By John Wilson
Books at Warp Speed
So many reports on the current cultural scene—especially but not only those coming from Christian sources—are unrelentingly grim, written with a tone of world-weary disgust. I think that virtually all readers of Books & Culture will agree that there is plenty to be distressed and disgusted about (and when hasn't that been true?). Certainly in the world of books there is a lot of trash, including some very high-faluting garbage. But—or so at least it seems to me—there is also more worthy of attention than anyone has time or energy to comprehend.
In year-end lists like this, there is a danger at the opposite pole from reflexive doom-and-gloom. I hate lists of books that seem to be mere puffery, an extension of marketing. Even worse, perhaps, are those which resemble the self-satisfied connoisseurship of so much wine-writing. (This compelling novel has hints of pine and birch, with an undertone of Beckett and cinnamon.) And yet it occurs to me that a wine critic with a well-trained nose and palate—one who says "I liked this wine, and that one; you can take a pass on this high-priced one, though" —performs a real service. It's called "wine-tasting" for a reason; there's an irreducible element of taste in our response to wine or fiction or music. But we welcome a reliable guide to the bewildering array of choices, without assuming that we will in every respect share his taste.
So here are some books in various categories that stand out among the several thousand I have seen this year. Descriptions are minimal by necessity; we have to move at warp speed. (Next week we'll feature the Top Ten, and the following week we'll conclude the year by looking ahead to some forthcoming books from 2004.)
Let's start with several books by writers with close connections to Books & Culture. For some years now, Celtic Christianity—like Celtic music—has been a hot topic. Dozens of books on the subject have appeared, full of contradictory claims. What would be very helpful is a clear, responsible overview. Now we have just the thing: Christianity and the Celts, by Ted Olsen (InterVarsity). Olsen , Christianity Today magazine's online managing editor, presides over CT's weblog—the best religion weblog, period. His book is a first-rate guide, and it's superbly illustrated as well. (CT's managing editor Mark Galli has an excellent volume on Saint Francis in the same IVP series.)
Philip Yancey's latest book, Rumors of Another World: What on Earth Are We Missing? (Zondervan), is intended primarily for readers "who live in the borderlands of belief—the region between belief and unbelief." When my wife Wendy and I went to the local Borders in October to hear Philip talk about the book, we were delighted to see that well over half of the large turnout was made up of young people, college age and twentysomething. (It was an odd feeling to be among the oldest people present, though we're slowly starting to get used to that.) Another book for those on the borderlands of belief (though not for them only) is Enrique Martinez Celaya: The October Cycle, 2000-2002, by B&C regular Daniel Siedell (distributed by D.A.P.), which introduced me to a contemporary artist of great integrity and spiritual intensity. (An exhibition of Martinez Celaya's work, curated by Siedell, will be at Sheldon Memorial Gallery and Sculpture Garden at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln though January 25, 2004, after which it will move to the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art from February 13 to April 25.)
In the very first issue of B&C (September/October 1995), Frederica Mathewes-Green published an essay on icons, which remains one of my favorites among all the pieces we've published over the years. Now Paraclete Press has published her book The Open Door: Entering the Sanctuary of Icons and Prayer. Like all of her books, this one is winsome; you feel you've entered into a conversation with the author (and sometimes an argument!). Don't miss it. Also on the must-read list is another book from Paraclete, Mudhouse Sabbath, by Lauren Winner. Longtime B&C readers will remember Winner's series, "Jews, Christians, and God." In Mudhouse Sabbath, Winner—who converted from Orthodox Judaism to Christianity, as recounted in her memoir Girl Meets God—talks to fellow Christians about what she has learned from Jewish spiritual practices.
As a few of you may recall, I am an unapologetic lover of haiku. Nothing irritates me more than anti-haiku snobbery among the literati (while I freely admit there are plenty of awful poems in this form, just as in any other variety of poetry you care to name). My favorite collections of the year were Jack Kerouac's Book of Haikus (Penguin) and Haiku, selected and edited by Peter Williams for Everyman's Library Pocket Poets series (Knopf). Here are some of the ones I like best from Kerouac: "The smoke of old / naval battles / Is gone." "Missing a kick / at the icebox door / It closed anyway." (Williams includes that one as well.) And: "Run over by my lawnmower, / waiting for me to leave, / The frog." Speaking of haiku I'm reminded of a wonderful collection of found poetry, Pieces of Intelligence: The Existential Poetry of Donald H. Rumsfeld, compiled and edited by Hart Seely (Free Press). People who can't stand Rumsfeld—and they are legion—apparently found it a hoot. I am not of that camp, yet still I enjoyed this little book mightily. There's something uncanny as well as funny about the effects of language lifted out of its context for our inspection.
Roy Sorenson's A Brief History of the Paradox: Philosophy and the Labyrinths of the Mind (Oxford) was one of the most enjoyable books I read this past year, though I don't share Sorenson's conception of philosophy. To fully appreciate the book—and to adequately assess it—you would need to be a philosopher, which I am not. But for general readers with a strong interest in philosophy, it's an unbeatable bedside book, witty and stimulating if taken in small doses. (More technical, less entertaining, but lucid is Nicholas Rescher's book Paradoxes: Their Roots, Range, and Resolution, published by Open Court in 2001. In my opinion, Rescher is the most underrated living American philosopher, though he's certainly not gone without substantial professional recognition.)
Another of my favorite bedside books this year was Between Heaven and Earth: A History of Chinese Writing, by Shi Bo (Shambala). I first became interested in this subject many years ago via Ezra Pound. Shi Bo's survey, originally published in France, is a slim paperback with wonderful calligraphy and clear exposition throughout. If this subject interests you too, you might want to pick up a copy of Henri Michaux's eccentric little book, Ideograms in China, published last year by New Directions in a translation by poet and novelist Gustaf Sobin, with an afterword by the Pound scholar Richard Sieburth. And to follow the thread in another direction, you might pick up Sieburth's Library of America edition, Pound: Poems and Translations, or his edition of The Pisan Cantos (New Directions), both published this fall. And if you wonder why you should give a fig for Ezra Pound in the first place, maybe you could try The Pound Era, by the great critic Hugh Kenner, who died this November; published in 1971, it remains as fresh and pertinent to our own moment as any critical work of the past half-century.
Many of the most lookable books of the year, of course, don't easily fit on a bedside table, nor are they best suited for bedtime reading: you need a table (or a floor) to open them on. One in this category that immediately comes to mind is Edouard Villard, the massive catalogue put together by Guy Cogeval et al. (Yale Univ. Press). Like so many Yale volumes, this combines outstanding production with first-rate scholarship. It's a feast. Equally sumptuous is Through the Lens: National Geographic Greatest Photographs (National Geographic), which reminded me of summer days in Pomona, California in the late 1950s, when my brother Rick and I would stretch out on the living room floor to look through back issues of the magazine going back to the '30s.
In an entirely different register, two outstanding books remind us that we still haven't come to terms—imaginatively, quite apart from what whatever political conclusions we might arrive at—with the reality of nuclear weapons. The first is Atomic Time: Pure Science and Seduction, by Jim Sanborn (Corcoran Gallery of Art). Sanborn's accompanying installation at the Corcoran, which I saw in November, was quite extraordinary by its very ordinariness, suggesting how devices capable of mind-numbing destruction proceed from "normal science." Again, regardless of one's view of nuclear disarmament, say, there is—I think we should all be able to agree—an insane logic at work here, which illumines the human condition with a frightful clarity. How despairing our plight would be without God! That is forcefully underlined in 100 Suns, by Michael Light (Knopf), one of the most stunning books of photography I encountered this year. The photographs of nuclear tests that Light has assembled were taken from archives at Los Alamos and the U.S. National Archives in Maryland. They are passing strange, sometimes beautiful, always terrifying in their implications.
An unsparing look at the human condition is also at the heart of Robert Hughes' Goya (Knopf), the best sustained account of an artist's life and work I read this year. Hughes takes Goya as evidence for his own view of how the world holds together, or doesn't. I disagree, but he is a deeply knowledgeable and fiercely passionate critic. (I am also looking forward to Evan Connell's book on Goya, forthcoming from Counterpoint in January; look for a review of both books in due course in B&C.)
Speaking of matters of policy and such, which is not where most of my reading is centered, two books I found useful this year were Thomas Sowell's Applied Economics: Thinking Beyond Stage One (Basic Books), and Edward Chambers' Roots for Radicals: Organizing for Power, Action, and Justice (Continuum). Sowell is enormously helpful to people like me, who always seem to be at square one when it comes to economics. (This book is a sequel of sorts to Sowell's Basic Economics, which I also recommend.) Chambers' book is based on the work of the Industrial Areas Foundation, "the oldest and largest institution for community organizing in the United States," founded in 1940 by Saul Alinsky. (I guess it depends on how you define "community organizing.") I found it refreshingly down-to-earth, usable by people (I'm one) who don't share all the ideological assumptions of the author as well as by those who are convinced, for example, that "the so-called free market is probably on a course of self-destruction." (Well, in one sense, who could disagree? Isn't that the human course, period? See 100 Suns.)
Another policy-oriented book I actually worked my way through as best I could—definitely not bedside reading—is Vaclav Smil's Energy at the Crossroads: Global Perspectives and Uncertainties (MIT). I wish that my friends who dismiss concerns about global warming, fossil fuels, and so on would read this book, but they will probably just make a joke about Al Gore. Smil is no fanatic. The most interesting chapter in the book is the last, "Possible Futures," which is informed by deep humility about our ability to make long-range predictions when so many variables have to be taken into account.
Next week: The Top Ten, The Worst Book of the Year, and more.
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Books & Culture Corner appears every Monday. Earlier editions of Books & Culture Corner and Book of the Week include:
Is "Sensual Orthodoxy" a Contradiction in Terms? | Read this unconventional collection of sermons and judge for yourself. (Dec. 8, 2003)
Books, Books, Books! | We begin our annual roundup. (Dec. 8, 2003)
Urban Eden | In City: Urbanism and Its End, a new history of New Haven, Connecticut, the city (in its late 19th-century form) is an ambiguous heaven-and the suburbs that relentlessly followed are hell. Which leaves us where, exactly? (Dec. 01, 2003)
Cool Drink of Water | A poet's voice in the evangelical wilderness.
Faith, Hope, and Charity in North Carolina | New novels by Michael Morris—whose first novel, A Place Called Wiregrass, was a word-of-mouth hit— and Jan Karon, who continues her beloved Mitford saga. (Nov. 17, 2003)
Remember Afghanistan? | Two inside reports. (Nov. 10, 2003)
The Troubled Conscience of a Founding Father | An Imperfect God examines George Washington and slavery. (Oct. 27, 2003)
The Year of the Fish | The 2003 baseball season concludes with a bang—and 2004 is just around the corner. (Oct. 27, 2003)
I Shop, Therefore I Am | Critics of "consumer culture" are all wet, Virginia Postrel says. The riot of choices available to us resonates with our deepest aesthetic instincts (Oct. 20, 2003)
Back to the Future | A sprawling new novel by the author of Snowcrash and Cryptonomicon goes to the 17th century to investigate the birth of the modern world. (You won't be surprised to learn that the Puritans are among the Bad Guys.) (Oct. 13, 2003)
Poetry, Prayer, and Parable | The playful provocations of Scott Cairns (Oct. 06, 2003)
Terrorists on Trial | How the nation responded to an earlier attack. (Sept. 29, 2003)
The Contemplative Christian | Eugene Peterson calls believers to a life lived with "wholeness, honesty, without contrivance"-against the grain of much that's currently driving the church in America. (Sept. 29, 2003)
Recalling California | Want to understand what's going on in the Golden State? Toss your newsmagazines and pick up Joan Didion's new book (Sept. 22, 2003)
The Ph.D. Octopus, 100 Years On | How Christians can make a difference in the upside-down world of graduate school (Sept. 15, 2003)
The Difference Between Conservatives and Prolifers | William Saletan unspins, and respins, the abortion debate (Sept. 8, 2003)
A New View of Worldview | Some critics want to retire the concept. Not so fast, says David Naugle (Aug. 18, 2003)
'A Golden Age' of Religious Tolerance? | The Ornament of the World analyzes how the intellectual elites of medieval Spain eschewed fundamentalism and showed surprising sensitivity in reconciling competing truths. (Aug. 11, 2003)
Looking for the 'I' | What happens to the self when the brain is injured or malformed? (Aug. 4, 2003)
The Terror of the Therapeutic | Margaret Atwood's new novel considers the price we may pay for looking to technology to remedy our ills, personal and social. (July 28, 2003)
The Catholic Church's Regime Change | Would lay power really augur a new epoch of openness and honesty? (July 21, 2003)
One-Hit Wonder | The long swansong of Madalyn Murray O'Hair. (July 7, 2003)