Looking back at my holiday posts, I realize I did nothing but whine for two weeks (Eeyore was, after all, a donkey). So enough of that. Like many of you, no doubt, I caught up a bit on my reading, and also got a few new books for Christmas.
By far the most enjoyable holiday read was an advance copy of Michael Kazin's new biography of William Jennings Bryan, A Godly Hero. I've written an extensive review of the book for The Washington Monthly's next issue. But suffice it to say that I recommend it highly, especially to those self-styled populists of the Left and Right who claim parts of Bryan's heritage while ignoring aspects of the Commoner's thinking that don't fit into their own ideologies.
Like a lot of sports junkies, I asked for and received the ESPN College Football Encyclopedia under the Christmas tree. And I suspect a lot of said junkies shared my reaction to the tome: it's fun at first, but gets boring pretty fast. Sure, it's a handy reference book for resolving arguments, but who really wants to sit around reading box scores of every bowl game in history; statistical summaries of every season; or team schedules from time immemorial? The essays that begin and end the book are pretty sketchy, and the individual team histories generally read like they were written by Sports Information Directors for the schools involved. Probably the most interesting general tidbit is the section in each team history about how they acquired their nicknames and mascots. In other words, it's a fine book to keep in the W.C.
I always get at least one theological book for Christmas, and this year's selection was Kevin Irwin's May 2005 offering, Models of the Eucharist.
It's a useful if somewhat frustrating study: useful because Irwin exhaustively examines the truth underlying a variety of historical and contemporary understandings of the central ritual of (non-evangelical) Christianity; frustrating because the book's design as an official Roman Catholic textbook gives it a didactic tone that undercuts its scope of inquiry. Still, if you're interested in this topic, Irwin's book belongs on the same shelf with Dom Gregory Dix's seminal The Shape of the Liturgy, and the playful post-Vatican II classic, Thomas Day's Why Catholics Can't Sing.
In an earlier post I lifted a quote from another book I finished reading over the holidays: Eamon Duffy's Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes. Duffy manages to pull off a credible and readable history of two thousand years of papal development in just 317 pages, and is particularly good on the tangled legacy of the Renaissance Popes and the internal Church tensions that produced the First Vatican Council and the doctrine of papal infallibility. Given his unhappiness with the authoritarian strain of Pope John Paul II's reign (the book was published in 1997), you have to wonder if Duffy will produce a revised edition assessing the significance of Joseph Ratzinger's election as Benedict XVI.
(Disclosure: I'm a big fan of Duffy's work on the Tudor Reformation, especially The Stripping of the Altars. And one of my favorite memories was the opportunity I had a couple of years ago to sit next to Duffy at High Table at Cambridge's Magdalen College, while I was there to participate in a panel discussion of neoconservatism).
The last book I undertook as 2005 waned was a golden oldie which I retrieved from a dusty bookshelf at home: Gore Vidal's 1973 novel, Burr.
Anyone who just thinks of Vidal as a cranky conspiracy theorist, a media hound, or the purveyor of tawdry novels like Myra Breckinridge, should definitely read Burr and its equally delightful sequel, 1876. These books stand alone as historical fiction of the highest order. --