2016 books round-up

booksmontage2016

It’s January, so it’s time for my annual summary of the books I’ve read during the previous year (previous years: 2013 | 2014 | 2015). As usual, these are categorised as fiction, non-fiction (excluding theology), theology, and “other” (mostly graphic novels and comic books). Asterisks indicate books I’ve read before.

The overall picture can be seen from these charts. First, by category:

category

Second, by format/source (with “other” shown in pale blue):

format

In other words, while I was hitting the library pretty hard, it was mostly for reading comic books.

Fiction

This was another good year for reading fiction (after the shocker in 2014 when I read only ten novels). One intentional theme throughout the year was reading novels by women, including three major sequences: Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy. Of the three, my favourite was the Gilead trilogy, and of those I’ve singled out Lila as one of my two favourite novels of the year.

My other favourite for the year is Luther Blissett’s astonishing Reformation-era historical novel, Q. But pretty much all the listed books are worth reading. Other particular highlights include Ali Smith’s lovely, life-affirming novella Girl Meets Boy, Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, and Paul Kingsnorth’s extraordinary novel the Norman Conquest, Wake, written in a form of cod Anglo-Saxon.

Non-fiction

The usual mishmash under this category. Edward Ross’s Filmish, Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and Kate Evans’ Red Rosa are all good enough to get listed here rather than under graphic novels. The Silk Roads is a fascinating (even if, towards the end, slightly over-cooked) presentation of a part of the world, and eras of history, that are too obscure for most of us. The implosion of the Labour party and the disaster of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election as leader sent me scurrying back to Nick Cohen’s What’s Left?

Very hard to select two favourites from this, so in the interests of balance I’ve gone for two works of English history from sharply contrasting political viewpoints: Robert Tombs’ affably magisterial history of the English people, and Selina Todd’s account of the twentieth century working class, combining vivid eyewitness testimony with a sharp political analysis, held together by an effective use of the life of pools winner Viv “spend, spend, spend!” Nicholson as a framing device.

Theology

My main aim this year was to read more Lutheran theology. For the first half of the year, I made a reasonably good effort at this, with a particular focus on Luther’s theology of the “captive will” (see the books by Joshua Miller, Oswald Bayer and Gerhard Forde, as well as Luther’s own Bondage of the Will).

Around September, though, there was a change of direction, as I realised that, with only one or two exceptions, it had been years – well over a decade, in fact – since I’d read books that engage directly with the Bible, whether as introductions or commentaries. Originally I intended this to be my 2017 reading focus, but I soon realised I wanted to start right away. I also switched Bible reading plan to one that aims at reading the whole Bible systematically over the course of a year.

The nature of the project is summarised by the title of Marcus Borg’s flawed but stimulating book, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: specifically, reading with an openness to mainstream scholarly understandings of the biblical books’ content, origins and authorship. Above all else, this was prompted by reading an essay by Peter Enns in which Enns describes a colleague who was shocked to discover how far scholarship was from what he’d been taught at his evangelical college. He asked his former professor why this was, only to be told:

Our job was to protect you from this information so as not to shipwreck your faith.

Upon reading that, I realised I no longer wanted to be protected from “this information” – while at the same time wanting to hold on to the Bible as Christian scripture. Hence a mixture of books that are strongly historically-critical in their approach (such as Alberto Soggin’s Introduction to the Old Testament) and writers such as Walter Brueggemann and Ellen Davis who, without rejecting the insights of biblical criticism, focus on how the Bible as we have received it, in all its plurality, reveals God to us.

This is another category from which it’s difficult to pick favourites, so I’ve selected one from each of the year’s main foci: Joshua Miller’s Hanging by a Promise, a profound and thought-provoking account of God’s hiddenness, and Ellen Davis’ Getting Involved with God, not least for her brilliant chapters on Old Testament wisdom literature.

Other

As will be seen from the charts at the start, this category is mostly the story of me and my library card attacking Southwark’s large collection of comic books and graphic novels. It’s also the story of having finished watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer earlier in the year and making a start on the “season 8” series of comic books (though deciding that I’d had enough of a good thing after four volumes). The one non-comic book is Mallory Ortberg’s splendid literary parody, Texts from Jane Eyre.

Favourites from this category, again chosen fairly arbitrarily: Dan Dare, for the retro nostalgia but also the superb artwork (which has dated less badly than the politics and gender relations), and Evan Dahm’s Kickstarter-funded Vattu series, also mostly on visual grounds.

Plans for 2017

No hard-and-fast plans, but some overall aims:

  • continue reading “books about the Bible”
  • read more theology by women (recommendations are warmly invited)
  • dip my toe into the vast and deep waters that are Karl Barth
  • make more headway on my to-read shelves than I managed this year…
  • more poetry, War & Peace, “and a pony”…

2014: the year of big books

British Library Big Books bagIt’s the end of the year, so it’s time for my annual summary of the books I’ve read during 2014 (see 2013’s entry).

Here are the books I’ve completed during 2014, broken down into categories (fiction, non-fiction, theology) and listed in order of completion. I’ve also identified my two favourite books from each category. Each title links to my comments about the book on Tumblr. Books marked with a * are books I’d read before.

Fiction 

Favourites: Daniel Deronda, Parade’s End.

Currently reading: Moby Dick, by Herman Melville.

Comments: I’ve not read a huge number of novels this year – though arguably Parade’s End should count as four, and Daniel Deronda is even longer than Ford’s tetralogy. Greatly enjoyed finishing off the Smiley trilogy (especially Smiley’s People). My clear favourite for the year, though, was Daniel Deronda, which is (as I said at the time) probably in the top three novels I’ve ever read.

Looking ahead: Having only just broken into double figures this year, I must try to read more novels next year. My wife has bought me Pat Barker’s Regeneration (having been recommending it to me for ages), so maybe I’ll end up doing the whole trilogy. I also have War and Peace sitting on my Kindle…

Non-fiction 

Favourites: Capital in the Twenty-First Century, The Shock of the New.

Comments: A very satisfying set of books. Tom Holland’s Rubicon and Persian Fire were both hugely enjoyable works of ancient history. Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace is, to my mind, the definitive book on the underlying causes of the First World War. Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory is a remarkable book, and was only narrowly pipped to the post by Robert Hughes’ The Shock of the New.

Clear winner, though, is Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Piketty’s book has, of course, been widely read and commented on, with people arguing strongly for and against his thesis. As for me, I feel similarly to the FT’s literary editor (£):

No one is going to turn to the literary editor for a decisive ruling on all of this but it seems fair to conclude that, while Piketty may not have settled the inequality debate, he has taken it into new territory: his opponents will be obliged to follow.

But the real impact for me was not Piketty’s analysis of the current position or his predictions for the future, but the insights his book provides into the nature of wealth, and its changing distribution, in the past: especially the dominance of income from capital until the First World War and its (temporary?) eclipse by income from labour during the mid-twentieth century. This has illuminated my reading of books as diverse as Daniel Deronda, Parade’s End and The War That Ended Peace.

Looking ahead: The biggest book currently looming on my to-read shelf is David Hackett Fischer’s “magisterial” (read: enormous) Albion’s Seed. And who knows: maybe 2014 will be the year I finally get round to reading E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art. I’m also hoping to read William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain – described by Tom Holland as the Christian equivalent of Douglas Adams’ Last Chance to See.

Theology/spirituality

Favourites: Lutheran Theology, God’s Philosophers.

Currently reading: Being Christian, by Rowan Williams.

Comments: A tricky one, this. There’s no doubt which was my favourite theology book this year: Steven Paulson’s Lutheran Theology blew my mind and made me fall in love all over again with, well, Lutheran theology – to an extent that rather overshadows the rather different material I’d been reading for the rest of the year. However, James Hannam’s book God’s Philosophers deserves a mention, not least because its thesis – that medieval science was far more sophisticated than is generally assumed, and indeed was foundational to modern science – is one that needs constant repetition in order to counteract the Protestant and Enlightenment propaganda that still governs most people’s assumptions on the subject.

This is also the one category in which my favourite belies the title to this post, with Steven Paulson coming in at a svelte 272 pages (plus notes). James Hannam clocks up a respectable 448 pages, but this still falls short of Thomas Piketty (577 pages plus lots of notes), Parade’s End and Daniel Deronda (each more than 800 pages). The Shock of the New is a mere 412 pages, but they’re big and glossy, so the book ends up weighing an impressive 1.66 kg.

Looking ahead: Oswald Bayer’s Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Reinterpretation is one I’m looking forward to getting my teeth into. I may also give Heiko Oberman’s Luther: Man Between God and the Devil a go. Basically the plan (“if you want to make God laugh…”) is to read more Lutheran theology this year than has been the case until recently.

Other

I could have included graphic novels in the fiction list, but I’m too much of a snob:

It feels insulting to bury “poetry” under “other”, but poetry books are not always the sort that you read from start to finish. Hence a “books completed” list leaves most of the poetry I’ve read (e.g. Geoffrey Hill and Paul Celan) unrecorded. But here goes, anyway:

Books! Books! And additional books! (2013 edition)

2013 recommended booksIt must be the end of the year, because here’s one of those navel-gazing, end-of-year-list blog posts.

These are the books I completed during 2013, broken down into three categories (fiction, non-fiction other than theology, and theology), and listed within each category in approximate order of completion. I’ve also identified the two books from each category that I would particularly recommend. Each book title links to my comments (if any) on the book as posted on my Tumblr.

Novels/fiction: 

Recommendations: Anna Karenina, The Handmaid’s Tale.

Currently reading: Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone, by James Baldwin.

Comments: Given that I tend to read more non-fiction that fiction, this has been a pretty good year by my standards. In particular I finally got round to reading three novels that I’ve been wanting to read (and that my wife has been recommending to me) for ages: Anna Karenina, The Handmaid’s Tale and Possession. None of them disappointed. A Canticle for Leibowitz is less “literary”, but will stay with me a long time.

Non-fiction/other: 

Recommendations: Cultural Amnesia, My Traitor’s Heart.

Currently reading: God’s Philosophers, by James Hannam.

Comments: Some really good stuff in there. Vanished Kingdoms, The Fatal Shore, Iron Curtain and The Tragedy of Liberation could also have made it into my recommendations. But the standout book of the year for me – the one that has done most to change how I think, I suspect (and hope) permanently – was Clive James’s love letter to humanism, Cultural Amnesia.

Theology:

Recommendations: The Cloister Walk, Unapologetic.

Currently reading: Evangelii Gaudium, by Pope Francis; The Birth of the Messiah, by Raymond E. Brown.

Comments: A bit of a mixed bag, this. I should probably resolve to be a little more focused and disciplined next year (“Good luck with that…”). The first half dozen books reflect the Lutheran/Benedictine crossover that is probably the most accurate location for where my spiritual tent is currently pitched.

Overall, the really big hole this year across all categories is the absence of any poetry. It’s not that I didn’t read any, but that I didn’t “finish” any poetry books. Still, something to rectify next year, perhaps.

Readings dutiful and revelatory

Annunciation (Mary reading) by Lorenzo Costa (1460-1535)I’ve just finished reading Possession: A Romance, by A.S. Byatt. Towards the end of the novel, Byatt discusses the act of reading, as Roland (one of the two central characters) reads a work by one of the fictional Victorian poets around whom the plot of the novel revolves, Randolph Henry Ash:

There are readings – of the same text – that are dutiful, readings that map and dissect, readings that hear a rustling of unheard sounds, that count grey little pronouns for pleasure or instruction and for a time do not hear golden or apples. There are personal readings, that snatch for personal meanings, I am full of love, or disgust, or fear, I scan for love, or disgust, or fear. There are – believe it – impersonal readings – where the mind’s eye sees the lines move onwards and the mind’s ear hears them sing and sing.

Now and then there are readings which make the hairs on the neck, the non-existent pelt, stand on end and tremble, when every word burns and shines hard and clear and infinite and exact, like stones of fire, like points of stars in the dark – readings when the knowledge that we shall know the writing differently or better or satisfactorily, runs ahead of any capacity to say what we know, or how. In these readings, a sense that the text has appeared to be wholly new, never before seen, is followed, almost immediately, by the sense that it was always there, that we the readers, knew it was always there, and have always known it was as it was, though we have now for the first time recognised, become fully cognisant of, our knowledge.

This reminded me of John Bunyan’s description of his experience over many years of reading the Bible:

I have sometimes seen more in a line of the Bible than I could well tell how to stand under, and yet at another time the whole Bible hath been to me as dry as a stick; or rather, my heart hath been so dead and dry unto it, that I could not conceive the least drachm of refreshment, though I have looked it all over.

Another parallel can be found in the fact that Roland has read the Ash poem in question many times before, as can often be the case for us when we read familiar Bible passages:

Think of this, as Roland thought of it, rereading ‘The Garden of Proserpina’ for perhaps the twelfth, or maybe even the twentieth time, a poem he ‘knew’ in the sense that he had already experienced all its words, in their order, and also out of order, in memory, in selective quotation or misquotation – in the sense also, that he could predict, at times even recite, those words which were next to come, or more remotely approaching, the place where his mind rested, like clawed bird feet on twig.

The one place where the comparison breaks down – though Christians can be the first to overlook this point – comes in the next sentence:

Think of this – that the writer wrote alone, and the reader read alone, and they were alone with each other.

That’s often our (mis)perception of what reading the Bible is about. However, often the writer didn’t write alone, but were (at least) dictating to a scribe. What’s more, in most cases they were writing not to an individual, but for an audience. That is certainly true of the bulk of St Paul’s letters.

And nor do we read alone. Any true reading of the Bible (even if I am the only person in the room as I read) is with the church and in the church.

For all that, though, Byatt’s words on reading in general – or at least, the reading that is, like Roland’s “violently yet steadily alive” – strike a lot of chords about my experience of reading the Bible: at times (perhaps most times) “dutiful”; but at others, a reading in which “every word burns and shines hard and clear and infinite and exact”.