My six-year-old Nora said to me recently that she feels so good going to Barnes & Noble “because there are books everywhere.” That’s my girl! Books are my favorite present to give and to get. Here are a few that I have in mind this year:
Dante’s Divine Comedy, by, ahem, Dante. Somehow, I made it to middle age without having read this masterpiece. This year, staggering around the dark wood midway through the journey of my own life, I picked up the Divine Comedy and and began reading. It has been transformative and redemptive. Beauty, sex, passion, love, tragedy, God—all of life is in that blessed thing. If I had encountered this poem earlier in life, I might not have been capable of appreciating its beauty and taking its wisdom into my battered heart. Don’t buy the new Clive James translation. You need a version with excellent footnotes to decode many of the symbols and allusions. The Hollander translation is the academic standard and my favorite, but John Ciardi’s time-tested version is also quite good and has the best notes.
The Earl Of Louisiana, by A.J. Liebling. As a fan of Liebling’s Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris, a collection of his essays on dining in the world’s best city, I had long wondered about his legendary take on Louisiana’s craziest governor, Earl K. Long. This past summer, at my cousin’s fishing camp on the Louisiana Gulf Coast, I found The Earl Of Louisiana on a coffee table and started to read. It is an extraordinary portrait of American politics and a mad, bad, all-too-human world gone by. I was born and raised in Louisiana, and returned here to live two years ago, but reading about those vivid characters and those breathtaking events of the late 1950s and early 1960s made me realize that my home state really is another country. God knows what Dante would have done with the cast of real-life characters Liebling meets on his tour through the Gret Stet. Liebling’s appetite for life comes through on every page.
Americans In Paris: A Literary Anthology, edited by Adam Gopnik. This is a collection of essays and remembrances by Americans over three centuries who have lived and loved in Paris. There are riveting historical documents, including entries from Gouverneur Morris’s diary of the French Revolution, during which time he served as U.S. Ambassador to France, and James Baldwin’s brutal discovery that the French can be just as racist as his fellow countrymen. There are also delightful macarons such as S.J. Perelman’s short story “The Saucier’s Apprentice,” and, yes, a Liebling digression on how to eat like a Parisian. Give this one to your Francophile friend, one who can relate to Gopnik’s statement that Americans who love Paris do so because it gives them a “sense of serious happiness,” of “absorption without obvious accomplishment, a lovely and un-American emotion.”
The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, by Rod Dreher. You will, I hope, forgive me for pitching my own memoir, which came out this year. It’s about my late sister Ruthie, a small-town Louisiana schoolteacher who died of cancer at the age of 42. Though her journalist brother gallivanted all over in search of good stories and good times, Ruthie stayed home, married her high school sweetheart, raised kids, and taught school. The luminous courage with which she met her death, and the way the people of my hometown walked with her until the very end, caused me to rethink the value of the life I left behind—and to return to raise my own children. Little Way is not a sentimental paean to Mayberry; I make it clear that the virtues and the vices in both my sister and our town are hard to disentangle. Still, the book I wrote about my sister’s life—and how she changed my own—is, I like to think, one for those who stayed behind, those who went away, and for all of us rootless Americans who long for a place to call home.
Read the entire list, which includes recommendations from Quin Hillyer, Roger Kimball, and Nicholas Kristof. Thanks to TAS for giving me the opportunity to contribute.