I don't read many novels, but I picked up Middlemarch recently after reading an essay about George Eliot by Gertrude Himmelfarb. It struck me as kind of a woman's book, but I loved it, all 800-plus pages of it. (Yes, I know the author was a woman.) Middlemarch is so good that I bought copies for two of my daughters and one of them, Grace, actually read it. Anyway, it's an extraordinary book with brilliantly conceived characters who've stayed in mind every day in the months since I read it. So, to put it mildly, I recommend Middlemarch.
The best non-fiction book of 2007, for me anyway, is What's So Great About Christianity by Dinesh D'Souza. This a great work, both wise and learned, in defense of Christianity against the current crop of atheists, people who think science has nullified religion, skeptics of one sort or another, intellectual snobs, and wishy-washy Christians. D'Souza takes on every argument you've ever heard (and some you haven't) against Christianity. The book is bound to an instant classic, though I'd always rejected the notion of such a thing. But I suspect Christians and seekers and curious agnostics and maybe a few soft atheists and who knows who else will be reading What's So Great About Christianity decades from now, just as so many read Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis today.
Since I'm new to this feature, let me recommend a book I always extol--but, I confess, haven't read during the past year: Hermit of Peking: The Hidden Life of Sir Edmund Backhouse by Hugh Trevor-Roper. Backhouse was a member of a prominent English Quaker family (his brother, ironically, was an
admiral) who, after washing out of Oxford, turned up in Peking in the late 1890s. He stayed in China until his death during World War II, slowly retreating from public view, going progressively native, issuing a couple of authoritative accounts of modern (late 19th/early 20th century) Chinese history, and donating 20,000-plus rare Chinese volumes to Oxford's Bodleian Library. But, as Trevor-Roper illustrates, Backhouse was also a supreme confidence man: A sexual pervert and professional pornographer, as well as a forger, his most famous work (China Under the Empress Dowager, written with JOP Bland, published in 1910, and still cited in journalism and scholarship) was based on diaries and documents Backhouse invented. His entire career was spent seeking to defraud the British government, Chinese officialdom, foreign correspondents, and British businesses located in China, all the while hiding behind his well-constructed façade as a scholarly eccentric, historical expert, and academic benefactor.
Trevor-Roper's account of Backhouse's astonishing history is written in his characteristically laconic style, and his gradual reconstruction of events is an extraordinary feat of scholarly detective work and a thoroughly delightful, and compelling, read.
The best book I read this year was Radical Son, David Horowitz's gripping memoir of his conversion from a Marxist world view to a conservative one. It's already ten years old, but I predict it will still be read a century from now--and not just by historians of the 1960s or of the American left. It is a deeply moving, acutely observed account of an inner transformation touching every dimension of one man's life--political, intellectual, moral, personal. And the fact that it's also a murder mystery doesn't hurt a bit.