This past year of reading has shaped up to be a great one.
One major theme this year was war. Perplexed by the prevalence of such a monstrous and destructive activity, I read several histories and biographies, particularly focusing on the First World War and the Spanish Civil War. Of the former, Rainer Maria Rilke’s and Ernest Hemingway’s novels combined with Ernst Jünger’s memoirs to give me some idea of a soldier’s life during the Great War. G.J. Meyer’s excellent overview, A World Undone, completed the picture by summarizing the background and the battles. On the Spanish front, F.G. Tinker’s thrilling memoirs of his time as a fighter pilot complemented Antony Beevor’s military history and Gerald Brenan’s historical background to the conflict. (I also went on a superb tour in Barcelona focused on the war.)
I remain both morbidly fascinated and equally baffled by warfare, and plan on continuing this theme into the next year, focusing more on the Second World War.
I also explored history more generally. To compensate for my dearth of high culture, I made my way through Grout & Palisca’s History of Western Music—a worthy overview of the subject—as well as several smaller books about individual artists—Dalí, Gaudí, Sorolla, and Picasso. Stefan Zweig’s memoirs taught me about the pre-war and interwar periods in Europe, and Tony Judt’s magnificent history of postwar Europe led me from 1945 up to the present day. Then, Joseph Stiglitz’s economic analysis shed light on Europe’s uneasy status quo. Hoping to penetrate the mysterious rise and fall of civilizations, I tackled Oswald Spengler’s phantasmagoric Decline of the West and Arnold Toynbee’s more soporific companion, A Study of History; but I remain in the dark on this question, so I content myself with the sharp prose and colorful descriptions of Lord Macaulay.
Henry David Thoreau was born 200 years ago this year, so I decided to re-read his classic account of life in the woods once more, and found myself once more conflicted. (I also visited Walden Pond, as well as a fantastic exhibition about Thoreau in the Morgan Museum in New York.) I also decided to trace Thoreau’s influence through some of his spiritual followers, both as a conservationist and as a social advocate. This led me to Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, and Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives.
This last book dovetailed with another major theme, New York City, which led me to learn about the Croton Aqueduct and the subway system, as well as to read Federico Garcia Lorca’s surreal poetry, Jane Jacob’s brilliant analysis of what makes cities succeed and fail, and Robert Caro’s wholly remarkable biography of Robert Moses—easily one of the best books of the year.
Though this year has been fairly light on fiction, I still had some literary pleasures. Among these were several Shakespeare plays, Hemingway’s short stories, Dickens’s Bleak House, and the final three volumes of Proust’s sprawling epic. But my favorite novel, and my favorite book of the year, is without doubt George Elliot’s Middlemarch, which I found to be life-alteringly brilliant. I have also read some excellent literary criticism: Orwell’s essay on Dickens, Ortega y Gasset’s essay on Cervantes, Unamuno’s ecstatic commentary on Don Quijote, and best of all Bradley’s lectures on Shakespeare’s tragedies—a model of literary appreciation.
I also used several books as jumping-off points for investigations into certain aspects of modern life. I tasted Spanish cuisine with a cookbook, I flirted with romance through Azis Ansari, I argued politics with Jonathan Haidt, I swapped work stories with Studs Terkel, and I tested the educational system through a GRE prep book, a book on classroom management, and William Deresiewicz manifesto on higher education. I also pondered the best way to live with a biography of Montaigne and a book on Stoicism, though I am still in the dark on this point.
To sharpen my travel writing I read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s wordy account of his trip through Europe in the 1930s, and George Henry Borrow’s even wordier account of his trip through Spain in the 1830s, neither of which I very much liked. Yet I relished Richard Ford’s Gatherings From Spain, and recommend it to any curious travelers to the Iberian peninsula.
My reviews have grown longer and more detailed this year, as I have incorporated more summary into my reviews in the hope, perhaps vain, that it will allow me to understand and retain more of what I read. The downside of this strategy is, of course, that many reviews are a slog to read. But on the whole I am happy with most of my reviews from this year. Of these, I am most proud of my review of Hegel’s Phenomenology, followed closely by Susan Haack’s Defending Science—Within Reason—two philosophy texts, as it happens.
Thanks to all of you for reading so much and for writing so well, and may 2018 be even better.