The Best of What I Read in 2017


[Don’t judge my potentially very basic taste here! My early 20s have ended up becoming a period of reading things I probably would have read as a teenager or earlier if I hadn’t been playing so many video games, and then deciding that it’s probably best I read some of these books when I was finally old enough to appreciate them after all. 2017 releases marked with asterisks. This list is in no particular order.]

  • Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy, Rosamund Bartlett trans. (what can I say that hasn’t already been said?)
  • At the Existentialist Café, by Sarah Bakewell (a readable overview of French and German existentialists; Bakewell has a real flair for crafting a narrative out of the lives and works of so many overlapping, yet disparate thinkers)
  • Ages of the Spiritual Life, by Paul Evdokimov (“To be intelligent today means to understand everything and believe nothing.” Whew!)
  • If Beale Street Could Talk, by James Baldwin (that last line, though)
  • *An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic, by Daniel Mendelsohn (supplementing my classics education with this thorough work of literary criticism in the guise of personal memoir; I love the way Mendelsohn combined genres here)
  • Speedboat and Pitch Dark, by Renata Adler (love her)
  • À rebours, by Joris-Karl Huysmans (probably half of this book flew right over my head because I was reading it in French, but boy does it have its moments)
  • Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (not for one second was I going to let myself off the hook on not having read this yet)
  • Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson (wait, did I really read this in 2017? Good grief has this been a long year.)
  • Sag Harbor, by Colson Whitehead (get yourself a man/woman who treats you as tenderly as Colson Whitehead treats descriptive passages of working in a Long Island ice cream parlor)
  • The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien (somehow I had never read this ??  It was really good ?? Y’all have been holding out on me.)
  • *The Idiot, by Elif Batuman (lol, but also, too real)
  • Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville (now placing bets on which of my friends will someday write the 21st-century anthropological masterpiece Christianity in America)
  • Maurice, by E.M. Forster (the Merchant-Ivory film adaptation is also good)
  • Génitrix, by François Mauriac (“There are some people who are only capable of loving in opposition to someone” is one of many such rich epigrams to be found in Mauriac’s work. If 2018 goes as planned (ha) you might be getting a big essay from me on this unjustly mostly-out-of-print author)
  • After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, by Alasdair MacIntyre (still not regretting the week in mid-July I spent holed up in the library reading this instead of paying attention to whatever was going on in the news. See? Nobody even remembers what that was anymore!)
  • What is Cinema? Vol 1, by André Bazin (essential)
  • Miss Pym Disposes, by Josephine Tey (h/t to Peter and Barbara for their insistence on this one)
  • The Rachel Bespaloff essay on The Iliad in NYRB’s War and the Iliad (listen, Simone Weil is great but…I…did not especially like her essay in this collection)
  • Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, by Tony Kushner (I impulse bought this and, riveted, read it in a few hours one weekend where I probably had other more important things to do)
  • The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton (also highly recommended: the Martin Scorsese adaptation, which made me more intensely aware of my mortality than any other movie I’ve ever seen)


Umm let me just choose a few at random so I don’t end up keeping you here all day.

There was also that totally bananas cover story in Harper’s about the women of the alt-right which I still can’t quite wrap my head around. 

As I’ve come to expect from them, Phil Christman, Kameron Collins, Alan Jacobs, Wesley Morris, B.D. McClay, Garnette Cadogan, Elizabeth Bruenig, Nick Pinkerton, Christine Emba, and Ezekiel Kweku were always a joy to read, in all their varied wit and wisdom.

Notes on Classical Translation

Because I’m currently reading Sarah Ruden’s new translation of St. Augustine’s Confessions (out this week from Modern Library), and also because I seem to have made the acquaintance lately of a lot of scholars of antiquity and classical languages, I thought it would be a useful exercise to think back on how my undergraduate Latin and Greek professors had us approach translation so we can compare notes.

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The Best of What I Read in 2016


Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë

The Death of Adam, Gilead, and When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson

The World's Last Night, The Great Divorce, and The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis

The Limits of Critique, by Rita Felski

Bad Religion, by Ross Douthat

Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis

The World Beyond Your Head, by Matthew B. Crawford

Great Lent, by Fr. Alexander Schmemann

Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Articles & Essays

My four favorite essays of the year:

“Save Our Public Universities” by Marilynne Robinson in Harper's

Better Now?” by Adam Morris in The Point

Walking While Black” by Garnette Cadogan in LitHub (also published in Freeman’s and The Fire This Time)

Scientific Regress” by Will Wilson in First Things

The Fencing Master” by David Treuer in Granta

Dying Together” by Clare Coffey in The American Conservative

"Everyday Barbara Pym” by B.D. McClay in First Things

“The Greek Hero at the Gym” by Daniel Kunitz in the Wall Street Journal

Uncanny Valley” by Hannah Wiener in n+1

This thing about how Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve is #problematic, by Laura Saetvit Miles in Vox

The Smug Style in American Liberalism” by Emmet Rensin in Vox

Then, on the flipside: “Explaining It All to You” by Nathan J. Robinson in Current Affairs

For Six Weeks I Lived by Joe Manganiello's Insane Diet and Workout Plan” (mmhmm) by Nicole Cliffe in Elle

The Desert Fathers Play Pokemon Go” by Chris Casberg in Conciliar Press

Love in French” by Lauren Collins in The New Yorker

Fear and Trembling in Las Vegas” by Tara Isabella Burton in Hazlitt

The Seven Deadly Social Networks” by Robinson Meyer in The Atlantic

That ridiculous Matthew Walther piece about Lena Dunham and a bad high, by Matthew Walther in The Washington Free Beacon

(I'm certainly forgetting some others.)


The Clinic Bomber's Mother” by Shara Lessley

The Philanderer's Plant” by Sally Cook

Film Critics Who Killed It in 2016

Rather than try to pull together all the zillions of film articles I read this year, I want to highlight instead those critics who were consistently intelligent, provocative, and/or hilarious: Miriam Bale, Wesley Morris, Alissa Wilkinson, Nick Pinkerton, Violet Lucca, Peter Labuza, Victor Morton, Kent Jones, K. Austin Collins, Richard Brody. Next year I hope to seek out more to add to my list of regulars!