Some Favorites from My Year in Books (2015)

‘Tis the season for year-end lists, so if you have a bookworm on your Christmas list, or have some gift cards tucked in your own coat pocket, here are some of my favorite books from the past year (note: books I read in the past year, not necessarily books published in 2015).

In terms of unexpected discoveries, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes by Jonathan Rose was a surprising page turner. From my earlier Goodreads review:

This is a fascinating book, crammed full of quotes and anecdotes: maids dreaming of becoming novelists and Welsh miners quoting long passages of poetry in the darkness of the pit. Rose lets the “working classes” speak for themselves via a vast amount of research collected from published and unpublished memoirs of self-educated workers. I suppose I enjoyed the book so much partly because I recognized members of my own tribe – people who, once they discovered reading, were transformed by it (and sometimes became a little obsessed).

The most popular author (according to surveys, sales, and library borrowing records) among the British working classes was usually Charles Dickens. I read Bleak House for the first time this year and it was fantastic. I read or re-read a number of other “great books” over the past twelve months (Anna Karenina, Silas Marner), but Bleak House was by far the most satisfying novel I read this year. Funny, formally inventive, fierce – it is (at least for the moment) my favorite Dickens.

Two recent books that lived up to the hype surrounding them were Charles Marsh’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Strange Glory, and Helen Macdonald’s difficult to classify H is for Hawk. Marsh’s book is a well-written (and not just relative to his fellow theologians) life of Bonhoeffer that provides the most “human” Bonhoeffer among existing biographies (my Goodreads review). I think the book accomplished what it set out to do, but is probably most profitably read in combination with one of the other existing biographies, or (better) Bonhoeffer’s own writings (I felt that Marsh’s tendency to highlight some of Bonhoeffer’s idiosyncrasies sometimes obscured as much it revealed – perhaps more so if a reader is not already familiar with Bonhoeffer’s story). H is for Hawk is an astonishing book that intertwines grief memoir, notes on how-to-train-your-hawk, stunning nature writing, reflections on gender/class/Englishness, and biography of T.H. White (among other things) – I hope to write a longer post on the book, so I’ll leave it at that for now, other than to say that the many awards and accolades it has earned seem (to me) well-deserved.

In terms of straight theology, it was a bit of a slow year. I re-read some things that have been important to me in the past and tried to work my way through some Augustine (with limited success). I enjoyed Alan Jacobs’ A Theology of Reading even if it was not quite what I expected – more concerned with “how” we read than “what” reading is theologically (there’s a “what” implied by the “how” – but I thought it should have been more explicit – I need to chew it over more and will perhaps post something here if I come up with anything useful). Steve Holmes’ Quest for the Trinity and Ian McFarland’s From Nothing also provided plenty of grist for the theological mill (I found myself cheering and booing at different points in both books – which is about my level of theological sophistication these days: cheers and boos). While not theology, a book that will exert influence over all my critical thinking and writing (even if primarily as a source of pithy quotes) was Auden’s collection of essays, The Dyer’s Hand.

For contemporary fiction I thought Tom Stoppard’s play, Arcadia ,was brilliant – it is sharp and funny and it does clever things with narrative time that probably only a play can do. I have also been enjoying Urusula Le Guin’s work after reading her books for the first time last year. A Wizard of Earthsea (David Mitchell’s introduction to a recent edition) remains my favorite, but I read her classic The Left Hand of Darkness this year and enjoyed it. Nick Harkaway’s Tigerman was exuberant, angry fun and Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins was a sneaky good middle-grader read. Chaim Potok’s The Gift of Asher Lev satisfied a literary craving for a portrait of cross-pressured belief in the modern world, and I’m still pretty ambivalent about Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things, but do think it is worth reading.

For next year … while I do keep a “possible to-read” list, I don’t plan out my reading in advance (unless I have a project I hope to complete), so who knows what 2016 holds. I do hope I have something interesting in my stocking come Christmas morning and maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll have a 900+ page brick of a 19th century novel in yours (or one of the other books on this list that won’t require such a workout when you try to read it on the beach).