Compared to other years, 2019 was a bit odd. My reading was dominated by two long series, Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin books, about which more below, and Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer books (which were good, but not truly excellent detective novels). Together, these accounted for more than 20% of all the books I read. As a consequence, there are less entries in the “Notable Books” section than normal.
At the same time, there were quite a few books that I found worthwhile, interesting, and would certainly recommend, but that didn’t quite meet the criteria that normally merits mention in this post. This is not an uncommon problem, I mentioned it last year and thought (mildly) hard about how to overcome it, but it seems especially notable this year. I don’t have a solution, so I’ll simply mention a few books that you might also want to check out:
- Traditional Japanese Poetry ed. Carter – Very good, just barely missed the list. Too many poems that didn’t captivate me to make it.
- Plutarch’s Lives, Livy’s History of Rome, Aeschylus’s Oresteia – All classics, all excellent, all likely worthy of inclusion on this list, but somehow did not lodge in my heart the way others did (the Oresteia came closest)
- Gardens and The Dominion of the Dead by Robert Pogue Harrison – Excellent wide- ranging studies moving effortlessly through literature, philosophy, and history. When I think about how and what I want to write two authors always come to mind: Pogue Harrison and WG Sebald. I don’t know why I didn’t mark this as notable at the time, but I’ve come to trust my in-the-moment apprehension on these things.
- The Office of Assertion by Scott Crider – Great book on the rhetoric of academic writing, accessible, loaded with detail and practical. Too much of a textbook for me to mark as notable, but it’s the best thing I’ve ever read on the subject.
- Shop Class as Soulcraft and The World Beyond Your Head by Matthew Crawford – I agreed with essentially everything that Crawford wrote in these two philosophical/psychological examinations of the value of craftwork. A vital and timely imperative, presented in a compelling, accessible fashion. If you’re a craftsman of any sort or, even more so, if you’re not, you should read these.
Now, on to some stats. I read a total of 168 books in 2019. 29% of which were read on my Kindle (I believe this is a record high) and the rest of which I read in physical form.
Thanks to the Aubrey-Maturin books, historical fiction dominated the list with 25 entries (20 of which came from O’Brian’s series). Next, in what was a surprise to me, came philosophy, with 21 books. I truly don’t know when I read all that, but the fact that it dominated the list in a year when I had few true favorites might mean something. Next was detective novels (19), thanks to the Lew Archer books that accounted for 18 of them, followed by Sci-Fi (18) and academic books (17).
As you’ve probably been able to guess O’Brian easily takes the crown this year with 20 books, followed by Macdonald with 18. No one else is even close. EC Tubb, who will finally get his due in the notable section, reappears for what is certainly the last time with 4 books, and Alan Akers, who I thought might be a worth successor to Tubb but whose books were below my lax standards for pulp sci-fi (I found them an overwraught imitation of Edgar Rice Burroughs) had 5 entries. No one else had more than 2 books, another demonstration of how this was an unconventional year (compare last year, where no author had more than 10 books on the list and where Tubb and Akers would not have made the cut for mention in this section).
These are books that I found especially memorable and would recommend without (much) reservation. In another departure from previous years, there are, depending on how you count, only two (or 21) reread entries. Let’s do those first:
Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton – I’ve always found Chesterton, despite what his detractors might think, to be a titanic intellect. The apparent glibness of his style is perhaps the greatest indication of that intellect, as there is terrific insight buried behind apparently simple word play and humorous contradiction. He puts it well himself, first on his use of humor:
My critics think that I am not serious but only funny, because they think that “funny” is the opposite of “serious.” But “funny” is the opposite of “not funny” and of nothing else. Whether a man chooses to tell the truth in long sentences or in short jokes is a problem analogous to whether he choose to tell the truth in French or in German. The two qualities of funny and seriousness have nothing whatever to do with each other…If you say that two sheep added to two sheep make four sheep, your audience will accept it patiently–like sheep. But if you say if of two monkeys, or two kangaroos, or two sea-green griffins, people will refuse to believe that two and two make four. They seem to believer that you must have made up the arithmetic, just as you have made up the illustration of the arithmetic. They cannot believe that anything decorated with an incidental joke can be sensible. Perhaps it explains why so many successful men are so dull-or why so many dull men are successful.
Then on the depth of his thought revealed in its apparent frivolousness:
A man who deals in harmonies, who only matches stars with angels, or lambs with spring flowers, he indeed may be frivolous, for he is taking one mood at a time, and perhaps forgetting each mood as it passes. But a man who ventures to combine an angel and an octopus must have some serious view of the universe. The more widely different the topics talked of, the more serious and universal must be the philosophy which talks of them. The mark of the light and thoughtless writer is the harmony of his subject matter. The mark of the thoughtful writer is his apparent diversity.
And he is a very thoughtful writer indeed.
Both of these quotes come from Simon Leys’s wonderful essay on Chesterton: “The Poet Who Dances with a Hundred Legs” (Leys has such marvelous titles). Leys explains that title:
Chesterton once said that he suspected Bernard Shaw of being the only man who had never written any poetry. We may well suspect that Chesterton never wrote anything else.Simon Leys, The Hall of Uselessness, 100
But what is poetry? I t is not merely a literary form made of rhythmic and rhyming lines–thought Chesterton also wrote (and wrote memorably) a lot of these. Poetry is something much more essential. Poetry is grasping reality, making an inventory of the visible world, giving names to all creatures, naming what is…Poetry is our vital link with the outside world–the lifeline on which our very survival depends–and therefore also, in some circumstances, it can become the safeguard of our mental sanity
He later suggests that the essay might have been called, ” The Man Who Was in Love With Daylight.” And its this title that, I think, gets to the core of Orthodoxy and what makes Chesterton such a delight to read. His concern is with joy and wonder, this is what led him (and through him, in a large part, led me) to recognize the truth of Christianity. In his own words:
This, therefore, is, in conclusion, my reason for accepting the religion and not merely the scattered and secular truths out of the religion. I do it because the thing has not merely told this truth or that truth, but has revealed itself as a truth-telling thing. All other philosophies say the things that plainly seem to be true; only this philosophy has again and again said the thing that does not seem to be true, but is true. Alone of all creeds it is convincing where it is not attractive; it turns out to be right, like my father in the garden. Theosophists for instance will preach an obviously attractive idea like re-incarnation; but if we wait for its logical results, they are spiritual superciliousness and the cruelty of caste. For if a man is a beggar by his own pre-natal sins, people will tend to despise the beggar. But Christianity preaches an obviously unattractive idea, such as original sin; but when we wait for its results, they are pathos and brotherhood, and a thunder of laughter and pity; for only with original sin we can at once pity the beggar and distrust the king. Men of science offer us health, an obvious benefit; it is only afterwards that we discover that by health, they mean bodily slavery and spiritual tedium. Orthodoxy makes us jump by the sudden brink of hell; it is only afterwards that we realise that jumping was an athletic exercise highly beneficial to our health. It is only afterwards that we realise that this danger is the root of all drama and romance. The strongest argument for the divine grace is simply its ungraciousness. The unpopular parts of Christianity turn out when examined to be the very props of the people. The outer ring of Christianity is a rigid guard of ethical abnegations and professional priests; but inside that inhuman guard you will find the old human life dancing like children, and drinking wine like men; for Christianity is the only frame for pagan freedom.Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 155
Joy, wonder, and the deep gratitude we owe reality for its very existence, as in a short poem, from before Chesterton’s conversion (also quoted in Leys):
Here dies another day
During which I have had eyes, ears, hands
And the great world round me;
And with tomorrow begins another.
Why am I allowed two?
Anyway, you should read this book, it’s joyous on the most profound level.
The Aubrey-Maturin Books by Patrick O’Brian – While O’Brian’s chronicles of the adventures of the heroic, albeit sometimes bumbling, sea captain Jack Aubrey and his closest companion, the doctor and spy Stephen Maturin, cover 20 books (and a 21st unfinished novel that I refuse to read), they are, in a very real sense, one grand historical novel, perhaps the greatest historical novel ever written (I certainly haven’t encountered a better one). Marvelously detailed, at turns–and often all at once–poignant, gripping, hilarious, and profound, it’s almost impossible to turn away once you’ve entered into O’Brian’s world. The characters, locales, ships, battles all are beautifully drawn and enthralling. Truly, I would reread this series every year if I had the time. I found on this, my second read through, depths that I hadn’t even imagined were there previously and this, to me, is always the mark of a truly great book. O’Brian easily takes the coveted award for author of the year. I could not recommend the series more strongly.
Plus, he gets points for inspiring my favorite movie of all time.
On Power by Bertrand de Jouvenel – A deeply perceptive, and more than a little depressing, study of the character of power written at the height of World War II. Very different, though not necessarily opposed to, Romano Guardini’s similarly excellent study of the subject. Far too deep to cover even the basics here, but you’ll never look at politics the same again after reading it.
The Dumarest Series by EC Tubb – For years, Tubb’s Dumarest series has been a standby on my list of read books and, having finally finished the series and seen Dumarest arrive (though not necessarily safely) at his long-sought home, I’m sad to see it go. This is pulp sci-fi–of the planetary romance variety–of the highest order (not quite as excellent as Leigh Brackett or Burroughs, but very enjoyable nonetheless). The basic plot of virtually all of the 33 books in the series are the same: Earl Dumarest, wayward child of Earth, possessed with a desperate longing for home, preternatural speed, indomitable will, and a secret that the malevolent Cyclan (think evil Vulcans) will stop at nothing to attain arrives at a planet run by a degenerate aristocracy where he finds himself lusted after by beautiful women, combating deadly beasts, fighting at least one combat to the death in the arena, and embroiled in byzantine plots of revenge and domination. Always seeking for clues to the lost location of Earth, he triumphs over a multitude of dangers, thwarts the Cyclan agents who are ever on his tail and escapes, often seeing his hopes of finding home dashed cruelly at the last moment. Despite this repetitiveness, Tubb gives you enough variety to keep going and the stories certainly don’t drag. You can easily power through any of them in a few hours and they’re a welcome respite from academic works and denser literature.
Tubb has provided me with years of entertainment. I truly am sad to see the series end.
Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti – My affection for Rossetti should be obvious from the sheer number of her poems that I’ve posted here. I’m hard pressed to think of another poet who so deeply stirs the waters of my soul. Many of these entries have used the word “profound” or “deep”, and perhaps that’s a theme of this year, but, despite the repetition, it is nonetheless apt. Rossetti is a beautiful poet, to be read and savored.
It’s difficult for me to speak about the virtues of poetry. Their own words are their best argument. Ignore what I have to say and just read the poems I’ve linked above. They’ll tell you much more than I can about why she is great.
The Centurions by Jean Larteguy – A gripping novel about the nature of war and the men who fight it, which follows a group of French paratroopers from the disaster at Dien Bien Phu to the disaster of Algeria with a brief stop in a France to which they can no longer return. Most reviews speak about how relevant the novel is, it’s depiction of guerrilla warfare and the horrors required to fight it especially pertinent to the modern experience, but I’ve long thought that what makes a book great is not its relevance, but its timelessness. This is a book worth reading not because America finds herself embroiled in an endless succession of Algerias, but because there’s something at the heart of the novel that speaks to the timeless reality of empire and of men, the violence we beg them to commit and what that violence makes them become. Larteguy himself certainly saw this eternal resonance. We can see that from the title, evoking lonely centurions on the periphery of Rome as the walls begin to crumble.
The enjoyed the sequel The Praetorians far less, perhaps because it seemed to require a more in depth understanding of mid-20th century French history about which I know essentially nothing (save for reading a single book about the Algerian conflict in the aftermath of reading Larteguy).
With Fire and Sword by Henryk Sienkiewicz – A epic of the purest and most wonderful sort, following noble (and less-than-noble) Polish knights as they battle against a massive Cossack uprising. It’s exciting and bloody, filled with virtue and vice, terrifying but never one-dimensional villains and excellently drawn characters throughout. Most notable is the Falstaffian knight, Zagloba (he’s the less-than-noble one, though he still has a heart of gold), who has stuck with me more than any other character in a book I’ve read this year. I think that might by Sienkiewicz’s greatest strength, he makes you care about the characters. You want to be around them. You want to see what happens to them. Even the villains are captivating, you await their fates with bated breath. The book is massive, the sequels (which I promise I’ll get to someday) even more so, but for sheer adventure and fun, I’m hard pressed to think of a book since Frans Bengtsson’s The Long Ships that I’ve enjoyed more. A real delight.
Pere Goriot by Honore de Balzac – Balzac is a strange author. On the surface there’s nothing I can point to in his works that I find especially amazing. Indeed, there are a number of times when his prose seems outright bad, where the plots feel rushed, where I lose my grip on his characters (I worried that this was an artifact of translation, but see that others have complained about it too). Nevertheless, his books are utterly captivating. Below the prose, somehow not contained within the words themselves but lying behind them, is a raw, vital energy. His books, and the people within them, are alive. Balzac poured his own life into his works, you might plausibly claim that doing so killed him–the exhaustion of marathon writing sessions fueled only by gallons of coffee, the spiritual depletion of leaving your life on the page. If so, what a sacrifice! What a titanic amount of life he had to give! That’s his achievement, this vitality, this energy. Pere Goriot is one of the most famous of his novels, a key part of his massive La Comédie humaine series of inter-woven works, and thus one of the greatest examples of Balzac’s excellence. You ought to experience it, if only once. It’s different than any other author I’ve ever encountered.
Gilgamesh – How do you praise a four thousand year-old incomplete Sumerian epic? I’ve already mentioned my feeling of inadequacy whenever I try to express why poetry is valuable. So, I’ll simply say that I found Gilgamesh far more accessible than I expected, but what truly drew me in was that this accessibility lightly masked an ever-present air of mystery, of the numinous lurking just behind the scenes. In this way, Gilgamesh reminded me of the Book of Genesis, quite possibly the single most mysterious (in a number of senses of the word) thing ever written. It felt like a poem that I could read over and over again, perpetually feeling like I was on the brink of a great revelation but never quite attaining it. That’s a special and wonderful feeling.
To evoke Chesterton and to paraphrase what I wrote last year, reading brings us many things, the most important of these is wonder and joy. Each of these books, in their own way, brought me wonder and joy, and I hope that they can bring you the same. Read more!