2015 in Books

This is the first year I have used Goodreads to track what I read. My books of 2015 are now listed on this report. My total was a slightly disappointing 50 titles, though it’s possible I missed a few early in the year, and I started probably another 30 or 40 that I have not yet finished. Still, I like to reflect on what I have read, and I thought I’d give here the list with brief reviews. If I posted a review of a particular work on Goodreads, I link to it in the title.

My order, within each category, is subjective and intuitive, rated roughly by significance to me.

Nature and Ecology

The Noetics of Nature by Bruce Foltz

This book is brilliant. It braids together Eastern Orthodox and Patristic theology with environmental philosophy, and in doing so it explores what it means to see God present in creation and how the loss of this noetic sight lies at the root of our willingness to exploit the earth. In so doing, he traces the most appealing and fully-fleshed Christian ecological vision I have yet come across. Whether you are interested in art, theology, or environmental issues, I highly recommend this book.

Ecology, Community, and Lifestyle by Arne Naess

My last book of the year, I am glad I read it. I started it as a result of Foltz’s book above as my introduction to “secular” deep ecology. Yet at many points Naess’s arguments converge with the more theological understandings with which I am more familiar. This is well worth a read.

Theology

Gemstone of Paradise: The Holy Grail in Wolfram’s Parzival by G. Ronald Murphy
Tree of Salvation: Yggdrasil and the Cross in the North by G. Ronald Murphy
A Heritage of Holy Wood by Barbara Baert

These three books together had a major impact on me, and it’s difficult to explain exactly why. They deal with Christian myth and legend, with what I regard as a kind of folk imaginative theology. I may yet write a blog serie on them. Gemstone of Paradise investigates Wolfram von Eschenbach’s use and description of the Holy Grail and ends up exploring medieval theology and lapidary lore. Tree of Salvation describes how Christianity in northern Europe adopted pagan symbols and myths to communicate its teachings and promises. A Heritage of Holy Wood is a scholarly and detailed discussion of a stream of late antique and medieval legends about the wood of the True Cross. These books for me as a writer point to “doing theology” in a way that incorporates the mythic imagination and symbolic meaning.

The Lord of History by Jean Danielou

Though not perhaps the best book I read this year, I spent a great amount of time with it and wrote a lengthy blog series on it. Theology of history interests me, for obvious reasons, and I want to retain Danielou’s framework in my mind for future studies.

Baptized Imagination: The Theology of George MacDonald by Kerry Dearborn

Another book for which I have a corresponding blog review. MacDonald’s theology and theological aesthetics are on resplendent display here.

The Tumbler of God: Chesterton as Mystic by Robert Wild

This is a delightful meditation on G. K. Chesterton’s view of the world and whether he counts as a true mystic. In a certain, very real sense, Wild argues, Chesterton was gifted with mystical insight and joy, and the best part of this book is the quotes Wild accumulates to make this point.

Whose Bible Is It? by Jaroslav Pelikan

I didn’t like this book as much as I had hoped to, but Pelikan was a great scholar, and Whose Bible Is It? provides a broad, ecumenically-minded overview of issues of canon and composition.

The Concept of Sin by Josef Pieper
The End of Time by Josef Pieper

These two books do not go at the top of the list of Pieper’s writings, but I very much enjoyed The Concept of Sin, which dispels a lot of misunderstandings about classical Christian teaching on sin. The End of Time was harder for me to get through, but there is a lot of worthwhile material there.

Philosophy

The Silence of Animals by John Gray

This is without doubt the only book written by an atheist arguing for atheism that I have ever really enjoyed. It’s not even that I like it because his primary target is secular humanism rather than religion. There is some quality of his writing and the way he looks at the world that is refreshing, bracingly frank, and oddly beautiful. If I ever gave up on Christianity and theism, I think I’d be John Gray’s kind of atheist; arguably, his atheism is the only one that really rejects Christianity in toto. I’ve written a blog post on this book, too, so I won’t say any more here.

The Myth of the Eternal Return by Mircea Eliade

An influential classic that delves into the significance of myth and ritual for the premodern mind. Whether or not the mentality is quite as universal as Eliade thinks, this is a fascinating discussion.

The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton

Chuang Tzu, in Merton’s loose rendering of the ancient sage, reads like a Chinese Koheleth. There’s a lot of that “pagan” sort of wisdom that arises from long contemplation of the way of the world and the ephemerality of all things.

Aquinas by Edward Feser

Feser here concisely explains and defends key elements of Aquinas’s philosophy, especially his Aristotelian metaphysics. This was the accessible and thorough introduction I needed.

The Rediscovery of Wisdom by David Conway

Conway is a classical theist philosopher, but an Aristotelian pagan, not a Christian, and this book is his apologia against skeptical critiques and Abrahamic religion. This book seems to be rather obscure, or would be but for a laudatory review by Antony Flew, who famously moved from atheism to a similar position. Naturally, I disagree with him on the subject of miracles and revelation, but I enjoyed reading a non-Christian exposition and defence of the classical theist understanding of God.

Literature

Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach

I had read Parzival before, but this was my first go with the Oxford Classics translation, which strove for literal rendering over readability. The product, compounded by Wolfram’s obscure style, is a dense and awkward read that nevertheless preserves a lot of the image and idiom of the original. Pair it with a few scholarly works, and the result is a deeper appreciation of what Wolfram was trying to achieve and how he saw the world.

The Wizard Knight series by Gene Wolfe
The Book of the New Sun series by Gene Wolfe
The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe

The two-book Wizard Knight was my introduction to Gene Wolfe, and it intrigued and bewildered me. It was at turns beautiful, dull, subtle, childish, religious, and pulpy. At many points I had to simply trust in Wolfe’s reputation as a writer that there was more going on under the surface. I am glad I finished it, and some moments still linger with me, although I’m not certain what Wolfe was trying to accomplish in a lot of places. I followed it up with Wolfe’s most famous series. It is understandable why even those who don’t care for Wolfe’s frustrating ambiguity should enjoy The Book of the New Sun. In many respects a traditional fantasy bildungsroman, the constructed world is fascinatingly original. Finally, it was The Fifth Head of Cerberus that definitively sold me on Wolfe. The novella cycle brings out his best writing qualities: complexity, subtlety, ambiguous characterization, and unexpected beauty.

Watchmen by Alan Moore

The only graphic novel on this list, it well deserves its many accolades.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

Another classic about which much has already been said and written. This sensitive dissection of human lives and relationships is deeply moving.

The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Dead Souls by Nikolay Gogol

I enjoyed both these Russian classics, commensurate with the stature of their authors. This was my first successful attempt to get through The Idiot, and my first ever Gogol. The latter is a pleasant discovery, and I hope someday to read more.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Ishiguro’s literary fairy tale is a lovely little meditation on memory. When is it better to forget the past?

Short Trip to the Edge by Scott Cairns

Scott Cairns, a published poet and a devout Orthodox convert, reflects on his trips to Mount Athos. Cairns’s slightly naive but earnest and insightful look at Orthodox spirituality gives perspective to some of its stranger dimensions.

Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami

Like Ishiguro, Murakami is a well-known Japanese writer who blends fantasy with a kind of realism about relationships and personalities. This book reads like a dream, swept along by Murakami’s prose and an array of striking images and ideas. I also read part of Murakami’s look at Japanese student life, Norwegian Wood, but that got pushed aside by other projects.

The Night in Question by Tobias Wolfe

Another great collection of short stories.

On Writing by Stephen King

One of the books I picked up to try to bestir myself to write more was this autobiographical piece by Stephen King. I can’t say it helped my writing, but there are plenty of entertaining anecdotes.

The Gunslinger by Stephen King

According to Goodreads, this is the most popular of the books I read last year, excepting the graphic novel Watchmen. It was also, honestly, one of my least favorite. I don’t think King a bad writer, but I found very little appealing about this book, and I am unlikely to pursue the series any further.

Devotional

Dark Night of the Soul by St John of the Cross

This short devotional book hardly needs introduction, but it most impressed itself on me in the first part, where it spoke best to my experience. St John’s description of the “dark night of the senses” as a stage on the contemplative path offers meaning and hope for periods of apparent spiritual emptiness. This is in fact a purification that allows us to see God more truly and desire him for himself rather than the consolations he gives us.

An Inner Step Toward God by Fr Alexander Men

This book, compiled from various shorter writings by the Russian priest (and, some believe, martyr) Alexander Men, is intended as a practical guide to prayer. I found it just that: practical and straightforward, informed by Orthodox tradition especially but sensitive to the lives and conditions of modern people.

Speaking with God from the Depths of the Heart by St Gregory of Narek

This is a collection of ninety-five hymns or prayers by medieval Armenian saint Grigor Narekatsi (Gregory of Narek). Steeped in the language of the psalms, Gregory strove for deep repentance. I read it online, here.

Symeon the Holy Fool by Derek Krueger
Salt of the Earth by Pavel Florensky

The first book is a scholarly work about and translation of the life of Symeon, the prototypical holy fool of sixth century Syria. The second is a famous Russian theologian’s tribute to his spiritual father, Elder Isidore. These two very different saints–Symeon with his mad disregard for self, Isidore with his practical paternal wisdom–exemplify two sides of the Christian tradition of holy people.

History

Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians by Thomas F. X. Noble

This is quite a tome, but the reader emerges with a well-rounded picture of the iconoclastic controversies in the west. Icons were one issue in which east and west Christendom clearly diverged, the east embracing icons and the west de-emphasizing or rejecting, despite the fact that early on the bishops of Rome opposed the iconoclasm of the eastern emperors. Noble gives us the western side of the story.

The Black Stork by Martin S. Pernick

This book was eye-opening. A hundred years ago America, with the rest of the “civilized” world, dabbled in eugenics. Getting rid of the genetically unfit was supported by a broad swath of society. Americans–mostly babies–died, as others cheered the march of progress. We would do well to recall this disturbing, forgotten history to mind.

The French Wars of Religion, 1562-1629 by Mack Holt

This book was written by someone in my graduate school department, though I never took one of his classes and cannot recall meeting him. Its express purpose, besides serving as a general overview, is to put religion back into the Wars of Religion. Nevertheless, Holt’s engaging narrative makes it clear that the religious wars in France were not a matter of people waking up one day believing God ordered them to kill their neighbors; it was rather the fruit of a long-smoldering conflict between ideals for the future of the nation and the French social body.

Syria: A History of the Last Hundred Years by John McHugo

Given the current state of the place in question, this is an important book. It charts the mess colonial powers made of the Middle East and the subsequent tribulations of the Syrian people, culminating in the Assad dictatorship and the recent disintegration. I would have liked McHugo to have spent more time discussing the rivals to the Assad state that have appeared, but this was still a valuable explanation of why things are the way they are today.

Latin America in the Era of the Cuban Revolution by Thomas C. Wright

This is another book I read to improve my awareness of world history. Wright reviews the revolutionary violence that wracked Latin America in the twentieth century and the subsequent general relaxation into neoliberalism.

Hezbollah: A Short History by Augustus Richard Norton

Though a short history, this book is well-written and includes a personal, informed perspective on Lebanon’s continuing crisis.

Al-Hallaj by Herbert Mason

This book served as my introduction to Sufi saint Mansur Al-Hallaj. It is important to me to learn about the saints of non-Christian traditions, in part to help me understand what is distinctive about my own faith. Al-Hallaj is an odd figure, rescued from obscurity by the great Louis Massignon, but also an intriguing one.

Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism by Erwin Panofsky

I found this book randomly at hand. There was not a lot new to me here, as Panofsky attempts to connect the two medieval movements in his title. Panofsky has a great reputation as an art historian, but I was not able to form much of an opinion on his work from this lecture.

Wittgenstein by W. W. Bartley, III

This is another book I picked up over the summer because I happened to have it handy, and I am unfamiliar with Wittgenstein. Bartley focuses on the years Wittgenstein spent as a teacher in rural Germany. Nevertheless, the book was controversial at the time of its publication (1973), because it was the first to reveal that Wittgenstein was a homosexual. An interesting book, certainly, though there are likely better biographies out there.

Other

Light: Science and Magic by Fil Hunter
Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters by Michael Frye
Creative Black and White by Harold Davis

These three books were read in quick succession during a phase of studying to improve my photography. Of the three, the second was probably the most significant to me, in that it was eminently practical and–unlike several photography books I glanced at–I really like the images. The first, a classic, was full of valuable lessons about lighting. I honestly cannot remember much about the third, but that is likely because the lessons in it blended in my mind with everything else I was reading online.

Psychiatry: A Very Short Introduction by Tom Burns

In my despair over the state of the field of history, I thought I’d read up on psychiatry. This was my first (and so far only) book on the field.

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