A Year in Books: 2014

Best Of

I can count on one hand the books I read in 2014 which were actually published this year. While I appreciate the fact that people still write new books, I don’t feel any special obligation to read them. The best authors are generally dead authors. Only one of the books I most enjoyed this year was written by someone still living. I’m thinking of F. Gonzalez-Crussi’s On Being Born and Other Difficulties. Simon Leys only recently (August 2014) joined the ranks of the deceased, but his Hall of Uselessness was another favorite. Still others include Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne, John Aubrey’s Brief Lives, Francis Parkman’s Montcalm and Wolfe, Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, Rose Macaualay’s Told by an Idiot, Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance, and a long list of Henry James short stories.

Jamesiana and Failed Readings

I try not to feel bad about failing to finish a book, but twice now I’ve tried and failed to finish a late Henry James masterpiece. A few years back the book was The Ambassadors; this year it was The Wings of the Dove. I expected more of myself, because (as mentioned) I read so many James short stories with so much relish in the earlier months of 2014. The Middle Years, The Altar of the Dead, The Liar, The Real Thing, The Patagonia, The Pupil, Louisa Pallant and quite a few others; all of them were wonderful. Long-form James of the later period, however, still has me stymied. Other books I started and gave up on this year include John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and Balzac’s Pere Goriot.

Books Revisited

I did not renew acquaintance with as many old friends as I had hoped. There was some Dante (Inferno), some Shakespeare (Hamlet), some Robert Louis Stevenson (Virginibus Puerisque), some Charles Lamb (Essays of Elia), some Paul Valery, Plato and Waugh (Dialogues, Theaetetus, and Brideshead Revisited, respectively). I also dipped again into Mencken (Prejudices) Montaigne (Essays), Plutarch (Lycurgus and selections from the Moralia), Chesterton (The Everlasting Man) and, surprising myself, Eudora Welty (A Curtain of Green). The re-reads on my list for 2015 so far include Moby Dick and Tristram Shandy.

Historical

In the American history column along with the Francis Parkman title mentioned above, I also read Col. James Smith’s Life and Travels During Captivity, a memoir of the French and Indian War, Pedro de Castaneda de Najera’s Narrative of the Coronado Expedition, and Gabriel Franchere’s Narrative of a Voyage to the Pacific Coast of North America. I also finally read – and thoroughly enjoyed – Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, plus Will Durant’s The Age of Voltaire, Michael Keevak’s The Pretended Asian (on George Psalmanazar), and Stefan Zweig’s so-so The World of Yesterday. Ronald Knox’s Enthusiasm was a monument of prose as well as history. James Gaines’s Evening in the Palace of Reason (on Bach and Frederick the Great) was lively and compelling. Less impressive, in my opinion, but not bad reading, was Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms and Stephen Greenblatt’s unconvincing The Swerve.

Belles Lettres

Under this silly heading, for lack of a better catchall, let me praise Jed Perl’s Antoine’s Alphabet (on Watteau), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Selected Letters, and three additional titles by F. Gonzalez-Crussi: On Seeing, Notes of an Anatomist, and The Five Senses. I’ll also mention Rebecca Solnit’s Field Guide to Getting Lost, William O. Douglas’s Of Men and Mountains, W.G. Sebald’s posthumous A Place in the Country, Guy Davenport’s The Hunter Gracchus, Rose Macaulay’s Casual Commentary and Some Religious Elements of English Literature, and Logan Pearsall-Smith’s memorable Unforgotten Years. Other titles that don’t fit elsewhere include Richard Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces, Joseph Mitchell’s Joe Gould’s Secret, Thomas Lynch’s The Undertaking, William Quayle’s A Book of Clouds, E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art, and John Ruskin’s Unto This Last. Edging perhaps into memoir, apologetics, and/or devotional literature, there was Richard Rodriguez’s Darling, Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss, John Donne’s Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, and David Bentley Hart’s erudite but unpleasant The Experience of God.

Natural History and Travel

Why these make a pair in my mind, I don’t know, unless it was my reading of William Bartram’s Travels which suggested it, but Gilbert White took the prize in this category. Other notables include RLS’s aforementioned Travels with a Donkey, Mark Twain’s Roughing It, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s The Broken Road, and the terrifically fun Travels of Sir John Mandeville.

Fictions

I think I managed more fiction in 2014 than in 2013. Among those titles read this year, I thought Richard Hughes’ In Hazard was awful and Muriel Spark’s Ballad of Peckham Rye scarcely better. Tove Jansson’s Fair Play was simple but charming. William Beckford’s gothic monstrosity Vathek was intolerable while Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto was just barely tolerable. Jorge Luis Borges’s Book of Sand was mildly disappointing, but the medieval soap-opera of Njal’s Saga was terrific. I read André Gide’s The Immoralist and Strait is the Gate, and two of Chesterton’s Father Brown collections, The Innocence of Father Brown and The Wisdom of Father Brown, which were each a pleasure. Rose Macaulay’s They Were Defeated was well done but overlong. P.G. Wodehouse’s Thank You, Jeeves was stellar. William Giraldi’s Busy Monsters was disappointing. H.G. Wells’ The Croquet Player was a strange and distressing page-turner.

In Closing

Speaking of Wells, the narrator of The Croquet Player complains that “reading crowds the memory and prevents one thinking.” I find it quite otherwise. I’m not sure I’d be able to think at all without books. At any rate, my mental life would be very different and, I think, poorer. But don’t mistake me. Books are not the most important thing in life. I will not pretend otherwise. They are, however, a choice accompaniment to those things which come before them. For another year of reading and another year of life, therefore, I’m very grateful. Merry Christmas, dear reader, and happy New Year. See you in 2015.

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