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John Wilson

Favorite Books of 2010

And Books & Culture's Book of the Year

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A recurring theme among many people I respect is the harm done by lusting after novelty, especially in the arts and the realm of ideas. I take their point, but I wish a few of them would work for a while on the delights of newness and surprise, exploring the good that we see in a distorted form in the cults of novelty.

Certainly part of what gives pleasure in looking back on the year in books—and ahead to the year to come—is a sense of newness joined to the familiar. In 2009, I celebrated a new translation of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's novel In the First Circle, my favorite among his books, including material Solzhenitsyn had cut when (in the 1960s) he was still hoping to publish the book in his native Russia. This year I was very glad to have a new translation of Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago, by the husband-and-wife team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Taking the two books together, in a world much changed from the time of their first appearance and the stir they created—Pasternak's novel in the late 1950s, Solzhenitsyn's in the late '60s—would make for a splendid class or, more plausibly (are there any classes like that?), a reading group.

If you are involved in the business of publishing, in one way or another, you will be keeping track of books by friends. In that respect, 2010 was an exceptionally rich year. I would be remiss not to mention some of them here, though I can't begin to take note of them all. (Apologies, friends, for those not here.) You can note that my judgment may be addled by my affection for the authors—why not simply check out these books and make your own judgment? I'm confident that Stan Guthrie's All That Jesus Asked: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us, Richard Kauffman's An American in Persia: A Pilgrimage to Iran, Rob Moll's The Art of Dying: Living Fully into the Life to Come, Eric Metaxas' Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, Lauren Winner's A Cheerful and Comfortable Faith: Anglican Religious Practice in the Elite Households of Eighteenth-Century Virginia, Luci Shaw's Harvesting Fog, Susan Wise Bauer's The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade, and Philip Yancey's What Good Is God? In Search of a Faith That Matters will repay your attention.

In the next couple of weeks we'll post some additional reports on the year in books. Here are my favorites from 2010. In the ritual formulation introducing this annual reckoning, I emphasize that these are not the "best" books of the year, however those might be determined, but rather the books that come most readily and insistently to mind as I think back. My recollections are unsystematic, and a list done next week might be different from today's. Even though the year is almost over, there are a number of books I'm waiting to catch up with. And then there are all those books of 2010 I don't even know about—I might stumble on a terrific one tomorrow.

The titles are listed in alphabetical order, more or less (the logic of departures from that will be clear). And at the end you'll find Books & Culture's Book of the Year. I'd love to hear from you about this list, and especially about the books of 2010 that stand out in your own reading.

The Divine Comedy. Dante Alighieri. Translated from the Italian by Burton Raffel. Northwestern University Press. And La Vita Nuova. Dante Alighieri. Translated from the Italian by David Slavitt. Harvard University Press. When the year began, I had no idea that I would be re-reading Dante. Two translators I admire enticed me to do so, and I didn't regret it. Both books, by the way, are well-made for use and not only for standing on a shelf. Raffel's Divine Comedy is a large book but not unwieldy, accommodating Henry Carrigan's extensive and helpful notes, and the page layout is generous, friendly to the eye. Slavitt's Vita Nuova is a small book, gorgeously designed, similar in format to his translation of The Consolation of Philosophy, published by Harvard a couple of years ago.

The Identity Man. Andrew Klavan. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. And Zero History. William Gibson. Putnam. Two novelists, so different from each other in style and sensibility and outlook that they seem to be writing about two different worlds: Planet Klavan and Planet Gibson. It would be a mistake to dismiss either one. Klavan shows how the Way Things Are can be systematically obfuscated, and in response he cuts through evasions; Gibson shows how what appears to be simple or straightforward is neither, and he teases out unexpected connections. Stan Guthrie and I discussed these books in podcasts on November 22 (Klavan) and September 27 (Gibson).

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