"Bloated industries put the economy in a bind," said the headline in The Chicago Tribune. For instance? "The world's auto industry can now produce 20 million more cars than consumers can buy." The article didn't cite the publishing industry as another example, but it certainly could have. (A photo of my office might serve as Exhibit A.) No one—no committee, for that matter—can keep track of the flood of books that appear each week, each day, let alone presume to pick the best of them from the past year.
What follows, then, is a highly subjective selection of books that stand out among the ones I've actually been able to read. Early in the new year, we'll feature some coming attractions of 2003.
Before we get to the list, it should be noted that this was a very good year for books by regular contributors to Books & Culture. Here I'll mention just four (with apologies to many others not named): Mark Noll's America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Oxford Univ. Press); Philip Jenkins' The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford Univ. Press); Lauren Winner's Girl Meets God: On the Path to a Spiritual Life (Algonquin); and Karl Giberson and Donald Yerxa's Species of Origins: America's Search for a Creation Story (Rowman & Littlefield).
The book I was happiest to see this year is Books Children Love: A Guide to the Best Children's Literature (Crossway), by Elizabeth Wilson, a substantially revised edition of a book which was first published in 1987 and which has remained in print ever since. The author, who celebrated her 80th birthday on December 20, is my mother. And it's a terrific book.
Now to the list of the top ten—which actually includes 12 titles—in alphabetical order:
1.After the Quake, by Haruki Murakami (Knopf). Translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin. I've written about this linked collection of stories elsewhere, so I won't repeat that here, except to say that Murakami's book was my bedside reading for the anniversary of 9/11.
2.Breaking Away: Coleridge in Scotland, by Carol Kyros Walker (Yale Univ. Press) and London Orbital: A Walk Around M25, by Iain Sinclair (Granta Books). Two very different walking tours, which need to be taken together. Breaking Away combines letters and notebook entries by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, recounting an extended jaunt in the summer of 1803, with extraordinary photographs and commentary by Carol Kyros Walker, who retraced Coleridge's journey. The whole is a beautiful job of bookmaking, a pleasure to hold and read. This is the third such book she's done; the two earlier ones, also from Yale, are also worth seeking out: Walking North with Keats and an edition of Dorothy Wordsworth's Recollection of a Tour Made in Scotland. Walker is well aware of Coleridge's foibles but nevertheless is over-indulgent. Still, the mix of STC's words and her photographs is stunning. Iain Sinclair's London Orbital chronicles a walk following the highway that encircles the greater London area. Novelist, poet, latter-day flaneur, Sinclair is an abrasively talented writer with an eye to the underside of things; his books belong on the same shelf with Greil Marcus' Lipstick Traces and Dead Elvis. Like many who specialize in not being fooled, Sinclair can wax oddly sentimental—as in his tribute to J.G. Ballard—but he's produced an indispensable report on the world we've made.
3.A Daring Young Man: A Biography of William Saroyan, by John Leggett (Knopf). "His name was known to anyone in America who read a magazine, listened to the radio, cared about theater, or bought a new book." When I was in high school, in the 1960s, William Saroyan was still a fixture of anthologies and reading lists. I wonder how many students today have heard of the author of The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and The Human Comedy. The son of Armenian immigrants, raised in poverty, Saroyan enjoyed early fame, enormous popular success, and the praise of literary opinion-setters. The rest of his long life was a bitter struggle to attain those heights again. John Leggett, whose Ross and Tom was an unforgettable account of literary success followed by tragic failure, has written another great biography, which not only tells Saroyan's story but also illumines a steadily receding era of American life. Postscript: Saroyan's granddaughter, Strawberry Saroyan, whose birth is described in Leggett's book, has a memoir forthcoming from Random House in July, Girl Walks into a Bar.
4.The Enigma of Anger: Essays on a Sometimes Deadly Sin, by Garret Keizer (Jossey-Bass). Readers of Books & Culture may recall seeing an excerpt from this book in our September/October issue. Keizer is an essayist, novelist, Episcopalian minister, and former high school teacher in Vermont. At a time when so much "issue-oriented" writing is dumbed-down and desperate to "connect" with readers—in prose that resembles TV commercials—it's a joy to read a book written for adults, in language that's neither academic nor juvenile, on a subject of universal interest. Distinguishing between healthy anger and anger gone awry, Keizer is a teacher who delights as he instructs.
5.Great Altarpieces: Gothic and Renaissance, by Caterina Limentani Virdis and Mari Pietrogiovanna (Vendome Press). Translated from the Japanese by Daniel Wheeler. This is the single most beautiful book I've seen this year. Its price puts it out of range for many readers, but be sure your library orders a copy—and get on the list. Of course, for the cost of a couple of nights at the movies plus a nice dinner for two, or something else equally disposable, you could set aside most of what you'd need to buy the book, and you'd have it to keep. Among the artists represented are Albrecht Durer, Piero della Francesca, Matthias Grunewald, and the Brothers van Eyck. To see the way the Christian story dominated the European imagination in this period of cultural flourishing is at once exhilarating and melancholy, full of light and shadow, joy and sorrow, and tinged with irony.
6.Larry Burrows: Vietnam (Knopf). Introduction by David Halberstam. Certain subjects seem to be exhausted for the time being, polluted by overposure, and I didn't expect to have a strong reaction to this book of the photojournalist Larry Burrows, who died in 1971 when the helicopter he was in was shot down at the border of Vietnam and Laos. The cover photo of an exhausted, helmeted American soldier was expert but rather generic, and what more did I expect to learn about the war in Vietnam, anyway? But learning takes many forms, and by the time I finished this book, in tears, all my defenses were down. Of the countless books on Vietnam, this is one of the most powerful, telling a story that doesn't need words. Even in this image-saturated time, the eye of an artist can allow us to see afresh.
7.No Way to Treat a First Lady, by Christopher Buckley (Random House). Any book that makes me laugh out loud gets serious consideration for this list, and no book published in 2002 made me laugh harder than Christopher Buckley's new novel, which involves the death of a Clinton-like U.S. president and the subsequent trial of his wife, who is in some way Hillaryesque but in most ways not. It's not as good as my favorite Buckley novel, Thank You for Smoking, or his previous one, Little Green Men, which made this list a couple of years ago. But I'll take it. (Buckley fans will note that characters from earlier novels make cameo appearances in this one, but the device—which could have been great fun—sputters a bit.)
8.Seek My Face, by John Updike (Knopf). Several reviews of this novel claimed to find evidence of slackening powers; in the daily New York Times, for example, Michiko Kakutani made much of Updike's allegedly flaccid reliance on the real-life prototypes for his protagonist, an aging woman artist, and the principal figures in her life. (One of her husbands is based on Jackson Pollock, for example.) For myself, I found the book so absorbing I read it one sitting. There is almost no conventional action; the novel takes place in the space of one day, during which a young journalist interviews the artist, Hope Chafetz, at her home in Vermont. The novel is an exercise in memory, an assessment of a certain period in American art, a wry look at "biography," a book about age and a reflection on generational change, and—at its deepest level—a meditation on the visual world as the work of a creator. As a page-turning novel of consciousness, it reminded me of one of my favorite books, Larry Woiwode's Poppa John.
9.Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A New Verse Translation, by W.S. Merwin (Knopf) and The Mays of Ventadorn, by W.S. Merwin (National Geographic). A poem in Middle English, thought to have been written around 1400 but drawing on much earlier traditions, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight—like the magnificent works displayed in Great Altarpieces—shows the power of the Christian imagination, here working on Arthurian lore. Tolkien loved this poem and produced an influential scholarly account of it. The sense of deep familiarity and yet profound strangeness it inspires gives it uncanny power. Merwin's translation is faced by the Middle English in this superbly designed book, with a marvelous cover by Chip Kidd. It should be read along with Merwin's The Mays of Ventadorn, a volume in the National Geographic Directions series, which gives writers enormous leeway to write about places that have special meaning for them. Merwin's book mixes elements of memoir and travel—writing in its account of time spent in the south of France, but it is above all a tribute to the poetry of the troubadours and an evocation of their world. It's a haunting book with some of the arresting strangeness of the Gawain poet.
10.Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Michael B. Oren (Oxford Univ. Press). Of all the books I've read in this past year bearing on the current situation in the Middle East, this was the most helpful, the most revealing. Oren does what so many good historians do: takes an outcome we're accustomed to seeing as inevitable and shows that it was far from being so—shows the intricate play of choice and circumstance, strategy and inadvertence, the sometimes blackly absurd reality behind the headlines.
John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture and editor-at-large for Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
Entertain Us | Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and the rapture of distress. (Dec. 16, 2002)
Boys Will Be Boys | A new book by a leading Christian feminist scholar inadvertently reveals the flawed assumptions underlying much talk about "flexibility" in gender roles. (Dec. 9, 2002)
Street Cred | Dave Eggers: The portrait of an artist as a … what? (Dec.2, 2002)
Epicurus'—and Darwin's—Dangerous Idea | How we became hedonists. (Nov. 18, 2002)
Weird Science? | A Darwinian debate continues. (Nov. 11, 2002)
Of Moths and Men Revisited | A Darwinian debate. (Nov. 4, 2002)
Angels in Heaven | A game that's more than a game. (Oct. 28, 2002)
Number One with a Bullet | America's foist family as a tool for evangelism. (Oct. 21, 2002)
Train Up a Child | Helping children to become intimately familiar with Scripture. (Oct. 14, 2002)
Acting Like Those 'Evangelicals' | Guilty as charged? (Sept. 30, 2002)
Ugly Evangelicals | Is this us? (Sept. 23, 2002)
Herbie Goes Bananas | The rise and fall and rise and fall and rise of the VW Beetle. (Sept. 16, 2002)
So Far, So Near | A graduate of Murree Christian School in Pakistan, the site of a deadly assault by Islamic terrorists in August, reflects on his growing-up years, on what has changed in the interim, and on the beleaguered Christian community in Pakistan (Sept. 9, 2002)
The New York Times Discovers Religion (Again) | Shouldn't the paper of record be able to move beyond Square One? (August 26, 2002)
After the Quake | Bedside reading for the anniversary of 9/11. (August 19, 2002)
How to Avoid the Coming Disaster | "Imitate Japan." "No, don't imitate Japan." Time out. (August 12, 2002)
"Mind Control" and the Christian Citizen | Historian Sean Wilentz's misguided attack on Justice Antonin Scalia. (August 5, 2002)