Some Favorites from My Year in Books (2018)

It was yet another year of (too) many books. While some people need to set goals to encourage them to read anything at all, I think I need to set goals to read fewer books (with more attention). Or, maybe I should just spend less time reading. The blog has been dormant lately as I’m trying to figure out what to do with it (let it drift off into the digital ether?), and in that spirit, this year’s list is presented with minimal comment (although a number of these have short reviews/notes on my Goodreads account). As usual, these are just the books that stick out when I think back over the year of reading – no grand claims for eternal, objective greatness. It’s in no particular order, other than fiction is at the top, everything else following:

Washington Black – Esi Edugyan (my favorite novel this year)

F – Daniel Kehlmann (a Karamazov Brothers redux … sort of)

Anathem -Neal Stephenson (sent me on a science reading kick – see bottom of list)

John Henry Days – Colson Whitehead (the adjective “virtuosic” applies)

Powers – Ursula Le Guin

Transit – Rachel Cusk (the best of the three in the “Outline” trilogy)

We Begin Our Ascent – Joe Mungo Reed

Ethics (Works, # 6) – Dietrich Bonhoeffer (reread – a cornerstone in my personal canon)

Entering into Rest (Ethics as Theology #3) – Oliver O’Donovan

Looking Before and After: Testimony and the Christian Life – Alan Jacobs

An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic – Daniel Mendelsohn (surprised me)

The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War – Andrew Delbanco (searing)

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom – David Blight

The Knox Brothers – Penelope Fitzgerald (delightful)

The Gene: An Intimate History – Siddhartha Mukherjee (I read this in January and while it wasn’t necessarily the most enjoyable book, I found myself thinking back to it again and again throughout the year)

Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman – James Gleick

Maker of Patterns: An Autobiography Through Letters – Freeman Dyson

When Einstein Walked with Gödel: Excursions to the Edge of Thought – Jim Holt (like a dinner party with a collection of scientists, mathematicians and philosophers – organized by a witty and engaging host in Holt)

Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World – Tracy Kidder (currently reading, but can tell it’s a good one)

 

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Reading as Vice

[C.S.] Lewis was already acquiring the skill and taste to claim, one day, the mantle of twentieth-century heir to Samuel Johnson, the most widely read man in eighteenth-century England. To generations of students, astonished by his prodigious literary memory, he would give this simple counsel: “The great thing is to be always reading, but never to get bored – treat it not like work, more as a vice!”

From, The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Philip and Carol Zaleski.

Love, Defined

Love—as understood by the gospel in contrast to all philosophy—is not a method for dealing with people. Instead, it is the reality of being drawn and drawing others into an event, namely, into God’s community with the world, which has already been accomplished in Jesus Christ. “Love” does not exist as an abstract attribute of God but only in God’s actual loving of human beings and the world. Again, “love” does not exist as a human attribute but only as a real belonging-together and being-together of people with other human beings and with the world, based on God’s love that is extended to me and to them. Just as God’s love entered the world, thereby submitting to the misunderstanding and ambiguity that characterize everything worldly, so also Christian love does not exist anywhere but in the worldly, in the infinite variety of concrete worldly action, and subject to misunderstanding and condemnation. Every attempt to portray a Christianity of “pure” love purged of worldly “impurities” is a false purism and perfectionism that scorns God’s becoming human and falls prey to the fate of all ideologies. God was not too pure to enter the world. The purity of love, therefore, will not consist in keeping itself apart from the world, but will prove itself precisely in its worldly form.

A favorite quote from Bonhoeffer, Ethics

Writing Cricket Bats

Shut up and listen. This thing here, which looks like a wooden club, is actually several pieces of particular wood cunningly put together in a certain way so that the whole thing is sprung, like a dance floor. It’s for hitting cricket balls with. If you get it right, the cricket ball will travel two hundred yards in four seconds, and all you’ve done is give it a knock like knocking the top off a bottle of stout, and it makes a noise like a trout taking a fly … (He clucks his tongue to make the noise.) What we’re trying to do is to write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock, it might … travel… (He clucks his tongue again and picks up the script.) Now, what we’ve got here is a lump of wood of roughly the same shape trying to be a cricket bat, and if you hit a ball with it, the ball will travel about ten feet and you will drop the bat and dance about shouting ‘Ouch!’ with your hands stuck into your armpits. (Indicating the cricket bat.) This isn’t better because someone says it’s better, or because there’s a conspiracy by the MCC to keep cudgels off the field. It’s better because it’s better. …

…He’s a lout with language. I can’t help somebody who thinks, or thinks he thinks, that editing a newspaper is censorship, or that throwing bricks is a demonstration while building tower blocks is social violence, or that unpalatable statement is provocation while disrupting the speaker is the exercise of free speech … Words don’t deserve that kind of malarkey. They’re innocent, neutral, precise, standing for this, describing that, meaning the other, so if you look after them you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos. But when they get their corners knocked off, they’re no good any more, and Brodie knocks their corners off. I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you’re dead.

Tom Stoppard, in his play The Real Thing, talking about good writing. Of course, getting the right words in the right order isn’t enough if the author doesn’t have anything true to say and much of The Real Thing is wrestling with this dynamic (the “real thing” being discussed in the play is as much art as it is love). The same character later cautions that it’s easy to get good at “persuasive nonsense. Sophistry in a phrase so neat you can’t see the loose end that would unravel it.” But, in the evangelical subculture I inhabit too often authors fail to recognize that the “cricket bat” of writing is more than just a block of wood. They keep trying to bash (very possibly true and meaningful) ideas with ugly hunks of lumber and then are puzzled by the fact that they don’t “travel.” This tendency extends from the popular level to the academic (but I mean, academic writing in general is very often just beating the ball into the ground with a splintery two-by-four, so evangelicals aren’t alone there).

Dombey sat in the corner of the darkened room in the great arm-chair by the bedside, and Son lay tucked up warm in a little basket bedstead, carefully disposed on a low settee immediately in front of the fire and close to it, as if his constitution were analogous to that of a muffin, and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new.

Dickens is so good at first lines.

There is no worthless life before God

There is no worthless life before God, because God holds life itself to be valuable. Because God is the Creator, Preserver, and Redeemer of life, even the poorest life before God becomes a valuable life. … Where, other than in God, should the measure for the ultimate worth of a life lie? In the subjective affirmation of life? If so, then many a genius would be surpassed by an idiot. In the judgment of the community? If so, then it would soon be evident that judgment about socially valuable or worthless life would be abandoned to the need of the moment and therefore to arbitrary action, and that now this group and now that group of people would fall victim to extermination. The distinction between valuable and worthless life sooner or later destroys life itself.

Bonhoeffer in Ethics. I’ve been thinking about this sort of thing a lot lately. The idea of what grounds the value of a person, of a life, is in the air more and more as different technological and cultural developments push the question forward. Reading Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History, earlier this year, and learning about the frontiers of genetic science and the hopes attached to it by some in the field, was sobering (I’m thinking especially of the idea of editing genomes i.e. in a fetus, to eliminate or encourage particular traits). It feels like we haven’t learned the most fundamental lesson from the disasters of early and mid-twentieth century eugenics. Some of the possible paths for gene therapy/editing being explored make it seem as though early twentieth century eugenics was a flawed project because the criteria and methods were abhorrent. The slogan seems to be: 21st century gene therapy, just don’t be a Nazi about it! But, the criteria or the methods used to eliminate “worthless” aspects of humanity and pursue “progress” aren’t the fundamental problem. It’s the whole project. The early twentieth century proponents of eugenics thought they were acting for the improvement of humanity. The lesson that needs to be learned (but we seem unable to grasp with all our technological power) is that a human being cannot and should not be making a judgment of the worth of another person’s humanity (and I don’t see how the prospect of editing genomes avoids the need for such a judgment). It’s a question beyond our capacity to answer and failure to realize this limit will result, as Bonhoeffer says, in destruction.

The more the church holds to its central message, the more effective it is. Its suffering is infinitely more dangerous to the spirit of destruction than the political power that it may still retain.

Bonhoeffer, Ethics