"I've developed a great reputation for wisdom by ordering more books than I ever
 had time to read, and reading more books, by far, than I learned anything useful from,
 except, of course, that some very tedious gentlemen have written books." 
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

I enjoy encountering lists of favored things and perhaps meeting new items of interest or being challenged to look at something I had earlier encountered, in passing or in full, under a new lens.  I, however, find it very difficult to make such lists because of the desire for precision and accuracy that leaves me lame in many areas.  And yet, I am tasking myself with making just such a list.

I read a fair amount of books this year.  Probably too many to be honest (this is why I am not setting a reading goal for 2014).  So here, is my list of the top 10 books that I read for the first time in 2013.

“I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed
 a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and
 went out of the room.” 

10. Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler

This was the hardest choice for me, as it requires me to eliminate so many other worthy choices.  This may be getting awarded for the merits of the fair number of other Chandler novels I read this year as well.  But this was the best of the bunch (because I read The Big Sleep last year (2012) and plan to start The Long Goodbye, today (New Year's Eve 2013)).

I have come to learn that I adore Chandler's writing.  So many people imitate him.  Heck, he's technically imitating Hammett and the like.  But he does it better than the rest, or I'm a stuffed duck.  His fast flying wit can balance the profound with the ribald as if they both were feathers (and yet both can easily unbalance such a story).  He will paint a powerful metaphor, then shoot off the slyest of jokes.  Chandler is a master, but is perfectly comfortable writing a pulp detective novel.

Read The Big Sleep.

"By night and by day I hear a double step upon my trail. When I turn my head it is as
though one had hidden himself from me that instant. I go to look behind the trees and he is not
 there. I call and none cry again; but it is as though one listened and kept back the answer. I lie
 down, but I do not rest. I run the spring running, but I am not made still. I bathe, but I am not
 made cool. The kill sickens me, but I have no heart to fight except I kill. The Red Flower is in my
 body, my bones are water—and—I know not what I know."

9. The Second Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling

I had read The First Jungle Book many a times with the full intention of reading the second in following.  But it kept not happening for various reasons.  So I just started at the second this time, and lo and behold, I finished the darn thing.

My listing this comes with a caveat; the same caveat I have for the first one.  I love the Mowgli stories.   The others I can basically do without.  The Mowgli stories are tremendous.  Kipling's language comes alive when he is creating this world for the little Man-cub, the frog.  It is a living moving world, apart from Kipling himself.  It is a world he fell into, rather than created.  Where the Law's of the Jungle pre-existed him, he was merely their prophet.

Read these.  Read them now.  Learn of the frog who was purchased at the price of a bull.

"It often seems to me that of all the good things in the world, the only ones humanity can
 claim for itself are stories and music; the rest, mercy, beauty, sleep, clean water and
 hot food [...] are all the work of the Increate. Thus, stories are small things indeed in the
 scheme of the universe, but it is hard not to love best what is our own."

8. The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe.... Some consider him one of the best writers running only impaired by the fact that he chooses to write genre fiction (Wolfe counters that 'literary' fiction is a newer invention than fantasy, heh).  This series is often considering his masterpiece.  It is at times, mind-bending, frustrating, seemingly juvenile, unapproachable, and cryptic.  And yet the knowledge that there is always more going on underneath the murky water... the ripples, and sometimes you can see the glimmer and movement of this glorious thing, a light from below the waves.  And you are always hungry for another glimpse, another gasp of recognition.

I shall continue to scour the waters that Wolfe muddies, in the hopes of finding the golden beast that rides the current beneath.  If you are wishing to try, I would recommend his series The Wizard Knight as a jumping on point (He may have others, but I am still limited on my ability to help with this).

“You have wakened not out of sleep, but into a prior dream, and that dream lies within
 another, and so on, to infinity, which is the number of grains of sand. The path that you
 are to take is endless, and you will die before you have truly awakened.” 

7. Short story collections of Jorge Luis Borges

I came into the possession of Borges's complete story collection; I have yet to read them all.  I have read about half presently.  And of that half, I have perhaps understood a tenth of what I read.  No, that is way too much credit.  Borges was an influencer of writers who is just now coming into his own fame, it seems.

His stories entrance, enchant, entangle, and baffle.  He took a look at the mysteries of the world, stared into the limits of infinity, and comes back frozen by the gorgonic emptiness of the view.  His stories seem to be his search, his continual quest against the foes of language and time, mortality and soul.  He poses questions and theories, throwing darts to see if any pierce the hide of truth.  It is quite the experience.  I look forward to continuing my journeys through his labyrinths.

Stories I enjoyed (that I can recall...):
Man on Pink Corner
Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius
The Circular Ruins
The Lottery in Babylon
The Library of Babel
The Garden of Forking Paths
The Shape of the Sword
Death and the Compass
The House of Asterion

“We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. 
How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important,
 about something real?” 

6. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

It is a curious thing: I rated this book 5 stars on Goodreads and yet there are books I am listing better on this list to which I gave 4 stars, and yet I do not question my ratings.  It seems the reason why is that I feel Fahrenheit is a near-perfect execution of what it sets out to do.  I could not find a means of docking it a star as it seems to totally fulfill itself.

I came into this book hearing that it was a response against McCarthyism and the censorship that comes from it.  Perhaps the short story it was originally based on was, but this book was not, and for that it was much much better.  Not that McCarthyism doesn't need some opponents (we can still credit The Crucible as that), but the source of the censorship in Fahrenheit is someone else entirely, someone far more relevant to any day.  Me.  My own comfort.  My own laziness.  Bradbury eerily predicts social media, reality TV, and our regression towards non-literacy. This book stabs at the heart of our current culture.

Of the 3 big dystopia novels, this one apparently wins out as my favorite (though Brave New World still stands up as quite relevant).  Bradbury has become a must-read for me.  (Though I found it sad to see in some of his comments in the afterstuffs the feel that Bradbury wrote to overcome his mortality.  It seems like such a sad sad life to be so bound up in your legacy that you write out of necessity to live beyond yourself.  Pride and folly... This will always be a sad sidenote to the idea of this story for me.)

“And everywhere people asked him why he was walking through the country.
 Because he loved true things, he tried to explain. He said he was nervous and besides
 he wanted to see the country, smell the ground and look at grass and birds and trees, 
to savor the country, and there was no other way to do it save on foot. And people 
didn't like him for telling the truth. They scowled, or shook and tapped their heads,
 they laughed as though they knew it was a lie and they appreciated a liar. And 
some, afraid for their daughters or pigs, told him to move on, to get going, just not 
to stop near their place if he knew what was good for him. And so he stopped telling 
the truth. He said he was doing it on a bet - that he stood to win a hundred dollars. 
Everyone liked him then and believed him.” 

5. Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

Or Let Me Rewrite the Novel that Made Me Famous Only I Will Focus on a Different Monterrey Populace.  You cannot read Cannery Row without thinking of Tortilla Flat; I know some who prefer his earlier work, but I found myself loving "the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses" more.  Why is that?  To me, Cannery Row retained Tortilla Flat's humor and ragamuffin quality, but I think it better represents Steinbeck's ability to cut into being human and serve it up in slices of a curious experience.  I think he is just showing his growth as a writer.  And I like it.  (I like Tortilla Flat too.)

I am realizing that far too much of this work has already slipped through the cracks of my memory which is making me want to reread it.  I would recommend this book to anyone who has ever liked a Steinbeck novel.  And if your only reference for Steinbeck is The Grapes of Wrath in high school, maybe still give this a try (or give East of Eden a try first.)

“It was not the house that grew dull, but I that grew dull in it."

4. Manalive by G.K. Chesterton

The above Gene Wolfe once noted how Chesterton has fallen out of the spotlight though he predicts a coming return of his works.  It may in fact be happening.  At the very least, I am discovering him, and I will never be the same.

When I began Manalive, I think I was at one of my wavering points of focus in reading, and had trouble getting my mind to illustrate what I was consuming.  And so it took me some time before I began to realize the power of this work.  This realization still continues to this day and I suspect a reread will happen soon.

In this little work, Chesterton tries to reveal what true living is, and how our eyes wander.  As his protagonist says, "I am going to hold a pistol to the head of the Modern Man. But I shall not use it to kill him—only to bring him to life."  No book on this list may change my language more than this one.  And yet there is an element to which the purpose overtakes the story.  I am not opposed to a well done didactic story as is common, but it does still rob the work of living breath.  

Still, read it!  I have actually had the desire to get a group of people to read through it and discuss it, as I think it would be a fruitful event... Just sayin'. 

“He knew only that his child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God
 God never spoke.” 

3. The Road by Cormac McCarthy

My first venture into McCarthy's dark worlds and it proved quite the sojourn.  Much has been made of McCarthy's style of prose, for both good and ill; in the end, I enjoyed his Hemingway/Faulkner superblend (apparently his editor edited Faulkner).

This story attempts to answer the question of how could a man hold on to his humanity in the midst of a world where right and wrong is discarded for the sake of survival.  What could be the light that one holds on to.  Full of symbols, unanswered questions, McCarthy takes you through a journey of storms and quiet gray contemplation.

This is perhaps not a happy book, but a hopeful one.  I have since read All the Pretty Horses by McCarthy as well, and plan to continue through his books, but I think I would recommend The Road as a starting point from what I know of his works.

“We are all resigned to death: it's life we aren't resigned to.” 

2. The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene

Honestly, if I were to fully lay out the happenings of the story, alongside how much I loved this book, you might consider me afflicted.  In fact, if you were to read the book, you may think even worse of me than you already do.

Ultimately, The Heart of the Matter is an adultery story.  Combined with Greene's Catholic guilt and duty, you find the main character unraveled and destroyed by his own sense of unattainable responsibility.  And yet, what better marks the travails of man than our attempts to be 'enough'.  To be enough of a man, enough of a husband, enough of a faithful believer, enough of a friend, enough enough enough.  We weigh ourselves down with every burden and ideal.

What this book left me with was something another man once said, "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls."

Greene has become a writer that I will continue to pursue and grapple with, as he has canny insight into the human condition and a masterful way of portraying it.  However, perhaps I should encounter one of his comedies next time... just to shake it up a little.

I would probably very rarely recommend this book to others for fear of people only getting the tragedy and not the Grace.  At the very least I would point a curious reader to another of Greene's great works, The Power and the Glory, first.

“I am grateful for all those dark years, even though in retrospect they
 seem like a long, bitter prayer that was answered finally.” 

1. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

And here is the year's winner, as well as the 2005 winner of the Pulitzer Prize.  This book paints the struggles and doubts and nobility of an honestly Christian preacher in the small town of Gilead.  It has the man of John Ames looking back into his own past, his father's past, and even his grandfather's past (both having been preachers in the same town as well) for the sake of looking and speaking into his young son's future.  It is the tale of generations of faith and long-suffering endurance. Waiting through the sound of silence.  John Ames made an easy step into my list of favorite literary characters (a possibility for another top 10 list, but one that would cause me far more frustration and blood-letting).

Of all of the books on the list, I do not question this placement in the least.  It is possible that Manalive may change me more through my remaining days, but in this book, Robinson hits my heart with every inkéd arrow she looses.  In this book, I love and I hurt, I long and I cry.

I already know from experience that not every reader's heart greets this story the way mine did.  So I recommend it with fear and doubt, as I do most books that I love.

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