Favorite books read in 2013

This is not based on any kind of rigorous methodology;  these are just the books I enjoyed and/or that “stuck with me” the most throughout the year. As should be obvious, these were not necessarily books published in 2013.

Fiction:

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

I decided to start reading this late last year after seeing the film version starring Keira Knightley. I’m frankly in awe of it, and nothing I can say will do it justice. But the thing that probably struck me the most was Tolstoy’s ability to draw fully realized characters and make the reader truly view the world from their perspective (including, in one case, a dog!). I can see why some people have compared Tolstoy to God: he intimately knows and truly loves each of his characters (sometimes, one senses, in spite of himself). And I haven’t even mentioned the delicately intertwining stories, the astonishingly clear and beautiful scenes Tolstoy draws, the social commentary, and the philosophical and religious musings. Basically, this book deserves every bit of its reputation as one of the greatest novels ever written.

True Grit, Charles Portis

I’d seen both movie versions, but had never read the book. Portis’s unforgettable characters, deadpan dialogue, and tightly constructed plot made this a hugely enjoyable read.

Non-fiction:

The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics, James Oakes

Oakes’ recounting of how the radical abolitionist Douglass and the temperamental conservative Lincoln converged around a particular brand of antislavery politics isn’t just a fascinating story about two important figures at a pivotal point in American history (it is that, though!). It also serves as a rebuttal of sorts to radicals of every stripe who think they’re too pure for the grubby business of electoral politics.

Systematic Theology, vols. 1 and 2, Paul Tillich

I disagree profoundly with some of Tillich’s basic theological positions, but his thought remains, nearly 20 years after I first read him, a source of stimulation and insight.

Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America, Garry Wills

I’m not sure Wills persuaded me of his main thesis, namely, that Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg was, in effect, an ideological re-founding of the Republic. But his erudition is undeniable, and his analysis of the address in light of classical and contemporary examples of funeral oratory is extremely illuminating. He also writes like a dream.

Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, Francis Spufford

Spufford avoids nearly every cliche of contemporary religion writing and provides the freshest take on Christian faith I’ve read in ages. Sharp, funny, and heartfelt without being sappy. As I said in my “non-review,” I think Spufford captures how many of us in the “post-Christian” West experience our faith.

How Much Is Enough?: Money and the Good Life, Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky

This father-and-son team (an economist and philosopher, respectively) ask why the richest societies in history have so much inequality and so little genuine leisure. They blame a combination of political and philosophical failures, and argue for recovering a broadly Aristotelian concept of the good life than can help us get off the production-and-consumption treadmill. Their skewering of trendy “happiness” research and its associated policy prescriptions alone is worth the price of admission. Also worth noting is their critique of liberal “neutrality” regarding the good life.

I’ve got a couple of books going now, and if any finish any before December 31st that blow me away, maybe I’ll update this. Also, looking this over, I realize that I really need to read more books not written by white men.

Keyboard commandos, 19th century edition

‘So it is with the unanimity of the Press. It has been explained to me: as soon as there is a war their revenue is doubled. How can they help considering that the fate of the people and the Slavs–and all the rest of it?’

‘There are many papers I don’t like, but that is unfair,’ said Koznyshev.

‘I would make only one stipulation,’ continued the Prince. ‘Alphonse Karr put it very well before the war with Prussia. “You think war unavoidable? Very well! He who preaches war–off with him in a special legion to the assault, to the attack, in front of everybody else!”‘

‘The editors would be fine!’ remarked Katavasov, laughing loudly, and picturing to himself the editors of his acquaintance in that chosen legion.

‘Oh, but they’d run away,’ said Dolly, ‘and only be a hindrance.’

‘And if they run, put grapeshot behind them, or Cossacks with whips!’ said the Prince.

‘That is a joke, and excuse me, Prince, not a good joke,’ said Koznyshev.

‘I don’t see that it is a joke, that . . .’ began Levin, but Koznyshev interrupted him.

‘Every member of Society is called upon to do his proper task,’ he said. ‘And men of thought perform theirs by expressing public opinion. The unanimous and complete expression of public opinion is a service rendered by the Press, and is also a gratifying phenomenon. Twenty years ago we should have been silent, but now we hear the voice of the Russian people, who are ready to arise as one man and to sacrifice themselves for their oppressed brethren. That is a great step and a sign of power!’

–Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, part VIII, chapter 16

Any resemblance to current affairs is purely coincidental.

The chief miracle ever recurring on earth

‘I, educated in the conception of God, as a Christian, having filled my life with the spiritual blessings Christianity gave me, brimful of these blessings and living by them, I, like a child, not understanding them, destroy them–that is, I wish to destroy that by which I live. But as soon as an important moment of life comes, like children when they are cold and hungry, I go to Him, and even less than the children whose mother scolds them for their childish mischief do I feel that my childish attempts to kick because I am filled should be reckoned against me.

‘Yes, what I know, I know not by my reason but because it has been given to me, revealed to me, and I know it in my heart by faith in the chief thing which the Church proclaims.

‘The Church? The Church?’ Levin repeated to himself. He turned over, and leaning on his elbows began looking at the herd of cattle in the distance approaching the river on the other side.

‘But can I believe in all that the Church professes?’ he asked himself, testing himself by everything which might destroy his present peace of mind. He purposely thought of those teachings of the Church which always seemed to strange to him, and that tried him. ‘The Creation.–But how do I account for existence? By existence! By nothing!–The devil and sin?–And how do I explain evil? . . . A Saviour? . . .

‘But I know nothing, nothing! And can know nothing but what is told me and to everybody.’

And it now seemed to him that there was not one of the dogmas of the Church which could disturb the principal thing–faith in God, in goodness, as the sole vocation of man.

Each of the Church’s doctrines might be represented by faith in serving truth rather than serving one’s personal needs. And each of them not only did not infringe that belief but was necessary for the fulfillment of the chief miracle ever recurring on earth: the possibility of every one, millions of most diverse people, sages and idiots, children and old men, peasants, Lvov, Kitty, beggars and kings, indubitably understanding one and the same thing, and forming that life of the spirit which alone is worth living for and which alone we prize.

–Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, part VIII, chapter 13