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.