Monday, January 3

Top Ten List

I decided I would compile a list of the ten best books I read in 2004 a couple of days ago. Even though my reading has been very deliberately ecclectic for the past several years, even I was surprised by what I ended up writing down. Despite the fact that I read a good bit of serious theology, nary a volume from that genre made the list. And I read fiction voraciously, yet only one novel made the list. I love books on art and architecture, but I don't read all that widely in the area--nevertheless, the list seems to be dominated by such books. At any rate, here's my surprising list:

1. On Writing by Eudora Welty (Modern Library) This new collection of old essays is a delight. It is far and away the most inspring book I read this year. It is a very thin volume so I've already read it cover to cover three times. I'm resolved to read this master of Southern fiction more thoroughly this year--there are still a host of her novels and short stories that I have yet to enjoy.

2. Art: A New History by Paul Johnson (Weidenfeld and Nicolson) I read everything Paul Johnson writes if I possibly can. I find his histories indispensible. His essays are delightful. But, it seems to me that this is the book he was born to write. It is monstrously huge, but I when I found out that he had cut nearly 25% of the book out, I lamented that I did not access to those additional 180 pages and 72 illustrations and color plates.

3. Building Codes: The Aesthetics of Calvinism in 17th Century France by Catherine Randall (Penn) This book is stunning. It brilliantly combines several of my deepest passions: Reformation history, architecture, worldview applicability, and prophetic clarity. It also is adorned with fabulous pen and ink renderings of some of the most amazing buildings in the history of the modern world.

4. The Complete Works of Hans Rookmaaker (Piquant) This splendid six-volume set is a gold mine of wisdom and insight. Rookmaaker, who was a friend and aesthetic mentor to Francis Schaeffer, was a prolific art historian and critic who laid the philosophical foundations for a whole new generation of Christian artistic dynamism.

5. To the Lost City by Colin Thubron (Chatto and Windus) Thubron is one of my favorite contemporary novelists and perhaps the best travel writer currently working today. He combines both of his very different disciplines in this remarkable novel of cultural clashes, psychological tensions, and interpersonal interactions. And he undertakes it all with a prose style that is breathtakingly beautiful.

6. The School of Infancy by Jan Comenius (Chapel Hill) This classic work from the father of modern Christian education outlines his vision for Reformational and Classical education. It is a vision that is as relevant, applicable, and essential today as it was three centuries ago.

7. Modern Painters by John Ruskin (Hurst) This three volume set represents Ruskin's finest and most eccentric work of criticism. Here the 19th century's most sage observer of aesthetics ranges widely over the whole field of artistic vision. I felt like I had gotten several semesters of art school under my belt by the time I had turned the final page.

8. Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination by Peter Ackroyd (Doubleday) I try to read everything Ackroyd writes too--but he is even harder to keep with than Paul Johnson is. In this volume, he looks at the uniqueness of English literature and the peculiar culture it has developed. His wide knowledge is a marvel in and of itself--but to convey that knowledge so coherently is really beyond fathoming. This is a book to savor over long winter evenings by the fireside with one of those C.S. Lewis-sized cups of tea at the ready.

9. Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile by Joseph Pearce (HarperCollins) The prolific biographer of Chesterton, Belloc, Wilde, Tolkien, and Lewis has delivered another tour de force. Solzhenitsyn is sorely neglected by the literatti and this work shows why. All the more reason to distrust the literatti! All the more reason to read the entire Solzhenitsyn corpus!

10. Colossus: The Price of America's Empire by Niall Ferguson (Penguin) If I could make a required reading list for every elected official in Washington, I would probably create quite a pile of classics. But, at least two of the books I would select are brand new: Niall Ferguson's Empire published two years ago and Colossus published this last year. These are both are literate, wise, witty, sober, and thoroughly sane--but somebody please sneak this newest one into the White House! And hurry!

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