We asked some of our writers to contribute a paragraph about the most memorable books they read this year.
The relativism of anthropologists like Franz Boas and Margaret Mead wasn't just an intellectual error; it had a body count. Henrietta Schmerler and the Murder that Put Anthropology on Trial tells the story of a bright 23-year-old from Brooklyn who in 1931 went off alone to research the Apache because her teacher Ruth Benedict assured her it would be all right. No such thing as savages, they believed, just Indians who've been misunderstood. Schmerler ended up raped and murdered at the bottom of a ravine. To compound their offense, the Columbia University anthropologists rushed to impugn their grad student's character, telling the FBI (with no basis in evidence) that Henrietta must have “resorted to a flapperish technique in order to abstract information from the Indians.” How quickly people turn to conservatism when liberal license gets them into trouble. Fans of the bestselling Killers of the Flower Moon will see some of the same FBI agents here among the men who tracked down the Apache culprit.
At the beginning of the pandemic, searching for direction, I read and re-read Stefan Zweig’s staggeringly beautiful memoir of the glory and destruction of the Hapsburg Empire, The World of Yesterday. Finished just before his suicide, following the loss of nearly all that he held dear, it’s a monument to the imperative of bearing witness to one’s times. As 2020 closes, I’m immersed in another landmark tome dedicated to that same mission—the newly released Book 2 of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Between Two Millstones: Exile in America, 1978–1994. This is a profound contribution, not least for the master’s critical insights into the United States. On a lighter note, it’s reassuring to read between his lines—and often in them—that one of the deepest thinkers in any century suffered the same ailments known to merely mortal writers: distraction, uncertainty, vanity, adversaries, time’s winged hands.
2020 also saw new diagnoses of the American condition that should influence adult discussion, including those by Christopher Caldwell and Rod Dreher. See also Ross Douthat's The Decadent Society: How We Became Victims of Our Own Success, a highly engaging combination of stylish prose and acute discernment. Meanwhile, anyone curious about another burning question of the twenty-first century—what happened to American academia?—should peruse Stanley Kurtz’s outstanding analysis, The Lost History of Western Civilization. The pdf is available for free at the National Association of Scholars, nas.org.
During what’s left of the calendar year, thanks to enthusiastic recommendations from friends, I’ll take up two more new books that promise breakthroughs in understanding our age: Carl R. Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution; and Scott Yenor’s The Recovery of Family Life: Exposing the Limits of Modern Ideologies. I'm also looking forward to Ryszard Legutko's The Cunning of Freedom: Saving the Self in an Age of False Idols, out in just a few weeks.
And finally, for leavening the heaviness of 2020, there’s eternal return to three of my all-time favorites—P. D. James, Philip Kerr, and Evelyn Waugh. All are maestros of the light touch, and dazzling psychologists of the soul.
On something of a whim a year ago, my housemates and I decided to read The Long Loneliness together. Since then I’ve found myself returning to Dorothy Day. First a friend loaned me Loaves and Fishes, which supplements Day’s narrative of her spiritual and intellectual journey in The Long Loneliness with stories of the daily grind at the Catholic Worker. Now I’m engaged in a corona-times book club on All the Way to Heaven: The Selected Letters of Dorothy Day. It’s the same cast of characters, but without so much literary self-consciousness.
I confess I spent a shameful proportion of the past twelve months online, searching for accurate information about COVID-19. Still, I found time for a few books, some, naturally, pandemic-related. Gil Eyal’s 2019 The Crisis of Expertise anticipated 2020’s science wars. Eyal examines the “pushmi-pullyu” of alternating trust and skepticism and argues the dilemma arises from a structural clash of time frames: Skeptics typically target “policy science,” which occupies the precarious “middle lane” between fast-moving politics and the slow pursuit of research. Speaking of speed: Lockdown gave me time for a leisurely perusal of Hartmut Rosa’s Alienation and Acceleration and Resonance, which explore the pressures of living in a world that moves at an inhuman pace.
Two new books applied Trinitarian themes to philosophical problems. Starting from the grammar of propositions, Sergij Bulgakov’s newly translated Tragedy of Philosophy traces the inescapable triadicity of thought. I wrote on Vern Poythress’s magnificent Mystery of the Trinity a couple of months back, but the book and the author deserve more recognition.
Late in the year, I picked up David Steindl-Rast’s 1984 Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer. Thankfulness is our response to surprise, and, because surprise is the secret essence of everything, thankfulness is equivalent to the wakeful alertness, the concentrated wonder that is continuous prayer. This chimes with one of the themes of Susanna Clarke’s enchanting Piranesi, whose title character lives in a Borgesian welter of endless halls and staircases adorned with tantalizingly familiar statues. Piranesi records events in the House during the “Year the Albatross Came to the South-Western Halls,” but Piranesi is a novel more of setting than story. As Piranesi says repeatedly, “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.” Indeed it is. Even in 2020, it is.
This year I have been working on a manuscript for Pegasus Books on the life of Marie de Vignerot, the Duchesse d’Aiguillon and the niece and heiress of Cardinal Richelieu. An unexpected pleasure of piecing together this remarkable but too-little-known woman’s story is getting to know forgotten books from her time that were appreciated by her and her friends—a group that included Saint Vincent de Paul, the playwright Pierre Corneille, and Catherine de Rambouillet, the first great literary salon hostess of Paris.
These books contained some of the earliest sustained defenses of the moral and intellectual equality of men and women. And they were written by deeply Christian authors well before the Enlightenment era that is over-credited with the germination of recognizably feminist discourses. For example, Marie Le Jars de Gournay, Michel de Montaigne’s protégé and editor, produced Égalité des Hommes et des Femmes in 1622 and Grief des Dames in 1626, which advocated for far better educational opportunities for women than were then available. Her treatises marshaled texts from Scripture, the Church Fathers (in whom the self-taught Gournay was steeped), and classical and French histories to defend women’s right to deliberate politically alongside men. Gournay impressed not only the duchess but also Richelieu, whose patronage enabled her to enjoy a second spring, professionally and socially, when she was in her seventies. But the cardinal, unsurprisingly, was more moved by her Christian patriotism than her feminism, as was seen in her poetry about Joan of Arc: “Can you properly reconcile, Virgin so dear to Heaven, / The sweetness of your eyes with that angry sword? / The sweetness of my eyes caresses my country, / And this raging sword gives it back its freedom.”
The Franciscan friar Jacques Du Bosc, whom the Duchess patronized, joined Gournay in her fight for women’s education and increased opportunities for women to exercise public virtue. Du Bosc’s first controversial book in this vein, L’Honneste Femme, appeared in 1632. It insisted, against a strong prejudice of the era, that the term honneste—an adjective implying rational, self-possessed behavior, intelligent conversation, and politically salutary virtues such as courage, prudence, and steadfastness—applied to women as well as men. In the Christian humanist tradition of Erasmus, Thomas More, and Marguerite de Navarre, Du Bosc encouraged women to delve into history, philosophy, and poetry of both pagan and Christian authorship. He urged women to write, too, and even suggested that women temperamentally were more suited to “study of the arts and sciences” than men, despite all the doors closed to them in this regard at the time. Furthermore, he broke ranks with many Christian moralists of the time by arguing that women devoted to civilité and fuller participation in worldly society were not inevitably distant from God. “There is no need to be grim and unrefined in order to be virtuous,” he said to pious French laywomen opening his book. And to the men who objected to his views, he declared confidently that those who “mistrust a woman when she understands anything but her [Rosary] beads, live according to the proverbs” and “are weak spirits who deserve what they fear.”
I have to be careful not to fictionalize as I write the duchess’s story. But I cannot help but think that, when she read lines like this for the first time, she must have smiled, relishing not a little the power she had to give writers like Du Bosc a platform.
C. C. Pecknold
This past year is fittingly described as America’s annus horribilis—yet books have provided me with contemplative consolation. A few books in particular stood out as exemplary of the kind of Augustinian-Thomism which is now happily resurgent amid other travails. Each touches upon how to conform ourselves to reality, to right order—and so it seems to me that these are the books we most need in a time of disorder.
The Order of Things: The Realism of the Principle of Finality by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P.: Garrigou-Lagrange’s revival is one of the happiest and most welcome trends in theology. With it comes the first English translation of one of the Dominican theologian’s more neglected titles, ostensibly a study of the Aristotelian principle of finality—it opens with a masterpiece of dialogue between Heraclitus, Parmenides, Plato, and Aristotle, which should be required reading for all educated persons. It demolishes modern evolutionary accounts of metaphysics and demonstrates the priority of being over becoming, what it means to act for an end, and why our natural desire for happiness rationally terminates in God alone.
Grace, Predestination, and the Permission of Sin: A Thomistic Analysis by Taylor Patrick O’Neill: Not every doctorate should be published, but Taylor Patrick O’Neill’s Ave Maria University doctorate gives the best defense on offer today of the Banezian Thomistic approach to God’s permissive will with regard to sin and evil, divine premotion with regard to grace, and predestination with regard to salvation. The book deserves to be widely read by Calvinists as well as Catholics. O’Neill not only establishes himself as the most important young academic theologian on the horizon, but he also inspires in his readers radical fidelity and abandonment to divine providence.
It is Right and Just: Why the Future of Civilization Depends on True Religion by Scott Hahn and Brandon McGinley: Those following American Catholic debates about Murrayite compatibilism and Leonine integralism will find in this slim volume one of the most accessible and winsome arguments for the Church’s ancient argument that civilization depends on true justice, and true justice depends on true religion, which is the cornerstone of right order itself.
Benedict XVI: A Life: Volume One: Youth in Nazi Germany to the Second Vatican Council 1927–1965 by Peter Seewald: Seewald pays careful attention to the rise and fall of Nazism, and the way this shapes the young Joseph Ratzinger’s view of the neo-pagan dimensions of modernity which we now see all around us.
In a year that brought systemic injustices to light, I have resolved to do better and listen to more historically marginalized voices. To that end, I turned to French writer and filmmaker Pierre Schoendoerffer. He amplifies the oppressed voices of the soldiers who, facing indifference and hostility to their mission on the home front, defended the French Empire during its last years. In Le Crabe-Tambour and other works, Schoendoerffer dramatizes the social history of a disregarded generation that suffered through the fall of French Indochina, General Salan’s failed putsch in 1961, and the end of Algerié française. While his work subverts established narratives of decolonization as a postwar moral triumph, his more important legacy is showing how the camaraderie and honor of soldiers outlast the political mediocrities that killed so many of their friends.
Another subversive work, this one published in 2020, is Christopher Caldwell’s Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties. Like France’s Éric Zemmour, Caldwell is an expert diagnostician of the political source of America’s divisions; like Zemmour, he sees division, not unity, as destiny. The question, then, is what force can counteract division and make unity possible.
I had the occasion this year to revisit one analyst of such a force, Canadian political philosopher George Grant. Grant’s talent lies in a unique blend of political analysis with the philosophical insights of Martin Heidegger, Leo Strauss, and Simone Weil. In the wake of the 2020 U.S. election, it is worth studying Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism. There, Grant explores the philosophical and political repercussions of the Canadian Liberal Party’s victory in 1963, when its agenda of liberal cosmopolitanism defeated the populist nationalism of John Diefenbaker. Grant’s Technology and Justice is also prescient for its observations about the effects of technological thinking (for example, how public health policies transpose into social control). Read alongside Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society; a careful reading bears much fruit.
This has been a season of longing stretched to wider and more aching breadth than usual. There are some good books I’ve read this year that touch on various aspects of the yearning that both drives us forward in our lives, but also sometimes leaves us feeling utterly spent, with a waiting hope that doesn’t seem to come.
The poet Laurance Wieder (a First Things contributor) put together his own refashioning of the Psalter in Words to God’s Music. These are not complete refashionings or occasioned improvisations so much as retellings of each psalm with the voice of his own heart, located in the rather jagged modern world of a very American sensibility and idiom, but tapping repeatedly the deep dissatisfactions and thirsts of the originating “David” of the poems. They sweep up most people, I would guess.
On a trip to Jerusalem, I came across the Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld’s stunning and heart-breaking memoir of his Holocaust youth and flight to Israel, The Story of a Life. Almost numbingly matter-of-fact, the cumulative power of this spare account unveils, without commentary, the deep currents carrying along this human spirit’s survival through some of the most violent sorrows the world has known (yet known by too many). It’s as if hope is imposed from without. And a good thing, too.
I had never before read Olive Schreiner’s 1883 Story of an African Farm. A “classic” novel, but not a popular one anymore, though for several decades after its appearance, it inspired cohorts of young feminists and those seeking a “new” way of framing religious reality. Its philosophical ramblings, not to mention near-sighted and even dismissive (some would say “racist”) depictions of indigenous South Africans, seem dated. But coming from the pen of a provincial young woman in her twenties, much of the writing simply astonishes with its often eery luminescence and sometimes bitter brutality, which often breaks into that rarely described precinct of primal adolescent religiosity. Schreiner’s description of prayer and spiritual struggle among the isolated and battered young belies the thin sentimentalities and confusions we ascribe to teenagers today. We are all after something deeper.
Kevin Young, a fine poet, has also become one of our best poetry anthologists. His collection The Art of Losing, on “grief and healing,” is among the best of its kind. But here I would commend his anthology of poems on food, The Hungry Ear. Not all yearning is painful and thwarted. Or at least, in this world, there are wonderful and tangible signs of pure delight, which stand as the transfiguration of longing. Food is among the most complex and powerful of these signs, and the rich array of poems Young has assembled are, even in their ambivalent mode, always buoyant in the fullest sense.
Pray, struggle, reach out, and taste. The year ahead has gifts that await us.
On June 24, the City of New Haven took down the statue of Christopher Columbus that stood in Wooster Square, an Italian neighborhood known for its pizza. That same afternoon, elsewhere in New Haven, I visited with Andrew Walther, the longtime consigliere to the leader of the Knights of Columbus. Walther had just been appointed president of EWTN, and we discussed his plans. He was unwell that day, and we wondered whether it might be COVID. In fact, it was leukemia, as yet undiagnosed. The disease would claim his life on November 1, at age 45.
On Twitter, Ross Douthat described Walther's death as “a terrible loss,” and if more knew of Walther’s life and career, they would agree. Shrewd, direct, and unaffectedly pious, Andrew Walther was in his own way a monument to the ambition and success of Catholics in America. Alongside his brilliant wife Maureen, whom I first met in a poetry workshop at Princeton, he worked tirelessly for his countrymen and fellow Christians. He was especially devoted to aiding Christians in the Middle East whose lives had been disrupted by American folly.
Early in 2020, amid all their other projects, Andrew and Maureen published a history of the Knights of Columbus. I treasure it, and not only as a memento of a life lost too soon. It describes the achievements of the various war heroes, athletes, and politicians who joined the brotherhood: Daniel Daly, the two-time Medal of Honor recipient; Babe Ruth; Floyd Patterson; Sargent Shriver; Sam Alito. It is an impressive roll call, and Andrew deserves to stand alongside the best. But what is most striking about the Knights is their reliance on men whose names will never ring out, men like my grandfather and great-grandfather, who quietly but faithfully served family, country, and Church. A great deal of attention is lavished on radical Catholics such as Brent Bozell and Dorothy Day, and understandably so. But for all their merits, neither one started a movement that has done as much good as the Knights. Andrew is gone. His work goes on.
I delight in First Things lore of all kinds, so was pleased to find that Midge Decter’s 2001 memoir contains several humorous anecdotes about working at the magazine under Richard John Neuhaus in the ’90s. “Maybe you will come and hang out with us some day,” Neuhaus tells her one afternoon at a long, alcohol-soaked lunch. Then neither of them gives it a second thought—until Neuhaus extends the invitation again years later and Decter becomes a fellow at The Institute on Religion and Public Life. Her five years at the magazine are quite pleasant, but as she notes (in jest), they could sometimes be “a kind of Christian ordeal for this only half-educated Jew.” The reason: “I was now living in a community of religious thinkers whose language was often about as familiar to me as the dialect of an African tribe.” She recalls rushing into editor Jim Nuechterlein’s office daily to say things like, “‘Jim, quick. Tell me what kerygma means.’ Or ‘propaedeutic’”—to the general amusement of Nuechterlein and Neuhaus. As she jokes, “Here I found myself, well into my sixties, rushing like a schoolgirl to the dictionary and like a schoolgirl again, almost immediately forgetting the definition I had found there.” No doubt many of us (even among the Christians) can relate. Decter shares this story—along with plenty more memories, witty cultural commentary, and general wisdom—in An Old Wife’s Tale: My Seven Decades in Love and War. Well worth hunting down a copy.
Carl R. Trueman
Like many people this year, I have found the bright side of lockdown to be the opportunity to read some longer books. The one which I most enjoyed was Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy. I have been a fan of his early volume, Decline and Fall, since grammar school forty years ago, and this work of his later years did not disappoint. It is a superb blend of comedy, pathos, and probing questions about Christianity set against the background of the Second World War. The main character, Guy Crouchback, is quintessentially English—or at least English in the sense that many of us born before the 1980s were: reserved, unwilling to make a scene, cynical enough to see through the waste of war but not enough to hate life, and finding his faith (Catholicism) at turns a source both of strength and of inner conflict. At the end, Waugh seems to see Guy as representative of a world that was passing away, of which I think my own generation of the English might have been the dying gasp. We have been replaced by more brash, loud, and brazen successors. If you want to understand today’s English, watch Big Brother or read the Daily Mail; if you want to understand yesterday’s, read Sword of Honour or watch The Remains of the Day.
But the highlight of the year was the combination of Rod Dreher’s new book, Live Not By Lies, with an old classic. Dreher sees the path of the West toward totalitarianism as occurring in a soft, as opposed to hard form—ideological conformity enforced not by Orwell’s “jackboot stomping on the face forever” but via (to use the trendy terminology) the discourses of power held by the cultural and business elites of our day. We saw this in miniature in the boycott of Indiana in 2015, when Gov. Pence signed into law a relatively mild piece of religious freedom legislation and so-called “woke capitalism” tested its strength to almost instantaneous effect. Today such social pressure, facilitated by Twitter and other media of lazy, cost-free excoriation, is becoming almost a routine part of life. And of course, such requires the complicity of a large part of the population.
That brings me to the old classic: Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. This massive litany of the suffering caused by Stalin is at times so relentless that I had to put it down. Yet the brilliance of the work lies in two key areas. First, by using individual stories, the full horror of the Holodomor is clear. Stalin is alleged to have said that the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic. That has a lot of truth to it. Only when we hear the stories of individuals, only when we see their faces, does the full horror of the gulags become real. I read the first volume as a teenager, and I have ever after been haunted by the photograph of Yelizaveta Yevgenyeva Anichkova. All we know of her—this beautiful young woman, her face full of life and hope—is that she was shot in a camp in 1942. Now, multiply that face, not just that body, by 10, 15, 20 million and the horror is surely unbearable. Then think of the implications of that in the year when we have seemingly all defaulted to thinking of others as categories rather than individuals.
Finally, two theological books. The first is Mark Talbot’s When the Stars Disappear, volume one in a projected tetralogy on the Christian and suffering. Talbot, a Wheaton College philosophy professor, has himself lived all his adult life in a wheelchair and is no stranger to personal pain. This is a profound and moving meditation on life lived under the shadow of decline and death—which is ultimately the life of all of us.
Second, James Eglinton’s Bavinck: A Critical Biography is a stellar book on the great Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck. I teach a course at Grove City College, “Shadows of the Antichrist,” which deals with nineteenth-century responses to religion in modernity, focusing on texts from Marx, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Cardinal Newman. I struggled to find an orthodox Protestant who truly wrestled with modern challenges: fundamentalists simply denied that such challenges had much merit; others, such as P. T. Forsyth, simply made an uneasy peace with modernity at the cost of key elements of orthodoxy. Bavinck both drew faithfully on the catholic tradition of Reformed orthodoxy and yet felt the serious challenge of modernity. He worked carefully in that cross-pressured environment and produced the last great Reformed dogmatics that was both orthodox and modern. Eglinton’s biography tells the story of how he did so with clarity and power. It will be required reading for all students in “Shadows of the Antichrist” from now on.
James Matthew Wilson
In my 2019 Christmas reading list, I recommended three monumental tomes that, taken together, could occupy the average person for perhaps an entire year. Whether or not anyone made it through the grand excursions by Beckett, Royal, and Starr, I thought everyone would appreciate a few shorter, and in some ways lighter, suggestions.
My first love in poetry was the Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay. Within the academy, McKay seems to be used for ideological purposes rather than appreciated for his distinctive talent, but that talent was real. Jamaican born, McKay’s early poems are in dialect, but when he came to New York, he set about mastering the sonnet, and it is for the sonnet that he is best remembered. Dover published a Selected Poems that costs three dollars and weighs less than three ounces. It nonetheless includes many of McKay’s best poems from early in his career, including “America” and “Tropics in New York,” as well as “If We Must Die,” a poem of such stoic defiance that Winston Churchill read it over the radio to rally his country at the start of the Second World War. McKay converted to Catholicism late in life and wrote religious poems of lasting value, several of which Dorothy Day published in her newspaper. Perhaps surprisingly, his finest sonnet was originally composed to celebrate the human power of making as manifested in Communist Russia, but with light revisions became “Saint Isaac’s Church, Petrograd.” In this and other early poems, one can hear McKay being called to the faith without fully recognizing what he was hearing.
I’ve been fortunate to have met most of the living poets whose work I have admired, usually long after I had come to appreciate their poetry. But on a few occasions, I’ve met or become friends with someone before knowing anything about their poetry and so been belatedly delighted when it turned out to be good. That was true of Ernest Hilbert. His latest book, Last One Out, lacks some of the public or Horacian spirit and humor of his early books of sonnets, but compensates by giving us poems vivid of line and image and more somber in their depth. Early in the book, several poems recall his late father, who was a church organist. Hilbert’s poems often sound like the work of a classicist with a taste for heavy metal, a bit like Oxford and south Jersey mixed knowingly together—as if he were trying to figure out how one can still live a civilized existence in an age of detritus and decay.
I would also recommend Anthony Esolen’s The Hundredfold. I’m still taking this work in, by which I mean I am still kind of in disbelief at how well made it is. Among the Victorian poets, Tennyson had the finest musical ear, and Browning had the rough-hewn speech that made a dramatic monologue into a vivid sketch of a living character. Somehow, Esolen has acquired the virtues of both, composing narrative poems in blank verse to tell a good story, but also coupling it with the hymnody of Newman and the early Hopkins.
I was pleased to publish Andrew Frisardi’s The Harvest and the Lamp, which performs a similar feat to Esolen’s. Frisardi, a translator and scholar of Dante, draws together translations of Dante’s lyrics with his own poems set in contemporary Italy. Both Esolen and Frisardi break down any high, hard wall between past and present and show the whole aesthetic inheritance of Christendom is alive and with us now.
My nightstand was crowded with many other books by poets—those of Jane Greer, Mike Aquilina, and Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, among others. But I found myself spending night after night with the poets of the English Renaissance and just after. What I was particularly drawn to were those poets who first made the English lyric sing. Sir Philip Sidney held my attention for months; more recently, I’ve been reading through John Dryden’s literary criticism and his poems, both of which show the English tradition at the height of its maturity and refinement. But what every literate person ought to know, but is unlikely to have encountered, may be found in the novelist John Williams’s early anthology English Renaissance Poetry, which was reissued by NYRB press a few years ago. Williams’s collections of songs from Campion and John Dowland, to name but two of the many poets whose best work is all gathered here, will convince your ear of the beauty, cleverness, and versatility of our language.
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