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By John Wilson

The Top Ten Books of 2005

A charming bedside miscellany, a new novel by P. D. James, and much more.

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Sometimes historians talk about the "long 19th century," the period from the French Revolution to World War I. This Top Ten list for 2005 includes a book published in November 2004 (which I did not see until 2005) and a book to be published in January 2006 (because I read it in galleys and am enthusiastic about it and want you to know about it now instead of a year from now). So this is "the long 2005."

Remember, these are not the best books of the year, or the most important. They are my favorite new books of the year, the ones that come most readily to mind among those I've read in the past twelve months (and on another day the list would no doubt be slightly different). Mao: The Unknown Story, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday (Knopf) is one of most important books I read this year, but not among my favorites. Likewise Little Boy: The Arts of Japan's Exploding Subculture, edited by Takashi Murakami (Yale Univ. Press), which illuminates all too well one face of the Zeitgeist.

I make a rule for myself that there will no be quotas. So, for instance, when I finished with this year's list and then noticed the absence of theology, philosophy, and science, I felt an impulse to jigger the results. Shouldn't I go back and judiciously substitute one or two of the estimable books I read in those fields? And history is only lightly represented. And so on. But to do that would spoil the game.

The absence of poetry is another matter. I'm setting aside poetry for a separate report, to be issued in this space sometime soon. (And probably read by hardly anyone. Maybe I should make it poetry and Something Else. Poetry and the Emergent Church? Poetry and Sex? Poetry and Absolute Truth?) If I were to include poetry in the field for the Top Ten this year, as I have in the past, I would be hard pressed to limit myself to ten or even a baker's dozen titles.

So, to the list (alphabetical by title):

  1. The Bedside Book of Birds: An Avian Miscellany, by Graeme Gibson (Doubleday). This might just be my favorite book of the year. Wendy and I love birds, love "bedside books," love miscellanies. Gibson—a Canadian novelist married to the novelist Margaret Atwood—has compiled a book full of delightful surprises, including splendid images that he's discovered in the decades since (in his late thirties) he became a serious birdman. If you are looking at the last minute for a Christmas gift for a bookish person—he or she need not even be a birdwatcher—this would be a good gamble.
  2. Europe Central, by William T. Vollmann (Viking). Not exactly a novel, this is a massive volume of linked stories, set out in pairs, alternating between Russia and Germany between World War I and the mid-1970s and largely focused on the World War II era. Winner of the National Book Award for fiction, Europe Central has the ambition of Gravity's Rainbow, though the texture of Vollmann's work is very different from Thomas Pynchon's. One of Vollmann's preoccupations is the struggle for conscience under the nightmarish conditions of Stalin's Soviet Union and Hitler's Germany. Many of the episodes center on the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich; the artist Kathe Kollwitz and the poet Anna Akhmatova, among others, also figure in the episodic narrative. A flawed but nevertheless extraordinary book.
  3. Jacob's Tears: The Priestly Work of Reconciliation, by Mary Douglas (Oxford Univ. Press). You may recall the pieces by David Livingstone and Michael Jindra on the Catholic anthropologist Mary Douglas in the May/June 2003 issue of Books & Culture. Douglas is a writer of bracing intelligence and wit whose curiosity about the world is contagious. She is always asking why. At an age when many scholars retire, she plunged into biblical studies, and this collection of essays is her third such venture, following books on Leviticus and Numbers. Her zest is apparent simply from the chapter titles: "Counting Jacob's Twelve Sons," for instance. Here is a window into the Old Testament world from an unfamiliar and richly rewarding perspective. (To get a sense of how Douglas' mind works, you might want to check out her contribution to an excellent collection of essays edited by James L. Heft and just published by Fordham University Press, Believing Scholars: Ten Catholic Intellectuals. Douglas explains how her "feeling for hierarchy," against the intellectual grain of her times, has shaped her life and work.)
  4. K., by Roberto Calasso (Knopf). The "K" of the title is Kafka. Here I will quote from a review of the book which I did for The Weekly Standard: "Like Joseph Brodsky's essay on W. H. Auden's 'September 1, 1939,' Calasso's study of Kafka is one of those all too rare performances that give literary criticism a reason to exist. Beginning with a sustained immersion in The Castle and touching in its course on much of Kafka's work, K. invites the reader to pay attention, to enter into a state of hyper-awareness that becomes almost intoxicating.…
    "One of the greatest benefits of Calasso's book is simply the reminder that we live among rival understandings of the world and our place in it. But do we really need reminding of this? Doesn't any day's news suffice? No, because most of the time that news just glances off us. All sensible people, we think, see things pretty much as we do. But a secularist who reads Calasso's book—and reads Kafka at his instigation—must, if he's honest, come to terms with the incredible notion that this wonderfully adept guide, who seems in so many ways a kindred spirit, is capable of talking rubbish about 'the gods,' and moreover enlists Kafka in his cause. A Christian or a Jew or a Muslim must reflect that this penetrating critic of secularism is also a polytheist, after a fashion, a neopagan (and there are many neopagans in 'secular' Europe)."
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