Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Best Books of 2004--Part 1

As a graduate student earning a PhD in Enlish, I have adopted D&C 88:118 as the theme of my current and prospective career as a teacher: "And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith." Of course, there are so many books printed each year that even a monk cloistered on a windswept peak of Tibet who did nothing but read all day and night could never keep up with the printing presses. So if you cannot possibly read everything, how can you know what books are "best" and make available a small amount of time to read them?

You could ask me.

Now, I can't read every book any more than my imaginary Tibetan monk can, but I do read much more than most people, and I can tell you which of the many books that have engrossed me are the best (and why). Since 2004, I have made notes on each of the various books that I have read, and I would like to provide a top ten list for each of the past four years in an attempt to help others find what I consider the best books and avoid wasting their time on books that are only good--or that are just plain bad. For today, I'll limit myself to identifying the best of more than 50 books that I read in 2004. (Be aware that my list excludes the standard works--not because I haven't read them--but because they should be read before any other books are even considered.)

10. The Eight--Catherine Neville

The only contemporary novel on my list makes the cut because Neville spins such a good story about chess. She weaves together two thrilling stories that take place centuries apart and works in more than one good anecdote about the history of chess. This is a great read that will entertain you without much effort on your part, one of the most hard-to-put-down adventure stories I've ever read.

9. The Idiot--Fyodor Dostoevsky

In all of his novels Dostoevsky includes "holy fools," characters who are naturally without guile and who have truly "become as little children" (Matthew 18:3). These holy fools are often Christ figures, and the main character of The Idiot is the best of Dostoevsky's collection. The Idiot shows us what it means to turn the other cheek and tells a pathetic story of love unrequited that any lover who has ever been spurned will relate to. Unfortunately, Dostoevsky's writing style is somewhat dense, which means that reading The Idiot will be difficult for most. Still--many of the best books require readers to earn the rewards that lie within their pages, so cultivating the ability to read difficult texts is an essential first step to obeying the Lord's injunction in the Doctrine & Covenants.

8. Perelandra--C. S. Lewis

Lewis is best known for his Narnia series, The Screwtape Letters, and non-fiction books like Mere Christianity, but this sci-fi work is one of his most unique contributions to Christian literature. In it, he tells the story of Adam, Eve and the Fall--on Venus. As usual, Lewis provides an insightful commentary on the scriptures in an entertaining story, examining questions of agency and temptation in a setting so strange that readers are forced to reevaluate their preexisting notions of the Fall. Unlike Lewis's Narnia novels, which are so short they might more appropriately be termed fables, Perelandra is a full-fledged novel, which moves quickly, but which also requires a more significant commitment than his simpler works.

7. Spencer W. Kimball--Edward L. and Andrew E. Kimball Jr.

President Kimball's life story is well worth the telling, and this biography would be much higher up on my list except for two limitations. First, the writing is good but not as good as the prose in Dew's biography of Pres. Hinckley or Condie's biography of Neal A. Maxwell. The other problem is something that is fairly common in church biographies--they are written before the subject is dead! Writing a biography about someone who is still alive has its advantages--you get to conduct interviews with the subject--but it also limits the biographer to an account of the subject's life, necessarily excluding the subject's later life, death and legacy. As someone who never knew President Kimball, I would have appreciated a retrospective look at President Kimball's struggles with cancer and death, perhaps a second edition of this book with an afterword.

6. Bleak House--Charles Dickens

If you only read one Charles Dickens novel, this should be it. Dickens is at the top of his form, writing a mystery novel that is both compelling and insightful with type-cast characters that leave you laughing out loud. There are two catches with this novel that prevent it from rising. 1) It's almost a thousand pages long, which is voluminous even for a man paid by the word. 2) The first hundred pages move fairly slowly, as Dickens introduces a multitude of characters without making their relationships at all clear--but pages 100-1,000 are fantastic. Overall, the novel reads quickly and is wildly entertaining, but it is long and gets off to a slow start.

Coming Soon...The top 5 books of 2004.

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