Slightly fewer books than previous quarters, but some heavyhitters in the fiction category, and rather more nonfiction than earlier in the year. I should also point out that, in these posts, an asterisk next to a book name indicates a book I’ve read before.
Well, this was the year I finally ticked off another of The Big Ones: Middlemarch. For some years this has been my go-to alibi for getting out of reading other long books: “how can I read Cryptonomicon when I haven’t even read Middlemarch yet?”; I now need another alibi (probably War and Peace). As for what I thought of Middlemarch: well, as I said on Twitter, “it turns out that Middlemarch isn’t a ‘classic’ in an ‘eat yer greens’ way, but in a ‘you’ll be increasingly absorbed until you end up reading the last 100 pages before getting up for breakfast’ way.” I loved it.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a much shorter book, but another which richly deserves its status as a classic. Rather topical, too, given Miss Brodie’s (<ahem>) “alt-right” tendencies. I also enjoyed Spark’s curious Watergate-meets-Vatican-2 satire, The Abbess: perhaps helped by the fact that the Abbess herself went to my college: “I read classics for a year at Lady Margaret Hall before switching to Eng. Lit.”
I was also pleased to discover I share an alma mater (modulo a parallel universe or two) with Lyra Silvertongue, star of The Secret Commonwealth, the second book in Philip Pullman’s new trilogy. The Secret Commonwealth was a huge improvement on its predecessor, La Belle Sauvage: I’m looking forward to the third volume. It’s become clear that one of Pullman’s key motivations in writing the new trilogy is to distance himself from the “New Atheists” with whom he has tended to be lumped: the main theme of the book is the importance of imagination over rationality. I find this a much more congenial hobby-horse for him to be riding than “ReLiGiOn iS t3h eViL”.
I also resumed Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, reading both The Day of the Scorpion and The Towers of Silence, having read The Jewel in the Crown last year. Scott is a master of the set piece (one chapter in The Day of the Scorpion is an eighty-page interrogation scene), and in Sarah Layton and Ronald Merrick he has created one of the most compelling heroines, and one of the most vivid monsters, in modern fiction. I’m greatly looking forward to reading the concluding volume, A Division of the Spoils, in the new year. He almost wins book title(s) of the year, too.
- Middlemarch (George Eliot)
- The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Muriel Spark)
- The Day of the Scorpion (Paul Scott)
- Jeeves and the King of Clubs (Ben Schott)
- The Power (Naomi Alderman)
- We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirley Harrison)
- Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Three Other Stories (Truman Capote)
- The Abbess (Muriel Spark)
- The Secret Commonwealth (Philip Pullman)
- The Towers of Silence (Paul Scott)
- Waiting for the Barbarians (J.M. Coetzee)
- The Songlines (Bruce Chatwin)
Perhaps it’s as things got serious in real life that I felt I had to read some equally serious nonfiction: McKittrick and McVea’s informative history of the Northern Ireland Troubles, Roméo Dallaire’s gruelling account of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, and, after Labour’s calamitous election defeat, re-reading Nick Cohen’s What’s Left, which predicted the disaster the Left was leading itself into over a decade ago.
On a lighter note, and snatching “book title of the year” from under Paul Scott’s nose, came Katherine Rundell and her essay, Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise. Rundell is both a children’s author and a fellow of All Souls’ College, and her book is correspondingly intelligent, illuminating, inspiring, warm and moving:
Children’s books say: the world is huge. They say: hope counts for something. They say: bravery will matter, wit will matter, empathy will matter, love will matter. These things may or may not be true. I do not know. I hope they are. I think it is urgently necessary to hear them and to speak them.
The list also includes the very last book I finished in 2019, on the evening of the 31st: A.E. Stalling’s collection, Olives; the only book of poetry I completed during the year.
- Making Sense of the Troubles (David McKittrick and David McVea)
- Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise (Katherine Rundell)
- Shake Hands With the Devil (Roméo Dallaire)
- Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism (Perry Anderson)
- What’s Left?* (Nick Cohen)
- Olives (A.E. Stallings)
I’m definitely cheating a little here, including The Actual Bible. But hey: my two-year Bible reading plan came to an end on 31 December, so on the list it goes. One shift that did occur during the two years was switching from the NRSV to the RSV, after reading Fleming Rutledge’s defence of the older translation in her book, The Crucifixion:
From my perspective, the gains in the New Revised Standard Version are outweighed by the loss of literary quality and powerful sentence structure.
It probably helps as well that my copy of the RSV has slightly larger and clearer type than my compact NRSV: old age is clearly creeping up on me…
- Hebrews for Everyone (Tom Wright)
- For All the Saints? (Tom Wright)
- An Introduction to the Catholic Epistles (Darian Lockett)
- The Screwtape Letters* (C.S. Lewis)
- The Bible*
So, that concludes the list of 2019’s books. In my final post in this series, I’ll pull together the four posts and choose my favourite books of the year in each category.