Some of the editors of Dappled Things have put together a list of our favorite books we read this year. New books, old books, middle-aged books, philosophy or fiction, children’s books or ancient history… Anything we read and loved this year. Since we’re all a bunch of literary nerds, it turned out to be far too many books for one list. You can read Part One from blogger and contributor Roseanne Sullivan. For Part Two, we’ll hear from Bernardo Aparicio, president and founder of DT, as well as fiction editor Natalie Morrill, associate editor Josh Nadeau, and web editor Jonathan McDonald.
As a bibliophile, one benefit of raising kids is getting to read all the great children’s literature you missed as a kid. This year I had the pleasure of reading Old Yeller by Fred Gipson, Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink, and The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander, the first in his Chronicles of Prydain series. The first two are moving and exciting coming of age tales about families in pioneer times, where the young main characters come face to face with the sweet and bitter realities of life. In today’s world, when reality gets smothered by the virtual and artificial, when our culture drives us to live in an eternal adolescence, these books should be required reading for children. (I’ll add that Caddie Woodlawn, in particular, surprised me with how masterfully the author brought its disparate themes together for an extremely satisfying conclusion.) Lloyd Alexander’s book could also be classified as a coming of age novel, but this one is set in a world of high fantasy, one inspired by Welsh mythology. The novel is definitely for younger readers than the Lord of the Rings and therefore cannot rise to its epic scope and authoritativeness, but nonetheless it shares many of its virtues and is an exciting adventure about a young “assistant pig keeper” who is learning what it really means to be a hero.
Children’s literature aside, the two most memorable books I’ve tackled this year are the Histories of Heredotus and Abandonment to Divine Providence by Jean-Pierre de Caussade. Herodotus, often considered the first proper historian, is sometimes mocked for lapses in factual accuracy (though many of his more unbelievable tales have turned out to be true), but his real value lies in the way he lets us look at the ancient world directly through ancient eyes. Reading him has brought home to me, like nothing else, just how fundamental a transformation Christianity constitutes, and that the idea of a truly post-Christian world, even in the midst of today’s widespread unbelief, may forever remain a fantasy. As for Abandonment to Divine Providence, I can only say that I wish somebody had forced me to read this book before, especially for its disarmingly simple idea of what holiness constitutes.
It wasn’t my best reading year in terms of numbers, but there were some real winners. Among the top contenders was Excellent Women by Barbara Pym – easily my favourite Pym novel. Mildred feels more like one of my own real friends than most fictional folk I run into – in no small part because of her humble religious seriousness, but also because of her humour and honest disorientation in the world. There were passages in it that made me guffaw, regardless of whether I was alone or among (possibly embarrassed) fellow bus passengers.
Another winner was Alan Jacobs’s biography of C.S. Lewis, The Narnian. I’ve been a fan of Jacobs’s writing since devouring A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love, and while I’ve read most of his books by this point, The Narnian might be my new second-favourite. It came to me at a low moment, meaning that I wondered more than once, “Would it be silly to tell someone that the highlight of my week has been this book?” I so appreciate Jacobs’s willingness to approach Lewis’s life with honesty and charity. I don’t know if I’d ever dare write about a figure people either revere or roll their eyes at so fiercely.
Important re-reads: I paid much more attention to Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory book this year than I did in undergrad. While he and I probably disagree on many of the fundamentals, it’s such good fun to work through a thesis (even one I have to protest against) by someone so intelligent and funny. I also got to re-read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré – uncontroversially a masterpiece, and a spy story everybody should stack on their shelves among all the best 20th century novels. Beloved by Toni Morrison was another important re-read, and a powerful reminder of Morrison’s genius in what turned out to be the last year of her life.
Besides those, Swann by Carol Shields was marvellous (I love most of her novels, but this one is up there with the best). I was also thrilled to finally hold and read a full collection of poems by one of my favourite poets (and friends! and Dappled Things contributors!), Ruth Daniell – The Brightest Thing is beautiful, and sad, and hopeful.
For me, 2019 was unquestionably the year of Alice Munro. I had read one of her books at university in Canadian literature class but I was far from ready to take it in. It took more than a decade to get back to her, encouraged by her Nobel Prize for Literature win last year. She works almost exclusively with short stories, and I read the collection The Moons of Jupiter back in January. The sensation was not unlike stepping in a puddle without knowing it’s actually a hole that might run all the way down through to the Earth’s core. The only other short story writer I can think of who works consistently at this level is Chekhov. I read four of her collections this year (of fourteen!) and may make it five before 2019 calls it quits.
A number of my favourites from this year turned out, unusually for me, to be nonfiction. I’m involved in a number of dialogue and conflict resolution initiatives, and two books turned out to be game changers: Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind (or “why good people fight over politics and religion”) and Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication. While I’m still processing to what extent I agree with the books, their authors’ insights had a huge impact on how I approach the projects I work with. I’m a huge fan of Svetlana Aleksievich, another Nobel winner who assembles interviews into towering “novels of voices” that document the collapse of the Soviet Union, and her Chernobyl Prayer (where the famous miniseries got much of its material) is as harrowing and revelatory as ever. Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads, a history of the world (500 BC-2001 AD) that takes the eponymous trade routes as its focus, is a total ride that makes me wonder why any of us feel the need to watch Game of Thrones.
One of the biggest surprises, though, came from a novella called All My Friends Are Superheroes. I saw it in a university bookstore back when I was in undergrad and remembered it, hoping we’d cross again when it didn’t cost more than twenty-five bucks. That day came this past October, and I devoured it in a single sitting. It will be forced into the hands of all my nearest and dearest well into 2020.
I had thought the previous year to be mostly lost to a polemical reading of the 19th-century Dutch churchman Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, but upon a review of my book piles I realize I have actually made my way mostly or entirely through quite a few decent volumes. The revised publication of James Matthew Wilson’s Some Permanent Things was a good read, though I must admit the poems were not all to my taste. Other poetic readings of 2019 include Tolkien’s criminally unfinished The Fall of Arthur, C.S. Lewis’s Narrative Poems, and a revisiting of Beowulf.
Spiritual reading was sporadic, but some works thrive with a slow pace. The Divine Names by Dionysius, for example, unfolds best when read without haste. I reread the second part of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress for the first time in decades and found that the journey of Christian’s wife and sons expands rather nicely upon the original tale. William Langland’s Piers Plowman, another old allegorical text, is a precursor to Bunyan’s better-known work but acts as a Catholic counterpart to the later Puritan narrative.
This was not a great year for me to read fiction. My guilty-pleasure book series The Dresden Files magically appeared in my hands more than once. There is little to say about them except that I hope author Jim Butcher is serious about finding a feeling of home in Catholicism and that I am very ready for the next book to be published. One novel that had been sitting idle on my shelf for far too long was John Myers Myers’s Silverlock, a postmodern pastiche fantasy narrative from the mid-20th century which follows a modern man thrown headlong into The Commonwealth, an island-nation populated by fictional characters from all places and times. I continue to make my way through The Romance of Reynard the Fox, a medieval humor novel of sorts which manages to be funnier, filthier, and yet somehow more wholesome than most humor writing today. Lastly, A.N. Wilson’s short novel Unguarded Hours allowed for a brief tour of the ecclesiastical chaos of seminaries in the 1970s Church of England. The problems of Roman corruption and liturgical “creativity” are hardly unique to ourselves, and it was relieving to have a laugh at someone else’s expense for once.