We asked some of our writers to contribute a paragraph or two about the most memorable books they read this year.
After two long years, this past November my wife and I were able to visit my parents in the Netherlands again. It had been too long, considering my elderly parents’ health, and we were thankful to be able to see them, no matter the spike in positive tests during our visit.
One afternoon, my sister took me to what was once called the Broerenkerk, a fifteenth-century Dominican church in the medieval city of Zwolle. After the Reformation, the adjoining monastery was closed down, and in 1640, the Reformed Church took possession of the building.
It was kind of my sister and her husband to take us to this grand Gothic hall church. We did not, however, go to worship. Nor did we visit as tourists checking out a historical site. Instead, we went to buy books and drink coffee. In 2013, the church’s nave was converted into a huge bookstore, Waanders in de Broeren, with a coffee shop occupying the apse. We toured the church, browsed the shelves, and shared a hot chocolate. The latter activity, in particular, felt sacrilegious. A church is more than a building, after all, and the prophetic phrase “abomination of desolation” (Dan. 9:27) kept coming to mind, as well as Asaph’s words, “And then all its carved wood they broke down with hatchets and hammers” (Ps. 74:6).
I don’t have much to say in self-defense. I did make a purchase that I’d like to interpret as an act of protest and resistance. I bought a Dutch copy of George Orwell’s 1984 and read it straight through over the next few days as a minor—altogether inadequate—act of penance.
Reading 1984 is medicine for souls like mine that have, perhaps unwittingly, accommodated to the militant secularism that engulfs today’s world—whether the conformity takes the shape of sipping hot chocolate in a Gothic apse or some other form. Here are some reasons why we might read 1984 as an act of penance. Among the salutary reminders that Orwell’s classic novel offers are the following:
- The past is not the object of our own construction. Totalitarian regimes attempt to alter the past, changing lies into truths by means of newspeak and doublethink. “All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and re-inscribed exactly as often as was necessary.”
- Language is closely tied to our most basic beliefs. Change or eliminate vocabulary, and you change the cultural mindset: “In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed, will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten.”
- We dare not give up on objective reality. After much torture and self-examination, Winston, the protagonist, genuinely admits that two plus two make five. A key axiom, which our culture is in danger of eradicating, is Orwell’s conviction that “freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.”
- Nominalism has totalitarianism as its logical end point. If universals do not exist, we are thrown back upon ourselves, which means that truth equals power. As Winston’s interrogator puts it: “You are imagining that there is something called human nature which will be outraged by what we do and will turn against us. But we create human nature. Men are infinitely malleable.”
- Even our inmost thoughts and convictions are subject to totalitarian control. Winston doesn’t initially believe this (“the inner heart, whose workings were mysterious even to yourself, remained impregnable”), but in the end, he submits every aspect of his will and intellect to the Party’s control.
I’ll leave the application to you, dear reader. For my part, I am increasingly astounded at the ease with which I sat down for a hot chocolate at the very site where once bread and wine were weekly consecrated.
The stranger the times, the better the books, or so the abundance of 2021 suggests. Several new companions bear special mention to readers of First Things.
Jesuit at Large, the posthumous collection of essays by Paul V. Mankowski, S.J., confirms what anyone who read him already knew: Here was one of the most brilliant writers of his generation, Catholic or otherwise. The late priest’s unrivaled wit and undiminished love for truth illuminate every page. Kudos to his longtime friend George Weigel for editing and introducing this volume, thus preserving Fr. Mankowski’s dynamism for all.
Weigel left another gift to posterity with his own latest collection, the delightful Not Forgotten: Elegies For, and Reminiscences Of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable. It’s a merry read, perfect for the holidays. Rarely does one encounter a globally renowned author who has the empathy to capture a Shakespearean parade of others, high and low, with the style and insight of a piercing novelist. But rare is Weigel.
Speaking of novels, the best new fiction I read this year is about to be published: debut author Maya Sinha’s The City Mother. Arriving unexpectedly in my inbox, written by an author I did not know, this haunting story made me drop all else until I reached the last page. This electric tale of a precarious young family illuminates the unseen operations of grace and evil in a secular time. It will appear in February 2022 via Chrism Press. Pre-order here.
2021 also gave us one of the most inspiring historical volumes in years: Judge Robert J. Conrad’s John Fisher and Thomas More: Keeping Their Souls While Losing Their Heads. A vivid, riveting retelling of the stories of these two saints, it is also a treasure trove of the distinguished author’s reflections on vocation, courage, family, and the ultimate calling of every Christian: sainthood. Truly a gift for all seasons, especially this one.
Church of Christ theologian Keith Stanglin’s new book, Ethics Beyond Rules, is another resource that should be distributed far and wide. Beautifully argued, it examines the most contentious issues of the times through the lens that matters: What does Christian love require here? Give it to believers who need to defend themselves in the public square, and to non-believers who will be drawn in by its patent compassion.
Finally, I am in the midst of reading Volume 1 of a series that is nothing short of oracular, the Prison Journals of George Cardinal Pell. To say that this great man turned the horrors of thirteen months spent in Australian confinement into a lasting monument to truth is to understate. Alongside the High Court of Australia’s unanimous decision of “innocent” on April 7, 2020, Cardinal Pell’s magisterial reflections will shame his cynical accusers to eternity. I’ll be spending the Christmas holiday with Volumes 2 and 3, grateful for his courage in continuing to shepherd from behind iron bars, and for this lapidary demonstration of good transforming evil.
In 2021, I decided to give up on novels. To cap things off, I read Middlemarch, which is generally agreed to be the greatest novel ever written in the English language. And it is indeed great, but it didn’t make me regret my decision. Paul Valéry is supposed to have once told André Breton that he could never write a novel, because it would mean having to compose sentences like “the marquise went out at five.” The sentences in Middlemarch are often brilliant, but all of them are, in some way, a version of “the marquise went out at five.”
Probably the best book I read this year was the Mabinogion, a collection of Welsh folk tales first compiled in the twelfth century, but likely much, much older. In the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, the hero Bendigeidfran is beheaded during a war with the Irish, in which almost everyone involved is killed. The last survivors flee, taking the head with them. They come to a royal dwelling on the island of Gwales and instantly forget all the horrors that happened to them; they spend the next eight years drinking and feasting and singing, and the head of Bendigeidfran drinks and sings with them. But this house has three doors, and one is always closed; they know that if they open the third door, their terrible memories will return. After eight years, the door is opened. The head is now only a rotting head. Glum and defeated, they leave this beautiful house to bury the head in the cold, damp ground. I can’t quite say how, but this story gets at something very deep in the human experience—and it does so in a way that no novel about English country vicars and their wives could ever manage.
Staying in the Middle Ages, I had a lot of fun with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regnum Britanniae, which is basically a lurid twelfth-century comic book; the Nibelungenlied—ditto; and Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. For background, Huizinga’s The Autumn of the Middle Ages and Westin’s enjoyably bonkers From Ritual to Romance. In a slightly different corner of history, there was also Inga Clendinnen’s magnificent Aztecs: An Interpretation, which manages to turn this beautiful, terrifying, long-dead civilization into something shudderingly alive. In Clendinnen’s work, even the most foreign aspects of Aztec society, like the mass human sacrifice, start to make sense. By the end of the book, I was wondering how we in the present manage to get by without regularly tearing out human hearts for Tezcatlipoca.
As always, I returned to Marx: The German Ideology and the beginnings of Volume II of Capital, which I expect to finish some time in 2030. Without reading Marx, it’s impossible to fully understand the world.
Not long after an anti-Semitic gunman opened fire in a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018, killing eleven congregants who were praying on a Saturday morning, Mark Oppenheimer began documenting the community healing. In Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood, the former New York Times religion columnist and current host of the popular Jewish podcast Unorthodox gives us meticulously reported and astutely observed portraits of those who hastened to help, from the Christian man who drove across the country to build and erect a Star of David for each victim to the secretive society of volunteers who prepared the bodies of their friends and neighbors for ritual burial. Together, they make for a stirring account of compassion and resilience, and proof, if more was needed, that faith and fellowship alone can pave the way from great tragedy to comfort.
There are, blessedly, no tragedies in Dorothy Kalins’s The Kitchen Whisperer: Cooking With the Wisdom of Our Friends, unless you’re inclined to mourn the occasional charred dinner. But the same sense of succor is abundant in every page of her immensely pleasurable and heartwarming book, an account of what she’s learned from a handful of cooks, some lovely and obscure, some radiant and world-famous. In between culinary feats, these maestros teach Kalins—the founding editor-in-chief of Saveur magazine—the secrets to anything from sauce to spiritual life, and reaffirm the centrality of mindful practice, which is as crucial to religion as it is to making a fine risotto. The book, which includes a handful of stellar recipes, is as delicious a meditation on friendship, craft, and tradition as they come, but readers are advised to refrain from attempting it on an empty stomach.
I spent much of 2021 catching up on twentieth-century theologies of creation. After digesting several volumes of Sergius Bulgakov (this year and last), I’m enchanted but unconvinced by his Sophiology, but I’ve no doubt Bulgakov was a titan of modern thought. Barth’s Hexameron in Church Dogmatics, 3.1 is one of the best treatments of Genesis 1 ever written. Published in 1982, Kenneth Schmitz’s astute Aquinas Lecture on The Gift: Creation should be better known in a time when “theology of the gift” has become something of a fad. Reaching further back, I worked slowly through Thomas Traherne’s Centuries of Meditations, a work of cheery creational mysticism, much of it revolving around Paul’s claim that “all things are yours.”
I devoted First Things columns to Klaus Hemmerle’s recently translated Notes Toward a Trinitarian Ontology, a little time bomb of a book, and David Dusenbury’s The Innocence of Pontius Pilate, a brilliant work of historical detection that exhumes a long-forgotten thread of Christian political theology, but both deserve a year-end plug. In biblical studies, Chad Bird’s The Christ Key offers a superb introduction to “layered” Christological reading of Scripture, and Jeffrey Pulse’s Figuring Resurrection investigates the dense thicket of resurrection motifs in the Bible’s Joseph narrative. Matthew Rose’s A World After Liberalism makes an important contribution to contemporary debates about religion and public life. Refreshingly treating the alt-right as a serious intellectual movement, Rose clarifies the challenge it poses to churches by highlighting the alt-right’s Nietzschean complaint that Christianity planted the seeds of which wokeist progressivism is the fruit.
My fiction reading tended toward the disturbing—J. G. Ballard, Michel Houellebecq, one of Michael Connelly’s Jack McEvoy novels, and George Saunders’s short story collection, Pastoralia, with its cast of extravagantly pitiful losers. For relief, I turned to Marilynne Robinson’s Jack, which felt like a novella inflated to three hundred pages, though I’m such a fan of Robinson’s work I intend to give it another try. Marie-Elsa Bragg’s haunting Towards Mellbreak elegizes a vanishing rural culture in prose as craggy as the Cumbrian landscape.
And a final potpourri: Holly Ordway’s Tolkien’s Modern Reading is the kind of revelation that seems obvious as soon as it’s revealed. Of course the man’s head was full of Rider Haggard, William Morris, Agatha Christie, Dylan Thomas, and forgotten adventure novelists of yore. Perry Marshall’s accessible Evolution 2.0 presents a devastating critique of neo-Darwinism and summarizes discoveries pointing to the non-random mechanisms of genetic change. Late in the year, I picked up a couple volumes of Joseph Massey’s poetry. Massey’s online detractors regard him as a pariah, but that smear is belied by the fragility and silences of his poems.
Francis X. Maier
The most interesting book I read this year isn’t out yet. That will change on January 5, with the publication in English (finally) of the Italian Catholic philosopher Augusto Del Noce’s The Problem of Atheism.I read an advance copy over the past month. It’s not a casual browse. It demands time and close attention to fully digest. But it’s an essential resource for anyone seeking to understand the roots of our current cultural climate; the continuing and toxic influence of Marxist thought; and the rise of Western irreligion. Del Noce considered The Problem of Atheism his most important text, the foundation of all his subsequent work. And as I’ve written previously for First Things, Del Noce himself is the most important thinker still unknown to many of us in the Anglophone world.
Translator Carlo Lancellotti has now brought three key Del Noce books to the English-speaking market. And he may not be finished. Someday he hopes to translate a fourth: Suicide of the Revolution. In the meantime, The Problem of Atheism, with its seminal essays from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s, is a valuable addition to Del Noce scholarship.
Other favorite books on my reading list this past year have been Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, by Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi; A History of the Council of Trent, Vol. I, by Hubert Jedin; The Uses of Pessimism, by Roger Scruton; Erasmus and His Times, by Louis Bouyer; The Captive Mind, by Czesław Miłosz; Losing Our Dignity: How Secularized Medicine is Undermining Fundamental Human Equality, by Charles Camosy; and Modernity on Endless Trial, by Leszek Kolakowski. I’ve returned to the Kolakowski book, a collection of essays, again and again over the years. “The Idolatry of Politics,” “The Self-Poisoning of the Open Society,” and “Politics and the Devil,” all included in Modernity, are uniformly excellent.
I need to give one final 2021 shout-out for Things Worth Dying For: Thoughts on a Life Worth Living, released this past March and written by Charles Chaput, Philadelphia’s archbishop emeritus. Full disclosure: I worked for the author in a previous life, so I’m biased. But I reread it this fall, and yes. It’s quite good.
This year, to understand Éric Zemmour, I have been reading his books. Despite the propaganda campaign waged against him, Zemmour is no mere provocateur. His written work exhibits both his erudition and his skill at dismantling progressivist axioms. Take, for example, the critique of abortion he provides in Le Premier Sexe. Whereas feminist progressives boast that legal abortion is a historic achievement to gain full rights over their bodies, and a departure from a barbaric past, Zemmour points out that their true claim is to have the right of life and death over their children. This is the same right that the father once claimed to have in ancient Rome. Rather than breaking from the past, feminist progressives imitate it; they transfer what pagans once held to be the right of the father to the mother.
What makes Le Premier Sexe intriguing is how it foreshadows themes now emerging in American politics. Fifteen years ago, long before American conservatives dared to consider the benefits of male virtù, Zemmour predicted that Hillary Clinton would lose to a candidate who offered an unapologetic embodiment of manly swagger. Zemmour also argues that contemporary feminism is especially bad for men. The real cultural struggle at hand is to convince men that that proposition is true, then to cease their self-destructive defense of contemporary feminism. It deconstructs male responsibilities and entrenches the power of a select managerial elite.
I have also been reading some of Zemmour’s other intellectual influences. Once one of France’s foremost literary stars, Renaud Camus was obliged to self-publish for years due to the stance he took on mass immigration. But he is coming in out of the cold. La Nouvelle Librairie has released two edited collections of his works, Le Grand Remplacement and Le Petit Remplacement, which should be read in tandem to understand his full argument. It may come as a surprise to those who know Camus only by reputation to discover that he thinks Europeans should not have more children. Fortunately, Zemmour has (in theory and practice) rejected Camus’s objectionable views on this matter, making him well-suited to challenge Macron and Europe’s other childless managerial elites.
Carl R. Trueman
My favorite non-fiction book of 2021 is Erika Bachiochi’s The Rights of Women. It is a well-argued case for revising feminism along pro-life, pro-family lines, which Bachiochi sees in the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft. Wollstonecraft saw women (and men) as defined not by freedom and autonomy, but by mutual dependence and obligation. In this, Bachiochi does for feminism what Carter Snead does for bioethics, arguing that its cultural dominant form today is based upon an anthropological error, most famously articulated by Rousseau in The Social Contract: Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains. No, men and women are born dependent, and their lives, and roles, are to be shaped by that fact, refracted through the different obligations their differently sexed bodies involve. If I had one criticism, it is that Bachiochi does not address the Romantic impulse in Wollstonecraft’s work, which might arguably be seen as pointing in a different direction—but that is a minor quibble.
One fiction book I re-read this year was Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea. I read it last during my final year at grammar school and had been impressed with it as a work of genius. Revisiting it confirmed my opinion. It is precisely the kind of book that would impress a teenager as a work of genius: self-indulgent, introspective, and ultimately superficial. In the cardboard characters he describes in the art gallery scene, Sartre reveals himself for what he is: a self-hating bourgeois and a prototype of the left-wing snobs that now dominate the progressive officer class. Compared to, say, Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground (which I read this semester with a class at Grove City College), Sartre’s work is trite and at times heavily sermonic. Driven by hatred for his own class, he lacked the depth of his compatriots de Beauvoir, Camus, and Aron. It is not surprising that his reputation has fared less well than theirs in the years since his death. As Australian critic Clive James said of his philosophy, it looks rather like a pose.
The most enjoyable book I read this year was Wolfram Eilenberger’s Time of the Magicians, in which the author presents parallel lives of four influential philosophers as they make their way through the 1920s: Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ernst Cassirer, Martin Heidegger, and Walter Benjamin. I am not persuaded that the fact that all four were interested in language is necessarily enough to tie them all together, but the book is nonetheless a fascinating account of four exceptional minds and considerable egos. It is also a reminder of an age when intellectuals were not the cowardly enablers of the woke consensus in academia that so many have become. 2021 has demonstrated yet again that the professional academic class is becoming increasingly small-minded and lazy: Identify the oppressed group and oppressors and the job is done, a kind of “Where’s Waldo?” played with a post-Hegelian thesaurus. Eilenberger takes us back to a time when thinkers thought big thoughts. Time of the Magicians is worth reading for that alone.
There is only one question worth asking now: Will the world ever start turning again on its axis and, if so, in which direction? In two years, I have read just one book that did not relate to that question, a novel called The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz, and that purely for a rest before diving in again.
Last Christmas, I presented myself the latest book by the fabulous Matthew B. Crawford, Why We Drive, and it turns out that book accidentally relates to this question. One of its central themes is the dangers of safetyism and the ominous imminence of the self-driving car. It is a book about risk, which is to say life. Crawford’s essential argument, in this and his previous two stunning books (Shop Class as Soulcraft and The World Beyond Your Head), is that human beings function best when in sensual connection with the world, and—the refinement of this book—the more hair-raising the better. Safetyism, he argues, has supplanted all other moral sensibilities, a downward spiral that delivers us not to “Zero COVID,” but zero risk, which in turn delivers us to maximal unfreedom.
Another book, published in 2020—which as though by happenstance hit the reality moment with uncanny accuracy—was Joel Kotkin’s The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. Kotkin is a leftist of the pre-woke kind: genuinely concerned about the fate of working people. He describes a world in which a new cleavage has manifested, between the top one percent and the rest, in effect eliminating what we used to call the middle and working classes. This world has ceased to progress and gone into regression, shucking off many of the developments that accompanied the growth of Western civilization in the past 2,500 years: the universal franchise, the rule of law, bills of rights, privacy, free speech and individualism, as well as even more tangible entities like the nuclear family and the private motor car. The future of the West, according to Kotkin’s persuasive analysis, will include the collapse of the nation-state, the virtual eradication of family homes, the elimination of most paid work, the emergence of new caste systems and gated cities, the decline of sexual activity, the explosion of loneliness, creeping censorship arising from the increasing leftward tilt of academia and media, the exponential growth of state power and authoritarianism, and the return to nature of vast swathes of the cultivated world.
In a remarkable resonance with Crawford’s worldview, Kotkin describes the widening social/ideological division between the “hubs” and the “heartlands,” between the cynically “woke” exploiters of the internet Wild West and the people who make and mend the world on a day-to-day basis—the metrosexual soy boys of the networks and the Able Men with wiring stretching back to Greek mythology. He postulates that the democratic era through which we have just passed may in time reveal itself as an aberration in human history, about to be strangled by the ideological weeds we carelessly allowed to catch hold of our culture.
For those who have had their heads stuck for the past twenty-two months in mainstream channels, I recommend—by way of a primer in how all this is relevant to the present moment—the excellent compendium COVID-19 and the Global Predators: We Are the Prey, edited by Peter R. Breggin and Ginger Ross Breggin. In 651 pages, it covers everything from Anthony Fauci’s role in the manufacture of COVID-19 to “Mass Murder in New York State.” Not an easy read, but an essential one.
And so to diversion. The Plot tells of a briefly successful novelist that has lost touch with his Muse and becomes a teacher while trying to finish a book he doesn’t have the heart for. One day, a rather unpleasant student outlines to him the plot of a novel he’s thinking of writing himself. The novelist immediately decides that this may be the best storyline he’s ever come across. Soon after, discovering that his former student has died, apparently without finishing the book, he writes it up himself. The book is a massive hit: New York Times bestseller, Oprah, nationwide book tour. His cup runneth over. He even falls in love with a woman who’s “researched” him for a radio show, gets married, and settles down with his bride in the heart of Manhattan. What could possibly go wrong?
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