Over the past few years, I’ve lowered the total of books I hoped to read, in an effort to better savor my reading and also because there’s a glut of very long books on my To-Read shelf. Thus, I aimed to read 125 books in 2017 and surpassed that goal, reading 130. The majority were, as is usual, physical books, though 20% of the total were read on my Kindle. The full list, with fancy charts and whatnot, can be found here.
My genre classifications are never exact, yet they give some sense of what I spent the bulk of my time reading. Leading the pack this year was generic Fiction, with 22 books. This was followed by Historical Fiction (15) and Poetry (12). The fuzziness of my categories is apparent from the fourth and fifth places on the genre list, Academic (11) and History (10) respectively. I truly have no idea where I drew the line between the two (similarly, between fiction and historical fiction).
E.C. Tubb, the author I read most in 2016, once again topped the list with 9 books this year. In a close second came Bernard Cornwell with 8. In both cases, these authors offered quick diversionary reads that I could power through in a weekend during breaks from academic work. Jane Austen, about whom more later, was third with 4 books, followed by a four-way tie between George MacDonald Fraser (3), Ernst Junger (3), Dante (3), and J.G. Farrell (3).
These are books that I thought were especially excellent and that I would recommend to others. Many of them were rereads and a number I have written about before.
The Leopard by Giuseppe Di Lampedusa – One of my favorites. Previously mentioned in 2015.
Mani by Patrick Fermor – Probably my favorite of Fermor’s books. He was my favorite author of 2015, and I talked him at greater length in that entry.
Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise by Dante – My love of Dante has been discussed at length. He also made both previous instantiations of this list. In 2017, I picked up the Esolen translation, which I thoroughly enjoyed, though the Mandelbaum remains my favorite.
The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene – I am a huge fan of unconventional portraits of sainthood (see also Waugh’s Helena), and Graham Greene’s writings were an instrumental part of my conversion many years ago. Like many of the characters that populate the books on this list, the Whiskey Priest is someone who has never left me since first I encountered him miserably cowering in the depths of Mexico.
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky – My favorite book by one of my favorite authors. Raskolnikov, the sweltering streets of St. Petersburg, poor Lizaveta, and the haunting grace of Sofya have taken up permanent inhabitance in my mind.
Beowulf – Much like in the case of the Odyssey below, I’m not certain what I can say about Beowulf that is not trivial, a true classic. Incidentally, if you get a chance, you should seek out the Seamus Heaney audio version. His voice is everything you could possibly want.
Troubles by J.G. Farrell – My discovery of Farrell’s Empire Trilogy many years ago inaugurated a profound change in both the way I read and what I read, and his books have always had a place on my list of favorites. Thus, I felt I owed him a re-read and was pleased to find that this second time around only confirmed their excellence. Troubles is, to my eyes, the best of the trilogy, though I would strongly encourage anyone to read all three.
Drama of the Divine Economy by Paul Blowers – An excellent study of the place of creation in the development of Late Antique theology, has played a major role in the development of my own thought on the matter and on shaping the course of my research in general.
The Journey of the Mind to God by Bonaventure – One of the most profound and dense works of theology I’ve ever encountered. Truly beautiful.
Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger – One of the greatest books about war ever written, perhaps my favorite outside the Iliad. Striking in its unique tone, Junger truly loved war, reveled and thrived in it. The final chapters are one of the most gripping descriptions of battle I have ever encountered.
The Odyssey by Homer – I’m ashamed to say that I’d never finished the Odyssey prior. It’s, of course, one of the greatest pieces of literature in human history, and you really ought to read it in order to consider yourself literate at all.
Out of the Ashes by Anthony Esolen – All too often, traditional thought becomes mired in diagnosis, a jeremiad bemoaning the state of the world and a desperate search for what went wrong. Esolen, whose translation of the Divine Comedy I mention above, offers much needed practical advice for what should be done. Unlike the other entries on this list, I would not recommend Esolen for anyone not convinced of his basic critique of liberal modernity at the outset. Indeed, I debated including it for that reason.
Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot – My appraisal of modern poetry has never been particularly high (see also, modern art, modern architecture). So, I was shocked to find how much I enjoyed Eliot. Haunting and beautiful.
The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens – An utterly joyous, delightful book. One of the most singularly enjoyable books I’ve read in ages and were it not for a later entry on this list an easy choice for my favorite new book of the year. Truly wonderful, very funny, read it.
Submission by Michel Houellebecq – A truly disturbing book that speaks to the core of the profound sickness at the heart of the modern world. Another book that I debated leaving off the list, but I could not in the end ignore it. Maybe the most accurate and therefore horrible portraits of acedia (the characteristic sin of our world, that I always tell myself I will write about and then fail) I have read.
Before Church and State by Andrew Jones – Fascinating study of the world of Louis IX’s (i.e. St. Louis’s) France. A marvelous work of scholarship, but also a compelling portrait of an alternative to the modern, liberal order, one fundamentally directed toward peace and salvation. A true must-read for both those interested in the Middle Ages and critics of the contemporary order. I hope to write more extensively on it soon.
The Aran Islands by John Milton Synge – Read in preparation for my trip to Ireland. A fascinating account of life on the edges of the Atlantic. Beautiful and it will make you want to explore the islands for yourself (regrettably, my visit to them was only a few hours), though the world Synge depicts is assuredly lost to time.
Science, Politics, and Gnosticism by Eric Voegelin – One of the most insightful works on politics I have ever read (though I don’t claim to be particularly well-versed in the subject). Voegelin’s contention that modern through is essentially a form of (somewhat oddly defined) gnosticism is both compelling and illuminating. He’s a formidable intellect. I have so many notes that I’ve taken on this book that I’ve quailed at typing them up more times than I can count, and his New Science of Politics is sitting near the top of my current To-Read pile.
The Death of Napoleon by Simon Leys – In an odd circumstance for this list, I remember very little about this little book aside from an emotion it engendered. Not a sadness exactly, but a sense of indescribable small completeness, reminiscent of John Williams’s marvelous Stoner. Leys wrote my favorite book of last year, The Hall of Uselessness.
The Crisis of Western Education by Christopher Dawson – Engaging study of the history of education and the problems afflicting its modern form. Sadly, Dawson was far too optimistic about the potential for Catholic education to preserve true learning in the time immediately following when the book was written (indeed, that period witnessed an almost wholesale collapse of the ideal he espouses). Nevertheless, that is no reason for despair, and his ideas remain vital and worthwhile.
Pride and Prejudice (along with Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility, [Emma which barely missed being included in the 2017 list, will be on my list next year]) by Jane Austen – For years I put off reading Jane Austen because I had placed her in the same category as many 19th century authors, wonderful but long and involved, works that you needed to get yourself into the proper mindset to read and which occasionally become a slog, even though you enjoy them. I could not have been more wrong. Austen is wonderful, hilarious, and brilliant. Her books fly by, the characters are marvelous, and I cannot stress enough how fantastically humorous, while at the same time profound (Austen is a terrific moral philosopher) they are. Unquestionably the winner of my AUTHOR OF THE YEAR award. Pride and Prejudice is my favorite book of 2017 in a landslide, immediately entering on to my list of my favorite books of all time (and it is quite close to the top of that list). I cannot rave enough about how much I loved these books.
Demons by Fyodor Dostoevsky – The last of Dostoevsky’s major works that I had yet to read, typically excellent. I might even place it second in my list of personal favorites, though that’s pending a re-read of Karamazov. Like all of Dostoevsky’s great novels it remains disturbingly relevant (the chapter describing the meeting of the revolutionaries was amazing on this account) and yet rooted in a Russian time and place that it’s fascinating to explore with him. And like all of his novels, the characters are magnificent.
As always, I finish this post exhausted. I write with the hope that it will inspire you to pick up at least one of these books, all of them are great, all worth your time. Reading exposes us to so many magical worlds, explore them!