Every year, I start with the goal of reading at least 52 books, and this year I made it—54 and counting as I publish this—even though one of them was Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, which seemed like it would never end—not that that bothered me at all. I’d have a hard time coming up with a novel this good that is both thouroughly Christian and thoroughly libertarian. The plot is full of improbable coincidences, something that might be ridiculous were it not for Hugo’s mastery in drawing complex, complete characters whose choices in response to fate make them so compelling. The polar opposites are François-Bienvenu Myriel, a priest who lives out the Christian ideal of loving the world while remaining apart from it—and rejecting the values of those who rule it, and Inspector Javert, whose complete devotion to the law embodies the values of statism, and of religion without Jesus. Exactly how Jean Valjean chooses to remain permanently and constantly transformed by his fleeting interaction with Myriel though being pursued by Javert for a lifetime makes this the most inspiring work of fiction I’ve ever read.
As for other literary fiction I read for the first time this year, Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting is as invigorating and heartbreaking as the film, and half the fun is deciphering the thick Edinburgh patois it’s written in. William Faulkner is often even more impenetrable, but there are a handful of masterpieces inside his Selected Short Stories.
In advance of a trip to New Orleans in the Spring, I re-read A Confederacy of Dunces, the funniest book ever written about being a depressed, maladjusted know-it-all, as well as a really great recent biography of its author: Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole.
While in New Orleans, I picked up in a used book store Bluebottle, by James Sallis, a piece of crime fiction set there. It’s my kind of highly literate noir fiction with a protagonist, Lew Griffin, who reminded me of Easy Rawlins as a professor of modern literature. Toward the end of a long hospital stay in California in August and September and an even longer recovery back home in Ohio, I convalesced with Philip Kerr’s Prussian Blue, the latest installment of Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther saga, a my favorite series of historical fiction save George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series.
Crime classics I read for the first time included The Thin Man (Dashiell Hammett) and The Third Man (Graham Greene), which are as far apart in tone as you can get, but both great examples of how much great dialogue and characters can fit inside a small book.
And speaking of small books, George Simenon’s peerless series featuring the contemplative French policeman Inspector Maigret series is being re-published by Penguin—all 75 of them—in slim, attractive paperbacks with excellent new translations. I started them a couple of years ago, and The Shadow Puppet was my favorite among the handful I read this year.
Favorite crime fiction that I re-read included Ross Macdonald’s The Drowning Pool, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and The High Window, and, as always, a few of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books—Prisoner’s Base is one of the best example from a great series.
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My two least-favorite books of the year were also crime novels, and two highly acclaimed ones. Both Noah Hawley’s Before the Fall and Graeme Macrae Burnett’s His Bloody Project started promisingly before crashing into underwhelming endings that were, I guess, meant to be clever.
As for non-fiction, a book of Albert Camus essays called Resistance, Rebellion, and Death and Jesus for President by Shaine Claiborne and Chris Haw offered unique and challenging political thought for both Christians and libertarians (though Camus was neither, and Claiborne and Haw are probably not libertarian). David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI is a heartbreaking true-crime tale of evil made possible by the US government’s paternalistic, progressive policies toward Native Americans, in this case the Osage tribe, who were displaced to a remote spot in Oklahoma that turned out to have immense oil deposits that brought crony capitalists flocking like buzzards.
The best purely libertarian book I read this year was The Rothbard Reader, published by the Mises Institute as a sampler of writing from the greatest libertarian polymath of the last century, and perhaps any other.
As for music, Nicholas Dawidoff’s In the Country of Country: A Journey to the Roots of American Music is a collection of fascinating profiles of country musicians both famous and obscure, and Nick Tosches’ Where Dead Voices Gather is a profile of the most famously obscure country singer ever, but much, much more than that. Bruce Springsteen’s reading of his autobiography Born to Run is easily one of my favorite audiobooks ever—he’s as good at prose as he is with lyrics, and his life shows us why.
Finally, no year is complete without availing oneself of the consolations of PG Wodehouse, the greatest writer to never put down on paper anything but pure joy. Try Thank You, Jeeves or Blandings Castle and Elsewhere.