By John Wilson
'Tis the Season for Books …
Here we are in December, impossible as it seems, and it's time to begin looking back at the books of the year, as we'll continue to do for the rest of the month. My full-dress report on the Books of 2005 appears in the December issue of First Things. The article isn't yet available on the web, but if you pick up a copy at the newsstand you'll find Richard John Neuhaus' superb essay, "Our American Babylon," as well as excellent pieces by Wilfred McClay, Jonathan Last, Philip Jenkins, and Michael Behe, among others. I won't go over territory already covered in the article for FT, but no one survey—no ten surveys—can begin to comprehend the annual harvest of books. And in due course, several weeks hence, look for the Top Ten of 2005 and of course The Worst Book of the Year, for which the competition is, as always, intense.
Whenever I talk about this book or that book, I'm conscious of leaving out others equally worthy of mention. But sometimes the omission is simply a matter of forgetting. In the piece for FT, I remarked that I'm not predisposed these days to open a memoir, and then noted some exceptions that seduced me anyway. In doing so I forgot to mention one of my favorite memoirs of the year, Priscilla Buckley's Living It Up at National Review (Spence). Maybe George Clooney could be persuaded to turn it into a movie, set almost entirely in the magazine's offices and shot in black-and-white. But probably not. (Casting question: Who would play WFB?)
We've noted in the past the astonishing accomplishments of the Plantinga family. This year let's give a tip of the hat to the Brothers Sweeney, Jon and Douglas. You may have seen Betty Smartt Carter's review of Jon's memoir, Born Again and Again: Surprising Gifts of a Fundamentalist Childhood (Paraclete), in the 10th anniversary issue of B&C. (That was yet another memoir I read this year and found winsome.) Douglas you'll recognize as a B&C contributor; look for a review of his book, The American Evangelical Story (BakerAcademic), in our pages in the summer of 2006.
Collections of essays are notoriously slow sellers, but some publishers are bold enough to invest in them anyway—sometimes to please a high-powered writer on their list, but sometimes out of sheer idealism. We can be thankful when the result is a book such as Paul J. Willis' Bright Shoots of Everlastingness (WordFarm). Willis, by the way, was the author of the classic B&C piece on "The Wardrobe Wars," detailing the rival claims of Wheaton College and Westmont College to possess the wardrobe immortalized in the Chronicles of Narnia. It was a productive year for Willis, who also (with David Starkey) midwifed and edited In a Fine Frenzy: Poets Respond to Shakespeare (Iowa), a delightful collection. He is not to be confused with the Paul J. Willis who edited Sex Buddies: Erotic Stories About Sex Without Strings and A View to a Thrill: The World of the Voyeur and the Men Who Like to Be Watched.
One tricky matter for everyone in publishing these days is the relationship between conventional publishing and publishing on the web. Each year, the New York TimesBook Review publishes a list of "Notable" books and also a list of the "Best Books" of the year. Both lists were available on the Times website before home delivery of the Sunday paper for December 4. The Book Review for that day included the list of 100 Notables—and a note from the editor inviting readers to go to the website to register their guesses as to which of those 100 would make the final cut in next week's Sunday edition, when the Best Books would be announced. Whoops.
People routinely say to me, not always in a complimentary way: "Of course you read everything." Almost never have I read even half of the books on the very selective annual list of the Times' Best Books. That was true this year as well. Of the five fiction and five nonfiction books on the list, I have read only three—Haruki Murakami's novel, Kafka on the Shore (Knopf); Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan's biography, De Kooning: An American Master (Knopf); and Joan Didion's memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking (Knopf)—and skimmed one—Tony Judt's Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (Penguin Press). I've had a brief encounter with a couple of others on the list—for instance, I read the excerpt from Ian McEwan's novel Saturday (Doubleday) that appeared in The New Yorker. That was more than enough for me. The notion that this was one of best books of the year strikes me as silly—but many literary types disagree. Murakami is (in my judgment) a far more interesting writer than McEwan, but Kafka on the Shore is a mess of a book, artistically and morally.
But I'm beginning to sound like talk radio (my idea of hell), so enough for this week. One closing request: When I list my favorite books of the year (not necessarily the best books, but my favorites), I will also mention my favorite essay of the year. I'd love to hear from you in the next couple of weeks: what essay or article that you read in a magazine or webzine this year stands out above all the rest in your memory?
John Wilsonis editor of Books & Culture and editor-at-large for Christianity Today.
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