Quite the year was 2017. In the midst of a tumultuous political season (what with statues and whatnot being torn down), the rest of the year felt like a whirlwind; it seems like only yesterday we were celebrating last year’s Christmas season. Despite the whirlwind, I was able to carve out some additional time to read this year, totaling to 43 books to date. I may be able to finish one or two before the year’s up, but I can chalk up 2017 to a (mostly) successful reading adventure.
That said, here’s my five favorite books (in no particular order) from the last year.
1. John Hollander, The Figure of Echo: a Mode of Allusion in Milton and After (1984)
Hollander’s work first came to my attention after reading Richard Hays’ The Faith of Jesus Christ. Most of Hays’ argument depends on the kind of reading that Hollander describes and practices in The Figure of Echo. Hollander takes note of the mythical figure of Echo in her original story (a mountain nymph who makes herself known only by repeating the words of others) as well as her use in literature thereafter, especially in Milton. A book written by an English professor for literature scholars, The Figure of Echo can enrich your reading habits if you have the patience to walk through it. In nuce: there’s more to the sentence than the words on the page.
2. Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (2009)
Murakami is a Japanese author who, obviously, also runs. One of the curious things that happened this year is that, while I increased the amount of time I spent reading each week, I also increased the amount of time I spent running each week. Reading and running are both intensely private acts. Joining a reading group or a running club still does not overcome the essentially solitary nature of both activities; you can be spurred on by your comrades, but the embodied experience of both running and reading (and writing) all belong to you alone. Murakami understands this. His memoir follows his growth as a runner, which, insofar as Murakami is concerned, mirrors his growth as a writer. The simple prose of Murakami’s book magnifies the complex experience of the interior in running and reading and writing.
3. C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces: a Myth Retold (1956)
Lewis’s Till We Have Faces is a retelling of the myth of Psyche and Cupid, told from the perspective of Psyche’s older sister Orual. Orual in large measure despises the gods for how she’s been treated throughout her life, and Lewis carefully treats us to the perspective of one whose own perspective has been skewed inward by a life of selfish preoccupation with one’s own priorities. Till We Have Faces was Lewis’s last novel, and the complexity of structure and content is clear. To distill some of the essence of the work, hear the words from the priestly character: “Holy places are dark places. It is life and strength, not knowledge and words, that we get in them. Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood.”
4. Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men (2005)
The Coen Brothers adopted No Country into what is perhaps the most true-to-book adaptation I’ve watched. McCarthy’s work swaps between deeply introspective, deeply subjective sections and utterly exterior, utterly objective chapters. It’s difficult to summarize succinctly the story that McCarthy is telling in No Country for Old Men. It is, in equal measure, the story of a treasure discovery gone horribly wrong as well as the story of an “old man” out of place in the new world. It’s the intersection (almost, but not quite, because Sheriff Bell is always a step behind) of the old way and the new, of convention (Bell) and absurd evil (Chigurh, whom Moss misunderstands as “Sugar”), of life and chance. The book is incredible. If you’re not going to read it, at least watch the film.
5. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) // Peter Bergman & Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: a Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (1967)
I understand that it’s a little unfair to include two books under the same heading, but both of these works should be read together. These two have continued to entrench the “critical realist” epistemology that Nicholas Wolterstorff first introduced to me–and that N.T. Wright has continued to exemplify in his own scholarship. Kuhn and Berger/Luckmann both, in similar but different-enough ways, point to the importance of the community in constructing “knowledge.” For Kuhn, communities (scientific communities specifically, but the application is clear for communities broadly) by and large function according to “normal science.” The time comes, however, when “normal science” fails to answer the questions that are being posed to it, and from the margins emerges “revolutionary science[s],” which will fight for ground by purporting to best answer the new questions. Whichever science wins will then become the new “normal science,” by which a community engages the world. Berger and Luckmann proffer a similar view, whereby the individual is born not as a tabula rasa but as one whose view of the world has been shaped by the relationships and signs and explanations given to them by their community. How one views their family, their workplace, and the broader cosmos are all informed by/directed by/nudged by their community. These two works together shed light on how knowledge is achieved.
Such is a year in review.