Thursday, 21 December 2017

Most interesting books I read in 2017

I don’t want to pick the best books of the year. My reading lately has been too eclectic for anything like that. These days I rely mostly on audiobooks. So my reading gravitates towards whatever happens to be available on audible.com, or whatever is performed by a good narrator. (I have developed a zero tolerance policy for poor narration: I will return an audiobook for refund within five minutes if the narrator does not please me.)

From time to time I still take up a physical book and read it with my eyes. After so many audiobooks I am intrigued to re-discover the quite distinctive pleasures of silent reading. Recently I read nearly all of Stefan Zweig’s short stories and novellas in the old way, silently turning the pages as I enfolded my spirit within that special canopy of solitude. But most of the books listed here I read sociably, with my ears, in the consoling and challenging presence of a human voice. I like it so much. Am I the only one? Or is the burgeoning audiobook industry reviving an ancient culture of sociable reading? Will some future memoirist note with astonishment the sight of someone reading alone in silence, as Augustine did when he saw Ambrose reading in Milan? "His eyes ran over the columns of writing and his heart searched out the meaning, but his voice and his tongue were at rest" (Confessions 6.3.3).

Anyway, these are the books that I found most interesting and most rewarding in the past year. In case you are looking for something to read – and who is not looking, at all times and in all circumstances, for something to read? – I have added a note to each one to help you decide if that book suits your particular ailment. And, after much soul-searching, I have also nominated my Most Interesting Book of the Year.


THEOLOGY & ETHICS

The Annotated Luther, volume 1: The Roots of Reform (2015). Read this if you think protestants were to blame for the reformation. 

Deirdre McCloskey, The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce (2006). Read this if you think capitalism is evil and the pre-capitalist world was a haven of virtue.

Linn Marie Tonstad, God and Difference: The Trinity, Sexuality, and the Transformation of Finitude (2015). Read this if you think social trinitarianism is the greatest thing since trinitarianism.

Mark Chapman, Theology at War and Peace: English Theology and Germany in the First World War (2017). Read this if you’re interested in Troeltsch, or if you think only the Germans were rabid nationalists.

Joseph Ratzinger, Europe: Today and Tomorrow (2007). Read this if you’ve ever wondered where reason went.

H. Richard Niebuhr, “Theology—Not Queen But Servant,” an essay on theology and the university in The Paradox of Church and World: Selected Writings of H. Richard Niebuhr (2015). Read this if you think theology ever was, or ever ought to be, the queen of the sciences.

Gary Dorrien, Social Ethics in the Making: Interpreting an American Tradition (2010). Read this if, like me, you used to believe Reinhold Niebuhr when he said he was departing sharply from the Social Gospel tradition.

Marilynne Robinson, The Givenness of Things (2015). Read this.

Roger Scruton, On Human Nature (2017). Read this if you don’t believe in the soul, or if you would like to believe in the soul but don’t know how.

Sam Harris, Lying (2011). Read this if you have ever told a lie.

Dallas G. Denery II, The Devil Wins: A History of Lying from the Garden of Eden to the Enlightenment (2015). Read this if the previous book makes you want to learn more about the history of lying. The patristic stuff in the first chapter is weak but it's really interesting once he gets to medieval theology and its relation to the all-encompassing falsehoods of courtly life.


HISTORY

Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday (1942). Read this if you think morality has declined shockingly in the past century. His account of prostitution in the nineteenth century is quite harrowing and should make you cry tears of joy over every unwed sexual partnership.

Winston Churchill, The Second World War (1948–53). Read this if you want a gripping tale in which the righteous prevail against a vastly superior foe. Churchill received the Nobel Prize in Literature for this book, and you can see why as soon as you start the first page. The audiobook read by Christian Rodska (in four volumes) is wonderful.

William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960). Read this if 45 hours listening to Churchill was just not enough.

Douglas Murray, The Strange Death of Europe (2017). Read this if you think open borders are Good and controlled borders are Bad. Whether or not you share the author’s pessimism, it’s an interesting account of the way recent European (especially German) history has been shaped by the “tyranny of guilt” over past wrongs.

Henry Kissinger, World Order (2014). Read this if you’d like to see how different civilisations understand their global mission, and how the internet might be changing all this.


POETRY

Denise Levertov, Oblique Prayers (1986). If I have to tell you why you should read this, then you’re probably the kind of person who won’t read it anyway.

Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems (1992). Read this if you want something easier than Denise Levertov.


FICTION

Geraldine Brooks, The Secret Chord (2015). Read this if you’ve ever thought to yourself: I want to be just like King David when I grow up.

Stefan Zweig, Collected Novellas (2016) and Collected Stories (2013). Read this if you like to finish a story in one sitting. The novellas are especially good: for a taster try his Chess Story or Confusion or Letter from an Unknown Woman.

G. K. Chesterton, The Ball and the Cross (1909). Read this if you want to laugh your arse off as you follow the swashbuckling adventures of an atheist and a Catholic who set out to destroy one another and become (spoiler alert) BFFs. Everyone talks about Father Brown and The Man Who Was Thursday, but this one is my favourite Chesterton story. And the audio reading by Gildart Jackson is as entertaining as you could wish for.


OTHER COOL STUFF THAT DOESN’T FIT IN THE OTHER CATEGORIES

Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (2015). Read this if you’ve ever expressed moral outrage at something somebody said on social media.

Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run (2016). Read this because he’s the Boss. It’s better on audio because he reads the book himself: and the man has a nice voice, I’m not the first person to think so.

Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed (1971). Read this if you like movies and have ever tried to think about them.


And finally ... drum roll ... the Most Interesting Book of the Year award goes to:

Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams (1899). This is hands down the most interesting thing I read this year. I’ve been reading Freud for years but for some reason had never got around to this one even though it’s his magnum opus. Maybe I was put off by the rumour (a scandalous falsehood, as it turns out) that Freud merely finds sex in every dream. Anyway whatever you think of Freud’s theory, this is a marvellous feat of scrupulous observation, breath-taking intellectual adventurousness, and disarming candour. Most of the dreams analysed are Freud’s own, and he investigates his hidden desires with an amazing lack of defensiveness. Well done, Sigmund Freud, and congratulations on writing such an interesting and original book.

Well that’s all from me. Adieu, 2017! Adieu, Sydney!

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