I’ve put together a list of my favorite books I read for the first time this year (here’s last year’s list). I’ve shared five of my favorites as part of First Things‘s favorite books of the year, and I’ve got the remaining seven favorites listed in chronological order of my reading below.
(And, of course, as you guys think about gifts for family and friends, I’d be remiss not to ask you to consider getting someone my book, Arriving at Amen: Seven Catholic Prayers Even I Can Offer, if you read and enjoyed it yourself).
The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community by Ray Oldenburg
This is the book I was drawing from in my essay at Ethika Politika “Learning to Linger in Leisure Spaces” and it’s changed the way I run some social gatherings at my house. Oldenburg profiles “Third Places” — places people meet each other outside work and the home, where they can build up a network of weak ties that sometimes deepen into strong friendships. He profiles some historical Third Places and some contemporary attempts to reseed them.
Quantum Computing since Democritus by Scott Aaronson
Aaronson clearly adapted this from his lecture notes, and it’s conversational and full of humor. And a lot of it gave me a new understanding of how mathematicians measure information. I’m underselling how thrilling this is, I know, but I’d recommend leafing through it in a bookstore. I think a lot more people would enjoy it than will naturally pick it up. And it’s a book where you can get a lot out of it without understanding everything (this was true of me).
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
I really assumed, when I picked this up, that I wouldn’t be too surprised by what was in it. I know how we treat former prisoners, I’m familiar with “Ban the Box” proposals to keep previous convictions from barring people permanently from jobs, etc. but I was still flabberghasted by how horribly we treat prisoners and former prisoners, and how these structures of oppression keep them and their families from living full, flourishing lives. (For example, former prisoners are usually banned from public housing, making it impossible for them to live with their families after release, and depriving them, their children, and/or both of the support they need).
Thinking In Numbers: On Life, Love, Meaning, and Math by Daniel Tammet
I’ve already blogged about this one, so I’ll just remind you that it’s one of the books I took out from the library and then ordered a copy to own before I had finished it. And that I particularly liked this part.
He describes how he didn’t do well with the traditional way of solving for (isolating) x in algebra class:
Take x^2+10x = 39 for example. Such concoctions made me wince. I much preferred to word it out: a square number (1, or 4, or 9, etc.) plus a multiple of ten (10, 20, 30, etc.) equals 39; 9 (3×3) +30 (3×10) = 39; three is the common factor; x=3. Years later, I learned that Al-Khwarizmi had written out all his problems, too.
I found this section just as startling and curiosity provoking as the Icelandic one. I’ve been doing algebra for ages, but I’ve always treated the shape of the question as irrelevant — simply bits to be moved around until I could pin down x itself. Pausing to notice whether I was using a square number only mattered when I was taking the root to neutralize it. Once I saw how Tammet was working his problems, I had to try a couple his way, and I really enjoyed the different sort of puzzle it turned the problems into.
And what I’m still turning over in my head is whether I’ve acclimated to this narrow “isolate the variable of interest” approach anywhere besides algebra and could benefit from noticing and practicing the skill of pausing to see how all the pieces relate in this particular problem. What a delight.
A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken
This was such a perfect book (generally, and for me in particular) that I can’t believe it hadn’t been recommended to me already. Ah, well. Lucky 10,000! Vanauken describes the love story of him and his wife, their conversions to Christianity, his correspondence with C.S. Lewis, and his grief after his wife’s death. I spent the first hour of a third date going through all the pages I had dog-eared for earnest discussion. And here’s one of those passages I marked:
‘Look,’ we said, ‘what is it that draws two people into closeness and love? Of course there’s the mystery of physical attraction, but beyond that it’s the things they share. We both love strawberries and ships and collies and poems and all beauty, and all those things bind us together. Those sharings just happened to be; but what we must do now is share everything. Everything! If one of us likes anything, there must be something to like in it–and the other one must find it. Every single thing that either of us likes. That way we shall create a thousand strands, great and small, that will link us together. Then we shall be so close that it would be impossible–unthinkable–for either of us to suppose that we could ever recreate such closeness with anyone else. And our trust in each other will not only be based on love and loyalty but on the fact of a thousand sharings–a thousand strands twisted into something unbreakable.
(the fun thing about either retyping or reading aloud a passage that is partly right is that it makes it easy to spot the wrong notes — the ones I feel the sudden impulse to exclude with ellipses)
I’m realizing now, as I make the list, that I left off Joseph Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture, so I’ll sneak it in here, since these two seemed to pair perfectly. Both are about how we should work in/enjoy the world and I’d like to write about both in more detail later. In the meantime, here’s an excerpt from Snell:
I am suggesting that just as God instructs Adam to will Eve in Genesis 2, to recognize and delight in her goodness, so the blessing of work, primarily in its subjective but also in its objective dimensions, is an education in the very same will. In giving us work, God is asking us to love the world, and we are less like god if we hold back our approval of the world and all that is in it, including our own dynamic agency. Not willing the things of the world, as Pieper means will, is ungodly, diabolical. And work is how we will.
Anecdotal Shakespeare: A New Performance History by Paul Menzer
I would have already been completely happy with this book if it had just been what I expected it to be — a collection of lore surrounding Shakespeare’s plays (the curse of the Scottish Play, whether people have used real skulls for Yorick, etc). But, instead, Menzer uses these anecdotes to explore the themes of the play, assuming that by looking at the shape of the stories that spring up around a given play, we can tell what actors felt needed resolution and how they attempted to supply it themselves. It was fascinating.
Also, it included this:
The following anecdote is told of a certain irritable tragedian. He was playing Macbeth and had rushed off to kill Duncan, when there was no blood for the Thane to steep his hands in. – “The blood! The blood!” exclaimed he to the agitated property-man, who had forgotten it: the actor, however, not to disappoint the audience, clenched his fist, and striking the property-man a violent blow upon his nose, coolly washed his hands in the stream of gore that burst from it, and re-entered with the usual words, ‘I have done the deed, didst thou not hear a noise?’
And, looking forward to 2016, I’ve started reading a selection a day from Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar: Readings on Courting and Marrying by Leon and Amy Kass. It blends reading from sociology, excerpts from Shakespeare, theology, Austen, etc to explore what marriage is for, and how we prepare for it.
What I’m not sure of is whether my boyfriend should get the credit for loaning me this (and the three preceding books) or whether the credit is due to me for asking to borrow them when looking through his bookshelf. (A Severe Mercy he recommended outright)