Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Five Best Books I Read in 2016

As I said in my previous post, this wasn't the best of years for my book reading. I read a lot, though not as much as usual, and not a whole lot of that which I read stayed with me, moved me, provoked my thinking. Still, here are five which did. Hopefully I'll be back to my usual ten at the end of 2017. Anyway, as usual, in alphabetical order:

As has been the case for the past couple of years, I read a good many articles, chapters, and books this year having to do with urban life, city government, and the kind of community which may or may not be possible in a commercial, metropolitan context. Of all those Steven Conn's Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the Twentieth Century was the absolute best. Not only was it a finely researched and excellently written work of scholarship, but it enabled me to see connections between the many different efforts by many different reformers over the decades to deal with the exact same problem: the suspicion that the highly unequal industrial (and, later, post-industrial and even more unequal) city simply didn't have the ability to inculcate into its citizens the requirements of a genuinely democratic community. Planned neighborhoods, zoning laws, decentralization, federal policies, urban renewal, the "New Urbanism"--all of it, and all of the philosophical, sociological, and economic work which informed each of those efforts, flows from this central, enduring debate. Conn's book is a wonderful historical resource for anyone curious about the range of positions on this debate out there--and as nearly all of us are, to one degree or another, city-dwellers, that's a curiosity all of us ought to have. Read some more ideas of mine which were informed by this book here.

This book by China Miéville was a gift from a friend of mine probably more than five years ago, and its been sitting on my shelf for all that time. Finally, something prompted me to take it down and read it--and I was, as they say, blown away. Perdido Street Station is such a fun, frightening, and fantastic adventure story; it creatively weaves together, via the fascinating creation of the city of New Crobuzon--a steam-punk wonder of rival species, political corruption, and bizarre technologies--fantasy, science-fiction, horror, and other outright weird and unexpected genre borrowings, and puts them all to work in a terrific story that, at its heart, is really a big old monster hunt, a classic Dungeons and Dragons story. I look forward to reading more of
Miéville's Bas-Lang novels in the future.

I don't remember when I first encountered Glenn Tinder's The Political Meaning of Christianity: The Prophetic Stance; given the fact that my copy of this book, which was first published in the late 1980s, makes use of a title which doesn't even exist anymore, I suspect I picked it up while I was an undergraduate at BYU, perhaps in connection with some class. But that doesn't matter--what does matter is that I'd read, and assigned to my students, chapters out of this book many times over the years, but until this year I'd never read the whole book all the way through. In finally doing so, I discovered a fuller picture of a Christian worldview that I've long been persuaded by (indeed, maybe it was Tinder who persuaded me in the first place): I call it a Lutheran picture, though Tinder prefers to speak of the "Reformed" tradition, as opposed to the "Catholic" one. To put it as simply as possible, Tinder argues that serious Christian believers cannot authentically hold that any human movement towards justice or equality is fully compatible with God's work in history, because God's work in history, and our comprehension of it, is structurally incompatible with the kind of work which goes into social transformation. That doesn't mean we shouldn't work for justice and equality; we should! But we need to do so hesitantly and regretfully, knowing that any effort to build opportunities for the beloved community all Christians should seek will both inevitably fail and will sow harm along the way. It is a tragic sensibility, and while I'm not sure how much of it I agree with, I find it powerful all the same.

John Scalzi's Redshirts is a complete goof, a wonderful meta-nerd-romp through the Star Trek universe (or one similar enough to it for all the jokes to still work), which in the canon fodder of every sleazy sci-fi television show figure out what kind of universe they're living in and attempt to fight back. I could quibble with a few of the elements of the story's universe-within-the-universe (for example, Scalzi has the outside of this story take place in our contemporary world, but honestly, television these days is much better than the 60s-style Star Trek he's imagining his heroes as fighting against), but why bother? I was delighted by this story, all the way through--and then, in a surprise turn, Scalzi provides three epilogues to his story which lift it above entertaining, and all the way into the realm of actual wisdom. Great, great writing here.

I read the first of Terry Pratchett's Tiffany Aching novels close to a decade ago, and like so many others, I fell in love with The Chalk, this particular little corner of Pratchett's Discworld, and all the people who inhabit it, most importantly Tiffany herself, the young Witch of the Chalk. I worked through all the novels as they came out, and when, with Pratchett's illness and looming death, it became clear--at least from what I heard--that I Shall Wear Midnight would be the last Tiffany Aching book, I was satisfied: it wasn't the best possible ending, but it was another fine, funny, thoughtful fantasy tale. But then, wonder of wonders: there was one last book, The Shepherd's Crown, one that Pratchett has essentially finished at the time of his death, but which he had still wanted to work on some more before releasing it. Well, his publisher has released it, and I am so grateful. This was the ending I didn't know I was looking for, but upon reading it, I realized I was: the death of Granny Weatherwax, Tiffany's rise to witch leadership, her mending (sort of) the rift with the world of the elves which was opened in the very first novel, and along the way, a wonderful meditation on aging, maturity, change, responsibility, and living life to its fullest. This year, I needed this book, and thus truly treasured it. And besides, Pratchett's humor never failed him; this final book, among many other delights, brings forward a mostly forgettable secondary character--Mrs. Letice Earwig--and in a few short scenes sets her up for a Margaret Thatcher joke so good that 1) I can't believe Pratchett hadn't been planning it through all the previous novels, and 2) it had me pumping my first in the air. Yes, it was that good.

No comments: