2015 Favorites and Highlights

See a complete 2015 reading list with Amazon links here

First, the awards:

Favorite Fiction (and overall): The Lord of the Rings

It’s the best book on this list and probably the best I’ll ever read. A 1999 poll of Amazon.com users ranked it the “best book of the millennium”. We’re 15 years into the new millennium and I haven’t seen anything new come close to matching the genius and grandeur of Tolkien’s masterpiece. That’s my opinion anyway. And yet I hadn’t read it in its entirety until this year, back in January. By December, I had to resist the urge to start it all over again, all 1000+ pages of it. What I appreciate most about LOTR is that it blows the doors of what we previously thought possible, both in terms of literature and the world. By drawing us into his majestic mental landscape of Middle Earth, Tolkien helps us reimagine life and meaning, good and evil. He uses ents, elves, hobbits and the fantastical rest to enable us to see the true nature of evil and to picture, perhaps for the first time, what it means for the Kingdom of Heaven to break into earth.

I wrote a piece earlier this year exploring the powerful symbolism of light and darkness in LOTR. It was but one small thread in the grand web of thought that this great book has inspired in me. I hope to write much more on Tolkien and the wisdom of Middle Earth soon. 

Favorite Nonfiction: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

I didn’t know about Annie Dillard until this year, and so I didn’t know how much I was missing. She wrote Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in the “wilderness” of a wooded suburb, but that surprising fact only made me appreciate her nature-focused word-tinkerings even more. This book is the penultimate example of one of my life/literary themes this year: The discovery of wisdom and beauty through careful attention to the natural world around us. The splendor and paradox and insight that Dillard watched so astutely in her backyard "pilgrimage" only grew more brilliant as she translated them into language. Nature and language - that’s what this book is and does, and it does it as well and as captivatingly as anything else like it. I guess that’s why it won the Pulitzer. 

Favorite Theology: Reading Backwards

This is the shortest and most accessible of the three Richard Hayes books I read this year, which all approach the Scriptures through the same enlightening lens: Literary echo. It’s an idea I’ve been feeling my way toward for some time now as a dedicated reader, which is basically that in a literary world, books contain allusions to earlier books and the words and ideas they expressed. These references are just a natural consequence of the fact that writers read. There are various magnitudes or volume-levels of textual allusion as well as  variance of intentionality. Some authors directly quote other texts, or make an otherwise direct and obvious reference, while some allusions are softer, subtler, and can often go unnoticed. Some perhaps were unnoticed and unintentional even by the author, saturated into his/her subconscious through intimate familiarity. For instance, I might make an allusion to “the darkside” as an idiom for evil without even thinking about it, because, with most my audience, I grew up on Star Wars. The metaphor is in my bones. But to foreigners unfamiliar with Star Wars or the analogy of darkness to evil, this reference and its meaning would pass entirely amiss. As a theologian, Hayes focuses on this subtlest form of literary allusion, the echo, to draw out layer upon layer of meaning from the Biblical texts that many of us have always simply missed. The book doesn’t just teach about the Bible; it re-teaches us how to read the Bible, as well as everything else. And along the way, we realize how much we’ve been missing and misunderstanding all along. 

Favorite Poem: The Farm by Wendell Berry

From This Day, a collection of "Sabbath poems” from more than three decades of thoughtful rural living, The Farm is quintessential Wendell Berry. It’s much longer than the rest of Berry’s poems, striking several of the deeply resonant chords typical to his literary work: Prophetic cultural critique, stirring environmental lamentation and bold practical directions all in the form of shockingly simple, yet rhythmic language. Like his essays, Berry’s poetry is piercingly profound yet stubbornly accessible. It’s farmer’s poetry. If you need to look up words, it's not because you didn’t go to grad school or never studied latin but because you didn’t grow up on a farm and don’t make a living from the soil. 

This is my favorite poem of the year because it sings of ideas that I find most urgent, mainly pertaining to how our culture’s disconnection from the environment that sustains us has led to the tragic degradation of both our environment and our culture. And I love how Berry speaks to this crisis with bold practical assertions, refusing as always to let environmentalism become some abstract ideology. 

Never buy at a store
What you can grow or find
At home — this is the rule
Of liberty, also
Of neighborhood. (And be
Faithful to local merchants
Too. Never buy far off
What you can buy near home.) 
Eat these good beasts that eat
What you can’t eat. Be thankful
To them and to the plants,
To your small, fertile homeland,
To topsoil, light, and rain
That daily give you life.

This poem is also my favorite because it spoke to us in unique and profound ways, despite our severe disconnection from agrarian living. In the fall, “Bullet", our little ’97 Civic, was stolen (and later found) for the second time. Infuriated for the umpteenth time by the criminal actions of our homeless neighbors, I needed a good calming down. The bitter pang of injustice set me on an angry emotional course, wanting nothing but cold hard retribution for every thief in town. Then I settled down to read these lines about protecting one’s sheep from the corruption of desperate coyotes:

Then watch for dogs, whose sport
Will be to kill your sheep
And ruin all your work.
Or old Coyote may
Become your supper guest,
Unasked and without thanks;
He’ll just excerpt a lamb
And dine before you know it.
But don’t, because of that,
Make war against the world

And its wild appetites.
A guard dog or a jenny
Would be the proper answer;
Or use electric fence.
For you must learn to live
With neighbors never chosen
As with the ones you chose
Coyote’s song at midnight
Says something for the world
The world wants said. And when
You know your flock is safe
You’ll like to wake and hear
That wild voice sing itself
Free in the dark, at home.
(Italics added)

Don’t make war against the world. Learn to live with neighbors never chosen. I’m no farmer but those lines shepherded my frustrated soul profoundly. There are plenty more poignant gems which I’ll save for you to forage for, but this stanza has deeply affected my resolve and ability to be a neighbor in San Francisco. Living next door to urban homeless encampments, we couldn’t be much further circumstantially from Berry’s Kentucky farm life, but injustice and mercy and compassion and perspective transcend urban/rural boundaries. We need the gritty practical commands to live rooted in the soil as well as the crucial agrarian metaphors that apply universally to human experience, and The Farm is an example of Berry’s ability to bless the world with both at once. 

Highlight: Words

Words. I elaborated here on what I learned about words and language through my reading this year. For now, suffice to say that I found most of my reading delight this year at the micro-level, in the realm of words. It wasn’t grandiose theses or fascinating plots (LOTR and The Magicians excepted) that captivated me so much as the tiny but vast worlds of beauty and meaning within individual words. Sometimes they were big words that sounded cool, and sometimes they were foreign words I had to look up (I keep a long ongoing iNote of new vocabulary words), but often they were familiar words used and exhibited freshly. Often I was blown away simply by learning what a word I’ve always used actually means, or what it used to mean.

Some authors took me into new vocabulary worlds, opening me up to a whole new range of metaphoric possibilities. For some reason they all happen to be British. In The Old Ways, Robert MacFarlane guided me on a wondrous journey through landscape vernacular. In A Country Called Childhood, Jay Griffiths similarly brought to life the brilliant linguistic worlds of environmental and geographic language. On the American front, Marilynn Robinson is an absolute wordsmith and enjoys etymologies as much as anyone on the planet. In her latest book of essays, The Givenness of Things, she digressed momentarily from one profound lesson on the richly layered meaning of the word ‘grace’ in order to interject the nerdshout of “What lovely things etymologies are!” 

Additionally, I delighted in the poet’s linguistic bravado that authorizes one to make up his/her own words (as I just did with “nerd shout”). Christian Wiman, in particular, sang to my soul in wholly original ways by writing poems with wholly original words. From a poem called ‘Rust' from Once in the West: She sits in the timestorm time’s turned into / shinedying in her easy chair. Wiman’s translations of the Russian martyr-poet Osip Mandelstam in Stolen Air teeter on abandoning formal English altogether (perhaps just as well seeing as Russian poems can never really become English), much to my good pleasure. From 'Black Earth': Earthcurds, wormdirt, worked to a rich tilth / Everything air, star; everything earth. Other favorite Wimanist idioms include: laughteryawn, muddleduck, greensweeping, whipcrack, brain-shard, hell-tanned, rumwarm. 

These gifted writers have blessed me by animating an all-new appreciation for the meaning-making power of language; and awakening in me a fresh exhilaration in the richness of my own inherited English tongue; as well as liberated me from the school-bred curse of knowing language as a list of rules and into a brand new world of possibilities where words are inspired creations, the makings of which I can even participate in. It’s strange to say that I’ve loved reading but haven’t until now loved words, but it’s true. For this newfound love I am truly grateful for a delight-ful 2015.