Monday, December 30, 2019

The Best of 2019

Top ten reads of the year
Old Books by Dead Guys posted a total of 118 reviews in 2019, about the same quantity as last year. In terms of quality, however, it was a better year for books, with a hearty yield of five-star reads and many others that fell just shy of that perfect rating. This year’s list is a diverse one that reflects many of the recurring areas of interest discussed at this blog, including Nobel-worthy world literature, American literary naturalism, ancient cultures, vintage sci-fi, and the history of books and libraries. The ten selections are arranged chronologically by date of publication. Click on the titles below to read the full reviews.


The Damnation of Theron Ware by Harold Frederic (1896)
This forgotten gem is an unsung masterpiece of Victorian-era American literary realism. A Methodist minister is posted to a backwater town in upstate New York, where he finds his faith challenged and his marriage threatened by a modern, sophisticated, liberated woman. Despite the religious subject matter, this novel never succumbs to easy contrasts between good and evil or right and wrong but remains engagingly unpredictable right up to its very conclusion. 

The Memoirs of Jeremiah Curtin (1906) A farm boy from Wisconsin, Jeremiah Curtin (1835-1906) grew up to be an expert linguist, learning more than 60 languages. He worked as a diplomat in Russia, a translator of Russian and Polish literature, and an ethnographer for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, then traveled all over the world collecting myths and folklore from Indigenous cultures. This autobiography, compiled posthumously by his widow, chronicles their fascinating travels around the world.

Fire and Ice (The Long Journey, Volume 1) by Johannes V. Jensen (1908-1922)
The Cimbrians (The Long Journey, Volume 2) by Johannes V. Jensen (1908-1922)
Christopher Columbus (The Long Journey, Volume 3) by Johannes V. Jensen (1908-1922)
The Long Journey trilogy from Danish author Johannes V. Jensen, winner of the 1944 Nobel Prize in Literature, comprises a Scandinavian-centric epic that chronicles the evolution of man from prehistoric Europe to modern civilization. This lesser-known masterpiece of world literature combines the mystic romanticism of a mythic saga with the brutally rational realism of Darwinian natural science. This is an impressive and fascinating work of fiction that deserves to be rescued from obscurity.

Jack London: Sailor on Horseback by Irving Stone (1938)
Jack London was America’s greatest author of adventure literature, but his own life was every bit as adventurous as his fiction. Aimed at general readers, with no footnotes or bibliography, this informative and entertaining retelling of his rags-to-riches life is the best non-academic London biography for those who could care less about literary criticism and just want to learn about his amazing and tragic life, warts and all. 

And Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov (1928-1940)
This monumental historical novel follows the Cossacks of the Don River region in southwestern Russia through the turbulent times of World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the Russian Civil War. Mikhail Sholokhov, winner of the 1965 Nobel Prize in Literature, has crafted the perfect realist epic with this brutally stark and gritty, viscerally authentic, and emotionally powerful work.

Deliverance by James Dickey (1970)
Certainly one of the best American novels of the second half of the 20th century, Deliverance is the story of four friends who set out on one last canoe trip on a remote, soon-to-be-dammed river in northern Georgia. This gripping adventure novel combines a visceral experience of the beauty and deadliness of wilderness with an insightful examination of modern masculinity. Whether you’ve seen the film or not, this is a stunning read. 

The American Transcendentalists: Essential Writings, edited by Lawrence Buell (2006)
More than just a collection of essays by Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, this book provides a comprehensive education on the Transcendentalists’ intellectual history, philosophical views, and agenda for social change, which included religious liberty, educational reform, feminism, and the abolition of slavery. Editor Lawrence Buell has amassed a diverse collection of authors and styles that provides a full understanding of the movement’s scope and influence.

Handbook to Life in the Aztec World by Manuel Aguilar-Moreno (2006)
This encyclopedic volume, arranged thematically, provides a historical overview of the Indigenous peoples of Central Mexico from prehistory to the present. It covers all aspects of the Aztec civilization including warfare, food, astronomy and mathematics, economy and trade, religion and philosophy, art, architecture, and literature. This excellent, comprehensive resource is loaded with interesting facts, helpful illustrations, and fascinating detail.

The Thing in the Stone and Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume Twelve (2017)
This series from Open Road Media, reprinting Simak’s classic sci-fi short stories and novellas from the 1930s to the 1980s, has been consistently excellent throughout, but Volume Twelve may be the best book yet! It includes nine visionary tales of time travel, space exploration, and speculative futures, plus one pulp-fiction western. It’s too bad the publisher is dragging their feet on volumes thirteen and fourteen of this projected 14-volume series.

The World’s Most Beautiful Libraries by Massimo Listri (2018)
This mammoth large-format coffee table book will take up your entire coffee table with over 15 pounds of Listri’s beautiful photographs of 55 classic libraries in Europe and the Americas. The informative text concisely profiles each institution’s history, architectural significance, and important holdings. An excellent (but expensive) volume for lovers of old books by dead guys.

Also, check out these “omnibus” posts from the past year, which cover topics of frequent interest here at Old Books by Dead Guys:

Old Books by (Mostly) Dead Nobel Laureates 2019 (10/10/19)

Literature of the “Soil”: Agrarian Epics from around the World (11/22/19)

See also my best-of lists for 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018. Old books by dead guys forever! Also, stay tuned for this blog’s 1,000th post, coming soon.

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