I am not relevant enough to give recommendations for books published in 2016; for that, you can check out editor John Wilson’s excellent list here. I can, however, humbly offer a handful of exceptional books that I read this year. I’m pleased that it is a diverse list—new(ish) books and books I reread; classics, novels, intellectual histories, philosophical biographies, nightmares, criticisms, and more. Books are ordered more or less according to how much I enjoyed them, with the last being the best, although I recommend them all. Honorable mentions and worst books (from which I recommend you stay far, far away) conclude the list.
Kidnapped, Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)
Over the last few years I have been slowly working my way through Michael Schmidt’s excellent The Novel: A Biography. One reason it is taking me so long to get through this thousand-page behemoth on the historical development of the novel is because I have been stopping along the way to read some of those works and authors I had, for whatever reason, never read. One such author was Robert Louis Stevenson. Stevenson is often relegated to the status of “children’s author” because of the genres in which he writes, but his prose is terse and brilliant, and his stories are entertaining for readers of all ages. Schmidt gives us Henry James on Stevenson: “Foregrounding manner, medium used in a particular way, sets him apart from writers who seek to disappear in their writing. He appears. James calls it a ‘bravery of gesture.’”
The ingredients that make Kidnapped great are relatively simple, but in the hands of Stevenson they are transformed into a thrilling adventure story—a taut, minimal plot; winsome protagonists; a majestic landscape (the Scottish highlands); a historical setting (the tumult following the Jacobite rising of 1745) and an uncanny ability to capture the sound and idiosyncrasies of the Scots dialect. This last can make for some occasional tough going for the modern reader, but on the whole it is enjoyable and adds much to the authentic feel of the book:
I was anxious to redeem my character, and offered, if he would pour out the brandy, to run down and fill the bottle at the river.
“I wouldnae waste the good spirit either,” says he. “It’s been a good friend to you this night; or in my poor opinion, ye would still be cocking on yon stone. And what’s mair,” says he, “ye may have observed (you that’s a man of so much penetration) that Alan Breck Stewart was perhaps walking quicker than his ordinar’.”
“You!” I cried, “you were running fit to burst.”
“Was I so?” said he. “Well, then, ye may depend upon it, there was nae time to be lost. And now here is enough said; gang you to your sleep, lad, and I’ll watch.”
For fans of: Swashbuckling adventure; wilderness/survival tales; historical backdrops; drawn-out chases.
The Metaphysical Club, Louis Menand (2001)
An interesting portrayal of how a group of loosely connected intellectuals—Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, Charles S. Peirce, and John Dewey—transformed American thought through a broad philosophical stance we now call pragmatism. Of particular note is how much influence is attributed to Charles Darwin. Darwin’s primary gift to philosophical thought came not from his evolutionary theory per se, but from the principle behind that theory. For according to Darwin, evolution advances not by something so crude as “survival of the fittest”—an idea propagated by Darwin’s lesser colleague, Herbert Spencer—but by chance, plain and simple. Natural selection does not favor species based on beneficial traits they may have adapted for survival; natural selection simply chooses species with a random throw of the dice. The universe is not a cosmos, but an absolute uncertainty.
From Darwin, the early pragmatists learned that there can never be metaphysical, epistemological, or ethical certainty about anything (leading to the subtle irony behind the title, “The Metaphysical Club”), and henceforth everything must be viewed solely in terms of its chance of success based on purely material, or pragmatic, criteria. It is difficult to overstate the radical shift of this view: After Darwin, thought is fully relegated to the immanent and material—even if metaphysical truths exist, we cannot hope to know them—and thus scientific empiricism becomes not only the best, but the only way to proceed philosophically.
Menand captures the inherent ambivalence of this view in the preface:
They taught a kind of skepticism that helped people cope with life in a heterogeneous, industrialized, mass-market society, a society in which older human bonds of custom and community seemed to have become attenuated, and to have been replaced by more impersonal networks of obligation and authority. But skepticism is also one of the qualities that make societies like that work. It is what permits the continual state of upheaval that capitalism thrives on.
Even though they helped “free thought from thralldom to official ideologies, of the church or the state or even the academy,” these thinkers left precious little for thought to stand on. The effects of this shift are still with us.
For fans of: Intellectual history; philosophy of science; taxonomies of thought that still inform American life.
The Last Christian, Adolf Holl (1980)
[The book] argues that in the person of Francis the premodern world, so to speak, gathered itself together before coming to an end. For one last time, before the forces of progress thundered off on their triumphant path, one man looked into the motivating thrust behind the whole thing and decisively rejected it: Francis of Assisi, the last Christian.
So opens Adolf Holl’s unconventional book on Francis, part biography, part historiography, and part critique of modernity. I first read this book in college, and I opened it again last year for a trip to Italy, which included a visit to Assisi. The book’s controversial argument will be evident from the passage above: Francis was the “last Christian” (the German title more precisely implies the “last” or “second Christ”) precisely because he rejected modernity.
This is not hagiography; Holl is thoroughly modern in his approach, even as he seeks to take Francis “on his own terms.” He draws from “unofficial” sources like the Fioretti—the oral tales passed around among the Little Brothers—more than the official narratives published by the like of St. Bonaventure, whom Holl distrusts as a betrayer of the spirit of Francis. Thrown in are hearty doses of existentialism and psychoanalytic theory, which make for an interesting, if also occasionally confounding, read. Despite or because of Holl’s methodology, a truly complex picture of Francis emerges: “An obedient rebel, an earnest clown, an unworldly activist, an ascetical master of the arts of life, a restless wise man, a convivial penitent, a humble authoritarian.”
Holl is most interesting when discussing the socio-economic impact of Francis’s life, and it is here where the real argument about the “last Christian” comes into play. Francis, Holl contends, “was one of us”—the son of a merchant, privileged, a child of the “bourgeois ego,” in other words, a modern. And what is the bourgeois ego? Acquisitiveness, love of money, capital, to be sure, but also the desire for a comfortable life, for security against the anxieties and uncertainties that life will bring. Francis literally and metaphorically revolted against the bourgeois ego when he disowned his father before the entire town, standing naked before all and exclaiming, “from now on, my only Father is in heaven.” He exchanged this bourgeois life for one of unbounded freedom and joy—the freedom of the itinerant, the troubadour of God (see my note on The Philosophy of Walking below), and the freedom of poverty, of release from the world’s material hold. Francis sought to become the lowest of the low, for the humble will be raised.
We shall look upon Francis as a fool (his own word), as the sort of man who takes the powerful of this world by the arm, as a child might, to tell them the truth—with a force that stuns them to silence.
For fans of: Critiques of modernity; the messy lives of the saints; medieval thought.
The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1880; 1992 in the Pevear and Volokhonsky Translation)
I first read Dostoyevsky’s magnum opus in college in the Constance Garnett translation. Despite Garnett’s dated prose style, it became one of my favorite novels. When I had the chance to reread the novel this year for a book club, I opted for the version by the husband and wife team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. The difference was palpable; it was truly like reading the novel for the first time.
To quote from Schmidt’s The Novel again: “In translation it is possible to forget that [Dostoyevsky] can be humorous, even comic, in dark ways. And unlike Turgenev, he does not write in an easily transferable style. Some critics suggest he did not write well, the prose deliberately repetitious, flat, low-key, a language often appropriate to and mimetic of the world on which it drew.” (Additionally, it is partly for this reason that Schmidt places him somewhere between Dickens and Kafka.) It seems to me that Pevear and Volokhonsky are able to capture this exact quality of Dostoyevsky’s—both its inherent strengths and shortcomings. It is almost as if Dostoyevsky has too much to say, too much passion, too much psychological insight to communicate, that he can’t be distracted by “literary style.” His characters are maximalist; they pour themselves out on the page with no regard to form. Thus Pevear and Volokhonsky—perhaps because they are not members of the literary establishment, but are amateurs (in the original sense of the word, i.e. lovers of a subject)—become something like the ideal translators of Dostoyevsky, lending the book a new immediacy and power.
For fans of: Maximalist fiction; the psychology of the criminal, the accused, the fool, and the saint; Russian religious epics.
Melmoth the Wanderer, Charles R. Maturin (1820)
A true Gothic novel, replete with diabolical pacts, cursed portraits, decadent southern European families, nested stories (presented in a way distinctly different than Cloud Atlas—see below), gaslighting monks, and pure psychological horror. The Penguin Classics cover, which features a detail from Goya’s A Monk Talking to an Old Woman, says it all.
Melmoth follows the titular character, a scholar who has sold his soul to the devil in the manner of Faust, and those unfortunate souls who throughout the centuries have come into the orbit of his destiny. It is easy to see here the particular mood and imagination that influenced Poe, Lovecraft, and Borges, among many others. But for Maturin, a clergyman in the Church of Ireland, all of this darkness was on display for a purpose—to expose the deceit and worldly power of Rome, and to frighten people into the true (i.e., Protestant) religion. This sentiment is most evident in the harrowing tale of the Spaniard Alonzo Monçada, who for hundreds of excruciatingly detailed pages tells of his confinement in a monastery against his will. While there, the monks use what can only be called psychological torture to prevent him from leaving; think of something somewhat along the lines of Kubrick’s The Shining. This portion of the novel culminates in an absolutely terrifying account of an attempted escape through the monastery’s claustrophobic crypts, where death—or worse, madness—lurks around every corner.
Despite its anti-Catholicism, which has unfortunately contributed to damaging stereotypes, Maturin’s work is a powerful one about the darkness in human hearts that is still able to speak to modern readers.
For fans of: The Faust legend; Eraserhead; abandoned castles and ruined cities where unutterable horrors occur on stormy nights.
A Philosophy of Walking, Frédéric Gros (2014)
I only just started reading this at the end of the year, but I’m including it because it promises to be one of my favorite books in recent memory. Gros’s book (a translation from the French) alternates between short essays on various aspects of walking (“Outside,” “Slowness,” “Silences,” “Energy”) and studies of philosophers and poets who establish a link between the mind and the foot. In the lives of Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Thoreau, and others, he finds thinkers whose deepest insights are inseparable from the body in motion. This is far from the leisurely stroll of Kant—what Gros calls walking to escape thought—but is instead a form of walking that clarifies thought.
Walking is a mode of living that embraces freedom, but this freedom is of a vastly different sort than that offered by the plethora of choices and dependencies that entangle us in the web of our consumerist lives. Gros writes, “these micro-liberations all constitute accelerations of the system, which imprisons you all the more strongly. But whatever liberates you from time and space alienates you from speed.” This freedom comes in the form of solitude, transgression, renunciation of worldly systems and values. It allows one to see things in context, and thus which things are extraneous and which are truly valuable. We are “no longer reduced to a junction in the network of redistributing information, images and goods.”
Nietzsche in particular offers a model for the psychosomatic experience of walking. The philosopher famously sought out the mountains and the coasts, often walking for over six or seven hours at a time. But the effect this had on his thought was critical, as he himself relates:
We do not belong to those who have ideas only among books, when stimulated by books. It is our habit to think outdoors—walking, leaping, climbing, dancing, preferably on lonely mountains or near the sea where even the trails become thoughtful. Our first questions about the value of a book, of a human being, or a musical composition are: Can they walk? Even more, can they dance?
Many others have written their books solely from their reading of other books, so that many books exude the stuffy odour of libraries. By what does one judge a book? By its smell (and even more, as we shall see, by its cadence)….
Think of the scribe’s body: his hands, his feet, his shoulders and legs. Think of the book as an expression of physiology. In all too many books the reader can sense the seated body, doubled up, stooped, shrivelled in on itself. The walking body is unfolded and tensed like a bow: opened to wide spaces like a flower to the sun, exposed torso, tensed legs, lean arms.
For fans of: Non-academic philosophy, Nietzsche and Thoreau, anti-Kantianism; vigorous walking.
What Color Is Your Parachute?, Richard Bolles (2016)
In the category of “books I never would have read based on their titles,” What Color Is Your Parachute? might occupy the top spot. But I did happen to pick it up, and what I found was not a feel-good self-discovery book, but an incredibly robust, informative, and practical guide to navigating the job search and thinking about career paths. I’m now convinced that this book should be required reading for every college student (I certainly wish I had read it then), as it provides valuable insight for approaching the world of work after the 2008 financial crisis.
In addition to providing great practical advice on job searching, Bolles offers a systematic and effective method for helping the reader find or change careers based on her unique background, interests, skills, and attributes (hence the title, which I’m glad he doesn’t belabor). It is far more sophisticated than other books I have seen on the topic, because it makes use of skills assessment, personal narrative, psychology, and even—somewhat surprisingly—theology to aid the reader in self-evaluation.
For fans of: Books on vocation and navigating the current job market; challenging exercises that yield practical knowledge.
The Pursuit of Italy, David Gilmour (2012)
Hands down one of the best histories I have ever read, partly because it is at the same time a superb work of cultural appreciation and criticism. Gilmour captures not only the history of Italy (or more accurately, Italies), but the essence of Italy, as perhaps only a foreigner can. His lively prose, erudition, and experience combine to make this an absolute delight to read. All I can say about it I have said in this post.
For fans of: Italy, Italian culture, Italian history; revisionism, critiques of nineteenth-century nationalism.
Rabelais and His World, Mikhail Bakhtin (1965)
Gargantua and Pantagruel, Francois Rabelais (c. 1532 – 1564)
I include these two together, for obvious reasons. This year marks the first time I really dove into Rabelais, and I believe I have found a kindred spirit. Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World, another work I have written about here and here, was an indispensable guide to reading through Rabelais.
Bakhtin’s central thesis is that, in his pentalogy of novels, Rabelais harnesses the massive and unconscious forces of what he calls popular-festive folk humor, which includes such concepts as ambivalent laughter, the grotesque body (open to and in union with the world), the “material bodily lower stratum,” and banquet feasting. This constellation of themes represented an “unofficial” folk culture, which stood in opposition to the official culture of medieval authority, but which was permitted certain free expressions (the Feast of Fools, carnival, etc.). During times such as these, irreverent laughter—which tears down but also builds up, unlike the later satirical tradition of Swift—causes the official world to be flipped upside down, and cold, rigid authoritarianism is transformed into joyful freedom, where the first is last and the last is first. Bakhtin stresses the ambivalent nature of this outlook—nothing is purely condemnatory, but all is connected to the cosmic cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. This is typified in the infant Gargantua’s ravenous appetite. Rabelais is not simply satirizing gluttony; he is also pointing to the insatiability of life, and the primordial links between ingestion, digestion, and renewal.
For fans of: Terry Gilliam; the grotesque, the low, medieval earthy existence; literary criticism.
The Magus of the North, Isaiah Berlin
A nice introduction to the arguments and milieu of the apostle of Romanticism, J.G. Hamann. Berlin’s conversational tone and big-picture view in this book are engaging.
Hangsaman, Shirley Jackson (1951)
Shirley Jackson is everywhere these days; it seems that her considerable literary output beyond the infamous short story “The Lottery” is finally getting its due. My good friend Martyn has written eloquently about Jackson and induced me to read the strange novel Hangsaman, a dark coming of age story where much lies hidden beneath a seemingly calm but strained exterior.
Worst Books Read in 2016
A Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin (1996)
I tried. I really did. Everything about me indicates that I ought to be a huge fan of this series—I grew up on Tolkien, I’m obsessed with medieval history, and I’m a fan of Dungeons & Dragons. But only 100 pages in, I was confirmed in my choice to avoid the land of Westeros. The characters are perverse and loathsome, the politics sordid; and the narrative lacks the metaphysical foundation that gives The Lord of the Rings its permanence. A Game of Thrones is essentially a soap opera, which is the most nihilistic of genres: story is reduced to mere plot—or, more accurately, a mere sequence of events—whose only function is to titillate the reader/viewer with ever-increasing intensity. The very form demands that there be no resolution, no growth, no meaning; there is only an eternal procession of scenes, with an unwieldy cast of characters, which by their nature must grow more extreme and controversial to remain entertaining. The fact that George R.R. Martin can’t finish the series is typical. Soap operas can’t ever be finished.
Those interested in medievalesque literature should read medieval history. Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, largely about the Hundred Years’ War, has more real-life drama, intrigue, political maneuvering, and scandal than George R.R. Martin’s adolescent mind could ever dream up.
Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell (2004)
There are apparently some who think this novel is genius, perhaps one of the best creations of the twenty-first century. I’m not one of those people. The book is mildly entertaining, but its central structure/gimmick is nothing to write home about. In fact, it’s pretentious and annoying. The book contains multiple narratives spanning thousands of years, and implies that the narrator of each story might be a reincarnation of the previous narrator. So what? We’re never given a reason why we’re supposed to care—there is nothing linking these disparate stories except for the author’s telling us there is. Then, the stories are presented palindromically; again, this is evidently meant to be some ingenious structure, when really the “cliffhangers” it produces are purely artificial. Skip this one and see the movie instead, which retains all of the book’s annoyances but manages to be somewhat enjoyable.
*Image: Benozzo Gozzoli, St. Augustine Reading the Epistle of St. Paul