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The Aeneid
The Aeneid
Vergil
Yale University Press, 2008
320 pp., $40.00

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Ajax
Ajax
Sophocles
Flood Editions, 2008
112 pp., $13.95

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Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English
Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English
John McWhorter
Gotham, 2008
256 pp., $22.50

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The Butt: A Novel
The Butt: A Novel
Will Self
Bloomsbury USA, 2008
368 pp., $26.00

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The General of the Dead Army
The General of the Dead Army
Ismail Kadare
Arcade Pub, 2017
272 pp., $44.39

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The Lost Art of Walking: The History, Science, and Literature of Pedestrianism
The Lost Art of Walking: The History, Science, and Literature of Pedestrianism
Geoff Nicholson
Riverhead Hardcover, 2008
288 pp., $24.95

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Original Sin: A Cultural History
Original Sin: A Cultural History
Alan Jacobs
HarperOne, 2008
304 pp., $24.95

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The Private Patient (Adam Dalgliesh Mysteries)
The Private Patient (Adam Dalgliesh Mysteries)
P.D. James
Knopf, 2008
352 pp., $25.95

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Zong! (Wesleyan Poetry Series)
Zong! (Wesleyan Poetry Series)
M. NourbeSe Philip
Wesleyan, 2008
224 pp., $24.95

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The Consolation of Philosophy
The Consolation of Philosophy
Boethius
Harvard University Press, 2008
208 pp., $21.00

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De Rerum Natura (The Nature of Things): A Poetic Translation
De Rerum Natura (The Nature of Things): A Poetic Translation
Lucretius
University of California Press, 2008
320 pp., $29.95

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by John Wilson


Favorite Books of 2008

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I'm writing this soon after reading that more than 500,000 people lost their jobs in November—"non-farm" jobs, that is, to which staggering total we could add some farm jobs as well. (The CSA farmer south of Chicago from whom Wendy and I get a box of produce every week, three seasons of the year, had to lay off her help.) And even before the financial crisis hit, the publishing industry was in a state of uncertainty often indistinguishable from panic. (Imagine a convention of buggy-makers sometime after the advent of what they were calling "the horseless carriage.")

I could go on in this vein. And on. Nevertheless, at this moment in time, there are books aplenty. Reading is wonderfully democratic, and we still have a network of libraries crisscrossing the country, though there are more gaps than there used to be. (Maybe President Obama will include libraries in his ambitious plans to strengthen our infrastructure while stimulating the economy.)

And we are here, again, to celebrate some particularly good books. Not the best books of the year, whatever those might be. (One influential reckoning is the New York Times' list, The Ten Best Books of 2008, posted on the web though not yet published in the print version.) What you have here is a personal list, not issued by any magisterium. These are some books that rose to the surface when I unsystematically thought about a year of reading.

The Aeneid. Vergil. Translated by Sarah Ruden. Yale University Press. Not so long ago, if you were an educated person in the Anglo-American sphere, you could read Latin. I can't. I had made three unsuccessful tries to read Vergil's great poem in English (the first time when I was in college, unbidden), each by a different translator. In each case I bogged down pretty quickly. So I wasn't too optimistic when I picked up the galleys of Sarah Ruden's translation last spring. But her version (line-by-line, and metrical) immediately drew me in. I read most of the book on the flights Wendy and I took to and from the funeral of our dear young friend Anna Woodiwiss. And when we were home I read it straight though again. I know I still haven't read Vergil. But I've read Sarah Ruden's Vergil, and that's not to be disdained. Another classical translation that moved me, in this case from Greek—one which, like Ruden's, operated under strict constraints—was John Tipton's rendering of Sophocles' Ajax, published by Flood Editions. (Both books, as it happens, are pleasing to the eye and well designed to cradle in the hand.)

All the World's a Grave: A New Play by William Shakespeare. John Reed. Plume. Here I will quote from "Wrapping Up 2008, "a piece I did for the December issue of First Things (not yet available on the web, though it will be in time): "The words are (mostly) by William Shakespeare, but they have been rearranged by John Reed. Perhaps a summary of the action will help:

Hamlet goes to war for Juliet, the daughter of King Lear. Having captured his bride—by unnecessary bloodshed—Prince Hamlet returns home to find that his mother has murdered his father and married Macbeth. Hamlet, wounded and reeling, is sought out by the ghost of his murdered father, and commanded to seek revenge. Iago, opportunistic, further inflames the enraged prince, persuading him that Juliet is having an affair with Romeo; the prince goes mad with jealousy.

All the World's a Grave is a most unsettling book. I felt dizzy several times while I was reading, and I paused now and then to pull King Lear or Hamlet from the shelf to reassure myself that the familiar texts remained intact. What's destabilizing—and often wildly comical—is not just the rude mash-up of characters and settings violently plucked from their canonical sources but the way in which the power of Shakespeare's language flickers uneasily, surging and hissing and fizzing out only to revive and fade again as the words play against their new contexts."

Alphabet Juice: The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof; Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, Tinctures, Tonics, and Essences; With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory. Roy Blount, Jr. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. And Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English. John McWhorter. Gotham. New books on the English language and the history thereof appear with some frequency every year. (Our friend Nathan Bierma has tracked many of them in recent years.) In 2008 I particularly enjoyed Roy Blount's splendid bedside book (brief entries, alphabetically arranged) and John McWhorter's short narrative (conversational, but not in the dumbed-down style of many contemporaries). Both books wittily exhibit a delight in and a mastery of the language that is their subject Both make a very skillful job look easy.

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