In what has been a very trying year of pandemic, unrest, and contentious politics we found ourselves again wrapped up in books, for “[b]ooks, both in their reading and their writing represent not just knowledge but a way of knowing, they are how we become wise.”
As Christmas approaches, some members of the Acton Institute’s staff are closing out 2020 by recommending the best books they have read this year:
The Old House of Fear by Russell Kirk: I had read the excellent collection of short stories by Kirk, Ancestral Shadows: An Anthology of Ghostly Tales, years earlier, but this year seemed appropriate to dig a bit more into Kirk’s earliest extended foray into the genre. His pacing is exquisite, and his characterizations of Hugh Logan, Mary MacAskival, the fiendish Edmund Jackman, and the mysterious isle of Carnglass are captivating. An excellent introduction by James Panero of The New Criterion serves as a valuable entrée not only to the novel itself, but to Kirk’s broader work. Among the more memorable passages from the novel, providing insight into some permanent truths, is the following:
Fear, it crossed Logan’s mind, is the normal condition of man, after all. Quiet ages and safe lands are the rare exception in history. Nowadays the tides of disorder were gnawing at whatever security and justice still stood in the world, quite as the swell round Carnglass sought to bring down that heap of gray stones to the mindless anonymity of the ocean. With growing speed, the brooding spectre of terror, almost palpable at Carnglass, was enveloping the world. This island was the microcosm of modern existence.
“Think of books as the fine threads of a spider’s web. They link and connect.” These are the words of Stanley Hauerwas from an exquisite little essay that I used to assign to my sophomore students on the first day of Introduction to Philosophy. I can think of no better way to introduce the top three books I read in 2020, for all three exist as linkages and connections in my intellectual journey.
The first book on my list is The Technology Trap by Carl Benedikt Frey, an economic historian at Oxford University. His historical tracing of the effects of technology on embedded economic structure and community culture throughout the first three industrial revolutions is extremely well researched. This book will help you think through the implications of the dizzying technological, cultural, and political changes that are happening now.
Second, I recommend the vast and wide-ranging biography of Simon Leys written by Philippe Paquet. Leys was the pseudonym used by the Belgian-born Australian professor and expert Sinologist Pierre Ryckmans. I was first introduced to Leys through his masterful collection of essays called The Hall of Uselessness (which might be a less daunting place to start, as the biography is 664 pages) and have learned much from his view of the world and his keen observations about Chinese political history, especially the Cultural Revolution.
Finally, I would recommend David Wang’s fascinating and rich Architecture and Sacrament: A Critical Theory. Wang is professor emeritus of architecture at Washington State University and is deeply interested in the philosophical and theological implications of our built world. Years of thoughtful study and practice bear the fruit of aesthetics and architecture as analogy, chiefly an analogy that points to the participatory nature between humans and those things that are, ultimately, true, good, and beautiful. This book is a hidden gem that deserves to be digested slowly; it presents a way of looking at the world that is deeply theological and, at its heart, a form of catechesis that is needed in our utilitarian world.
With the crazy year we have all experienced, a bit of comedy is warranted. A favorite novel of mine is Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen by P.G. Wodehouse. Bertie Wooster, the far-from-fearless hero, is a kind of adult Peter Pan in twentieth-century London. Wodehouse is often called the funniest writer in the English language, and the title is certainly warranted. His level of prose is unsurpassed in its ingenuity and inner joy. His plots are perfect and tie up every loose string. In a twist on Chekhov, if there is a gun on the mantle in Act I, it will surely be lost or stolen in the Act II, and somehow returned to its rightful owner before the curtain closes. Refreshingly, the funny characters don’t know they are funny. With 99 novels, there is plenty of Wodehouse to explore.
I reviewed the latest book from Anthony Esolen, Sex and the Unreal City. This is his most satirical work since 10 Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. Satire is rarely done well, since its aim of offending our sensibilities is a bad fit for an offense-phobic culture. Esolen lambasts a society which embraces what he calls the “unreal.” The current cultural milieu crushes both body and soul. Esolen brings the themes of unreality together in the final chapter and shows how the Incarnation, Christ placing Himself within reality, is the solution to the problems we face. The book made me think about the best ways to address these types of ideas; perhaps satire is an effective medium to sting people into an epiphany, gadfly-style.
The books I have spent the most time with this year have been sacred ones. Most of my personal Bible reading is from the King James Version. (For a brilliant defense of the continued relevance of this version see Gerald Hammond’s “English Translations of the Bible” in The Literary Guide to the Bible.) Thomas Nelson’s KJV, Reference Bible, Personal Size Giant Print has been the edition I have relied upon most. Its large, clear print and small footprint makes for excellent reading in bed. Its reference apparatus is concise but helpful and includes notes providing definitions for words which are now uncommon or have changed their meaning in the 400-plus years since the translation was first published.
Two of the sacred books of ancient India have also been my constant companions through 2020: The Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. The Gita is perhaps the best known and loved of India’s sacred books. Originally part of the Indian epic the Mahabharata, its slender 700 verses are mostly dialogue between the Prince Arjuna and his charioteer and teacher Krishna. It is a beautiful and brilliant synthesis and summary of Hindu thought. It is particularly illuminating on questions of vocation: “At the beginning, mankind and the obligation of selfless service were created together. Through selfless service, you will always be fruitful and find the fulfilment of your desires: This is the promise of the Creator.” Eknath Easwaran’s translation provides excellent historical and thematic background in its brief introductions to chapters while offering a clear and oftentimes moving translation of the text.
The book I spent the most time with this year other than these was Race and Covenant: Recovering the Religious Roots for American Reconciliation. I did some editorial work on this volume, work which involves much reading and rereading. In each reading, I found more and more of value in this fascinating book. Gerald R. McDermott’s introduction, “Our National Dilemma,” made me rethink the theological nature of my own American citizenship. When I first read his quotation from Augustine – “God can never be believed to have left the kingdoms of men, their dominations and servitudes, outside of the laws of His providence” – I was dumbstruck. Not only did the concept of national covenant help me to better understand both the cause and potential solution to our country’s enduring racial tensions but it has made me look at my citizenship no longer as a mere accident or affection but a concrete vocation from God Himself.
Glenn Loury’s Exile and Return from Slavery was supremely helpful in in shaping the way I understand race as a concept. My first introduction to theories of race were nineteenth-century atlases which, following the science of their day, set forth theory of race as a biological phenomenon that was the product of evolution by natural selection. While nineteenth-century race science’s use to justify racial prejudice and animus has largely (and thankfully) diminished over the years, the essential story as an account of racial differences has persisted. What Loury points out is:
[W]hat we are calling “race” is mainly a social, and only indirectly a biological phenomenon. The persistence across generations of racial differentiation between large groups of people, in an open society where individuals live in close proximity to one another, provides irrefutable indirect evidence of a profound separation between the racially defined networks of social affiliation within that society.
Race is not something a given person has as an accident of birth; it is something which is performed in the social life of all people through familial, social, economic, and political networks. The historical, sociological, economic, and theological observations of the other contributors to this volume are universally thought provoking in their own ways.
The best book I read this year was one of the best books I’ve ever read: The Nickel Boys (2019) by Colson Whitehead. This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is inspired by the tragic, true story of the Dozier School for Boys. Dubbed the “Nickel Academy” and marketed as a reform school run by the state of Florida, its supposedly delinquent boys regularly faced brutality and even death. While the school’s victims included boys of all races (and one Latino character is even comically bounced between the separate facilities for black and white students, because they can’t decide where he belongs), The Nickel Boys tells the story of Elwood – a promising young African American boy arrested for riding, unbeknownst to him, in a stolen car on his way to college – and Turner, a friend he makes at Nickel. The real art of this book is how Whitehead manages so adeptly to confront the reader with injustice, racism, and tragedy and yet still create something truly beautiful – especially through the friendship, grief, and perseverance of the boys. Reading it, I was reminded of one reviewer’s account of The Great Gatsby, in which he remarked in wonder that it is as if there were no wasted words. This book belongs right beside Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird; just like those books, you will be better for having read it.