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?
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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?