My ten most memorable reads of 2022, fiction and nonfiction, out of my 42 first-time reads:
1. The Book of Job — Robert Alter’s translation
“Oh, let that night be barren,
let it have no song of joy.
Let the day-cursers hex it,
those ready to rouse Leviathan.
Let its twilight stars go dark.
Let it hope for day in vain,
and let it see not the eyelids of dawn.”
2. Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo
“There he was, by himself, meditative, peaceful, worshipful, comparing the serenity of his heart with the serenity of the heavens, stirred in the darkness by the visible splendour of the constellations and the invisible splendour of God, opening his soul to thoughts descending from the Unknown. At such moments, offering up his heart when nocturnal flowers offer up their perfume, like a lighted lamp in the middle of the starry night, shining in ecstasy amid the universal radiance of creation, he himself probably could not have said what was happening in his spirit. He felt something soar out of him and something descend upon him. Mysterious exchanges between the chasms of the soul and the chasms of the universe!”
“‘Jean Valjean, my brother, you’re no longer owned by evil but by good. It’s your soul I’m buying. I’m redeeming it from dark thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I’m giving it to God.’”
3. The Odyssey, by Homer
She crossed the threshold
and sat across from him beside the wall,
in firelight. He sat beside the pillar,
and kept his eyes down, waiting to find out
whether the woman who once shared his bed
would speak to him. She sat in silence, stunned.
4. That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell & Universal Salvation, by David Bentley Hart
“Hell appears in the shadow of the cross as what has always already been conquered, as what Easter leaves in ruins, to which we may flee from the transfiguring light of God if we so wish, but where we can never finally come to rest—for, being only a shadow, it provides nothing to cling to (as Gregory of Nyssa so acutely observes). Hell exists, so long as it exists, only as the last terrible residue of a fallen creation’s enmity to God, the lingering effects of a condition of slavery that God has conquered universally in Christ and will ultimately conquer individually in every soul. This age has passed away already, however long it lingers on in its own aftermath, and thus in the Age to come, and beyond all ages, all shall come home to the Kingdom prepared for them from before the foundation of the world.”
“The God of eternal retribution and pure sovereignty proclaimed by so much of Christian tradition is not, and cannot possibly be, the God of self-outpouring love revealed in Christ.”
5. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
“Casy! He talked a lot. Used ta bother me. But now I been thinkin’ what he said, an’ I can remember— all of it. Says one time he went out in the wilderness to find his own soul, an’ he foun’ he didn’ have no soul that was his’n. Says he foun’ he jus’ got a little piece of a great big soul. Says a wilderness ain’t no good, ’cause his little piece of a soul wasn’t no good ’less it was with the rest, an’ was whole. Funny how I remember. Didn’ think I was even listenin’. But I know now a fella ain’t no good alone.’’
6. East of Eden, John Steinbeck
“We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the neverending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.”
7. Faith and Wisdom in Science, by Tom McLeish
“But science also emerges from an ancient longing, and from an older narrative of our complex relationship with the natural world. Its primary creative grammar is the question, rather than the answer. Its primary energy is imagination rather than fact. Its primary experience is more typically trial than triumph–the journey of understanding already travelled always appears to be a trivial distance compared with the mountain road ahead. But when science recognises beauty and structure it rejoices in a double reward: there is delight both in the new object of our gaze and in the wonder that our minds are able to understand it.
“Scientists recognise all this–perhaps that is why when, as I have often suggested to my colleagues, they pick up and read through the closing chapters of the Old Testament book of Job, they later return with responses of astonishment and delight.”
8. The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway
“The first stars were out. He did not know the name of Rigel but he saw it and knew soon they would all be out and he would have all his distant friends.
“‘The fish is my friend too,’ he said aloud. ‘I have never seen or heard of such a fish. But I must kill him. I am glad we do not have to try to kill the stars.’
“Imagine if each day a man must try to kill the moon, he thought. The moon runs away. But imagine if a man each day should have to try to kill the sun? We were born lucky, he thought.”
9. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Brontë
“I saw distinctly the pure moon shining on, and the light clouds skimming the clear, dark sky; and then I saw the eternal stars twinkling down upon me; I knew their God was mine, and He was strong to save and swift to hear. ‘I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee,’ seemed whispered from above their myriad orbs.”
10. How the War Was Won: Air-Sea Power and Allied Victory in World War II, by Phillips Payson O’Brien
“Far more important to German and Japanese defeat was the engagement of their air and sea weaponry. This is what really constituted national effort in World War II. Industrially and technologically, the war was primarily a competition of aircraft development and construction. In Germany the construction of airframes, air engines, and the weapons and machinery needed to power and arm aircraft made up at least 50 percent of German production every year of the war, and at certain times reached up to 55 percent. In the UK the percentage was even higher. Other elements of the air and sea war took up large percentages of construction, from warship building and merchant shipbuilding, to anti-aircraft artillery (the vast majority of which was used in an anti-aircraft role and not in a ground war role as it is sometimes believed) and all the technological developments that went into the war in the air and sea. In all cases, at least two-thirds of annual construction during the war went to air and sea weapons, and in some cases, such as that of Japan, the proportion was considerably higher. When it came to weapons development, the design, testing and production of air and sea weaponry was also of a much higher order, completely outstripping the cost of developing weapons for the army – which were relatively cheap.”
#10 might seem like it has nothing in common with the first nine. That’s because it doesn’t. It’s just that I’ve been reading WW2 books since I was a kid and this one changed my thinking about that war more than any book has done in years.
The author also has a substack relating some of the themes in his book to the current war in Ukraine: Misunderstanding Soviet Power in WW2 and Russian power today
Another work of nonfiction that almost made my top ten: “Russia Against Napoleon.”
George Eliot’s “Adam Bede” is a book I could easily have thrown into my top ten.
I didn’t include re-reads in my list, but picking up George Eliot’s “Silas Marner” again after almost 40 years and then reading it to my kids was one of my personal highlights of the year, in reading or anything else.
Some illness has knocked me off my usual blogging pace and even slowed down my reading. Who knows if, when I get well, my blogging interest will remain as active as it was for most of the last two years, but we’ll see.
A last note. The Book of Job turned up more than once in my reading of the last year. Contemplation of the sky was also a recurring theme in my reading, even in a year like 2022 when I pulled my actual telescope out into the night only a few times. On these themes, I’ll let William Blake quote Job — and Genesis — one more time: