The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharged from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre –
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.
T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding, IV
A pleasure is full grown only when it is remembered. You are speaking, Hman, as if the pleasure were one thing and the memory another. It is all one thing. The seroni could say it better than I say it now. Not better than I could say it in a poem. What you call remembering is the last part of the pleasure, as the crah is the last part of a poem. When you and I met, the meeting was over very shortly, it was nothing. Now it is growing something as we remember it. But still we know very little about it. What it will be when I remember it as I lie down to die, what it makes in me all my days till then–that is the real meeting. The other is only the beginning of it. You say you have poets in your world. Do they not teach you this?
C.S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet, 74
Alongside the Divine Comedy, St. Anselm’s Proslogion is my favorite piece of medieval writing, and it’s my favorite because it’s beautiful. That might surprise those who are only familiar with the text for the so-called “ontological argument,” the arguments of the second and third chapters that demonstrate not only that God exists but that He cannot be conceived not to exist. The argument is 100% correct and thus deeply frustrating to those who would like not to believe in God, thus often mocked and parodied and rarely actually contemplated,* but that’s not what I want to talk about. Instead, I want to try to describe at least a sliver of the sublimity of Anselm’s writing and to hint at why it ends with the joys of heaven.
The Proslogion starts with a sort of spiritual emptiness. No matter where we look, God does not appear. What’s more, study only leads us to the realization that God cannot in principle appear, cannot be understood, cannot be grasped. Yet He unquestionably is.
What to do in the face of this emptiness, sitting in our empty cell, staring at the blank wall and trying to hold the un-holdable? Starting from this absence of God, Anselm shows that all we need is one piece, a single understanding, and from the simple operation of our reason God emerges from the silence. His attributes become clear and finally we realize that the darkness is not darkness at all, but light. Light so bright that it shines dark, light so bright that we, our sight weakened by sin and crippled by ignorance, are blind. The highest realization is not catching sight of God, but the realization that it is God by which we see. We haven’t missed the forest for the trees, we’ve missed the light that envelops and pervades the leaves. The light which allows the forest to appear at all.
Constructed in this way, moments of the greatest spiritual dryness, of the utter absence of God, are transformed into the moments where God is closest. Our ignorance is transformed into knowledge, blindness into sight. That is the beauty of the Proslogion.
*see also: Pascal’s Wager
Overall, I feel that 2016 was an average year, reading-wise. In part, this stemmed from a lack of ambition on my part. In 2015, I really strove to improve my knowledge of poetry and had the grand scale project of reading the complete works of Shakespeare, both of which were immensely enjoyable. This year, there was a lot more rereading, no grand ambitions, and I tried to generally be better about not spending all of my money on books. So, a lot of the books I flagged as especially notable in 2016 were re-reads, which Lindsay assures me is super boring.
Nevertheless, breaking things down (the complete list can be found here):
I read 158 total books in 2016, the majority (71%) of which I read were actual physical books. I did get a new Kindle for Christmas, and consequently read 48 books on that. The Kindle is great for travel, but I really prefer hardcopies and don’t know that that will ever change.
The most popular genre, by far, was Science Fiction, with 26 books. After that came Academic works at 16. Surprisingly low considering that I spent much of the Fall reading and rereading sources in order to revise my dissertation, but I realize that this involved a lot more reading of individual chapters, reading articles, hunting for specific passages in indexes, etc. In terms of sheer bulk, academic works undoubtedly made up the majority. Contributing also to the low number is that I’m inconsistent about classifying primary sources, something I’m trying to be better about this year. Travel literature came in third with 12 books, again surprising me. Frankly, I’d forgotten a lot of them by the end of the year. After this was General Fiction at 11 and Poetry at 7 books.
In terms of authors, the most popular by far was E.C. Tubb with 10 entries. That’s misleading, however, as I actually read 16 of his books (meaning also that the number for science fiction is too low). Six were collected in an omnibus edition that I only counted as a single book. Tubb, a relatively obscure figure, is the author of the Dumarest books, a rip roaring series of planetary romances recounting the adventures of Earl Dumarest on his never-ending quest to find his lost home, Earth. These books were excellent quick diversions whenever I had a spare day or so and wanted to read something light and exciting. Although formulaic, they maintained a certain quality throughout, and I think they’re unjustly forgotten. Worth a look.
After Tubb, Jack Vance was the second most read author. I read 8 of his books and have already sung his praises. Then a large drop-off after Vance, Patrick Fermor, my favorite author of last year, made the list again with four books, primarily because I reread his wonderful trilogy in preparation for Linz and my honeymoon in Central Europe.
These are books I thought were especially excellent and that I would recommend to others. As I mentioned above, many of these were rereads.
Space Viking by H. Beam Piper – A brisk and yet surprisingly deep sci-fi romp. The story of a quest for revenge that fosters the birth of an empire. Far more interesting than many other ostensible classics of the genre and, above all, fun.
Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart by Josef Pieper – I’ve written about Pieper a number of times, and specifically about this book back in January. An excellent, very brief primer on virtue.
The Divine Comedy by Dante – A legitimate candidate for my favorite book of all time. I’ve reread at least part of it every year for the last four years and am doing so again as I write. Almost unbearably beautiful. I hope one day to be able to teach Dante in full, as discussing him with students is a truly fantastic experience.
The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald – A wonderful, melancholy rumination on memory and loss. Whenever I read it, I have a sense that there’s something momentous looming just behind the words, something that I just can’t grasp. One day, I’ll be able to say more, but I’ll probably have to reread it another three times before that day comes.
The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey – The best book on teaching and coaching that I’ve ever read, deeply insightful and a must read for anyone engaged in pedagogy. Ideally, this would the basis of my own teaching/coaching, but I worry that my attempts have largely been a failure. I wrote a little about Inner Game in conjunction with Pieper’s writings on virtue here.
In Defense of Sanity by G.K. Chesterton – Simon Leys, who will make an appearance later on this list, described Chesterton as “a poet who dances with a hundred legs,” and I doubt I can say anything that better captures the spirit of the man. Perhaps my favorite author of all time and likely the greatest mind of the 20th century. This book is a “best of” collection of his essays, every one brimming with insight, wonder, and joy.
The Intellectual Life by A.G. Sertillanges – Years ago, I read a blog post about “Companion Books”, books that truly count, that nourish your inner being and shape you. I’ve come to realize I have a number of these, perhaps too many, and Sertillanges’s masterpiece is one of them. His portrait of the intellectual life is what I aspire to and yet fall short of far too often.
The Long Ships by Frans Bengtsson – Perhaps, you’re growing tired of me saying that a book is one of my all-time favorites and heaping effusive praise on an author. If so, my apologies, because this is one of my all-time favorite books. Indeed, it’s probably the fiction book that I most often recommend to others. Most of all, and this seems to be a theme that I hadn’t noticed until this moment with the books I enjoyed most last year, there’s a sense of fun here, a joy in the adventures of Red Orm that I find incredibly endearing, and I think you will too.
The Transylvanian Trilogy by Miklos Banffy – A series of books that I always intend to write more about but stumble when confronted with the enormity of speaking intelligently about Banffy’s trilogy. The collapse of the old order in and immediately after the First World War fascinates me, and this book is a particularly gripping account of the Austro-Hungarian side of that collapse, written by a man who experienced it first hand. Aristocrats while away their lives at glittering parties, as around them the world collapses.
Moby Dick by Herman Melville – Another book that I eternally hope to write about, even more so than Banffy’s trilogy. Most of the books that are considered to be great classics are considered to be so because they are truly excellent, and Melville’s magnum opus is no exception. Don’t be put off by the occasionally meandering survey of whaling implements, this is a magnificent book.
The History and Topography of Ireland by Gerald of Wales – One of my favorite medieval works and, like almost all of my favorite works from that era, it’s a survey of the bizarre and wonderful. In this case, Gerald details the surprising things found in that distant and barbarous land of Ireland in the wake of the Norman Conquest of that Island. I’ve written about Gerald here and here and will be presenting some more developed thoughts on the subject at Kalamazoo this year. Also, I’ll be visiting Ireland in June and am very excited to see some magic wells and self-castrating beavers.
The Peregrine by J.A. Baker – A weird, obsessive, and beautiful book documenting one man’s obsession and seeming identification with the falcon.
The Glory of their Times by Lawrence Ritter – Again, the appeal of this oral history on the early years of baseball is joy, the joy of playing, of camaraderie, and of youth. Fascinating stories that wash over you, transporting you to the simple and sun-dappled world of the ballpark. My enduring impression is of the sounds of the game, the purity of the crack of a hit, the thud of a ball into the outfielder’s glove (I always treasure this, whether it’s the squeak of shoes on a basketball court or the click of pool balls on the table. There’s something magical about these simple sounds).
In the First Circle, Warning to the West, and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn –Solzhenitsyn is the winner of my coveted Author of the Year award, and I’ll have more to say about him in future posts (I promise, with the worry that it will be a promise unfulfilled). He’s an author that I’ve put off reading for far too long, particularly given my affection for Russian novelists. His fiction brings home the grinding, stupid banality of the Soviet Regime in all its horror, and his collection of speeches in Warning to the West shed a harsh light on the moral failures of the “free” world. Those cancerous failures have only gotten more serious in subsequent decades as the liberal order agonizingly rots from the inside out.
The Hall of Uselessness by Simon Leys – Although Solzhenitsyn was the author whom I discovered this year that I most enjoyed, The Hall of Uselessness was my favorite book. More than anything, the essays collected in this wonderfully-named volume make clear that Leys was a man who genuinely loved books, loved literature; its characters, its twists, and its turns. That love shines forth from every page, and if you too love books, you should read this one.
He Leadth Me by Walter Ciszek – A gripping portrait of sainthood amidst the horrors of the Soviet gulag. Ciszek was a young Jesuit who sought to evangelize the communist world, was snapped up by the Soviets in their invasion of Poland, and spent decades ministering in prison camps. Deeply moving and almost impossibly heroic.
Saving the Appearances by Owen Barfield – A profound meditation on the consequences of recent scientific discoveries on our metaphysical picture of the world, particularly our understanding of the past. Staggering in their implications, Barfield’s conclusions are such that I’m only barely able to grasp their import. This is what real philosophy, or at least real speculative metaphysics, ought to look like. As with many of these books, I hope one day to write in more detail about it, but, unlike with many of the others, with Barfield I barely know where to start. Not easy reading, but strongly recommended none the less.
Phew, that’s it. I truly hope that at least some of these books seem interesting to you, dear reader. Every one is absolutely worth your time. Read more.