A door closes on one year and opens on another. Here at the Manchester Review of Books, December is a time for looking back over what has gone, perhaps with a wistful eye (or perhaps with a sneer, or a look of profound regret), and offering some conclusions on what books the year has brought us.
Reading, it should be remembered, is one of life’s greatest pleasures. I tend to curl up at Christmas time with a massive Victorian novel and spend some time enjoying a story well told. It’s a simple pleasure. It’s also one that seems increasingly difficult to enjoy, the more books you read.
Books are indeed habit-forming. I’ve been through three “to read” piles this year and rather than spend my money on presents for friends and family, I’m ashamed to say that a fourth has just been ordered.
I suspect this story will be told at some future bibliophile support group as an example of a “low moment”.
Yet, in spite of all this reading, I’m not sure if this year has really brought all I would have wished. I have read far less contemporary fiction. I can’t say I’ve felt this as a profound loss, but I do feel guilty for letting new work pass me by.
Instead, I’ve mostly been filling in gaps in my reading. I’ve done a lot of stumbling onto things too. With that in mind, my usual TOP 5 is more of a “here are five books”. Nevertheless, if it provokes your curiosity then perhaps I’ve done my job.
Number One: The Bible
Yes, that’s right. Why are you reading a top 5 books list when you should be praising Jesus? …is the sort of thing that someone might say who hasn’t read this thing. Or at least hasn’t read it objectively.
I’ve dipped in to the Bible before. Genesis and Revelations mostly, with the Sermon on the Mount too if I’m feeling less apocalyptic. 2019 has been the year of reading it cover-to-cover, however, and I can confirm that it’s a very different experience when read that way.
I discovered sections that are well worth reading that I, in my secularism, had never heard of before. Ecclesiastes is pure poetry. Lamentations too. Amos and Ezekiel are invigorating in their Old Testament anger, turbulent and vital. Jonah is wonderfully mystical.
But it’s not simply a sum of its parts. When they collected these separate books, all from different times and places, and brought them into one volume, they introduced a narrative arc that, frankly, I’m very surprised not to have heard about before.
This monster of a text is not just the story of man coming to know God, but of God coming to know man. God is a character. He’s like the angry misfit who finds redemption through love. It was a redemption arc I wasn’t prepared for when I started.
Obviously 2,000 pages of tiny script, written in C17th English (go King James or go home, I say), is going to be a difficult sell, but I for one found this to be one of my most rewarding reads all year.
Number Two: Jim Clarke, Science Fiction and Catholicism (Gylphi, 2019)
From the sublime to the ridiculous; in the same year that I tasked myself with reading the entire Bible, I also set myself a challenge to fill in all the gaps in my sci-fi knowledge. I set about reading everything from Stapledon to Asimov, through McCaffrey to Valente, and my God there are a lot of stinkers.
Some of the best contemporary sf I found was Tade Thompson’s Rosewater trilogy (the final instalment came out in October) and John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series (ended 2015). Both combine action with ideas; something good sci-fi can do better than any other genre, although it often refuses to.
Jim Clarke’s book came out just as I was in the middle of my binge. I have reviewed it elsewhere in the MRB, but over time I have come to appreciate how his particular way of looking at the genre has informed my own understanding.
Sci-fi is, after all, obsessed with science. However, as Clarke points out, what it often tells us most about is the non-scientific presumptions that underlie modernity. Priests often appear in sci-fi as bearers of the old ways. By contrast, they show us what is new in the thinking of spacemen and scientists.
Both Thompson and Scalzi’s books contain a lot of presumptions, not about how the future will be, but about what human beings are like. I like them in spite of this, and can do so thanks to a Clarkean reading of the subject matter.
Number Three: Laura Scott, So Many Rooms (Carcanet, 2019)
I have branched out a little with my poetry reading this year, but when I think about what I really enjoyed I always find myself dragged back to Carcanet. Rachel Mann’s A Kingdom of Love (Carcanet, 2019) was a close call for the poetry book slot but I figured putting three Christian books in a top 5 will send an unintended theological message.
Close also were non-Carcanet titles from the Manchester poetry scene. Richard Barrett’s The Face Book and Steve Hanson’s Sing were two breakthrough collections.
As a book recommendation though, I felt I should go for something intended for the page. Laura Scott’s poems carry huge weight despite a concision verging on the sparse. They demonstrate the importance of poetry as a means of purifying our language, ultimately clarifying our thought.
All poetry should aspire to the condition of this collection. An art for our times.
Number Four: John Stubbs, The Reluctant Rebel (Penguin, 2019)
The longest book I’ve read this year is John Stubbs’ excellent biography of the Dangerous Dean, Jonathan Swift. There is so much to the satirist that is only comprehensible from deep within the historical context of his works that I feel like I’ve discovered this great writer all over again.
Stubbs is a historian of the seventeenth century who turns his hand in this book to the early eighteenth. As such, we get a sense of a much longer history lying behind the squabbles of Whig and Tory, High Church and Low.
Memories of the civil war frame the century’s squabbles, turning seemingly minor disagreements over trade tariffs and Church ceremony riven with terrible foreboding and dread. Every Tory looked to a Whig like a secret Catholic Jacobite, while every Whig looked to the Tories like a Dissenter, an anarchist, and a madman.
Getting lost in the foreign country of the past is refreshing. Far better to understand the past as it was than attempt to explain it through what we think the present is. Stubbs gives us no comparisons to “what we think today”. It’s an approach I find respects my intelligence as a reader, and I appreciate him for it.
Number Five: Stephen Brusatte, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs (Macmillan, 2019).
There were a lot of books that I had in mind for my fifth slot as I jotted my notes for the article this morning. It was only after I found myself paraphrasing this book in conversation, yet again, over coffee that I realised the impact it had on me.
I have been quoting facts from this book relentlessly ever since I first read it a couple of months ago. If that’s not the mark of a great popular science book, I don’t know what is.
The book is written as part-autobiography, part-factual book. Normally I’m not a fan of these “personal journey” non-fiction books, but in the case of Brusatte’s book the narrative mode is a perfect fit with the content.
The Rise and Fall ultimately aims to bring us, the readers, up to date in our knowledge of dinosaurs. As such, the narrative form allows his own journey to reflect the breakthroughs in our scientific thinking. A lot has changed since the 1960s when a young Brusatte first took interest in the thunder lizards.
Having read a lot of 1970s and 1980s books on dinosaurs when I was a child, I found it easy to jump on board at exactly the point I’d leapt off at the age of thirteen. I was glad to learn that the asteroid theory (the one I liked as a kid), has indeed been proven true.
I was less keen to learn about dinosaur feathers. By the end of the book, however, I’d been won over. One of the best parts of the book is Brusatte’s slow revealing of information that ultimately demonstrates how a million years of dinosaur evolution led them into becoming birds.
More than that, all the body parts that make birds birds (special lungs, a wishbone, wings, feathers, beaks) are shown to have evolved for purposes entirely unrelated to flight. It’s an amazing lesson in evolution and the strange ways that creatures come about.
Overall, I feel that 2019 has been an interesting year, but not one marked by many era-defining changes. Experimental novels like Waidner’s We Are Made of Diamond Stuff (Dostoevsky Wannabe, 2019), Rita Indiana’s Tentacle (& Other Stories, 2019) and Glen James Brown’s Ironopolis (Parthian, 2019) provided me with some inspiration. Equus Press has shown the power of small presses with great books like D. Harlan Wilson’s Natural Complexions and Louis Armand’s Glasshouse. The success of Anna Burns’ Milkman (Faber, 2019) has shown that unconventional novels can do well, even if I found the book itself a bit dull (its paragraphs were too big and it plagiarised a scene from Apocalypse Now which annoyed me). Overall, however, I think this year’s great reads have come from outside of the literary novel.
And so one decade draws to a close. Another begins. May our “to read” lists be tempting, yet short, and may the written word live on despite its ever-receding reach.
– Joe Darlington