Monday, November 27, 2006

A Richness of the Written Word: My 2006 Reading Highlights

This is how persnickety I am: I am sneaking this list of my favorite books of 2006 into November, simply so that I can have an uninterrupted archive list on my blog for every month of every year. I'm really writing this in December, but it will be our little secret. So far as the archive list knows, this was penned in November (a month spent in reading Chesterton, and not in writing at all).

Some of the highlights of my 2006 reading list (in no particular order):

· The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis -- Have you ever something that just sucked the air out of your lungs with its insight and perfection? Read "Men without Chests," from this C.S. Lewis trilogy of essays, and you'll read something that almost made me faint with its splendor. Lewis is writing about the modern methods and philosophy in education (this was in 1944, and it has only gotten worse since then): The Chest -- Magnanimity -- Sentiment -- these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal. . . . And all the time -- such is the tragi-comedy of our situation -- we continue to clamour for . . . qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more "drive," or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or "creativity." In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful. (C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1996) p. 36-37)

· America Alone by Mark Steyn -- I read this in October while I was at the Liberty Editors' Conference and it elicited simultaneously chortling laughter and shuddering chills. Steyn combines three socio-economic issues into one horrific vision of the future. I must remember to add Mark Steyn to my reasons for loving Canada (near the bottom of this blog).

· The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread by Kate DiCamillo -- This book is so whimsical and romantic and charming, that it matters not that it was written for elementary school children. It was one of the best books I read this year, because the story was so compelling and odd and other-worldly. Reviewers at either loved it or hated it. Mark my vote in the "loved it" column.

· New Mercies by Sandra Dallas -- Although not as good as what I consider Dallas's best novel to date -- The Chili Queen -- this book was certainly an enjoyable read. Dallas knows how to spin a good story, and it's nice to see her leaving behind some of her earlier repeated themes and striking out in new directions.

· The New Testament and Literature: A Guide to Literary Patterns by Stephen Cox -- How I just revel in the writings of Stephen Cox! I love the way he uses words. The fact that what was written certainly to be a text book is one of my best reads of the year just speaks to his skill. Of course, the subject matter was of particular interest to me, as Dr. Cox maps the "genome" of the New Testament and provides a accessible guide to that canon's DNA. I'd never before looked at Biblical writing in that way. He then applies this "genetic code" to Christian and post-Christian literature with illuminating results. One of the best things about The New Testament and Literature is that it led me to discover the novels of Thornton Wilder and Harold Frederic, both of whom are coming on this list.

· The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Heaven's My Destination by Thornton Wilder -- These novels are very different from each other, but they are alike in excellence. The Bridge of San Luis Rey is set in 18th Century Peru, and it has an almost dreamlike quality in its telling of the intertwining of lives of people who plummeted to death in the collapse of the namesake bridge. Heaven's My Destination is firmly placed in 1930's America, and in a modern, humorous way it spins the yarn of traveling salesman and self-professed evangelist, George Brush. I would recommend both.

· The Damnation of Theron Ware by Harold Frederic -- Harold Frederic is a subtle observer of human character who trusts his readers' intelligence enough to allow them to fill in the finer points of his novel's story. This book will not be read passively. It is brilliant and wry and vaguely disturbing, and it is a story that will stand many re-readings, each time with new insights.

· A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole -- After repeated badgering by my father, I read this book over the summer. Thank you, Dad! This is one of the great novels of character written in the 20th Century. A more extensive (but by no means exhaustive) review of this book can be found here.

· Godless: The Church of Liberalism by Ann Coulter -- I know, I know. Ann Coulter is one of my guilty pleasures. She is so abrasive and can certainly be . . . well . . . mean, but I find so much of what she writes quite funny. She throws all the right people into a fit of rage. To paraphrase what someone once said of Grover Cleveland, "I love [her] for the enemies [s]he has made." Godless was both a riot and a heartbreaker. My favorite chapter was, "The Holiest Sacrament: Abortion." Coulter hits her mark so well. Flame away if you want, but I'll keep Godless on the list.

· The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis by Alan Jacobs -- This book is a unique twist on the traditional biography. Jacobs writes a story of the internal life of C.S. Lewis, with the external facts mentioned more for contextual clarity than exploration. What a page-turner! This book inspired my plan to read every book that Lewis wrote in the course of a year.

· Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeleine L'Engle -- Carolyn Arends recommended this book during a live, on-line chat with her fans (to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of her first album's release). Having just been burned by the unspeakably foul waste of paper, A Prayer for Owen Meany,* that I had read because of her enthusiasm, I picked up this L'Engle offering with a bit of trepidation. What a delightful surprise awaited me! Madeleine L'Engle has a way of writing in which every word is touched by magic. There is an aura of holiness that surrounds this compact work. If you enjoy any sort of artistic endeavor, whether as a creator or observer, then this book will edify and fulfill you.

· Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton -- Above and apart from these other wonderful books and writers that have enriched my life this past year stands the discovery of G.K. Chesterton. Where have you been all my life, Gilbert Keith? The first of his books that I read was Orthodoxy. I have tried repeatedly to write of this book and the others of his that I have subsequently read, but words fail me. He is almost too important to me to bear examination. The thing that I have learned most of all in my infancy of Chesterton fan-dom is to expect the unexpected (as he himself wrote of in Heretics). He astounds me -- always running ahead of me, beckoning to me to join him on the next level; then, when I catch up to where he was, gasping for breath, my legs quivering with exertion, he is already far up into the next leg gesturing wildly and encouraging me with a jolly wink and a broad smile -- and how can I resist joining him, though my lungs are on fire and my mind near exhaustion? Nothing can prepare you for reading G.K. Chesterton -- he must be experienced to be believed (and even then he remains almost beyond belief).

So, there are some of my most enjoyable and enlightening reads of 2006. I hope that by listing them out I have sparked some interest in one or more of these titles in you, dear Reader.

Happy Reading in 2007!

*To Flicka and Kadie: I know you both love this book. And I love you, anyway.

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