This is certainly my favorite post of the year. I read 47 books in 2016. Below is a list of my top 5 favorites, with my most favorite book at #1. I also included 2 honorable mentions.
1) Journal d’un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest) by Georges Bernanos
I read this book at the start of 2016, and upon finishing it I knew that this would be one of my favorite books of the year. This is “slice of life” literary fiction at its best. The Diary of a Country Priest is the journal of an unnamed country priest living in France between the two World Wars. This is a thought-provoking and moving look at parish life in the wake of one of the greatest atrocities in history. Our country priest is neither exceptionally holy nor exceptionally sinful. He is simply human. This is a book that I know will stay with me for the rest of my life.
2) The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
This is definitely the most important book I read in 2016. I never understood why racial justice activists were so concerned about the War on Drugs until I read The New Jim Crow. Michelle Alexander exposes the racial bias in the American criminal justice system. I am pleased that this book is on many reading lists. I regret not having reviewed it earlier. Alexander demonstrates convincingly that the War on Drugs grew out of white resistance to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. After incarceration, Blacks often don’t have their voting rights restored to them. Due to their prison record, they can’t find employment, get housing, or receive food stamps. This is the New Jim Crow. Every American should read this book.
3) Terre des hommes (Wind, Sand and Stars) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
This is one of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s flight memoirs. Airplanes today are quite safe. Plane crashes are rare. For the holidays I’m sure many of you flew to meet loved ones or to get away from the cold. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was a pilot for the airmail carrier Aéropostale at a time when air travel was dangerous . It was not uncommon for pilots to lose friends in the business. This memoir is a celebration of life and friendship. It is the most hopeful book I read all year.
4) Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
This book is part mystery, part philosophy, part literary theory, and part Franciscan history. The detective is a Franciscan friar named William of Baskerville who allows his knowledge of the philosophy of William of Ockham (a 14th century scholastic) to inform his investigation. This is the finest historical fiction I have ever read. This is a dark and twisted story in more than one way.
5) Augustine of Hippo: A Biography by Peter Brown
St. Augustine was the bishop of Hippo Regius (modern-day Annaba, Algeria) in the late 4th and early 5th centuries. He is without doubt the most influential figure in Western Christianity. But it’s Peter Brown’s storytelling that makes this biography so wonderful. I definitely will be rereading this work in 2017. Augustine was a complex and controversial man. Brown’s biography made me feel like I was in Augustine’s basilica hearing him preach. A great accomplishment. It convinced me to listen to Augustine’s 1184-page City of God on audio book.
1) Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf
This is a book about Orlando, a gender nonconforming poet and playwright. The biography begins in the 16th century and ends in the 19th century. Orlando has to navigate a world of strict gender and sexual expectations. But this book is not exclusively about gender and sexuality. It is also an exploration of Renaissance and early modern historiography and storytelling. How should Orlando’s life be told? Can we ever know who Orlando really is? Virginia Woolf’s works are challenging, but this book is one of the most accessible.
2) Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
I must include this book on the list. Although it was longer than I would have liked, Don Quixote was both an entertaining and thought-provoking work. It is metafiction about the lives of a knight errant named Don Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza. If you are trying to tackle this book, I suggest you think about it as a short story collection rather than a giant novel. Edith Grossman is an incredible translator.