Books of 2018

It’s New Year’s Day, and participating in the ritual of recollecting the best of the past year is irresistible. Here are four of my most memorable books from 2018, arranged in what may or may not turn into annual categories.

Best concept for a book. François Jullien’s The Book of Beginnings (Yale Margellos Series, 2015). It’s such a wish-I-had-thought-of-it great idea to write a book comparing the first sentences of three seminal texts: Genesis, the I Ching, and Hesiod’s Theogony. Jullien has always been interested in the formulation of origin. A narrative requires a starting place, most often a moment when some protagonist does something, such as breathing life into clay models. Here is Jullien himself:

“A first sentence enlists the thinking that follows in such a way that detachment or disengagement will no longer be possible…. At the same time, it folds the thinkable; that inaugural act, because of its scope, already amounts to completion. In some sense, we will do nothing afterward but explain that initial, ventured gesture. Or, put more negatively, hardly has this first sentence begun to be uttered–to be set in motion–than it becomes a rut, than it projects its shadow or its fate over all future developments.” (p. 21)

What gives the book tension is that the Chinese account, unlike the Hebrew or Greek, is a non-narrative version of existence. There is no beginning, no initiatory gesture, no primal actor that creates. Entertaining such a version requires giving up many habits of thought and seeing what life is like without them.

Most unlikely page-turner. Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café (Other Press, 2016). How does Bakewell turn the lives and ideas of Heidegger, Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Merleau-Ponty into such compulsive and propulsive reading? I could study her for her style alone. There’s also the clarity she brings to complex notions. None of the many accounts I’ve read of Heidegger’s distinction between ready-to-hand and present-to-hand have ever made sense to me as well as Bakewell does. The book was also a kind of autobiographical trip for me. The existentialists were the first big intellectual thing in my life. I grew up with words like authenticity and bad faith in usage, but we didn’t understand what the existential project was, as an intervention of a particular time and place. The existentialist café was a good place to grow up; Bakewell leaves me feeling grateful. She helps me understand my beginnings. And who would have thought that Sartre, after a year on a fellowship in Nazi Germany, could return to Paris and assure de Beauvoir that there would be no war?

Most usefully applied scholarship. Rhodri Lewis’s Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness (Princeton, 2017) is not a page-turner, despite the title that sounds like a Harry Potter fan-fiction. It’s a heavy book that requires commitment to Shakespearean studies. Lewis pretty thoroughly upsets what were at least my own received ideas about who Hamlet is supposed to be, and having my received ideas upset is a core reason for reading. My one editorial quibble is that I think Lewis should have placed his Appendix first, as a kind of Prelude/Preface. Here Lewis asks how old Hamlet is supposed to be. With his usual care, he takes apart the arithmetic of the dates that are bandied about in the Gravedigger scene; they don’t add up. He then makes a case that even educated persons of Shakespeare’s time were arithmetically challenged to a degree that we can scarcely believe. Hamlet, Lewis argues, doesn’t know how old he is. But Lewis’s best guess is that he’s 16, the age when young men went to university. Once I understand Hamlet as an adolescent, I can stop apologizing for more lapses than apologies can cover. Lewis shows that Hamlet is not much of a poet, or a philosopher, or a loving son. Lewis’s Hamlet “had never been able to remember his father as anything other than an obligation, and has never been possessed of the passion or will to vengeance” (172). What he is is bitterly unhappy about is getting passed by in the succession to the throne. Starting there, the story is quite different. The “tragedy” is that of characters who “have grown so used to thinking and speaking through the cant and easy fabrications of humanist decorum that they have no capacity to judge either truth or authenticity” (308). That’s my connection back to the study of medicine and illness.

And finally, most fun, because reading should be fun. Here I’ll give Terry Pratchett a runner-up and award the prize to Lee Child’s 61 Hours, one of his Jack Reacher series that made perfect reading on a very long flight home. Among action/detectivish heroes, I find Jack Reacher fascinating for his contemporary stoicism. An ex-military officer, he travels on the cheap, carrying nothing. In this book he lands in especially frozen countryside, and one of my favourite scenes shows him buying warm clothes. Even with Reacher’s budget-store tastes, his clothes are expensive, given how few days he plans to be there and his practice of throwing everything away when he leaves. But then Child does this lovely twist, in which he points out that people who wear clothes longer need closets to keep them in, and closets need houses, and the cost of the clothes has to include acquiring and maintaining such a house. At which point, Reacher’s solution seems like a bargain. Travel light, find what you need when you get there, and leave it behind when you move on. Not the sum of stoicism, but a good start. Reacher would find most of Epictetus’s Handbook to be redundantly familiar. And if you carry a book, then you need a bag, and that’s where your problems begin.

Thanks to the books of 2018, and welcome to those of 2019.