The book you need to read finds you, and finds you at that time in your life when you need to read it. I believe that old axiom, and offer it here as an apologia for my selection of books for 2022. Good art and good literature always have an objective element to them, a depth and an aesthetic that are not contingent on the eye of the beholder, but an old axiom also asserts that whatever is received is received according to the mode of the receiver. Hence, there is always a subjective element in how we judge or evaluate anything. All of this to say that these are the ten books that most spoke to me during this past year. Their practical claim to my top ten list is that they found me and spoke to me.
In the area of spirituality, both in its restricted and its wider sense, I found these books particularly meaningful.
- Jim Forest, At Play in the Lion’s Den, A Biography of Daniel Berrigan. A well-written biography of Daniel Berrigan by a man who knew him well, supported all his causes, went to prison with him, but still kept a critical distance from him.
- Robert Ellsberg, Dearest Sister Wendy, A Surprising Story of Faith and Friendship. A delightful, warm, touching, intimate book, sharing some of the letters between the renowned art critic Wendy Beckett (who died in 2018), and Robert Ellsberg the publisher of Orbis Press. Their conversations touch on all points religious.
- Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda, The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run, Blessed Stanley Rother, Martyr from Oklahoma. A very good biography of Stanley Rother’s path to becoming a prophet and a martyr for the poor. Hagiography for today.
- Sherry Turkle, The Empathy Diaries. Sherry Turkle is a first-rate scientist and penetrating writer of soul. This is essentially an autobiography, but in sorting herself out, she helps us to do the same thing. The title of the book bespeaks its thesis.
- Amia Srinivasan, The Right to Sex – Feminism in the Twenty-First Century. A strong book that takes no prisoners. I don’t always agree with her on some major points, but she asks the right questions and answers many of them in a way that falls between the ideologies of both the right and the left.
- Jane Goodall & Douglas Abrams, The Book of Hope, A Survival Guide for Trying Times. Just the name, Jane Goodall, says why this book should be read. Abrams adds his own color, including the assertion that creating the human species may be the biggest mistake evolution ever made.
- Roosevelt Montas, Rescuing Socrates – How The Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter For A New Generation. This is a powerful apologia for liberal education, akin to John Henry Nouwen’s, The Idea of a University, save that Newman didn’t have to deal with the many hyper-sensitive contemporary critiques of classic Western thinkers.
Among the novels I read, three stand out.
- Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where Are You. Set in post-modern and (mostly) post-Roman Catholic Ireland, this novel chronicles the conversations (emails and texts) between two young, emotionally sensitive women. They are trying to make sense of their lives and of the times against the backdrop of a cultural Catholicism that still helps define who they are and a set of friends and a workplace that would define them in a new way. What comes after one lets go of an explicit faith, but is still struggling with an inchoate one?
- Valerie Perrin, Fresh Water for Flowers. A translation from French, this is a masterpiece, a work of art, a beautiful painting. Nothing much happens in this story, except that it is beautiful.
- Jeanine Cummins, American Dirt. Cummins received a lot of negative reaction to this book, not because it isn’t a well-written, gripping story, but because she, its author, is not Hispanic and thus her writing “someone else’s story” is considered by some to be both patronizing and a certain act of theft. Be that as it may, this is a gripping story of a mother and her young son facing death in Central America and fleeing for the USA border.
That’s ten, but there’s an honorable mention:
- Joyce Aitken, Sincere Condolences – What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say. Aitken lost her husband to suicide and found that, in its wake, many people found it awkward to talk to her about it, even though that is exactly what she, in her grief, needed. The book is insightful and practical. Don’t we all find ourselves in situations that leave us awkward, not knowing what to say? As well, commenting on her inability to prevent her own husband’s suicide, she adds a line that needs to be heard by anyone who has ever lost a loved one to suicide: The Will to save a life does not constitute the Power to prevent a death.
These are my favorite ten books for 2022.