Every year, starting about five years ago, I compile a list of books I read. I include both new books and re-reading, novels, collections of short stories, graphic novels, collections of poetry, and what you might call meditation books, things you’re supposed to read a bit at a time (I keep one or two of those in the bathroom). I don’t include anything that I started but didn’t finish, or anything that I only skimmed or read parts of.
Rather than giving you the complete list, I decided I’d run down what I felt were the outstanding books of the year–outstanding not only in the sense of being well written, but in the sense of being personally significant to me.
Invoking Reality: Moral and Ethical Teachings of Zen by John Daido Loori is unquestionably the best book on ethics I have ever read, period. No one else approaches the same balance of integrity and compassion in evaluation behavior, illuminating the connection between proper self-worth and kind consideration for other beings. I was very happy to discover Loori’s work last year and then saddened by his death last October.
Dead until Dark by Charlaine Harris was my introduction to this series, variously known as the Sookie Stackhouse books or the Southern Vampire series. Its adaptation into the HBO drama True Blood brought multiple new copies of Harris’s books into the library where I work, piquing my interest. I do not, as a rule, like vampires as a subject of fiction; most films and novels about them bore me stupid. But Harris starts from a clever premise–what if vampires “came out” and made their reality known to ordinary people, and tried to live with everyday citizens–and writes with an insider’s knowledge of smalltown Southern life. The books are laugh-out-loud funny but grow progressively more serious, with higher stakes for the characters, as Sookie, the narrator-protagonist, is drawn deeper and deeper into the world of the “supes”, the supernatural people.
Lavinia by Ursula K. LeGuin is, in my opinion, the finest work of this very fine novelist. Like much of her work, it defies genre labels in its retelling of Aeneas’s conquest of Latium through the eyes of Lavinia, the young woman he marries. Lavinia tells us of her life before Aeneas, her visionary experiences of the poet Virgil and his struggle to write the Aeneid, her embrace of her destiny to wed the conquering stranger, and–what Virgil did not tell us–her happiness with Aeneas as his wife, queen of her father’s domain. In her most subtle and delicate prose, LeGuin portrays a very early pagan way of life that is more like Shinto than like the Greek polytheism of the polis, where gods and spirits emerge from and merge into stone, tree, and woodpecker, and where Aeneas’s Trojan traditions merge gently with the piety of the land he conquers. This is a novel not to be missed.
In the Land of Invented Languages by Arika Okrent was a marvelous sojourn into a topic that has fascinated me since my childhood, at least since I read the appendices to The Return of the King. Okrent chronicles the history and culture of human attempts to create ideal languages, universal languages, and fictional languages that embody fictional cultures, interweaving the story of her own attempt to gain certification in Klingon. This was definitely the most sheerly entertaining nonfiction I read last year.
The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died by Philip Jenkins is a book that told me things I did not already know, and I’m fairly conversant with early Church history. Jenkins opens up for the popular reader the geographical and historical scope of the Churches known in the West as Nestorian, and condemned as heretics at the first Council of Ephesus in 431 C.E. for having a somewhat different Christology than was adopted by the Catholics and the Orthodox. The Nestorians, known to themselves simply as The Church of the East, spread as far as China, India, and Tibet, and flourished for over a thousand years in multicultural, multireligious societies where they were never the dominant religion. While they suffered occasional periods of persecution in Muslim-ruled societies, their greatest losses in numbers and power were due to Communist and nationalist movements of the twentieth century. Jenkins holds out the Church of the East as a possible paradigm for Western Churches no longer sure of their place in a world where the old Christendom of Europe is dead and buried.
So far this year I’ve read two graphic novel compilations in the Lucifer series and a book on the Western magical tradition that I think is going to be one of my most significant reads of this year, possibly of the next decade, but I don’t want to say any more about it until I’ve read it a second time. With notes.