Book Notes and Kindle Deals

Today I went shopping at a local thrift shop and spent less than six bucks on five CDs, one DVD, and four books. My best find: Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. I paid fifty cents for a hardback edition of the best novel I read in 2017.

Earlier in the week, on another bookstore visit, I bought a signed and dedicated copy of William Brackney’s A Genetic History of Baptist Thought for nine dollars. Why was I excited about this one? It was dedicated to Herbert H. Reynolds, who was President of Baylor University from 1981 to 1995.

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The title page, with signature, dedication, and HHR stamp.

I just finished reviewing Amazon’s Kindle deals for the month of January, and have chosen to link those I find notable. I’ll offer a sentence or two on each selection.

This is one of my favorite novels, so at $3.99 as an eBook I think it’s a steal. I’d go so far as to recommend this one as an actual book for your shelves. Berry’s depiction of a barber in the small town of Port William, Kentucky shows the meaning of vocation, community, gentleness, love of the land, and simple faith.

These are both $1.99, and either could be used as a daily devotional resource. Merton and Lewis are both insightful and worth allowing into your thought-space on a regular basis.

Rutledge has a gift with words, and she is a fantastic preacher. I have many of her books on my shelves.

I haven’t read this book, but I love Fred Rogers.

Brennan Manning has taught me a tremendous amount about God’s grace, and this book is only $1.99. Manning makes it clear that God’s love for us is far grander than we’ve imagined and that it is for everyone, even you and me.

For about the first ten years of my marriage I made it a goal to read at least one book annually on how to be a better spouse. There is another book out there by Gary Thomas that is more about those who are not married but open to be married that is also on sale, which might be of interest to some.

This week I finished Jeff Tweedy’s memoir Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back). Tweedy is a singer/songwriter, and leads my favorite band, Wilco. I also finished Ursula K. LeGuin’s So Far So Good, her final collection of poems.

Happy reading!

2018: My Year in Reading

That’s right. It’s time, once again, for everybody to sit back, relax, and enjoy my annual recap of the year in reading. This is one of the most heralded, most anticipated, and most celebrated lists published so far this year. Aren’t you glad you are reading it?

By clicking this link you are “in,” cool, hip, groovy, rad, stylin’, profilin’, rockin’, rollin’, magnificent, stunning, fantastic, prodigious, marvelous, moving, clever, keen, acute, wise, bright, brainy, canny, crafty, angelic, cherubic, seraphic, beatific, saintly, and all that jazz. Right now, by reading this, you are better looking than you were a moment ago. You have a certain aura, a glow of awesomeness. You’ve leveled up and powered up, just by reading this. You should read everything I write (subscribe!).

Prepare to have your day brightened and your mind enlightened, your interest piqued and your sensibilities tweaked–guaranteed, or your money back.

How Many Books Did I Read This Year?

My love of literature increased this year. I set a modest goal this year to read fifty books, which I exceeded by a wide margin. I read ninety five books, and that’s not counting the comics (I started taking my kids to a comic book shop once a month as a family outing), graphic novels, and my (almost) daily sit down with the newspaper and the Psalms. I read a whole lot, more than I anticipated, and discovered new authors and new stories. You can browse what I read here. I made an addition to my media log this year and included movies and television series I watched, which I mainly streamed on Amazon Prime or checked out on DVD from the local library.

What Were My Favorite Books This Year?

I’ll begin with fiction, because fiction gave me the most joy. Ursula K. Le Guin died in 2018, and after reading about her life I checked out a collection of her essays, No Time to Spare, from the local library. Soon thereafter I was led to The Left Hand of Darkness and the first three books in her Earthsea cycle (A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore). Earthsea is a fantasy tale, set in a collection of islands, involving a vast and wide ocean, with plenty of wizardry. The first book was the one I found most striking, particularly in how Le Guin wrestles with human ambition and pride, our longing for greatness, and the shadows we cast.

P. D. James’ The Children of Men is another book I immensely enjoyed. Imagine a world that suddenly experiences a stoppage in births. Time passes, and there are no children. The death of the species can be seen in the near future, and while human beings hold out hope that a technological solution will be found, none is forthcoming. What would that world be like? And what would it be like if, suddenly, one woman was found to be pregnant, and a man of lapsed Christian faith found himself in the middle of it? How would he regard the event itself? How would he navigate the obvious political implications of such an event? Those questions are addressed in the novel.

I finished Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth series by reading A Column of Fire. Pillars remains one of my favorite works, with Prior Philip being one of my favorite characters. I discovered Joe Abercrombie’s work, another fantasy writer, whose Half a King, Half the World, and Half a War are all excellent for their character development and intrigue. There is a revelation in Abercrombie’s third book I suspected in the first, and when confirmed found very satisfying. I also read Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Willa Cather’s My Antonia’, and T. H. White’s The Once and Future King.

In nonfiction, I read a great deal of political commentary. I’m trying to understand the moment, I guess. Amy Chua’s Political Tribes was insightful as was David Frum’s Trumpocracy. I enjoyed Russell Shorto’s Revolution Song as a creative work of history, and learned a great deal about the opioid epidemic by reading Sam Quinones’ Dreamland. One of the more interesting nonfiction books I read this year was by Bill and Rachel James called The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery. Yes, Bill James of baseball’s statistical revolution, and yes, together with his daughter they piece together a series of ax murders from the early 1900s that appear to be connected, then offer their best guess at who was behind them all.

In the area of personal development and self-improvement, I really enjoyed reading Arnold Schwarzenegger’s autobiography, Total Recall. Those who know me well know I love Arnold. Bodybuilding, movies, politics, and, believe it or not, there is a lot of practical wisdom in this book. I also enjoyed Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work!, Max DePree’s Leadership is an Art, and Damon Young’s The Art of Reading.

There is one last nonfiction book that stands out: Why Should the Devil Have all the Good Music? Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock, by Gregory Alan Thornbury. I didn’t know anything about Larry Norman, or at least I thought I didn’t, but through reading this book I was able to see his influence in the music I was familiar with, both in mainstream rock and in the Christian music industry. I spent time listening to his stuff on Spotify.

I read a lot of Christian literature this year, as I always do, consuming a lot of trade books and a few works of biblical and theological studies. I wrote short reviews of many of the Christian books I read on Amazon. The book that has remained with me most has been Ben Myers’ short book The Apostle’s Creed: A Guide to the Ancient Catechism, which I found to be brilliantly written, theologically insightful, and historically rich. I also enjoyed Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited for the very first time, Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor, and Eugene Peterson’s collection of sermons, As Kingfishers Catch Fire.

Two works of theology stick out in my mind: Rene Girard’s I See Satan Fall Like Lightning and Beth Felker Jones’ Marks of His Wounds. James Bryan Smith’s The Magnificent Journey was a clearly written, encouraging read, and Gary Moon’s biography of Dallas Willard, Becoming Dallas Willard are two other books I am likely to return to in the years ahead.

Did You Hate Anything?

Yes. Yes I did.

Hate is probably too strong a word. This year I became a little better at putting down books that aren’t paying off. But there are a few I read cover to cover that I didn’t overwhelmingly enjoy: two books by N. T. Wright (God in Public and The Day the Revolution Began), Anne Lamott’s Hallelujah Anyway, and Dan Pink’s When. I also didn’t care much for Jordan Peterson’s Twelve Rules for Life. Peterson is an interesting fellow and he is saying some things that I guess need to be said, but I think his popularity says more about the void of the moment than it does the profundity of his prose.

What Are you Reading Right Now?

I’m reading Andrew Delbanco‘s The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War. Next up will be Jeff Tweedy’s Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back), a memoir of his life as a musician. Tweedy is most notable as the frontman for WILCO, my favorite band (“Dad Rock”). Beyond that, I have a couple of titles to read for review, and plenty of stuff I’ve yet to dig in to on my shelves at home. I also have a long list of titles I’ve bookmarked at the local library.

What Did I Learn From My Reading Experience This Year?

I gained two major insights. The first is that I deeply love fiction, and I have a surprising appreciation for fantasy literature. I’ve neglected fiction for too long, and I need to spend more time reading the great novels already resting on my shelves, waiting for me, calling to me.

The second insight is that I need to be more selective. Qoheleth tells us in Ecclesiastes 12:12, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” There are so many books! What’s more, there are so many great ones! I do not have time to read them all. No one does. So I need to be choosy. I need to spend time reading Barth, Kierkegaard, and Augustine, not to mention Aquinas, Dostoyevsky, and Shakespeare. I may read far fewer books this year, but come away far richer.

That’s my goal. I guess you’ll find out how I did next year, next edition, same Bat-Time, same Bat-Channel.

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

The Magnificent Journey is Magnificent

One of my favorite books of this past year was The Magnificent Journey: Living Deep in the Kingdom by James Bryan Smith. Journey is the second in Smith’s latest trilogy of books, preceded by The Magnificent Story (2017) and to be followed by The Magnificent Mission, releasing in fall of 2019.

The Magnificent Journey addresses a lack found often in Christian history, but particularly in our moment: among those professing faith in Jesus, too few embrace discipleship to Jesus, which is learning the way of life with Jesus. Smith uses the metaphor of journey to remind us that in the kingdom of God there is always a sense that we are on the move, keeping in step with Jesus as he calls to us, “Follow me!”

If Jesus is leading, then we are following. We are not “in charge.” Obedience is part of this way of life, and one of Jesus’ commands is to take up a cross. The Christian life, paradoxically, involves death to self in order to find life that lasts, a life fully alive to God. We must “surrender,” but not only once. Smith explains that surrender is not only an action taking place at conversion, but that surrender is also a way, a daily decision to yield oneself to God, to trust, and to follow.

Smith expands this idea to show that it is through surrender that we learn “to grow in the grace and knowledge of God.” In other words, by surrendering our faith grows. We learn, through experience, that God is good and can be trusted. This is not always easy.

Life involves suffering. Sometimes we experience tragedy. Smith is no stranger to this truth, and he tells of how God has used his own heartaches and heartbreaks in life for good. Smith does not minimize the magnitude of pain, nor deny the depth of our wounds, but instead points to Jesus and reminds us of the comfort found in worshiping a God who is well acquainted with grief, suffering, and death, yet who overcame those realities in the resurrection, and who promises us everlasting life.

The remainder of the book expands on this idea: that through surrender to Jesus we are led to experience life as God intended it for us. The way of surrender calls us to live our lives “from above,” or from the perspective and power of God and the everlasting kingdom. As we do so we learn to listen to God first (and, consequently, to others more carefully), to develop a deep, abiding trust by walking in faith, to live with hope, to demonstrate love, and to experience deep joy. Smith contends that this is the life God has for us. It is the life Jesus came to demonstrate for us, and to deliver to us. It is a life we receive through faith, by grace, so that God can use us for good.

Smith’s greatest authorial virtue is found in his gentle, pastoral style, with which he effectively conveys historical, biblical, and theological insight. Professor Smith has clearly spent time listening, observing, and tending to those around him, beginning with his family, church community, students, and those who share his cultural moment. He has identified many of the ideas that keep people from embracing God, from responding to the love of God extended to us through Jesus Christ. I have long admired this quality in Smith’s writing, speaking, and teaching ministry. Smith displays this virtue in this book.

Of all Smith’s books, this is my favorite thus far. I recommend it.

On Christmas morning…

On Christmas morning, when I got down to the kitchen, the men were just coming in from their morning chores–the horses and pigs always had their breakfast before we did. Jake and Otto shouted, ‘Merry Christmas!’ to me, and winked at each other when they saw the waffle-irons on the stove. Grandfather came down, wearing a white shirt and his Sunday coat. Morning prayers were longer than usual. He read the chapters from Saint Matthew about the birth of Christ, and as we listened, it all seemed like something that had happened lately, and near at hand. In his prayer he thanked the Lord for the first Christmas, and for all that it had meant to the world ever since. He gave thanks for our food and comfort, and prayed for the poor and destitute in great cities, where the struggle for life was harder than it was here with us. Grandfather’s prayers were often very interesting. He had the gift of simple and moving expression.  Because he talked so little, his words had a peculiar force; they were not worn dull from constant use. His prayers reflected what he was thinking about at the time, and it was chiefly through them that we got to know his feelings and his views about things.

– From Willa Cather’s My ‘Antonia, 84-85, emphasis mine

The Devastating Effect of Book Burning

Burning books is an inefficient way to conduct a war, since books and libraries have no military value, but it is a devastating act. Destroying a library is a kind of terrorism. People think of libraries as the safest and most open places in society. Setting them on fire is like announcing that nothing, and nowhere, is safe. The deepest effect of burning books is emotional. When libraries burn, the books are sometimes described as being “wounded” or as “casualties,” just as human beings would be.

Books are a sort of cultural DNA, the code for who, as a society, we are, and what we know. All the wonders and failures, all the champions and villains, all the legends and ideas and revelations of a culture last forever in its books. Destroying those books is a way of saying that the culture itself no longer exists; its history has disappeared; the continuity between its past and its future is ruptured. Taking books away from a culture is to take away its shared memory. It’s like taking away the ability to remember your dreams. Destroying a culture’s books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never lived.

– Susan Orlean, The Library Book