The Thirteen Best Books We Read This Year


In celebration of another year of God’s good graces to us and to The Davenant Institute, we made the possibly correct assumption that you (our readers) might be interested in knowing what books we both read and enjoyed in the previous year. If our assumption was incorrect, read on. You might be surprised. In any case, we asked a handful of our staff and speaker’s bureau, what books they read and particularly enjoyed the previous year. Here are are their responses:

 

Eric Hutchinson:

In 2018 I read or re-read a number of Shakespeare’s plays, and I am persuaded that this remains one of the most profitable things a person can do—even if one leaves to one side the sublime aesthetic pleasure they provide. If one wishes really to understand human nature and human character, put down that Aristotle and pick up Shakespeare. Not for nothing did Freud find himself gripped by Hamlet: for Shakespeare is not only a moral philosopher, but a psychologist as well. Gloucester, Hamlet, Iago—it’s all in there. Of particular interest to me this time around was The Tempest. “Enchantment” and its opposite (though, alas, not its discontents) continue to be buzzwords in Christian circles, and Prospero—perhaps, though not certainly, a stand-in for Shakespeare in what is perhaps, though not certainly, Shakespeare’s final solo endeavor–presents a challenge to the gauzy dreams of Tinkerbell that are currently fashionable. As the play concludes, the magician drowns his book of spells and, lacking “art to enchant,” he must rely on prayer. The play, in other words, problematizes too-easy notions of the ennobling capacity of art and reminds us not only of its power to do harm, but also of its often complicated relationship to faith.

W.H. Auden was sensitive to this aspect of the play (he himself repudiated some of his most famous poems because, he felt, they were false, whether objectively or to himself), a sensitivity that emerges strongly in The Sea and the Mirror. The Sea and the Mirror is Auden’s poetic commentary on The Tempest. It contains passages of great beauty, but its heart is the lengthy prose-poem of Caliban, the maltreated monster and slave, done in the style of the late Henry James. Through the medium of Caliban—one surmises it is no coincidence that Auden played Caliban as a teenager in a school production—Auden attempts to work out a Christian theory of art, and his attempt is well worth pondering. In his fine edition of the poem, Arthur Kirsch notes that this was in fact Auden’s express purpose: he says in a letter, Kirsch tells us, that “‘The Sea and the Mirror’ is ‘my Ars Poetica, in the same way I believe The Tempest to be Shakespeare’s,’” for he was “‘attempting…to show in a work of art, the limitations of art.’” Kirsch further refers to comments Auden had made in Commonweal, and they are worth quoting at length:

“As a writer, who is also a would-be Christian, I cannot help feeling that a satisfactory theory of Art from the standpoint of the Christian faith has yet to be worked out. With the exception of Kierkegaard, most theologians who have dealt with the subject seem to me to have accepted Greek esthetics too uncritically. The difference between pre-Christian art and all art produced within Christendom, whether religious or secular, whether by professing Christians or by unbelievers, is much more radical, I believe, than is generally realized.”

Readers interested in the (by no means straightforward) relationship of the Christian to art and aesthetics will find the pairing of The Tempest and The Sea and the Mirror amply rewarding.

In his contribution to this year-end wrap, Brad Littlejohn mentions Oliver O’Donovan’s Begotten or Made? A work of fiction that pairs well with it—the novel envisions a world in which human beings are cloned for the purpose of organ-harvesting—and that I found technically remarkable and ethically penetrating is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

If Ishiguro’s science fiction imagines a future in which we have gone too far, Kingsley Amis’ The Alteration, which won the John W. Campbell Award for Best Science Fiction Novel in 1977 and has been recently republished by New York Review Books Classics, imagines a past in which we did not go far enough. That is, it is an alternate-worlds novel—called by Philip K. Dick “one of the best–possibly the best” of its kind. The alternate world is one in which the Reformation never happened, Martin Luther having been made pope instead, thus leading to a tyrannical European order in a reimagined 1976. The book, a work of high satire, revolves around the question of whether a ten-year-old boy should be castrated (“altered”) at the behest of the authorities in order to preserve his perfect soprano voice–thus this book, too, considers from a different angle the relationship between the church and art, and what one can demand of a human being for the sake of the other. And, like Never Let Me Go, the book raises questions about what kinds of changes we can make to human beings, and for what reasons–an issue not without contemporary significance.  

 

Brad Littlejohn:

Yoram Hazony, The Virtue of Nationalism (2018). This well-timed bombshell of a book by the remarkable Israeli philosopher and political theorist Yoram Hazony (whose name you might know from his fine columns in the Wall Street Journal) is a broadside against the consensus of liberal internationalism, in all its forms, that has dominated Western discourse for at least the last generation. Hazony argues that “nationalism” is a much-misunderstood concept; it is not about valuing the aggrandizement of one’s own nation at the expense of all others (indeed, that is but a form of imperialism), but about valuing the good of nations as such—the distinctiveness of different cultural and regional traditions, and the value of them having a mechanism to govern themselves: the nation-state. Understood this way, nationalism is the middle way between the quasi-anarchic society of tribalism (which has been most prevalent in human history) and the oppressive homogeneity of imperialism, in which one dominant nation or ideology seeks to enforce its concept of goodness and justice on the whole world. Hazony traces the imperialist mindset from ancient Rome through the medieval Roman Catholic Church to modern imperialist European nations (quintessentially Germany) and then on into the various liberal internationalist projects of the European Union, the United Nations, and the Washington Consensus, which have sought to achieve economic or ideological empires that destroy the sovereignty of nation-states and the value of regional traditions. To this he contrasts the nationalist heritage as one rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures, recovered by the Protestant Reformers, and best developed within the heritage of Anglo-American political thought. The book leaves some important questions unanswered, but is remarkably compelling in making its case and meeting objections within an eminently readable 270 pages. A must-read for our age. 

Marsilius of Padua, The Defender of the Peace (1324; ed. and trans. by Annabel Brett, 2005). Set aside a couple weeks to immerse yourself in this blast from the past and you will not regret it. I used it it as the capstone for my Ancient and Medieval Political Thought class this past semester and kept asking myself how I was lucky enough to get paid to do something so fun. However much we may like to label great landmarks in the history of human thought as ‘revolutionary’ and ‘ahead of their time,’ few books really deserve such clichéd epithets. But this book is surely one of them. This is arguably the best place to go to understand the Protestant argument against the tyranny of the late medieval papacy and church authorities, and it was written two centuries before the Protestant Reformation! So sweeping was Marsilius’s condemnation of the papacy and the assumptions that underlay it that he was forced to flee even the anti-papal stronghold of Paris and take refuge with the German prince Ludwig of Bavaria. Pope Clement VI later anathematized the book as containing “more than 240 heretical articles.” Of course, it is much much more than an anti-papal treatise. At its heart is a positive vision of the function of politics as the art of establishing tranquillity and justice that is deeply rooted in Aristotle and Augustine and at the same time startlingly anticipates many of the key developments of modern political theory. Among them: a thoroughgoing account of popular sovereignty as the basis of all government, arguments for the importance of regular elections, a clear articulation of the principle of the indivisibility of sovereignty, and a sharp distinction between sins and crimes. Go read it in Annabel Brett’s fine translation and be illuminated.

Oliver O’Donovan, Begotten or Made (1982). This startlingly prophetic work, which I had the joy of re-reading this year, doubles as the best guide to the current confusions of our techno-culture and our artificialization of sexuality, and a relatively accessible introduction to the thought of the greatest Christian ethicist of our time. Relatively accessible, mind you. O’Donovan’s prose is still here, as elsewhere, densely packed with thrice-distilled insights that must be read slowly and pondered thoughtfully. But it repays the effort, and it is only 86 pages. Written at a time when sex-change operations and artificial insemination by donor had just made their appearance on the frontiers of medical ethics, Begotten or Made represents a clear-eyed diagnosis of the root assumptions of this brave new world and a prognosis of what lies ahead. Consider: writing back in 1982, long before anyone had thought to use the term “cis-gender,” O’Donovan observed, “Once we think of it as possible to choose to belong to the opposite sex, once our sexual determination has become a matter of self-making, then, of course, even the vast majority who live, more or less comfortably, in the sex of their birth may be thought of as having chosen to do so.” At the heart of his book is a plea for the need for the modern world (and at the very least Christians) to recover the concept of nature, the idea that there is a shape to reality that is given, not simply forged by our acts of will, and thus that our moral agency consists as much in accepting the norms and limits around us as it does in constructing new possibilities. If you love C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man, think of this as the sequel.

 

Jake Meador:

The Year of Our Lord, 1943: Alan Jacobs new book should be of particular interest to anyone following the Davenant Institute for the simple reason that it implicitly swats aside the tired “blame modernity on the Protestants” argument by foregrounding the overlapping critiques of modernity raised by five Christians in the dying days of World War II, four of whom were not Roman Catholic–C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and Simone Weil. Because many of the sharpest critiques of late modernity have been made by Catholic or Orthodox writers, the conversation has been framed in such a way that has implicitly put Protestants on the defensive. Jacobs’ book is helpful because it provides a way of critiquing much of late modernity from a merely Christian vantage point without needing to simply assume that the conversation to be had about late modernity is equivalent to the conversation to be had about Protestantism and Catholicism. By backgrounding the Brad Gregory thesis, Jacobs’ book actually opens up new ways of viewing the crisis of late modernity, particularly around questions concerning education and the evil supernatural. It’s a different take on a conversation that desperately needed a bit of refreshing.

Disruptive Witness: Alan Noble’s book is a helpful synthesizing of two obvious tendencies in the contemporary west: the move toward a default secularism and the tendency toward a distracted mental state brought about by technological developments and the patterns of use many of us have developed around said technology. The combination creates a cultural atmosphere in which the chief challenge of evangelism is not so much persuading people that the claims of Christianity are true as it is persuading them that they actually are worth giving attention to. The nature of secularism causes Christian claims to appear tenuous while our technology causes us to have little mental energy to give to anything that is outside our normal daily routine centered around work and consumption. Thus the chief need of our day is for what Francis Schaeffer sometimes called “pre-evangelism,” which is to say laying the existential and philosophical groundwork such that people can understand why they should dedicate what limited mental energy they have to thinking about Christianity–and not Christianity as a kind of lifestyle accessory, but as a set of claims about reality that could actually be true and would call forth a certain lived response from them. Noble’s book does an excellent job of diagnosing why such pre-evangelism is needed and providing some simple, accessible ideas about how to break through the fog of our day to show our neighbors a serious, compelling picture of Christian fidelity.


Joseph Minich:

Reading Genesis Well: Navigating History, Poetry, Science, and Truth in Genesis 1-11, by C. John Collins. This is a book I’ve been waiting for for a long time. This is not a book that answers all your questions about Genesis 1-11 in light of modern history and science. It does something more difficult. It demonstrates what a good answer to such questions might look like. Drawing heavily upon C.S. Lewis and discourse analysis, Collins shows that the early chapters of Genesis are certainly concerned with events in history, but that its portrayal of these events is often wrapped in theological and literary artifice that would have been clear and available to its original hearers and readers. Removed as we are from that original context, then, requires us to be sensitive to its several layers and ways of communicating meaning. In saying this, once again, Collins does not predigest, for instance, the specific historical referent behind the Tower of Babel narrative, whether the flood waters of Genesis covered all of the globe, etc. Rather, once again, it helps you see what a good answer to these questions might look like. And in doing this, I think it has moved a conversation forward that has long been at an impasse.

Everyday Glory: The Revelation of God in All of Reality, by Gerald McDermott. While there are several items I disagree with in this book, I put it here because I think it participates in a rather neglected project – that of helping believers to read the world well. In my judgment, one of the great tasks of the next generation of Christian intellectuals will be to recover the ability to read the world in such a way that the structures of the world themselves (precisely in their public and objective character) point to Christian truth. Showing this requires a nuanced and fine-grained reading of particular pieces of reality in their relation to other pieces. To the extent that this book aids in that project, I think it is an important first step in what I hope will become a much larger effort and conversation.


Colin Redemer:

Tom Wolfe died in 2018. When I was studying literature in graduate school and expressed a coolness to the overwhelmingly minimalist stuff one must incessantly read since it cascades from the modern presses in both fiction and nonfiction— does anyone like this stuff?— I remember a professor fondly directing me to read Wolfe. I ignored this advice at the time prefering to solve my problem by reading pre-moderns. This year I took the opportunity to correct that misstep. By God Wolfe can write. He can write the hell out of anything. I read his classic work on architecture From Bauhaus to Our House. He is poignant, informative, touching and hilarious. There was a paragraph on Bruno Taut in which he gently pokes fun at Bruno, but also at Marxists, the snobbery of modern American elite, and, in the very style of the writing, Wolfe shows that modern minimalism is not the only game in town. As he might have said, his voice relishing the sarcasm, “[Literary minimalism]— how very bourgeois!”

Truth be told I haven’t finished it yet but my Christmas reading has been J.R.R. Tolkien’s final work The Fall of Gondolin. It is unclear whether we ought to consider this J.R.R.’s or rather his son Christopher Tolkien’s work, given that it is being published nearly a half century after the father’s death. But if you are a fan or scholar of Tolkien it matters little. The son is as like the father as one could ask for. When Christopher, now over ninety, brought this final volume to print he knew this would be the last work in the cannon. As the last work of Tolkien, and the final work by a member of the Inklings, it is worth a read.

 

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