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Favorite Books of 2009

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Last year at this time, the news was dominated by lost jobs and lost savings. This year? It depends. A headline from today's Wall Street Journal (Dec. 11) caught my eye: "Thousands Flee Iran as Noose Tightens." Those who are fleeing—and those who are staying yet continuing to resist, and the people of Iran generally—should be in our prayers.

And last year at this time, grim bulletins from the publishing industry were appearing every day, or so it seemed. This year? One of the season's offerings, from the scholar Robert Darnton (who helped put "the history of the book" on the map), gives a clue: The Case for Books: Past, Present Future (PublicAffairs). But in 2009 as in 2008, there are books aplenty, more than you can count, such riches as to dazzle even the most jaded observer.

As is the custom in this space, I've listed below my favorites from the year. Not the best books of the year, whatever those might be. (One influential reckoning comes from the New York Times Book Review: The 10 Best Books of 2009.) 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. At the end is my choice for Book of the Year.

Baader-Meinhof: The Inside Story of the R.A.F. Stefan Aust. Translated from German by Anthea Bell. Oxford University Press. The story of this terrorist group, flourishing in West Germany from the late 1960s to 1977 (in its first incarnation), has been told many times by German writers, filmmakers, and artists. Stefan Aust's account (reviewed here) is haunting.

Catcher: How the Man Behind the Plate Became an American Folk Hero. Peter Morris. Ivan R. Dee. Here is my mini-review from the September issue of Christianity Today: "The season is heading for its World Series climax. Fall is in the air. Time to look back at the baseball equivalent of the church fathers. Our guide is Peter Morris, and here he recounts the changing role of the catcher, from the barehanded era into the early 20th century. Along the way, with no huffing and puffing, he gives us a sense of how changes on the baseball field reflected changes in America. Question: Who was the greatest 19th-century player? Morris says it was Jim 'Deacon' White (yes, a catcher)."

428 AD: An Ordinary Year at the End of the Roman Empire. Giusto Traina. Translated from the Italian by Allan Cameron. Princeton University Press. Put this on the shelf next to Philip Jenkins' The Lost History of Christianity and Adrian Goldsworthy's How Rome Fell. This is a short book (132 pages of main text), dense with strange names and unexpected juxtapositions, each chapter recounting an "episode." Borges hovers in the background. For instance: "The Church of Persia appears to have sent some missionaries to the east along the most important trade routes. The episcopal see of Merv in Margiana on the border of the Sassanian Empire was established in 424. [Jenkins' readers will remember Merv.] Moreover, central Asia was at the time a refuge for many Manichaeans, who had themselves fled Roman repression and the bloody persecutions organized by the Zoroastrian clergy of the Sassanian Empire. Nestorius could not have imagined when he took office in Constantinople that, a few years later, followers of his would be forced to abandon the territories of the Roman Empire and seek refuge in the Sassanian Empire, and that from there they would spread as far as Mongolia, China, and Indonesia."

Inherent Vice. Thomas Pynchon. The Penguin Press. Here's a column on the book from the September/October issue of Books & Culture.

Meyer Schapiro Abroad: Letters to Lillian and Travel Notebooks. Edited by Daniel Esterman. Getty Research Institute. Meyer Schapiro: one of the great art historians of the 20th century. True, but banal. The passport photo reproduced on the front cover of this book shows Schapiro as a young man, luminously intelligent (you could deduce that from the photo alone). He was just short of his 22nd birthday when, in July 1926, he began a 15-month journey to Europe, recounted here in letters to his beloved, Lillian Milgram, whom he would marry some months after his return to the United States. The letters are full of his impressions of church architecture (the second half of this book reproduces sketches from his travel notebooks), conversations with an extraordinary range of characters, and much more. If the letters are rather formal by 21st-century standards, they are animated by an enormous zest for learning, warm and generous yet revealing a power of objective assessment, and sometimes quite funny.

Naming Infinity: A True Story of Religious Mysticism and Mathematical Creativity. Loren Graham and Jean-Michel Kantor. Harvard University Press. And The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer That Tunes the Heart to God. Frederica Mathewes-Green. Paraclete Press. Here is a mini-review of Naming Infinity from CT: "Fifty years ago, C.P. Snow gave a soon-to-be famous lecture on the 'Two Cultures' of modern society, the culture of the humanities and the culture of science, and the need to bridge the gap between them. Today we are more likely to hear debates about the alleged gulf between science and religion. Both divides are bridged in this superb book, which takes us from French rationalism at the turn of the 20th century to a thriving center of world-class mathematics in Moscow, where the presiding figures were also devout Russian Orthodox believers of a mystical bent." And here is a mini-review, from the same source, of The Jesus Prayer: Even if you don't believe that Paul's admonition to 'pray without ceasing' or 'pray constantly' was meant to be taken literally, you'll find much to ponder in this lucid account of the history, the meaning, and—especially—the practice of the Jesus Prayer: 'Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.' Most of the exposition is in a reader-friendly question-and-answer format." These brief accounts only scratch the surface. Read these two books together.

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