Look what came in the mail today! One of you kind readers sent me that book as a Christmas present. I was so excited to receive it, because I had been thinking about buying this very book, having recently learned that the eminent Traditionalist philosopher Burckhardt had written a study about Chartres. What an incredibly thoughtful present (and it was also thoughtful to include a book for my kids, too). I won’t say the reader’s name because people don’t always like their names publicized, but if he wants to step forward, by all means do. I am truly grateful for this Christmas present (these Christmas presents), and grateful to God for giving me such wonderful readers. I hope to be in the position one day to repay this reader’s kindness.
Just this morning I saw the Atlantic‘s compilation of the best books its editors read this year. What I liked about their list is that it doesn’t limit itself to books published in 2013. Rather, it lists the single best book each editor read in 2013, no matter when the book was first published.
For me, unquestionably this is The Divine Comedy, by Dante. Here’s what the New Yorker‘s Joan Acocella said about the translation I read (well, that I’m reading; I’m still on the Paradiso), back in 2007:
If you haven’t yet read the Divine Comedy—you know who you are—now is the time, because Robert and Jean Hollander have just completed a beautiful translation of the astonishing fourteenth-century poem. The Hollanders’ Inferno was published in 2000, their Purgatorio in 2003. Now their Paradiso (Doubleday; $40) is out. It is more idiomatic than any other English version I know. At the same time, it is lofty, the more so for being plain. Jean Hollander, a poet, was in charge of the verse; Robert Hollander, her husband, oversaw its accuracy. The notes are by Robert, who is a Dante scholar and a professor emeritus at Princeton, where he taught the Divine Comedy for forty-two years.
Acocella advises buying the Hollander translation, but also, if you can swing it, ponying up for the older Ciardi translation, because its notes are much better (and you do have to have notes to really understand the poem and its references).
So, why was the Commedia the best book I read in 2013? Because it is perhaps the most astonishing thing I’ve ever read, in terms of its vaulting literary ambition and sheer imaginative power. It’s like a medieval cathedral constructed out of verse. It seems like all of life is in that long poem. I knew the basic story, and expected something like a medieval morality play, with simple characterization, and crude moralizing. Nothing could be further from the truth. Dante is an Italian Catholic of the High Middle Ages, but he is also one of the few artists in human history who can truly be said to have spoken to and about that which is universal to all men. Aside from the sheer literary, philosophical, and theological pleasure it has given me, the Commedia has also been — and in fact, is foremost — a story about a seeker trying to make sense of his life and its tragedies, to understand how they came about (especially what role he played), and how they might be redeemed under Heaven. I needed Dante at this time in my life. And in that light, if the Commedia cannot at some deep level speak to you, you don’t know what it’s like to live.
That’s my best book of 2013, and why I chose it. How about you? What’s the best book you read this year? Please explain why. You only need a few lines, but really, let us know why you chose it.