Mark Sarvas’s debut novel Harry, Revised, compared by the Chicago Tribune to Updike and Roth, has been sold in more than a dozen countries. He is also the host of internationally renowned litblog The Elegant Variation, and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. His criticism has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, the Dallas Morning News, the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Threepenny Review and elsewhere.
Well, my favorite book of this year – of quite a few years – is Joseph O’Neill’s magisterial Netherland but it’s been deservedly praised everywhere, so I will save my word count for a less well-publicized book. And a non-fiction title, to boot. Rob Riemen’s Nobility of Spirit: A Forgotten Ideal was my surprise of 2008, a slender but dense cri de coeur from Yale University Press. It hit my radar around the same time that Sarah Palin hit ours, and I could think of no more stirring rebuttal to the proud ignorance she represents than Riemen’s heartfelt pitch for the grand old values of Western Civ. The author, founder of the Nexus Institute, a European humanist think-tank, populates his crash course in the great thinkers with the likes of Socrates and Thomas Mann, and I can think of no better book for the President-elect’s bedside table. Nobility of Spirit argues (among other things) that the pursuit of High Thought will always – must always – trump the pursuit of Fleeting Gain. (And as we move uncertainly through a historic meltdown of our financial infrastructure, we see just how fleeting it can be.) In the end, Riemen argues, high ideals (embodied by art) are as essential as food and shelter. The examined self never seemed so timely. (And, as a bonus title, I finally got around to Ed Hirsch’s glorious How To Read a Poem and Fall In Love with Poetry, a book that makes me want to grab my Norton anthology and read every poem out loud. To be passionate about literature is unfashionable in too many quarters these days; Hirsch is an essential corrective.)