The New York Times and The Globe and Mail and many other press outlets use panels of judges help assemble their 100 “best of the year,” book lists. The lists are comprised only of books that were published this past year. They are designed to have something for everyone in them. They tend to highbrow, reflecting the literate interests of a highly educated minority of people.
My list, on the other hand, is very personal, reflecting my interests alone. Far from being a hundred-book list, mine must be much shorter, since I only managed to read forty books this year. My list spans books written over the past two-centuries too, mostly because I’ll often read everything I can find in subject areas that interest me. This year that was the Boer War, in preparation for doing research on a distant relative—Pieter Schuil—who died in that conflict. I also read many books that touched on the meaning of life because I am thinking of writing a book in that vein myself.
And of course, I read a lot of science fiction, mostly because this has been my genre of choice for escape since I was a tween. And this is my nod in the direction of “definitely not highbrow,” although the two sci-fi books I chose for this list are not the typical “read and toss” books I usually end up with from this genre. They were very good.
So, without further ado, here is my list of “Best Books I Read in 2015: Mildly Annotated.”
Best Science Fiction
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. This book fits into the very hot post-apocalyptic meme, though not very predictably. It is less about the end of the world as it is a book about the importance of art and beauty, and the hope that drives us to survive. Unlike much sci-fi, this one is beautifully written, too. It is the perfect antidote to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, by the way.
My runner up in the scif-fi category would be David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks. Also well written. Strange. Had to work hard on the willing suspension of disbelief at a certain point. But engrossing, imaginative, layered, and in the end fun.
Best Books on the Meaning of Life
I read a dozen or more books on this broad theme. They ranged from popular self-help books like The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, by Jonathan Haidt to philosophical primers like The Meaning of Life: A Reader, by E. D. Klemke. Only one of these books blew me away: I and Thou by Martin Buber. I was assigned this book for a college philosophy course forty years ago, and I merely skimmed through it then, to get by. Too bad—I really missed something. I loved everything about this book, from its obscurantist argumentation (like that of my hero, Kenneth Burke) to its overwhelming humaneness and insight. The introduction by Walter Kaufmann was worth the price of the book all by itself. Just wonderful.
The worst book? The Need for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties Towards Mankind by Simone Weil, closely followed by her Waiting for God. The former was written for the Free French, during WWII, to help guide reconstruction. Just weird. And while Waiting for God had some fine moments, they were all spoiled by Weil’s directionless meandering punctuated by her senseless starving of herself to death. Reading these two books made me very suspicious of literary elite that wants to suggest she is some sort of literary saint. No.
Well, in truth, this might be philosophy pretending to be theology, or philosophical theology, but the best—and most challenging—book I read this year was John Caputo’s The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps.
Love the way it got under my skin. He argues that we should pay attention more to how God insists (perhaps) than we do to God’s existence. Having said so, there is no way that I can sum up the many layers of this work without writing a Master’s thesis, at a minimum. It is rich. It is surprisingly poetic and humorous. It also made me wish that I had a better understanding of Hegel and Kant than my secondary-literature-only background. I also read Caputo’s What Would Jesus Deconstruct: The Good News of Postmodernism for the Church. It is more accessible, written for the Evangelicals who he wants to haunt (his term) with his ideas. Caputo, incidentally, is a major inspiration for Emergent/Post-evangelical/Post-Church Christian Peter Rollins. Rollins books are more accessible but less interesting than Caputo’s. I’d suggest starting with his Insurrection: To Believe Is Human, To Doubt, Divine.
One of my hobbies is paleoanthropology. I’ve read most of the popular literature from the past twenty years or so, and some more professional books too. The highlight of my summer was a visit to the Cradle of Humanity, the Sterkfontein caves in South Africa—as well as the museum there. This is also the location of the Rising Star cave site where Homo Naledi was recently found—the most exciting thing going right now in paleoanthropology. The most dynamic work being done in this field involves unraveling the human genome, often from ancient bones. The best book I read about this topic, this past year, is Christine Kenneally’s, The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures. Besides serving as a great introduction to genetic science, it also discusses cultural and familial transmission of values.
The reason I was in South Africa this year was to research the life of a distant relative who was executed by an English firing squad during the Boer War—the Pieter Schuil I mentioned above, a first cousin three generations removed. I have Pieter’s diary and a letter that an English chaplain wrote to his parents after the war, describing his last night alive. I’ve written about this story here: Pieter Schuil and Pieter Schuil Two. While doing my research I came across Ingvar Schoder-Nielson’s, Among the Boers in Peace and War. I sought the book out because I knew that one chapter contained an account of Pieter’s arrest and execution. I was blown away to find another chapter about a meandering late-Boer War intelligence-gathering trip that Pieter took with the author. It felt like an unexpected “second visit,” with Pieter. On the whole, the book is a very interesting glimpse at an experience that few of us could imagine—living on the South African veld, fighting the English, losing, and (in Ingvar’s case, at least) surviving.
I rarely read novels that don’t come highly recommended, so few of them are bad. (One favorite site for recommendations is Joanne’s Reading Blog). This year, however, decided to walk into the best bookstore in Toronto, Ben McNally Books, when I had a few hours to kill, and pick out the thinnest novel I could find. I bought Jeremias Gotthelf’s The Black Spider. This is a dark allegory written from within the European Evangelical tradition of another time. It was first published in 1842. But what a lovely romp. Half horror, half Jeremiad, and half morality tale. Beautifully written, translated, and fun all the way through. Get it!
Just before going to press, I thought my runner up would be J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. A book about “modern” South Africa that is deeply disturbing and impossible to put down.
But last night I finished what might have been the best reading experience I had all year, a book by Lawrence Hill, The Illegal. Coming after the incredible success of his Book of Negroes, I was prepared for a let down. Not at all. I loved the main character, a marathoner. His struggles were believable, and I admired Hill’s social commentary throughout. This book is an absolutely necessary antidote to all the race-baiting, anti-immigrant talk in the USA right now, but also a reminder that we in Canada have only made a beginning at being the welcoming, multiethnic country we’d really like to be. And what a great, compelling, well-written story! A page-turner from beginning to end.