By John Wilson
The Top Ten Books of 2003
This week—the third installment in our four-part roundup—we come to the Top Ten Books of 2003. (In fact, as sometimes happens, "the Top Ten" includes 11 titles.) These are not necessarily the best books of the year. The two newspapers we get at home, The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, published their lists of "best books" on the same day, December 7. By then, my list was already made, barring any late discoveries or last-minute second thoughts (which didn't come about this year, except in the case of The Worst Book of the Year, about which more below). None of the nine titles selected by the Times appears on my list, nor do any of the dozen titles on the Tribune's list. Only one book—Edward Jones' novel The Known World (Amistad/HarperCollins)—appears on both of their lists. So: three lists, a total of 32 titles, and that is the only instance of agreement. I haven't read—really read—a single one of the Times' "best books" for this year, and I've read only two of the Tribune's dozen. I've nosed around a bit in several other titles from the two lists but wasn't prompted to settle down for the long haul.
What do these discontinuities suggest? First, of course, that there are simply too many books for any one editor or team of editors to keep track of. (On this theme, see Jody Bottum's wonderful piece in the December 8 issue of The Weekly Standard.) Anyone who doubts this need only visit my office. Second, as we've already noted, that there's an irreducible element of taste in our response to books, which is one of the great glories of reading. And finally, that the choices are informed by different hierarchies of value.
It's striking, for example, that four of the 12 titles on the Tribune's list have as their primary subject the "American dilemma" of race—race in black-white terms. Two of the remaining titles—one fiction, one nonfiction—deal with genocide, while another focuses on the Vietnam War and another on the death penalty. Big Issues, move to the head of the line.
All of which adds up to the conclusion that such lists—including this one—shouldn't pretend to be definitive. Here are the books that come to mind most readily when I think back over the year. In the background, there should be Christmas music: at our house, Burl Ives and Bach, early American and Celtic miscellanies, medieval songs performed by Anonymous Four and Sequentia and the Tallis Scholars, Swedish church music. And also music that has no Christmas label and yet seems to fit the season: Gillian Welch, for instance, and the CD of Latin music (a different kind of Latin, definitely not medieval) which our daughter Katy brought home for her Christmas break from the Covenant Bible College in Ecuador.
The list is alphabetical by title.
- The Afterlife, by Penelope Fitzgerald (Counterpoint), edited by Terence Dooley with Christopher Carduff and Mandy Kirkby. The British writer Penelope Fitzgerald, who died in 2000, was 60 years old when she published her first novel in 1977. She wrote nine altogether, as well as a collection of stories and three biographies. This posthumous collection gathers her essays about writers and writing. Like her fiction, it offers a distinctive voice: reticent yet missing nothing, sympathetic to the small and the weak yet very tough-minded, informed by a Christian faith that is rarely explicitly expressed.
- The Complete Far Side, 1980-1994, by Gary Larson (Andrews McMeel). Two vols. The monumental scale of this edition seems incongruous with Larson's genius, which I associate with newspapers and photocopies and one-a-day calendar pages taped to office doors and affixed with magnets to refrigerators, but it is good to have the master's work so assembled. What struck me most, especially going through the first volume, was the way these cartoons brought back the feel of their time.
- The Curse of the Raven Mocker, by Marly Youmans (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). If you haven't heard about this novel, that may be because it was published as a Young Adult book. Then again, it's a novel that eludes categories right and left. It's a fantasy—but nothing like most books in that genre. It draws a lot on Cherokee lore, but it isn't a "Native American" book. It is a portrait of the artist as a girl about to become a woman, and a story of the Spirit (and of spiritual warfare). As I have learned since first getting acquainted with her work a year and a half ago, Youmans (pronounced like "yeoman" with an "s" added) is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers. She writes like an angel—an angel who has learned what it is to be human. I hope you too will discover Youmanland.
- 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.
- 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."
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- Words to God's Music: A New Book of Psalms, by Laurance Wieder (Eerdmans). Here I will repeat what I wrote in the May/June issue of B&C: "Charter subscribers to Books & Culture may recall that our first issue, September/October 1995, featured George Herbert's rendering of the 23rd Psalm from poet Laurance Wieder's anthology, The Poet's Book of Psalms: The Complete Psalter as Rendered by Twenty-Five Poets from the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Centuries (HarperSanFrancisco, 1995). After preparing that volume, which included more than a dozen psalms in his own versions, Wieder set out to do the entire Psalter, not in a strict translation nor even a paraphrase as usually construed but offering the product of his wrestling with the text in the form of a new poem, a new psalm. . . . Hence Words to God's Music: A New Book of Psalms. . . . Buy a copy for yourself, and one for your pastor, and start thinking of people on your Christmas list. This book is a treasure."
That concludes the list for 2003. Before we get to The Worst Book of the Year, I want to acknowledge some other outstanding achievements. Kudos to InterVarsity Press for the splendid Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series, now approaching completion. (Has your church provided a set for your pastor?) In digital publishing, Octavo (www.octavo.com) is doing superb work. See for example their editions of the complete Gutenberg Bible, released in May of this year, and of Josiah Dwight Whitney's 1868 Yosemite Book, released in September, which includes stunning early photographs of the Yosemite Valley by Carleton Watkins.
Now to The Worst Book of the Year. First, let's be clear on the rules. To qualify, a book must be taken seriously in at least some respectable quarters. That immediately eliminates a lot of books, but still the competition was intense. One early contender, as a matter of fact, was a book that ended up on the Times' list of "best books," A Random Family; like me, you may have seen the excerpt in the Times magazine.
But the ultimate winner snuck in at the last minute, after the list had already been made, when I happened to come across a copy of Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida, by Giovanna Borradori (Univ. of Chicago Press). Habermas has never been my cup of tea, I admit, but unlike many of my friends—who regard Derrida as a poseur—I have read a fair amount of his work, and I also read Borradori's earlier volume of conversations with American philosophers (also published by Chicago). So I didn't pick this new book up and say Aha! The Worst Book of the Year. No, to arrive at that conclusion I actually had to read it—as much as I could.
For me the decisive moment came early in Borradori's dialogue with Derrida, which was conducted five weeks after 9/11. She begins by asking, "September 11 (Le 11 septembre) gave us the impression of being a major event, one of the most important historical events we will witness in our lifetime, especially for those of us who never lived through the last world war. Do you agree?"
By the fourth sentence of his response—"When you say 'September 11' you are already citing, are you not?"—Derrida is already up, up, and away. Here he is, more than two pages later, still responding to that first question:
We must try to know more, to take time and hold onto our freedom so as to begin to think this first effect of the so-called event: From where does this menacing injunction itself come to us? How is it being forced upon us? Who or what gives us this threatening order (others would already say this terrorizing if not terrorist imperative): name, repeat, rename "September 11," "le 11 septembre," even when you do not yet know what you are saying and are not yet thinking what you refer to in this way. I agree with you: without any doubt, this "thing," "September 11," "gave us the impression of being a major event." But what is an impression in this case? And an event? And especially "a major event"?
Derrida's answer continues for another two pages. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Worst Book of the Year.
Next week: a look ahead at some books from 2004. May your Christmas be blessed as you celebrate the birth of our Savior.
Copyright © 2003 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
The books mentioned this week are available from Amazon.com, Christianbook.com and other book retailers.
Books & Culture Corner appears every Monday. Earlier editions of Books & Culture Corner and Book of the Week include:
Books at Warp Speed | We continue our annual roundup of noteworthy books. (Dec. 15, 2003)
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)