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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The 10 Best Books I Read in 2014

As with movies, I'm doubling my total from last year, and going for a proper top ten. Again, in alphabetical order:

All That is Solid Melts Into Air. This was the best, most intellectually engaging and even inspiring work of scholarship I read all year. Something of a classic amongst those working the various underplayed connections between Marxism, modernity, and urban studies, Marshall Berman (check out this fine tribute to and discussion about him on Crooked Timber) wrote a fascinating book, which works through a wide range of philosophical, political, and cultural arguments about the modern condition by way of looking at how great cities around the world (Paris, New York City, etc.) changed over the 19th and 20th centuries, and at how great writers like Marx and Baudelaire described them. It completely changed the way I thought about my mid-sized cities research project, hopefully for the better.

Anathem. An utterly fascinating--though not, I think, truly compelling; I slowly worked through this massive tome over a year's time, and actually don't think I really missed much--science fiction work, and probably the most total work of imagination I've ever read, quite possibly surpassing such acts of world-creation given us by J.R.R. Tolkien and Frank Herbert. Those authors gave us cultures, languages, histories; but here, Neal Stephenson actually gives us new patterns of thought, new systems of philosophy. And I don't mean "oh, look, I've invented new gods my characters worship," but rather whole new ways of, say, thinking about existence or just doing math. The fact that none of those things are really new, but rather are ones we all already know, just hidden in plain sight, is icing on the intellectual cake.

Blessed Among Nations. A work of economic, political, and military history focused on America from the mid-19th century on, this really isn't within my scholarly area of expertise at all. I've owned a copy for years, though, and finally had an excuse to read it this year as part of a class I taught on America's diplomatic history. For me, a layman when it comes to these matters, the book was a brilliant revelation, introducing a way of thinking about how the United States was financially enabled to "accidentally" become an empire that I've never considered before. In giving me a new (if rather controversial) historical lens, various pathologies that plague our political system (our incoherent yet entrenched commitment to both centralization and decentralization, most particularly) were revealed to me in a new light.

The Crucible of Doubt. It has been a very, very long time since I've read a devotional book published by the Deseret Book, the quasi-official publishing arm of my own church, and found it any more than "fine." But this book by Terryl and Fiona Givens is much more than fine; it is--as I have argued at length--a wonderfully, however unintentionally, firm and pious defense of the need for Christian believers (even in a rather authoritarian church like my own) to seek and find their own sources of spiritual fulfillment, to become comfortable of one's own and tolerant of others' doubts, to become, in other words, liberal in the most fundamental sense of the word. I found it inspiring, and genuinely helpful as I think about myself as a believer, father, and lay leader in my church, and for that I am grateful.

The Five Books of Moses. This is another one that I've blogged about (twice, actually), and really I can't say enough good about it. The Old Testament has stood as a reproach to me for over a quarter-century; I've read every other bit of canonical scripture that my church holds to multiple times, but getting all the way through the OT as a singular textual production has long defeated me. But thanks to Robert Alter's translations, this year (well, assuming I actually finish this year!) I'm going to get it done. Alter's ability to bring to life--but not be methodologically imprisoned by--the documentary's hypothesis's evidence about the different narrative traditions which produced Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy made the mysteries and distant meanings of the Five Books of Moses real to me, and a great read.

Home. Marilynne Robinson continues her saga of mid-20th-century Midwestern American white Protestantism; Gilead was on my list last year, and maybe Lila will be on it next. This book is every bit as slow a read as Gilead was; in fact, even slower, because the exquisite (but not immediately revealed) unity between the prose of Gilead's narrator and the story he tells isn't available here. But the language remains beautiful, and the story told in Home is worthy of that beauty. Plot points in this sad story of prodigality and failed (or was it?) forgiveness echo stories from both the Old and New Testaments, and, along the way, the banal dynamics of piety and family life are revealed with such studied compassion that utterly ordinary (even sometimes rather pathetic) declarations and revelations are made luminous.

The Quiet American. One of those novels that you think everyone is supposed to read in high school or their freshman composition class in college, but which passed me by. My mistake. I'd seen film versions of this book, but never read it, and reading it was a great surprise nonetheless, if only on a meta-level. I was struck by how clear-eyed Graham Greene was in estimating where his readers would be in reacting to his story, thus accounting for why he felt comfortable cutting the narrative down to the absolute bone. I never felt like any of the characters were under-developed, despite the brevity in how they were sketched out, because the language of Greene had me thinking that he was counting on me (correctly!) to be able to fill in the gaps, while he got on with the actual story. And as for the actual story itself, the moral darkness and perplexity of the story of Fowler, Pyle, and Phuong resonates six decades after its writing, which is the greatest tribute you could give to any book anyway.

Till We Have Faces. A strange and terrifically powerful fantasy, far more mature and "realistic" in its consideration of the power and depth of ordinary harms and misjudgements than anything I've ever read by Lewis. I didn't care of its ending, but everything up until that final twist--particular the penultimate twist which comes before it!--is simply superb. A re-telling of the Cupid and Psyche myth, this novel brought to life--through the tremendous lead character and narrator Orual, Psyche's older sister--all sorts of provocative and sobering ideas about the burdens born by women in a sexist society, about the way in which even harmful myths can give hope, and about our own ability to re-write our histories and, thus, ourselves, for better or worse.

Seeking the Promised Land. Another scholarly book which is outside my primary area of expertise, but in this case because of its methodology--this is a heavily quantitative work, and I'm definitely not a quant guy. But it really is a finely written book, such that the authors many intriguing discoveries about the political history, preferences, and expectations of American Mormons like myself--as revealed through exhaustive and careful survey and anecdotal research--came through loud and clear. As someone who sees himself very much as a part of, but also an outlier amongst, this religious community, and who tends to engage in plenty of (too often ill-informed, I'm sure) speculation about it, this book was an excellent corrective and resource.

Way Below the Angels. This is the third Mormon-related book on my list, and I'm not sure how I feel about that; obviously, being a lay leader in my congregation and quasi-public-intellectual within the church's online intellectual world occupies a lot of my time and thought, but I thought I was more widely read than that. Still, you've got to honor great writing when it strikes you, and Harline's funny and thoughtful memoir of his experiences as a Mormon missionary nearly four decades ago struck me deep and hard. I loved reading about the young Harline's experiences in Belgium (a place I've never visited and know next to nothing about), and I loved even more the wisdom, generosity, perspective, and forgiveness that today's Harline was able, through this book, to grant to himself. I hope I can do the same for myself, someday.

Runners-up: Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter (a thoughtful, if incomplete, history of Jimmy Carter's underappreciated presidency and his unintended role in the transformation of American Protestantism) and City and Regime in the American Republic (an unevenly written but nonetheless eye-opening study of city politics in light of American history and communitarian/civic republican philosophy).

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