As frequent readers of my Goodreads will know, 2020 was a great year for my reading. I went from reading 33 books in 2019 — my previous record, and something that I was proud of at the time — to a likely 115 this year (although there are 2 I wouldn’t count and 2 I reread so it’s closer to 111 unique, book-length books). I thought I’d cap my year off by presenting my favourite from each month, largely because I wanted to write something but not put too much effort into researching it. This semester was very long.
January — Bowling Alone by Robert D. Putnam
The first couple of months were fairly dry for me and so I expected them to be the easiest to choose from. It turns out though that I only read bangers in January. Ten Cities that Made an Empire, The Four Loves, and All Quiet on the Western Front are probably in the top quarter of the whole 114, and Sowell’s Basic Economics isn’t bad either.
I went with Bowling Alone, though, because out of what I read this month it had the biggest effect on me personally. I went into the year a lot more neocon than I came out, and it was the first book that really got me to question individualism. I’m sure if you look back to my writing from the time (I won’t because I cringe at anything I wrote more than a month ago) you can see the shift away that I made thanks to Putnam’s simple reiteration of the Tocquevillian principle. Social fabric good.
February — Dynasties and Interludes by Lawrence LeDuc et. al.
February was a little more barren than January; the only other text I considered here was the Nicomachean Ethics. While Aristotle’s work is probably my favourite between the two, I had to give Dynasties the nod because it’s more interesting if I write about something you haven’t heard of. This book is the best primer on Canadian political history I’ve read, covering the electoral strategy and decisions made by every administration since 1867. I particularly enjoyed their account of the Diefenbaker years, as I think his coalition is the most improbable and most interesting of the bunch (though sadly they believe him to be a mere interlude and not a dynasty). Worth checking out if you ever wanted to learn about Canadian history.
March — The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
What can I say, I’m a fanboy. I could hardly put this one down once I started and so I ended up finishing it in one day. Its existence alone is testimony to Christ’s victory, since Lewis feels so secure in mocking the devil that he’s willing to write a book doing so. Its real usefulness though, and I think Lewis’s aim, is to examine the reader and show him where he is acting as the demons want. Maybe I’ll reread it when I’m preparing for confession sometime as I’m sure it would make a good examination of conscience.
April — The Confessions by Augustine
It was a choice between this and the Essay on Development of Christian Doctrine for me. While I love the Essay now and would probably rank it ahead of the Confessions, 8 months ago I did not know enough about Newman or theology to appreciate it fully.
Augustine’s Confessions equally deserves a revisit, however I definitely made the right call choosing it as the first serious religious text I read. There is a dash of theology in it, (he writes about Creation ex nihilo, for example) it is not Augustine’s primary aim in the text. The Confessions is rather a story about a man falling in love with God; running away from him at first but finally being called home. It is also very briefly a story about loving your mother, and the sections where Monica hears Augustine came home are my favourite (:.
May — The Major Works of Anselm of Canterbury
I was very ambitious in my theological reading at this time, it turns out. A month can do a lot to you though, and I got a lot more out of reading Anselm for the first time than I did Newman (though Newman had the last laugh since I wrote 2 papers on him and have been reading his major works as I go). Anselm is called the Magnificent Doctor, and reading his works really lets you appreciate why that is. It took me a while to get something like the Ontological Argument, but once I got it I kept thinking about it for a whole week afterwards.
If you want to read some of Anselm’s work but aren’t interested in picking up this volume, (2008, Oxford University Press) I recommend starting with On the Fall of the Devil or Why God Became a Man first to whet your appetite and then diving into Proslogion and Monologion. St. Anselm was a genius and you won’t regret giving him a read.
June — Radical Tories by Charles Taylor (journalist, not philosopher)
Edging out a few excellent contenders is a book that sparked a major interest for me in Canadian intellectual history. Taylor was dissatisfied with the movement conservatism of his day (plus ça change) and so he decided to interview every Tory intellectual he could track down to try to find an alternative. What he found was that uniquely Canadian conservatism of Stephen Leacock, George Grant, Donald Creighton, and others. What I found in reading it was Canada’s connection to the premodern world and a long reading list that I have been working my way through (I’m currently reading Creighton’s 1200 page biography of John A. Macdonald, who is the centre of Toryism in Canada).
The Canadian experience I think is one that everyone should look into, since the problem of Canada in the 19th and 20th centuries is the problem of the world in the 21st. We were neighbours with the United States, and so our culture and industry were intertwined. Everyone in the 21st century spends most of their day ‘in America’ (you are on an American website right now, and you clicked here from a different American website) and so citizens of every other country are more America’s neighbours now than Canada ever was before.
July — Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town by Stephen Leacock
Leacock was one of Taylor’s Radical Tories, and though this book is not explicitly political, it is the right place to start if you are trying to understand Ontario Conservatism. There is a meme that goes around about being homesick for a place that doesn’t exist anymore and that’s how I feel reading this book. I live in Kanata, which is former small town Ontario; in fact there are still plots of farmland being bought up around me and packaged off to build condos and suburban homes. Leacock’s Mariposa is a place I’ve never been and will never know because we bulldozed it to build the Real Canadian Superstore. And yet, enough of it filters through the asphault of the 417 for me to recognize it for what it is: home.
It’s also one of the funniest books I’ve ever read and I recommend it for that alone.
August — Understanding Media by Marshall McLuhan
Finally decided to see what all the McLuhan buzz was about and I wasn’t disappointed. The Medium is the Message.
I would say more but if you know what McLuhan is about then you know this book is great, and if you don’t and you want to understand our current situation then you should read this book and find out what he’s about. Reading McLuhan will change the way you look at (and maybe use) technology.
September — The Karamazov Brothers by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
I wanted to write Sybil for the meme but I couldn’t justify it ahead of an actual masterpiece. For about a week (this is a 1,000 page book) I was in Dostoyevsky’s Russia taking in the sights and sounds and coming to know the four men around whom the plot is centered. What I didn’t expect was for it to be so spiritually satisfying (aside from where Dostoyevsky says the Jesuits are plotting to turn Russia into a socialist country) — you probably don’t need me to tell you that this is an incredibly Orthodox book, but it’s an Orthodoxy that is forced onto the back foot and responding to a modernizing Russia as Alexei is forced to respond to his nihilist brother. I am not going to do the book justice if I continue so I’ll end it here. Don’t be put off by the length; sometimes long books are worth the slog.
October — A Secular Age by Charles Taylor
Speaking of long books, Charles Taylor the philosopher has a treat of one in A Secular Age. I would say that this is a work of history first and foremost: it plots the decadence of Christianity in the West since the Reformation and shows all of the developments along the way that made us more secular. Taylor then moves into his appraisal of the modern world with all of the dissatisfaction he’s known for (he calls modernity a ‘malaise’). I will probably revisit this one next year too.
November — Loss and Gain by John Henry Newman
Joyce called Newman the finest writer of English prose there ever was, and this book, more than any of his other works, is what makes me believe him. Loss and Gain might just be my favourite novel. It’s many things: a semi-autobiographical account of Newman’s conversion; (although Reding is not meant to be read as him) a satire of religious partisanship; an exploration of Newman’s Oxford; and a taunt against the Anglican establishment who chased Newman out of the public square after Tract 90. Above all though, it is one of only two books on this list that managed to choke me up a little. When Reding kneels in front of the Passionists and asked to be received into the Church you feel like you’ve been on the journey with him, and alongside him you will give glory to God.
It’s strange that in a year that I read Newman’s Development of Christian Doctrine and The Grammar of Assent I chose probably his second-most obscure work (his most obscure is his other novel, Callista) ahead of them but I really adore this book.
December — A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
The runner up in December was Jacobs’ Life and Death of Great American Cities. Intellectually that has affected me more, but it doesn’t come close to what Dickens does emotionally. It’s a testament to his abilites as a writer that I knew exactly how this was going to end from minute one and yet I was still almost moved to tears by Scrooge’s conversion.
He also spends the whole thing mocking the political economists which is something I love in all of the Dickens I’ve read.
So there’s the cream of my 114 books. The best thing about the Goodreads challenge isn’t toting it all up at the end of the year, though; it’s that in two days I’ll get to reset and start over again. I’m very excited for more reading, and I’m also excited to finally write some real blog posts again. It’s been far too long since I applied any of the things I read on here. Expect to hear some more from me in the New Year (whether that’s a good or a bad thing remains to be seen).