1. The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy. This book has left an indelible mark on me, perhaps most of all because of the circumstances in which I read it. In February of 2007, our family endured a tragedy, the thought of which still brings me to tears: our niece, Sophie, just one year old, died very suddenly. We returned to Canada to be with my sister-in-law, her husband and their boys, and with the rest of the family. I was both honored and terrified when asked to co-officiate the funeral. But over the course of that horrific week, my wife and I, drawing on the prayers of friends at home, were able to keep ourselves together for the family to lean on. But when we got back to Grand Rapids, my world fell apart (it's still not quite back together). One of the most tangible effects of this sorrow was that I simply couldn't read. The world had become so dark and flat and empty that I couldn't muster the psychic energy to pick up a book or even a magazine--me!, who has books literally strewn across every room in the house! For almost two months I couldn't bring myself to crack open a book. Part of me just couldn't re-activiate my imagination, part of me felt like I didn't deserve the joy that comes with reading, part of me was too angry to even see straight, and part of me was scared what I might find.
One day while crawling into bed I glanced at the books stacked in my bedside shelf and spied this volume, which I once purchased in a used bookshop in Stratford. I can't say exactly what drew me to it, but I picked it up, clicked on the lamp, and couldn't put it down for hours. The book seemed to embody just the tension I was feeling inside: between Foote, the wry cynic and skeptic, and Percy, the existential Catholic (walking in the paths of both St. Thomas and Kierkegaard). The correspondence crackles with the love of a long friendship. Clearly Foote is the more faithful and fulsome correspondent, always the initiator of epistolary volleys, pestering Percy to reply or come visit--but it is a pestering that craves presence, craves Percy's friendship (Foote seemed to be lonely even when others were around). Foote especially pours himself into the letters so that they are themselves a kind of literature. It is also a fascinating peek behind the curtain of "the writer's life"--it's joys and ecstacies, its valleys and sorrows, its pet peeves and quirks. Over the course of the correspondence both Percy and Foote emerge to become the giants of American letters that we now know them as, but the letters provide an account that is decidedly un-romantic, and yet precisely because of that, engenders a certain romance about the bohemian life of "the writer."
This book did nothing short of recreating the world for me. It also convinced me that I want to be a "writer"--not just an author, but a real, live writer.
2. Cormac McCarthy, The Road. Recall that one of my criteria for "best" in this list is the ability of a book to continue to haunt me, keep me up at night, awake with me in the morning, and generally not let go of my imagination. McCarthy's widely praised book did that beyond any other this year. Like All the Pretty Horses, this story chronicles a paired relationship (I think three's a crowd for McCarthy) in ways that are as sparse as they are intimate. Dialogue rarely get beyond a few words each, and yet so much is said (and unsaid). I also found it a convicting book, on at least two levels: on the one hand, the father's love for his son is so patient and compassionate in the face of such dire scarcity and violence that I'm ashamed at my own impatience with my children in the face of safety and plenty. On the other hand, the father & son's world is pared down to such necessity that one becomes very conscious of our own embarrassment of riches (and our culture of waste). For weeks after reading this I couldn't even allow myself to ever say I was "hungry" (which usually means that I haven't had a full meal in the last 2 hours!). McCarthy quite intentionally invokes the language of mendicant friars in the book, calling to mind disciplines of simplicity and solidarity.
In fact, I think the book is suffused with ritual and thus a kind of sacramentality. Quasi-liturgies both make and hold together the remnants of a "world" for father and son. In fact, for the book I'm currently completing--Desiring the Kingdom: Liturgy, Learning and Formation--I'm using a passage from The Road as an epigraph:
The boy sat tottering. The man watched him that he not topple into the flames. He kicked holes in the sand for the boy’s hips and shoulders where he would sleep and he sat holding him while he tousled his hair before the fire to dry it. All of this like some ancient anointing. So be it. Evoke the forms. Where you’ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.