Tuesday, January 4

Ben's Top Ten List

My good friend, Ben House, just couldn't wait to one-up my top ten list from yesterday's blog! He had to get in his picks--and lo and behold, there are no overlaps! Great picks; just different! So here they are, Ben's nods to his best books of 2004:

My wife has a real problem. I don’t know if it’s characteristic of all women or just her. She doesn’t understand the nature of work. By that I mean real work, the kind of work that I do. It’s not that my wife does not work hard herself; she just does not grasp my great labors.

Let me illustrate this. Most evenings, she is in the kitchen for several hours cooking and cleaning. Along with that she is bathing the children and getting clothes and lunches ready for the next day. Meanwhile I am at my workstation; some would call it a couch. I prop up several pillows, adjust the lamp, and read. Usually I have several books to read from along with a magazine or two. I would love to be doing housework or home repairs or rebuilding a carburetor, but I have to read. First, I have to read my homework assignments for the classes I teach: I cannot expect my students to read if I am not reading. Second, I have to read from books related to the subjects I teach. Since I teach history and literature, almost every book ever written is related to our current classroom topics. Then I have to read something as a diversion, a bit of cultural rounding not found in the ongoing required reading. And what about my soul? I have to read something to nourish the soul.

To add to this marital problem, I have over the past year been successful at writing book reviews that have been published or posted on the Internets (plural by executive Presidential decree). Now more than ever I have to read; then I have to write—this too is work. I keep explaining to my wife how important my book reviews and articles are to my literary career. She keeps asking a most unliterary question, “What do they pay?” Once in a fit of anger I responded by saying, “I guess you would prefer if I were a lawyer and made millions of dollars and hated my job.” Her answer to that was likewise not very literary.

In the future, I hope someone does do a review of my reviews. For now I have to settle for what future biographers will call ‘the years of obscurity.’ In this time of obscurity, I have found much delight in ranking and commenting upon my favorite reads over the past year. Now that 2005 is here, I can now announce my favorite books read from 2004.

1. The Genevan Reformation and the Founding of America by David Hall (Lexington Books, 2003). Bible believing people are being given the credit (or blame) for Pres. Bush’s reelection. But Christians have roots in this land preceding the recent election. America’s founding and greatness can be ascribed in large part to our Christian heritage. (Of course, the real credit and glory is God’s alone.) In particular, America was mainly founded and established by John Calvin’s theological heirs. Dr. Hall’s book proves this case overwhelmingly in this book, which is vital to understanding America’s colonial and early national history. Along with Calvin, other continental European Christians, Puritans in England, and Covenanters in Scotland laid the groundwork for what would become the American experiment. Much of the book focuses upon these Christian political thinkers and followers of Calvin. Massachusetts was once chocked full of Puritans and New Jersey was once brimming with Presbyterians. This book has no shallow end, but it is worth the effort to swim through.

2. Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus by Rick Perlstein. In the 1964 election, there were only five red states. Only about 40% of the American voters cast ballots for the conservative Republican candidate. The campaign was so divisive that it would have made Michael Moore look like Santa Claus. The astounding victory of the Democratic President Lyndon Johnson seemed to assure a golden age of Big Brother-Great Society Liberalism. The conservative movement looked like the last old dinosaur limping off in search of a blade of grass. But some things flame up quickly and some things smolder for a long time. The spark that made the difference was Ronald Reagan, who made his maiden political address during the 1964 campaign. Any study of current American politics should begin with this book.

3. Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer (Oxford Press, 2004). Everyone knows the painting—a stern Washington standing at the helm of the boat crossing the ice filled Delaware River. This is a wonderful account not only of the battle of Trenton, but of the whole campaign with an overview of the War for Independence. Fischer is a fine historian who writes with wit and eloquence. He has taken one of American history’s most exciting stories and told it fully and told it well. This book shows how Washington’s leadership, blessed by providential circumstances, turned the course of the war. Before the crossing of the Delaware, the American cause looked hopeless; after the crossing, the British commanders began losing hope of winning the war.

4. The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi (Free Press, 2002). Francis Schaeffer once said that most people get their worldviews the same way they get the measles. Not so with Lewis and Freud. Both of these men carefully and laboriously erected worldviews based on upbringing, on World War I, on their examination of religious beliefs, and on their prodigious reading and thinking. Freud abandoned his father’s Jewish beliefs for atheism. Lewis abandoned atheism for Christianity. Read a hundred writers and thinkers and you will still have to narrow the choices down to either the worldview of Lewis or Freud. This may be one of the most defining studies of the 20th century ever written.

5. The Idiot by Fydor Dostoevsky (A New Translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Everyman’s Library). One of my yearly reading patterns is to tackle a great big Russian novel each summer. Last year I read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; this year Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. My Bulgarian friend, Bojidar Marinov, a true intellectual Christian thinker, says that Americans overlook lots of great Russian writers besides Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. But I do not have enough summers even to read those two giants. I did not enjoy The Idiot while I was reading it. I was often as confused and lost as any American would be in a vast Russian landscape. But if it’s a classic, I plod on. Only after I finished the book and backed away did I see it. The message is that in this warped and wicked world, a truly good man, trying to save it, is really only an idiot. Dostoevsky reminds us that only in Christ’s atoning work is there any hope.

6. Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth. This book appealed to me because of a growing interest in J.R.R. Tolkien and a long time interest in World War I and the Twentieth Century. Tolkien was part of the university-educated class of men who made up the bulk of the British army’s officer corps. These bright young lads, fresh from the fields of soccer and from the halls of Oxford and Cambridge, headed off to war carrying copies of The Iliad. Not many survived the horrors of trench warfare. In the introduction to The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien points out that only one of his close friends survived the war. Tolkien himself survived the war itself because, providentially, he became ill and was removed from active duty. More amazingly, he survived the pessimistic hopelessness that engulfed the Lost Generation of the war’s survivors. The battlefields of WWI would be recreated in the descriptions of Mordor, but the merry men of the Shire, not the evil minions of Mordor, would ultimately triumph in Tolkien’s Christian vision.

7. The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper. Re-reading this book for school last fall, it was a case of love at third sight. Now Cooper has his critics, most notably and enjoyably, Mark Twain. Cooper’s style is wordy, his dialog stilted, the action slow, and the characters somewhat flat. But this man created the American novel; he was the first to write of American Indians; and his narrative of Natty Bumpo and his Indian companion Chingachgook during the French and Indian War is a first rate adventure. This book deals with the tenuous nature of man’s time on earth. The time of the Red Men was ending. The British and the French were fighting for land neither would ultimately possess. The American heirs to the land had to learn how to survive in it and how to keep it. Lots of great themes emerge in the book: Race and ethnic distinctions, the necessity of violence for survival, and balancing the advance of civilization with the preservation of the land.

8. The Everlasting Man by G.K. Chesterton. Reading G. K.C. makes me realize that if I were 18 and had read and discovered what I have now read and discovered, I would be smart. Being way past 18, I am one sad but wise fellow. If I could trade my college degree (throwing in a master’s in education for good measure) for a thorough knowledge of Chesterton’s works, I would be far better off. No study of Antiquity or early man can be complete without reading this book. This book so pulverizes many of the false assumptions of Darwinian science and evolutionary sociology that one wonders how the enemy yet stands. This book was a landmark in the long path to C. S. Lewis’s conversion. It is worthy of many readings.

9. Quo Vadis by Henrik Sienkiewicz. This is a long novel set in the time period after the Book of Acts. It humanizes the story of the spread of the Christian faith in Rome, the persecutions under Nero, and the conflict between Christianity and Paganism. Although it is fiction, it nevertheless warms the soul and fleshes out the history of a critical period of the Christian faith. George Grant recommends the recent translation of this Christian epic done by W.S. Kuniczak, published by Hippocrene Books.

10. Ripples of Battle by Victor Davis Hanson. Two years ago, Hanson’s book Carnage and Culture was my #1 pick of the year. The greatest fault of this book is its brevity. It covers aspects of three battles: the Battle of Okinawa in World War II, the Battle of Shiloh in the American War Between the States, and a battle from the Peloponnesian War. The ‘ripples’ Hanson deals with are all of the unintended consequences of battle. The consequences go beyond winners and losers and battlefield statistics: Every life connected with the battle is changed forever. Hanson’s military writings are all outstanding. His book Who Killed Homer? (coauthored by John Heath) is an excellent survey of Greek literary achievements and modern academic embarrassments.

Ten great books. (More detailed book reviews by me are available on numbers 1-7). There were many other good books and authors read, taught, enjoyed, dipped into, and gleaned from, all of whom did not make the rank. Authors like C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, Virgil, Aristotle, Paul Johnson, Augustine, and George Grant will have to rest on their own laurels without my coveted honors.

For me now, it’s back to the couch. I have a new stack of books that I got for Christmas and my December 28 birthday. My wife is laboring away in the kitchen, and I too must get to work.

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