An annual tradition. This year, I continuously told myself that I wouldn’t buy new books until I’d dramatically reduced my to-read list. I half-listened, getting the list to under a hundred for the first time in living memory. It (coupled with me figuring out how to check out books digitally from the Chicago Public Library) also resulted in me reading a lot more Kindle books than normal, fully 37% of the 162 books I read this year were on the Kindle. In all, I read considerably more than I’d expected. Not having the weight of a dissertation looming over me at every instant turned out to have a salutary effect, who would have guessed?
Science Fiction absolutely dominated the genre count, with more than double the entries of any other genre. Action-packed, easy Sci-Fi tends to be my go-to when I’m in need of a brain break, and this year I apparently required a couple (plus discovered a few enjoyable new series). In second was Academic books. I read 20. Fiction, with 18, then Crime (I don’t know why I differentiated this from fiction more broadly, probably because I read a lot of Elmore Leonard) and Poetry, both 10, round out the top 5.
E.C. Tubb, who led the list in both 2016 and 2017 thanks to his Dumarest series, falls to 5th this year, as I get closer to the end of said series. I probably should have just powered through and finished the last few books, but I’m drawing them out in lieu of having a replacement. Elmore Leonard was, somewhat inexplicably (given that I often find him oddly unsatisfying), the author I read the most last year, with 10 books. He’s followed by Nick Cole and Jason Anspach, authors of a military sci-fi series I enjoyed, with 9, then Gene Wolfe (8), and Jack Campbell (6).
I realize that, of these authors, the only one who I’d consider a true favorite is Wolfe and that I only sort of liked the Campbell and Leonard books. This seems to be a deficiency in my reading habits, or maybe just a comment on the quality of breezy books that I can consume in a weekend.
On to the real meat of the post, books that I found especially memorable and would recommend to others. As always, a blend of newly encountered works and re-reads, though less of the latter than in past years.
Looking over my list this year, I realize I need to make some changes to how I record these books. Typically, I mark a book as notable in the immediate aftermath of finishing it. This method leads to some obvious problems, namely books whose quality is only apparent after a certain amount of digestion, the ones that I find coming to mind over and over months after I’ve finished them, and books that touched me in the moment but which I can barely remember when I find them in this list. There is also the category of books that I found particularly useful but did not touch me in the manner of those marked as notable. Good academic books, useful guides, etc. typically fall into this category. Finally, there are clusters of books that affected me deeply during the year, but contain no single book that I thought particularly excellent (for example, Lewis-Stempel’s Running Hare and Logsdon’s Contrary Farmer [among others] shaped how I thought this year, but neither book makes the final list). Perhaps this is just a call to write more about these books as they come, rather than endlessly promising myself I will write and failing to do so.
Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald – One of my all-time favorites, which also made the list in 2016. Here’s what I wrote then:
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.
Only two more reads to go. I’ll add that if I ever wrote seriously, I would like to write like Sebald. I’ve posted about him at least twice.
The Intellectual Life by A.G. Sertillanges – Another favorite, which made the list in 2016 and 2015. Again I’ll quote from past entries:
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.
If I were to recommend a single book to anyone pursuing intellectual pursuits, it would be this one (given the course of my academic career, perhaps this is a mark against the book). Posts on Sertillanges.
Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor – I taught this book in a class on faith during the Fall and realized with joy as I re-read it just how excellent it was. A grotesque (one is contractually obligated to use this word to describe O’Connor’s writing), comic, terrifying, and wonderful exploration of religious faith and grace in a world that all too often seems denuded of the same. Two years ago I posted my favorite quote, here.
Also, since we’re speaking of books I taught and which you ought to read, Augustine’s Confessions and the Iliad are two of the most wonderful things ever written. Read them.
Shadow and Claw, Sword and Citadel, and the Urth of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe – I’ve long cited these books, and Gene Wolfe more generally, as the best that science fiction has to offer, and this summer I re-read the whole of his 10 book Solar Cycle. If anything, this read has convinced me that I’ve underplayed just how excellent these books actually are. The story of a torturer who becomes a king and, more importantly, the savior and destroyer of the world, it is endlessly profound and contains some of the greatest world-building in literature. The whole (loosely-connected) cycle is worth reading. I’ve come to like the Long Sun portion less and gained much greater appreciation for the three Short Sun books this time around. Though none of these were my favorite book of the year (see below), I do think that Gene Wolfe takes home the coveted Author of the Year award (title previously held by Patrick Fermor, Solzhenitsyn, and Jane Austen).
John Muir: Spirtual Writings – I had no idea that John Muir was such a deeply religious thinker, and I found this selection of his writings that directly touched on the subject invigorating, a spur to future reading (as yet, sadly, not completed). I’m guessing that, upon doing that reading, I will recommend reading those actual books, rather than this collection, but in the interim, it will do. I’ve also posted some selections here.
The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway – A few years ago, I got it into my head that I really enjoyed short stories, and this conviction led me to purchase the complete short stories of 4 authors that I particularly enjoyed at the time: Flanney O’Connor, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and Hemingway. These purchases were quickly followed by the realization that I’m not that into short stories, particularly in collections of 80 or so. Thus, to date, I’ve only finished the O’Connor and Hemingway.
That said, Hemingway is one of the greatest short story writers in history, and this collection contains any number of truly excellent pieces, well worth your time and better, I think, than any of his novels.
Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea by Teffi – A book that I didn’t find especially excellent at the time, but which has stuck with me. It chronicles Teffi’s escape from the ever rising Bolshevik tide alongside a cast of creative types, all struggling, often comically, their mode of living amidst the chaos. I think what I most appreciated was her tone. She’s a very good writer and conveys a indelible impression of her experiences.
Religio Medici & Urne Buriall by Thomas Browne – Two curious little books, that I wrote about at greater length in February. Originally recommended to me by Sebald, Browne writes on memory and history, nature and God, all subjects close to my heart. As I mention in the linked post, I hope to read his entire corpus and perhaps undertake a project on the man sometime in the vague future.
The Count of Monte Christo by Alexandre Dumas – A classic of rip-roaring revenge and adventure, I’m not sure what I can say beyond the fact that there’s a reason why it’s been designated as such.
A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold – A landmark work of environmental literature describing Leopold’s life and work on a farm in Wisconsin. I wrote about it’s strengths and weaknesses in an earlier post. If you’re interested in the environment at all, it really behooves you to read this, Muir, and so on, the founders. Modern writings in the field are often mere shadows of these originals.
The Art of Living Well by Dietrich von Hildebrand – One of the best treatises on virtue I’ve ever read and a concise introduction to a legitimate claimant to the title of greatest theologian of the 20th century. A good companion book to Josef Pieper’s writings, which I have written about quite a bit and recommended a number of times. Like many on this list, I’ve written on/quoted the book already .
Memoirs from Beyond the Grave by François-René de Chateaubriand – My favorite book of 2018, the memoirs of the French writer, politician, diplomat, and historian who is probably most famous today for having a cut of steak named after him (also, for being one of the founders of Romanticism). This volume covers the years up to 1800, thus we see
Chateaubriand’s childhood, the turmoils of revolution, and his trip to America. It’s really excellent. He’s a beautiful writer and a fascinating individual, completely engrossing. A shame that the remaining thirty books of his memoirs are far more difficult to find. If my praise doesn’t convince you, perhaps some selections from his writings will?
Emma and Mansfield Park by Jane Austen – Rounding out the catalog of my favorite author of last year (who is now firmly established among my all time favorites), I read these two early in the year. Emma is, after Pride and Prejudice, my favorite of Austen’s books, a true delight. I’ll quote my praise from last year:
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…. I cannot rave enough about how much I loved these books.
Also, I’ll plug Jane Austen’s Philosophy of the Virtues by Sarah Emsley, which very nicely distills the fantastic moral reasoning of Austen’s novels. A great companion to a serious read-through.
The Oxford Book of English Verse – In my never-ending quest to appreciate poetry at greater length, I picked up this collection (on the indirect recommendation of Patrick Fermor) and waded through it in scraps of time for much of 2017 and 2018. The majority of the poems that I’ve been posting on Mondays for the past few months have come from this book, and it strikes my fairly uncultured eye as an excellent compilation and introduction to the world of poetry.
A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr – I struggle to write about this book. What makes it special is not the plot, which is slight, or the characters I barely remember, but an impression it creates, an evocation of times and love lost, of fragile happiness fading into memory, that marked me deeply in a way I didn’t expect at all in the immediate wake of finishing the novel. It’s a beautiful little book. I need to read it again very soon.
In Parenthesis by David Jones – I’ve written before of my distaste for modern poetry, yet T.S. Eliot made my list in 2017 and this shattering work chronicling Jones’s experiences in World War I makes this list this year. Bizarre and jarring, his words convey the visceral feel the violence and fragmentation of war.
Roman Lives by Plutarch – I always feel a little silly recommending books that have been widely considered classics for centuries, but this was my first exposure to Plutarch and it immediately inspired me to pick up the complete set of parallel lives. If you’re interested at all in biography, history, literature, or just being barely educated by the standards of previous generations, you should read some Plutarch.
The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz – A chilling and perceptive exploration of the effects of totalitarianism on the artistic and intellectual mind. I found it deeply insightful (not to mention relevant) and wrote a number of posts drawing out Milosz’s ideas. In these, I barely scratched the surface, so it’s worth picking up the book if they piqued your interest at all.
The Little World of Don Camillo by Giovannino Guareschi – I think I expressed why I enjoyed this collection so much well in a previous post:
Giovannino Guareschi’s Don Camillo stories are delightful little tales set in the “little world” of an Italian town in the Po valley in the years immediately after World War II. What makes them wonderful is their pure humanity, the sheer warmth of the oft-contentious between Don Camillo, his eternal rival, the communist mayor Peppone, and the surprisingly loquacious crucifix which hangs in Don Camillo’s church. I very much recommend the stories.
Reading brings us many things, one of the most important of these is joy. Each of these books, in their own way, brought me joy and I hope that they can bring you the same. Read more!