I began the year with the laughable idea that I would read less and spend more time walking around and looking at the world and thinking, and maybe (allowing for human weakness) re-reading books that I hadn’t read in a long time. I managed at least to do some of the latter. In 2013 I paid second or third visits to Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Twelfth Night, G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici, and Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. I also revisited various favorite authors to pick off works which I’d never got around to before. These included three P.G. Wodehouse novels (Leave it to Psmith, Joy in the Morning, and Bachelors Anonymous) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Inland Voyage and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, as well as Tove Jansson’s Moominpapa’s Memoirs, Theodore Dalrymple’s In Praise of Prejudice, and Chesterton’s superb and superbly digressive biography of Thomas Aquinas.
Works of fiction that were new to me last year (though most of them hardly new in themselves) included two collections of short stories by Saki (Chronicles of Clovis was the best), Kipling’s Plain Tales from the Hills, two Anthony Trollope novels (The Warden and Barchester Towers), Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield, and Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island. I finally managed to read some Nicholson Baker (The Mezzanine), some Carson McCullers (The Member of the Wedding), and a Georges Simenon novel (Monsieur Monde Vanishes). The Simenon was good enough. The McCullers was mesmerizing. The Baker was terrifically funny but not, perhaps, very deeply satisfying. The Jules Verne title I found almost unbearable. Overall, fiction itself made up a smaller portion of my reading last year than I might have predicted.
Many of the best books I read last year were histories. These included the first four volumes of Francis Parkman’s seven-volume history of French colonialism in North America (The Jesuits in North America and La Salle and the Discovery of Great West were especially good). Richard Holmes’s latest, Falling Upwards (a history of manned ballooning from 1783-1903), was the best new title I read all year, a real joy. F. Gonzalez-Crussi’s A Short History of Medicine, John Glassie’s A Man of Misconceptions (about Athanasius Kircher), and Joel F. Harrington’s The Faithful Executioner (a biography of a 16th-century Nuremberg executioner) were all wonderful surprises which I’m constantly recommending to friends. Washington Irving’s charming and hilarious A History of New York became an instant personal favorite (though it blends, perhaps, into fiction). Other worthy titles read last year include Christopher Dawson’s Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower, Andrea Wulf’s The Brother Gardeners, and Gilbert Seldes’s The Stammering Century, about nineteenth-century American religious fads and cult spiritualities. Primary historical texts I read last year included the autobiography of the Sac war chief Black Hawk, memoirs of the American west from the late seventeenth-century by Cadillac and Liette, and the diary of my tenth great-grandfather Thomas Minor, an early settler of New England. E.H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World was a page turner, the work of an afternoon or two. James McPherson’s Civil War epic Battle Cry of Freedom was more of a trudge. So was Henry Adams’s Mont Saint Michel and Chartres (despite its occasional glories). Generally less impressive were Andrea Wulf’s Chasing Venus, Peter Gay’s Mozart: A Life, and Denys Turner’s Thomas Aquinas. Peter Hansen’s The Summits of Modern Man (about the birth of modern mountaineering in the Enlightenment and beyond) was a prime example of how a winning topic can be bludgeoned to death with unmusical, academic prose.
Among those books more difficult to categorize (though generally non-fiction of one species or another), I especially enjoyed reading the lectures collected in Professor Borges, F. Gonzalez-Crussi’s Carrying the Heart (essays on the cultural symbolism of human anatomy), and the Sir Roger de Coverly Essays of Addison and Steele. Rose Macaulay’s The Minor Pleasures of Life – a commonplace book of quotations mostly from the sixteenth-eighteenth centuries – was itself no minor pleasure. M.A. Screech’s Montaigne and Melancholy and Isaiah Berlin’s The Roots of Romanticism were both worth the time. Less so, in my opinion, were George Saunders’s The Braindead Megaphone, John Gray’s Straw Dogs, or Bergen Evans’s A Natural History of Nonsense. Books I wanted to like more than I actually did include James Schall’s On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs and Joseph Epstein’s Narcissus Leaves the Pool. Julian Barnes’s Levels of Life was so-so. Henry Beston’s The Outermost House was a poor imitation of Thoreau. But Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast was a great yarn, and Mary Roach’s Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal was a nice piece of instructional comic diversion.
I have not made any reading resolutions for 2014, though I’ve already set aside for later delectation some additional titles by Robert Louis Stevenson, Chesterton, and Rose Macaulay. I intend to read some more philosophy (Hobbes, finally, and perhaps some more Hume). Montaigne is sure to show up, as usual. Shakespeare too. I also hope to read Francis Parkman’s magnum opus Montcalm and Wolfe, and the posthumous Patrick Leigh Fermor title The Broken Road, which appears in its American edition soon. I have some more F. Gonzalez-Crussi on order, as well as John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven. I want to re-read Don Quixote this year, and possibly Moby Dick. I just picked up John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor from the library and want to finally read Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. We’ll see.
One thing I learned this past year: I’m a more productive (and happier) reader than a writer. The best thing I wrote off the blog last year was a 70-page chapter book for my daughter, which I’m quite proud of. The novel which I beat out my brains for these past five or so years exists in a completed draft now. It’s still a mess, however, and last year I was given some helpful perspective on its faults and what might be done to correct them. I hope to take it up again at some point in 2014. It’s been a few months since I’ve been able to look it in the face, but I may be ready soon. Writing seriously-intended fiction for adults is no fun at all. It really isn’t. It’s nothing like reading. Reading adds to life and is, unless you’re doing it wrong, a joy and a pleasure. Writing, on the other hand, takes and takes. It drains the soul. Sure, there are moments of elation, but writing gives birth to such moments only to murder them in infancy. If you ask me.