4 old books for the new year
From Kristin Lavransdatter to Persecution and the Art of Writing
We are already inundated with lists of books published in the past year or about to be published. So I'm going to do something different: I'm going to recommend books that you should read in 2017 that are quite old. While three of the books are from the 20th century, all of them are from dead authors. Why am I recommending these books, in particular? Well, first, because end-of-year and New Year's lists are a good opportunity to remind people that there are great books from before 2016 and 2017. And second, I'm recommending these four in particular because each of them, in its own particular way, changed my life.
1. The Gospel according to Luke
The period around Christmastime is really the best time to read the Gospels, when most places, at least in the West, vibrate with echoes of the strange story of one Yeshua of Nazareth. I don't care if you're Christian or not. I don't care if you've already read them or not. The Gospels are among the most influential cultural artifacts in the history of humanity. And one reason why they are so influential is because they are also incredibly profound and powerful. Plus, they're short.
The Christmas narratives appear in two of the four Gospels, Matthew and Luke. I am recommending the Gospel of Luke because it is perhaps slightly more accessible — you will sometimes hear historians say that Matthew wrote his Gospel for Jewish audiences and Luke for gentiles, although in reality Luke's Gospel, like all gospels, is also full of Jewish themes and, really, we don't know.
Luke's Christmas narrative emphasizes the profoundly revolutionary nature of the events it describes. When Luke describes the angels appearing to the shepherds as "a heavenly host," this is a pointed reference to the militaristic Roman Empire and its oppression of the nascent Church — "You've got an army, but we've got a bigger army," Luke is basically writing. The fact that the angels are appearing to shepherds is also significant, since they were marginal characters. The point is that Jesus' message is for the world's marginal characters.
Luke's Christmas narrative also includes two prayers that have shaped the spirituality of the Church for centuries: Mary's song of gratitude to the Lord, the Magnificat, and Simeon's song of praise, known as the Nunc Dimittis.
The Gospels are meant to be ruminated over, as it were. You can read it once through quickly, but it's worth then going back to your favorite parts and reading them over again, slowly. Countless generations have found that slow and recurring meditation on the Gospels have enriched their lives. Good luck.
2. Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset
If my first pick is a short and easy book, this one is not. Kristin Lavransdatter is virtually unknown. If we lived in a good world, it would be mentioned in the same breath as universally admired masterpieces like The Brothers Karamazov and Moby Dick. Nobel laureate Sigrid Undset describes the entire life, in medieval Norway, of the titular character. It is noteworthy for being a rare book of "great" literature written by and about a woman, and as far as I know the only one whose central theme is motherhood.
Aside from Lavransdatter's astonishingly precise, realistic, and entrancing portrayal of the totally strange life in medieval Norway — recently evangelized by Christianity but still featuring elves and witches here and there — the book grabs you because of the realism and depth of its psychological profiles. As befits its range, the book hits powerfully on almost every important theme in human life: love, sex, family, politics, duty, religion... I don't want to spoil too much, but Kristin makes some bad choices, is the victim of other bad choices, and leads a life of adversity with a monomaniacal focus on ensuring a future for her children. Kristin is a character almost impossible not to fall in love with if you're a man, or to admire if you're a woman — quick to love and incredibly passionate once she loves, headstrong, powerful, yet all too human.
Kristin Lavransdatter is a bit of a cult. There really are two kinds of people: Those who haven't read the book, and those who have. And those from the latter group are disturbingly likely to grab members of the former group by the lapels and get awkwardly close as they explain why they have to read the book. You can guess which group I'm in.
(If you read it in English, make sure to read the translation by Tina Nunally, since the only other English language translation is stilted and bowdlerized.)
3. Persecution and the Art of Writing, by Leo Strauss
A persistent theme in my writing is the idea of the importance of culture, and especially philosophy, not just to a life well lived, but to building and sustaining a functioning world. We always benefit from what the greatest masters say about truth, beauty, and virtue. But what is more often overlooked is that the world in which we live is built on ideas. By this I mean that everything we take for granted in modern life, whether it's modern science, or democracy, or economic arrangements, or family arrangements, is, at bottom, ideas. Democracy only exists if and when a sufficient number of people believe similar things about how politics works and ought to work. Science "works" thanks to the scientific method, which is just a bunch of ideas that some people once had; if we forget those ideas, we literally won't be able to do science.
But at some point in the 20th century, our cultural understanding of our own intellectual patrimony started declining sharply, and this decline is continuing precipitously. I don't believe I'm exaggerating when I say that this an existential threat to our way of life and most everything we cherish.
So, we should (re-)start reading Plato, and Aristotle, and the Bible, and Aquinas, and Locke, and Montesquieu, and the founding fathers. But what is the point of reading those books if we don't know how to read them? All cultural works are embedded within a cultural context without which we cannot understand them. As the 20th-century scholar Leo Strauss has conclusively shown, philosophers have consistently used a specific mode of writing — usually referred to as "esotericism," but also often known as "philosophical" — which served to conceal their real meaning behind the surface of their works, through allusion and innuendo. As the title of Strauss' book explains, there was a straightforward reason: Having too many odd ideas might make you a target for persecution, as the fate of the first philosopher, Socrates, showed.
Today, even most of us who do read philosophy read it at a literal, and therefore mistaken, level. We live on the other side of what scholars have called the "reading revolution": In the aftermath of the invention of printing, the explosion of the number of books has made us read, and therefore write, differently. Before the reading revolution, people would own few books, so that one would read and reread a book perhaps dozens of times over a lifetime. Books were written with that knowledge in mind, packed with multiple layers and unfolding their meaning only over several readings.
Strauss dedicated his life to explaining this to a world that had forgotten it, instructing us to reread the great philosophers with an understanding of how their "art of writing" informed their ideas. You should seek to understand Plato and Aristotle, but here, on the other side of a great cultural amnesia, to do so you have to start with Strauss.
4. Viper's Tangle, by François Mauriac
Another Nobel Prize winner on this list, François Mauriac is one of the giants of French literature, and his novel Viper's Tangle is a masterpiece. It has changed my life.
Mauriac set out to write the life of the most despicable, black-hearted person he could imagine. The novel is written out as a letter by Louis to his wife, Isabelle, meant to be read after he passes away. Louis is fabulously wealthy and despises everyone in his life, particularly his wife and children, and takes pleasure in the suffering of others. Louis is dying and his unloved children are simply waiting for him to croak so they can get their inheritance. But, while hanging on to dear life through the sheer force of his resentment, Louis is planning a post-mortem punishment, by having all his estate disposed of and left to an illegitimate son, leaving his family with nothing.
Louis is fully aware of his evil, even glories in it. He thrills at the idea of hurting his loved ones even from beyond the grave, and fantasizes about his children's shock and pain as they discover after the funeral that they have been left destitute. The first-person nature of the book draws you in, as Louis lustily describes his contempt for every person in his life.
The novel's twist ending reveals more about Louis, his true character and motivations, and those of the people around him, and more importantly, shines a mirror back to the reader. We discover that in reading Louis' letter we have become like him: as contemptuous of Louis as he is of everyone in his life. Louis is ultimately revealed as our brother and kinsman; not a villain but, like us, flawed, hurt, and desperate for love. Mauriac's description, through Louis, of the way his marriage and relation with his children fell apart through misunderstanding, fear, and bigotry, and of the hypocrisy of the bourgeois Catholicism of early 20th century France that turned Louis into an atheist, absolutely crushed me. I frequently think back to the novel when I see couples and families wracked by conflict and legalistic religion — or just when I find myself judging or intensely disliking someone.
Louis describes his heart as a "viper's tangle," the famous Biblical phrase used by Jesus to attack the Pharisees, but all human hearts are a viper's tangle.