2020: My Year in Reading

This year, at least I’ve had books. Praise God! Annus horribilis is a Latin phrase that means “horrible year,” and seeing that nine out of ten physicians agree that this year called for more Latin, I thought I’d deploy it here. I don’t know Latin, but sophisticates and intellectuals I like to read have thrown this phrase hither and yon in these last days, so I picked it up, added it to my lexicon and began throwing it around myself. Why? I want to win friends and influence people.

I’ve tracked my books for the past ten years. Whoa! My last decade of reading is here.

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How Many Books Did I Read This Year?

My goal this year was to read 65 books. Turns out I had a little more time, hit the power-up button for reading speed, or grew a little more motivated. I made it to 86*. The first book I finished this year was the splendidly bearded John Michael Talbot’s The Jesus Prayer and the last book I finished was Charles C. W. Cooke’s Conservatarian Manifesto. I’m still reading comics on a regular basis: Detective Comics: BatmanGuardians of the GalaxyMiles Morales: Spider-ManX-Men, and Wolverine.

Here is the link to the full list of books I read this year, again, just in case you missed it.

I watched a lot of movies this year, too. Full length features, a lot of older films, documentaries, action, drama, and science fiction. When the global pandemic shut down professional sports, I cancelled our streaming television service, Sling. We signed on with Disney+ and bundled Hulu+ and ESPN+, and opened an account with Kanopy (free with my Baylor ID, since this service is available through the university’s library system). We have had Amazon Prime Video for several years. I had plenty of viewing options. The Disney+ subscription introduced my kids to Home Alone, and I was glad to see Star Wars be all it could be in The Mandalorian. The finale to season two was everything a fan could ask for, despite the villains being paper tigers.

Among my favorite films this year: The Sandlot, Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back, Kansas City Confidential, Alien, Predator, Crazy Rich Asians, You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, Ford vs. Ferrari, Loving Vincent, Boxing Gym, Waco: Rules of Engagement, and Rashomon. The worst movies I watched were Alita: Battle Angel, Turbo Kid, and Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey.

What Were My Favorite Books This Year?

I read Gregory White Smith and Steven Naifeh’s Van Gogh: The Life. Why? I was inspired to do so by my art teacher, Chad Hines. A few Van Gogh prints now hang on my office wall.

I read several excellent works of nonfiction: S. C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon, Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, Thomas Sowell’s The Quest for Cosmic Justice, and Shelby Steele’s Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country. I really enjoyed Alan Jacob’s Breaking Bread With the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind and was compelled by the argument presented by Ross Douthat in his The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success.

My poet of choice was Seamus Heaney.

The best book on the Christian life I read was Sarah Ruden’s translation of Augustine’s Confessions. I read Karl Barth’s Dogmatics I.1. I liked the much celebrated Ruthless Elimination of Hurry by John Mark Comer, though it is not without its problems. Richard Lovelace’s Dynamics of Spiritual Life is brilliant, and while it does slow down in sections, and it is certainly not for every person, it contains numerous insights for anyone interested in spiritual theology, discipleship, church renewal and revival, and spiritual formation. The best Christian leadership book I read, hands down, was Tod Bolsinger’s Tempered Resilience.

I read several novels. Among my favorites: Alex Landragin’s Crossings, Jose Saramago’s Blindness (a perfect read in a plague year), Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter (slow beginning, but incredible depth, particularly its development of religious themes), and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. I am also very glad I read Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

The best book I read this year was Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. I did not want it to end. I’ll recommend it to everyone until my death, and likely revisit it in a few years, Lord willing. A close second: Stephen Harrigan’s Big Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas. Let the words ring out: “God bless you, Texas! And keep you brave and strong, That you may grow in power and worth, Thro’out the ages long.”

Did You Hate Anything?

I didn’t care much for Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence or Sharon Olds’ Arias or Richard Blanco’s How to Love a Country. I didn’t like Steve Wilkens’ What’s So Funny About God? A Theological Look at Humor or Walter Brueggemann’s Materiality as Resistance or James K. A. Smith’s On the Road with Saint Augustine. George Will’s Conservative Sensibility was not that interesting (Will’s argument against theism was a yawner). Despite hearing people rave about Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit for years I found it blah. Bret Easton Ellis’ Glamorama was stupid, but maybe that was the point. James Fowler’s Stages of Faith, which I had been told many good things about, didn’t live up to the hype.

What Are You Reading Right Now?

Donald Worster’s A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir is my only active read, but I’ll soon pick up C. J. Sansom’s Tombland and Jerry Seinfeld’s Is This Anything?

What Did I Learn from My Experience Reading This Year?

My tastes are changing. I’m reading more history and more fiction, more poetry, and I’m particularly drawn to the novel. I like reading American history, and political philosophy. I have several nonfiction books lined up on my shelves, and I plan to spend some time this next year with the classics, like Homer, Horace, and Seneca.

What are you reading, and what should I add to my list?

* An earlier version of this post recorded I had read 85 books this year. But I had forgotten to note the completion of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden on my list! That’s a tremendous oversight, because I absolutely loved that book. Why? Because of what Steinbeck brings forth for discussion concerning human nature.

3 thoughts on “2020: My Year in Reading

  1. Thanks Ben….I am a big Lonesome Dove fan also. Each time I read it I think, Why did I miss that.

    On your recommendation I read “Feast of the Lamb” and I have ordered several Steinbech books.

    Right now I am almost finished with Vol 1 of a trilogy on the war in the Pacific. This book reads well and has so much from so many different sources.

    If you liked Empire of the Summer Moon, I would recommend “Blood and Thunder”….it is the history of the Navajo and Apache tribes and what all went on in New Mexico and Colorado.

    So much of history is so meaningful and I ask the question, why didn’t I learn that?


    1. First, you made me realize that I failed to record Steinbeck’s East of Eden on my list! That’s a big mistake, because that’s an important book to me, a book that gave me a great deal to consider and think about, especially regarding human nature.

      Second, Blood and Thunder sits on my shelves. I bought it not long after I picked up a copy of Empire of the Summer Moon. I’m looking forward to learning more about Kit Carson. Since you’re reading a collection about war in the Pacific theater, do you have recommendations on other accounts of military history?

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