Gilead

 There are few books I can confidently say have changed me. Gilead is one of them. Near the end of the novel John Ames, a pastor and the protaganist, writes these words: “Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see.” I’ve often imagined the Christian life as a candle illumining a small patch of the world’s darkness. This image has its merits and, of course, biblical precedent. Gilead showed me the world as John Ames saw it, a world suffused with God’s light. It taught me that whatever the world’s shadows—and reading Gilead most recently I found quite a few I’d missed the first time—God’s light shines everywhere. To look at the world as if this were so, to expect light, is to see truly. 

Rowan Williams was once asked if there was any contemporary author that matched C.S. Lewis in rendering what faith feels like. He suggested Marilynne Robinson. This reader, for one, agrees. Gilead and its sister novels are books I look forward to re-reading many times. 

The Neapolitan Quartet

 The roads in Burundi are well-paved, for the most part, but narrow. Since much of the country is mountainous this makes for harrowing turns. I remember clutching the seat in front of me—the centifugal force pushing me to the side—as we slid around another semicircle of pavement blind. I felt something similar reading these books. They might be called a story of friendship, of growing up, of romance, of life in Naples in the mid-twentieth century. But all of these descriptions fail to capture the pell-mell energy of the books and the danger one senses waiting behind each turn. The energy and the danger spring from the relationship between the protaganist, Elena, and her best friend, Lina. “Friend” isn’t quite the right word: It feels more like a rivalry sustained by mutual obsession. The two revolve around one another like twin stars. Though the friends drift apart throughout the course of the four novels, fate—and the pull each exerts over the other—always brings them hurtling back toward one another. As a reader it was impossible not to get sucked into the vortex. A year later, I’m not sure I’m out yet. 

A Room of One’s Own

Why have there not been more great works of art by women? This is the question around which Virginia Woolf’s essay “A Room of One’s Own” spins. Its widening ellipses—one almost sees them on the paper, the pendulum swinging from the still point above—trace a path from Jane Austen to Christina Rossetti to Woolf’s own day. The reader need not recoil from dizziness, though, since the whole is balanced by Woolf’s confident, conversational tone. One almost feels one is with her, trespassing on the college green and pulling tomes from the shelves of the British Library. One wishes it were possible, she seems so amiable. For all her dissent from the norms of her time she has none of the shrill of a dissident and all of the dexterity of a wit. How deftly she skewers her opponents! Her case is admirably simple: a lock on the door and a check in the mail are necessary to write great work. Who are we to disagree? It is just these, she says, that have been denied women until the present time. Without privacy and material independence we cannot expect great art. Let us be glad she was afforded both. 

Between Hideous Covers

I live a double life. One life is evident to all—or at least to those who observe me at home or at work—but the other, which punctuates the former, is invisible. This is my life in books. That I read is probably obvious even to a casual observer, but watching someone read and reading are as different as observing a meal and enjoying it. Or, for that matter, looking at a book’s cover art and reading its contents. Here’s a look past those covers, into some of the books I liked best this year. 

2016 was a good year for reading. I read quite a bit and found a few authors I look forward to reading more. It was not a good year for cover art. All my favorite books of the year had terrible covers. Fortunately, appearances did not deter me—in each case I had it on good authority that the book was better than might be suspected. I’m glad I did. 

I’m not the first to think that my favorite fiction books this year, Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, look like sleazy romance novels. I am, I know, at least a year late to Elena Ferrante’s parade. Belatedly, then: believe the hype—the Neapolitan Quartet is breathtaking (and not in a sleazy way). Each book is engrossing, enwrapping the reader in the mind of Elena Greco and the city she lives in, Naples. And the prose simply flies. If much modern literary fiction (that is, what I read of it) operates at the level of sentences, Ferrante’s plays on paragraphs and pages. I ingested the books accordingly. I’m looking forward to rereading My Brilliant Friend, though I’ll need my friends (ahem) to return it first. My thanks to Alan Jacobs for his review. It moved the book from “I’ll get around to it sometime” to my shopping cart. 

Last year I discovered (and became slightly obsessed by) Simone Weil. It may be too early to tell, but I think this is the year of Herbert McCabe. His life wasn’t nearly as dramatic as Weil’s, nor are his opinions quite so esoteric, but his writing has the same force. He combines the clarity of his master, Thomas Aquinas, with the verve of his model, G.K. Chesterton. I’m currently finishing my third book of his, the coyly titled, posthumously published God Still Matters. Like the others, it’s a plainly written and frequently thrilling book of theology; don’t let the cover art scare you off. For a taste, try his extraordinary homily on forgiveness.

I finished up most of Simone Weil’s published work with The Need for Roots. The brilliance she displays in her collection of aphorisms (Gravity and Grace) and her selected letters (Waiting for God) is here in her comprehensive critique of French society during the second world war. Neither her criticisms nor her recommendations were taken seriously, of course (Charles de Gaulle thought she was crazy), but they deserve close attention. Unlike so much political criticism in her time and ours, The Need for Roots digs deeper than metrics to the spiritual roots of her polity’s malaise. I wish someone would do the same for ours.  

If Simone Weil is a cocktail of Plato and Marx, garnished with the life of Christ, the other major book of philosophy I read this year, After Virtue, swaps out Plato for his pupil, Aristotle. It’d been on my list for a while and I’m glad I got around to reading it. McIntyre’s interlocking account of narrative, the virtues, and the good life is quite convincing, especially since his vision of the moral confusions of our days is so damning. Every time I read ‘justice’ now I wonder what the author means by that word. As a bonus it put me on a Thomistic kick—even if After Virtue is heavier on Aristotle than it is on Thomas—for which I’m very grateful. 

Alas, this year I read far too little poetry. I have no excuse for my failure: my roommate was gobbling it up and I could have easily picked up one of the books he’d recently sampled. Mark me down for more Les Murray, Seamus Heaney, and Jane Kenyon next year.

I’m making my way through Marilynne Robinson’s novels again. Housekeeping is, again, sublime. It has an austere beauty that’s quite distinct from the luminosity of Gilead. It pairs quite well with one of my favorite essays of Robinson’s, My Western Roots. Other fiction books of note include Anna Karenina, which deserves a far closer reading than I gave it, and The End of the Affair, a book that reminded me quite a lot of Simone Weil. And in nonfiction: The World Beyond Your Head, which is the best book I read that was actually written in 2016; Mary Ruefle’s collected lectures, Madness, Rack, and Honey, which continues my streak of reading a poet’s non-fiction and not their poetry; and a hat tip to Wesley Hill for putting me on to Robert Farrar Capon. The complete list of what I read this year is here

One thing I hope to do more of in the coming year is reading upstream. I did a bit of that—from Lesslie Newbiggin’s exceptional The Gospel In a Pluralist Society (about which I hope to write more) I went to Alasdair McIntyre who, in turn, directed me to Herbert McCabe—but I hope to get a little further upstream than I ventured this year. I haven’t read many ‘greats,’ the authors to whom the authors I read often refer. Plato and Marx and Augustine and Aquinas have endured neglect without complaint till now. 2017, I hope, will be the year I give one of them some well-merited attention.