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By John Wilson

The Top Ten Books of 2003

Plus: The Worst Book of the Year, more good reading, digital books, and a little Christmas music.

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  1. Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music—and Why We Should, Like, Care, by John McWhorter (Gotham/Penguin) and The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, by Simon Winchester (Oxford Univ. Press). Every year it happens that writers who are working completely independently of each other publish books at more or less the same time that play off each other in surprising ways. These "doublets" are rarely reviewed together—they are assigned to different boxes—but they should be read together. Linguist and social critic John McWhorter tells the story of the rise of casual speech and writing in America and the corresponding decline in the formal, the "well-spoken"—a development he links to the valorizing of the "oral" and to the tumult of the Sixties. Simon Winchester, the best-selling author of The Professor and the Madman, The Map that Changed the World, and Krakatoa, among other books, tells a very different story: the documenting of the whole history of the language in the Oxford English Dictionary (the ever-changing "oral" frozen for observation in thousands of "snapshots" of usage). How do these two stories shed light on each other? Part of the fun is that the two writers are entirely different in style. McWhorter writes like a jazzman, improvising, provoking, riffing, playing with the language he loves. And he's congenitally opinionated, a born contrarian who nonetheless possesses a ready fund of common sense. Winchester is a raconteur extraordinaire, a connoisseur of the odd and arresting fact, your urbane guide. Read separately, their books are absorbing; together, they are dynamite.
  2. Jonathan Edwards: A Life, by George Marsden (Yale Univ. Press). Here I can do no better than to repeat what I wrote in a piece for beliefnet.com celebrating the 300th anniversary of Edwards' birth: "It is one of the great merits of Marsden's biography that he shows us the decidedly unheroic aspect of Edwards' life (which is, of course, the stuff of every human life) while at the same time doing justice both to his towering intellectual achievements and to his incandescent faith, animated by a palpable sense of the sheer beauty and majesty of God. Neither debunking nor hagiographic, it is an almost supernaturally fair-minded portrait."
  3. The Murder Room, by P.D. James (Knopf). Two years ago, James' novel Death in Holy Orders appeared on this list. Now James has returned with another in her series of novels featuring Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard. This, the 12th in the series, may be the last. There is a valedictory note to it—and a satisfying outcome for Dalgliesh and Emma Lavenham, the young scholar whom he first met in Death in Holy Orders. The subject of the new book might be described as the violence of spectatorship, a theme with great pertinence.
  4. Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville: A Lifelong Passion for Baseball, by Stephen Jay Gould (Norton). Like the first book on the list, this is a posthumous collection. Gould, who died in 2002, was best known as a writer about science, especially evolutionary biology. He was not only one of the finest among a host of outstanding science-writers to flourish in recent decades, he was—despite his blind spots—one of the finest writers of his time, period. He was also, as the subtitle of this book suggests, a lifelong baseball fan, and this gathering of his pieces on the national pastime will help to pass many a night in the Hot Stove League before spring training comes again.
  5. The Very Rich Hours of Jacques Maritain: A Spiritual Life, by Ralph McInerny (Univ. of Notre Dame Press). No book I read this year is closer to the founding impulse of Books & Culture. McInerny writes that the "premise of this little book is that we can find in the person of Jacques Maritain a model of the intellectual life as lived by a Christian believer." McInerny's book, an intellectual and spiritual biography of Maritain and his wife Raissa in which great learning and deep piety are interwoven, is itself such a model. (It's also a beautifully made book, a joy to hold.) And yet no book I read this year left me feeling such profound ambivalence. For example, without batting an eye, McInerny endorses Maritain's grotesque caricature of Martin Luther (a "devastating critique") in Three Reformers (1925). It turns out that the Reformation is the root of everything that is wrong in the modern world. Ah, so that's where we went wrong!
  6. Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy, by Carlos Eire (Free Press). Eire, a historian of religion at Yale, was raised in Cuba in an eccentric household that only the boldest of novelistic imaginations could have conceived. The Castro revolution turned everything upside down, and in 1962, at the age of 11, Eire and his brother were among the thousands of Cuban children airlifted to the United States while their parents remained in Cuba. His National Book Award-winning memoir, one of the finest I have read in years, is also an extraordinary spiritual autobiography. Look for a review by Miroslav Volf in the March/April issue of B&C.
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