This feels like it's been a long year, and I wanted to list off every book I read during it, or tried to read, along with brief comments on each.
>The Witcher series (first two books)
Finished the first one, and partway through the second. These two are collections of independently published short stories. They're pretty good fantasy fiction - not spectacular, but written with good craft. The premise of a superhuman mutant who wanders medieval not-Poland slaying monsters is great for fantasy vignettes. You quickly get a sense for the personalities of the important characters, and they all act believably based on the situations they're put in. These situations are arranged skillfully to heighten tension and character drama.
The world itself is too generic to be all that interesting, and I get the same feeling I got when first playing Dragon Age: Origins - why should I care about this completely unoriginal fantasy world, which lacks any of the haunting mythic beauty of its ultimate origin in Tolkien? But like DAO, the story and characters grabbed me enough to keep me going, and I'll keep reading the books.
>The Aztec, by Garry Jennings
Superb historical fiction. I can nitpick about a lot of things, but he did a very good job of portraying pre-Columbian Mexico as a living, breathing, alien-yet-familiar, beautiful world. If someone created a fantasy universe identical to old Mexico, people would probably reject it as being too weird and unbelievable.
>The Shahnameh (about half of it?)
I picked up a prose translation, as I have no stomach for English verse, especially not at book length. Despite being an adaptation from verse, it was surprisingly readable, until it got bogged down in a long series of filler arcs that are of little importance to Iranian myth. In the best parts, the haunting beauty that marks every good myth of doomed heroes shone through.
As far as I know, I was nearing the end of the pure mythical/epic cycle, and approaching the part that deals with a mythologized version of Sassanid history. I'll probably return to it at some point, but this is a case where I really want a bilingual version so I can follow the original. Sadly, all of these omit the fucking vowel markings in the Persian, so if you don't already know archaic literary language 100%, you won't even be able to pronounce it, which is kind of important for rhyming verse...
Overall, I strongly recommend the Shahnameh for someone interested in heroic myth, especially if you can find a verse translation that you can get into. It's no Iliad, but it's probably at least the equal of any other verse epic out there.
I can't recall reading any other fiction this year. Most of my reading was historical works, with my demand for fiction being filled by movies, tv serials, and video games.
I didn't expect this to form a category of its own, but I've done more reading on this matter this year than I have since I was a teenager. tl;dr I take non-materialism more seriously than I did before.
>Memoirs of St. Peter
A translation of the Gospel of Mark that aims to rigorously preserve the tense, aspect, and tone of the original Greek, which is closer to a one-sided casual conversation than it is to elevated literary prose. For this reason, the translator and many other scholars take seriously the idea that the Gospel of Mark is actually in large part the direct words of St. Peter, as dictated to St. Mark.
I haven't been religious for over 10 years, but this intrigued me enough to read the book. The translation very much feels like an old man recalling the events of his youth to a scribe, and I'm largely convinced that at least some of the real words of Simon Peter are included in the Gospel of Mark.
It produced a stronger emotional reaction in me than I expected. I still don't believe in the wider scaffold of Christian belief, but this produces a feeling for Jesus as a real person with a genuinely sacred vision than any other religion's prophet. Of course, the casual mention of miracles clashes with my natural skepticism, and if this is really a first-hand account by one of the closest companions of Jesus, it invites you to either dismiss the entire narrative, dismiss the narrators as selectively delusional, or accept the reality of miracles. Every other case of miracle literature was easy to dismiss as delusion and propaganda, but the credibility of this source feels fundamentally different.
Ultimately, I want to cop-out with the idea that I still have too much emotionally invested in the matter to evaluate it independently. The easiest solution is to simply dismiss the narrator(s) as unreliable, and putting down the words at too far a removal from the events described, but this feels too easy.
>Deliverance from Error, by Al-Ghazali
This experience prompted a more serious examination of religion and spiritual experiences. Al-Ghazali is probably the smartest and most intellectually consistent theologian in the history of Islam, and Deliverance from Error is his account of his personal struggles with religion and the long process that led to his firm belief in Islamic orthodoxy.
He correctly realized that everyone just follows the religion of their parents, and he had a huge crisis of faith due to his inability to justify his belief in Islam, despite already being a highly respected jurist and academic on Islamic thought. He went through a brief period of complete epistemic meltdown, essentially stuck at the point of "like, how can I even know anything, man?", before conquering it and moving on to an autistically thorough study and refutation of every school of thought that competed with Islamic orthodoxy.
Except Sufism. Ghazali played a huge role in integrating Sufi thought and practice into orthodox Islam. His point was, essentially, the rational arguments are ultimately insufficient to justify religion, and the direct personal experience of higher levels of existence and the divine are of fundamental importance. In my opinion, at least, he actually makes a convincing case for taking claims of supernatural experience seriously. I do not, however, think he makes any convincing case for Islam, because the kinds of mystical experiences he ascribes to Sufis are not exclusive to Muslim mystics. I think he recognized that he wasn't making a good case for Islam in particular, because toward the end of the work he abandons the extremely meticulous detailing of his thought process that characterized the first part of the work.
Ultimately, after these two works, I'm more sympathetic to a non-materialist worldview, although I remain skeptical because I recognize that I have an emotional investment in recognizing a non-materialist worldview.