2020 in Books

As has become traditional on this blog, I like to revisit my reading for the year before the next one begins.  No matter what else goes wrong, we have books.  As I noted yesterday, I’ll be devising my own reading challenge for the coming year and if nothing else, it’ll be diverse.  For 2020, according to Goodreads, I finished 78 books.  Since I was in the final stages of getting Nightmares with the Bible to the publisher, several books early on were about demons, and many of them were quite good.  The nonfiction that really stick out in my mind, however, includes D. W. Pasulka’s American Cosmic, Richard King’s Ahab’s Rolling Sea, Gary D. Rhodes’ The Birth of the American Horror Film, Jeffrey J. Kripal’s Secret Body, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Living with a Wild God, and Ernestine Hayes’ The Tao of Raven.  If anything ties these books together it is likely their honesty when it comes to the spiritual quest.  It can legitimately take many directions.

Fiction has, at least for much of the year, been driven by a few factors: books I have on hand during a pandemic, The Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge, and books on my reading wishlist.  That list is constantly growing and the books that stand out particularly are again diverse.  Especially memorable were Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Hank Green’s An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, Scott Shibuya Brown’s The Traders, Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney, and Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic.  Apart from their diversity these books have little in common.  I suppose that’s a testament to the importance of reading widely.  On that list there are only two “white” men but a lot of great books.

Another couple of categories might apply: big books and short story collections.  Big books intimidate me, but I read five of over 500 pages: Ellison’s Invisible Man again, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad, George Eliot’s Middlemarch (my longest book for the year), and Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho.  These books are all in the “classics” category, I see.  Short story collections are more edible, and I read nine of them, including four “by” Rod Serling.  The first was an edited collection of his works, and the other three were his own Twilight Zone adaptations.  I read a few plague books because of the pandemic, but they weren’t really among my favorites.  Perhaps they were a little too close to reality.  Nevertheless 2020 was a good year of reading, overall.  I’m looking ahead to what gems 2021 might hold.


Marching down the Middle

It is true that I have a fondness for nineteenth-century British novels.  Even though they often lack a strong speculative element they tend to be gothic, at least if written by one of the Brontë sisters.  I’d only ever read one of George Eliot’s novels before, and that was in ninth grade.  Middlemarch has been on my list for many years, but due to its intimidating size I’ve kept putting it off.  Now that I’ve read it I feel like I’ve accomplished something.  I had no idea what the story was about in advance, and no idea how it ended.  Unlike many pieces of literature of its time it hasn’t made a huge impact in pop culture, so this was the opportunity to lose myself for a few months in a world completely unknown.

I’m not foolhardy enough to try to summarize an 800-page novel here, but one aspect that the reader can’t help but notice is the prominence of clergy.  And not only prominence, but prestige.  In a world built around the solid belief in different classes of individuals, where pride takes a place in marriages that are supposed to be within class, the clergy are minor nobility.  Since this is the Church of England the vicars can marry and indeed, one such marriage sets off the tension that lasts throughout the hundreds of pages to come.  The clergy of the time were often gentleman scholars—the role that was envisioned for Charles Darwin as a young man.  Eliot plays on that idea with some of her preachers being amateur scientists.

The conflict—that now feels inherent—between science and religion has less to do with older forms of Christianity than it has to do with evangelicalism.  A relatively new expression of Christianity, evangelicalism set itself against modernity and its science.  Quite often today when commentators rail against “religion” it is really evangelicalism that they have in mind.  In the world Eliot sketches, she sees no difficulties between a rational view of things and an ecclesiastical one.  Clergy are often seen at the whist tables and taking long walks down country lanes.  The distinction between them and the average citizen is that they have been to university to study.  Today, in mainstream Christianity anyway, clergy are educated at least to the master’s level.  They’re no longer among the minor nobility, however.  Middlemarch has more than a hint of nostalgia to it, and the clergy roles show that clearly.


Bookends

There is something extremely satisfying about bookends. Bookends are those events that bracket moments of our lives and give them a frame, a perspective they would otherwise lack. If my readers will indulge my recollections of my trip to Britain for a day or so longer, some of this may become apparent in esoteric ways. Our kind hosts in London live in Highgate. Our first bleary-eyed morning in the city we wandered to Highgate Cemetery. This burial ground is divided by Swain’s Lane and that makes it frightfully convenient to charge separate admission fees for the two halves. Both, however, are worth the pounds dropped to gain entrance. Our first visit was via tour group on the western half of the grounds. The ornate—indeed grand—architecture of this necropolis bespoke the mysterious connection between the living and the dead. Tycoons are buried there, as is the non-conformist Michael Faraday, a name that lingers on from my childhood physics classes.

Highgate Cemetery West

Just before leaving to board our flight back to the States, we completed the bookend by visiting the eastern half of the cemetery. Here the most famous residents seek eternal rest. The most famous of the dead on this side is Karl Marx. Visitors speaking Cyrillic or Sinitic languages milled about, but even an American idealist might find some grounds for admiring a man who felt deeply about the plight of the workers in society. Just across the lane lies Herbert Spencer, one of the founders of sociology. Less than two minutes will take you to the grave of Mary Anne Evans, known to the literary world as George Eliot. She is not far from Douglas Adams, inventor of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Across the path from Adams rests Anthony Shaffer, writer of both Sleuth and of the screenplay of The Wicker Man.

Highgate Cemetery East

Perhaps it seems macabre to travel such a distance only to bookend a visit with treks to Highgate Cemetery. Death, however, is the ultimate bookend to life, with each generation shoring up those that come after through its unique perspective on what has brought us here. Not even a visit to Westminster Abbey is complete without paying respects to the most noteworthy of the Brits found both within and without its walls. This trip to England will remain in my memory as the pilgrimage bookended by the solemn parentheses of death. With such august company, however, one might have less to fear from that final veil that all must face.