Saturday, July 29, 2017

The Books I Read in 2016

This evening, I was watching an interview with Ben Sasse, a Republican Senator who promotes the "Century Club" challenge; that is, to read a hundred books in a year. It got me wondering how many books I read in a year.

Then I realized I didn't have to wonder; I started keeping my diary in June 2015 and haven't stopped since. That means I have a complete record for 2016. I skimmed through my diary for that year, noting down all the books I read from beginning to end.

"From beginning to end"; there's the rub. I partially read at least as many books as I read from cover to cover. And what about the books I read almost from cover to cover, but not quite? I decided to be quite strict, and only include books where I felt I could reasonably say I'd read them the whole way through. So I excluded, for instance, a huge biography of Fr. Pádraig Ó Fiannachta, the Irish language writer and priest, which I spent weeks reading, on and off, but still gave up half-way through. (It's over six hundred pages long.) I also excluded the last book I read in the year, which was Keith Waterhouse's City Lights, since I gave it up towards the very end. (Eventual success makes Waterhouse annoyingly smug.)

Early in 2016, I decided to start intensively reading Irish language books, to improve my Irish. I named this "The Toronto Strategy", because I like giving pompous names to projects. The reference is to a bookshop in Toronto which claimed to be the biggest bookshop in the world. (It's now closed.) 

So here are the books I read, from cover to cover (or close enough), in 2016. There aren't a hundred of them. There are, in fact, only thirty-four.

The Lurkers by Charles Butler

Teenage horror novel about a girl who realizes that an invisible creature is using her brother as a conduit-- the "lurkers" intend to take over the world, of course. I picked this up from the book exchange outside the library. I like teenage and young adult horror, because it tends to be more straightforward in its story-telling, and less lurid in its content. However, this was weak, and yet another kids' book where siblings are shown to despise each other 90 per cent of the time, and teenage snottiness is presented as the norm.

Winter Street by Ellen Hildebrand

A chick-lit novel, set at Christmas, about a family whose members are all very different. The father of the family owns a hotel famous for its Christmas parties, his second wife is having an affair with the hotel Santa Claus, his very successful financier son is sacked for insider trading, his youngest son is in the army in Iraq...that kind of thing. I enjoyed it very much. I picked this one up from the book exchange, too. I was interested in the positive portrayal of religion-- several characters pray at difficult moments, and the superiority of religious carols to secular Christmas songs is a minor theme. The sex lives of the characters are not at all impeded by religious considerations, though.

Conversations with Zygmunt Bauman, by Keith Tester

I haven't worked in a university library for sixteen years without realizing that Zygmunt Beauman is the big noise in sociology these days. (He died in January of this year.) So I wanted to learn something about him. I was drawn to this book because of its conversational format. However, Bauman is just another predictable intellectual who sees NEOLIBERALISM as the Great Satan behind all the world's woes. His thesis that the market economy teaches us all to constantly re-invent ourselves, and to prize this very fluidity, is surprisingly conservative. He also mentions that the Bible became more and more meaningful to him as he grew older, though he was not religious.

The Devil's Hoof by Jonathan Barry

A novel that by a friend of mine, that I read in manuscript. A fine, spooky yarn set in the Dublin Mountains in the eighteenth century. It centres on the legend of the Hell-Fire Club, a real-life club around which various dark legends circulated. I am mentioned in the acknowledgements!

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey

The best-selling self-help book. I really made an effort to follow its programme, for a few weeks. The thing about every self-help book is that, if you give up on its programme, the author can say: "Well, you never followed through." But if you do follow through, and it seems to work, how do you know it wasn't your own increased effort and consistency, rather than anything in the book itself? I did enjoy reading this book, though. Self-help books give a certain psychological fillip, from the very enthusiasm and optimism of the author. Covey was the leader of the first Mormon Mission to Ireland, and met Eamon De Valera.

Séan MacDiarmada by Brian Feeney

One of the series of "Sixteen Lives" biographies, issued to commemorate the centenary of the 1916 Rising. Mac Diarmada did most of the footwork in organizing the Rising; he travelled up and down Ireland building up the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the secret organization that infiltrated the Irish Volunteers and brought about the Rising. All the organizing had to be face-to-face, as all other communications were monitored by the British. The last few days before the Rising involved such frantic organizing that, as one historian put it, it was only when MacDiarmada entered the GPO with the main body of rebels that he could finally relax! Mac Diarmada has been described as "an amiable fanatic", and that seems accurate. He gave his religion as "Irish nationalism" on a census form, although he did see a priest before his execution.

Patrick Pearse by Ruan O'Donnell

Another of the "Sixteen Lives" biographies. Pearse was, of course, the leading light of the Rising. Famously, he was utterly idolized in the decades after 1916, then all-but-demonized in more recent decades. This biography is an attempt at a balanced portrait, but it wasn't particularly memorable or well-written.

The Confession of St. Patrick

A short autobiography by St. Patrick. I've read this every St. Patrick's Day over the last few years, although in 2017 I didn't read the whole thing. St. Patrick's humility and piety is deeply endearing. His vagueness on historical detail is often maddening.

Titim agus Eirí
by Diarmuid Breathnach ["Fall and Rise"]

I started the Toronto Strategy with this autobiography by an Irish language writer and activist. Incredibly dull from beginning to end. I have no idea why I persisted with it. At least Breathnach complains about the hostility towards the Catholic Church in modern Ireland.

Duirt Bean Liom by Máire Uí Néill ["A Woman Told Me"]

This is a collection of interviews with Irish-language speaking women, prominent in various fields. I called it "the lesbo book" in my diary. Only one of the women interviewed is actually a lesbian, or so I recall, but they all seemed like angry, empowered wimmin who were mad as hell and weren't going to take it any more-- a case of wanting to revive one tradition (the Irish language), while seeking to destroy any number of others. The title is quite clever: it's from an Irish language proverb which literally translates: "A woman told me that a woman told her..." and which has the same gist as "A little birdie told me."

Lán Dóchas is Grá Martín Ó Maicín ["Full of Hope and Love"]

A collection of newspapers columns by a columnist for an Irish language newspaper, spanning the years before and after the turn of the millennium. Never was a title less appropriate; the book is full of obituaries, laments and gloom. It's also incredibly pedestrian in content, pretty much on the level of a fourteen-year-old schoolchild's essays.

Brian Óg Padraig Ó Conaire [Young Brian]

A story of chivalrous adventure set at the time of James II....I think. I don't have much of a memory of it. It was quite dull, despite the fact that it was written by one of the big names of Irish language literature. 

An Dealbh Spainneach, Deasún Breathnach [The Spanish Statue]

A kid's novel about a ruthless, slimy Spaniard who travels to Ireland to reclaim a statue-- there are drugs in it, or something. This is a series of novels about a group of Irish and Spanish friends who have repeated encounters with the same slimy Spaniard. The slimy Spaniard is apparently killed off at the end of each novel, but keeps turning up again. Actually, it was quite good, a page-turner. One ambiguity that hovers over every Irish language novel is: are the characters actually speaking in Irish, or is the writer just translating it for us? In Deasún Breathnach's novels, they are actually speaking in Irish, unless otherwise stated. Even the Spaniards sometimes speak in Irish.

Fileann an Feall
by Bríd Dukes [The Wrong Returns]

A short novel about teenagers who are captured by drug smugglers. Or hostage-takers. Or criminals of some sort. Actually, it was pretty good, and quite suspenseful. The title comes from an Irish language proverb, "the wrong returns on the wrongdoer".

An Buama Deiridh Déasún Breathnach [The Last Bomb]

This was one of the most original Irish language books I've read. From the creator of the slimy Spaniard, but not in the same series. It involves a doomsday cult which wishes to blow up the world, and whose members commit suicide as soon as they've failed in any mission. Quite gripping. 

Grisciní Saillte: Cnuasach Aisti by Déasún Breathnach [Salted Cuts, or something like that]

A collection of newspaper columns by the writer of the above. A lot less appealing than his fiction. Breathnach was a supporter of the Provisional IRA, which bothered me. He was a Catholic, and he complained about dirty books and entertainment, but aside from that he was very left-wing. The essays are full of bitterness about the situation of the Irish language, and pedantry regarding both the Irish language and the English language-- the author was a sub-editor for an English-language newspaper, as well. 

An Fhealsúnacht agus an tSíceolaíocht, edited by Ciaran Ó Coigligh. [Philosophy and Psychology.]

Papers from a symposium on philosophy and psychology. A short book, but really interesting. The first of the Toronto Strategy books that really engaged me, as much as an English language book might have.
Seosamh O Heanai: Nar Fhagha Me Bas Choiche by Liam Mac Con Iomaire. [Joe Heaney; I'll Never Die.]

I hope that's the right translation of the title. Joe Heaney was an Irish language singer and storyteller. Although he was very celebrated, he couldn't find employment in Ireland, and so had to move to New York, where he became a doorman at a swanky hotel much used by celebrities. Later in life he became an artist in residence at a university. He was a rather difficult personality, who was quite willing to berate an audience if they weren't paying attention to him. The book is in both Irish and English, and I skipped most of the English parts. It's quite badly structured and too flabby.

Iníon an Tincéara Rua by Caitlín Uí Thallamhain [The Red-Headed Tinker's Daughter]

A short children's novel about an itinerant girl who is gifted at horse-riding. Readable and charming. I read it in school, so it was a nostalgia hit for me.

Cead Cainte! Criostóir Ó Floinn [Permission to Speak]

I can remember literally nothing about this collection of newspaper columns.
Coill Na Meala Brian Ó Baoill

A strange novel about a nihilistic, anti-clerical bank clerk who moves to a pious Irish town. I struggled with the Irish and I was never sure whether the author was in favour of the narrator's anti-clericalism, or mocking it. I can't remember how it ended. I don't know how to translate the title, which is the name of the town in which it is set.

Deireadh Báire le Caitríona Ní Mhúrcú [The End]

This was an interesting book-- a kids' fantasy novel which drew on Irish mythology, specifically the war between the mythological races of the Firbolg and the Tuatha De Danaan. (A bit like goblins and Elves.) I was really surprised by its violence, ruthlessness, and bleakness, even though the protagonist is a teenage girl.

Ciall agus Creideamh Brian Ó Ceallaigh [Reason and Faith]

Ó Síol Go Fomhair Brian Ó Ceallaigh [From Seed to Harvest]

Two religious education text-books by a Catholic priest, from the 1980s. They were really good, solid, and even inspiring. They were obviously written before liberalism began to corrode the Irish Church in earnest-- or perhaps Ó Ceallaigh was simply a hold-out. I was especially interested in the importance he places on cultural nationalism.

Thomas Clarke by Helen LItton

Another in the series of Sixteen Lives biographies. Thomas Clarke was the oldest of the 1916 leaders, and the first to sign the Proclamation of the Republic, as a recognition of his seniority. He was the eminence grise of the Revolution, shying away from publicity, but his was possibly the single most important contribution. He spent many years in English prisons, suffering appalling conditions. He was the most pragmatic of the 1916 leaders, at the opposite end of the spectrum from the dreamer and idealist Pearse. Clarke is the 1916 leader I find least appealing, as he seemed to see independence as an end in itself-- which is my least favourite sort of nationalism. However, this is also what fascinates me about him-- what drove him? Surely he most have had some vision of what an independent Ireland should look like? The biography, though it might well be the best of the Sixteen Lives biographies, didn't really answer my question. Clarke remains an enigma.

Nil Desperandum: A Dictionary Of Latin Tags And Useful Phrases by Eugene Ehrlich

I picked this book up from the book exchange and read it in an afternoon. It's not just a collection of phrases, but also includes examples of their use, from texts both ancient and modern. It excited me about the classic world-- reading the book, it seemed to me that this vanished world was every bit as multifarious as our own.

Vaticáin II agus an Réabhlóid Chultúrtha by Sean MacRéamoinn [Vatican II and the Cultural Revolution]

A book written shortly after Vatican II, lamenting the fact that it didn't go far enough. The writer has some self-awareness and tries to defend liberal Catholicism from the obvious criticisms, but not very convincingly. I wrote in my diary: "I can almost hear a guitar being strummed as I read it."

 Rún na hEaglaise by Pádraig Ó Croiligh [The Mystery of the Church]

A book on the seven sacraments of the Church, written from a conservative perspective, by a Catholic priest. I loved this book and it actually excited my imagination-- it almost made me want to run to Mass, or even Confession!

The Triumph of Failure by Canon Sheehan

Canon Sheehan was a very successful Irish priest-novelist, who died in 1913. His books can be mawkish and melodramatic, but he writes about spiritual drama very compellingly. This book is about two young men, one of them a lost soul, the other one a fiery Catholic lay preacher. The title became more famous when it was borrowed for a biography of Patrick Pearse.

Seven Secrets of the Eucharist by Vince Flynn

A short book about the Eucharist. Good, but featuring too much of the overheated rhetoric that is all too common in Catholic devotional books, and that I find embarrassing.

 Edel Quinn, Envoy of the Legion of Mary to Africa, Cardinal Suenens

Edel Quinn was an Irish woman, a lay missionary with the Legion of Mary, whose work spreading the Legion in Africa and Asia was astounding, especially as she knew from the start of her mission that she was unlikely to live more than a few years. Cardinal Suenens was a notorious liberal, but you would never guess it from this book. The account of her childhood and deepening religious commitment is fascinating, and the same is true of her final days, but the description of her travels become quite tedious at times. Too much event kills narrative.

Crossing the Threshold of Hope by St. John Paul II

St. John Paul the Great was a wonderful man and a wonderful Pope-- even if I've come to regard his enthusiasm for Vatican II as misguided. However, he could be incredibly dense in his writings. This book isn't the worst example of this, but sometimes it makes me feel like screaming: "Just answer the question in plain words, for goodness sake!". (The book is a set of responses to an interviewer's questions.) The chapters on other religions are quite interesting-- St. John Paul may have kissed the Koran (which he never should have done), but he's surprisingly blunt in his critique of other religions here.

Story of a Soul by St. Therese of Lisieux

I avoided reading this book for years, since I find the saccharine cult of St. Therese quite annoying. But, when I started researching a book about the saints, I felt I had to read it. It's impossible not to be moved by it-- St. Therese's radical dependence on God, her unwavering supernaturalism, is infectious. It's easy to understand its impact.

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defore 

I got this book for Christmas in 1985, and didn't finish it until 2001. Then I read it again last year. I like novels to be full of ideas and dialogue, so a novel full of carpentry and crop-growing is quite a challenge to me. I'm glad I persevered, though, if only for the mental discipline it required. I'm impressed by the manner in which Defoe dispenses success and set-backs to Crusoe, in a satisfyingly believable way. This was one of Chesterton's favourite novels (sometimes he named this as his favourite, other times he named The Pickwick Papers).

That's all folks! How many books do you read in a year?


  1. Didn't realise there was so much available in Irish,
    You do well

    1. Thanks. There is a lot in absolute terms, but it's hard to find something you really want to read.

  2. Séamus(Australia)July 30, 2017 at 12:00 AM

    I turned 21 the year CROSSING THE THRESHOLD OF HOPE came out. I can't remember how many copies I was gifted by Mass-goers who knew this. If I can remember correctly, a catholic paper reported at the time that John Paul actually told a minor gathering of Italian youth not to read it as they may find it confusing and philosophical. I've been looking back even earlier lately: In the parish collection there are two books by Gordon Thomas and Max Watts (Journalists,I think) about the Pope's assassination attempt and the cold war. They made Ireland a very involved party in church/world events also, although their scope was fairly universal.

    1. Yes, it really is extraordinarily dense for a popular book. At one point, the interviewer asks something like: "In a world where so few people see any reason to believe in God, perhaps we should ask: why does God seem to hide himself?" To which St. JPII replies something like: "What you are really asking is whether the anti-transcendentalism of Immanuel Kant, etc. etc. etc."

  3. The only years when I kept some record of titles were around the first few years of the millennium, 2002-2005 or so, and that would be the only definite number to go by. Then it were between 30-40 per year. These days it tends to be more uneven, but this summer I have laid all finished books in my summer readings one upon the other on a shelf and can happily say that the pile is now up to 7 and tonight it will probably be 8 since I have only one single chapter left in another.

    1. You seem a very well-read chap! Why did you stop keeping the record?

    2. Pure laziness, or the fact that I didn´t see any particular reason for doing it. I was about to start again, now and then, but same things keep me off still. The most interesting books you will remember well even without the diary!