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By John Wilson


Mr. Wilson's Bookshelf

"Infinity always gives me vertigo."

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The imaginary soundtrack is courtesy of Bruce Cockburn, whose song "Mystery" (from his CD Life Short Call Now, released by Rounder in July) I highly recommend to you. "Infinity always gives me vertigo": that's more or less how I feel, beginning a multi-part report on more than a year's worth of reading and listening and seeing. So I can take solace in the way Cockburn finishes that thought: "… and fills my heart with grace."

They aren't really infinite, of course—these books and other objects surrounding me—but they seem infinite. Just to read their spines is a bit like staring up into the starry immensity of the heavens and wondering about the worlds-upon-worlds whose existence is hinted at by star-strewn space. Matthew Levitt's Hamas: Politics, Charity, and Terrorism in the Service of Jihad (Yale Univ. Press) is indispensable to understanding the current picture in the Middle East, but what about Thomas Gardner's A Door Ajar: Contemporary Writers and Emily Dickinson (Oxford Univ. Press), which seems remote from all but academic preoccupations yet speaks to a dimension of the Real that the headlines can't touch.

Good Bread Is Back, Steven Laurence Kaplan tells us in a book subtitled "A Contemporary History of French Bread, the Way It Is Made, and the People Who Make It" (forthcoming in February from Duke Univ. Press—and look for a review in B&C). Hooray, I say. Garry Wills, having explained What Jesus Meant, now explains What Paul Meant (Viking), while Eric Burns, who has already published a social history of alcohol in America, returns with The Smoke of the Gods: A Social History of Tobacco (Temple Univ. Press). Should I ask one of those Christian Reformed puffers to review it, or look among the abstemious? In Unless the Threat of Death Is Behind Them, John T. Irwin turns his suitably twisty intelligence to bear on hard-boiled fiction and film noir (look for Thomas Hibbs' noirish piece coming in B&C), and Jon Katz, indefatigable chronicler of dogs' lives, adds to the stack with A Good Dog: The Story of Orson, Who Changed My Life (Villard).

French bread and the Apostle Paul, tobacco and film noir, Hamas and Emily Dickinson and a dog named Orson: from these few fragments of the universe, you may be inclined to start weaving a story. You'll have to find a structure flexible and capacious enough to incorporate many other fragments: the latest handy little volumes from the National Geographic Field Guide to Birds series, for instance, and Steven H. Miles, M.D., on an Oath Betrayed: Torture, Medical Complicity, and the War on Terror (Random House); and, coming in April from Scribner, the latest book from the superb Witold Rybczynski, with a fashionably long, double-barreled subtitle that may be intended to parody the genre even as it conforms to its requirements: Last Harvest: How a Cornfield Became New Daleville: Real Estate Development in America from George Washington to the Builders of Twenty-First Century, and Why We Live in Houses Anyway.

While you are waiting for Rybczynski, join me next week—same place, same time—for more from the not-quite-infinite but still amazingly roomy bookshelf.

John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.

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