This is a list of the best books I read this year. They aren’t necessarily new books (though some are), just my favorites from the whim-guided cataract of my book table. Links go to Amazon, because that was the easiest way to get pictures, and they are set up so that if you buy one of the books using my link I get amazon credit as an affiliate — just so you know.
The Magician’s Land, by Lev Grossman
The first book I read this year, this was also one of the very best. It’s the conclusion to the Magicians trilogy, which also comprises The Magicians and The Magician Kings. The series begins as a highly literary and modernist homage/parody to the Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter. A kid on his way to the Ivy Leagues is offered the much more exclusive opportunity to study magic at a mysterious and wonderfully realized place called Brakebills. But the parody quickly turns to a genuinely moving tragedy, as Grossman ruthlessly debunks the idea that magic, were it real, could solve the fundamental problems of human existence. This is a series for people who dream of getting their letter from Hogwarts, but suspect the result would not be an automatically meaningful life or inevitable happiness. The second book in the series pressed home the point, and I expected the third to do so as well, but Grossman surprised me: the third volume, while fulfilling the bleak promises of the first two books, is an incredibly uplifting and joyous conclusion. It transformed an essentially meta-fantasy into one of the genuine modern classics of the genre. Also, I can’t forget to mention that every volume of Grossman’s trilogy is filled with unfailingly beautiful, clever, satisfying writing: not for nothing is the author TIME magazine’s book critic.
Poems, by Edna St. Vincent Millay
Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution’s power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.
Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee
A genuinely harrowing but profoundly serious novel about a professor who bullies one of his students into having sex with him, is then publicly shamed and censored for it, and who then goes to live for a while with his daughter, only to helplessly witness her rape at the hands of some wandering thugs. Under this already very intense and painful plot, the constant amplifying subtext is that the novel takes place in post-Apartheid South Africa. This book has haunted me since I read it.
Letters to a Young Novelist, by Mario Vargas Llosa
Despite relying on a somewhat tedious device borrowed from Maria Rainer Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, Llosa’s little manual for writers of fiction is actually rather extraordinary. Its heart is the description of three narrative devices that Llosa himself uses over and over again — and after you read this book, you’ll have a hard time not noticing them in any story by Llosa that you ever read. They seem odd, insubstantial little things at first, but as I found, both in scrutinizing their use in Llosa’s own books, and in trying my hand at them in my own fiction, they’re actually quite powerful. I’m still thinking through why that is.
A Book of One’s Own, by Thomas Mallon
A beautifully written book about diaries. Organized by the archetypal kinds of diary there are, each chapter is a wonderful essay in its own right, the best kind of literary criticism: eloquent, syncretistic, keen, enthusiastic and wide-ranging. It holds special meaning to me because I read it during a period of serious — but thankfully temporary — fears about my health: keeping my diary in a new way that was suggested by this book might have saved my mental health.
Modern Library Writer’s Workshop, by Stephen Koch
Simply, the book about writing fiction to best all others. It definitively replaced John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction for me, at the top of that particular personal list. It’s a book that not only covers just about every conceivable part of the process of writing fiction, but it does so without relying, as most such books do, exclusively on the wisdom of its author: it is as much a quotation collection of excellent advice from good writers from the whole history of literature as it is the accumulated writing of longtime writing teacher, Stephen Koch.
Engine Summer, by John Crowley
I discovered Crowley this year, and his melancholy short works of fantasy and science fiction moved me deeply. I’m saving the large Little, Big for a delicious holiday, but I can recommend his shorter novels without reservation, particularly Engine Summer, a story that reads like the love child of the novels of Gene Wolfe and Kazuo Ishiguro.
Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, by Bernard Williams
In his typically transparent and elegant prose, Bernard Williams critiques the entire project of modern moral philosophy. I prefer this book to a perhaps better known book in the same genre — Alasdair McIntyre’s After Virtue — because I deeply resonate with the call that ends the book: moral philosophy should be maximalist rather than minimalist in its account of everyday morality, not seeking to reduce and rationalize the rich and complex ideas we have developed to deal with the real ethical difficulties of life, but taking them up and enriching them with reflection. My dissertation in no small part is my own way of answering this call.
A Legacy, by Sybille Bedford
I called it “the perfect novel” in my review, here.
The Abuse of Casuistry, by Albert Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin
A book that has been hugely influential in the field of biomedical ethics, this remarkable volume rescues from the famous but somewhat ill-advised traducement of Pascal the Medieval and Early Modern practice of casuistry. Casuistry was a way of doing ethics which drew upon the resources of Greek philosophy, Roman and Jewish law, and Christian theology. Rather than determining how one should act on the basis of the intuitions of a virtuous character or the application of moral principles, it attempted to solve difficult cases by comparing them to similar, clearer cases. It was a common law approach to personal morality, and Jonsen and Toulmin convincingly argue that it can provide a model for ethical reflection in our own pluralistic and divisive modern world.
The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, and Method, by A.G. Sertillanges
This is a book about how to devote your life to intellectual work. It bears the explicit imprint of Christian monasticism — its author was a monk — but despite my general rejection of both religion and asceticism, I think some of its enormous wisdom is probably due to that context. Replete with both practical advice about how to live a committed and focused life and tremendously inspiring exhortation to accomplish something both feasible and worthwhile with your mind, I would recommend it to any young intellectual.
Asleep in the Sun, by Adolfo Bioy Cesares
Read my comments as part of Open Letters Monthly’s year in reading feature, here.
The Republic of Thieves, by Scott Lynch
In the third volume of Lynch’s Gentleman Bastards sequence, the ever-excellent story of his professionally masterful and personally messy thief, Locke Lamora, just keeps getting better. Listen to the audiobook if you can: Michael Page is a glorious reader. He does all the voices so well!
The Adventures of Sinbad, by Gyula Krúdy
This year I began what promises to be one of the most transformative and enjoyable reading projects of my life: reading through the NYRB Classics in alphabetical order. Early on I came to The Adventures of Sinbad. It’s by an unusual Hungarian writer who manages to combine modernist narrative experimentation with romantic nostalgia in a peculiarly effective way. Sinbad is an immortal rake, and most of the book involves his posthumous visits to check up on the lives of his lovers after he left them and died. Morbid without being bleak, sentimental without being soft, this book posses of a sensibility entirely its own and it will enrich yours.