2017 books round-up

Covers of favourite books from 2017: Protestants (Alec Ryrie), The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver), Albion's Seed (David Hackett Fischer), Always Coming Home (Ursula Le Guin), The Experience of Defeat (Christopher Hill), An Introduction to the Old Testament (Walter Brueggemann)

Time for my annual round-up of books I’ve read during the year. As in previous years (2013 | 2014 | 2015 | 2016), I’ve categorised them as fiction, non-fiction (excluding theology), theology, and “other” (mostly graphic novels and comic books). Asterisks indicate books I’ve read before, and my two favourite books in each category are highlighted in bold. Each title links to my review on Tumblr.

Fiction

It’s safe to say I’ve read more fiction this year than in any previous year of my life. Many, many highlights: A Perfect Spy by John Le Carré is a strong contender for his best book, I loved The Bell by Iris Murdoch and Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. The Essex Serpent narrowly missed the cut for my top 2. Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow divides opinion, as does the sequel, Children of God, but I enjoyed both. Just one anti-recommendation: Conclave, by Robert Harris (whom I normally like) was dismaying tosh.

Another theme was reading to our ten-year old: Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights trilogy earlier in the year, followed by Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence.

Picking two favourites from such a list was not easy. I’d read A Handmaid’s Tale before, or that would easily have come out top (it’s among my favourite novels ever). Setting that aside, though, there was a clear winner for me: The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver’s enthralling epic about a Southern Baptist missionary family disintegrating in late colonial and early independent Congo. Alongside that, I’ll place Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home, a sprawling, non-linear anthropological study of a society that “might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California.”

Non-fiction

This is always something of a mixed bag, though a clearer focus this year on history and politics, including (as usual) some excellent Very Short Introductions. Tom Holland’s Millennium was up to his usual high standards, as was his short biography of Athelstan. I also greatly enjoyed Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity. I didn’t read J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, because a reviewer recommended reading Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land instead. I have seen no cause to regret this decision.

In the end, though, there are two clear favourites for the year: Albion’s Seed, David Hackett Fischer’s magisterial account of the four British migrations whose “folkways”, Fischer argues, came to have a disproportionate influence on American culture; and Christopher Hill’s The Experience of Defeat, a thrilling account of how various radical groups (ranging from the Ranters to the Quakers) came to terms with the disappointments of the English Commonwealth and the even more thoroughgoing reversal of the Restoration.

As we’ll see, these books also had a significant influence on my theological reading this year.

Theology

One of my aims this year (well, starting from September 2016) was to read more books about the Bible. For various reasons this seems to have fizzled out a little in the second half of the year, but not before I’d appreciated Walter Brueggemann’s An Introduction to the Old Testament: one of my two picks for the year from this category. Either of the Gerhard Forde books I read could have been contenders, too.

In the second half of the year, I read several books on some of the “minority reports” of the Reformation and post-Reformation Protestantism, in particular the Quakers and the Moravians. This area of interest was spurred, among other things, by my two favourite nonfiction books of the year, Albion’s Seed and The Experience of Defeat. In both of these, the Quakers feature prominently, and The Experience of Defeat also takes in the other Protestant sects that emerged in England during the 1640s and 1650s.

The other major influence in this area was my other pick from this category: Protestants, by Alec Ryrie. This superb book – my single favourite nonfiction book of the year – might perhaps sit more comfortably under the general nonfiction category, but I included it under theology because a large part of the impact it had on me was in Ryrie’s description of the “love affair” that lies at the heart of Protestantism. As I said in my review at the time, the picture Ryrie paints is of a dysfunctional family, but its unquestionably my family: and Ryrie has made me feel more at home in it than for a long time.

Other

Otherwise known as the “poetry and comic books” section. I managed to read more poetry than in previous years, mostly thanks to resolving to read a poem each day before bed – a resolution that survived reasonably well until I got rather bogged down in a volume of Rilke. I’ll attempt a reboot in 2018.

The Scott Pilgrim series is sweet: much better than the film (which I also enjoyed). I felt that the Saga series is either losing its way a little, or I’m losing my interest in it. I’ll see if I can pick up Volume Eight once it’s in the library.

Ian Martin’s Epic Space is neither a comic book nor poetry. What it is a hilarious satire on modern architecture. Plus, my name’s in the back. 🙂

Running the numbers

In total, I read 112 books this year, an increase from 89 in 2016. The breakdown by category can be seen here, showing the dominance of fiction:

chart (2)

I used the library less this year, with most of the books being my own physical or electronic copy:

chart (1)

Looking ahead

My reading plans for 2018 include:

I also have some interesting books on early Jewish history lined up: I’m currently reading Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews, and have a couple of books on the intertestamental period and the Dead Sea Scrolls on the shelves. I also hope to pick up Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion once I’ve made some room for it.

Let’s see how things work out in practice…

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