Ah, 2016. What a year. With this unprecedented, unexplainable, out-of-left-field year drawing to a close, I am pleased to bring some normalcy to your day with the good, the steady, the art, of reading. Here I present to you my top reads from 2016—eleven in all, since I couldn’t quite narrow it down to a nice even ten. While I did steer into pop culture for a little while—with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and The Girl on the Train under my belt—I must say that the books that made the top of my list this year were, by and large, already tested by scores of avid readers and found once again to be true. And I am here to say, one more time, that those that books we all knew were great, still are, despite all else. So, to keep my “top ten” intact, I will begin with an honorable mention:
- Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books by Paul Collins. This is delightful little read is not centuries old, but its subject matter is. A story of one family who decided to utterly displace themselves from the bustling San Francisco life and move to Hay-on-Wye, Wales—also known as The City of Books. Perfect for any bibliophile who is craving a little Anglophilia as well.
And now, for the top ten, in reverse order (to make things a little more exciting):
10. If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino.
The book cover sums it up pretty well. Calvino’s 1979 novel is not one story, not two stories, but ten stories, all started but never finished. You’ll find yourself enraptures in ten novels you wish you knew the endings to, but you never will. The book trips along as you, the reader, are also part of the story—a nine others besides. And, if you were wondering, I didn’t forget to capitalize part of the title. All will make sense, should you ever give it a try…
9. Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. Let’s go—We can’t—Why not?—We’re waiting for Godot—Ah! As Vivian Mercier famously said, Godot is “a play in which nothing happens, twice.” The genius of Samuel Beckett and Godot are unparalleled, except perhaps by his contemporaries who were asking the same questions and developing the same methodology. Godot is a searing view on the emptiness of life as Beckett saw it in post-World War II Europe. If you sit down to read Godot and find yourself bored, that’s (arguably) exactly the point. And if you can’t get enough Beckett, go watch his play, called Play, starring Alan Rickman—It’ll make your skin crawl, and you’ll be bored all at once. It’s genius!
8. Four Quartets by TS Eliot. A poetry classic if there ever was one. To steal the words of my professor, Eliot is a mystery wrapped in an enigma: this text is hard—but worth the effort. Some things that are helpful to know before diving in include: each quartet is named after a place; “salvages” is pronounced so that it rhymes with “assuages” (how?); and when he starts talking about time, listen closely.
7. Lila by Marilynne Robinson. Third in a trilogy surrounding the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa, in early twentieth-century America, Lila focuses on the vagabond wife of Reverend John Ames, protagonist of the first novel in the series. Distinctly different from both Gilead and Home, Lila offers readers an achingly human narrative that doesn’t shy away from questions of judgement, love, and justice. Robinson manages to tie in the narrative style of the other novels while also giving Lila her own, distinct, and unforgettable voice.
6. How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles van Doren. Why is this on my list, you may ask? Well, because it’s a work of pure genius. I could not put this 360-page lesson on how to read down, and if you haven’t read it I would highly recommend you buy it immediately. Adler and van Doren get right to the heart of what they call good reading (dismissing almost immediately any reading one does “for fun” and making me woefully reconsider my to-read list) and teach their readers how to respect authors, learn from them, critique them justly, and inevitably grow as a person and member of society in the process. Five stars, 100%, A+, all of the above.
5. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. On an entirely different note, here’s a “fun” book that was anything but fun, but so, so good. The novel relates a dystopian-type future where certain children are raised for a specific purpose: to one day, when they are in the prime of life, donate their vital organs. A beautiful story of hope and loss and just getting by, I was enraptured from the first page to the last. (And, if you’ve seen the movie, the book really is that much better.)
4. Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. A comforting read from a sixth-century author, written from a jail cell, and formatted as a conversation between the author and Lady Philosophy. As he awaits execution for treason that he may or may not have actually committed, Boethius discusses the themes of Providence and Fate, free will, happiness, and justice. By far one of the most thought-provoking and gentle works I read while in college.
3. Flannery O’Connor’s Short Stories. First of all, no book with a cover this beautiful could possibly be bad. And when it comes to Flannery O’Connor, her short stories very much allow you to judge a book by its cover. A devout Roman Catholic who was crippled by lupus that claimed her life at the age of 39, O’Connor wrote unflinchingly about redemption—and I say “unflinchingly” because it would seem she writes about anything but. From an angry old woman getting gutted by a bull to a little boy who tries to “baptize” himself and drowns, O’Connor’s writing will leave you with your mouth agape, and should the good Lord take you right then and there, you’ll be shaking in your boots when you pass through the gates of heaven.
2. At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald. Since we’re on the topic of death… I think that MacDonald’s children’s story is the only book that made me cry all year. The story follows Diamond, a kind young boy, who is visited by North Wind (quite literally the north wind) who takes the shape of a beautiful woman and whisks Diamond away on many, many adventures. As the story unfolds, you discover the heart-breaking and beautiful truth behind North Wind and where it is she is taking Diamond, and where it is Diamond chooses to go with her. (*sob*)
1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. This nineteenth-century Russian novel that recounts the life and death of Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov and his three (er, four?) sons is arguably, from a critical and personal perspective, the best novel ever written—and I’m certainly not the only one who thinks so (see below).
My 2016 read of the 776-page novel was my second time through it in less than 12 months, if that says anything to its caliber. The story primarily follows Alexei Fyodorovich Karamazov, or Aloysha, the youngest of the Karamazov brothers. He is the apprentice of a monk, Elder Zosima, at the town’s monastery. Even though Dostoevsky singles Alyosha out as the hero of his story, his two brothers, Dmitri (the oldest—lustful and impulsive) and Ivan (the middle brother—thoughtful and a bit anarchic), keep themselves pretty busy wreaking all kinds of havoc in the town. I should mention that if you’re already having trouble with all these names, you don’t even know the half of it. But don’t worry—there’s a character index in the front of the book. From notable passages such as The Grand Inquisitor, the sermons of Elder Zosima, and the parable of the woman and her onion, The Brothers Karamazov is at once a murder mystery, a philosophical and religious treatise, and a study on the depravity and redemption of mankind. I as a reader and a human person have never felt so known as I do when I am between the pages of The Brothers Karamazov.
Until next year! Happy reading!