The best books I read in 2019

A delayed book log from 2019, for posterity (or, more accurately, future me):

Fiction:

  1. “The Heart of the Matter” by Graham Greene: One of his four “Catholic” novels (as distinct from his “entertainments”), it centers around Major Scobie, a British officer stationed in Sierra Leone during World War II. Scobie is sympathetic to a Catholic reader like myself — who else can understand his utter horror at the thought of receiving communion in a state of mortal sin? If it were written in a different style it might even be comedic: Scobie must continually find new excuses to evade communion without tipping off his devout wife that he is having an affair. But in the end there is heartbreak rather than comic relief, and Scobie makes for a quintessential tragic hero: a man who constantly does the wrong things, but, in his mind at least, for the right reasons. The most representative line: “Oh God, have I really become the sort of person people pity?”
  2. “The End of the Affair” by Graham Greene: Another Catholic novel, but written like a mystery. Even now it is difficult for me to identify why I enjoyed it so much. Perhaps because it left me with one unshakeable thought: If you aren’t convinced of its truth, why be a Catholic at all? More so than most religions, it seems to me, Catholicism’s stark commandments on marriage and divorce make it particularly overwhelming. The plight of the main female protagonist, similar to “Brideshead Revisited,” if read from the perspective of a religious skeptic, might as well be the plot device of Richard Dawkins. Why are these characters letting superstition deprive them of love and so much material happiness? Does this not prove that religion, if imparted at a young age, is a form of child abuse? The answer can only be that they do truly believe it all. That is what makes these novels so compelling, and, I think, what makes Catholicism so appealing. It gives meaning to our lives. Our actions don’t fall on the deaf ears of an indifferent universe, but all constitute parts of an epic story of good and evil, where the MacGuffin is nothing less than your very soul.
  3. “Moth Smoke” by Mohsin Hamid: Not my typical type of book, but surprisingly thought-provoking. The novel may be set in Pakistan but the characters and their flaws are recognizable across all times and places. And, like “The Heart of the Matter,” a case study in how one man’s self-pity proves destructive.
  4. “A Bend in the River” by V. S. Naipaul: The opening line alone is enough to warrant a spot on this list: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” The plot doesn’t hold up as well as the previous three novels, but the scathing critique of “anti-imperialist” assumptions more than makes up for it.

Nonfiction:

  1. “The End of History and the Last Man” by Francis Fukuyama: Maybe the most abused strawman of modern times, in Fukuyama’s prose his thesis seems hardly controversial. The engine of modernity raises expectations, and as material needs are increasingly satisfied, the drive for dignity becomes more pronounced. And the political system most able to satisfy this demand for dignity is some form of liberal, representative democracy. But the most prescient chapter might be the one that gets the least attention. In his conclusion, Fukuyama says history may return if our materially-advanced but spiritually-hollow future leaves people craving some form of confrontation to grant them meaning. The past is not dead; it isn’t even really past.
  2. “The Conservative Sensibility” and “Statecraft as Soulcract” by George Will: The former is long and new. The latter is concise and old. The former doubles as a work of American history and covers much more policy ground. The latter’s foucs is much more narrow, but strikes me as infinitely wiser. The former adopts the libertarian-conservative philosophy the Republican Party and its intellectuals seem to be moving away from 40 years after Reagan’s election. The latter cuts to the core truth of all politics: Statecraft is soulcraft, and the government, through action or inaction, cannot help but have an impact on the material and spiritual well-being of the citizenry.
  3. “The Rise and Fall of the British Empire” by Lawrence James: Not as good as “The English and Their History,” but a good and not overly apologetic look at the British Empire’s achievements and misdeeds. If a people had to be colonized, better the British than anyone else.

Honorable mention:

“Brighton Rock” by Greene, “My Father Left Me Ireland” by Michael B. Dougherty, “Shatter the Nations” by Mike Giglio, “The Clash of Civilizations” by Samuel Huntington, and “A Random Walk Down Wall Street” by Burton Malkiel.