2019 Reading

The only planBy this stage of my life, I have more-or-less hit my stride, and this last year I read just about the normal number of books, clocking in about two a week.

I was surprised that almost 40% fell into the nonfiction category (typically biography or memoir), but with  smattering of other sub-genres. The rest were novels.

On the non-fiction side,  I particularly enjoyed

Garrett M. Graff, The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 (2019) was an excellent account of that day, and reminded me of much which I had known and forgotten.

Stephen L. Carter, Invisible (2018), and Condoleezza Rice, Extraordinary, Ordinary People (2010) explored each author’s family history and shed some light on the black experience in America. Both books are well worth your time, as is Albert Woodfox, Solitary (2019) [post], which tells a rather different story. All three are enlightening.

Two old favorites came out with new offerings: Bill Bryson, The Body: A Guide for Occupants, and Malcolm Gladwell, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know, were both published in 2019. The Body has many quality instances of Brysonian snark, but Talking to Strangers is the more arresting book, and will bear re-reading, I think.

Antonin Scalia died in 2016, but some of his writings and speeches were collected in Scalia Speaks: Reflections on Law, Faith, and Life Well Lived (2017) [post], and On Faith: Lessons from an American Believer (2019) . Through these pieces, the justice is revealed as a man of deep thoughts, precise words and strong opinions. For those of certain political persuasions who know him as the Prince of Darkness of American jurisprudence, there will be much here to explain Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s famous comment that they were “best buddies.” Indeed she wrote a forward to Scalia Speaks. There is some overlap between the two books, but each is worth reading.

John Lewis Gaddis, The Cold War (2005), Warren Zanes, Petty (2015), Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well (2018), and C. John Collins, Reading Genesis Well (2018) [post] were good reading and good education.

Virgil WanderOn the fiction side, I “discovered” (like Columbus “discovered” America) three authors and began investigating their other books:

Leif Enger — Virgil Wander (2018), Peace Like a River (2001) — two standalone novels (with the Empress movie theater in common), that are beautifully written. I am looking forward to picking up So Brave, Young, and Handsome (2008), and hope that I do not have to wait too many years for a fourth.

H.S. Cross — Grievous (2019), Wilberforce (2015) — each about an English boys school, and each lush and dense with moral ambiguity and spiritual pondering. Not for everyone, perhaps, but two which I will reread thoughtfully.

Amor Towles — A Gentleman in Moscow (2016), Rules of Civility (2011) — two marvelous books, and ones I am embarrassed to have missed in their publication years.

Old friends published in 2019 and did not disappoint, including Peter Heller, The River [post] [review], Alastair Reynolds, Shadow Captain, Richard Russo, Chances Are . . . , and Neal Stephenson, Fall. I had anticipated several of these [post] and also William Gibson, Agency, which will come out in a couple of weeks.

Once again the labor of other old friends (including Wendell Berry, C.S. Lewis, Evelyn Waugh, Charles Williams and Herman Wouk), were greatly enjoyed.

As the Preacher say, “ Of making many books there is no end,” and to that I reply, “. . . and thank God for that!” The complete list is in the sidebar.

Rabbits and Rulers

Watership DownSome interesting thoughts from Ross Douthat, prompted by reading Watership Down to his daughters:

small quotes blueOne of the virtues of reading a narrative aloud, to children or indeed to anyone, is the way that vocalizing a story clarifies its power, especially in the quavering passion that you try to keep from your voice (because you don’t want your kids to think their dear dad is too emotional) but that bleeds through in spite of everything.

Ross Douthat,”Watership Down and the Crisis of Liberalism,” The New York Times (Oct. 22, 2019) [link]. The whole article is worth reading, though perhaps too optimistic in the end.

The best takeaway? You should read aloud to your children the books that move you.

Re-reading

Visiting an old friend, Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow:

JayberCrowsmall quotesIf you could do it, I suppose, it would be a good idea to live your life in a straight line—starting, say, in the Dark Wood of Error, and proceeding by logical steps through Hell and Purgatory and into Heaven. Or you could take the King’s Highway past appropriately named dangers, toils, and snares, and finally cross the River of Death and enter the Celestial City. But that is not the way I have done it, so far. I am a pilgrim, but my pilgrimage has been wandering and unmarked. Often what has looked like a straight line to me has been a circle or a doubling back. I have been in the Dark Wood of Error any number of times. I have known something of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, but not always in that order. The names of many snares and dangers have been made known to me, but I have seen them only in looking back. Often I have not known where I was going until I was already there. I have had my share of desires and goals, but my life has come to me or I have gone to it mainly by way of mistakes and surprises. Often I have received better than I have deserved. Often my fairest hopes have rested on bad mistakes. I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley. And yet for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led — make of that what you will.

p. 149.


As a lover of allusions, I get a kick out of the references to Bunyan, Dante and a certain famous hymn.

On honest uncertainty at a funeral

Between the stirrup

James Boswell attributes this near quotation of William Camden (originally “Betwixt the stirrup and the ground, Mercy I ask’d; mercy I found.”) to Samuel Johnson, and goes on to report that Johnson said “Sir, we are not to judge [with certainty] the state in which a man leaves this life. He may in a moment have repented effectually, and it is possible may have been accepted of God.” James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson 543 (1830) [link].*

We can never know the depth of God’s grace or the end of his persistent pursuit of each human heart. Let us resolve to speak the gospel of grace whenever we can.


*In the novel Brighton Rock (1938), Graham Greene has his character Pinkie rely on this quotation as a basis for rejecting grace on the assumption that he will be able to repent at the last moment. But in a moment in which his death seems imminent, he finds that he has hardened himself against repentance.

Aftermaths & Alternates

current reading 2Alan Jacobs is doing something fun on Snakes and Ladders:

Unscoured (July 1) [link]

Chapter 43 (July 2) [link]

this sickness is not unto death (July 5) [link]

Enjoy!


Sarah Willard had two nice posts last month “Shepherd My People” (June 17) [link], and “Here is your War” (June 6) [link], both (of course) at Blind Mule Blog.


Mockingbird always has a nice selection of thoughtful articles, essays and reviews, including “Just another Late Night in Washington (Review of movie Late Night)” (July 3) [link].


Justice Thomas’ concurring opinion in Box v. Planned Parenthood is a fascinating historical piece on eugenics and abortion. The opinion is available in full at the always well-curated SCOTUSblog (through casetext.com) [link] and is edited to look like a free-standing essay in First Things [link].

Herman Wouk 1915-2019

I was saddened to hear that Herman Wouk died last week, just 10 days short of his 104th birthday.

TheCaineMutinyHis novel The Caine Mutiny (1955) has long been one of my favorites, and I have had opportunity to teach it to several high school classes.the caine mutiny I was disappointed to read a recent piece by Professor Joseph Bottum* which seems a modern example of “damning with faint praise,” suggesting that Wouk was a good “middlebrow” writer, whose work (some of it, anyway) has stood the test of time better than others in his . . . league(?).

I think, that if Bottum were pressed, he would say that he was praising Wouk, just not “over-praising him.” But when Bottum says “In general, . . . he could be counted on to write a readable book with some serious ideas in it. Or, perhaps better, a readable book with some serious ideas on it, like figures embroidered on a tapestry,” it is hard not to hear that as a snide, uncharitable comment.**

In my view, The Caine Mutiny succeeds as a novel because it draws us in to care about a handful of deeply flawed people who actually grow in self awareness. Willy gains maturity, of course, but so do Maryk and Keefer — and May. The fact that Wouk does this in a long, believable, narrative, with deft humor and across many sub genres,*** is really quite impressive.

I hope that Bottum’s review does not dissuade a single person from reading (at least) The Caine Mutiny. Wouk’s accomplishment should not be disparaged for being accessible. That seems fair, doesn’t it?


*Joseph Bottum, “Herman Wouk, 1915-2019: Remembering a master of middlebrow,” The Washington Free Beacon (May 25, 2019) [link].

**Not convinced? How about this: “No doubt, [Captain Queeg] is wonderfully drawn as a character: memorable in every way, beginning with his name. But an author doesn’t get to give us a Dickensian type, and then reverse field just to flatter readers that they’ve just had a deep thought. All they’ve had is the picture of a thought, a simulacrum of ideas, unearned by the prose. Which is perfectly fine for a certain kind of fiction. This might almost be the definition, the archetype, of the middlebrow.”

***By which I mean, non-technically, that The Caine Mutiny is a war novel, a romance (modern sense), a comic novel, an adventure story, a legal thriller, and (yes) a morality tale neatly woven into one narrative.

Old & new

current reading 2This poor author proves that fact-checking old language (what would you guess “death recorded” means?) is really pretty critical. Yelena Dzhanova, “Here’s an Actual Nightmare: Naomi Wolf Learning On-Air That Her Book Is Wrong,” New York: Intelligencer” (May 2019) [link]. Alan Jacobs comments with compassion and a very appropriate pair of C.S. Lewis references. Alan Jacobs, “death recorded,” Snakes and Ladders (May 24, 2019) [link].


Matthew Butterick, “Typography 2020: A special listicle for America,” Practical Typography [link] delightfully describes the font choices and errors of the 2020 candidates (comparing them to those of the past):

small quotesFor those who think it trivializes our political process to judge candidates by their typography—what would you prefer we scrutinize? Qualifications? Ground into dust during the last election. Issues? Be my guest. Whether a candidate will ever fulfill a certain campaign promise about a certain issue is conjectural.

But typography—that’s a real decision candidates have to make today, with real money and real consequences. And if I can’t trust you to pick some reasonable fonts and colors, then why should I trust you with the nuclear codes?


Alan Jacobs, “choice”, Snakes and Ladders (Feb. 9, 2018) [link]:

small quotesYou can’t understand the place and time you’re in by immersion; the opposite’s true. You have to step out and away and back and forward, through books and art and music, and you have to do it regularly. Then you come back to the Here and Now, and say: Ah. That’s how it is.

But maybe 2% of the people you encounter will do this. The other 98% are wholly creatures of this particular intersection in spacetime, and can’t be made to care about anything else.

You can, then, have understanding or attention. Pick.

Simon Tam

Simon Tam 2I attended a great event (at the Chester Bedell Inn of Court) last night with Simon Tam (@SimonTheTam) of The Slants (“The Band Who Must Not Be Named”)*, who described his odyssey to the Supreme Court** and why reclaiming an ethnic slur could be so critical to young Asian-Americans.

Excellent speaker, moving story, important take away.

*http://www.theslants.com/
**Matal v. Tam, 137 S. Ct. 1744 (2017) [link]; see page at SCOTUSblog [link].

slanted

 


I am also looking forward to reading his new book: Slanted: How an Asian American Troublemaker Took on the Supreme Court (2019). I’ll have a brief review up soon.

No excerpts

current reading 2Sarah Willard writes about choices, and the will of God and finding a place to light, mentioning Jayber Crow, and Amy Carmichael and Galatians 5. Today, I am giving no excerpts—you need to read this whole thing: “Freedom also for her to stay (and our ever sure place to light),” Blind Mule Blog (Apr. 8, 2019) [link].

You should follow this wise young woman.


Another piece you should just read in its entirety is Kyle Korver, “Privileged,” The Player’s Tribune (Apr. 8, 2019) [link], in which he thinks about how white men should react to racism.