Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Favorite Reads 2013: The Year of Biography

I won't even attempt to rank the books I've read over the past year, or pretend to any kind of comprehensive, retrospective evaluation. (You can get a glimpse of my year in reading over at GoodReads).

Instead, a few impressionistic notes about some favorites and standouts.

First, though I wouldn't have anticipated it, 2013 turned out the year of the BIOGRAPHY for me.  This began with what I have to say was a pivotal book for me, Eric Miller's outstanding biography of Christopher Lasch, Hope in a Scattering Time.  Lasch--and Miller--are models for our time.

In the spring, during my sabbatical, I was absorbed with Benoît Peeters' sprawling bio, Derrida.  (My review will finally [sorry, John!] appear in the next issue of Books & Culture.)

In the summer, I very much enjoyed James Bratt's comprehensive and compelling biography, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (watch for my review in next month's issue of Perspectives). 

In quick succession I read Michael Ignatieff's memoir of failure, Ashes and Fire, which I highly recommend, and then André Pratte's short biography of a successful Liberal Prime Minister, Wilfrid Laurier, from which I learned a ton (a tonne?).

Finally, in the same ballpark, I was captivated by Patti Smith's memoir, Just Kids, which languished on my "to-read" stack for too long.  As I put it in my GoodReads note, I was in tears at the end of the book, "mourning all that is broken and fallen and tragic in this world, yet grateful for all that is beautiful and cherished and charitable nonetheless."

Some other NONFICTION standouts include The Institutional Revolution by Douglas Allen, which all of the Cardus Senior Fellows read for our retreat.  This is one of those books that reframes how you look at just about everything, rooted in scholarship that is unbelievably comprehensive but also accessible.  I still think about this book.

In the "still-thinking-about" category, I would also include Tyler Wigg-Stevenson's very important book, The World is Not Ours to Save.  (I enjoyed the opportunity to interview Tyler and tease out some of his argument in new directions.)  And Andy Crouch's latest, Playing God, deserves all of the attention it has gotten.  (You can read my review for Comment.)

All of this nonfiction reading (on top of my "professional" reading which I don't generally track) didn't leave much time for FICTION AND POETRY this year (alas).  I'm almost embarrassed to report that I finally read The Great Gatsby for the first time and understand all the fuss.  I also enjoyed the comfort food of Nicholson Baker's Traveling Sprinkler, a follow-up to one of my all-time favorites, The Anthologist.  And I was delighted to discover a Spokane poet while visiting Spokane this summer: in Christopher Howell's captivating collection, Dreamless and Possible.  (I chose one of his as the "page one poem" in the "We Believe in Institutions" issue of Comment.)

Finally, it would be ridiculous to start tracking all of the essays and articles I read, but thinking back, one essay stands out for me as brilliant on many levels: Benjamin Snyder's scintillating article, "Dignity and the Professionalized Body: Truck Driving in the Age of Instant Gratification" in the Fall 2012 issue of The Hedgehog Review.

In the spirit of Josef Pieper's Leisure is the Basis of Culture, I close the year grateful for the incredibly blessed luxury of being able to read.

[If any of these titles interest you, consider buying from a fellow lover of books like Byron Borger at http://www.heartsandmindsbooks.com/.]