Some Favorites from My Year in Books (2016)

This past year in reading was a year of many books. Too many, probably, given the way they all seem to be bleeding into each other in my memory. And yet, there remains a stack of books I intended to read this year (and never did), along with a number of extremely witty/insightful/brilliant essays I intended to write (and never did). But, while my failure to write is a perpetual source of frustration (not so worried about the stack of “to-reads” – there’s always next year, after all), in a world dominated by a new baby with a powerful set of tiny lungs I was pleased I could still find time to read now and then while rocking her in the dark (with the help of my workhorse Kindle). Anyway, here’s a list of books that stood out from the past year (not necessarily published this year) in no particular order (a brief “toddler edition” can be found here).

2016 was the year I entered the world of P.G. Wodehouse, primarily through his stories about Bertie Wooster and his “gentleman’s personal gentleman,” the inimitable Jeeves. It’s a cliché to point out that Wodehouse is pure escapism, but sometimes you need a little escape, and he reliably made me laugh out loud a number of times during a year when I needed a few laughs. He also happens to be one of the most skilled prose stylists of the 20th century (click on my Wodehouse tag for some quotes I’ve pulled out over the year). Wodehouse has an amazing grasp of the English language, and while I am a little dubious of Bertie’s claims to have won a scripture knowledge prize while at school, Wodehouse clearly knew his Authorized Version and spotting the various scriptural allusions and quotations is a fun little side game for the amateur theologian. If you’re looking for a place to start, fire up the two-seater and ramble through Right Ho, Jeeves.

I also fell deep down a Diana Wynne Jones hole this year after discovering her work last Christmas. Think: a little bit like J.K. Rowling, with a bit more mischief, irony, nuance and humor (although, a real problem with endings). I liked the  Chrestomanci series, and Charmed Life is the place to start there.

For sheer literary geekery it is hard to beat Alexandra Harris’ Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies. It is an impressively wide-ranging look at the interaction between literature, art and climate. The book is packed with interesting details (e.g. “‘Spring’ was used as a verb  (‘spray beginneth to springe’), but it did not become the name of a defined season until the 1500s. ‘Lencten’ served well enough to denote the period from Ash Wednesday to Easter, and ‘Somer’ encompassed both our spring and summer.“) while managing to tell a comprehensive narrative across centuries. One of the most enjoyable books I read this year.

Two of my favorite novels were Ursula Le Guin’s Lavinia and Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill. Somehow I managed to get a copy of Golden Hill on Kindle before it had an American publisher and I devoured it in a couple of long, satisfying gulps, having enjoyed Spufford’s previous work in Red PlentyUnapologetic etc. They are both terrific historical (er, sort of, in the case of Lavinia) novels that play some clever tricks with narrative framing while also offering a study in contrasts for how to tell a compelling story: Golden Hill is packed with incident and stylistic fireworks while Le Guin’s prose is understated and lets the meditative reflections of her narrator on marriage, motherhood etc. elbow the battle scenes to one side.

Adam Roberts’ The Thing Itself is, according to the acknowledgements, an “atheist’s argument for belief in God,” via Kant and science fiction. I (still) hope to write some more about this challenging (on multiple levels) and fascinating book when I have a chance. 

In theology, Robert Jenson’s A Theology in Outline: Can These Bones Live? is a book that that achieves what it sets out to do: provide a “taste” of theology, as Jenson puts it in the foreword. It is an energetic, enthusiastic book, packed full of gems in an accessible style (the book is based in an introductory undergraduate theology class Jenson taught at Princeton). For a taste, here’s Jenson on the image of God:

So to be made in the image of God is to have a role, and that role is to be in a relationship and a discourse with God and to occupy a place in the story that God has and lives with his people. And that story is not random, but has a plot. And the plot is given to it by the presence in the story of its author. What is really there within each of us, instead of what the Greeks call a physis, is rather something in which each of us participates—an ongoing drama with a plot.

My appreciation for Oliver O’Donovan’s latest (and much more opaque), Finding and Seeking, can be found here.  

Duncan Hamilton’s biography of Eric Liddell, For the Glory (I would like to write more about this one as well), and Stephen Backhouse’s  Kierkegaard: A Single Life were both lively, well-written accounts of fascinating figures who have loomed large in my own life in differing ways. For a contemporary memoir, I enjoyed James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life, which I wrote about here. In the memoirish vein, I wrestled with J.M. Coetzee’s “fictionalized memoirs” (really though, if fiction is included in the mix, it is just fiction), and I enjoyed, or rather “enjoyed,” (Coetzee is perhaps the opposite of Wodehouse) Summertime the most. I wrote a brief note after finishing the first two volumes here where I described the project as A Portrait of the Artist as the Underground Man.

In the reread department, I somehow stumbled into a bunch of Kipling this year, starting with rereading his Jungle Books (I also read Kim for the first time this year, and at some point I would like to write something about Mowgli and young Mr. O’Hara). Rereading Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World was an unexpected delight as I found myself revisiting a number of childhood favorites.

Finally, the book that seems to have stuck with me the most this year is Mark Noll’s The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (I quote it extensively here). It’s a book I have thought about a lot, but have little to add to at the moment (other than please read it if you are at all interested in theology done “in public”). I describe it as sobering in that earlier post, although I have found depressing to be a more accurate adjective as the year has worn on. It is a book that describes a catastrophic failure of theological reasoning and discourse in the public square and looking around I find little reason for hope in the contemporary context. Although, perhaps that is just the wintercearig, an old English word for “winter cares” or “winter in my heart” (a Weatherland discovery) talking as the days grow shorter and my evening commute grows increasingly gloomy. And in the end the cold chill of winter does not have the last word. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” makes for an excellent lullaby,  for those of you in need of such of things, while also warming the wintry heart with some embers of hope.