We asked some of our writers to contribute a paragraph about the most memorable books they read this year.
To readers of this website who have undergone the humiliating experience of a disastrous infatuation, who have desired the wrong person and known it was the wrong person but couldn't pull away, Oscar Wilde's De Profundis lays bare the misery of it—and a way out. (Read the complete version of the book, which didn't appear until a half-century after Wilde's death.) Nobody fell farther than Wilde did, from the genius wit of London society to the imprisoned sodomite roundly abhorred. “The gods had given me almost everything,” he says, astonishing talent and fame—audiences filled the theater where The Importance of Being Earnest was playing at the very time his trial started—until an ungovernable passion destroyed him.
He loved Lord Alfred Douglas, “Bosie,” a vain, wild young man (twenty years Wilde's junior) who fancied himself a poet and hated his father with a pathological intensity. Wilde met him and fell hard, and Bosie knew just how to manipulate and torment him in a way that made Wilde's obsession grow. He interrupted Wilde's work, dragged him to lunches and dinners, spent Wilde's money, and pursued him when Wilde sought escape. The erotic draw must have been irresistible to the famous writer, given its costs. He was “the absolute ruin of my Art,” Wilde tells him (the book is a letter addressed to Bosie). He made Wilde's life “tragic and grotesque,” yet Wilde kept coming back, or allowed Bosie to re-enter his existence again and again.
Shame, regret, dishonor, abjection, confession—they are here expressed as eloquently as they are in any book I have ever read. Wilde excoriates Bosie at length (“The gutter and the things in it had begun to fascinate you”; relations with him were “intellectually degrading”), but saves the final denunciation for himself. He calculates, for instance, the gambling debts, restaurant and hotel bills, cabs and “amusements” he paid on Bosie's behalf, yet always with this and other lists of abuses there is the question that turns back on Wilde himself: What defect of character, what moral weakness, forced Wilde to let it continue?
“As I sit here in this dark cell in convict clothes, a disgraced and ruined man, I blame myself,” he insists, and does so throughout. The sins and flaws are freely and painfully confessed, the agony of a stupendous and renowned worldly existence terminated in the most mortifyingly demeaning way amplified on every page. It is part of his penance, for “There is only one thing for me now, absolute humility.”
This year, I was caught off guard by the sweeping revision of norms and language being ushered in by “gender ideology”—Abigail Favale’s The Genesis of Gender: A Christian Theory proved an essential guide to the current debates about the reality and meaning of sex. Favale answers the gender madness of the “trans” movement with the embodied truth of male and female; in a similar vein, O. Carter Snead’s What It Means to Be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics takes on abortion, euthanasia, and artificial reproductive technologies. It is increasingly clear that the liberal “choice and rights” framework for bioethics leads to human horrors. Snead argues that, because we are embodied, we are by our very nature vulnerable and dependent, bearing obligations and responsibilities that we have not chosen. A less murderous and callous bioethics begins from the fact of this embodied human reality.
My nomination for feel-good book of the year goes to Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All by environmentalist Michael Shellenberger. This book offers page after page of surprising perspectives on energy and the environment, backed by extensive research, data, and studies: The climate is not an emergency; “green energy” will never be able to deliver what it promises; in nuclear power, we already have a safe, abundant, clean energy source—all we need to do is use it! More good news comes in Superabundance: The Story of Population Growth, Innovation, and Human Flourishing on an Infinitely Bountiful Planet, by Marian L. Tupy and Gale L. Pooley. Using an innovative economic tool called “time-prices,” the authors show that material well-being, including for the very poorest, is vastly higher today than in the past. Growth is good: In the aggregate, every additional human being creates more value than he consumes. There is no population bomb. It’s time for the human-hating neo-Malthusians to slink back into their fetid lair.
In 2022, I fobbed off basically all contemporary literature to spend most of the year marinating in the Middle Ages. I read the chaotic (and controversial) Roman de la Rose, the Lais of Marie de France, the ecstatic visions of Hadewijch, and Gregory of Tours’s Historia Francorum. In these pages, I reviewed the Song of Roland, the national epic of France; I also read the Táin Bó Cúailnge, the epic of Ireland, and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, which will be the epic of Britain, once the Welsh decide to stop mucking about with independence and finally commit to chasing the Saxons off this island altogether, so we can make England Lloegyr again.
This is not me being very intellectual and austere. What nobody wants to admit about medieval literature is how enormously fun it is to read. So different from the fussy, stuffy, oppressive fiction of the present, with its neurotic characters second-guessing their consumer decisions and fretting about late capitalism. Medieval literature had its other functions, pious or mystical or satirical or instructive, but before everything else this stuff is pure entertainment.
To cap things off, I blitzed through Boccaccio’s Decameron, which sits right on the hinge point between the medieval and the modern worlds. It was also an absolute joy to read, but what really stuck out to me was that Boccaccio was not an anti-Semite. I wouldn’t have minded too much if he was; the man’s been dead for 650 years, so his opinion of me hardly matters. But the Jewish people in the Decameron (and the Muslim people too) are just that: people. He was a liberal in the best sense of the word, cheerfully impious and instinctively egalitarian and fascinated by the sheer breadth and diversity of the human substance. The liberal bourgeoisie tend to get a bad rap these days, for obvious reasons. But there’s also a lot to admire.
In a way that would probably bring much joy to its protagonist, a courageous and playful Dane who rowed scores of Jews to safety in Sweden during the Nazi Occupation, this year’s finest book isn’t really a book. It’s a very long piece in Tablet Magazine, titled “The Rower” and written by David Samuels, our generation’s finest master of magazine storytelling. The rower in question is Knud Christiansen, whom David first met decades ago on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where the sage-looking man with the white beard and the kind eyes was minding his clock shop, fiddling with timepieces while serenely smoking a pipe. Only later does David learn the astonishing story of the rower’s life, and the lives of those he’d saved, and the wondrous ways in which they intertwined.
Saying too much would spoil the pleasure of discovering this masterwork, but Tibetan lamas and world-famous physicists, Greta Garbo and the band Metallica, questions of sacrifice and intimations of duty all make an appearance. Ultimately, though, this incredible true story confirms a notion that the faithful recognize to be deeply and joyously true—that good always triumphs in the end. “Good actions,” Samuels writes, “however unlikely, can initiate a cycle of goodness, by sending the flywheel of one man’s life, and then another, spinning in the same direction.” It’s impossible to think of a message we need more desperately at this dark moment in time.
Like a great many of us, I have been trying to get a handle on how we in the West should be thinking about China, and to that end I can recommend two books that I came upon by chance, but which I found powerfully illuminating. Both have a cultural emphasis. The first has a rather startling and unforgettable title: Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations. The author, Zheng Wang, contends that the Chinese Communist party’s ever-tightening grip on its populace owes much to a relentless campaign of educational indoctrination, in which modern Chinese history is rendered as an endless parade of betrayals and victimizations at the hands of imperial powers. This, Zheng argues, explains why episodes such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown have left so little residue.
Then, Erich Schwartzel’s Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy, a shocking look at China’s largely successful efforts to dictate terms to the American film industry, even as it has built up its own impressive film industry to serve as an instrument of foreign policy and a means of exporting its own national agenda.
If one compares the efforts depicted in these two books to our own 1619 Project and the insipid products of today’s Hollywood, one has a sense of what we are up against.
A year ago, no thought of converting from the Episcopal Church had ever crossed my mind. But this spring I found myself in the middle of my life, and in—not a dark wood, exactly, but something more like a tornado, and the way out was revealed to be the way back. Though I’d always known I was baptized as an infant, the details of the occasion were overshadowed by my parents’ acrimonious divorce and no one could ever quite remember where. It came as a real surprise to learn, well into adulthood and when already a mother myself, that I had been baptized in the Catholic Church and that therefore I had always, unbeknownst to me, been Catholic. By the time my family and I formally enter the Church at Easter, along with the rest of this year’s cohort of RCIA candidates and catechumens, it will have taken me as long to come home as it took the Israelites to find the Promised Land.
And so 2022 has been, for me, a year of returning to foundations. G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy echoed and affirmed my own experiences—the gradual realization that every glimpse of transcendence and grace over decades of wandering had been nudging me toward the Catholic faith: “Instinct after instinct was answered by doctrine after doctrine.” Lifelong Catholics, too, may wish to revisit his sprawling essay collection, for its precise and humble articulation of Christianity’s essential mystery, which sheds light on the joylessness of so much of contemporary life; the redemptive qualities of art (“We have all forgotten what we really are,” he writes, and “all that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget”); and our duty to strengthen what remains—to treat the good as “not merely a tool to be used, but a relic to be guarded.” Chesterton was built like a bear and, in dispatching contemporary idols, he charges ahead like one. But his awe at the Church’s miraculous evasion of heresy for millennia makes him tread more carefully the nearer he approaches truth, like a man traversing thin ice or inching out onto a perilous ledge. The resulting prose is so filled with insight that it verges on prophecy.
Writing roughly thirty generations before Chesterton, Hildegard of Bingen guards the good with impressive fierceness in Scivias, an account of divine revelations she received, mostly through migraines, in the twelfth century. Though St. Hildegard advocates rather more mortification than modern sensibilities are likely to find palatable, her visions bring complex theological ideas quickly and memorably to life. In them, the devil “hides poison under honey”; divine “wonders” shine forth “like lightning, which is partly seen and partly concealed”; and the “human mind that is carefully considering itself”—in order to spurn evil and choose good—is, in the sight of God, “radiant.”
For a quicker, more novelistic read, Joseph the Silent weaves from laconic Gospel passages a quietly beautiful account of Mary and Joseph’s betrothal, their preparations to welcome the Christ child, and the rhythms of the Holy Family’s daily life. This year especially, the sheer unexpectedness of the first Christmas feels oddly comforting, and St. Joseph’s trust and virtue stand as a particularly welcome beacon to guide us to the light that shines in the darkness and is not overcome.
Mishima sought to discover “how the man with a massive physique felt about the world around him.” To attain this knowledge, he didn’t rely on his intellect alone: “Suddenly, it was I who had a fine physique. . . . The riddle had gone; death remained the only mystery.” I’m no closer to this sort of firsthand knowledge than I was at the beginning of the book, and Mishima’s philosophy suffers from the same problem that beset the Greeks to whom he’s indebted: There’s no recognition of specifically female forms of excellence, and more broadly Mishima fails to acknowledge the dignity and value of people who are incapable of achieving his preferred form of excellence. Still, the book is droll, melancholy, and an aesthetic triumph.
I read Gray’s book both for sociological reasons (what gender differences were salient in the U.S. in 1992?) and out of a desire to cultivate a sort of female chivalry. I believe knowledge of gender difference should shape the way men treat women—they should be extra careful about commenting on body weight, for example—but I realized I couldn’t identify any ways in which men deserved special treatment. Perhaps by understanding men better I could rectify this. Gray’s book is not particularly rigorous, but it is good conversation fodder, and can at least be useful in identifying differences between individuals, whether these differences relate to gender or not.
If Gray is right, there are serious political implications. Justice presumably demands that we take gender difference into account in structuring society, and in our approach to marriage and family life. Failing to do so is a disservice to at least one—and probably both—genders.
In 2023 I’d like to read a book about female excellence that rivals Mishima’s, and a book of political philosophy that draws from work like Gray’s. If you know of any such books, please be in touch!
Leah Libresco Sargeant
Two of my favorite new books of 2022 are both, arguably, about what filters we set on how we see the world, and what it takes to lean into our uncertainty. The first is Flying Blind: The 737 MAX Tragedy and the Fall of Boeing by Peter Robison. There was a time when Boeing saw plane engineering as a way of keeping faith with the passenger. Hurling a jet-fuel-packed capsule through the sky is an inherently dangerous endeavor. The frequency of flight has lowered our awareness of how strange and challenging it is, while, at the same time, guaranteeing that a small failure that happens only once in 10,000 flights is happening somewhere right now.
Boeing's story is the tragic fall from a business that was a techne to one that is just a stock ticker. The company kept flattening its view of the world until the only outcome it cared about was quarterly earnings results. At every point in designing the 737-MAX, they chose to do things cheaply rather than doing them right. The MACS programming that jerked control of the plane away from the pilot was the shortcut that ultimately brought down two planes and killed hundreds of passengers, but, reading Robison, it's clear that it was far from the only fatal error.
For a little more wonder, Ed Yong's An Immense World is about the wide range of senses that shape how animals see the world. The heavens are telling the glory of God, and this book echoes the awe and terror at the end of Job. We get a glimpse of the artistry that God created simply for the eyes of the Leviathan, or the peacock mantis shrimp. Just as remarkable are the scientists who try to understand what they will never experience directly.
The two novels that stuck with me most in 2022—both released late the previous year—couldn’t have been much more different, at least on the surface. The first, Benjamín Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World, is a translated work by a young Chilean author consisting of a series of loosely linked, semi-fictionalized vignettes about real scientists and mathematicians of the twentieth century, and comes in at under 200 pages. The second, Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads, the latest acclaimed work by perhaps the most established American author of literary fiction, is a sprawling family epic just shy of 600 pages. What unites Labatut’s and Franzen’s otherwise dissimilar books is a concern with limits: the outermost limits of knowledge and faith, and the limits imposed on us by our moral obligations to others.
Labatut is concerned with men isolated by their ventures into the borderlands of the unknowable: men like the rival physicists Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrödinger, the chemist Fritz Haber, and the mathematician Alexander Grothendieck. In some cases, they found themselves complicit in unfathomable moral horrors: for modern physics, the atom bomb; for chemistry, Zyklon-B. Grothendieck ultimately abandoned his work and became an ascetic recluse, in part because his “quest to unearth the structures underlying all mathematical objects” seems to have left him genuinely unhinged, in part because of his political objections to the military applications of the sort of discoveries he was pursuing.
The limits probed by Franzen’s protagonists are, on one hand, those of religious faith (Crossroads is rare among recent mainstream novels that have treated this subject with seriousness and depth); and on the other, those deriving from their familial relatedness. His setting is suburban Chicago in the early ’70s; more specifically, it is an affluent church, where the central family’s patriarch manqué, Russ Hildebrandt, is an associate minister straying from his marriage while locked in a bitter rivalry with his younger colleague, the charismatic youth pastor Rick Ambrose, who has brought a brash countercultural style to his ministry and lured Russ’s own children into his camp. Franzen’s novel also documents the final moment of mainline Protestantism’s hegemonic status as a cultural and spiritual anchor of meaning, before it merged entirely with political liberalism—a future perhaps portended in the novel by Russ’s older son Clem, who retains his moralistic fervor but not his faith—while also giving way to vaguer, less structured forms of “spiritual but not religious” identity, a trajectory hinted at in Ambrose’s guru-like appeal.
I’ve been reading short stories recently by two modern American masters. Peter Taylor and Mark Helprin are each representative of New Yorker fiction as its pinnacle, from the glory days of John O’Hara, John Cheever, and John Updike, before that magazine began its baneful descent into the tedium of the PoMo freak show. Taylor, the chronicler of well-heeled and seemingly genteel Tennesseans, mostly Nashville, Memphis, and Knoxville folks, was a purebred Southern phenomenon. Southern literature has of course received its definitive summation from Pat Conroy: “On the night the hogs ate Willie, Mama died when she heard what Daddy did to Sister.” No goings-on so grotesque in Taylor’s world: His specialty, like Cheever’s and Updike’s, was the raffish underside of respectable urban and suburban lives, and he was expert at calculating the cost of quite ordinary but devastating moral defeats, in such masterly tales as “The Fancy Woman,” “Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time,” and “Dean of Men.” Some sixty of his stories are collected in two Library of America volumes, and well deserve the honor.
Mark Helprin will never be included in the Library of America—not for want of excellence, but because long ago he outraged the literary Powers by writing some of the most illuminating journalism on American foreign policy, from a decidedly conservative perspective. In the collections A Dove of the East and Other Stories (1975) and Ellis Island and Other Stories (1981), he writes with rare beauty and insight of love and war (he served in the Israeli military), immemorial themes that he endows with his own unique touch. “Ruin” and “The Schreuderspitze,” perfectly conceived and executed, depict men who face staggering loss with indomitable courage, and are among the masterpieces of the short story form. Helprin is among the very best.
If there comes a time when the world truly understands what has been happening to it in the past three years, it is likely that the books that will be remembered from 2022 will not be the ones you’ll read about in the other End of Year reviews, but, for a start, these two: The Psychology of Totalitarianism, by Mattias Desmet, and The Bodies of Others, by Naomi Wolf.
The first I reviewed in these pages in July. In the context of the assault that occurred since March 2020 on the very consciousness of the West, it provides perhaps the most comprehensive master-key for understanding forged so far. Desmet draws together the fundamentals of mass formation as excavated by Gustave Le Bon and Hannah Arendt, and sketches the past three years in an entirely new way. On this foundation, he builds a bracing description of modern society in the throes of an escalating mechanistic culture, of which totalitarianism is the ineluctable destination.
Naomi Wolf’s book about the COVID event, The Bodies of Others: The New Authoritarians, COVID-19 and The War Against the Human, might as easily be titled Observations of a Renegade “Progressive.” Most striking are the tones of astonishment, incredulity, and savage indignation that accompany her reprising of the progression of events since early 2020 that led her to realize that something unprecedented was happening. She knits a chronology of the many shocking and contradictory episodes of the rolling out of the lockdown tyranny with brief tableaus from her own life, in which she observed emblematic or telling moments of human interaction which reveal the underlying pathologies and dissonances that have come to define the era. She has a sharp eye for odd connections, in which the whole becomes visible in the particular. But most of all there is her sense of outrage, which is oddly reassuring: I am strangely put at peace by the knowledge that someone like her, despite all our past notional differences, feels like I do, is as baffled as I am, as hurt as I have become. Wolf, undoubtedly, understands freedom in its largest and tiniest dimensions—in the shape of conventions and constitutions, but—just as importantly—in the equally vital form of a huddled gossip in a High Street café over a pot of tea and a plate of biscuits.
It is easily the most comprehensive and multi-tasking of the “COVID books” yet to emerge, taking us through virtually every facet of “pandemic” and response, evaluating the consequences at an emotional depth that is both harrowing and unforgettable. One of the many new thoughts I had reading it was that never again can our supposedly “modern” society look down in condescension or outrage upon any past period of human existence, accusing it of wanton cruelty, barbarism, or obscurantism.
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