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By John Wilson


Mr. Wilson's Bookshelf

2006: The Year in Books

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Hmmmm. If talking about The Top Ten Books of 2006 and the Book of the Year is an act of hubris, any pretension to survey "The Year in Books" is utter folly—unless writer and readers conspire genially as we do, say, when we suspend disbelief on beginning to read a novel or settling in our seats at the movies.

It happens that, in certain years, a book which has made a modest entrance turns out to shed light on many other books that might seem to be unrelated. So from the very first sentence you find yourself engaged in a kind of double reading, as you attend to the immediate context in the book you hold in your hand and at the same time begin to register connections branching off here and there and every whichway.

"Someone, sitting in a cave, punctures holes in a bone drained of marrow, raises it mouthwards, and blows—into a flute. Breath becomes sound, and time, through that sound, is given a shape. Being sound and shaped time, music begins."

Those are the enticingly musical first sentences of A Concise History of Western Music by Paul Griffiths (Cambridge Univ. Press), which doesn't merely pile century upon century but rather tells a coherent story, the theme of which is music's evolving engagement with time (so, for example, the development of Western musical notation moved in parallel with increasingly sophisticated devices for measuring time).

How we situate ourselves in time—how we answer the question "What time is it?"—is diagnostic. The jihadists have an answer, as do those Christians (not so numerous as we're led to believe) who are persuaded that these are indeed the End Times. Not long ago my friend Roger Lundin, professor of English at Wheaton College and author of many fine books, sent me a photocopy of an article by the late Jesuit scholar Walter Ong, whom Roger and I both greatly admire. Appearing in the Autumn 2000 issue of the journal Christianity and Literature, the essay, entitled "Where Are We Now? Some Elementary Cosmological Considerations," was one of the last pieces Ong published. Given the current estimate of the age of universe—"more or less 12 to 14 billion years"—Ong laments that this "knowledge has hardly been assimilated theologically or otherwise by many human beings inside or outside communities of Christian believers."

Alas, Ong does not seem to have realized the extent to which this observation had already become a cliché;. Better at this stage not to invoke it at all unless one is prepared to go beyond hand-waving—as Ong does only in a couple of suggestive passages, writing for example that "the real present time in which we live" (and which has as its frame of reference the historical time in which the events recounted in the gospels are clearly anchored) "is situated in real cosmic time," from which it follows that we "have to work out our thinking about the universe as God's creation from within this real time." And one consequence of that conclusion is that literalist readings of Genesis are "indefensible."

Well and good, but that doesn't take us very far. How exactly should we assimilate After the Dinosaurs: The Age of Mammals (Indiana Univ. Press)? Donald Prothero's enjoyable tour of some of the high points of the last 65 million years or so, including many drawings and paintings attempting to depict denizens of the great Wyoming swamps and other distant climes, tries near the end to apply its findings to current affairs, scolding "our wasteful industrialized society" and warning that "natural processes may be trumped by our own interference again." Now our society may indeed cry out for scolding, and the ecological catastrophe Prothero foresees may indeed call for urgent action, but this sermon is so radically disconnected from the narrative that precedes it, the reader can only marvel at its sublime incoherence—and turn back to wallow in the book's intoxicating blend of strangeness and familiarity.

And what should we make of the protagonists of Steven Mithen's speculative tour de force, The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body (Harvard Univ. Press), reviewed by John McWhorter in Books & Culture? Mithen complains, rightly, that music has gotten short shrift in accounts of cognitive evolution, and he sets out to correct that imbalance with a particular emphasis on the Neanderthals—compared to whom, he's convinced, "all modern humans are relatively limited in their musical abilities." And yet these Neanderthals are nothing but stick figures with emotions—"intensely emotional beings," Mithen says, capable of love and fear and guilt and happiness. Why? "Such emotions were present because their lifestyle required intelligent decision-making and extensive social cooperation." Of course! That explains it. And because his own theory of their particular cognitive pluses and minuses rules it out, Mithen sides with the skeptics who claim that what appears to be a flute discovered in 1995 at a Neanderthal site at Divje Babe in Slovenia—mentioned, as it happens, on Paul Griffiths' first page—is really just a bone with wonderfully round, flute-spaced holes chewed in it by carnivores.

Are we condemned then to see only what we want to see, like a Young Earth creationist faced with Prothero's book, or Prothero himself wanting to torque his history to preach against "interference" with "nature"? If so, there's no point in reading anything. But even though our judgment is ever fallible, damaged not least by sin, God's common grace has given us resources to correct our blindspots and others', so long as we maintain a reasonable humility and a readiness to read and listen as widely as possible.

John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.

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