The best book I read for the first time in 2009 was Ronald Knox’s Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion, first published in 1950. I qualify the statement because I no longer read many books for the first time. At age 57 I’m beginning to understand the counterintuitive wisdom in Nabokov’s words (from Lectures on Literature):
“Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.”
As a result, I pay little attention to the annual spectacle of “best-of” lists. They’re artifacts from a world I hardly know. Even the Marxists, I see, make lists and indulge in the fetishism of commodities. So, what did I read during 2009 that was published that year? Three biographies of Samuel Johnson, one of Flannery O’Connor, another of Isaac Rosenfeld, Terry Teachout’s splendid Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, Bryan Lynch’s The Winner of Sorrow, Geoffrey Hill’s Selected Poems and little else I remember or care to look up. Last month when my friend David Myers posted his “list of the [last] decade’s best English-language fiction,” I paid attention. Of the 46 titles he assembles, I’ve read 10, and David has tempted me with several others. He remains the literary omnivore, the trencherman of contemporary books I was decades ago.
So, what do I read? I explained that, in part, here, but didn’t have room to list Gogol, Charles Lamb, Elizabeth Bowen, Keats, Flann O’Brien, Henry Green, Spinoza, John Dryden, Kipling, Anthony Powell, The Anatomy of Melancholy, Praeterita, Tristram Shandy and a thousand other writers and titles. Pleasure is always my goad when it comes to books, and pleasure comes in almost infinite forms.
So, which year-end book lists do I find interesting and useful? Here’s an example: I subscribe to a weekly e-letter put out by the Ignatius Press. On Monday it included a link to “The Best Books I Read in 2009…” They asked their authors, editors and others to submit lists which turn out to be both Catholic and catholic. Included are some books I already know and admire -- Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman, much Chesterton, Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy – and there’s dreck, even science fiction, but the best part is that most of the titles are new to me. Now I want to read Henry Chadwick’s Augustine of Hippo: A Life, Aquinas by Edward Feser and two titles by the previously mentioned Ronald Knox. Here’s what Carl E. Olson says of them:
“Two similar works, written many decades ago, but filled with delightful writing and penetrating thought, are Stimuli (Sheed and Ward, 1951) and Lightning Meditations (Sheed and Ward, 1959), both by Monsignor Ronald Knox. The brilliant English convert never fails to impress with his erudition, depth, and beautiful style.”
Perhaps I’ll have to revise what I wrote earlier: “I no longer read many books for the first time.”