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by John Wilson

The Top Ten Books of 2004

And a warning about the risks of reading.

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It was just this summer, you may recall, that the National Endowment for the Arts issued its solemn report "Reading at Risk," fuel for a thousand op-eds. (Surely with poet Dana Gioia in charge, the NEA might have been expected to come up with a title less nanny-stateish, less patently bureaucratic.) Reading at risk? Well, we wouldn't know about that, would we now? A more apt title for our kind would be "The Risk of Reading," or maybe "Risks Associated with Excessive Reading: An Assessment."

Think what I might have accomplished this past year if I hadn't had my nose buried in Writings of the Luddites (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press), the collection of letters, proclamations, and other documents edited by Kevin Binfield, and who knows how many more heterogeneous volumes: novels and books of poetry, piles of books on Islam, little books (like Oxford's series on the Seven Deadly Sins: look for Jay Wood's review of Lust in our May/June issue) and big books (like the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains from University of Nebraska Press, edited by David Wishart—a review of that is coming too), books that made me furious and books that made me laugh. Books that accumulate, inexorably, in my office and at home, stacked by our bed in serried rows, stacked in my study, threatening to colonize any flat surface in the house.

My favorites from the year's crop, listed in alphabetical order:

  1. Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945. Max Hastings (Knopf). Ranging from the high councils of the rival commanders—Roosevelt, Churchill, Hitler, Stalin—and their leading generals to the experience of ordinary soldiers and civilians, taking in not only the war in the west but also the much less familiar eastern front where the Germans and the Soviets fought to the death, Hastings writes about war with a profound moral realism. (If you want history-as-cheerleading, go elsewhere.) Look for Don Yerxa's interview with Hastings in our March/April issue.
  2. The Bones of the Earth. Howard Mansfield (Shoemaker & Hoard). What links the pieces in this collection is a preoccupation with how Americans remember or forget their history. It includes, for example, a history of the "Washington Elm" in Cambridge, Massachusetts, beneath the spreading branches of which George Washington was said to have taken command of the Continental Army in 1775. Elsewhere Mansfield visits cemeteries and describes the rules they impose ("The Grief Police"); he inspects venerable granite bridges in New Hampshire; he reflects on strip malls and urban sprawl. He writes with wit and passion; he has an eye for the luminous detail, and wears his learning lightly.
  3. The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker. Edited by Robert Mankoff (Black Dog & Leventhal). Every week, more or less, since the late 1970s Wendy and I have curled up in bed to look through the cartoons in the latest issue of the New Yorker. I have some gripes with the emphases in this volume—not least, the anointing of Bruce Eric Kaplan, whose cartoons Wendy and I dislike so much that we invariably skip them—but I'm very glad to have the whole caboodle. (Two CDs come along with the book.)
  4. The Divine Voice: Christian Proclamation and the Theology of Sound. Stephen H. Webb (Brazos). If you read very far in this exploration of "theo-acoustics," you'll begin to see—and hear, and think about—all sorts of things you hadn't previously noticed, and not only those explicitly mentioned by Webb, though as it is he covers enough territory for five normal books. Here's how it starts: "Sound is invisible and thus it can penetrate walls and barge unannounced through closed doors. It is this invisibility that makes sound so convenient for thinking about our relationship to God."
  5. The Final Solution. Michael Chabon (Fourth Estate). Pastiches of Sherlock Holmes are a dime a dozen, and while the good ones are delectable I tend to avoid the genre. What Michael Chabon has produced is not only a brilliant homage to Holmes and his creator—a story set in 1944, imagining the great detective as a very old man—but the single most accomplished work of fiction I read this year, joyful and sorrowful in full measure. First published a year earlier in The Paris Review, this novella brims over with great talent exuberantly put to work. (The audio version, read by Michael York, is superb.) A review is coming in our May/June issue. And speaking of matters Holmesian, have you checked out The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, edited by Leslie Klinger (Norton)? The two-volume slipcased set includes all the short stories; the longer tales in the canon will be gathered in a single volume to be published in 2005, completing the set.
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