, she saw her mission as that of a contemplative in the world. Then there is Chesterton’s St. Thomas Aquinas—an oldie but a goodie—even if you are in the Chesterton-loves-paradox-too-much-and-is-too-quotable camp. It really is remarkable how he paints a living picture of “The Dumb Ox” in so few strokes. I’ve also been reading Newman’s Loss and Gain, a novel about a bright, sensitive, somewhat retiring, eloquent (sound like Newman yet?) Oxford student’s intellectual conversion to Catholicism. It’s written in a mostly “dialogical structure” reminiscent of the dialogues of Plato, consisting largely of conversations that Charles, the main character, has with various acquaintances on religious subjects such as Catholicism, apostasy, and the Athanasian Creed. It was the first work Newman published after his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1845.
Edward Watts, author of The Final Pagan Generation, is a historian at the University of California, San Diego, and a scholar of late antiquity. This book is the story of the generation of Roman citizens immediately preceding the conversion of Constantine, and a fascinating study of how difficult it can be to grasp the meaning of even the most consequential social changes as they happen. Watts describes a cadre of civilized, thoughtful, confident Roman elites utterly failing to comprehend that they were living through the end of an era, and he helps us to see why we ought not judge them foolish for the failure. And he describes a vast but loose collection of less privileged people who changed the world by changing their own lives. The book is a model of historical scholarship rendered into gripping narrative, and (although it’s far from clear that Watts intends it this way) a warning highly relevant to our time about how changes that build slowly can suddenly accelerate when they break the links between a society’s traditions and its rising generation.
Lytton Strachey professed to taking a dim view of English biography in the 19th century, but the author of Eminent Victorians knew better. If the jungle of multi-volume Lives and Letters that was Victorian publishing had not been full of strange and fascinating specimens—hairily sinister mygalomorphae, leering uakaris and solemn tamarins, melancholy sloths—he would not have had any material for his own books. This year I have enjoyed no biography more than John Gibson Lockhart’s hilarious and moving Life of Sir Walter Scott, which deserves the comparisons made by the author’s contemporaries to Boswell. It is long out of print, alas, but various editions may be acquired cheaply from antiquarian booksellers or on eBay, the newest, in five volumes, from 1902. More recently—this year, in fact—the Everyman’s Library and the Overlook Press have completed their joint edition of the complete works of P.G. Wodehouse. Enthusiasts have been hankering after a uniform set of the Master since his death at the glorious age of 90 in 1975. This is the most important event in English publishing since the First Folio. Last: I have made it my practice these last few years to spend St. Stephen’s Day with a favorite novel and a bottle of gin. Last year it was Middlemarch and Beefeater; the year before, The Way We Live Now and Hendricks. In 2015 I look forward to David Copperfield and Greenbrier, an American gin from the heart of moonshine country in West Virginia.
Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America was released this year, just when everyone was already talking about its topic—police measures in high-crime minority neighborhoods. Ghettoside has been reviewed positively and has sold very well. But it has not influenced our public arguments as I wish it would, perhaps because it yields no talking points, for either the left or the right. Leovy contends that crime is rampant in American ghettos because formal justice for murder is not administered there. As she documents, the majority of “ghettoside” homicides are never “cleared”—that is, solved and prosecuted. The result is a zone that Leovy compares to the frontier: Wherever murders are not handled by civil authorities, posses or gangs will arise to dispense informal justice. And why are ghettoside murders so seldom cleared? Not because they are insoluble. Most gang violence is public; it serves as a show of force, and detectives often hear that “Everybody knows” who killed this or that person. Shoe-leather detective work—the sorting-out of street-names, the navigation of family networks, the handling of frightened eyewitnesses—usually gets the job done. But this is not glamorous work. It is tedious and low-profile, and its end is retributive justice, which theorists disparage as “regressive.” Few cities fund adequately the units that do it. And so the ghettos become criminal-justice vacuums, in which gangs perpetrate revenge-killings and other violent means of keeping order. The political right proposes to reduce gang violence by the aggressive policing of misdemeanors (the “broken windows” theory) and stop-and-frisk. But these “preventive” measures exacerbate the friction between the ghetto and the police, eliciting charges of racism from the left and demands for less aggressive policing. For Leovy, both sides have it wrong. The ghettos do indeed need more aggressive policing, but not of the broken-windows variety. The only preventive response to gang violence is retributive justice, which, in the long run, deprives gang violence of its justification. Only by clearing ghettoside murders will we “mak[e] black lives expensive”—as Leovy had written before #BlackLivesMatter ever trended on Twitter.
I've noted some of my recent reading in the recurring What We've Been Reading feature, so you've seen my thoughts on two new books on Shakespeare, an old book of Italo Calvino's, and even a comic book series. Beyond those, I've enjoyed Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe for digging into how a scrappy underdog comic book company became the media juggernaut it is today. My favorite story is the slow-motion falling out between showboating Stan Lee and objectivist oddball Steve Ditko—their personal relationship collapsed even as their artistic partnership on Spider-Man caused the comic to sell like gangbusters, so for a six month period the men were not on speaking terms yet Ditko would still drop off pages of Spider-Man art for Lee to dialogue. I was enthralled by Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, which manages to both be a paean to food and a devastating critique of the American food system. Pollan's prose is great fun to read out loud, as when he describes a contemporary supermarket ecology in terms that make its over reliance on corn both hilarious and disturbing. When he finds food practices he likes (like those of Christian farmer Joel Salatin at Polyface Farms in Virginia) Pollan waxes poetic, and makes it seem that there must be something transcendent present under and within the very earthly acts of cultivating livestock or partaking in a meal. Finally, because I can't resist throwing another comic book in there, I want to heartily recommend Kurt Busiek's Astro City. I've made my way through several volumes of the series and am eager for more: Busiek creates an entire superhero universe in this book and makes it feel like it's as old as DC and Marvel comics. Introducing analogues to well-known characters (like the Samaritan for Superman, Winged Victory for Wonder Woman, etc.) allows him to put his own spin on these mythologies, and the result is a smart and self-aware superhero book that is still fundamentally optimistic: a series-length reconstruction of the genre Watchmen tore apart.
The recent death of David Steinmetz, cherished and now mourned, spurs us to revisit his wonderful writings on the history of Reformation-related themes. A good place to begin is his Taking the Long View: Christian Theology in Historical Perspective. This collection of wonderfully stimulating and accessible essays covers a wide range of Steinmetz’s creative and powerful analysis. It begins with his invaluable “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis”, which alone is worth the book.