My Year in Books: 2013

31 December 2013

Last Thursday we made our semi-traditional Christmas trek to the cinema to see Saving Mr. Banks, a new film based on the tussle between Walt Disney, who wanted the rights to make Mary Poppins into a film, and P. L. Travers, the no-nonsense nanny's cantankerous author who was dead set against it. We had only just been the previous month to see Disney's newest animation, Frozen, but rather than exiting the theater as I had in November (that is, still humming the catchy songs), I was more contemplative. I had had my doubts before coming, but on the whole, it was an excellent viewing experience, and I would just as quickly see it again. 

What impressed me the most was how Saving Mr. Banks captured the ineffable power of words. They capture your heart and mind. They reveal light and beauty in the midst of a darkened world. In the film, Disney states that we "restore order with imagination." I would say it runs deeper than that: books restore order when they reveal the transcendent truth of God as written in His Word. The best books are those that draw their inspiration from the holiest Book. The best words are those that mimic the living Word. For "the Shadow is only a small and passing thing: there is light and high beauty forever beyond its reach."
read in twenty thirteen

This year has been an interesting one for the bookshelf. January through May found me finishing up my sophomore year of high school, including a class in World Literature that ended up being highly enjoyable. Pride and Prejudice, our Christmas break assignment, could hardly be called a task, and if anything, made me love that dearly familiar book all the more. Frankenstein took a bit more patience, but Shelley made up for the grotesque content with her effortless prose; The Metamorphosis was every bit as tedious with none of the former's beauty ("I find little pleasure in Kafka: I would infinitely prefer Austen"). A Tale of Two Cities and The Last of the Mohicans — two very different books drawn under an arching theme through their heart-shattering endings. Between Cora, Uncas, and Sydney Carton, Dickens and Cooper made me weep like no other authors this year. I rushed through the first with a bit more speed than the second, as it was a school assignment, but I don't think that spoiled my pleasure (or is that pain?). 

The last quarter took a more serious turn as we delved into modern literature. The Lark by Jean Anouilh, a play based on the life of Jeanne d'Arc was interesting but not terribly remarkable. The Secret Sharer was dark and disturbing. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a haunting record of life in a Russian gulag based on Solzhenitsyn's own experience, seared itself in my memory. Despite the mature content and bleak subject matter, I'm very glad I read it, as it unashamedly pealed away the layers hiding a dark period in history.

With the freedom summer's leisurely months bring, my reading turned to happier matters. Heartless, Veiled Rose, and Moonblood, all by Anne Elisabeth Stengl, fit the bill perfectly. Being light reading material embedded with deep truth and a rich background in faerie lore, they filled many a warm June or July afternoon. It doesn't fall chronologically, but while we're speaking of Stengl, I really loved Dragonwitch, a darker tale suited to the colder season in which I read it. I have yet to read Starflower, but I hope to have changed that status in a year's time. Around this time, I began slowly working my way through Letters to a Diminished Church, a collection of essays by Dorothy Sayers that I received for my birthday. I finished it in early fall and would highly recommend it to anyone who wants a challenging read on all aspects of a faith-based life. Johnny Tremain, another childhood favorite, I re-read with great relish as I used it to teach American history to two little neighbor girls this summer. McCullough's excellent history, 1776, was part of my research for Rifles in the South Field, but I ended up liking it as much as if I had been perusing it for fun. The Grand Sophy, a light and witty romance by Georgette Heyer, was my main August read as I sipped the last ruby drops from summer's glass.

The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne's famous treatise on sin and redemption in the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony, officially began my American Literature course. The reading process itself was tedious, and the story felt extremely hopeless, but when we all gathered in late August for our first class and discussed the novel, the shades fell from my eyes. Hawthorne's purpose in dwelling on man's fallen nature was to combat the Transcendental optimists of his time who claimed man was inherently good. His characters always fail when they attempt to make their names pure by their own actions, and while it makes for dark literature, his purposeful execution cannot be denied its value. "Young Goodman Brown," a short story of Hawthorne's that we read a little later in the year, fulfills the same objective on a more compact scale.

Autumn was a sluggish time for reading, and most of it came from the annals of American literature. I already mentioned Hawthorne; Thoreau, Emerson, and Melville also joined the ranks as the crumpled leaves died their brilliant deaths. My mind seemed eternally lodged in Concord, Massachusetts, a situation suitable for harvest-time. Irving, Poe, Longfellow, and Bryant added their names to the list, and though Poe was probably my least favorite, I commend him for his mastery of description — the man knew how to send the infamous shivers down one's spine! Huckleberry Finn made for jolly fall break reading, though it had some questionable morality. And between Crane, Bierce, and London, who closed our first semester, I read more about Naturalism than I cared to. I must give Crane his due for his imagery, though, which is breathtaking.

Finally, after trudging through it in chunks all summer and smaller portions through the fall months, I triumphantly finished the final page of The Count of Monte Cristo yesterday afternoon. It was easily the most challenging book of 2013, but in many respects the most rewarding as well. I should be putting up a full review here soon, but in case that takes a while in coming, here are some of my thoughts in the review I posted on Goodreads.

On the whole, I tried to keep my literary diet varied this year. The list includes a smattering of the classics, romance, drama, suspense, adventure, fantasy, and theology, and while I can't say I liked them all equally (that would be too predictable), it was fun making an acquaintance with the more unfamiliar ones. I wish I had read more books from my personal list, or more bluntly, I wish I had time to read more, but what else can one do but look to the horizon and say with Scarlett O'Hara, "tomorrow is another day"?

to read in twenty fourteen

My Ántonia by Willa Cather (currently enjoying)
The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers (just begun)
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (albeit with trepidation)
Les Misérables by Victor Hugo ("I shall conquer this!—I shall!")
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (a good summer break read, and another unconquered tome)
At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald ("Fairytales are more than true...")
Several Sutcliff titles (thank you, Jenny)
Orthodoxy and The Ballad of the White Horse by G. K. Chesterton
Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis
Starflower and Shadow Hand by Anne Elisabeth Stengl
The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien

It's an oft-spoken truth that books mold and change you as Disney and his daughters were molded and changed by Mary Poppins. 2014's twelve months are still untouched, but they'll bear dog-eared pages, underlined words, and scribbled notes soon enough. Our lives are marked by the words we take in: not the number, but the quality. 

What will you read?

4 epistles:

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this, Elizabeth! I remember reading "Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde and "1984" by George Orwell in high school and wondering why we had to read such dark, miserable, and disgusting books. Ultimately our teacher wanted us to realize how well these two authors portrayed the inherent depravity of mankind and the hopelessness of a world without Jesus. Needless to say, it transformed the way I approached literature.

    I like the looks of your reading list for 2014! I'm in the process of making my own and I might just steal some of yours. :)

    God bless!

    1. Sometimes I'm tempted to think teachers automatically make their reading lists on the basis of what is and isn't considered a classic, regardless of the book's quality, which isn't really a fair assessment. I had an excellent tutor last year who showed me how to view assigned literature in a completely different manner. Rather than mentally digging out the uglier content, I could view the work as a whole in the canon of literature, and with the author's history as background, paint a fuller picture of his purpose. I'm grateful for this emphasis on context, whether historical or authorial, because it really makes quite a difference.

      And now I've rambled. :P

      Please go ahead and take some! Reading lists are all the better when shared. ^.^

  2. Elizabeth, you've definitely tackled many a giant of the classics and history this past year. Well done! Alas, only Stengl ranks among the books I read in common with this list :p. But I was busy with other classics too, though far more lesuirely and well-beloved ones =). Oh, yes! I love it when amid the old yellowed pages, one does capture glimpses of that 'transcendent truth of God as written in His Word. It is funny how more and more I notice those glimpses, the older I get...

    And I must say I am thrilled as a peacock at the exciting list you've got for 2014! Lord of the Rings and North and South *delighted grin*. They are dashed good books, Girl! With you I am also hoping to be able to read The Mind of the Maker (got it as a birthday present this month from my parents), The Ballad of the White Horse, more Sutcliff novels and the rest of Stengl's novels...

    I am so glad that a supply of wonderful books doesn't stop. God bless and Happy New Year, Elizabeth dear <3 :D

    1. I think you read A Tale of Two Cities before this year, whereas 2013 was my first reading of it, but that's another title I know we have in common. :)

      Truth to tell, my to-read list makes me ridiculously happy. I'm perusing (and enjoying) Sutcliff and Sayers at present, and then it will be on to Gaskell! The Lord of the Rings is a big one, though, and I'm really trying to fit it in. I've gone too long without reading them through.

      "A year may come when I pass over Tolkien in favor of another author — but it is not this year!"


"Gracious words are like a honeycomb; sweetness to the soul and health to the body." —Proverbs 16:24

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