The ties I got 10 Christmases ago have long since gone to Goodwill, and many of the tools I received as holiday presents now rust in the shed. But the books I’ve found under the tree each year are, for the most part, still with me these days, resting on the shelf as evidence of what a durable gift a book can be.
That’s why I devote a post-Thanksgiving column every November to books I’ve enjoyed the past 12 months and that you might like, too. Think of it as my suggested shopping list for the holidays — a few titles you might like to buy for loved ones, or even yourself.
In “How Dante Can Save Your Life,” St. Francisville writer Rod Dreher beautifully recounts how reading Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” a celebrated 700-year-old poem, helped guide him out of midlife despair. The rescue was all the more remarkable because, as Dreher admits, “I don’t much like poetry. Never have.”
He’s far from alone, of course. Many of us have come to regard poetry as stuffy, ephemeral, not connected to daily life. But for the doubters, let me recommend “Felicity,” Mary Oliver’s new book of poems. She writes with seeming simplicity about complicated subjects, like faith. “I have refused to live / locked in the orderly house of / reasons and proofs,” she tells readers. “The world I live in and believe in / is wider than that …”
Although she’s 80, Oliver wasn’t the oldest author on my 2015 reading list, not by far. That distinction belongs to Daniel Aaron, a retired Harvard professor, now 103, who’s spent much of his life reading, then writing down the best of what he finds. “Commonplace Book, 1934-2012” collects the choicest bits of wisdom Aaron’s extracted from other writers. Here’s a funny line from French artist Edgar Degas: “A picture is something which calls for as much cunning, trickery and vice as the preparation of a crime.”
Any lifelong reader — and any lifelong writer — is bound to think a lot about what makes writing good. That’s the idea behind Steven Pinker’s “A Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.” Pinker gives a few reasons why writing well is important, but these seem the best: “to enhance the spread of ideas, to exemplify attention to detail, and to add to the beauty of the world.”
Beauty is what I often find in the prose of Michael Dirda, a longtime book critic for The Washington Post who wrote a year-long column for The American Scholar about the pleasures of reading. Those columns have been collected in “Browsings,” a nice introduction to Dirda for newcomers, and a reminder to veteran fans of why Dirda’s so much fun. His advice about how to shop for books is worth repeating here: “Maybe try something a little unusual, a little different. And then don’t stop … Go on — be bold, be insatiable, be restlessly, unashamedly promiscuous.”
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.