Every year I read a lot of books and spend far too much time playing around with spreadsheets tracking them all. I then promise myself that I’ll use that tracking data to write a lengthy summary of my reading, only to break that promise as soon as humanely possible. This year, I shockingly didn’t break my promise, but I did wait a full month before writing this post.
Thus, my year in books. This will be my longest post on the blog by far.
So, 171 books total, the vast majority of which were read in actual book form, rather than Kindle or e-books.
Unsurprisingly, the authors who I read the most were those who wrote series. Bernard Cornwell tops the list at seven books, although I’d frankly come to dislike his writing by the end of the year. His Saxon and Arthur tales just weren’t on par with the Sharpe series that I devoured last year, largely because I found the voice of the (very similar) protagonists in both series grating. Jack Vance was next with six books. Vance is good stuff and unique. I’ll talk about him more when we get to my list of “notable” books. Neal Asher, another relatively pulpy series writer whose Cormac series I burned through in December had five books on the list. It’s enjoyable enough sci-fi, if that’s your bag. Tied with him was Patrick Fermor, who I’ll also get to later. He’s excellent, as are the two writers that round out the top five (er, six), Evelyn Waugh and Josef Pieper. Pieper I recently posted about, and Waugh has written some of the best fiction of the last century. Both are well worth seeking out.
Assigning a book to a genre was a relatively unscientific process, so the numbers aren’t anything near perfect. Scholarly books (18) topped the list, although I certainly read fewer than I should have, followed by Poetry (17), Historical Fiction (16), General Fiction (16), and Sci-Fi (15).
These were the books that I thought were especially excellent, which I’m likely to reread (some going immediately into the pile for the upcoming year), and which I’d recommend to others
The Complete Shakespeare – My big project for the year. Turns out that Shakespeare is excellent and should be read by just about everyone. I thoroughly enjoyed the entire read through. My power ranking of the plays, based on nothing but personal enjoyment:
- 1 Henry IV
- Henry V
- Richard III
- Julius Caesar
- King Lear
- Merry Wives of Windsor
- Much Ado About Nothing
The astute reader might be able to guess my favorite character from this list (hint).
A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and Water, and Mani by Patrick Fermor – The first two of these chronicle Fermor’s journey on foot from the hook of Holland to Constantinople and are the most wonderful bits of travel literature I’ve ever encountered. The third is a similarly excellent account of the southern Peloponnese. Fermor is a wonderfully engaging character (another recommendation goes to Ill Met By Moonlight, the gripping account of one of Fermor’s escapades in World War II written by a close friend) whose personality shines through the page, and his prose makes you fall in love with the land he explores and the people who populate it. Lurking behind it all is an air of tragedy, stemming from our knowledge that these places, the time, and the people were on the verge of being consumed by the great destruction of the Second World War and the communist occupation which followed. The book instilled a profound desire to visit every place he mentioned and an even stronger wanderlust which afflicts me to this day. My strongest recommendation. I consider these to be my favorite books of the year and award Fermor the soon to be extremely prestigious AUTHOR OF THE YEAR award.
The Art of Loving God by St. Francis de Sales – An eminently readable, practical, and moving work of devotion. If you’re the type of person to have a spiritual library, Francis de Sales should be in it.
Inferno by Dante – Duh. Although it should be noted that this is my least favorite book of the Comedia. I wrote about it here, and I’ll be reading this again for class in a few weeks, something I’m looking forward to very much.
The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa – I mentioned Banffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy in my last post, and this book, while very different from Banffy’s work touches on many of the same themes. I apparently have a thing for decadent, decaying aristocracies on the verge of destruction. It’s a beautifully written book, which wonderfully conveys a mood, sweltering and heavy with meaning. Very strongly recommended.
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius – Practical philosophical meditations written by perhaps the closest thing to an actual philosopher king we’ve ever seen. Stoicism isn’t perfect, far from it, there’s a gaping hole at the center, but you could do much worse than taking the maxims here to heart. Brandon at Siris has written some very good posts on the Meditations starting here, and continuing with Book II, Books III-IV, V-VII, VIII-X, and XI-XII.
Leisure: The Basis of Culture by Josef Pieper – My previous post outlined why I’m a fan of Pieper, this is perhaps his most famous work. You’ll never think about the weekend the same way again.
Poems of a Mountain Home – Saigyo – This was the favorite bit of poetry I read all year, and I’ve been meaning to post about it for months. Prior to reading it I had no real experience with non-western poetry, aside from a brief foray into a few Indian poems in undergrad. Saigyo captures something beautiful in his poems, making the sparseness of the form the engine which make it so evocative. I never feel qualified to really talk about poetry, so I’ll just not that these have stuck with me, lodged deep in the gut.
Sundrun’s Garden, The Green Pearl, and Madouc by Jack Vance – Vance is probably my favorite sci-fi author. He has a mysterious quality that others lack, an odd sort of creativity that just makes his works different than everyone else. These books are a fantasy trilogy, and they display all the wonderful inventiveness that characterizes the best of Vance. There was one major downside to this series though, far too much sexual violence, not vividly described, but lurking so much that the read became actively unpleasant at times. It’s a testament to Vance’s skill that he was able to maintain my interest despite this, and a mark against him that he felt the need to include it in the first place.
Helena by Evelyn Waugh – Waugh, it should be clear by now, is one of my favorite authors and this book is a delightfully weird retelling of the life of St. Helena, mother of Constantine, as if she were a member of the British upper class. It’s a fascinating book, an extremely unconventional portrait of sainthood, which I’ve enjoyed more and more each time I’ve read it.
Selected Stories of Anton Chekov – I don’t feel like I have much to add here. It’s a short story collection of one of the most famously excellent short story writers in history. Deeply affecting stories, despite the fact that you know where they’re all going thanks to his constant, inferior, modern imitators.
The Intellectual Life by A.G. Sertillanges – An admirable book, one which I’ve attempted (and likely failed) to take as a model of what my academic vocation should be. I re-read it every few years to remind myself of where I’m going wrong and how I might set myself right again.
If Not, Winter by Sappho – Mentioned here. I read this, or at least read the first half, in a tent during a terrible storm which I had narrowly escaped. It left an enduring image in the memory, akin to reading the suicide forest passage of the Inferno in front of a crackling fire, which is inescapably linked with the poems in my mind. Whether it was that moment or the poems themselves, I really enjoyed these fragments.
Song of Roland – More poetry! Stabbing! Charlemagne! Blowing on a horn! What more could you want?
The Alexandreis by Walter of Chatillon – Written about here and here. Another medieval poem, one which has been unfairly (to my eyes) neglected by subsequent generations. It’s a fun epic, with some very interesting content, especially in later books, that I only scratched the surface of in the linked posts. I might actually make this the focus of some research down the line, when I finally escape the clutches of my dissertation.
On the Incarnation by Athanasius – Back when I played Kingdom of Loathing, my favorite and most used familiar was named Athanasius. This is to illustrate that I’ve always had a soft-spot in my heart for the combative bishop of Alexandria, and this is his greatest work. The Boethius post I promised awhile ago and which I promise I’ll finish one day will have some further reflections on this text, which I found to have some truly great depth on this my 3rd or 4th re-read.
Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – Prior to re-reading the trilogy, I considered Perelandra to by my favorite of Lewis’s series. On this read, I was shocked by how little I enjoyed that work and how much I found to enjoy in this one. Like all the best of Lewis’s fiction (i.e. Til We Have Faces) combines tremendous depth with an outwardly simple style that makes it a joy to read, re-read, and reflect upon.
Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household – A book that can best be described as “visceral”, it’s a roaring story of a man’s descent into animality as he flees merciless assassins into the cultivated wilderness of Britain. It’s the type of book that punches you in the gut in a good way, an excellent adventure novel.
That was far longer than I expected. Apologies for any typos which may have crept in, and I hope it’s at least given you some ideas of books you might also enjoy. Read more.