Books read during the current year are shown in the side-bar.
The Constant Reader 2017
In addition to trying to keep up with the recent issues of the planet’s two best magazines, The Sun and the New Yorker), I read the following books this year. For inexplicable reasons, I read fewer books this past year than usual. I’m listing their titles here by type, and in the order (within each type) of how (roughly) wonderful I thought they were.
My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry (2015) by Fredrik Backman
My sister Gayle introduced me to Backman’s books, and this was her favorite. Possibly because I read it after first reading A Man Called Ove, I think Ove is my favorite of the two, but both were really good: great characters, hilarious dialog, wonderful stories, exceptionally sophisticated plotting with multiple layers of meaning and lots of serious handling of complicated issues. All this from the point of view of a main character only seven years old!
A Man Called Ove (2012) by Fredrik Backman
I don’t read many novels translated from non-English languages, but I am so glad my sister Gayle recommended this Swedish novel to me. Backman is a fantastic writer, and it was difficult to put this book down, and even more difficult when I realized it was about to end. The curmudgeon main character is totally believable, and the plot twists took me completely by surprise. I am looking forward to seeing the movie version (hoping it will not disappoint me), and to recommending to my book group that they read this or any (all?) of Backman’s other novels.
The Improbability of Love (2015) by Hannah Rothschild
Read this for a book club. Interesting concept (skullduggery involving a lost painting against the background of the contemporary art selling scene in Britain), but most of the non-major characters were unlikable and stereotypical. I learned a good deal about art history and about the business of buying and selling art, but this book was, otherwise, forgettable (or, more charitably, “optional”). The ending of the story especially seemed like a rushed job.
The Humans (2013) by Matt Haig
Alien impersonates Earthling to accomplish a specific (murderous) mission, ends up replacing his repugnance of humanity with empathy for it. Sounds corny, but the writing is so good, the plot line works. I will definitely read some of Haig’s other books, and I can’t imagine anyone reading this one would be disappointed.
The English Disease (2003) by Joseph Skibell
(Read this for a book club.) Excellent, articulate writer. In fact, some of the best, and funniest, passages of 21st-Century American Jewish angst, that I remember reading. On the other hand, despite the exciting fact that Skibell’s main character gives voice to lots of things I obsess about myself, I somehow never felt very sympathetic with the novel’s narrator. I also felt like I was reading a screenplay of a movie written and directed by Woody Allen. I did learn a lot about Carl Jung and Gustav Mahler (none of it very flattering), so I’m glad I read the book, and I might search out Skibell’s previous novel, A Blessing on the Moon.
Memoirs or Biography
When Breath Becomes Air (2016) by Paul Kalanithi
A gorgeously written, astoundingly sobering memoir of a neurosurgeon in his mid-30s who’s diagnosed with fatal cancer. I will be very surprised if this book doesn’t end up being the most memorable one I will read this year. Kalanithi loved literature before he trained as a surgeon, and that’s very evident in his allusive and reflective writing style. Haunted by his life-long search for the meaning of life even before his years of encounters with his patients and their families battling horrific brain injuries, the author’s unique perspective as a compassionate neurosurgeon who’s suddenly another doctor’s patient lends Kalanithi’s account of his final days a wisdom and poignancy that I will long remember. The book’s introduction (by a mentor) and its epilogue (by his wife) are also excellent and equally memorable. It would be difficult to recommend too highly this heartbreakingly brief book, and I shall always be grateful to my sister Gayle for recommending it to me.
Can’t We Talk about Something More PLEASANT? A Memoir (2015) by Roz Chast
A graphic memoir – meaning that it’s told via cartoon drawings – by the justly famous and beloved New Yorker cartoonist. Chast recounts the complicated, demoralizing, and often hilarious decline of her elderly mother and father – a story made even more complicated by the fact that she needed to coordinate their care (at first at home, later in various hospitals and eldercare facilities) from a different state than the one her parents lived in. Anyone who is caring for an elderly parent would love this book. I read it in three sittings, and would gladly have read it in a single sitting had I not been visiting friends when they showed me their copy of it. Chast is a genius, and can find something humorous in even the grimmest situations. Highly recommended.
American Philosophy: A Love Story (2016) by John Kaag
Part memoir, part history of philosophy (especially the philosophies of American-born philosophers Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, William James, Josiah Royce, Charles Sanders Pierce, William Ernest Hocking, and John Dewey). I loved every chapter, virtually every page and every paragraph – almost every well-crafted sentence – of this book! Instead of writing the author a fan letter, I went out and bought a copy to read again – plus I want to mine Kaag’s bibliography for some of the works he describes so intriguingly. This book reignited my usually dormant love of philosophy (along with psychology, one of my majors in college), completely transformed my obviously uninformed opinion of the contributions of philosophers born in the United States, and rekindled my respect for (and knowledge about) William James – already a longstanding hero of mine. Kaag’s willingness to discard the academic’s habit of aloofness and describe his personal foibles, doubts, and vulnerabilities is unusual. This book is an excellent (and short!) introduction to philosophy in general and to American philosophers in particular (their personalities as well as the major thrusts of their most important works), and it’s a beautifully rendered adventure story as well: in rural New England, Kaag stumbles upon the abandoned library of an important philosopher, and his discovery changes his life. This was one of those rare books I wish had been longer, I enjoyed it so much, and learned so much from it.
Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo (2013) by Tim Parks
Basing a book about the Italian mindset on what one learns by using Italy’s trains doesn’t sound like a promising conceit, but Parks makes it work wonderfully. A combination memoir, travel guide, and history lesson, Parks’s weaving of the history of Italian railways with its political and cultural history is as entertaining as it is skillful. Parks is a Brit who’s made Italy his home for over 30 years; I have already read a few of his other nonfiction books and now will be sure to read them all.
Italian Pleasures (1996) by David Leavitt and Mark Mitchell
This slim (138-page) volume of reminiscences written by two gay men who for a time lived in Italy- and whose short reflections are augmented by snippets of writings penned by previous Italophiles (Edith Wharton, D.H. Lawrence, Marguerite Yourcenar, etc.) was easy to finish in a single sitting. I liked better Leavitt’s Florence: A Delicate Case (2002), but reading this earlier book was something I’m glad to have stumbled over before an upcoming return visit to Tuscany.
Lust & Wonder (2016) by Augusten Burroughs
This is the third of Burroughs’ memoirs that I’ve read. He is an outrageously talented writer – so good it was difficult to put this book away between readings. Every time I’d decided I wish I could marry this man, within five minutes I’d be horrified by yet another recounting of how neurotic and paranoid he can be. Burroughs certainly reels you in with his pyrotechnical wordsmanship, with his excruciatingly hilarious asides, and his amazing ability to recall in vivid detail his wildly fluctuating mental states. What a privilege to be brought along for the ride on the roller-coaster of the last decade or so of this amazingly articulate (if often exasperating) writer’s life.
One Man’s Garden (1992) by Henry Mitchell
I’ve been meaning to read this since finishing, nine years ago, the other two collections of Mitchell’s gardening columns for the Washington Post. How unfortunate for us amateur gardeners that Mitchell, who died in 1993, is not still alive and writing! And how lucky were the subscribers of the Post who got to enjoy his weekly gardening columns for twenty years! No other garden writer comes close to Mitchell’s unpretentious, slyly cantankerous attitudes toward the humble glories and sorrows of the urban gardener. As hilarious as he was opinionated, he never condescends. I will next read the only book of his I haven’t read already – Any Day – and in years to come will surely re-read portions of Mitchell’s other collections. Mitchell was a national treasure – and the only author who’ve I’ve not minded disparaging my hero Thomas Jefferson (albeit in Jefferson’s capacity as a gardener).
The Conversations of Dr. Johnson, Selected from the ‘Life’ by James Boswell (1930) edited by R.W. Postgate
Despairing of ever getting around to reading Boswell’s famous Life of Johnson, I was happy to have discovered, several years ago, the existence of this abridgment. What a wonderful reading experience! Despite my chagrin at finding out how politically conservative and somewhat misogynistic Johnson was, I, like countless others, found myself in thrall to Johnson’s conversations. I hadn’t realized that Johnson lived during the days of the American Revolution (of which he had some very caustic things to say). Until I could finish reading these Conversations, I put off reading more in the other books I am in the middle of – it was that compelling. As is so often the case with books published before World World II, the editor’s preface is also remarkable. (Pet theory: fans of Johnson’s end up being better writers themselves!) I especially loved Boswell’s (affectionate) remarks on Johnson’s character flaws, which are certainly obvious from some of Johnson’s remarks. What an unforgettable person, especially considering Johnson’s impoverished background.
Books about Books
Patience & Fortitude: Wherein a Colorful Cast of Determined Book Collectors, Dealers, and Librarians Go About the Quixotic Task of Preserving a Legacy (2001) by Nicholas A. Basbanes
A now-seventeen-year-old survey of the world of books based on dozens of interviews with writers, librarians, library administrators, booksellers, and book collectors. Full of fascinating information and chock-full of anecdotes, Basbanes succeeds in making this particular world interesting for people who may know nothing about the intricacies of book collecting in all the forms that activity takes. He covers lots of bases (all the world’s most famous libraries, for example), and his narrative style is conversational and rambling in the best way. I was particularly impressed by Brisbane’s ability to accurately describe the nuances of the controversies raging in Book World at the time (and that are still important almost 20 years later). This book made me proud to have become a librarian, and I will want to read all of Brisbane’s other book-related books, both past and future.
Everything Explained That Is Explainable: On the Creation of the ‘Encyclopaedia Britannica’s’ Celebrated Eleventh Edition, 1910-1911 (2016) by Denis Boyles
I read probably one-third of this book. Boyles’ obviously impressive research and his sometimes sardonic commentary, the level of detail Boyles goes into to describe the behind-the-scenes wranglings among the people who produced (and advertised) this famous reference work was too daunting for me. The dipping into the intervening chapters that I did do was full of surprises, the almost stand-alone essays that constitute Boyles’ Prologue and his final chapter (“Postscript”) are masterpieces of analysis as well as examples of sustained engaging writing.
Selected Works on the Pleasures of Reading (2008) by Robertson Davies
Davies’ always-modest, disarmingly sensible, and frequently witty writing on any subject is always a pleasure, and what he wrote about his reading is no exception – despite the fact that I don’t happen to share some of Davies’ particular enthusiasms (such as reading 18th Century plays). Davies’ daughter edited this anthology of articles and speeches, and her introductory notes were also interesting. Every time I read something by this under-rated Canadian author, I get a little closer to taking up one of Davies’ novels, one of which (Fifth Business) has been on my Books Cal Wants to Read list for years now.
Cherished Objects: Living with and Collecting Victoriana (1991) by Allison Kyle Leopold
Although I own 170 books on home decorating, my browsings through them haven’t been recorded in “The Constant Reader.” Except this one. As with most of my decor books, I found this one on sale in a thrift store, but this one is more than a collection of delicious photos and minimal (and often absurdly breathless) prose. Instead, its author’s text gives a lot of interesting insights into why Victorians embellished their homes they way they did, and why some of us find at least some aspects of their domestic style so compelling. It’s nice to – finally – better understand why I am drawn to Victorian architecture and interior design, and what gave rise to them. This book explains these things more clearly and succinctly than any other book I’ve discovered.
Art & Architecture
In Ruins: A Journey Through History, Art, and Literature (2001) by Christopher Woodward
One of my traveling companions on my trip to Italy this year was reading this during the trip, and he gave me his copy when he finished it. The author’s style is personal and engrossing, and the book is filled with fascinating anecdotes featuring archeologists, historians, novelists, and artists. A book I have added to my library and will enthusiastically lend to others who, like most people, find themselves drawn to the magic spell most ruins seem to radiate.
The Constant Reader 2016
Body, Memory and Architecture (1977) by Kent Bloomer and Charles Moore
Excellent, clear, concise review of how and why our houses and buildings and public spaces would be more beautiful if architects and developers would acknowledge that pleasure and inhabitability result from more complex -mostly psychological – factors than from merely visual or efficiency considerations.
Gardening & Gardeners
Farther Afield: A Gardener’s Excursions (1986) by Allen Lacy
In a Green Shade: Writings from ‘Homeground’ (2014) by Allen Lacy
These are the second and third collections of writings by Allen Lacy that I’ve read (the other is Home Ground: A Gardener’s Miscellany, which I read back in 2012). I had long thought that Henry Mitchell was my favorite garden writer, but I’ve decided Lacy now holds that title. I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment of one of his reviewers: “Lacy’s a thoughtful, clever man, no doubt a man it would be a pleasure to know….I, for one, would be delighted to buy anything entitled Another Book by Allen Lacy.” He writes with humor and humility; his engaging prose is the opposite of stuffy or scholarly, even though Lacy is a professor of philosophy (and translator of Unamuno – something that will definitely lead to my eventually reading his introduction to that philosopher’s work). As I love garden writing even more than I love gardening, I hope Lacy never stops publishing his commentaries on our shared hobby.
In My Garden: The Garden Diaries of Great Dixter (1994) by Christopher Lloyd
This book contains the unedited versions of a very small selection of hundreds of essays first published in the British magazine Country Life. Lloyd is a well-known gardener whose books (including either of his two previously-published collections) I somehow had never gotten around to reading; from now on I won’t hesitate to pick one up should I spot it in a book sale. Lloyd’s exquisitely-phrased sentences, his obviously deep (but humbly presented) knowledge of gardening, and his unflagging humility and sense of humor combine to make for almost effortless and extremely enjoyable reading. Ronan’s introduction is one of the best in any book on any subject I have ever read.
French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France (1991) by Richard Goodman
A very short book with very short sentences and whose 27 chapter titles are one word – usually one syllable – long. Despite the fact that I kept wondering if the author was trying to imitate Hemingway’s writing style, his enthusiasm for growing vegetables during the one precious year he and his wife spent in Provence was obvious and, considering his lack of experience, admirable. His tale certainly fed my perennial fantasy of spending a year in Provence – or, say, Tuscany or Greece.
Sissinghurst: Vita Sackville-West and the Creation of a Garden (2016) by Vita Sackville-West & Sarah Raven
Everything you ever might have wanted to know about this famous garden – not only how Vita and Harold came to own Sissinghurst and make its garden, but also Vita’s published commentary (from the gardening column she wrote for many years) about individual plants. Includes lots of photos. I am hoping to visit this garden one day, and having read this book (although skimming through the descriptions of individual plants) will certainly enhance the enjoyment I expect to find there.
Gardening for a Lifetime: How to Garden Wiser as You Grow Older (2010) by Sydney Eddison
It was wonderful to find that someone had written an entire book devoted to the obstinately unacknowledged fact that gardeners must change their ways (and their gardens) as they grow older. Each chapter tackles its subject area in a very personal, informal style, and is then followed by a bullet-pointed summary of the main practical points made. This deliberate redundancy was surprisingly useful.
The Writer in the Garden (1999) edited by Jane Garmey
As I’ve confessed more than once, I’d rather read about gardening than do any actual garden chores, but it was being distracted by other books rather than gardening that prolonged the length of time it took me to finish this anthology. The best thing about it (besides its wonderful cover and the fact that I found it on sale at a thrift store) is that its entries are very brief, which allowed the book’s editor to include snippets from 57 different writers from different eras and countries, all of them excellent, some of them my favorite garden commentators, many of them not best known primarily for their comments on gardens, and some of them poets. The editor also includes a wide variety of subjects: practical and even about particular plants, as well as the expected – and welcome – philosophical comments on the joys of gardening.
History, Sociology, & Politics
From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life (2000) by Jacques Barzun
If there were a single book one was allowed to take to a desert island for reading material, this one would be my choice. It took me almost a year to read this 800+-page masterpiece, but it’s certainly one of the very best books I’ve ever read. Barzun is an excellent writer, and his survey and analysis of the highlights (and byways) of Western culture puts far less emphasis than expected on wars and political figures and more emphasis on art (all of them) and on popular movements, especially those that have tended to repeat themselves. Soon I will begin reading this remarkable book again, this time with yellow highlighter in hand, hunting down the dozens and dozens of obscure-to-me authors and books Barzun mentions. And I will defintely continue my project of reading more of Barzun’s almost four dozen (!) books.
Lafayette in The Somewhat United States (2015) by Sarah Vowell
Vowell has one of the most distinctive writing styles I’ve come across, and she sustains her quirky voice throughout this fascinating tale of Lafayette’s journey to the colonies to help with their glorious revolt. This book was so entertaining and informative that I finished it in two or three days. Vowell’s research was extensive, and she uncovered a lot of fascinating tidbits about the behind-the-scenes personality conflicts that were going on among the leaders of the American Revolutionary period. I also enjoyed the way Vowell relates the conflicts and tensions of that era to today’s conflicts and tensions in the United States.
City Life: Urban Expectations in a New World (1995) by Witold Rybczynski
Having read two previous books by W.R. (Home: A Short History of an Idea and The Most Beautiful House in the World), I reckoned this one would also be wonderful, and it was – just as chock-full of surprising historical and statistical facts as his other books, and just as down-to-earth, personal, and engaging too. The answers to the question this book addresses – why do U.S. cities and suburbs look and feel so different than the cities and suburbs of Europe? – are more complex – and more interesting, than you’d imagine. A great read, despite the fact that his analysis is now already twenty years old.
And Yet… Essays (2015) by Christopher Hitchens
A collection of previously uncollected articles (mostly book reviews, mostly from Vanity Fair or The Atlantic), these writings reaffirmed my opinion of Hitchens as one of the most readable polemicists of our time – and one of the most erudite as well. His premature death in 2011 was a great loss for truth-loving literate people everywhere. Fortunately, Hitchens was prolific (there are five previous collections of his essays alone, and this one has forty-eight of them), so there are many reading pleasures ahead of me as I gradually work my way through all of Hitchens’ writings. Among the unexpected excellencies of this collection is an essay about Clive James (whose own essays I’ve recently read two collections of) and a masterful discussion of George Orwell and G.K. Chesterton, two other British-born essayists whose work I worship.
Junk: Digging Through America’s Love Affair with Stuff (2016) by Alison Stewart
An unexpectedly lively book, especially since it covers so much ground: interrviews with people who capitalized on the U.S. craze for buying stuff and not knowing how (or being unwilling) to get rid of it. Stewart’s interviews reveal the fascinating experiences and reflections of junk haul-awayers, owners of storage facilities, thrift store operators, participants in “the 100-mile garage sale,” pawn brokers, container store establishers, etc. – all leavened with non-preachy but sobering statistics and the interesting commentary of psychologists.
Hidden Rhythms: Schedules and Calendars in Social Life (1981) by Eviatar Zerubavel
The psychological aspects of time have long been a recurring topic in my reading choices, but this sociological analysis of the way time is used to regulate human activities and accessibility was very interesting. (Probably especially so from the viewpoint of a reader who has recently retired from The World of Rigid Schedules.) Especially informative: the author’s sections on the invention and ramifications (for Orthodox Jews and others) of the invention of the Sabbath, the role of Christian monasteries in spreading the advantages of clock time, the French Revolutionaries’ attempt to reform the Gregorian calendar, and the invention of the notion (in the West) of “private time.” Unfortunately – because perhaps the author’s native language may not be English? – the author’s writing style is maddeningly repetitive (wish I had a nickel for every “in other words” he uses, either explicity or otherwise), frequently marred by tautological logic, and full of cliches (more wished-for nickels for every annoying instance of the phrase “within this context”). Still, I will never think about time and the pros and cons of schedules the same way again after reading this book.
Psychology & Philosophy
Travels with Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life (2012) by Daniel Klein
A writer in his late seventies returns to the Greek island of Hydra to clarify his ideas of how best to grow old. Written in an almost diary-like format, the writing style is Informal, humble, courageous, and personal writing style. The book is a short one (only 150 pages); and it is studded with some never-seen-before quotations from some of my favorite philosophers and psychologists (Kierkegaard, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, Sartre, Camus, Bertrand Russell, William James, Eric Erikson). A real pleasure to read, and it touches on many of my own preoccupations, including how we experience time and what the wise men and women of the past have to say about the nature and pursuit of happiness.
The Meaning of Human Existence (2014) by Edward O. Wilson
I picked up this book because Wilson (winner of two Pulitzer Prizes) once wrote one of the most memorable sentences I’ve ever read. This book was interesting enough to finish, but I think I expected too much, given the title. I found Wilson’s chapter on religion the most interesting (although the least surprising), and his chapter on pheromones the next most interesting (and information totally new to me).
On Poetic Imagination and Reverie: Selections from Gaston Bachelard (1987) translated from the French (with a preface and introduction) by Colette Gaudin
Because I loved Bachelard’s Poetics of Space so much (enough to buy me and my friend Harvey copies to keep), I was really looking forward to this selection from his other writings. Alas, Monsieur Bachelard is rough going – too often so abstract (in that idiosyncratically French sort of way) – that I had to skip whole sections of this book. He was obviously a genius, but I found the translator’s introduction a lot easier to understand than Bachelard himself. But The Poetics of Space I will continue to treasure, and will re-read some day.
Practicing Death (2016) by Dennis Van Avery
Reflections on, among other things, the importance of finding community, of enjoying life’s minor ephiphanies and joys, and non-attachment. This 60-page book was self-published shortly before Dennis’s death this summer. Dennis was a recent acquaintance and his book reminds me of his gentle demeanor and wisdom.
How to Talk about Places You’ve Never Been (2016) by Pierre Bayard
I fought my way through this book, hoping that Bayard would eventually have something interesting to say, but that never happened – and I don’t think it was due to the book’s being translated from its original French version. I felt the same way about a previous book Bayard wrote about a similar theme (How to Talk About the Books You Haven’t Read). I won’t be reading any more of Bayard’s books.
A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts …Written and Selected from the World’s Sacred Texts (3rd ed., 1910; 1997 ed. translated by Peter Sekirin) by Leo Tolstoy
Tolstoy’s final book, and the one he (in my opinion, mistakenly) considered his most important. I did glean a couple dozen quotations from the wrtitings of the sages of the past that Tolstoy includes in his collection, but Tolstoy’s commentary (and his own pearls of wisdom) are excessively Christianity-centered (so many Gospel verses!) and didactic. Disappointing.
Religion & Anti-Religion
How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (2014) by Bart D. Ehrman
Although the author’s tone is engaging instead of scholarly, this is not Ehrman’s most readable book – for one thing, his others are far less repetitious. Still, this one may be the most single most important/profound of the many books Ehrman’s published – and I’m pretty sure I’ve read them all. A necessary (if rather belabored) documentation of the (rocky) history of the basically incomprehensible Christian notion of the Trinity.
The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible (2013) annotated by Steve Wells
I wish this book had been published – and that I had been allowed to read it – back in the early 1960s, when I was a teenager forced to listen to Bible-quoting (and Bible-censoring) preachers until I left for college in 1966. I didn’t actually read the 1,600+-page Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, as that project would require reading every verse of the King James Bible plus Wells’ sidebar annotations – a project that would take years to accomplish, and more stamina for Biblical nonsense than I possess. What I think is probably more valuable for anyone who can’t bear the thought of plowing through the KJV again (or even for the first time) is reading Wells’ short introductions to each Bible book plus skimming his two appendices: a 31-page list of 471 Biblical contradictions and a 135-item list of citations of verses describing “God’s Killings in the Bible.” For me, the biggest irony in my getting hold of Wells’ book is realizing how much those Baptist preachers in my past left out of their weekly Bible-quoting. The descriptions of favorably-presented cruelty, misogeny, homophobia, logical absurdities and scientific blunders that those preachers left out of their somber readings or shrill rantings of Holy Scripture are more numerous and more damning than I had imagined. I wish a copy of Wells’ book were deposited alongside all those Gideon Bibles one still finds in hotel rooms, and was given to each church-going teenager before she is brow-beaten into A.C.A.H.P.S. (Accepting Christ As Her Personal Savior). A lot of confusing nonsense and harm-producing Bibliolatry might be averted thereby. In the meantime, every thinking human of any age would benefit from even a highly selective reading of the “revelations” Wells’ annotations provide. Incidentally (and astonishingly), the entire text of the $36 printed version The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, is available for free on the Internet!
Literature, Literary Criticism & Other Bookish Delights
Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells a Story (2015) by Michael Rosen
Possibly the most all-around enjoyable book I’ve read this year. Definitely one of the most carefully researched – but buoyantly written – books I’ve read this year. This aside-filled romp through the history of the English alphabet is every calligrapher’s, Scrabble-player’s, and word-lover’s dream book. The fact that I discovered it while idly browsing the shelves of the newest bookstore in my city is a bit unnerving, but I am not complaining. I just wish Rosen had more than 26 symbols to write about in his diverting and informative way; I especially enjoyed the way he was able to tie so many stories about the history of letters to his personal reading experiences as a child. This book reinforces and to some extent explains how someone can actually come to love the alphabet and anything connected to it.
Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, & Living with Books (2015) by Michael Dirda
Dirda’s collection of fifty columns originally published in The American Scholar is my favorite so far of Dirda’s many books. His enthusiasm for all things bookish is infectious, and his style is refreshingly non-scholarly and generous and hilariously self-deprecating. Dirda is also quite persuasive: I’ve garnered from Browsings seventeen (!) additional Dirda-recommended items for my list of Books Cal Wants to Read. Dirda’s musings on the life of a modern bibliophile were are a pure joy to read. (If Dirda wasn’t already married, I’d be tempted to propose that he marry me.)
The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books (and Two Not-so-Great Ones) Saved My Life (2014) by Andy Miller
Better in its way than the equally wonderful Browsings by Michael Dirda, which I finished shortly before obtaining this book-about-books. Why better? Well, the Britishness of the author automatically makes his prose funnier. But the autobiographical content wedged into the descriptions of the books under discussion made the experience of reading Dangerously even more fund to read than Broswings more serious, less autobiographical treatment. If I could write like Miller, I would write books instead of (well, in addition to) reading them!
s As of This Writing: The Essential Essays, 1968-2002 (2003) by Clive James Latest Readings (2015) by Clive James
These two collections of literary criticism and book and film reviews are some of the best, and best-written, I’ve ever read. James is an Australian who lives in Britain. His witty (but not over-clever) conversational writing style and his generosity toward authors or works he finds flawed or otherwise unappealing is unusual and refreshing. For the sheer enjoyment of his down-to-earth, often humorous commentary, I will seek out any further books by James, and intend to read his other previous collections.Meanwhile, I am learning a lot about about Australian poets – a subject that I have zero interest in, but love reading about when it’s James writing about them.
This Thing We Call Literature (2016) by Arthur Krystal
After a lifetime of wondering myself about some of the questions addressed by Krystal, it was a revelation to read Krystal’s collection of essays, most of which originally appeared in either the Chronicle of Higher Education or the New Yorker, and most of which discuss (from various angles), the differences between good writing and great – i.e., enduring – writing. Krystal is an excellent stylist; his arguments are very persuasive to this reader, who hadn’t realized what a “traditionalist” reader I apparently am! Krystal’s essays make me unashamed of that fact. I learned so much from this book that I re-read much of it (including his excellent essay on good vs. great poetry) before returning my copy to the library.
The Battle of the Books: History and Literature in the Augustan Age (1991) by Joseph M. Levine
The “battle” had to do with the question of whether or not the ancient Greek and Roman writers could be surpassed – in excellence of style and/or in wisdom – by any subsequent generations of poets, historians and dramatists. The various factions weighing in on this question felt at lot was at stake – for one thing, the answer would determine the curriculum of a college education, and could have a bearing on how statesmen and others in the aristocracy are trained; for another thing, the answer had ramifications for the writing and evaluation of all post-classical history, poetry, and drama -even determine beliefs about the limits of human nature and potential. I loved this book, although I can’t imagine who else might love it – its subject is just too arcane, the nuances of the obscure story are gone into in way too much detail, and the level of meticulous scholarship is almost too much to endure – reading even half the authors’ hundreds of footnotes would take many, many, many hours of a reader’s precious time. But the writing is lively, and the pettiness and infighting among the uber-articulate, uber-privileged British scholarly elite that Levine recounts in his sprawling story – he takes in not only the British opinion on the main debate, but French and German opinion as well – is quite marvelous for a certain type of reader (like moi).
The Golden Thread: The Story of Writing (2013) by Ewan Clayton
Not a history for the faint of heart: there is so much detail, especially with regard to pre-modern eras, that I almost gave up on finishing it. Also, the author included far too few illustrations (only 64 of them throughout 358 pages of densely-written text and analysis of particular documents, and, too often, no illustrations when one would’ve really helped). But I’m glad I did finish this book, as the final fifth of it was so interesting and informative, and as the book’s last chapter (“The Material Artefact”) is – for this amateur calligrapher, anyway – so beautifully and so lyrically written. Clayton’s scholarship as reflected in his lengthy bibliography is astonishingly thorough, and the final section of his bibliography (“Current Practice in Handwriting, Calligraphy and Lettering”) would be very useful in an inventory of the library maintained by the local calligraphy I’m a member of.
Samuel Johnson and The Life of Reading (1997) by Robert DeMaria, Jr.
DeMaria calls his book an “extended essay,” but the level of detail given to expounding DeMaria’s underlying premise (that there are four kinds of reading, and that Johnson practiced all four of them) made reading the book feel like reading a dissertation. I had to force myself to finish it. This despite the author’s obvious insights, erudition, humility, and sense of humor. If the subject had been anyone’s reading other than Johnson’s, I wouldn’t have even started it. But DeMaria’s book has re-confirmed my awe at Johnson’s intelligence, and reignited my resolve to read more of what Johnson himself wrote.
Biography & Memoir
Meanwhile, There are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald (2015) edited by Suzanne Marrs &Tom Nolan
I continue to be enthralled with reading letters exchanged between writers, and this collection, which spans only a decade but contains hundreds of fascinating letters, is the saga of one of the most heartwarming literary friendships I’ve come across, as Welty and Macdonald were such amazing supports for each other’s writing. Based on what Macdonald has to say about it, I definitely now need to find some of Welty’s fiction – possibly starting with a re-reading of her story “Why I Live at the P.O.” but maybe trying out one of her novels as well.
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (2015) by Andrea Wulf
An incredibly interesting guy, this Alexander Humboldt. So I’m glad to have read about him and glad the author wrote this book about him. However, the last third of the book, devoted to Humboldt’s “successors” (like John Muir), I lost interest in reading about, so I did not finish this book. I understand that many individuals followed in Humboldt’s footsteps as ecology pioneers, but when Humboldt disappeared from the story, I instantly – and rather surprisingly – lost interest in it.
Bettyville: A Memoir (2014) by George Hodgman
Forty-something gay man leaves his editing job in New York City to take care of his ailing (and communication-challenged) mom in the tiny town in Missouri where he grew up. A well-told tale of caregiving in the teeth of the mother’s progressive dementia and her lifetime of denial of her only child’s being gay. Heartbreaking, poignant, funny, sobering, and full of loving, moving descriptions of a way of life that has largely vanished, but that formed the perspectives of both mother and son.
Dreamthorp: A Book of Essays Written in the Country (1905) by Alexander Smith [1830-1867]
Seldom have I been more sorry to have finished a book – or been as glad that such a book exists! There are only twelve essays in this now-over-a-hundred-years-old book, but every one of the essays is as engagingly written as anything you’ll ever read. The titles of the essays are almost irrelevant; even the least interesting-sounding ones end up being glorious, as Smith – like his heroes Bacon and Montaigne – is likely to spend many pages meandering off his purported subject. The delight I found in this previously-unknown-to-me collection was great enough for me to resolve to buy myself a modern copy (my conscience won’t allow me to steal the library’s antique edition). And because it’s in the public domain, the text of Dreamthorp is available on the Internet, which made it much easier for me to copy-and-paste numerous passages into my Commonplace Book. Incidentally, Dreamthorp is Smith’s fictional name for the Scottish town of Linlithgow, which (along with Smith’s grave in a cemetery in nearby Edinburgh) is now on my list of Hoped-For Literary Pilgrimages.
Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder (2014)
Most collections of letters I’ve read (and the letters of writers have long been one of my favorite types of books to read) are written by writers who’ve died (many of them British, rather than Americans). Not so with this collection, which spans a correspondence that began in 1973 and is doubtless still going on, with the latest letter reproduced here written in 2013. Each of these two articulate writers has lived an unusual and inspiring life; the topics they write to each other about (and sometimes disagree about) make me glad to be part of their generation. Now more than ever I am resolved to eventually track down and read every scrap of Berry’s nonfiction writing. It was a joy and privilege to read these letters: so much so that I started and finished this book in a matter of days. I hope there are many more letters between these two thoughtful, erudite, and humble homesteading writers, and that those letters will also one day be published. Snyder and Berry are national living treasures, each of them devoted to the very different regions of the planet they have cultivated through long and thoughtful lives.
A Heaven of Words: Last Journals, 1956-1984 (2013) by Glenway Wescott
Another intriguing installment of the trove of biographical material produced by a circle of Manhattan-based American gay artists, writers, photographers, playwrights, etc. (and their Continental friends and lovers) that rivals the scope and interested of the biographical materials that the “Bloomsberries” generated from and about their nearly-contemporaneous lives in England. I will next need to track down Wescott’s earlier journals (Continual Lessons: 1937-1955) and Wescott’s novels. A “heaven of words” indeed.
Time Enough (1974) by Emily Kimbrough
I re-read this hilarious account of a group of friends’ boat trip down Ireland’s Shannon River in preparation for an almost identical trip I’m planning with several of my own friends for later this year. What a treat, re-reading this book! Kimbrough is skillful at vividly capturing the telling detail that make each of her characters (i.e., her friends and their respective foibles, as well as her own), as well as their harmless but charming adventures, come alive. You feel like you’re right there with them on their rented (and fully – and interestingly – staffed) boat, and happy to be there. Anyone reading Kimbrough’s account will risk feeling compelled to book a boat in Ireland. It was my first reading of this book that triggered my own subsequent quest to successfully enlist some of my own friends to float down the waterways of three different countries (England, France, and – finally – Ireland).
The Pursuit of Reason: The Life of Thomas Jefferson (1987) by Noble Cunningham, Jr.
A competent, one-volume biography – and a perfect review of any other biographies one might have read before but (like I had) forgotten the details of. One of the most astonishing parts, especially during this rancorous election year, was rediscovering how early on the vicious factionalism in U.S. politics began.
Fifty Days of Solitude (1994) by Doris Grumbach
I wanted this to be better than it was. There are some lovely reflections (such as the one on the different varieties of silence), but this book seemed too often like a writing excercise or a set of miscellaneous remarks than a significant contribution to the literature of solitude.
A Year by the Sea: Thoughts of an Unfinished Woman (1999) by Joan Anderson
Having read Anderson’s second book several years ago without realizing she’d already written this one, I’m glad I ran across this copy in a thrift store yesterday. (Yes, dear reader, I read this book in a single day.) I think it’s better than her second book – another memoir mining the same period of her life on Cape Cod. Anderson compellingly sets down in non-self-congratulatory prose the emotional roller-coaster ride of her Year of Living Solo. Similar in its pur-pose to two books by Alice Koeller that I read years ago – An Unknown Woman: A Journey to Self-Discovery (1981) and The Stations of Solitude (1990), which Iiked better than either of Anderson’s books.
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) by Oscar Wilde
Despite all the books about Oscar Wilde I’ve read over the years, I’d never gotten around to reading his novel. Several years ago at OutWrite Bookstore’s closing sale, I bought Nicholas Frankel’s illustrated, annotated, uncensored (and coffee-table-size) edition, and this week I finally read it. Reading It took a while, as the numerous footnotes amount to an additional book themselves. Mostly, I am amazed at how absurdly repressed and class-conscious Wilde’s Victorian contemporaries were, which resulted in – among other things, including Wilde’s arrest, trial, and imprisonment – so much “coding” of sexual matters into the text of Dorian. I was also surprised at how many of Oscar’s famous maxims derive from (or were imported into) his novel. Frankel’s delineation through his footnotes of the underpinnings of the novel’s plot and characters to Wilde’s life and world (as well as his meticulous history of the novel’s career) was, for me, far more interesting than the novel’s rather florid story, characters, and writing style.
All the Light We Cannot See (2014) by Anthony Doerr
I became a fan of Doerr’s when, a few years ago, I read his memoir Four Seasons in Rome. Although I’ve not read his previous novels, All the Light is indisputably a memorable book, even a page turner. As I usually do with novels that jump back-and-forth between different time periods and alternate between different characters’ points of view, I found this structure to be somewhat annoying, but I can see why Doerr took this route to tell this particular story. The cruelties and violence and desolation of war (specifically, World War II) that Doerr describes were certainly vivid, and, as intended, very distressing. (This book could should earn a spot on anyone’s list of anti-war novels.) Doerr’s imagery is often arresting, which helped pull met through the author’s portrayals of his characters’ anxiety and deprivation and the backdrop of ubiquitous, arbitrary deaths that more than once tempted me to put aside this heartbreaking novel. I’m in a book club that’s discussing this novel soon, and look forward to how other readers responded to this absorbing book.
I would be remiss if I were not to insert here an enthusiastic recommendation of the two magazines whose every issue I’ve eagerly devoured for the zillionth consecutive year. They are the world’s two best – although very, very different – magazines, deserving of a subscription of your own if you happen to be in the market for guaranteed excellence:
- The Sun
- The New Yorker
If any of my reading-loving acquaintances out there have kept track of what you’ve read this past year, I would love to see your list! Feel free to email it to me at email@example.com
The Constant Reader 2015
This year was particularly delightful in terms of the quality of the books I chose to read. Here are my comments on each of them. I’ve listed the titles in the rough order of how excellent they seemed to me within the categories displayed below. I hope you spot a few titles you decide you want to read yourself – and would love to hear from you any recommendations from your own past year’s worth of reading: type out a comment to this blogpost, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or message me on Facebook!
Lila (2014) by Marilynne Robinson
I was wrong to assume Robinson couldn’t possibly weave a second spell of storytelling as absorbing as she did with Gilead. Alas, trying to describe Robinson’s writing style – especially its bewitching rhythm, its characters’ language and thought patterns, the story’s breathtakingly well-constructed recursiveness – is a maddening prospect. How unflinchingly honest and far-ranging this novel is. How lucky I am to be one of Robinson’s readers, repeatedly astonished at her craft and her piercing, heartbreaking insights into human frailty and resilience. Novel writing does not get any better, any more unforgettable, than Robinson’s.
The Goldfinch (2013) by Donna Tartt
Compelling story and wonderfully realized, totally believable characters, even the unsavory ones, Not sure this book needed 700+ pages to tell its tale, but I certainly admire Tartt’s artistry and willingness to take on the task of plausibly articulating the complex, messy, and irrational aspects of human motivation, character, and behavior, and of the maddening role of chance (fateful?) events and circumstances in human affairs. I also like the way this book dramatizes the wrongheadedness of dividing the world – and our friends and families – into all-good or all-evil individuals.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2012) by Rachel Joyce
Most absorbing novel I’ve read in a long time. A brilliant concept for a story: I’m amazed that no modern author had thought of it before! Two things I especially admired: the unexpected twists of the plot and the imaginative way the author slowly reveals the events that formed the personalities (and demons) of the main characters. I cannot imagine anyone not loving this novel, and I am almost certain it will eventually be made into a riveting film.
The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy (2014) by Rachel Joyce
Less satisfying than its prequel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. There are many lovely passages, but I found the plot oddly less interesting – a surprising reaction considering that the reader finds out a lot more about Queenie’s character and history in this book than he/she ever finds out about Harold in the other book.
Famous Last Words (1982) by Timothy Findley
This dark novel (given to me by DC-based fellow booklover and blogger Thomas Otto) is set during World War II. The plot centers on a conspiracy of Nazi sympathizers who hope to install oriented government officials in various democracies after the war. A page-turner, for sure, and the sort of espionage thriller I rarely read. One of those “what if” sorts of novels that send one to Wikipedia to find out what “really” happened to the famous real-life characters Findley includes in his almost plausible – and often gruesome – yarn.
Lolly Willowes, or The Loving Huntsman (1926) by Sylvia Townsend Warner
Having spent many happy hours in 2015 reading two collections of STW’s letters, I was curious about her fiction, so I was excited when a friend mailed this novel to me to read. I’m pleased to see that STW’s prose is as charming and offbeat as her letters are. The plot of this novel, however, takes a rather improbable turn, and I wasn’t happy in that respect. (On the other hand, now I understand better her affinity with T.H. White and his affinity with furry woodland creatures.) Still, as a proto-feminist tract, this was cleverly and artfully done. STW’s gift for nuanced portraits and her sometimes startling word choices are delightful.
Biography and Autobiography
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2011) by Jeanette Winterson
Seldom do I read an entire book in a single day, but this memoir is that riveting. Although the titles of Winterson’s prize-winning novels were familiar to me, I’ve not read them, but I am extremely glad my friend Blanche loaned me her copy of this. It’s not a happy tale, but Winterson tells it with excruciating honesty and, at times, with unexpected hilarity. Her prose contains many quotable sentences – and she captures beautifully the fact that access to a public library can save an otherwise hapless young person’s sanity, especially if you’re the unlucky adopted child of a fundamentalist Christian parent whose favorite reading is the Bible’s Book of Revelation.
Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris (2014) by Edmund White
A relentlessly engaging, deliciously gossipy account of White’s many years of living in Paris. I hereby transfer my longstanding envy of celebrity writer Gore Vidal’s literary life to Edmund White’s.
What There Is to Say, We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell (2011) edited by Suzanne Marrs
Of the many collections of letters exchanged between authors, this one is my favorite among the many such collections that I have read. Maxwell, an novelist himself, was Welty’s editor at the New Yorker, and they exchanged letters (and visits) for fifty years. The letters are so engaging, literate, and funny that reading them thirty years after both Welty and Maxwell died is a completely spellbinding experience. Now I must track down more of Maxwell’s novels (I’d already read and loved So Long, See You Tomorrow), Welty’s novels, and the essay collections of these writers.
The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (2001) edited by Michael Steinman
Once I started this book of letters between my favorite British letter-writer (STW) and one of my favorite American novelists (Maxwell was also editor of STW’s 150 stories she submitted to The New Yorker), it was almost impossible to put it down. Now I’m on the hunt for yet more of STW’s letters and for all of Maxwell’s prose – plus I’ll need to buy myself a copy of this book so I can methodically track down all the books they recommended to each other over their forty years of corresponding with each other. These letters are very likely to be the highlight of my reading pleasures this year (as were, last year, the selected letters of STW that Maxwell edited). Witty, wide-ranging, moving.
Act One: An Autobiography (1959) by Moss Hart
Far and away the best autobiography I’ve ever read. It makes me happy just to know someone can write – about themselves, too! – so exquisitely. I’m not surprised that my friend Blanche, who first told me about this book back in the late 1960s (!), says she’s picked it up more than once to re-read portions of it. With unusual humility (and often hilariously), Hart tells an entertaining and heartwarming story, peppered with profound insights into the psychological aspects of a theater-besotten life. I so wish Hart had written a sequel, so I could read that too!
I’ll Stand by You: The Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner & Valentine Ackland (1998) edited by Susanna Pinney
Warner and Ackland met in 1930 and lived together for almost 40 years before Ackland’s death from breast cancer; these letters chronicle their great love story. Warner assembled the letters after Ackland’s death, and wrote several lengthy and excellent connecting narratives to fill in the blanks between the letters. These letters are mostly love letters, and as such they shine a light on the relationship that any fan of Warner’s writing or enthusiastic readers (such as moi) of Warner’s other collections of letters would naturally be interested in reading. Warners’ other collections of letters are far more evocative of the couple’s daily routines, their relationships with other people in their interesting lives, and their wide-ranging interests, but this collection is a remarkable document – probably one of a handful of published accounts of a lifelong lesbian relationship between literate British literary figures of the 20th century.
Thomas Wolfe (1968) by Andrew Turnbull
A masterpiece. Wolfe’s famous first novel Look Homeward, Angel has been one of the touchstones of my internal life ever since I read it as a teenager. I don’t know why I never got around to reading a Wolfe biography (as there have been several), especially given the pilgrimages I’ve made to the house of Wolfe’s childhood and to his grave in Asheville. But I am very glad to have read this book, and am stunned by the sensitivity and diligent research of its author, and by his engaging writing style. Probably the best-written biography I’ve ever read, and one of the highlights of my reading this year.
How to Live: A Life of Montaigne (2010) by Sarah Bakewell
Delightful biography of the inventor of the personal essay (and a longtime philosophical/ psychological hero of mine). Bakewell organizes her book thematically instead of strictly chronologically, which is only occasionally disorienting or redundant and her approach successfully keeps the reader’s interest and emphasizes the multifaceted, contradictory nature of the man she’s writes so engagingly about. I particularly enjoyed Bakewell’s measured speculative digressions as well as her meticulous, fascinating account of the ways other authors in various places have regarded Montaigne and his famous book.
Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace (2014) by Anne Lamott
Yet another difficult-to-put-down account of various episodes in the life of my favorite epiphany-describer. Unflinching, hilarious, wise, compassionate – and too short. I will continue to read every word this woman writes, that’s for sure (well, her nonfiction anyway).
The Measure of My Days (1968) by Florida Scott-Maxwell
Unusually honest, interesting, and beautifully phrased reflections about aging, written by an American actress, playwright, and Jungian therapist when she was in her mid-80s. A short book, but full of quotable passages and uncommon insight.
The End of Your Life Book Club (2012) by Will Schwalbe
What an astonishing memoir – and a testament to the transformative power of books – and of individuals – to make a huge difference in the world. I wish I could give a copy of this book to everyone in my life who loves reading, or who knows someone who loves to read who is facing a terminal illness. A moving and interesting story very skillfully told, and difficult to put down.
William Morris (1989) by Christine Poulson
A straightforward, brief and wonderfully illustrated biography. Morris is someone whose work (and life) has long interested me. Morris turns out to have been even more remarkable than I’d thought. (If I’m not careful, reading more about Morris and his circle will become the sort of reading rabbit-hole that, years ago, reading multiple books about Oscar Wilde and then multiple books about the Bloomsberries – and, this year, multiple books about Sylvia Townsend Warner turned into for me: not the worst fate ever to befall a reader.) In any case, I definitely have to my Bucker List of Travel Destinations a pilgrimage to Morris’s homes, and to his work that’s on display at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.
Bloomsbury at Home (1999) by Pamela Todd
How wonderful to fall upon yet another history of the Bloomsberries – and one so engagingly written and illustrated! It focuses on the details of daily life in the various houses inhabited by the Woolfs, the Bells, the Stracheys, etc., Most of the reproductions of Vanessa’s or Duncan’s paintings that accompany the text I’d never seen before, despite the number of Bloomsbury books I’ve devoured and/ collected. By dsuccinctly providing intriguing domestic details about their intertwined and psychologically complicated lives. Todd weaves the usual hypnotic spell cast by this influential and unconventional group of British writers, artists, and scholars. Delicious.
Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand (2012) by William J. Mann
Despite the author’s annoyingly breathless and sometimes ham-fisted and/or juvenile prose style (samples: “Barbra was fed up.” “Such were the dreams…of a twenty-four-year-old kid and his twenty-year-old girlfriend”), the author did keep me greedily reading until I finally finished his exhaustingly-researched 500+-page book. I’ve been a Streisand fan since her first record album appeared in the mid-Sixties, and it’s difficult for me to ignore anything written about this unusual and extraordinarily talented celebrity. Mann’s biography covers only the period from Streisand’s teenage years until she landed the lead role in the Broadway version of Funny Girl. When Streisand publishes her autobiography in 2017, I will be very interested to see in what respects she will contradict Mann’s not altogether flattering account of her early career. Although Mann’s biography is larded with huge globs of psycho-babbling speculation (not that Streisand’s account will be devoid of same), te story of Streisand’s meteoric rise to celebrity is riveting, and Mann’s scrupulous documentation makes me glad Mann’s is the one biography of Streisand’s I have thus far decided to read.
Islands of the Mind: How the Human Imagination Created the Atlantic World (2004) by John Gillis
Despite some annoying repetitions and redundancies, this book forever changed some of my notions of history and geography, not to mention the way I think about several famous literary utopias. The final chapters are the best, and the bibliography will send me on many a quest to track down and read certain titles Gillis relied on for this excellent synthesis of All Things Island-Related. Plus it was a pleasure to find that Gillis is married to the woman who wrote a touching memoir that I read a few years back about the island in Maine where she and her husband live.
Psychology and Social Commentary
The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection (2014) by Michael Harris
A well-written and non-elegaic essay on the implications of the fact that some of us are among the final (pre-1985) generation of people who can remember what life felt like before we allowed the Internet to infiltrate the rhythms, priorities, and habits of how we humans manage our attention, time, affection, desires, expectations, etc.
The News: A User’s Manual (2014) by Alain de Botton
This is de Botton’s twelfth book, and I’ve read all of them with pleasure and admiration. The News is as provocatively and elegantly written as the others – this one so much so that I typed up and posted over thirty passages to the “Commonplace Book” section of my blog. However, de Botton’s brilliant analysis of the problem(s) with modern media is much more persuasive than his suggested solution(s), most of which I found to be unexpectedly simplistic and/or naive. Also, most of de Botton’s prescriptions for reform betray a paternal, manipulative, moralistic attitude that I would’ve expected him to deplore. Still, this brief book (and all of de Botton’s books are short ones) was worth reading, and de Botton’s vivid prose is far more engaging and digestible than other, lengthier critiques of the mass media, whose output most of us spend inordinate amounts of time and energy unreflectively attending (and reacting) to.
Religion and Anti-Religion
Religion without Revelation (1957) by Julian Huxley
The all-around best anti-organized religion book I’ve ever read – and I’ve read a lot of them in the past 30 years. Why best? Because the writing is so excellent -it’s no wonder this book is considered a classic – because the author is so sincere in acknowledging the fact that human sentiments about non-empirical phenomena are universal, and because Huxley includes his relevant personal religious experiences along with his rational arguments. Huxley’s final chapter was a bit disappointing, but all the others were completely absorbing. I’m so glad I actually own this book – not only so I can read its gorgeous prose again, but so I can easily track down several intriguing-sounding works Huxley cites in his footnotes and his bibliography.
An Atheist’s History of Belief (2014) by Matthew Kneale
An excellent, short, and entertainingly writter debunking of religious fervor. It’s refreshingly devoid of resentment-laced polemics and disdain – and larded with humor to boot! Kneale’s treatment is also unusual in that he surveys religious movements other than the usual suspects (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam). Kneale’s thesis, which he persuasively hammers home repeatedly in his wide-ranging and fascinating historical (if highly selective) romp, is that religions are founded to cope with the anxiety of specific cultural uncertainties; he shows how, again and again, charismatic prophets emerge only in times of cultural crisis, and he shows how uncannily similar their “solutions” turn out to be. (For example, almost all of them feature reactions to profound uneasiness or revulsion toward the institutions or functionaries of the religious status quo, apocalyptic visions, and the simplistic division of people into elites vs. the doomed). Because of Kneale’s breezy, engaging style, his book is the first book I’d recommend to anyone newly interested in the idea of atheism.
Bricks and Mortals: Ten Great Buildings and the People They Made (2014) by Tom Wilkinson
A wild romp of a book – and a perfect example of why I’m constantly tempted to read nonfiction instead of fiction: there are such excellent nonfiction writers being published! And if I’d passed over reading this book, I’d’ve missed all I learned from its author’s asides about (among others) Henry Ford and Richard Wagner. I especially appreciated Wilkinson’s relentless Marxist (well, at least anti-capitalist) perspective on what gets built and why, and whose interests usually get served thereby. I hope Wilkinson writes more books, as I’ll want to read them all.
Why Buildings Stand Up: The Strength of Architecture (1980; reissued 1990 and 2002) by Mario Salvadori
Understandable-by-the-layperson explanations of the numerous inescapable forces and factors (physical, environmental, and human) that constrain architects and engineers of any era, fused with engaging storiesabout some of the most famous and/or common examples of what’s been accomplished in architecture over the past several thousand years. The best book about architecture I’ve ever read, and I’ve read lots of them!
The Divine Proportion: A Study in Mathematical Beauty (1970) by H.E. Huntley
I am so glad I finally got around to reading this short (187-page) classic, which I’d seen so many references to in such widely disparate sources over my many years of reading. Although most of the equations examined (and, considering the book’s subject, they were perhaps unavoidable) are beyond my understanding, Huntley’s prose explanations of the unexpected and astonishing mathematical properties of a wide range of natural phenomena – everything from the shell of the nautilus to the petals of flowers to the differences between the notes of a musical octave – are fascinating. Huntley’s style is free of jargon, succinct, elegant, and marked by the understatement and drollery so characteristic of the best British writers. Paradoxically, Huntley can also write with charming enthusiasm about the wonders and uses of mathematics. I will probably never gaze upon a sunflower again without thinking of Huntley’s book.
Home: A Short History of an Idea (1987) by Witold Rybczynski
Although I first read this back in 2005, I was mortified to find that I didn’t remember a single word of it – which is doubly mortifying as this book is so wonderful! Every chapter is full of fascinating, engagingly told stories about how (and where) various factors embedded in our modern notions of “home” – privacy and comfort, to take only two examples – first came to be. Now I will want to re-read The Most Beautiful House in the World, another book of Rybczynski’s that I also liked (but not as much, if my faulty memory serves – which it obviously cannot be relied upon to do!). This book is a keeper, and I am glad I found a copy I could afford to buy.
What Are Gardens For? (2012) by Rory Stuart
A primer on how to fully appreciate any garden – your own or, especially, other people’s. The Britain-based Stuart – who doesn’t limit the gardens he examines to those of England, or even to9 Europe – is especially good at explaining the non-obvious aspects of why it’s so delightful to wander through a garden (and why sometimes it’s less than delightful). The author’s opinions acknowledge (with wonderful quotations) the theories of numerous other garden experts, contemporary and otherwise.
Our Gardens Ourselves: Reflections on an Ancient Art (1994) by Jennifer Bennett
It took me over a year to finish reading this book, and I needed to re-read its earlier chapters as I’d forgotten what was in them. This is a puzzlingly unlyrical (and otherwise unengaging) set of reflections, despite the author’s survey of many garden-related garden myths and scientific factoids I’d never encountered before. I wish the author had injected more extended personal opinions, and that her numerous garden-related quotations embedded throughout the text had been more compelling.
Rome and a Villa (1952) by Eleanor Clark
This is the second best guidebook to Rome I’ve ever read. (The best is H.V. Morton’s A Traveller in Rome.) Clark’s meditations on a highly selective set of particular buildings, paintings, frescoes, fountains, etc. are eccentric – and lyrical to the point of being, at times, difficult to follow. Still, Clark’s style is arresting in its images and conceits. Her book makes me want to return to Rome with a copy of it – and to definitely make a repeat pilgrimage to Hadrian’s Villa, the subject of one of the book’s longer chapters.
Slipping into Paradise: Why I Live in New Zealand (2004) by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson
A prolific author and his wife visit New Zealand and decide to stay. His book explains why, and the reasons are interesting and engagingly recounted. I’ve long wanted to travel to this remote place (the last place on the planet settled by Westerners), and Masson’s book has just ramped up my enthusiasm at trying to get there some day. One of the best things about the book is a chapter devoted to a suggested itinerary for a first-time visitor with at least two weeks to spend traveling around both islands by car. I’ll be taking along this book when I finally get there someday!
Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (2015) by Mary Norris
You might assume that a copy editor at The New Yorker would have some interesting stories to tell, and you would be right about that. I can’t think of a book more perfectly suited to my odd interest in the vagaries of English punctuation, usage, grammar, etc. (unless it’s one of the also-humorous style guides Norris describes as having been especially helpful to her in her career). Norris is clever, funny, a great story-teller, and sensible to boot! I gobbled up her delicious book in a mere two afternoons.
Literature and Literary Criticism
The Outermost Dream: Literary Sketches (1997) by William Maxwell
My reading this year of Maxwell’s letters to and from Sylvia Townsend Warner and to and from Eudora Welty sent me back to this book of Maxwell’s essays, which I had read for the first time three years ago. Although I have never forgotten the wonderfulness of Maxwell’s novel So Long, See You Tomorrow, I had forgotten what a wonderful prose writer Maxwell was, Prediction: Both the novel and this collection of essays will stay in my home library whenever I get around to purging my books so my home library will fit onto my living room shelves.
By the Book: Writers on Literature and the Literary Life from ‘The New York Times Book Review’ (2014) edited by Pamela Paul
What-do-you-read and how-do-you-read Q’s and A’s with five dozen famous authors, most of them American. Certainly a lot of fun to read, and I easily snagged ten titles of highly recommended books for my Books Cal Wants to Read list, half of which I’d never even heard of before.
The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading (2014) by Phyllis Rose
I liked this much better than Rose’s account of an earlier “reading experiment,” The Year of Reading Proust. This time, Rose committed herself to reading a randomly-selected shelf of books from a membership library in New York – the shelf having to meet certain predetermined criteria. The results are more enchanting than you might imagine, because Rose is such a curious reader – and such an engaging (and honest) writer. Rose’s forays into the nature of reading, publishing, bestsellerdom, what makes a classic, etc. are wonderful, and she makes almost all of these mostly-no-longer-read books seem worth reading!
Once Again to Zelda: The Stories Behind Literature’s Most Intriguing Dedications (2008) by Marlene Wagman-Geller
Despite the hyperbole of the book’s title, the background stories to the dedications of this idiosyncratically selective group of books are, without exception, fascinating. However I wish an editor had expunged the final paragraphs the author appended to every one of her impressively researched and impressively condensed accounts: without exception, they are the most hackneyed, treacly, inexcusably sentimental – and totally unnecessary – bits of commentary I have read in a long time.
Yours, Ever: People and Their Letters (2009) by Thomas Fallon
Easily the best of the several books I’ve read over the years that celebrate the practice of letter-writing. Surprisingly, it is also the survey of letter-writing with the least number of excerpts (especially lengthier excerpts) from the letters scrutinized. Most of the book is the author’s very lively commentary on examples of letters written in several sets of common circumstances (absence, friendship, advice, war, prison, etc.). Because Mallon’s comments are so nuanced and/or clever, I will probably be seeking out his earlier book about diary-keeping.
Here I insert my annual enthusiastic mention of the two magazines whose every issue I eagerly devour for the zillionth consecutive year – because, after all, they are the world’s two best (although very, very different) magazines, deserving of a subscription of your own if you happen to be in the market for guaranteed excellence:
- The Sun
- The New Yorker
When shall I be tired of reading? When the moon is tired of waxing and waning, when the sea is tired of ebbing and flowing, when the grass is weary of growing, when the planets are tired of going.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
(Journals – entry for July 31, 1835)
The Constant Reader 2014
Before listing by category the titles (with mini-reviews) of the books I finished reading this past year, here are a few random factoids about my 2014 book-reading:
- Books Replete with the Most Mind-Blowing Ideas Per Page: Eccentric Spaces by Robert Harbison; The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property by W. Lewis Hyde; Words and Values: Some Leading Words and Where They Lead Us by Peggy Rosenthal
- Authors with Most Engaging Prose Styles: Rebecca Solnit in The Faraway Nearby; Anne Lamott in Stitches; David Brendan Hopes in A Sense of the Morning.
- Award for Most Unexpectedly-Amusing-While-Simultaneously-Educational Book: When in Rome: A Journal of Life in Vatican City by Robert J. Hutchinson
- Most Absorbing/Enjoyable Book Cal Read in 2014: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner
Readers who eschew book-length reading material are heartily encouraged (for the zillionth consecutive year) to subscribe, as I do, to the world’s two best magazines, The New Yorker and The Sun.
- A Sense of the Morning: Inspiring Reflections on Nature and Discovery (1990) by David Brendan Hopes
Gorgeous language in the service of Hopes’s lifelong determination to Pay Attention, especially to the marvels of the natural world. I also loved two of Hopes’s earlier books, A Childhood in the Milky Way and Bird Songs of the Mezozoic: A Day Hiker’s Guide to the Nearby Wild; perhaps it’s time for a fan letter to Hopes, who teaches at UNC-Asheville?
- Afterwords: Letters on the Death of Virginia Woolf (2005) edited by Sybil Oldfield
Excellent, cleverly arranged, helpfully footnoted, and comprehensive. Read it in a single afternoon: it is that surprising and that spellbinding. So encouraging to learn the extent and depth of affection among VW’s friends and readers. If this book doesn’t make you interested in VW’s circle, nothing will.
- The Faraway Nearby (2013) by Rebecca Solnit
Devoured this book in three days, and have decided to buy a copy for me to re-read (and import numerous passages into The Commonplace Book), and a copy to give to a therapist friend who agrees with Solnit (and Muriel Rukeyser before her) that the universe and, more pertinently and poignantly, our individual lives are chiefly composed of, and controlled by, stories – the ones we’re told, and the ones we fabricate ourselves about ourselves. This book is the most engaging and impressively structured of the three excellent books by Solnit that I’ve read so far. I rarely read nonfiction with such carefully crafted sentences and with so many satisfying internal echoes. What a writer!
- The Hills of Tuscany: A New Life in an Old Land: A Memoir (1998) by Ferenc Mate
Hurray! Another book about re-settling in Tuscany that I hadn’t already read! The events recounted are now ancient history for the author and his wife, but they’re engagingly recorded. Glad to see the author has a blog, and that he’s continued his Tuscan adventures and described them in further books.
- Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner (1982) edited by William Maxwell
The wittiest, most engaging collection of letters I’ve read since Flannery O’Connor’s. Edited by William Maxwell, one of my favorite writers (and whose correspondence with STW is among the other collections of STW’s letters that I want to read next).
- Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead (2009) by Paula Byrne
Turns out the facts behind the characters and events in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited are even more fascinating than the novel. Byrne’s book is consistently engaging, thoughtful, and convincing. I especially appreciated all the information about the gay themes and characters that Waugh downplayed in his novel. This is just the sort of well-documented British literary gossip that I can’t seem to get enough of!
- Paris, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down (2012) by Rosecrans Baldwin
Non-French-speaking advertising agency guy (and would-be novelist) and his wife de-camp to Paris for a year or so and the adventures (linguistic, cultural, and otherwise) that ensue. Very wittily written fish-out-of-water memoir. Baldwin captures very well the experience of someone who, along with his wife, had always wanted to live in Paris, and what happens when they unexpectedly gets what they’d wished for. Especially impressive is the way Baldwin captures the ambivalent feelings of the the class of rising Parisian professionals where he works.
- Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair (2013) by Anne Lamott
Lamott’s books just keep getting better and better! (I’m referring to her nonfiction, having read none of her novels.) Her wisdom, honesty, and humor remind me somewhat of another literary heroine of mine, Annie Dillard, although Lamott’s and Dillard’s voices are quite distinct otherwise. I love the fact that Lamott visits Atlanta every couple years so I can hear her read from her latest book: those appearances are among my most cherished literary peak experiences. This book is so engaging that I read it in a single sitting.
- Gardening Life (1998) by Lee May
Remembering having enjoyed May’s gardening columns from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I was thrilled to find that they’d been collected in a book. His essays seem perfectly matched to my own personal gardening temperament and interest-level: modest and devoid of latin nomenclature and exotic experiments. May’s humity and humanity shine through his musings on gardening, and how gardening reminds him of things in other arenas of his life (his career, parenting, coping with change, etc.) I was thrilled to find May’s now living in Georgia again (after a recent 12-year hiatus in Connecticut), and posting his gardening reveries to a blog (where a link is now included in my own bloglist under “Sites I Like: Gardening.”
- Herbs and the Earth (1935) by Henry Beston
Remembering how much I enjoyed, years ago, Beston’s The Outermost House (1928), I was glad to stumble across this later – and equally slim -book of Beston’s while browsing recently in the gardening books at the Emory library. Beston is poetic while being straightforward and informative, erudite without being tedious, and refreshingly opinionated. His careful, enthusiastic and heart-felt descriptions of various specific herbs (including, helpfully, his ten favorites for the beginning herb gardener) will definitely be useful and are already inspirational, as, like Beston, I find growing herbs a particularly gratifying aspect of gardening, and for the same reasons: their benevolent (as well as their subtle aesthetic) properties, and their rich literary and historical associations. The book’s introduction (by Robert B. Swain) is a model of the form, and the woodcuts (by John Howard Benson) are exquisite.
- My Garden [Book]: (1999) by Jamaica Kincaid
For the first third of her book, I was annoyed by Kincaid’s writing style (lots of tautological phrasing that I assumed was her attempt at mimicking conversation). By the second third, I was admiring how Kincaid manages to infuse her garden stories with her political beliefs (for example, linking her visits to botanical gardens with the imperialistic history of botanical exploration), and with her frequent contrasts of the environment she grew up in (Antigua) with the one she gardens in (Vermont). Definitely not your garden-variety gardening memoir!
- The Frugal Gardener: How to Have More Garden for Less Money (1999) by Catriona Tudor Erler
Somewhat padded with redundantly-presented information, I had seen most of Erler’s money-saving tips in other books and articles.
- The Gardener’s Gripe Book: Musings, Advice and Comfort for Anyone Who Has Ever Suffered the Loss of a Petunia (1995) by Abby Adams
Hilarious – especially the chapter on coping with garden pests and the chapter on the frustrations of the would-be composter). A light-hearted (but information-filled) warning to all would-be gardeners, or any gardener seeking solace from a fellow-enthusiast/sufferer.
- The Joy of a Small Garden(1963) by Janet Gillespie
Unpretentious, droll, at times quite lyrical. Unusual for this sort of memoir, it offers plenty of useful advice. And the author is refreshingly honest about the fact that most amateur gardening is a largely haphazard affair, full of sudden (mostly transitory and often expensive, if wonderfully gratifying) personal obsessions.
- Seeking Provence: Old Myths, New Paths (2008) by Nicholas Woodsworth
A lucky find in a local thrift store – lucky because I’m headed for Provence later this year for a third visit to one of my favorite landscapes. It’s been many years since I read Lawrence Durrell’s prose hymn to Provence, but in some ways Woodsworth’s is superior. This fast-moving, many-faceted but deeply reflective memoir constantly surprised me: interlarded with consistently vivid descriptions of Provencal scenery, village life, and, of course, cuisine are wonderfully clear summaries of Flannery O’Connor’s, Paul Cezanne’s, and Friederich Nietzsche’s theories of art. Because Woodsworth is as compassionate and insightful about the wide range of people he meets as he is curious and besotten by Provence, this book goes instantly and permanently on my list of recommended reading for anyone interested in this gorgeous, history-haunted, complicated part of France.
Religion and Anti-Religion
- Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious (2012) by Chris Stedman
This engaging memoir (written by a 26-year-old!) explains how a Midwestern gay atheist came to believe that it makes sense for other atheists to stop denigrating people who profess religious beliefs, and to instead reach out to those anyone common values and goals (however motivated) make them natural allies in the struggle for improving the quality of life and addressing virulent social inequities and injustices. Part of his argument has to do with the obvious progress in human welfare spearheaded by believers like Gandhi, MLK, Jr., and Oscar Romero. Stedman interestingly compares his experiences with religion-intolerant atheists with his run-ins with (some) evangelical Christians over his homosexuality. Stedman’s book helps me understand why I continue attending the weekly silent meditations at my local Quaker meetinghouse, even though I am not a Quaker (and am not much of a theist), and reminds me of the dangers of spending too much energy denouncing the deeply-felt convictions of adherents of organized religions.
- When in Rome: A Journal of Life in Vatican City (1998) by Robert J. Hutchinson
A humorous, irreverent romp through various aspects of how the Vatican operates (some of them quite unexpected, such as a foray into the tailor shops of Rome that cater to the legions of Vatican ecclesiastics), and with numerous (mostly mortifying if also edifying) historical asides. Written by a journalist who claims to be a devout Catholic, Hutchinson’s mordant skepticism about the Vatican machine doesn’t seem to disturb his basic religious devotion – which, all by itself, makes this book a fascinating read.
- James Agate: An Anthology(1961) edited by Herbert Van Thal
Agate (1877-1947) was a British drama critic and memoirist. This book includes mostly play reviews or tributes to the famous actors and actresses of his time, plus excerpts from his fascinating multi-volumed journal. Agate is a consummate writer, as well as an erudite and witty one. A pleasure to read, regardless of his chosen topic (one of which is an extended trip to the U.S.). Few critics of any era have written prose this engaging.
- Lytton Strachey (1943) by Max Beerbohm
A lecture Beerbohm gave at Cambridge, this brief (and delightful) appreciation of Strachey’s style makes me want to read more of Strachey’s work…and more of Beerbohm’s!
- Ripe Was the Drowsy Hour: The Age of Oscar Wilde(1977) by J. E. Chamberlin
Although I’ve read at least a dozen biographies of Wilde, and many of his letters and essays, this book is the first that explains – in great detail – OW’s philosophy, his approach to life and art, and where those ideas came from. A book written by a scholar, for other scholars, but I found it very helpful in better understanding how, from a certain perspective, OW’s beliefs were not as alient to his age as I’d supposed.
Philosophy / Psychology / Sociology
- A Real Life: Restoring What Matters: Family, Good Friends, and a True Community (2011) by Ferenc Mate
The best all-round most articulate and comprehensive analysis and practical suggestions for changing the most destructive features of the USA’s prevailing cultural norms. Just as intelligently and humorously written as Mate’s previous book on settling in Tuscany, and drawing from his experiences with the Tuscan way of life as it might apply to the American approach to happiness. Reading these two books of Mate’s makes me want to find and read another two he’s written, A Reasonable Life: Toward a Simpler, Secure, More Humane Existence (1993) and The Wisdom of Tuscany: Simplicity, Security, and the Good Life (2010).
- The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (1983) by W. Lewis Hyde
Easily the most surprising and unusual books I’ve read this year, and certainly the most interesting (and idiosyncratic) book about creativity I’ve ever read. Every writer and artist should read this beautifully written and compelling essay on the nature and psychological and cultural status of art. Unfortunately I had to return the book to the library before reading the chapter on Ezra Pound, but the chapter on Whitman contains the best analysis of his poetry that I’ve come across: beautifully written, and each page chock-full of memorable insights.
- The Hunger for More: Searching for Values in An Age of Greed (1990) by Laurence Shames
This excellently-written book describes the unsustainable Age of Reagan, but, alas, it equally describes the pre-2008 economic meltdown in the USA, and the attitudes, values, and assumptions that surrounded that time. Very sobering to see how nobody learned anything from the bust-before-the-most-recent bust, and the still-revailing greed of the 1% (and the passive acceptance of this situation by the 98%).
- The Retirement Maze: What You Should Know Before and After You Retire (2012) by Rob Pascale, Louis H. Primavera, and Rip Roach
Recommended to me by someone I went on an urban hike with a few weeks ago, this book did for me what it did for the person who recommended it: it covers a host of topics – financial, psychological, social – that soon-to-be or recent retirees inevitably encounter, some of them rather uncomfortable (or at least unexpected), such as the likelihood of friendships forged in the workplace gradually evaporating. The authors combine the findings of a survey they conducted with a helpful synthesis of previous studies. The language is non-technical, the suggestions for maximizing the happiness of any retiree are numerous (if somewhat obvious), and the statistics they provide are very interesting.
- Words and Values: Some Leading Words and Where They Lead Us(1984) by Peggy Rosenthal
This is the most thought-provoking (aka disturbing) book I’ve read in many months. It is an uncannily well-written examination of the hidden baggage carried by such blithely used concepts like self, growth, development, relationship, and relative. Rosenthal’s analysis of each of these now-ubiquitous notions (and their progeny) is consistently engaging, articulate, and enthralling. I will probably need to buy a copy of this book: I’m reading a repeatedly-renewed library copy, and this book contains far too many paradigm-shattering passages that I want to copy out for my Commonplace Book.
- The Calendar: History, Lore, and Legend(2001) by Jacqueline de Bourgoing (translated from the French by David J. Baker and Dorie B. Baker)
The best brief synthesis of calendar history and lore that I’ve read. Covers all the major topics, and doesn’t confine itself merely to Western facts. Gorgeously illustrated and unusually clearly written/translated.
- Dwelling in Possibility (2013) by Howard Mansfield
A wide-ranging survey of the meanings of home, and some of it from some unusual perspectives, such as what the fire-bombings of World War II and Vietnam, the Katrina hurricaine, or a New England ice storm have to teach us. Also includes a survey of what previous writers – including (thrillingly for me) Heidegger, Picard, and Bachelard – have had to say on the topic. Mansfield is an excellent, poetic stylist himself, and his exhaustive bibliography is going to keep my books-to-be-read list full of even more books about the meaning of home (as if I hadn’t read dozens already)!
Essays and Difficult-to-Classify Nonfiction
- As I Was Saying: A Chesterton Reader(1985) edited by Robert Knille
Like C.S. Lewis, Chesterton, for me, is an exasperating writer. Although I disagree violently with far more than half of what he writes, I can’t deny how imaginatively Chesterton sets about defending what I think are indefensible beliefs. On the other hand, some of his jabs at modernism, progressivism, etc. (as well as his pithy paraphrases of difficult subjects, such as St. Thomas Aquinas’s theology) are wonderful. And Chesterton is certainly Mr. Quotable. This is an excellent anthology of one of the most articulate conservative thinkers and contrarians of the 20th Century.
- Eccentric Spaces (1977) by Robert Harbison
Easily the oddest – and one of the most riveting – books I’ve read this year. With Harbison’s avalanches of startling aesthetic connections between specific examples of architecture, fiction, gardens, museums, maps, and other subjects I’ve been reading about (albeit, until this book, separately), what’s not to like? Harbison claims that his book is “the record of a struggle to assimilate more and more to the realm of delight.” Now begins my quest to track down Harbison’s other books: his writing style is so unusual, and so pleasurable to read, that I certainly want to read more of what he’s written.
- On Poetic Imagination and Reverie: Selections from Gaston Bachelard (1987) (translated from the French by Colette Gaudin)
My copy of Bachelard’s Poetics of Space is one of the most treasured books in my personal library, so I was happy to find this compendium of selections from his other works. Bachelard’s notions are often difficult for me to grasp, but his “investigations” mine the rich intersection of philosophy, (archetypal) psychology, aesthetic theory, and literary criticism. Although many passages from these selections of his work remain hopelessly baffling – or at least far-fetched – to (the excessively rationalist) me, the frequent eruptions of breathtaking insights and gorgeous phrases (or even single astonishing images) is worth the constant effort to understand him. Bachelard’s provocative, mesmerizing prose renders so many things (sunsets, to take a single example) forever more meaningful, and the odd angle at which he approaches everything is, for me, both humbling and irresistible.
- On the Dot: The Speck That Changed the World (2008) by Alexander Humez and Nicholas Humez
Misleadingly titled, this book is actually about whatever the authors’ free associations lead them to discuss – often in too much detail. They pad their alleged history of the dot’s uses in various contexts with meandering forays into everything from the history of book censorship to euphemisms of the expression “to die.” These digressions (the majority of them etymological asides) are often sometimes or at least amusingly told, but just as often are simply too far off the, um, point, not to be irritating.
- Personal Pleasures(1936) by Rose Macaulay
Charming reflections on a host of simple – and therefore often overlooked – pleasures. Among my favorites: Macaulay’s mischievous mini-essays entitled Abroad, Bed (Part 1: Getting Into It; Part 2: Not Getting Out of It), Departure of Visitors, Finishing [Writing] a Book, Getting Rid, Listening In, Not Going to Parties, Reading, Showing Off, Solitude, Writing. Macaulay’s engaging and erudite style makes me want to hunt down some of her scholarly works.
- Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks (2013) by Keith Houston
A fascinating, humor-laden survey. (Even his bibliography is fun to read.) Sometimes the level of detail seemed a bit excessive, but he’s certainly been thorough with his research.
- Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing (2014) by Nina Sankovitch
I would have enjoyed this book more had its mixture of memoir and history been skewed more toward the history of letter-writing and less about the role of letters in the author’s immediate family and circle of friends. Sankovitch’s blog, and an essay about the unique pleasures of letter writing (which I read on the web but cannot now locate) are, I think, better written than her book. But any book extolling the virtues of letters is valuable, however, and I’m glad to have read this one (as well as her first, equally easy-to-read and also somewhat self-involved book, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair).
- To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing (2013) by Simon Garfield
Although lengthy, this is not the comprehensive meditation on letter-writing that I’d expected. Several chunks of letter-writing history from various centuries stitched together with arbitrary-feeling bits of (mostly British) postal history. Garfield’s summary in The Atlantic was more engagingly written than this book.
- Winter: A Spiritual Biography of the Season (2002) edited by Gary Schmidt and Susan M. Felch
One of a series of collected essays by various writers. If the others are as delightful as this one, I want to read them all. I remember ordering the entire series for the library I worked in, so I should be able to borrow the others as each season rolls around.
- I Loved You More: A Novel (2013) by Tom Spanbauer
Spanbauer’s writing is as unique – and as gripping – as all get-out, and his writing has a sweetness and a vulnerability and an honesty that takes your breath away. But, please, God, let this be the very last novel I ever have to read about a gay man’s unrequited, wrenchingly heartbreaking love for a straight guy (or, for that matter, about a straight woman’s love for a gay man). But I am so glad I read it, and so glad Spanbauer wrote it. (I loved one of his earlier novels also: The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon.)
- Sea Change: A Novel (2012) by Ken Anderson
I read this because I’d recently met its author, and because it is set partly in Italy, where I was planning to visit soon. (As it turned out, I read the book immediately after I returned from Italy, having just visited some of the same places that figure in the book’s plot.) The story switches back and forth between the main character’s miserable marriage (the book’s most vivid passages are the horrific arguments between the married couple) and his coming to terms, during a tryst while on vacation in Italy, with the fact that he is a gay man.
Before listing by category the titles (with mini-reviews) of the books I finished this past year, here are a few random factoids about my 2013 book-reading:
- Oldest Novels Read This Year (each of them read to me by the narrators of the audiobook versions, although they were published in the early 1800s): Mansfield Park; Pride and Prejudice; Sense and Sensibility
- Most Recently-Published Novel Read This Year (Also Most Disappointing Novel Read This Year): Life After Life
- Oldest Nonfiction Read This Year: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (written in the Second Century A.D.)
- Best-Written, Richest-in-Insights (and Lengthiest) Nonfiction Read This Year [a tie]: The Frenzy of Renown and The First Moderns
- Best Biography: A Stroll with William James (so engagingly written that I devoted an entire blogpost to explaining why I loved it so much)
- Most Absorbing (and Lengthiest) Memoir: The Grand Surprise: The Journals of Leo Lerman
- Most Completely Mesmerizing Prose Encountered: The World of Silence
- Novels I Read Because My Favorite Biblioblogger (Thomas Otto in D.C.) Recommended Them: No Fond Return of Love and The Bell
- Books I Loved So Much I Ended Up Buying Copies: The Rules of Chaos and One for the Books
- Author Whose Writing Style I Was So Enthralled With That I Ended Up Reading Four of His Nonfiction Books: David Shields
- Books Loved So Much That I Read Them in 2013 for the Second Time: Teaching a Stone to Talk; How Proust Can Change Your Life; The Rules of Chaos
- Humorous Books: My Family and Other Animals; Neither Here Nor There; The 20-Minute Gardener
- Oddest (and Most Tedious Because Too Scholarly) Nonfiction Title Read This Year: Pause and Effect: The History of Punctuation in the West
- The Delightful Book I Serendipitously Discovered on a Giveaway Shelf in Sausalito, California’s Houseboat Community: Ruskin
In addition to the 52 excellent (or, in a few cases, a little less than excellent) books I completed this past year, my reading experiences have included my almost cover-to-cover reading of each eagerly-awaited issue of the two magazines I have subscribed to for decades: the New Yorker and The Sun. These two magazines (one a weekly, the other a monthly) are very different from each other, but each adds reliable and immeasurable pleasure to my less-than-book-length reading. If you don’t already subscribe to either or both of these excellent periodicals, I heartily urge you to consider doing so!
- The Bell (1958) by Iris Murdoch.
Excellently-drawn characters (including a main character struggling with inconvenient and implacable homosexual urges) in an interesting, pressure-cooker-like setting: a small intentional community annexed to an Anglican convent in the countryside not far from London in the 1950s. The plot (such as it is: mostly, this is a study of people with high-minded ideals grappling with their all-too-human frailties) is interesting and plausible, and Murdoch’s description of her flawed characters’ paradoxical thoughts and emotions are gratifyingly subtle and believable. I will be reading more of Murdoch’s novels if their characters are as vivid as the ones in this (relatively short) one.
- The Last Templar (2005) by Raymond Khoury
Khoury’s plot is way too reminisicent of Dan Brown’s breezy, wholesale appropriation of Templar lore – as well as of Brown’s hackneyed writing style. One wonders why Khoury didn’t just write the thing as the obvious screenplay it was meant to be instead of bothering to write the story as a novel.
- Life After Life (2013) by Kate Atkinson
The author’s characters and their dialog were wonderful, and her depiction of wartime from the point of view of blitzed Londoners (and, briefly, Berliners) is unforgettable. Given the novel’s often-confusing organizing conceit (overlapping flashbacks?) – which may or may not have enhanced its underlying (and thoroughly engaging) story – I was somewhat surprised by the novel’s less-than-memorable ending(s).
- Mansfield Park (1814) by Jane Austen [the abridged audiobook narrated by Harriet Walter]
Not as entrancing as Pride and Prejudice, but the pleasures of its sparkling language outweighed the disappointment of the storyline. And the plot does thicken a bit in the final fifth of the book.
- No Fond Return of Love (1961) by Barbara Pym
Some people who like Pym’s novels describe her as a 20th-century Jane Austen. Well, maybe: there’s certainly plenty of edgy repartee among her chronically indignant characters, whose closely-observed class-based attitudes result in so much friction between those characters. However, too many coincidences (especially too many chance encounters) drive this novel’s plot (such as it is), and, despite all the harmless (some would say pointless) British drollery, the story just ends up feeling a wee bit “thin” for me to want to immediately seek out another Pym.
- Pride and Prejudice (1813) by Jane Austen [the 1998 audiobook version narrated by Lindsay Duncan]
What an unalloyed pleasure this novel is! I now completely understand why so many readers love it and why some even re-read it regularly. The complex main characters and Austen’s spectacularly baroque way of describing them make for absorbing, delightful storytelling. Listening to an audiobook version was probably a good idea: Duncan is superb at inflecting Austen’s often Byzantine – and always perfect – sentences.
- Sense and Sensibility (1811) by Jane Austen [the 1999 audiobook narrated by Flo Gibson]
Certainly not as eventful asPride and Prejudice, but more eventful than Mansfield Park. The always wonderful, unremittingly baroque language (and the pleasingly subtle if archly expressed thoughts of the main character) are somewhat marred by the gravelly voice of Ms. Gibson, who must be considered as England’s answer to Elaine Stritch. Still, I mourn that I’ve now read (well, heard) over half of Austen’s indelibly delightful output!
Philosophy and Psychology
- Death (2009) by Todd May
Interesting critique of (among other things) the presumed desirability of human immortality. May writes in a down-to-earth style, though he’s a bit repetitious. Mainly I’m glad May reminded me that I need to read Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, Jim Crace’s Being Dead, and Kundera’s Immortality.
- The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius
The gist of what Aurelius (repeatedly) concluded: “Consider that before long thou wilt be nobody and nowhere, nor will any of the things exist which thou now seest, nor any of those who are now living.” The antiquated, translated-from-Latin language and the inordinate amount of repetition made reading the Meditations rough going at times, but it’s still amazing that these were sentiments written – mostly on the battlefields of Germany – by a Roman emperor. Glad I finally slogged my way all the way to the end of Book XII!
- The Rules of Chaos (1969) by Stephen Vizinczey [2nd time]
I must obtain my own copy of this book, so I read it again every few years – and can copy out virtually every other paragraph for my Commonplace Book! Vizinczey’s notions about the delusions of the powerful radically and forever changed my own ideas about politics when I first read this book back during the Vietnam War era. For someone whose native language is Hungarian, Vicinczey is one of the English language’s finest essayists and political thinkers.
- Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (1988) by Annie Dillard [2nd time]
This woman can write mesmerizingly about absolutely anything! We should all own every one of her books (or at least her collections of non-fiction essays), as they are all re-readable.
- The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History (1986) by Leo Braudy
Surely the most thorough examination of this subject imaginable – and it was written before the celebrity-obsessed Internet Age! Braudy offers an extremely interesting and persuasive analysis of the different ways notoriety has been conceived and pursued in different eras and civilizations, from ancient Greece to the Age of the Movies and Television. Every chapter is replete with unexpected connections about the technical advances in communications and changes in the notion of what the ideal “audience” is that together have morphed the way the lust for fame has unfolded. The evidence cited to bolster Brady’s claims are often surprising book, and the book is full of intriguing anecdotes. In addition to being engagingly written and marshalling enormous lodes of research, the book contains some of the most interesting footnotes I’ve ever read.
- How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not a Novel (1997) by Alain de Botton [2nd time]
I’d read this when it first came out, and re-read it recently for a book group discussion. And glad I did: I’d forgotten how entertainingly written it is. What I hadn’t forgotten was how it made/makes me want to attempt to read Proust’s big book.
- Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality (1999) by Neal Gabler
Very disturbing…and Gabler wrote this before our addiction to the Internet provided even more evidence for his unsettling claims. Gabler is a master of understatement, which helps somewhat in trying to absorb his unnerving (and totally convincing) thesis.
- Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain (2003) by Antonio Damasio
I read only the first and final two chapters of this book – the parts about Spinoza – skipping the middle chapters about brain research (Demasio’s and others’). Fascinated for many years now with Spinoza, I tend to pick up any book with his name in the title, and found this one lying on the curb in my neighborhood. The writing is excellent, the amount of information about Spinoza is extensive, and the author’s ruminations on Spinoza’s anticipation of modern discoveries about reality are intriguingly and persuasively described.
- Time, The Familiar Stranger (1987) by J.T. Fraser
What I started out as a fascinating history of time-keeping, etc. turned about mid-way into a tedious technical examination of the oddnesses of how time operates at subatomic and other extreme levels. The parts that did interest me were written well, but in the end, too many tangents and (for me) weird metaphors.
- The World of Silence (1948) by Max Picard [translated from the German by Stanley Godman]
Read a random single paragraph, and you know instantly that you must read every other paragraph of this remarkable book – and maybe track down the few other books this Swiss-German philosopher wrote. This one is so poetic, aphoristic, evocative, and hypnotic that you marvel at the fact that it’s been translated from another language. You may end up (like I did) buying a copy to cherish, to re-read, and to loan to really special friends. An unalloyed pleasure, this (very short) book is a life-changer.
Biography and Memoir
- Adventures in Contentment (1918) by David Grayson
Unhurried and charming musings about the mundane delights of life on a small farm in the early 1900s. The focus of this insightful (but unpretentious) writer, who left behind the hurly-burly of the (circa 1890) city, is on nature and the virtues of the simple life; these thoughts are punctuated by vivid portraits of his idiosyncratic neighbors. A favorite chapter: Grayson’s hymn to the pleasures of reading by oil-lamp in the middle of a winter’s night.
- Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet (2013) by Frederic Raphael and Joseph Epstein
This year-long experimental correspondence between two erudite, accomplished, witty, and opinionated writers who’ve never met each other in person (one’s based in France, the other in New York) seemed right down my literary-gossip-loving alley. Alas, the often-delicious word-play is too heavily larded with indignation, spite, and envy. Particularly tiresome are the dismissive, catty and suspiciously all-too-frequent slights (particularly Epstein’s) about writers, directors, publishers, and others who happen to be gay. Although I admired the verbal dexterity and wit these writers use to poke fun at eminent and possibly overrated colleagues, I came away wishing I had learned more about these guys’ literary heroes than how articulate they can be about the disgust with which they regard the writers they despise.
- Enough About You: Adventures in Autobiography (2002) by David Shields
Shields’ struggle with his stuttering is both a recurring theme and the overarching, all-purpose metaphor for his struggle to write well. What dazzles is Shields’ writing style, rather than the subjects of these two dozen essays, or the incidents he recounts. Such articulate and startling prose, written with such urgency and such self-deflating (and simultaneously self-important) humor!
- Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father (2013) by Alysia Abbott
A vivid, loving, moving account by the daughter of poet Steve Abbott of what it felt like to be raised in 1980s San Francisco by a gay single father, and to have taken care of him when he was dying of AIDS. Very evocative of an era when so many talented gay men (some fathers, some not) died way too young.
- The Grand Surprise: The Journals of Leo Lerman (2007) edited by Stephen Pascal
An enormous, difficult-to-put-down book culled from the reflections of a New York magazine editor who knew (and entertained, or was entertained by) virtually every literary and performing artist of the 20th century (gay or otherwise) who I’ve ever heard of. And what an insightful observer of character!
- House of Wits: An Intimate Portrait of the James Family (2008) by Paul Fisher
An eye-opening chronicle of a clearly dysfunctional famous family of excellent writers (including the relatively neglected Alice James). Fisher’s frequent psycholanalyzing of his subjects’ motives, moods, etc. is occasionally a tad annoying, but the story is completely engrossing (and the psycholanalyzing completely plausible). For me, Fisher’s book is a startling (and not totally flattering) corrective to the adoring portrait of the amazingly accomplished William James created so compellingly by Jacques Barzun in his A Stroll with William James that I read earlier this year.
- My Family and Other Animals (1956) by Gerald Durrell
Hilarious memoir of the time the Durrell family spent in Corfu, escaping the dreary damp of their native England. The book is equal parts about budding naturalist Gerald’s boyhood adventures with the Corfiot flora and fauna, and Gerald’s decidedly eccentric siblings and long-suffering and imperturbable mother. Having read several of Gerald’s brother Lawrence’s novels thirty years ago, this window into the younger (and insufferably supercilious and narcissistic) “Larry” was especially delectable.
- Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe (1992) by Bill Bryson
Hilariously-recounted adventures and misadventures in some out-of-the-way places (he starts out in Iceland). I seldom laugh out loud while reading, but Bryson made me do that more than once.
- Ruskin (1978) by Quentin Bell
I stumbled across this delightful book at a giveaway shelf while touring the houseboats of Sausalito, and finished it before returning home from my mid-July trip to California. This succinct, excellently-written, and generous biography is the result of the year Bell spent reading all of Ruskin’s works. The result of my reading Bell’s book is that it identified Ruskin’s lesser works and will help me better cope with the many digressions, weirdnesses, and inconsistencies of Ruskin’s most enduring books, especially Ruskin’s autobiography.
- A Sense of the Morning: Inspiring Reflections on Nature and Discovery (1990) by David Brendan Hopes
[Still reading this in the final week of 2013; mini-review to be posted anon.]
- A Stroll with William James (1983) by Jacques Barzun
A book I loved so much that I wrote an entire blogpost about it.
- The Thing about Life is that One Day You’ll Be Dead (2008) by David Shields
One of the oddest (and funniest) accounts of a father/son relationship you’ll ever read. This quasi-memoir focuses on Shields’ resentment/envy of his 90+ year old father’s vitality compared to Shields’ own middle-aged physical problems. The memoir is stitched together with avalanches of startling/daunting/mostly depressing statistics about the effects of aging on the Average Human – far too many of them commencing at approximately age 10.
- Virginia Woolf and Her World (1975) by John Lehmann
Written by someone who knew VW personally, this 128-page brief bio is mostly photos; much of the text describes VW’s novels and nonfiction works. Am glad to have found this to add to my collection of Woolfiana, as it is such a sensitive appreciation of her courage and experimentation as a writer.
- A Walk on the Beach: Tales of Wisdom from An Unconventional Woman (2004) by Joan Anderson
This book wouldn’t have held my interest without its account of the author’s unexpected friendship with her neighbor, the widow of Erich Fromm. (I bought this book because I’m a sucker for anyone’s account of his/her life-changing stint spent alone, on purpose, in a windswept beach cottage. This isn’t the best such account that I’ve read over the years, but Anderson’s unexpected story of Mrs. Fromm’s life and personality was fascinating – and edifying.)
- Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson [the 2003 abridged audiobook narrated by Boyd Gaines]
Excellent writing, excellent narrating, excellent subject.
- The Edge of Objectivity: An Essay in the History of Scientific Ideas (1960) by Charles Coulston Gillespie
The history of scientific revolutions (and the biographies of scientific revolutionaries ) – is one of my enduring interests, and this 500+-page “essay” is one of the most engagingly written (if otherwise rather challenging) ones I’ve read. At least a third of this survey (and every passage that included equations) was incomprehensible to me, but the author’s meticulous scholarship was a constant amazement. Particularly illuminating are Gillespie’s remarks on how the work of the scientists he discusses were affected by their particular upbringings, educations, religious beliefs, and personalities (and, in some cases, by their tragically short lives).
- The First Moderns (1977) by William R. Everdell
A riveting – and almost totally understandable – prose equivalent of one of those charts of year-by-year achievements in different fields of human endeavor, with plenty of personal and professional gossip spicing up the history of the period 1870-1915. Almost uniquely among other similar cultural histories I’ve read, Everell gives equal attention to developments in both the sciences (especially physics and mathematics) and the humanities (especially philosophy, music, literature, and painting) during that pivotal period in Europe, Russia, and the U.S. Over and over again, Everdell shows how inventions, theoretical breakthroughs and cultural trends mirrored each other in fascinating ways, forging the sensibility and expectations now univerally regarded as distinctly “modern” (vs. classical, Romantic, etc.) Everdell’s vivid descriptions of the cultural and intellectual ferment of turn-of-the-century Vienna, Paris, Berlin, St. Petersburg, and New York are a revelation.
- Founding Brothers (2000) by Joseph J. Ellis
So entertainingly written that I didn’t want this Pulitzer Prize-winning, way-too-short (a mere 248 pages) book to end. Ellis masterfully provides a consistenly-nuanced and totally convincing analysis showing how the backgrounds, personalities, and close personal relationships of Jefferson, Adams, Washington, Hamilton, et al. profoundly affected the intricate – and certainly non-inevitable – creation of a new country. It’s gratifying to find a history book based on primary sources (the founders’ and their intimates’ journals and letters, plus contemporary newspaper accounts) written so compellingly; I’ll definitely be tracking down and reading Ellis’ other books!
House and Garden
- Dwelling in Possibility: Searching for the Soul of Shelter by Howard Mansfield
A mixture of formats, from personal accounts of buying a house to enduring a week of New England winter without electric power, to historical accounts of the deliberate bombing of peoples’ homes in World War II and Vietnam, to an analysis of the psychological trauma of Hurricane Katrina’s victims who lost their homes, to a short survey of shed-building. Beautiful writing, and contains a lengthy list of recommended reading.
- In the Eye of the Garden (1993) by Mirabel Osler
- Odd Lots: Seasonal Notes of a City Gardner (1995) by Thomas C. Cooper
Finally! A gardening writer whose garden seems as modest as my own, and whose descriptions of his gardening pleasures sound as familiar as my own! These very short essays are several years’ worth of monthly – and refreshingly non-technical – notes from the journal Horticulture.
- Open Your Eyes: 1,000 Simple Ways to Bring Beauty into Your Home and Life Each Day (1998) by Alexandra Stoddard
As she does in all her “gracious living” books, Stoddard emphasizes simple pleasures; her books, including this one, are a welcome contrast to the sumptuous photos and breathless prose of the countless house-porn books I like to buy so I can drool over their photos of The Perfect House.
- The 20-Minute Gardener: The Garden of Your Dreams without Giving Up Your Life, Your Job, or Your Sanity (1997) by Tom Christopher and Marty Asher
Strictly practical advice – often offbeat or contrarian – from two friends (one of them a horticulturalist, the other a book editor) with very different approaches to gardening. They take turns humorously describing the numerous ways for preventing gardening from becoming a burdensome, time-consumng chore instead of the pleasurable hobby it’s supposed to be.
Religion and Anti-Religion
- Bertrand Russell on God and Religion (1986) edited by Al Seckel
So sane, so humane, so convincing, and such an engaging (and hilarious) prose stylist. Russell has long ben one of my philosopher (and literary) heroes.
- The Origin of Satan (1995) by Elaine Pagels
Pagels is, as always, straightforward without being simplistic. As with the subjects she’s treated in her other books, what she has to say in this one is a compelling dismantling of the received knowledge.
Books about Books
- Books and Authors (1923) by Robert Lynd
I can’t remember where I saw (or why I was impressed by) a citation to this 1923 collection of literary criticism, but I am so glad I went ahead and tracked down a copy! 50 essays (mostly appreciative, some less so), half of them about long-dead writers from Plutarch to Hawthorne, the other half about still-living-at-the-time (or recently dead) writers like Beerbohm, H.G. Wells, Nietzsche, and Gide. Would that more modern literary criticism was this sensible, intelligent, engaging, generous, and enlightening! I look forward to the other book by Lynd that’s still on my list of Books Cal Wants to Read.
- How Literature Saved My Life (2013) by David Shields
So dense with recommendations for books I’ve never heard of, and so replete with unexpected, provocative reflections about the impossibility/necessity of literature, that I’m going to buy myself a personal copy so I can make my way through this dazzling book again, making notes for my Books Cal Wants to Read and copying-and-pasting numerous excerpts to my Commonplace Book. (My actually buying a book I’ve borrowed from a library is the highest praise I know how to offer.) The final lines of Shields’ book: “I wanted literature to assuage human loneliness, but nothing can assuage human loneliness. Literature doesn’t lie about this – which is what makes it essential.”
- One for the Books (2012) by Joe Queenan
An opinionated, honest, gratifyingly hilarious, and completely absorbing apologia for the author’s reading habits and history – and oversights (intended and otherwise). Queenan covers all the bases (when he learned to love books, when he stopped thinking he had to finish each one, why he resists the reading recommendations of his friends, why he will never own a Kindle, his adventures and misadventures in various libraries and bookstores in the US and in Europe -mostly France, mostly Paris. I will buy this book to keep and – against Queenan’s advice – to loan it with high recommendations to all my book-loving (and humor-appreciating) friends.
- Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West (1993) by M.B. Parkes
Way too scholarly – and disappointingly limited to examples from the Classical, Medieval, and Renaissance periods – to be described as “enjoyable,” I did find a few fascinating morsels amongst the blizzard of incredibly arcane technical details. For example, the fact that punctuation marks were originally invented to help with the efficient and intelligible reading-out-loud of manuscripts. (I’d forgotten that most people, until relatively recently, were illiterate and could only listen to others reading aloud to them.) Also, I learned that the earliest punctuation marks were used to distinguish Holy Writ from commentary, and that one of the main functions of early punctuation was an attempt to minimize the frequent – and embarrassing, and potentially dangerous – ambiguities in unpunctuated Biblical manuscripts.
- Phantoms on the Bookshelves (2012) by Jacques Bonnet [translated from the French]
Pleasant, brief, often-quotable reflections of an avid book collector and seriously-smitten French bibliophile.
- Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (2010) by David Shields
Shields’ impassioned and aphoristically-presented conviction that the narrative-driven/storytelling novel is no longer an efficient vessel of truth-telling isn’t totally convincing, but it does make me want to track down some of the “nonfiction fiction” books he valorizes as alternatives to the traditional novel. I liked the other books I’ve read by Shields much better than this one – exactly the opposite of my expectation. Although his urgency-saturated prose is alternatively exciting and exhausting, Shields remains one of the best writers I’ve stumbled across in the past five years or so.
- So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading (2003) by Sara Nelson
Engagingly written, and studded with hilarious insights. One of the few accounts where the bookloving author isn’t the least bit shy about acknowledging her sometimes idiosyncratic reading habits and reading choices.
- Truth and Lies in Literature: Reviews and Essays (1986) by Stephen Vizinczey
So passionate, so honest, such an opener-of-literary-doors (especially to novels of non-English language writers). His Rules of Chaos is one of my all-time most unforgettable books. I want to read everything Vizinczey’s written, including his novels.
- The Unquiet Grave (1944) by Cyril Connolly
I got so weary of seeing so many recommendations of this book (and so many references to Connolly’s importance to 20th century literature) that I finally got hold of this book. Despite a few flawless sentences, for me it was, on the whole, impenetrable – I never “got” its main conceit, and I really got tired of all the whining and self-pity. Wikipedia’s article on Connolly makes him seem like he must’ve been one of the most fascinating people of his era, but I’d never have concluded that from this book. Maybe I’ll have better luck with one of Connolly’s novels?
- Epigrams of Oscar Wilde (2007)
A collection of hundreds of Wilde’s witticisms, drawn from his plays, novels, letters, and essays, organized into 52 broad categories. Unfortunately, few of the entries contain citations of their sources; even more inexcusable is the lack of a bibliography or even a simple list of sources consulted. Having many years ago become besotted with all things WIlde, reading these examples of Wilde’s artistry only reinforces my enduring admiration for his accomplishments – and my astonishment at how complicated a person he was.
- For the Love of Letters: The Joy of Slow Communication (2012) by John O’Connell
A pleasant, though oddly not-very-memorable, mix of essays extolling the virtues of letter-writing, the history of the (British) postal system, and excerpts from letters by famous people (mostly literary).
“Books and writers are mentioned and commented on briefly, because how will the friends know what her life is like if they do not know what she has been reading?” – William Maxwell, writing about Virginia Woof’s letters, in “Mrs. Woolf,” The Outermost Dream: Essays and Reviews (Graywolf, 1997)
- The Angel’s Game (2008) by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (translated from the Spanish)
- Author, Author (2004) by David Lodge
- Gilead (2004) by Marilynne Robinson
- Ladder of Years (1995) by Anne Tyler
- Memoirs of Hadrian (1951) by Marguerite Yourcenar (translated from the French)
Biography/ Autobiography / Memoir
- Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist: How to Explain the World without Becoming a Bore (2011) by Peter L. Berger
- Alice, Princess Andrew of Greece (2000) by Hugo Vickers
- Letters to a Friend (2011) by Diana Athill
- Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake (2012) by Anna Quindlen
- Midstream: An Unfinished Memoir (2012) by Reynolds Price
- Mortality (2012) by Christopher Hitchens
- Virginia Woolf (2000) by Nigel Nicolson
- Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2011) by Jeanette Winterson
- Written in Stone: Making Cecil B. DeMille’s Epic The Ten Commandments (1999) by Katherine Orrison
Religion & Anti-Religion
- Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (2012) by Bart D. Ehrman
- The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (2004) by Sam Harris
- God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007) by Christopher Hitchens
- God, No! Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales (2011) by Penn Jillette
- God’s Zeal: The Battle of the Three Monotheisms (2009) by Peter Sloterdijk
- The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays on How We Live Now (2011) edited by George Levine
- Letter to a Christian Nation (2006) by Sam Harris
- The Quotable Hitchens from Alcohol to Zionism: The Very Best of Christopher Hitchens (2011) edited by Windsor Mann
- Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (2009) by Terry Eagleton
- The Wit and Blasphemy of Atheists (2011) compiled by Jonathan C. Criswell
- Artists’ Houses (2005) by Gerard Georges Lemaire
- High Line: The Inside Story of New York City’s Park in the Sky (2011) by Joshua David and Robert Hammond
- Literary Villages of London (1989) by Luree Miller
- The Magic of Provence (2000) by Yvone Lenard
- Provence A-Z (2006) by Peter Mayle
House & Garden
- From the Ground Up: The Story of a First Garden (2001) by Amy Stewart
- Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden (1981) by Eleanor Perenyi
- Home Ground: A Gardener’s Miscellany (1984) by Allen Lacy
- Shelter for the Spirit: How to Make Your Home a Haven in a Hectic World (1997) by Victoria Moran
- Writing the Garden: A Literary Conversation across Two Centuries (2011) by Elizabeth Barlow Rogers
- On Seeing and Noticing (2005) by Alain de Botton
- A Stroll with William James (1983) by Jacques Barzun
- Wittgenstein’s Poker (2001) by David Edmonds and John Eidinow
Science & Technology
- Heavenly Errors: Misconceptions about the Real Nature of the Universe (2001) by Neil F. Comins
- You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (2010) by Jaron Lanier
- Brain Droppings (1997) by George Carlin
- Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America (2012) by Christopher Bram
- The Fire in Moonlight: Stories from the Radical Faeries (2011) edited by Mark Thompson
- The Ladies of Llangollen: A Study in Romantic Friendship (1971) by Elizabeth Mavor
- Outlaw Marriages: The Hidden Histories of Fifteen Extraordinary Same-Sex Couples (2012) by Rodger Streitmatter
- The Chairs Are Where the People Go: How to Live, Work, and Play in the City (2011) by Misha Glouberman with Sheila Het
- Memory and Enthusiasm: Essays, 1975-1985 (1988) by W.S. Di Piero
- The Other Walk: Essays (2011) by Sven Birkerts
- The Outermost Dream: Literary Sketches (1997) by William Maxwell
- The Polysyllabic Spree (2004) by Nick Hornby
- Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere (2000) by Christopher Hitchens
- The Lion in Winter (1966) by James Goldman
Books about Books
- Fiction Ruined My Family (2011) by Jeanne Darst
- Just My Type: A Book about Fonts (2011) by Simon Garfield
Reading remains by far my main leisure-time “activity,” and it’s easily my longest-standing personal passion. But, no, I haven’t purchased an e-reader yet, nor am I likely to – for reasons periodically set forth in the rah-rah reading blog I update every few days. If you haven’t seen that blog yet, I wish you’d take a look at (and perhaps even consider contributing to) The Atlanta Booklover’s Blog.
The most significant departure this year from my usual reading patterns was the amount of fiction I managed to read. The most enthralling of these novels I didn’t actually read, but listened to: the actressPhyllida Law’s completely mesmerizing narration ofTo the Lighthouse (1927) by Virginia Woolf. Other novels completed this year – some of them selected by one of the book clubs I’m part of – I read the usual way: with my eyes rather than with my ears:
- Cain (2011) by Jose Saramago
- Cloud Atlas (2004) by David Mitchell
- A Dog’s Purpose: A Novel for Humans (2010) by W. Bruce Cameron
- The Elegance of the Hedgehog (2006) by Muriel Barbery
- The Help (2009) by Kathryn Stockett
- A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989) by John Irving
- Tinkers (2009) by Paul Harding
- Wittgenstein’s Nephew (1982) by Thomas Bernhard
As usual, however, I spent the majority of my reading hours on nonfiction. This year’s most completely engaging nonfiction title I read won a National Book Award: The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (2011) by Stephen Greenblatt. My other nonfiction reading this year, as it tends to in most years, fell into the same usual categories:
Home & Garden
- Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition (2008) by Robert Pogue Harrison
- Meditations on Design: Reinventing Your Home with Style and Simplicity (2000) by John Wheatman
- The Most Beautiful House in the World (1989) by Witold Rybczynski
- A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder (1997) by Michael Pollan
- Forty Plus and Fancy Free (1954) by Emily Kimbrough [about a trip to Europe andEngland]
- No Vulgar Hotel: The Desire and Pursuit of Venice (2007) by Judith Martin
- Time Enough (1974) by Emily Kimbrough [about a trip throughIreland]
- The Face on Your Plate: The Truth about Food (2009) by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson
- Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight about Animals (2010) by Hal Herzog
- At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past (2005) by A. Roger Ekirch
- The Better Angel of Our Natures: Why Violence Has Declined (2011) by Steven Pinker [which, merely because it is over 800 pages long, I managed to read only several portions of]
- The Fire in Moonlight: Stories from the Radical Faeries (2011) edited by Mark Thompson
- Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation (2011) by Andrea Wulf
- The Lost Colony of the Confederacy (1985) by Eugene C. Harter
Religion and Anti-Religion
- The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas (2010) edited by Robin Harvie and Stephanie Meyers
- Divinity of Doubt: The God Question (2011) by Vincent Bugliosi
- The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved & Why It Endures (2009) by Nicholas Wade
- Forged: Writing in the Name of God – Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are (2011) by Bart D. Ehrman
- Letters to Eugenia, Or, A Preservative Against Religious Prejudice  by Paul Henri Thiyry (Baron d’Holbach), translated  from the French by Anthony C. Middleton
Philosophy and/or Psychology
- Abounding Grace: An Anthology of Wisdom (2000) edited by M. Scott Peck
- Design and Truth (2010) by Robert Grudin
- The Grace of Great Things: Creativity and Innovation (1990) by Robert Grudin
- The Happiness Myth: Why What We Think is Right is Wrong: A History of What Really Makes Us Happy (2007) by Jennifer Michael Hecht
- The Not So Big Life (2007) by Sarah Susanka
- The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book about Noise (2010) by Garret Keizer
Books about Books
- Howard’s End is On the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home (2009) by Susan Hill
- Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books (2003) by Paul Collins
- Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading (2011) by Nina Sankovitch
In addition to the reading of books new to me, I managed to re-read three favorites I first enjoyed in previous years:
- The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays (1989) by W.H. Auden
- Geography of Home: Writings on Where We Live (1999) by Akiko Busch
- Time and the Art of Living (1982) by Robert Grudin
Here I insert my annual enthusiastic mention of the two magazines whose every issue I eagerly devoured for the zillionth consecutive year – because, after all, they are the world’s two best (although very, very different) magazines, deserving of a subscription of your own if you happen to be in the market for guaranteed excellence:
- The Sun
- The New Yorker
GLBTQ Nonfiction Titles
Last winter I served on a panel of six judges for a pair of national GLBTQ nonfiction book awards, thereby agreeing to read two dozen books (and to skim a bunch more) nominated for the awards. Listed here in very rough order of over-all wonderfulness and/or potential for enduring significance and/or extraordinarily engaging writing style:
- Grant Wood: A Life (2010) by R. Tripp Evans
- Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tatto Artist, and Sexual Renegade (2010) byJustin Spring
- Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation (2010) edited by Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman
- A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E.M. Forster (2010) by Wendy Moffat
- The Professor and Other Essays (2010) by Terry Castle
- King Kong Theory (2010) by Virginie Despentes (translated from the French by Stephanie Benson)
- Smothered in Hugs: Essays, Interviews, Feedback, and Obituaries (2010) by Dennis Cooper
- You and No Other: A Memoir (2010) by Jane Weiss and Bonnie Zahn
- Hammer! Making Movies Out of Sex and Life (2010) by Barbara Hammer
- Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature (2010) by Emma Donoghue
- Travels in a Gay Nation: Portraits of LGBTQ Americans (2010) by Philip Gambone
- Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus: A Daughter’s Civil War Story (2010) by Ana Maria Spagna
- Where’s My Wand? One Boy’s Triumph Over Alienation and Shag Carpeting (2010) by Eric Poole
- The Bucolic Plague: How Two Manhattanites Became Gentlemen Farmers: An Unconventional Memoir (2010) by Josh Kilmer-Purcell
- Mornings with Mailer: A Recollection of Friendship (2010) by Dwayne Raymond
- Another Country: Queer Anti-Urbanism (2010) by Scott Herring
- Blood Strangers: A Memoir (2010) by Katherine A. Briccetti
- Madre and I: A Memoir of Our Immigrant Lives (2010) by Guillermo Reyes
- The Un-Natural State: Arkansas and the Queer South (2010) by Brock Thompson
Modest Progress on a Reading-Related Development
Last year, as part of the personal blog I’ve been maintaining for the past few years, I finally managed to create an electronic archive of the books I’ve read over the past 25 years. This year, I managed to make those annual lists searchable by topic. Another reading-related project still on my to-do list is creating a similarly-searchable inventory of my modest personal library, so I can more easily determine which of those books I want to re-read…or finally get around to reading for the first time.
History & Travel
- At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past (2005) by A. Roger Ekirch
- Every Day in Tuscany (2010) by Frances Mayes
- London: A City Revealed (2004) by the [British] Automobile Association
- Roman Mornings (1956)by James Lees-Milne
- The Lessons of History (1968) by Will and Ariel Durant
- Venice: Pure City (2009) by Peter Ackroyd
Biography & Memoir
- Another Self (1970)by James Lees-Milne
- At Eighty-Two: A Journal (1995)by May Sarton
- Books: A Memoir (2008) by Larry McMurtry
- Counting My Chickens…and Other Home Thoughts (2002) by Deborah Vivien Freeman-Mitford Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire
- John Adams (2001)[the audiobook, read by Edward Herrmann] by David McCullough
- Perfection: A Memoir of Betrayal and Renewal (2009) by Julie Metz
- Stet: An Editor’s Life (2000) by Diana Athill
- The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws (2009)by Margaret Drabble
- Yours Ever: People and Their Letters (2009)by Thomas Mallon
Domesticana: House / Home / Gardening / Finance
- At Home: A Short History of Private Life (2010) by Bill Bryson
- Earthly Delights: Gardening by the Seasons the Easy Way (2004)by Margot Rochester
- Gardening Mad (1998)by Monty Don
- Retirementology: Rethinking the American Dream in a New Economy (2010) by Gregory Salsbury
- Rhapsody in Green: The Garden Wit and Wisdom of Beverley Nichols (2009) edited by Roy C. Dicks
- The Cheapskate Next Door (2010)by Jeff Yeager
- The Laws of Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life (2006)by John Maeda
- Beauty (2009)by Roger Scruton
- Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity (2006) by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein
- A Book of Silence (2008)by Sara Maitland
- Eating Animals (2009)by Jonathan Safran Foer
- Everyday Sacred: A Woman’s Journey Home (1995) by Sue Bender
- On Kindness (2009) by Adam Phillips & Barbara Taylor
- Redemption Stories: Unwasted Pain (2009)by Mary Ciofalo
- Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears (2009) by Pema Chodron
- The Tree (1979) by John Fowles
Reading & Writing
- A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution (2009) by Dennis Baron
- The Story about the Story: Great Writers Explore Great Literature (2009) edited by J.C. Hallman
- The Collected Prose, 1948-1998 (2010) by Zbigniew Herbert
- Days of Reading (2008)by Marcel Proust
- The Portable Dorothy Parker [1977 edition]
- The Beauty of Men (1996)by Andrew Holleran
- Ethan Frome (1911) by Edith Wharton
- Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2005) by Jonathan Safran Foer
- The Great Gatsby (1925)by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2008) by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
- Nights in Aruba (1984)by Andrew Holleran
- The Third Secret (2005) by Steve Berry
- Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile (2006)by Verlyn Klinkenborg
- “A Masque of Mercy” (1947) by Robert Frost
- “A Masque of Reason” (1945)by Robert Frost
- Pink Zinnia: Poems and Stories (2009) by Franklin Abbott
Faithfully Read Issues of Magazines:
- The New Yorker
- The Sun
For over thirty years now, I’ve been an extremely satisfied subscriber to the world’s most well-written magazines, the New Yorker and The Sun; I heartily recommend both to those of you who don’t already subscribe. Although I usually borrow from public libraries the books I decide to read, in 2009 I purchased copies of two superb books I had read in previous years: Robyn Griggs Lawrence’s The Wabi-Sabi House: The Japanese Art of Imperfect Beauty (2004), and Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space (1958). I also bought a personal copy of my absolute favorite book read this year, Italian Days by Barbara Grizzuti Harrison. And I’m sure I’ll soon be buying a personal copy of my next-most-favorite book of 2009, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2000) by Rebecca Solnit. Below are the books I finished this year, listed under the month I finished them in; the most highly recommended titles are indicated in boldface italics.
- House as a Mirror of Self: Exploring the Deeper Meaning of Home (1995) by Clare Cooper Marcus
- Rules for Aging (2000) by Roger Rosenblatt
- Serendipities: Language and Lunacy (1999) by Umberto Eco
- The Secret Pulse of Time: Making Sense of Life’s Scarcest Commodity (2006) by Stefan Klein
- Why is There Something Rather Than Nothing? 23 Questions from Great Philosophers (2007) by Leszek Kolakowski
- The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia – and How It Died (2008) by Philip Jenkins
- The Bible and the People (2005) by Lori Anne Ferrell
- Venice for Lovers (2003) by Louis Begley and Anita Muhlstein
- When God is Gone Everything is Holy: The Making of a Religious Naturalist by Chet Raymo (2008)
- God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question: Why We Suffer by Bart D. Ehrman (2008)
- In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan (2008)
- Keepers of the Keys of Heaven: A History of the Papacy by Roget Collins (2009)
- The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse (1938) [audiobook narrated by Alexander Spencer]
- How to Cheat at Gardening and Yard Work by Jeff Bredenberg (2009)
- Moab is My Washpot: An Autobiography by Stephen Fry (1997)
- Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit (2000)
- Three Junes by Julia Glass (2002) [for a Quaker book club meeting]
- Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the World by Anthony Doerr (2007)
- A Garden in Lucca: Finding Paradise in Tuscany by Paul Gervais (2000)
- Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant: Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone edited by Jenni Ferrari Adler (2007)
- Tuscany: True Stories edited by James O’Reilly and Tara Austen Weaver (2002)
- Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions of the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know about Them) by Bart D. Ehrman (2009)
- The Language of Things: Understanding the World of Desirable Objects by Deyan Sudjic (2009)
- How to Love by Gordon Livingston (2009)
- Arranging Things: A Rhetoric of Object Placement by Leonard Koren (2003)
- Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets, & Philosophers by Leonard Koren (1994)
- Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik (2000) [Re-read for my friend Kris’s book club]
- Italian Days by Barbara Grizzuti Harrison (1989)
The Constant Reader 2008
There was a marked drop in the number of books I read in 2008, although most of the reading I did do fell into the usual categories (minus, for some reason, any gardening books this year):
Literature & Literary Gossip
• The French Riviera: A Literary Guide for Travellers by Ted Jones (2007)
• A Case of Human Bondage by Beverly Nichols (1966)
• How Beautiful It Is, And How Easily Broken: Essays by Daniel Mendelsohn (2008)
• My Unwritten Books by George Steiner (2008)
• Geography of Home: Writings on Where We Live by Akiko Busch (1999)
• The House Always Wins:…Creating Your (Almost) Perfect Dream House by Marni Jameson (2008)
• Writing on Stone: Scenes from a Maine Island Life by Christina Marsden Gillis (2008)
• The Lobster Coast: Rebels, Rusticators, and the Struggle for a Forgotten Frontier by Colin Woodard (2004)
• Traveling Light: A Year of Wandering from California to England and Tuscany and Back Again by Bill Barich (2000)
The As-Usual-Few-in-Number Novels
• The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (2005)
• The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde by Peter Ackroyd (1983; 1993)
• Where Did I Leave My Glasses? The What, When, and Why of Normal Memory Loss by Martha Weinman Lear (2008)
• Pumping Irony: Working Out the Angst of a Lifetime by Tony Kornheiser (1995)
• Journeys of Simplicity: Traveling Light with Thomas Merton, Basho, Edward Abbey, Annie Dillard & Others by Philip Hornden (2003)
Other Literary Adventures
One of 2009’s most exciting segments was the week-long Atlanta Queer Literary Festival, whose planning I was involved in for a second consecutive year. A personal highlight of the festival this year was my being able to spend a few hours (at lunch, after picking him up at the airport) talking with one of my literary heroes, the poet Mark Doty. To prepare for that conversation, I read Doty’s memoir Dog Years (2007) and his revelatory Still Life with Oysters and Lemon (2001). I also re-read Heaven’s Coast (1996), one of my all-time favorite books and one of the finest AIDS memoirs ever written.
Another satisfying local encounter with a favorite writer was listening to Marlena de Blasi talk about writing the several absorbing memoirs about her life in Italy that I listed in previous versions of “The Constant Reader.”
And, as always, I continue to urge you all to subscribe, as I probably always will, to the world’s two finest magazines, The Sun and the New Yorker.
The Constant Reader 2007
Although I’m always whining that I don’t have enough time for reading, I notice that for the past decade or so I’ve managed to finish an average of a book a week, while also managing to devour virtually every nonfiction piece published in every eagerly-awaited, never-disappointing issue of the world’s two finest magazines (The Sun and the New Yorker).
As always, my reading life this year – unlike, say, the parts of it I chose to spend in front of movie, video, or computer screens – has proven enormously enriching, and, again this year, my reading seems to have clustered around several longstanding interests. Although getting ever-more-choosey about what I read in all categories – and therefore don’t read much stuff that isn’t excellent – the titles read in 2007 that I most heartily recommend to others because I enjoyed and/or learned so much from them are printed below in boldface italics.
How to Live
The bulk of my reading in 2007 – a full 20% of it, in fact – consisted of almost a dozen books on philosophy, psychology, sociology, or spirituality, and two authors accounted for half of those. Having last year stumbled upon The Way We Are (2006), the latest book of the prolific (but previously unknown to me) Alan Wheelis, I started out 2007 with three more of his works: The Moralist (1973), The End of the Modern Age (1971), and The Listener: A Psychiatrist Examines His Life (1999). Two of these books were so out-standing (if rather disturbing) that I actually bought copies of them – something rare for me these days, with my daily access to a public library. A footnote in one of Wheelis’ books led me next to Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death (1973); that book’s footnotes, alas, yielded a list of yet another dozen must-read titles. Robert Benson’s Digging In: Tending to Life in Your Own Back Yard (2007) was compelling enough for me to seek out and read another three of his books: Between the Dreaming and the Coming True: The Road Home to God (1996), Home by Another Way: Notes from the Caribbean (2006), and Living Prayer (1998). Benson’s gorgeous, evocative writing style reminds me a lot of my prose-writing heroes Frederick Buechner and Annie Dillard (both inspirations to Benson, too, it turns out). Coincidentally, I also read this year Buechner’s Speak What We Feel, Not What We Ought to Say: Reflections on Literature and Faith (2001). Two other titles round out this category: the somewhat scholarly, but immensely enlightening Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit (2006) by Joshua Foa Dienstag, and the rather disappointing (and certainly non-scholarly) Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: Thirty True Things You Need to Know Now by Gordon Livingston (2004).
The History of Religion
- A History of God (1993) by Karen Armstrong
- Constantine’s Bible: Politics and the Making of the New Testament (2007) by David L. Dungan
- A History of the End of the World: How the Most Controversial Book in the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization (2006) by Jonathan Kirsch
Having read three years ago the completely captivating memoir by American-born Marlena de Blasi (A Thousand Days in Venice, 2002), this year I lost myself in two sequels, A Thousand Days in Tuscany (2004) and The Lady in the Palazzo: At Home in Umbria (2007). Less enchanting but still good fodder for Italy-contemplation reveries were Satyr Square: A Year, A Life in Rome (2006) by Leonard Barkan; A Valley in Italy: The Many Seasons of a Villa in Umbria (1994) by Lisa St. Aubin de Teran; and A Day in Tuscany: More Confessions of a Chianti Tour Guide (2007) by Dario Castagno. Beppe Severgnini’s Ciao, America: An Italian Discovers the U.S. (2001) is about an Italian’s experiences in this country, but contains enough comparisons to customs in Italy to list it here.
- The Wabi-Sabi House (2004) by Robyn Griggs Lawrence
- William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Home (2005) by Pamela Todd
- The Emotional House: How Redesigning Your Home Can Change Your Life (2005) by Kathryn L. Robyn and Dawn Ritchie
- Sheetrock and Shellac: A Thinking Person’s Guide to the Art and Science of Home Improvement (2006) by David Owen
The time to read is any time: no apparatus, no appointment of time and place is necessary. It is the only art which can be practiced at any hour of the day or night; whenever the time and inclination comes, that is your time for reading; in joy or sorrow, health or illness. – Holbrook Jackson
Gardens / Gardening / Gardeners
Growing Pains: Time and Change in the Garden (1994) by Patricia Thorpe addresses an unusual subject: aging gardens (and aging gardeners). I also read two good how-to gardening tomes, Moss Gardening (1997) by George Schenk, and Creating the Cottage Garden in North America (2000) by Stephen Westcott Gratton. By far the best treat of 2007 in terms of garden reading were two collections of Washington Post articles: Henry Mitchell’s The Essential Earthman (1999/1981) and Henry Mitchell on Gardening (1998). Mitchell seems to have been America’s answer to the British garden writer Beverley Nichols. Since nine of Nichols’ many books of gardening tales were the highlights of my garden-related reading last year, when a library patron – another Nichols fan – told me about Mitchell’s books, I had to immediately track them down.
There are two forms of recreation which are of almost universal appeal among cultivated people: first, the observation of nature; secondly, the reading of books. – Theodore Wesley Koch
Bibliophilia: Books about Books
- Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books (1996) by Lynne Sharon Schwartz
- Books: An Anthology (1968) compiled by James Thompson
- The Love of Books, Being the Philobiblon of Richard de Bury translated (1966) by E.C. Thomas
- A Book Addict’s Treasury (2006) compiled by Julie Rugg and Lynda Murphy (2006)
- The Gentle Reader (1903) by Samuel McChord Crothers
Whether it is the well-thumbed reference book in the study, workshop, or kitchen, whether it is the biography or the novel borrowed from the library, or whether it is the personal copy always there on one’s own bookshelves, the book is a private medium of communication in a world where privacy is becoming more difficult to attain and maintain. – Peter H. Mann
- The Architecture of Happiness (1996) by Alain de Botton
- The Work of Charles and Ray Eames: A Legacy of Invention (1997)
- How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built (1994) by Stewart Brand
- Washington: Houses of the Capital (1982) by Henry Mitchell
People who say they don’t have time to read simply don’t want to. – Julie Rugg and Linda Murphy
- Untold Stories (2006) by Alan Bennett
- Auden (1995) by Richard Davenport-Hines
There is no pleasure so cheap, so innocent, and so remunerative as the real, hearty pleasure and taste for reading. – Robert Lowe
- A Certain World: A Commonplace Book (1970) by W.H. Auden
- A Sideways Look at Time (1999) by Jay Griffiths
- Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006) by Alison Bechdel – the first Graphic Novel I’ve ever read
- Love, Life, Goethe: Lessons of the Imagination from the Great German Poet (2006) by John Armstrong
- How to Be a (Bad) Birdwatcher (2005) by Simon Barnes – slender but hilarious, the surprise winner of “The Most Mind-Expanding Book Read by Cal This Year Award”
- A Voice from the Attic (1960) by Robertson Davies
- Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Divide (2007) by David Weinberger (2002) by Jonathan Franzen
- The Uncommon Reader: A Novella (2007) by Alan Bennett (2007) – winner of this year’s “Clever Book Concept Award,” which made its way to this completely charmed reader via fellow bibliophiles Katharine and Dowman)
- 365 Good Reasons to be a Vegetarian (1997) by Victor Parachin (1997)
- Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a More Joyful Christmas (1998) by Bill McKibben – the perfect choice for a bit of year-end reading, n’est-ce pas?
Readers and writers are united in their need for solitude, in their pursuit of substance in a time of ever-increasing evanescence, in their reach outward, via print, for a way out of loneliness. – Jonathan Franzen
Along with some rather haphazard gardening, I spend most of my free time reading – and a lot of my reading (beyond my faithful perusal of every issue of the New Yorker and The Sun, the planet’s two best magazines) continues to be about gardening. And although I ostensibly belong to two organized fiction reading groups – one of them a bunch of neighbors, the other a cluster of Quakers – I’ve been shockingly delinquent in my fiction reading this past year, having completed only one novel. That’s mostly because early in the year I stumbled onto what turned out to be a year-long orgy of happily devouring virtually the entire literary output of British journalist (and avid amateur gardener) Beverley Nichols. The titles I recommend are indicated in bold italics.
- Down the Garden Path (1932; reprinted 2005)
- A Thatched Roof (1933; reprinted 2005)
- A Village in the Valley (1934; reprinted 2005)
- Green Grows the City (1939; reprinted 2006)
- Merry Hall (1951; reprinted 1998)
- Laughter on the Stairs (1953; reprinted 1998)
- Sunlight on the Lawn (1956; reprinted 1999)
- Garden Open Today (1963; reprinted 2002)
- Garden Open Tomorrow (1968; reprinted 2002)
- The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden by Stanley Kunitz (2005)
- In the Eye of the Garden by Mirabel Osler (1994)
- We Made a Garden by Margery Fish (1956; reprinted 1995)
- Homescaping: Designing Your Landscape to Match Your Home by Anne Halpin (2005)
- Four-Tenths of an Acre: Reflections on a Gardening Life by Leslie Lisle (2005)
- Beautiful Madness: One Man’s Journey through Other People’s Gardens by James Dodson (2006)
Home-Making / Domestic Bliss
- House Thinking: A Room-by-Room Look at How We Live by Winifred Gallagher (2006)
- Sacred Home: Creating Shelter for Your Soul by Laurine Morrison Meyer (2004)
- On the Threshold: Home, Hardwood, and Holiness by Elizabeth J. Andrew (2005)
- Gone Rustic by Cecil Roberts (1934)
- Bringing Tuscany Home: Sensuous Style from the Heart of Italy by Frances Mayes (2004)
- Palladian Days: Finding a New Life in a Venetian Country House by Sally Gable (2005)
- On the Road with Francis Assisi: A Timeless Journey through Umbria and Tuscany, and Beyond by Linda Bird Franke (2005)
- Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal: Building St. Peter’s by R.A. Scotti (2006)
Biography / Autobiography
- All I Could Never Be: Some Recollections by Beverley Nichols (1952)
- Beverley Nichols: A Life by Bryan Connon (1991; reprinted 2000)
- Are They the Same at Home? by Beverley Nichols (1927)
- Virginia Woolf’s Nose: Essays on Biography by Hermione Lee (2005)
- Gullible’s Travels: The Adventures of a Bad Taste Tourist by Cash Peters (2003)
- Name All the Animals: A Memoir by Alison Smith (2004)
- The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2005)
- Live What You Love: Notes from an Unusual Life by Bob and Melinda Blanchard (2005)
- Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krause Rosenthal (2005)
- The Letters of Lytton Strachey ed. By Paul Levy (2005)
- Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt (2004)
- The Poet’s Guide to Life: The Wisdom of Rilke edited by Ulrich Baer (2005)
- Whose Bible Is It? A History of the Scriptures through the Ages by Jaroslav Pelikan (2004)
- Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why by Bart D. Ehrman (2005)
- A Temple of Texts: Essays by William H. Gass (2006)
- A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut (2005)
- Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell (2005)
- On Beauty and Being Just by Elaine Scarry (2001)
- Autumn Years: Taking the Contemplative Path by Robert H. King and Elizabeth M. King (2004)
- The Way We Are by Allen Wheelis (2006)
Books and Reading
- A Passion for Books: A Book Lover’s Treasury edited by Harold Rabinowitz and Rob Kaplan (1999)
- Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life by Michael Dirda (2006)
- Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
- Vegetarian America: A History by Karen Iacobbo and Michael Iacobbo (2004)
- Give It Up: My Year of Learning to Live Better with Less by Mary Carlomagno (2006)
- The Number: A Completely Different Way to Think about the Rest of Your Life by Lee Eisenberg (2006)
- Never Hit a Jellyfish with a Spade: How to Survive Life’s Smaller Challenges by Guy Browning (2004)
- The World in a Phrase: A Brief History of the Aphorism by James Geary (2005)
The Constant Reader 2005
[Highly recommended titles are shown in bold italics.]
“One of the problems with reading a lot of books is that the habit leads inevitably to the reading of a lot more books, which in turn leads to a backlog of books waiting to be read…. Then there is…what I call the Dragon’s Teeth Factor: every good book contains hints of others, either of that type, in that subject, or by the same author. The situation is painful, but is rather like being loved by too many people. Nobody in these circumstances wishes resolution: what they want is to be able to read faster.” –Michael McGrorty
Well, amen to that! This year, the footnotes and bibliography of a book I read last May, Robert Pogue Harrison’s fascinating The Dominion of the Dead (2003) led me to track down (via the magic of Interlibrary Loan) an English translation of The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard (1958, 1994), which in turn led me (again, via ILL) to an English translation of The World of Silence by Max Picard (1948) – a book so densely aphoristic and arresting that I’ve decided I must find a copy of my own somehow, so I can read it through again and again. The 550-page Doubt: A History by Jennifer Hecht (2003) was not only the longest but one of the best-written and most thought-provoking books I read this past year – so good I actually ordered my own copy of after reading the library’s. I want to read Hecht’s book again, too – partly for all the intriguing-sounding titles in her bibliography. The “Dragon’s Teeth Factor” also manifests itself in the fact that the headings I can use to categorize my reading this past year are pretty much the same ones I used in last year’s list:
- The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (translated from the Spanish, 2004)
- The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell land Dustin Thomason (2004)
- The Master by Com Toibin (2004)
- Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold (2002)
- Altered States by Anita Brookner (1996)
All these novels – in addition to most, but not quite all, of Edward P. Jones’ excellent The Known World (2004) – I read as a member of either the Quaker Book Club or the Candler Park Book Club – both of which I joined precisely to force myself to read more fiction. The bulk of my reading, as always, was nonfiction, however…
- Arts and Letters by Edmund White (Cleis Press, 2004)
- Long Life: Essays and Other Writings by Mary Oliver (2004)
- The Polysyllabic Spree: Essays from ‘The Believer’ Magazine by Nick Nornby (2004)
- Why Read? By Mark Edmundson (2004)
- This I Believe: An A to Z of Life by Carlos Fuentes (2005)
- Bird Songs of the Mezozoic: A Day Hiker’s Guide to the Nearby Wild by David Brendan Hopes (2005)
These book-length collections of essays were read in addition to the dozens that appeared in this year’s issues of The Sun and The New Yorker, the world’s most fabulous magazines.
- Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew by Bart D. Ehrman (2003)
- The English Cathedral by Russell Chamberlin (1987)
- The Grand Contraption: The World as Myth, Number, and Chance by David Park (2005)
- The Empire of Tea: The Remarkable History of the Plant that Took Over the World by Alan Macfarlane and Iris Macfarlane (2003)
Biography (including more Wildeana and more about The Bloomsberries):
- Both: A Portrait in Two Parts by Douglas Crase (2004)
- Our Paris: Sketches from Memory by Edmund White (2002)
- Cottage for Sale (Must Be Moved) by Kate Whouley (2004)
- Magical Thinking: True Stories by Augusten Burroughs (2004)
- The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester (2003)
- The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde by Neil McKenna (2003, 2005)
- Bosie: The Man, The Poet, the Lover of Oscar Wilde by Douglas Murray (2000)
- Loving and Leaving the Good Life by Helen Nearing (1992)
- Letters to a Spiritual Seeker by Henry David Thoreau (edited by Bradley P. Dean, 2004)
- Bloomsbury Rooms: Modernism, Subculture, and Domesticity by Christopher Reed (2004)
- Virginia Woolf by Mary Ann Caws (2001)
- Another Gardener’s Bed-Book: A Second Crop of Short and Long Pieces for Those Who Garden by Day and Read by Night by Richardson Wright (1933)
- Out in the Garden: Growing a Beautiful Life by Drew Riddle (2002)
- Herbs in Pots by Rob Proctor and David Macke (1999)
- Hydrangeas for American Gardens by Michael A. Dirr (2004)
Italy and the Italians
- The Reluctant Tuscan: How I Discovered My Inner Italian by Phil Doran (2005)
- Too Much Tuscan Sun: Confessions of a Chianti Tourguide by Dario Castagno (2004)
- The Smiles of Rome: A Literary Companion for Readers and Travelers edited by Susan Cahill (2005)
- A Reading Diary: A Passionate Reader’s Reflections on a Year of Books by Alberto Manguel (2004)
- The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life by Steve Leveen (2005)
- When Do Fish Sleep? by David Feldman (2005)
- A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit by Alan Lightman (2005)
- Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology by Eric Brende (2004)
- The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet by Margaret Wertheim (1999)
- Mysteries of Terra Firma: The Age and Evolution of the Earth by James Lawrence Powell (2001)
- Home: A Short History of an Idea by Witold Rybczynski (1986)
I’d love to hear from you avid or even occasional readers out there who’ve stumbled upon amazing books – or any music – this past year that they think I might enjoy. Please mail the titles to me or send me an email about them (email@example.com), and enthuse away!
I spend a lot of every year with my nose in a book. (Blessings on all the people who helped teach me to read!) Here’s where I “traveled” in 2004 without having to leave town! I’d love to hear what you recommend from your own recent reading.
- The Last Girls by Lee Smith (Algonquin, 2002)
- Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner (Random House, 1987)
- The Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen Carter (Knopf, 2002)
- Angels and Demons by Dan Brown (Pocket, 2000)
Italy and the Italians
- Venice for Pleasure, revised edition, by J.G. Links (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1979)
- A Thousand Days in Venice: An Unexpected Romance by Marlena de Blasi (Algonquin, 2002)
- Vidal in Venice by Gore Vidal (Summit, 1985)
- Venice Revealed: An Intimate Portrait by Paolo Barbero (Steerforth, 2001)
- Florence: A Delicate Case by David Leavitt (Bloomsbury, 2002)
- Dante in Love: The World’s Greatest Poem and How It Made History by Harriet Rubin (Simon & Schuster, 2004)
- As the Romans Do: The Delights, Dramas, and Daily Diversion of Life in the Eternal City by Alan Epstein (Morrow, 2000)
- City of Secrets: The Truth Behind the Murders at the Vatican by John Follain (Morrow, 2003)
- Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living 1900-1939 by Virginia Nicholson (HarperCollins, 2003)
- The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People’s History of Ancient Rome by Michael Parenti (New Press, 2003)
- Glenway Wescott Personally by Jerry Rosco (University of Wisconsin Press, 2002)
- Imagined London: A Tour of the World’s Greatest Fictional City by Anna Quindlen (National Geographic, 2004)
- Bright Earth: The Invention of Color by Philip Bal (University of Chicago Press, 2003)
- Land’s End: A Walk in Provincetown by Michael Cunningham (Crown, 2002)
History of Religion
- Desire of the Everlasting Hills by Thomas Cahill (Anchor, 1999)
- Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas by Elaine Pagels (Random House, 2003)
(in addition to the dozens appearing in this year’s issues of The Sun and The New Yorker, the world’s most fabulous magazines):
- Nonrequired Reading: Prose Pieces by Wistawa Szymborska (Harcourt, 2002)
- The Afterlife: Essays and Criticism by Penelope Fitzgerald (Counterpoint, 2003)
- Bleachy-Haired Honky Bitch by Hollis Gillespie (Reganbooks, 2004)
- What the Land Already Knows: Winter’s Sacred Days by Phyllis Tickle (Loyola Press, 1985)
- In Praise of Slowness by Carl Honore (HarperSanFrancisco, 2004)
- Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton (Pantheon, 2004)
- Beauty: The Invisible Embrace by John O’Donohue (HarperCollins, 2004)
- Words I Wish I Wrote: A Collection of Writings That Inspired My Ideas by Robert Fulghum (HarperPerennial, 1997)
- Who’s Afraid of Classical Music by Michael Walsh (Fireside/Simon & Schuster, 1989)
- An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain by Diane Ackerman (Scribner, 2004)
- So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance by Gabriel Zaid (Paul Dry Books, 2003)
- Taking Retirement: A Beginner’s Diary by Carl. H. Klaus (Beacon, 1999)
Although I may’ve spent less time in the garden in 2003 than in previous years, that hasn’t discouraged my reading of books that celebrate more pastoral settings than can be found in Atlanta. One of the best of these was fairly old: Donald Hall’s String Too Short to be Saved: Recollections of Summers on a New England Farm (1960); another, Isabel Colegae’s Winter Journey (1995) was a bit more recent, and three more were (unusual for me) brand-new: Verlyn Klinkenorg’s The Rural Life (2003, a collection of essays originally written for a newspaper column); Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life (2000) by Maine resident Paul Simmons; and (my fave) A Country Life: At Home in the English Countryside (2003) by Roy Strong. Also fitting into this category this year: the sumptuously-illustrated and revelatory text of Central Park: An American Masterpiece by Sara Miller (2003).
I started out this past year’s worth of reading by joining the local Quaker congregation’s reading group, hoping this would not only give me a chance to get better acquainted with some interesting fellow-congregants, but would also increase the amount of fiction I read, as the group reads only novels. Alas, due to my being at the cabin in Blue Ridge when the group got together in Atlanta for the majority of its discussions, this strategy didn’t work out quite as efficiently as I’d planned. Nevertheless, it was thanks to the Quaker group that I read two heartily-recommended novels: Ann Patchett’s enchanting Bel Canto (2001)—which I’m glad to hear will be made into a movie—and Sue Monk Kidd’s Secret Life of Bees (2002) —which they certainly should turn into a movie. The reading group also read Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie (2001), which resulted in one of the most interesting bookchats I’ve ever participated in, even if I didn’t enjoy reading the book very much. The two novels that I read on my own this year were both fairly recent ones: Ex Libris, a “historical bibliothriller” by Ross King (2001)—whose history Brunelleschi’s Dome (2000) I also read this year—and one of the few current bestsellers I’ve ever read) The Da Vinci Code (2003) by Dan Brown—which, I’m sorry to say, could not be described (by me anyway) as “mandatory.” Maybe the movie of this one will be better?
Last April Larry and I devoted approximately two consecutive weeks worth of our evenings together last spring transfixed by the completely captivating Masterpiece Theatre video dramatization of Rosa Lewis’s rags-to-riches life as a hotel proprietor in pre-World War II London. I then managed to locate and devour a copy of Daphne Fielding’s biography of Lewis, The Duchess of Jermyn Street (1964). Further indulging my obsessive interest in British biographies in general and of the various “Bloomsberries” in particular, I thoroughly enjoyed Frances Spalding’s lengthy but riveting biography of Virginia’s sister, Vanessa Bell (1983), and the disturbing and remarkably well-written Deceived by Kindness: A Bloomsbury Childhood (1984) by Virginia Woof’s niece, Angelica Garnett. This year I discovered two enormously gifted autobiography-writing American authors: Anne Lamott, whose exquisitely-wrought nonfiction books Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994) and Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (1999) I enjoyed immensely; and Sarah Vowell, whose recent memoir The Partly Cloudy Patriot (2002) led me to her earlier and equally-hilarious one, Take the Cannoli (2000).
I may be making fewer trips to exotic locales than I’d like to, but that hasn’t stopped me from frequently immersing myself in armchair travelogues. This year I read two older books by the best travelogue writer I’ve ever discovered, H.V. Morton. He’s long dead now, but I enjoyed reading Morton’s history-saturated A Traveler in Rome (1957) and A Traveler in Italy (1964) so much that I actually bought copies of each of them to keep; I’m currently mid-way through an even older tome, Through the Lands of the Bible (1959). Another travel-related treat this year—although it’s about the process of traveling rather than about any particular place–was Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel (2002), every bit as quirkily philosophical as his previous books.
A somewhat difficult-to-define category of books read this past year is what one might describe as meditations on various subtle psychological states. These included the far-too-unknown Time and the Art of Living by Robert Grudin (1982) as well as Sacred Time and the Search for Meaning by Gary Eberle (2003), Richard Mahler’s Stillness: Daily Gifts of Meditation (2003), and Party of One: The Loner’s Manifesto by the amazingly articulate (and funny) Anneli Rufus (2003).
“Books about books” is another perennial reading interest, and this year’s example was Matthew Battles’ excellent Library: An Unquiet History (2003).
If there are any other bibliophiles out there who care to share with me their own lists of recently-read–and recommended–books, please do so! Life is too short to spend too much of it reading less-than-wonderful books, so your recommendations—and your warnings—would be most appreciated.
A substantial portion of every year’s reading for me is devoted to books about my other main hobby, gardening. 2002’s crop of memorable titles: A Garden of One’s Own by Elsa Bakalar (1994), Judith Handelsman’s Growing Myself: A Spiritual Journey through Gardening (1997); the short but delightful French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in France by Richard Goodman (2002), and two books of fabulously idiosyncratic prose by Henry Betson, Herbs and the Earth (1935) and The Best of Betson (2000).
In terms of sheer number of pages consumed on a single subject, however, 2002 was for me The Year of E.M. Forster, an adventure triggered by a photograph accompanying an essay about EMF in Jeffery Paine’s Father India: How Encounters with an Ancient Culture Transformed the Modern West (1998). Just as in a previous year, when I devoured at least a dozen books by or about Oscar Wilde, or in a subsequent year when I devoted most of my reading to books about Virginia Woolf, I ignored Forster’s novels just as I had Wilde’s and Woolf’s and immersed myself in Forster’s exquisitely-written nonfiction–Aspects of the Novel (1927), Abinger Harvest (1936), Two Cheers for Democracy (1938); in biographies—the brief one written by Francis King (1978) and the two-volume one written by P.N. Furbank (also 1978); and in EMF’s Selected Letters (1985). I even managed to get my hands on Forster’s Commonplace Book (1988). I realize that Larry and me re-watching this year all of the movies based on Forster’s novels doesn’t substitute for reading the novels themselves, but those items will have to wait for some other year.
Further indulging my incorrigible fascination with the exploits of–and the gossip surrounding–early 20th Century British literary celebrities, I also read this year Douglas Murray’s Bosie: A Biography of Lord Alfred Douglas (2000); the vast correspondence between the publisher of Oscar Wilde’s letters, Rupert Hart-Davis, and Hart-Davis’ teacher George Lyttleton (published in multiple volumes between 1984 and1990), with a little detour into Hart-Davis’ 1989 edition of the Letters of Max Beerbohm, 1892-1956; plus yet another bio of Virginia Woolf that I had somehow overlooked: Jean Moorcraft Wilson’s Virginia Woof: Life and London: A Biography of Place (1988).
The [now extinct] free book catalog “The Common Reader” was where I found out about several of the books I’ve mentioned already, as well as the Diaries (1985) and the Selected Letters (1989) of the virtually unknown American novelist Dawn Powell, and the exquisitely crafted essays and charming letters of the even less-well-known Canadian novelist Robertson Davies (One-Half of Robertson Davies, 1978, and For Your Eyes Alone, 2001).
A perennial theme that runs through year after year of my reading choices is “Books about Books.” This past year those titles included Bascone’s Where Books Fall Open: A Reader’s Anthology of Wit & Passion (2001), Books are Basic: The Essential Lawrence Clark Powell (1985), Henry Petroski’s The Book on the Bookshelf (1999), and (talk about eccentric reading choices!) The Devil’s Details: A History of Footnotes by Chuck Zerby (2001).
In the Spirituality/Religion arena, this year’s reading included Michael Downing’s Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center (2001), The Seven Deadly Sins (1992, essays first published in London’s Sunday Times), and Alistair McGrath’s rather clumsily-written In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible (2001).
Standouts in the “Most Excellent Miscellaneous Nonfiction” category for 2002 were Neil Postman’s Building a Bridge to the 18th Century (1999) and Carol Heilbrun’s chock-full-of-surprises The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty (1997).
Novels read in 2002? Alas, a mere two, and read a full six months apart. But, boy, what absolute doozies they both were: Dave Eggars’ bizarre torrent of a book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000) and William Maxwell’s brief, masterful, and haunting So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980).
Oldies but Goodies
As I grow older, I more frequently find myself seeking out and enjoying older books—books about people or places or events of the not-very-recent past, and also seeking out more biographical or autobiographical books. As some of the items I read this year had been on my “must read” list for decades, my finally getting around to reading them this year was itself very satisfying. The oldest – and some of the most elegantly written – books I read in 2001 were published long before I was born: Schopenhauer’s Studies in Pessimism (1891), Walter Lippman’s A Preface to Morals (1929) and Paul Valery’s Analects (1935). The English translation of Oswald Spengler’s Aphorisms that I read this year was published a little more recently (1967), although Spengler himself died in 1936. And certainly The Henry Miller Reader (1959) is hardly a recent bestseller. Still remaining on my list of books to read by long-dead writers are certain works by Friedrich Nietzsche that keep getting cited by things I’ve read. Maybe next year?
As has been the case most years since high school days, I didn’t read many novels this year. The few I did read were absorbing in completely different ways (and none of them was very recently published, either): Instead of a Letter (1962) by Diana Athill (the second of her startlingly intense novels I’ve read); Penelope Fitzgerald’s way-too-short prizewinner The Bookshop (1978); and last but hardly least, Terry Bratcher’s Sourcery (1989), one of over a dozen or so titles in his funny and clever Discworld series.
Books about Writers
For some unknown reason, this type of book continues to dominate my mid-life reading. This year’s discoveries: the semi-autobiographical A Voice through a Cloud (1950) by the obscure and eccentric British writer Denton Welch, whose books I knew about only because a friend from high school (!) collected them; my favorite essayist George Steiner’s short and rather harrowing autobiography Errata: A Life Examined (1998); Florida Scott-Maxwell’s diary The Measure of My Days (1968); Mary von Schrader Jarrell’s Remembering Randall (1999); New Yorker columnist Adam Gopnik’s memoir of a recent five-year-stint living in Paris, Paris to the Moon (2000), altogether delightful and chock-full of insights from all sorts of oblique angles; Eric Myers’s deliciously gossipy Uncle Mame: The Life of Patrick Dennis (2000); the latest installment in a continuing and constantly fascinating and disarming set of diaries from Ned Rorem (who I finally got to see at a lecture last year here in Atlanta), this one called Lies: A Diary, 1986-1999 (2000); John Bayley’s charming Widower’s House: A Study in Bereavement (2001); and scholar Adam Sisman’s amazingly absorbing Boswell’s Presumptious Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson (2000).
I also spent several recent weeks delving further into the lives of two long-dead literary celebrities who I can’t seem to ever read enough about: Who’s Afraid of Leonard Woolf? A Case for the Sanity of Virginia Woolf (2000) by Australian scholar Irene Coates (whose defense of her thesis needed a sterner editor), and the rather breezy Oscar Wilde: A Certain Genius (2000) by Barbara Belford. And I’m still gradually working my way through a book about Wilde’s contemporary Max Beerbaum that my friend Corky has lent me: Max: A Biography by the oh-so-British David Cecil (1985).
Merging my recently-intensified interests in essays and biography were two moving and hilarious collections of autobiographical essays (and some of the best writing of the past twenty years) by undertaker/author Thomas Lynch: The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade (1997) and Bodies in Motion and At Rest (2000). Absolutely the very best memoir by far I’ve read in many a year, however, is William Gibson’s magnificent and haunting A Mass for the Dead (1968), which the editor of “The Common Reader” (a free monthly catalog that I urge all fellow-booklovers to subscribe to—you can do that via the Internet) has always claimed is his very favorite book, and I can certainly see why.
I struck real gold this year with the essays I stumbled over, was alerted to by friends, or sought out after having them on my list for several years: Edmund White’s always-urbane-yet-always-humane The Burning Library: Essays (1994), and John G. Murray’s velly droll A Gentleman’s Publisher’s Commonplace Book (1996). Ever since I read it for the first time several decades ago, William Gass’s Omensetter’s Luck has remained one of my favorite novels. This year I attempted his magnum opus The Tunnel (1995), but much to my chagrin, I simply could not finish this difficult, exasperating, and harrowing book—though I happily devoured this year two of Gass’s collections of essays: Fiction and the Figures of Life (1970) and Habitations of the Word: Essays (1985).
Of the four other excellent collections of essays I read this year, two were written by “Southreners” —novelist Reynolds Price’s Feasting the Heart (2000) and journalist Hal Crowther’s Cathedrals of Kudzu (2000); the other two were The Consolations of Philosophy (2000) by Alain de Botton (whose equally off-beat How Proust Can Save Your Life I read last year) and Minutes of the Lead Pencil Club (1996), a hilarious set of various writers’ anti-word processing diatribes edited by Bill Henderson.
Lest we forget, I’ve also been a faithful reader this year of The World’s Best Two Magazines. Reading them mostly on the subway trips to and from work each day, I continue to devour, year-in, year-out, the weekly New Yorker and The Sun (regrettably a mere monthly). I hereby make my annual plea for every word- and/or life-lover to consider subscribing to either or both of these remarkable publications. You won’t be sorry!
Reading books written by gardeners about gardening remain a mainstay; this year’s crop included Mirabel Osler’s A Gentle Plea for Chaos (1989), Amy Stewart’s From the Ground Up: The Story of a First Garden (2001), Patricia Thorpe’s Growing Pains: Time and Change in the Garden (1994), and George Drower’s Gardeners, Gurus & Grubs: The Stories of Garden Inventors & Inventions (2001). The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan (2001) is—unlike his previous and equally-enthralling Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education that I read ten years or so ago—more a book about human psychology than about gardening itself, but nonetheless this collection of stories about five different historically-important plants is extraordinarily well-done.
Two books I read this year related to my long-standing obsession with European travel were both about a single place: Venice Observed by Mary McCarthy (1956) and John Pemble’s Venice Rediscovered (1996). My choice of those particular books to read this year, plus my reading, after having owned it for at least ten years, The Art of Travel, a 1962 collection of Henry James’s travel essays (several of which are also devoted to Italy)—plus stumbling upon and enjoying Robert Hellenga’s set-in-Florence novel called The Sixteen Pleasures (1994) make me think I might be preparing myself unconsciously for another trip to Italy in the near future! (This, my friends, is what they call “fondly to be wished.”)
Books about Books
Although I’m most often led to the books I read through footnotes in some other book, the length of my Must-Read list occasionally makes a quantum leap via my discovery of some especially tantalizing “book about books.” This past year that happened twice, first with Henry Miller’s astonishing The Books in My Life (New Directions, 1952) and then with Ronald B. Shwartz’s For the Love of Books: 115 Celebrated Writers on the Books They Love Most (Grosset/Putnam, 1999).
While I’m recommending books, I want to throw in a favorite Internet Web site, Arts & Letters Daily (a sort of ongoing compendium of a bunch of really interesting articles from a slew of different journals), as well as my favorite Public Radio Show, Weekend Edition with Scott Simon. Simon’s show airs here on Saturday morning at 8am, and I’m now getting up that early every Saturday I’m in Atlanta specifically to listen to his two-hour broadcast. There’s just something magical and deeply satisfying about this guy’s choice of stories and the way he looks at things. I even like the sports segment of his show (a definite first for me). And I found out recently that Simon’s a Quaker, or at least has a Quaker background. Figures. I’m so hooked I’m considering writing the man a fan letter. (Well, a fan e-mail message, anyway. This annual newsletter is about the only actual letter I write any more.)
[To be posted as soon as I can locate the list.]
Cal’s reading this year—apart from his routine devouring (mostly on the subway) of the indispensable magazines The Sun and the New Yorker—has been unexpectedly dominated by the (nonfiction) writings of Virginia Woolf. First he became fascinated with the (abridged) diaries, next the (abridged) letters, and now he’s looking forward to reading a minimum of several dozen of her essays.
Cal’s initial obsession with VW pretty quickly extended itself to the biographical essays of Lytton Strachey, and to at least a half-dozen biographies of the others in the Bloomsbury crew. (One of this year’s peak experiences for Cal was his opportunity at the new British Library Sound Archives to listen to a snippet of an old BBC recording of Virginia Woolf’s voice.)
Cal’s final Reading Find of 1999 was yet another addition to the Bloomsbury-related gossip mill, entitled Bloomsbury Pie: The Making of the Bloomsbury Boom (1997). Great stuff!
[To be posted as soon as I can locate the list.]
[To be posted as soon as I can locate the list.]
On the book-reading front in 1996, last July I began a two-year stint on the book award committee of the ALA’s Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Task Force. That means I’m expected to read and pass judgment on—and find a place to store!—dozens and dozens of mostly wonderful books the committee chair arranges to arrive in my mailbox. The passing judgment part would be easier if I could manage the time to read these items, no? So far, my favorite candidate is Heaven’s Coast by the poet Mark Doty. Wait for the paperback if you must, but please treat yourself to this mesmerizing and haunting memoir.
Those of you without the inclination to read this or any other book are, or course, encouraged again this year to do yourselves a favor and subscribe to the world’s two best magazines, The Sun and the New Yorker. I’m telling you, I would be downright inconsolable should either of these two amazing publications go out of business in my lifetime; how do so many people do without the pleasure they bring so reliably?
[To be posted as soon as I can locate the list.]
I’ve racked what’s left of my brains at mid-life to figure out what books I’ve read this year, and can come up with a mere two (!) titles: Michael Pollan’s provocative and hilarious Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education (1992) and the Englishman Cyril Connolly’s elegantly-written collection of essays, Enemies of Promise: An Autobiography of Ideas (first published in 1939, reissued in 1960 and again in 1983). I’m especially chagrinned to realize that I read zero novels this year. Apparently I’ve spent my entire allotment of precious reading time leafing through garden catalogs, consulting home improvement handbooks, and, of course (mostly on the train to and from work each day) devouring each delicious weekly issue of the New Yorker. I also continue, with intense pleasure, to subscribe to The Sun (still the world’s best monthly magazine, folks).
[To be posted as soon as I can locate the list.]
Books I read this year that I heartily recommend to you include Elan Golumb’s Trapped in the Mirror: The Struggle of Adult Children of Narcissists and Robert Neale’s Loneliness, Solitude, and Companionship. And I most emphatically recommend Becoming a Man, Paul Monette’s short but absorbingly written autobiography that won this year’s National Book Award. This was also the year that – in that big old barn of a bookstore, the Strand, during my trip last spring to New York with Larry – I gleefully stumbled onto a copy of A Long Day’s Dying, the long-out-of-print and hard-to-find first novel written by one of my favorite nonfiction writers, Frederick Buechner.
Again this year as in most years, I haven’t found the time to read as much as I’d like. I did make some further headway on Victor Hugo’s delightful Les Miserables. Most recently I finished Robert Ferro’s novel Second Son, Quentin Crisp’s autobiography The Naked Civil Servant, and Thich Nhat Hanh’s Present Moment, Wonderful Moment: Mindfulness Verses for Daily Living. As usual, I’m in the middle of many books at once, including Judy Grahn’s Another Mother Tongue, a book of Mark Twain quotations, and several meditation and psychology books I’ve promised Larry I’d read. (I’ve also become intrigued with the prospect of reading several of the books Larry’s read for his English Lit courses.) And of course I continue to scarf up each issue of The Sun (The World’s Most Wonderful Magazine, as I have told you all before) as soon as I discover it’s been delivered to my mailbox. Despite my whining about how little time I have to read for pleasure, if any of you have had any peak reading experiences this past year that you’d like to recommend, I’d love to hear about them.
My most memorable reading in 1990 – memorable in the sense of “powerful and recommended” as well as in the sense of “the stuff I can remember just now”:
- Alice Koller’s amazing Stations of Solitude and her even more difficult-to-put-down An Unknown Woman
- May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude
- The Habit of Being, a selection of Flannery O’Conner letters (thanks, Flanders)
- an out-of-print collection of Hermann Hesse’s aphorisms
- Manley P. Hall’s Adventures in Understanding (thanks, Rave)
- Thich Nhat Hanh’s Being Peace (thanks, Lare)
Oh, and several of Tony Hillerman’s set-in-New-Mexico detective novels (thanks, Bob). Since Frederick Buechner rather rudely failed to publish any nonfiction this year, I consoled myself with re-reading his older nonfiction books. And wasn’t it this year that I enjoyed Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood?
These and my subscription to The Sun – the world’s finest magazine – have kept the addictive reader in me happy.
I can’t claim that reading it made me happy, but something I did read and cannot recommend too highly: John Bradshaw’s Bradshaw On: The Family. (I hear Bradshaw’s got a new book out now, so I suppose I’ll have to read it as well.)
A sad item on the literary news front: this year old Larry Durrell died. His novels, along with Buechner’s and Dillard’s books – and, of course, The Sun – are the things I most persistently press upon people to read.
While waiting for Pete Dexter or Lawrence Durrell to publish their next novels, I’m enjoying the lush and fabulous Love in the Time of Cholera, the hysterically funny Miss Manners’ Guide to the Turn of the Millennium, and am re-reading a very strange book I first read (and then lost) on a train in Europe in 1970 and have been looking for ever since: John Fowles’ only nonfiction book, The Aristos.
On the other hand, I’ve done more writing (for that librarianship anthology) than reading lately. Setting aside more time for reading is my New Year’s resolution – as it’s been for several years running, I’m afraid.
My consolations for this lack of time for reading – especially for reading novels – have been the unbelievably amazing, usually humbling, and always beautiful issues of my still-favorite-after-all-these-years magazine, The Sun, which I recommend to all literate humans. Subscribing to this amazing thing would be one of the best things you could ever do for yourself – or it was for me, anyway.
[To be posted when list is located]
[To be posted when list is located]
[To be posted when list is located]
- Epilepsy: The Facts (2nd ed., 1996) by Richard Appleton and others
- The Seven Day Circle: The History and Meaning of the Week (1985) by Eviatar Zerubavel
- Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985) by Neil Postman
- The Greek Islands by Lawrence Durrell
- Holy the Firm (1977) by Annie Dillard
- The Art of Ruth Draper (1960) [intro only]
- The Reluctant Naturalist: An Unnatural Field Guide to the Natural World (1984) by Charles A. Monagan
- The Neurotic’s Handbook (1982) by Charles Monagan
- Pintimento by Lillian Hellman
- I’ve a Feeling We’re Not in Kansas Anymore (1996) by Ethan Mordden
- Enormous Changes a the Last Minute: Stories (1985) by Grace Paley
- A Single Man (1964) by Christopher Isherwood
- Raney (1986) by Clyde Edgerton
- The Screwtape Letters (1942) by C.S. Lewis
[Partial list – other titles to be added as I remember them!]
- The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell: Justine (1957); Balthazar (1958); Mountolive (1958); Clea (1960) 
- Animal Farm by George Orwell
- Anthem by Ayn Rand
- Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
- The Avignon Quintet: Monsieur: or, The Prince of Darkness (1974), Livia: or, Buried Alive (1978);
Constance: or, Solitary Practices (1982); Sebastian: or, Ruling Passions (1983); Quinx: or, The Ripper’s Tale (1985) [1985?]
- Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
- Call It Courage
- Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
- The City Under the Back Steps
- Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
- Damien by Hermann Hesse
- East of Eden by John Steinbeck
- Exodus by Leon Uris
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
- Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
- Hawaii by James Michener
- The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
- Island by Audous Huxley
- Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe
- Lord of the Flies by William Golding
- Mr. Sammler’s Planet
- Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
- One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez
- Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet
- The Phantom Tollbooth
- The Prophet by Kahil Gibran
- The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham
- A Separate Peace by John Knowles
- Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
- Slan by A.E. van Vogt
- Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- The World of Null-A by A.E. van Vogt
- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
- Capital by Karl Marx
- The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud
- Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl
- Science and Sanity by Alfred Korzybski
- Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neal Postman