“I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once.”
– C.S. Lewis
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary masterpiece, “The Lord of the Rings,” Frodo Baggins, an unlikely hero, learns of the return of Sauron, an evil spirit who is amassing a great army to rule the world.
The fate of Middle-earth depends on the little hobbit’s quest to venture into the heart of Mordor and destroy in the fires of Mount Doom the ring of power that has come into his possession, and with it, the power of Sauron.
He is willing, but filled with doubt, and he confides in Gandalf the wizard.
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I, said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
When I was in high school in the 1970s, some of my friends were reading Tolkien’s novels, but I couldn’t understand their fascination with what I thought were children’s stories.
It wasn’t until 2001, when I visited England and read newspaper stories about Peter Jackson’s upcoming movie series based on “Lord of the Rings,” that I bought and devoured the three volumes of the 1,000-page novel, along with the companion stories, “The Hobbit” and “The Silmarillion,” and Humphrey Carpenter’s authorized biography of the author.
In 2021, I again read “The Lord of the Rings,” but with new eyes.
The first time I read the passage quoted above, I thought of Gandalf’s advice as wise words of encouragement to rise to the occasion in difficult times. That was right after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, so that’s how it made sense to me.
There also was some of that this year. These are trying times for people of good will. We are weary of a plague that has disrupted our lives and killed millions. We are still stunned by the attempted violent overthrow of our democracy by a mad demagogue and his gullible followers. We are alarmed by the threats posed by the return of tyranny in Russia and China and those nations’ expansionist designs.
But this time in reading the book, I also paid more attention to the part that prophecy plays in the story, including the preordained purpose of the Ring-bearer, who, despite the old stories, is given free will to choose whether he will play his role in the epic struggle of good against evil.
There are spiritual and theological themes throughout the book that are easy to overlook on first reading.
At this time of year, many newspapers and magazines contain commentaries listing journalists’ choices of the best books of the year. This isn’t one of those. Instead, every year since I graduated from college, I have kept a list of the books I’ve read that year, and for many years, I have written an end-of-the-year column about them.
Of the 30 I read this year, 10 besides “The Lord of the Rings” were books I had read at least once before.
C.S. Lewis defined an “unliterary man” as one who reads a good book and doesn’t delve into it again because he thinks he has already gotten everything it has to offer the first time through.
“I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once,” he said.
Nor can I.
Here are the books, new and old, that I read and enjoyed in 2021:
- A Promised Land – Barack Obama
- Apeirogon – Colum McCann
- The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien
- J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography – Humphrey Carpenter
- All About the Story: News, Power, Politics and The Washington Post – Leonard Downie Jr.
- John Marshall: The Chief Justice Who Saved the Nation – Giles Harlow Unger
- Henry Clay: America’s Greatest Statesman – Giles Harlow Unger
- The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
- Boone: A Biography – Robert Morgan
- Boonesborough Unearthed: Frontier Archaeology at a Revolutionary Fort – Nancy O’ Malley
- On Juneteenth – Annette Gordon-Reed
- Mayflies – Andrew O’ Hagan
- Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We’ve Left Behind – Grace Olmstead
- Emily’s Ghost – Denise Giardina
- Clay’s Quilt – Silas House
- Southernmost – Silas House
- Twilight in Hazard: An Appalachian Reckoning – Alan Maimon
- Paper Boy: Giving My Heart to Journalism – Don White
- Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland – Patrick Radden Keefe
- North – Seamus Heaney
- A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini
- Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA – Amaryllis Fox
- This Country: My Life in Politics and History – Chris Matthews
- Peril – Bob Woodward and Robert Costa
- Our Town – Thornton Wilder
- The Yellow Leaves: A Miscellany – Frederick Buechner
- Wholehearted Faith – Rachel Held Evans with Jeff Chu
- George W. Bush – James Mann
- Goodness and Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas – edited by Michael Leach, James Keane and Doris Goodnough
- An Irish Country Yuletide – Patrick Taylor