Unfortunately, I didn’t do as much reading in 2011 as I hoped to do. Or rather, I did a lot of reading, but only in the beginnings of books. Hence, the list I have to put up are only the books that I finished completely.
Reading is a gift. And when I say that, I don’t mean that it’s a talent. It is a gift to be able to read the books we have access to. It’s a gift to have access to them! I was thinking the other day, what if Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury) came true? What if books were outlawed and people went around burning your house up if you had one? Would you really have the stamina to memorize the books you love, so that they never cease to be a part of you? I like to think about this a lot. A poem is much easier to memorize because you can quite easily follow the themes of the writer, the different patterns (especially in rhyming poems.) But books? If I were to memorize my favorite book? It would take five years to complete The Idiot (Fydor Dostoevsky). So then I look on all those shelves of books, books holding stories, ideas, philosophies, saving grace, wars, policies, catharsis all in their strong straight arms, and I think: “This is all a gift.” Please, appreciate this gift while you can. Read books, but read the good books. And I don’t mean the ones whose ideas agree with yours, or the ones that only have things you like in them. I mean books that are well written. Books that consciously present paradoxes, relevant in our cultures or past cultures, that are worthy of notice. Books that tell the heart of the author.
I’m done talking about reading. Here’s my top… well, I’m not sure how many there are yet, but my top favorite books from 2011.
Can You Forgive Her?
Save all the depressing elements of Anthony Trollope’s plots (especially He Knew He Was Right and The way We Live Now) I actually rather enjoyed this dusty, dry novel. Can You Forgive Her? explores the mental confusion that can come from never really deciding on one thing or another (in this case, for the heroine Alice, a husband.) In the midst of her going back and forth, telling one man yes and another no and then switching soon after, people are always trying to influence, are looking down on her, and controlling her. The title was a bit deceiving. I really thought it was going to be some Gothic novel like Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier) and the main character (a woman) runs around melodramatically ruining everybody else’s lives. But it wasn’t like that at all. It deals much more with mental strain and confusion than anything else. All in all, it was a pretty satisfying read. I knew I had to schedule myself in order to get through it, so I forced myself to read two chapters every day and I finished it in a month and a half. (That schedule didn’t work with Don Quixote, but I would recommend something like it if you’re having trouble getting through a 19th century novel.)
Ah, C.S. Lewis. I do love you. Not much to say here about this book except that I love reading apologetic type things, especially from 20th century thinkers. C.S. Lewis fascinates me. Although I disagreed with some of the theological principles in Mere Christianity (only slightly disagreed) I would say that it remains, to me, one of the clearest cut pictures of the doctrine of Christianity.
Narcissus and Goldmund
Please welcome Narcissus and Goldmund to the front. By far, this was one of my favorite books this year. I really liked this book simply for its comparison on the spiritual passions versus the physical passions, and what it meant for Narcissus (the more cynical, stern, ascetic man) and Goldmund (the beautiful, passionate, wandering man).
Besides being an excellent writer, Hermann Hesse is a great thinker. I appreciate literature written by deep thinkers because I think they combine so much of their own personal mental thought process and struggle in their books. (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky… Hesse.) It makes it so much more interesting to read a book when you know it’s written with the mind and soul of the author all through it’s pages.
Wendell Berry is an excellent writer. He’s real. When you read him, you feel like he’s tangible, like he’s been sitting next to you the entire time, telling you the whole story. (Except for maybe Remembering, which had some different writing techniques that made it seem a bit abstract.) Hannah Coulter tells her whole story in the first chapter. You know everything. Who dies, who lives. But you keep reading on because there’s something so beautiful about the way she thinks, about the way she remembers things. And you know, you just know, that there has to be something she hasn’t told. Some little secret, something that redeems all her troubles. It’s a story rich in real, genuine love, between husband and wife, parent and child, brother and sister, etc. Wendell Berry loves the idea of unity. He writes about it everywhere. Keeping the family together. Being close knit even when the birds grow up and leave the nest. If you enjoy his fiction, read his poetry.
Cyrano de Bergerac
Well, I rather liked his nose.
I forced myself to read Cyrano de Bergerac in a moment when I thought I wasn’t appreciating tragic writing very much. (Well, after all, I was studying Bolshevism, and Marxism, reading Mein Kampf and Macbeth at the time…) But Cyrano de Bergerac is a wonderful story. I yelled at Roxanne quite a bit. She annoyed me with her sentimentality. Yet, Cyrano was deceptive. Even though he wrote letters to her in Christian’s name, it probably gave him some self-satisfaction. And Christian. If you love the woman, say so, and woo her for yourself. And if she can’t see beyond your inability to make up poetic lines, then maybe she isn’t worth it after all. (How quickly she loved Cyrano at the end when she discovered it was him all along!) Roxanne was only in love with words, not an actual person.
And after that little rant, here we are. I love plays. This year I read about ten or twelve plays. It was a very interesting experience.
Much Ado About Nothing
Oh, if you ever wanted me to recite something all day long over and over again it would be this play. Shakespeare was a genius. In this particular play he presents the comparison of courtships, the comparison of deception and honesty, and so many other things. It’s important to note about the title, that in Shakespeare’s day, the word “nothing” would have been “noting,” which meant eavesdropping. Also, nothing, in its literal sense, refers to that which does not happen, but which might. In other words, you have a circle and inside of it are all the things that did, do, or will happen. But outside that circle are all the possibilities of what might have happened, in other words, Nothing. Both possibilities are relevant to the play. My favorite line from this play?
“Shall these quips and sentences and paper bullets of the brain awe a man from the career of his humor? No! The world must be peopled! When I said that I should die a bachelor, I did not think that I should live to be married.” – Benedick
A Room With A View
This was such a delightful novel. I read somewhere else that it has to do with the enchantment of Italy and how it can affect even the most sensible of people. I think it’s very true. But I haven’t been to Italy so I would exactly know. I think there are several odd things in this novel, but none the less, it’s wonderfully written and for once things really do end up right in the end. E.M. Forester has such quirky characters. (These things I’m writing really aren’t intended to be in depth reviews… I’m just observing.)
The Great Gatsby
I have nothing to say to F. Scott Fitzgerald. I admire him too much.
Things do not “end up right” in this book. That’s no secret. I can’t imagine, though, a book plainer or truer to the drama of life than this. And yet, you wouldn’t even say that the style is dramatic. But it is. In the midst of a fight between a husband and his wife who’s trying to leave him for another man (this is a big fight…) the narrator suddenly says: “I’ve just remembered it’s my birthday. I’m thirty.” And it’s funny, because I don’t find that strange. I would probably say something like that too, if there was a fight like that going on. But writers these days don’t think to make their characters go off on these weird trains of thought, and then, without relating what the train of thought is, have them say something they ended up at, just out of the blue. Somehow, it all makes sense.
Oh, C.S. Lewis again. I would read this book a hundred times over and again. I’ve never seen the spiritual battle depicted so neatly and truthfully. I knew it was true because I had experienced some of the exact things described in here. Everyone should read it. Twice.
That’s it. Can you believe it? Once I get one book up there, I remember all the other books I’ve read. I want to bring them all up, and talk about them all. But I can’t. These are just nine books from 2011 I thoroughly enjoyed. Next post I’ll give my 2012 to read list.