I read more books this year than I have in quite a while, but I can’t say that anything truly life-changing appeared on my horizon in 2009. I read one indisputably great book this year: Keith Thomas’s The Ends of Life: Roads to Fulfillment in Early Modern England. I have written a review of it that I hope will soon appear, but let me just say for now that it’s one of the richest evocations of the texture of our ancestors’ lives that I have ever come across. I can’t recommend it too highly to anyone interested in social history.In general, though, this was a year of readerly disappointments: I came to a number of books with high hopes that weren’t realized: in varying ways David Post’s In Search of Jefferson’s Moose, Ted Striphas’s The Late Age of Print, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and Peter Wells’s Barbarians to Angels: The Dark Ages Reconsidered are all books that, in my estimation, promise more than they deliver. (About Striphas and Mantel I will have reflections in print.) But I had some fun, too. I discovered the mystery fiction of Josephine Tey this year — her last, The Singing Sands, is especially fine. Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere is pure delight, as, in a very different way, is Arika Okrent’s In the Land of Invented Languages.
Perhaps my best reading experiences this year were with books I had read before. This year I read Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday for, I think, the fourth time, but only this time did its full greatness come home to me. What as astonishing book, and how unlike any other book I can think of. I think this was also my fourth reading of Middlemarch, and its warmth and wisdom moved me as much as ever — though they do so in different ways each time. In this reading I found myself touched as never before by the great scene when Dorothea meets and comforts Rosamond — and by the fact (so true, yet so hard to face) that for all its power it has no lasting effect on Rosamond.Re-reading Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy I concluded that my earlier judgment of it — that a brilliant beginning collapses into shameless preaching — was accurate, but also that I had been unfair and uncharitable to Pullman in certain ways. I apologized. And Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was even more delightful this time than the first time around. I do hope Susanna Clarke writes the sort-of-sequel she has sort-of-promised.