For many years when I was editing Books & Culture, I posted an annual list of favorites. Last December, a year after the end of B&C and a couple of months after the abrupt shutdown of Education & Culture, I made do with Twitter. It’s good to have a roomier space, for 2018 at least, right here.
If you’ve followed this list in the past, you know that I huff and puff a bit about its ritual nature. I enter a trance-like state (suburban surrealism!), and book covers begin to swim about in my head, incongruously paired, as beautiful as the canonical chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table. (Consider for instance the first three titles in the list below.) In this reverie—sometimes with snapshots of pages flickering—I jot down titles on the back of an envelope without attempting any sort of “balance” with regard to subject matter or any other criteria. Today’s list would differ at least a bit from a list composed two weeks ago or two weeks hence.
Many books I’ve enjoyed this year are missing, not to mention those that might very well have been included but which I haven’t yet had a chance to read: Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries, for instance, and Christopher Miller’s study of literary impostors. Many important books are missing; John Fea’s Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump is the most salient example. While I dissent from John’s argument in some respects, I am grateful for his clear, uncompromising witness against the “court evangelicals” toadying to Trump, a witness not restricted to the book itself but amplified in settings all around the U.S. during a months-long book tour.
Missing, too, is re-reading. (All the books on the list were published in 2018.) For me this year, that included a lot of Agatha Christie, Elizabeth Ferrars, Philip K. Dick, everything by Walter J. Ong, and a truckload of books by and about Native Americans, among other authors and subjects.
As usual, the books are (mostly) listed in alphabetical order by title (departures from this rule will be self-explanatory), followed at the end by the Book of the Year. One irregularity this year is the length of the list. It’s too long for the purpose. (I had to move from the envelope to a whole sheet of paper.) I apologize. This wasn’t planned; I hope it doesn’t indicate a loosening of the “faculties,” as Muriel Spark would put it. And speaking of Spark: 2018 was her centenary, and I re-read many of her books over the course of the year. If you haven’t tried her, now would be a good time to do so. (Christopher Scalia has a piece on Spark coming soon in the print edition of First Things, which I’m looking forward to reading.)
Some 2018 Favorites:
Art, Religion, and Trade in the Middle Ages
ed. helen c. evans
yale university press
This book accompanies an exhibition at the Met (ending early in January). Keep an eye out for a piece (provocatively titled “The Armenian Option”) by Matthew Milliner in the March issue of Comment magazine. And if you live in or around the city, hasten to take in the show while you can.
The Ashtray (Or the Man Who Denied Reality)
university of chicago press
I wrote about The Ashtray here, calling it “a brilliant, impudent, idiosyncratic book on one of the most widely cited works of our time.” (That would be Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.) It’s all of that and more (not least, a superb example of book design; no book I saw this year used images and layout to better effect).
Between Two Millstones, Book 1:
Sketches of Exile, 1974-1978
aleksandr solzhenitsyn, trans. peter constantine
university of notre dame press
This year marks Solzhenitsyn’s centenary (he was born in December 1918). I’ve been surprised not to see more big retrospective pieces. This volume (long-awaited) provides a perfect point of departure for such reflection.
The Black Prince
By the Pricking of Her Thumb
Anthony Burgess wrote a screenplay based on the life of Edward III, the Black Prince, and also left notes for a novel on this theme, not completed. Adam Roberts (who not so long ago blogged through his reading of Burgess’s fiction) has taken these materials and created a novel of his own, in homage. By the Pricking of Her Thumb is a sequel to The Real-Town Murders, set in a near future and using Kubrick as a template of sorts (where the previous book used Hitchcock). And yes, there’s something freakish about Adam Roberts’s irrepressible imagination coupled with his seemingly inexhaustible intellectual energy. We’re fortunate to be his contemporaries.
China at War:
Triumph and Tragedy in the Emergence of a New China
hans van de ven
harvard university press
It would be a full-time job (and an interesting one) simply to keep up with all the new books on China. (I wonder if anyone did that, during the short-lived Golden Age of Blogging.) This is one of the best I’ve seen in recent years. “China at War,” van de Ven writes, “treats the warfare in which China was involved from 1937 to 1953 as an interlocking series of events.” There is a personal dimension to this account as well, as is made clear in van de Ven’s introduction. This is an exceptionally rich work of history, wary of moral posturing, unusually subtle, and beautifully written.
Christianity in the Twentieth Century:
A World History
princeton university press
The Kingdom of God Has No Borders:
A Global History of American Evangelicals
oxford university press
There are always reasons for Christians to acknowledge how we are falling short, wandering away from the path, but sometimes—just now, for instance—that sense of failure is particularly strong. These two fine books—the first a magisterial overview, the second a younger scholar’s needed corrective to fashionable opinion—are very far from cheerleading, but they also avoid the opposite error. In that respect, besides being good history they are also good medicine.
Dark Sacred Night
In a nutshell: Connelly’s trademark creation, Harry Bosch, is paired with a recently introduced protagonist, LAPD detective Renée Ballard, who made her debut in the summer of 2017 (The Late Show). For months I’ve been working on a Connelly piece for Commonweal. (Lots of re-reading.) Stay tuned, as we used to say. You might also check out the excellent Amazon TV series Bosch, on which Connelly has collaborated.
The History and Legends of Viking England
Laughing Shall I Die:
Lives and Deaths of the Great Vikings
I first encountered the medievalist Eleanor Parker on Twitter (her handle is @ClerkofOxford); her timeline is one of my favorites. Dragon Lords is her first book. You could say that while Parker seeks to “naturalize” the Vikings, Tom Shippey wants us to grasp their sheer otherness. Shippey is a medievalist, Tolkien expert, and scholar of science fiction, an excellent writer whatever hat he happens to be wearing at the moment, with shelves of books and articles to his credit. Read Parker and Shippey both, preferably in that order.
Heads of the Colored People
This collection of stories by a self-described “black nerd” is one of the sleepers of the year. It hasn’t gone without notice, but it hasn’t received anything like the attention it merits. Reading it reminded me yet again of the need for a really good book on the strong vein of satire in African-American fiction. Part of what makes Thompson-Spires’s debut so distinctive is its tone; read one or two of the stories and you’ll know right away what I mean.
The Work of Sound in Literature
harvard university press
To my professor friends in the humanities (the ones who haven’t given up): Angela Leighton’s book will help you remember why you took this path in the first place. While its primary audience is lit-folk, it will speak to scholars in many disciplines if only they’re willing to lend an ear. (Check out, for instance, Hearing History: A Reader, edited by Mark M. Smith.) I dare you to read ten pages without stopping to copy several arresting bits.
Hilma af Klint was a Swedish artist who, in addition to her more conventional paintings, was a pioneer of abstraction before the early 20th c. But she kept these works hidden, and they weren’t discovered until decades after her death. She is important for the ongoing conversation on “the spiritual in art” and the alleged “disenchantment” of the modern world. The first volume above accompanies an exhibition that opened at the Guggenheim in October. As with the Armenian show, by all means see it if you can.
The Indian World of George Washington
colin g. calloway
oxford university press
As Calloway has noted in an interview, “Washington fathered a nation that was built on Indian land.” Hence the growth of America “demanded the dispossession of Indian people.” That’s painfully obvious, but it wasn’t at all emphasized in the accounts of Washington I grew up with. Calloway doesn’t demonize his subject. He shows how Washington wrestled with treating Indians “fairly,” according to his own lights. But at the same time he was acquiring more and more land, not only for America but for himself personally. This book should be read side-by-side with William Hogeland’s indispensable Autumn of the Black Snake: The Creation of the U.S. Army and the Invasion That Opened the West.
The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster
stephen l. carter
Take an eminent professor of law who has also turned out to be an excellent novelist. Mix with true family history that sounds like the stuff of fiction (or a movie pitch), a story, moreover, with particular resonance just now. Result? Delicious.
The Iranian Metaphysicals:
Explorations in Science, Islam, and the Uncanny
princeton university press
All I needed to see was the title of this book in the Princeton catalogue: I knew I would devour it at the first opportunity. (And the illustration on the cover is great too.) The book itself didn’t disappoint. Read with Jason Josephson-Storm’s The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences, published last year.
John Stuart Mill:
A Secular Life
oxford university press
George MacDonald in the Age of Miracles:
Incarnation, Doubt, and Reenchantment
I wrote about the MacDonald book here several weeks ago, briefly mentioning the Mill book as well. Each is entirely satisfying on its own, but they’re even more interesting when read together.
farrar, straus and giroux
I’ve followed Stallings since her first book of poems, Archaic Smile; this is her fourth. One poem here is titled “Crow, Gentleman.” This is how it begins: “Pacing to and fro / Along the autumn shore / Among the wrack and reek. . . .” I trust I’ve persuaded you to acquire a copy of Like as soon as possible.
A Life of Art & Nonsense
farrar, straus and giroux
Jenny Uglow is a historian and biographer I greatly admire. (Do you remember her 2002 book The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World?) And I adore Edward Lear, so this handsomely produced book was required reading. The subtitle should perhaps read “A Life of Art & Nonsense & Sadness,” though you could argue that the sadness is implicit in the juxtaposition of “Art” and “Nonsense.”
Outlaws of Time #3:
The Last of the Lost Boys
n. d. wilson
katherine tegen books
If you have some “young readers” in your extended circle (“Ages 8-12,” the dust jacket flap advises, with undue precision), and if you now and then read books in this category yourself, go back to the first volume of this trilogy, Outlaws of Time: The Legend of Sam Miracle, published in 2016, and get started.
I wrote here about reading Richard Powers over the decades. At that point (in April), I was about 150 pages into this big new novel about trees, which I went on to finish. It was worth it. I’ll quote a few sentences from my earlier report:
With the ferocity of an Old Testament prophet, Powers indicts our blindness and selfishness, a grotesque narrowing of vision; one of his principal characters learns early on that “human wisdom counts less than the shimmer of birches in a breeze.” That sounds almost like a line from the Psalms. It is also a test for the reader. Some will thrill to the contempt for the human; some will feel a jolt of free-floating religious awe; some will decide that enough’s enough (though most of those are unlikely to have started the novel in the first place). Me? I’m reading Richard Powers, seeing the world through his eyes once again.
The Letters of Guy Davenport & Hugh Kenner
ed. edward m. burns
These two massive volumes, solidly bound and with a sturdy slipcase, are the fruit of who knows how many hours (how many years) of editorial labor by Edward M. Burns, who should get the editorial equivalent of a Pulitzer or a National Book Award. Also a project to which I feel a strong connection, having learned more from Hugh Kenner than from any other single writer and having written the first thesis on Guy Davenport. Many thanks to Counterpoint. I received the set just a couple of weeks ago and will be writing about it in due course.
Sleep of Memory
patrick modiano, trans. mark polizzotti
yale university press
This novel, published in France in 2017 and now available in English translation, was the first by Patrick Modiano since he won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature. A friend who doesn’t care for Modiano complained to me that “all his books are the same.” Yes and no. Most of the novels are quite short, and many of them revisit the past in a ruminative way that emphasizes not only the elusiveness of memory but also our very experience of time. If you like what Modiano does, as I do, you find it immensely seductive and haunting. (I’ve already read this little book three times.)
The Teacher Diaries:
Romeo & Juliet
t.s. poetry press
So many reports from teachers these days (teachers at all levels, from elementary to graduate school) are depressing. What a treat to read this book by a young teacher whose zest for Shakespeare and her students and our common life is contagious. I eagerly await the next volume in the series.
The Traitor’s Niche
ismail kadare, trans. john hodgson
At the heart of the Ottoman Empire, in the main square of Constantinople, a niche is carved into ancient stone. Here, the sultan displays the severed heads of his adversaries. People flock to see the latest head and gossip about the state of the empire: the province of Albania is demanding independence again, and the niche awaits a new trophy. Tundj Hata, the imperial courier, is charged with transporting heads to the capital—a task he relishes and performs with fervor. But as he travels through obscure and impoverished territories, he makes money from illicit sideshows, offering villagers the spectacle of death. The head of the rebellious Albanian governor would fetch a very high price.
I’m quoting from publicity for the British edition of this novel, published by Harvill Press, which I couldn’t improve upon. It gives, beneath its matter-of-fact surface, a sense of the uncanny quality of this novel by a writer who should by now have received a Nobel Prize. It will make you think of the Old Testament, and ISIS, and (warning!) it will invade your dreams.
The Year of Our Lord 1943:
Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis
oxford university press
Alan Jacobs and I are roughly in the same “demographic”: He’s ten years younger, but we’re both Boomers. We’re both Christians of roughly the same variety. We’ve been friends for almost 25 years. And yet when I read a new book by him, I do so not because we “think alike”: On the contrary, I’m reading for the reason C. S. Lewis identifies in his wonderful little book Experiment in Criticism, to see with other eyes, to experience “extension of being.” Alan’s five principal subjects in this new book are Jacques Maritain, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, C. S. Lewis, and Simone Weil. It would never have occurred to me to treat these five together, in this frame. But it did occur to Alan, which is why I’ve read his book, twice.
Book of the Year:
Atlas of a Lost World:
Travels in Ice Age America
This book about the peopling of North America over many thousands of years combines history, reportage, and personal narrative to dazzling effect. Never has a book given me such a palpable, yet dreamlike sense of the history of this place where I was born and have lived my life, nor of those who came before—perhaps as long as 40,000 years ago. For more of my thoughts on Atlas of a Lost World, see my column in the forthcoming Advent issue of The Englewood Review of Books. In the meantime, I strongly urge you to check it out.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.