Favorite Books of 2009
Last year at this time, the news was dominated by lost jobs and lost savings. This year? It depends. A headline from today's Wall Street Journal (Dec. 11) caught my eye: "Thousands Flee Iran as Noose Tightens." Those who are fleeing—and those who are staying yet continuing to resist, and the people of Iran generally—should be in our prayers.
And last year at this time, grim bulletins from the publishing industry were appearing every day, or so it seemed. This year? One of the season's offerings, from the scholar Robert Darnton (who helped put "the history of the book" on the map), gives a clue: The Case for Books: Past, Present Future (PublicAffairs). But in 2009 as in 2008, there are books aplenty, more than you can count, such riches as to dazzle even the most jaded observer.
As is the custom in this space, I've listed below my favorites from the year. Not the best books of the year, whatever those might be. (One influential reckoning comes from the New York Times Book Review : The 10 Best Books of 2009.) What you have here is a personal list, not issued by any magisterium. These are some books that rose to the surface when I unsystematically thought about a year of reading. At the end is my choice for Book of the Year.
Baader-Meinhof: The Inside Story of the R.A.F. Stefan Aust. Translated from German by Anthea Bell. Oxford University Press. The story of this terrorist group, flourishing in West Germany from the late 1960s to 1977 (in its first incarnation), has been told many times by German writers, filmmakers, and artists. Stefan Aust's account (reviewed here) is haunting.
Catcher: How the Man Behind the Plate Became an American Folk Hero . Peter Morris. Ivan R. Dee. Here is my mini-review from the September issue of Christianity Today : "The season is heading for its World Series climax. Fall is in the air. Time to look back at the baseball equivalent of the church fathers. Our guide is Peter Morris, and here he recounts the changing role of the catcher, from the barehanded era into the early 20th century. Along the way, with no huffing and puffing, he gives us a sense of how changes on the baseball field reflected changes in America. Question: Who was the greatest 19th-century player? Morris says it was Jim 'Deacon' White (yes, a catcher)."
428 AD: An Ordinary Year at the End of the Roman Empire . Giusto Traina. Translated from the Italian by Allan Cameron. Princeton University Press. Put this on the shelf next to Philip Jenkins' The Lost History of Christianity and Adrian Goldsworthy's How Rome Fell. This is a short book (132 pages of main text), dense with strange names and unexpected juxtapositions, each chapter recounting an "episode." Borges hovers in the background. For instance: "The Church of Persia appears to have sent some missionaries to the east along the most important trade routes. The episcopal see of Merv in Margiana on the border of the Sassanian Empire was established in 424. [Jenkins' readers will remember Merv.] Moreover, central Asia was at the time a refuge for many Manichaeans, who had themselves fled Roman repression and the bloody persecutions organized by the Zoroastrian clergy of the Sassanian Empire. Nestorius could not have imagined when he took office in Constantinople that, a few years later, followers of his would be forced to abandon the territories of the Roman Empire and seek refuge in the Sassanian Empire, and that from there they would spread as far as Mongolia, China, and Indonesia."
Meyer Schapiro Abroad: Letters to Lillian and Travel Notebooks . Edited by Daniel Esterman. Getty Research Institute. Meyer Schapiro: one of the great art historians of the 20th century. True, but banal. The passport photo reproduced on the front cover of this book shows Schapiro as a young man, luminously intelligent (you could deduce that from the photo alone). He was just short of his 22nd birthday when, in July 1926, he began a 15-month journey to Europe, recounted here in letters to his beloved, Lillian Milgram, whom he would marry some months after his return to the United States. The letters are full of his impressions of church architecture (the second half of this book reproduces sketches from his travel notebooks), conversations with an extraordinary range of characters, and much more. If the letters are rather formal by 21st-century standards, they are animated by an enormous zest for learning, warm and generous yet revealing a power of objective assessment, and sometimes quite funny.
Naming Infinity: A True Story of Religious Mysticism and Mathematical Creativity . Loren Graham and Jean-Michel Kantor. Harvard University Press. And The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer That Tunes the Heart to God . Frederica Mathewes-Green. Paraclete Press. Here is a mini-review of Naming Infinity from CT: "Fifty years ago, C.P. Snow gave a soon-to-be famous lecture on the 'Two Cultures' of modern society, the culture of the humanities and the culture of science, and the need to bridge the gap between them. Today we are more likely to hear debates about the alleged gulf between science and religion. Both divides are bridged in this superb book, which takes us from French rationalism at the turn of the 20th century to a thriving center of world-class mathematics in Moscow, where the presiding figures were also devout Russian Orthodox believers of a mystical bent." And here is a mini-review, from the same source, of The Jesus Prayer: Even if you don't believe that Paul's admonition to 'pray without ceasing' or 'pray constantly' was meant to be taken literally, you'll find much to ponder in this lucid account of the history, the meaning, and—especially—the practice of the Jesus Prayer: 'Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.' Most of the exposition is in a reader-friendly question-and-answer format." These brief accounts only scratch the surface. Read these two books together.
Nine Dragons . Michael Connelly. Little, Brown. And Talking About Detective Fiction . P.D. James. Knopf. Here is a podcast about Michael Connelly's latest Harry Bosch novel. And during the week of Monday the 14th, if you are visiting this site, you'll be able to access a podcast in which Stan Guthrie and I take up P.D. James' personal history of detective fiction.
The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels . Janet Soskice. Knopf. And Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage . Elizabeth Siegel. Yale University Press. More than ten years ago, I was having dinner with Jon Pott of Eerdmans, who has been a great source of counsel over the years (owing not least to his many years as editor of the Reformed Journal). Jon directed my attention to a writer he admired, Janet Martin Soskice, who currently has this wonderful title (I quote from the jacket flap): Reader in Philosophical Theology at the University of Cambridge (she is also a Fellow of Jesus College). She has written books that follow from her academic role, but her new book (while undergirded by her scholarly work) is something different: an utterly delightful, fantastical-yet-true romp, a story funny enough to make me laugh out loud a few times but with a lasting resonance as well. It begins in Scotland with twin sisters, and takes us to a "dark closet" at St. Catherine's monastery in Sinai, where Syriac manuscripts are jumbled in two chests. For companion reading (and viewing), turn to Playing with Pictures. Here's a mini-review from CT : "If your Christmas gift list includes someone who relishes the Victorian Era in all its contradictions, you might consider this handsomely produced volume, which accompanies an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago (October 10, 2009-January 3, 2010, then traveling to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York). Drawn from photocollage albums of the 1860s and 1870s, these images will especially interest fans of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. Why, by the way, was this a golden age of Nonsense?"
The Spartacus War . Barry Strauss. Simon & Schuster. Here is a mini-review from CT : "Yes, that Spartacus, the one played by Kirk Douglas in a memorable movie almost 50 years ago, the gladiator who led a daring slave rebellion in Roman Italy between 73 and 71 BC. Barry Strauss, a historian who writes superbly for the general reader, tells the story in a fast-paced narrative that is deeply informed by scholarship but that never loses its momentum. Christian readers will be provoked to think about Spartacus in the light of another rebel, one of a very different kind, who won victory by submitting to crucifixion." And you can find a longer review here. Finally, here is Don Yerxa's interview with Barry Strauss from the pages of Books & Culture.
Book of the Year:
Val/Orson . Marly Youmans. PS Publishing. I quote from Catherynne Valente's excellent introduction to this novella: "It is Shakespearean in its sensibility, with its enchanted wood, its twins, its doubling and quadrupling of couples and families, its fairy brood. It is difficult to say that it is a fantasy novel, and difficult to say it isn't." The word "magical" has been overused and misused to such an extent that it has perhaps lost its potency, but this tale, set among the redwoods of Northern California, is truly magical. I'm sorry it is not as easily obtained as the others on this list, but I can attest—having ordered it from the UK myself—that it is by no means inaccessible. And you will be amply rewarded. More than any other book I read in 2009, this one insistently came to mind.
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.