2019 wasn’t a particularly profound year in terms of the books I completed. Some of my favourites of the year were re-reads. There were some good books, but for many I’ve already forgotten what they were about. I don’t know if that’s a reflection on the stresses of the year or if some of those books were, in the end, forgettable. But here are the highlights, such as they are, from the year, in order of reading. Turns out that often books have meaning to me for their “feel” and context as much as their content.
John Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve. This was the first book I completed (started it Christmas 2018) this year and it may well have been the best. The book was a profound reminder that there is more to the text of Genesis 1–3 than our reading habits, preconceptions, traditions, cultural expectations, etc. lead us to think. Which may explain why I never get tired of exploring that particular part of the Bible. (I also read John Walton and Tremper Longman’s, The Lost World of the Flood, and was comparatively disappointed.)
Elizabeth Strout, Abide with Me. I loved the pace and feel of Strout’s book, Olive Kitteridge, which I read a number of years ago, and very much looked forward to this novel for this reason, in addition to the fact that the protagonist is a pastor. Some of that pace and feel (or mood) of Olive Kitteridge was present in Abide with Me. I think I liked it. I think.
Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. Re-read. I think she says some thoughtful things in this book. I don’t remember. I like this book for its feel and pace. It exudes prairie, which is a good thing.
Billy Collins, The Rain in Portugal: Poems. It’s Billy Collins! Also, purchased at a discount at Tattered Covered Books in downtown Denver, Colorado, so it has some warm sentimental value.
John Le Carré, Call for the Dead. A fun read and, I believe, the novel that introduces the character George Smiley. It probably worked in this book’s favour that I read Le Carré’s The Honourable Schoolboy not long before this one. That was also good, but significantly longer and more difficult to complete. But Call for the Dead had all the good things of Le Carré and George Smiley—cold, rainy London; lots of walking and talking; mystery and intrigue—but in at a fraction of the length of some of his other books.
Norman MacLean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories. Re-read. Wonderful story. Additionally wonderful because I look for a non-movie-tie-in edition in every bookstore I’m in (even though I think of the movie when I read it). It’s never in stock anywhere I go, so I took it as a sign that I should buy it when I found it on the shelf in a little bookshop in Estes Park, Colorado. Read it in a day or two in a cabin in the mountains high above Estes Park this summer.
Joseph Boyden, The Orenda. My brother urged me to read this. It is the tragic story of the relationship between eastern Canadian First Nations tribes, as well as between those tribes and a group of Jesuit missionaries. It was an absorbing read.
David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. Fascinating and helpful argument for the existence of God. Not specifically the Judeo-Christian God, mind you, even though Hart is himself an Eastern Orthodox Christian, but helpful nonetheless. I would proffer this book over a more standard evangelical apologetics/arguments-for-the-existence-of-God book. That’s just a hunch, though, as I can’t say I’ve read a great deal of that flavour of Christian apologetics. This was a thought-provoking and challenging read.
David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation. Reading two Hart books back-to-back within a month would have seemed impossible to me the month before I did that very thing. Hart is known as an exceedingly dense writer, whose books need to be read with a thesaurus in one’s other hand, but both of these books were engaging and readable. I read a very short book by Hart in seminary, and it was very difficult to understand. This CPAP machine I’ve been using must be helping my reading as well.
Opinions about this book tend not to be modest. Many people have expressed disappointed in it, though it’s not clear if that’s because his arguments are deficient or because here Hart turns his vitriol away from his usual target—New Atheists like Richard Dawkins—and points it at “infernalists” (Christians who hold to an eternal conscious torment view of hell). I do think that Hart tends to be a grumpy and cynical writer and wish he wouldn’t be (although sometimes it’s funny), but I didn’t take his vitriol personally. On the other hand are those who love the book and think it will be the one for “infernalists” to contend with for the coming years.
As for Hart, he says, both in the book and in interviews about it, that his argument is irrefutable. I’m not sure about that. But it is compelling, even convincing. But irrefutable? I doubt it.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Children of Hurin. A posthumous novel edited by his son Christopher from Tolkien’s vast collection of papers. It expands on a chapter in The Silmarillion, posthumously published in the 1970s. A beautiful story.
Michael Palin, Erebus: One Ship, Two Epic Voyages, and the Greatest Naval Mystery of All Time. Another book about the Franklin expedition—actually, it’s about several voyages of the ships Erebus and Terror, but it’s a publishable story mostly because of the Franklin tragedy. I don’t know why this story has fascinated me enough to read two books on it (Michael Palin as author helped), but something about 18th century explorers, ships, the craziness of being away from home and at sea for four years, and the mystery of the disappearance of these two ships and their crew is enough to keep me coming back.
Benjamin Dreyer, Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. I always enjoy a simultaneously humorous and helpful look at writing. (See also Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots and Leaves; don’t see Bill Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words, which could’ve been such, but isn’t.) But I am left wondering who’s rules—England’s or the US’s—I should be following when I write?