So many reports on the current cultural scene—especially but not only those coming from Christian sources—are unrelentingly grim, written with a tone of world-weary disgust. I think that virtually all readers of Books & Culture will agree that there is plenty to be distressed and disgusted about (and when hasn't that been true?). Certainly in the world of books there is a lot of trash, including some very high-faluting garbage. But—or so at least it seems to me—there is also more worthy of attention than anyone has time or energy to comprehend.
In year-end lists like this, there is a danger at the opposite pole from reflexive doom-and-gloom. I hate lists of books that seem to be mere puffery, an extension of marketing. Even worse, perhaps, are those which resemble the self-satisfied connoisseurship of so much wine-writing. (This compelling novel has hints of pine and birch, with an undertone of Beckett and cinnamon.) And yet it occurs to me that a wine critic with a well-trained nose and palate—one who says "I liked this wine, and that one; you can take a pass on this high-priced one, though" —performs a real service. It's called "wine-tasting" for a reason; there's an irreducible element of taste in our response to wine or fiction or music. But we welcome a reliable guide to the bewildering array of choices, without assuming that we will in every respect share his taste.
So here are some books in various categories that stand out among the several thousand I have seen this year. Descriptions are minimal by necessity; we have to move at warp speed. (Next week we'll feature the Top Ten, and the following week we'll conclude the year by looking ahead to some forthcoming books from 2004.)
Let's start with several books by writers ...1