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By John Wilson


A Few Coming Attractions from 2004

Plus: What to buy with those gift cards, and some of the books in my to-read stacks.

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Ever since I was a small boy and first grasped the concept of a "year," the marking of time has retained a mysterious quality for me, and calendars especially seem to be potent with elusive meaning. That a year "ends" on a certain day and a new one "begins" … that every day in that new year is already laid out in advance on the pages of the calendar … there is a fascination to all this, a sense of forces only dimly understood.

I'm particularly conscious of this in the week between Christmas and New Year's Day, a week which has long been special for me, set aside in a way, to think back and to look ahead. So it's fitting that this week we are concluding our annual roundup of books, including a few that are coming in 2004.

I've been re-reading John Gardner, one of my favorite writers, who died in a motorcycle accident in 1982 at the age of forty-nine. At the time of his death, he was—love him or hate him—a ubiquitous presence in American writing. Since then, in the last decade especially, he has slipped from view. I hope that Barry Silesky's biography, John Gardner: Literary Outlaw (Algonquin), coming in January, will prompt many readers to discover or rediscover Grendel and The Sunlight Dialogues and other marvelous books. As biographies go, Silesky's is very much in the journeyman's category, but it points in the right direction.

One of the books I'm most looking forward to is the second volume of Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel According to St. Matthew, by Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis (Ignatius Press), due any day now. The first volume, published in 1996, was a treasured bedside companion for months. (I hope we don't have to wait so long for volume 3!).

Technically a 2003 title but published right at the end of the year is the first volume in an important new series, The Church's Bible (Eerdmans), under the general editorship of Robert Wilken. This series, which promises to be a superb complement to InterVarsity Press's invaluable Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, presents Scripture "as it was understood during the first millennia of Christian history." Drawing primarily on ancient commentaries and sermons on specific books of the Bible, the series will feature (in general) longer, more sustained exposition than one finds in the excerpts gathered in the ACCS. Richard A. Norris, Jr., is the editor and translator of the first volume in the Church's Bible, devoted to the Song of Songs. Get a copy for yourself, one for your pastor, and one for that niece or nephew in seminary.

Earlier in this roundup I mentioned the series of reprints of Muriel Spark's novels coming from New Directions. In April 2004, Everyman's Library will publish an omnibus volume containing four of Spark's novels: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Girls of Slender Means, The Driver's Seat, and The Only Problem (Knopf). The last of these deals with the Book of Job and the problem of evil.

For years now it has been fashionable for scholars to condescend to Marshall McLuhan even as they grudgingly acknowledge his prescient vision. Not that McLuhan is above criticism—hardly!—but what a world of difference between his energizing intelligence and the inturned discourse of these condescenders. A promising antidote, coming in March from MIT Press, is Understanding Me: Lectures and Interviews, edited by Stephanie McLuhan and David Staines, with a foreword by Tom Wolfe.

In the precincts of The New York Times and other citadels of enlightenment, "we" hardly know anyone who believes any of that old religious stuff. But what about the world outside? Alister McGrath proposes an answer in The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World (Doubleday), coming in June. It's a safe bet that this title won't make the Times' list of "best books" for 2004. But you might want to go out on a limb and read it anyway.

Jonathan Sarna is an outstanding scholar, and his American Judaism: A History (Yale Univ. Press), due in April, should be one of the highlights of the year. Also noteworthy from Yale is Jaroslav Pelikan'sInterpreting the Bible and the Constitution, scheduled for May. Also in the don't-miss file is Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (Simon & Schuster), by Allen Guelzo, a frequent contributor to Books & Culture, due in February.

Anne Godoff, formerly of Random House, is now head of a new Penguin Group imprint, the Penguin Press. She has brought some of her big authors with her and recruited some new ones. The impressive first list, scheduled for this spring, includes titles by Niall Ferguson, Lawrence Lessig, Ken Auletta, Richard Evans, Ron Chernow, and the late Michael Kelly, among others, but the one I'm most looking forward to is Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies, by Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit, coming in March.

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