I’m always a sucker for “best books of the year” blogs (some of my favorites are here, here, and here). Below represents my favorite books I read this year. This is not limited to books that were published this year, but simply books I read this year. But before that a brief word on the pleasure and problem of reading.
The Pleasure and Problem of Books
I love reading books. They are a profound aid to my ministry, to my understanding of God’s Word and His world, to helping me grow in empathy and understanding of others I am unfamiliar with, and the generally make my life more full, more enjoyable. I think good writing is the closest thing to magic we have today. However, there is also an insidious problem that comes with lists like these below. I am reminded of Screwtape’s advice to Wormwood:
The man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the world, for its own sake, and without caring twopence what other people say about it, is by that very fact fore-armed against some of our subtlest modes of attack. You should always try to make the patient abandon the people or food or books he really likes in favour of the “best” people, the “right” food, the “important” books.C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters, Chapter 13
Perhaps the list of books below piques your interest, perhaps not. That’s fine. While there is something to be said about pushing ourselves into reading challenging books, don’t fall into the subtle vanity of assuming that my books, or any list of books, represents the “important” books that must be read. Read what you enjoy. Remember the preacher’s advice: Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. – Ecclesiastes 12:12.
10. Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman
Written in 1985, but could have been written yesterday. The book makes an argument that our information technologies are slowly numbing us into deeper and deeper forms of stupidity. “People will come to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.” Read my thoughts from Postman on “online church” here.
9. Breaking the Social Media Prism by Chris Bail
I read this on Tim Keller’s recommendation about how to understand polarization in our country. Many people lament that social media is not good for us, but here we have some hard data. Chris Bail is a computational analyst that ran a series of online experiments to demonstrate how our social media platforms are (by design) fueling the great rift in our social fabric. For a long time we have been told that what people online need is simply to be exposed to a wider perspective of views to help the problem with polarization. Turns out, that isn’t true. Read my review here.
8. More than a Battle by Joe Rigney
There are no shortage of books on counseling men how to best approach the issue of sexual immorality, pornography, masturbation, etc. But I found Rigney’s book to be a wonderful balance of theology, pastoral wisdom, and practical help. This is now my go to resource to recommend when encouraging brothers who are caught in the battle.
7. Hail Mary/The Martian by Andy Weir
This is cheating because it is technically two books, but they are so similar that I just lumped them together. Both are works of fiction about individual astronauts trapped alone out in space and forced to rely on a boyscout-esque level of preparedness to survive what no one should survive. Weir somehow can make math, science, and physics remarkably interesting, humorous, and human. Both of these books were so fun and so gripping, I read them both within a few days. (I recommend the audio book for Hail Mary).
6. Divided We Fall by David French
If you have ever thought that America is so hopelessly divided we would be better off by just splitting into two different countries, read this book. French will show you both how that is very realistically possible, but also what unconscionable costs that comes with. The three chapters on the hypothetical scenarios of secession are worth the entire book.
5. Justice by Michael J. Sandel
Sandel was a Harvard professor who taught an undergraduate level course called “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do” for several years. This book takes that class and expands on it. This is a fantastic resource for understanding (1) how complicated justice is, and (2) the need for religious arguments in creating a just society. It is impossible, Sandel persuasively argues, to create a just society without appealing in some way to religious notions. The book is a survey of various attempts to define justice, starting with Bentham, Mill, Kant, Aristotle, and Rawls. The book is not Christian by any means, but Christians would do well to read this.
4. Men and Women in the Church by Kevin DeYoung
An excellent, accessible overview of what the Bible teaches about gender and gender roles. My “go-to” resource now when a church member asks about headship-submission, complimentarianism, and gender. Read my full review here.
3. The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass
“I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity.” A powerful, beautifully written true story of the great abolitionist and former slave, Douglass, growing up in the antebellum South as a slave and escaping into freedom in the North. If you want a visceral picture of what slavery was like in the South, here you go.
2. Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry
Hands down one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. A moving piece of fiction that serves as a homage to the quiet beauty of Creation and community that the last half of the 20th century and beyond has erased. The book follows the life of the barber of Port William, Jayber Crow. It is, in some sense, a book that has very little in the sense of a typical plot. There is no jarring incident, no great upheaval that requires resolution. The book is slow, contemplative, and in a sense is about everything. In this book you’ll find reflections on God, farming, selfishness, trees, marriage, grit, church, children, and so much more. I wanted to be more like Jayber after reading this, but was convicted of how much I am like Troy. It is likely not a book for everyone, but it made me want to talk about myself much less and enjoy the “is-ness” of everything else around me.
1. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl R. Trueman
I enjoyed this book so much I read it twice this year. Why does the sentence “I am a man trapped in a woman’s body” make sense to us? We may disagree with it, be outraged by, or love that sentence–but why is that sentence meaningful, discernible to us when it would have appeared entirely non-sensical to most generations that have gone before us. Trueman’s book is an attempt to provide the philosophical history, starting 400 years ago with Rousseau, for why that sentence makes sense to us today. The transgender phenomenon is the by-product of centuries of Western thought where, according to Trueman, the concept of the “self” was psychologized, psychology was then sexualized, and then sex was politicized. If you want to respond thoughtfully to the newest iteration of the sexual revolution, you need to understand the history. It is a bit dense at times, and may be intimidating if you are unfamiliar with any philosophy, but it is well, well worth the effort.(Trueman has a shorter version of this book coming in 2022 called Strange New World that should be more accessible) A helpful review here.
Books I am Currently Reading That I Enjoy
- Deeper: Real Change for Real Sinners by Dane Ortlund. This is a sort of unofficial sequel to Ortlund’s superb Gentle and Lowly, to this day one of the best books I have ever read (a book I read again this year). Deeper wants to take Ortlund’s wisdom he has gleaned from the Puritans displayed in his previous work, but apply it to our sanctification. The second chapter of the book “Despair” was itself worth the price of the book.
- The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. I attempted to listen to this book years ago and gave up about halfway through. All of the variations of Russian names left me so confused and Dostoevsky’s writing isn’t exactly simple. But last year I read this article from First Things that spurred me on to give it another go. So I bought a physical copy and have used it as my “book before bed” reading for the past year, and I am so glad I did. I am almost finished with the book and, though I already know how it ends, I can’t put it down. In this book you will find the most persuasive argument for why God does not exist and find no “smack down” rebuttal to it directly–but the entire book, beautifully, is itself a rebuttal. Reading Dostoevsky (and all Russian writers, for that matter) is a unique experience. He isn’t always linear with his narrative, and at times the behavior of his characters is baffling. However, Dostoevsky has a remarkable ability of describing the inner psychological life of sinful people (second only to Lewis in his Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce). And while it has a steep learning curve, once you get the hang of the Russian names, the story itself is very gripping.
- The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell–both an advertisement for, and criticism of, socialism by a socialist himself. I have always loved Orwell’s novels, but while this isn’t a novel it still has Orwell’s incomparable writing style. Well worth it.
- Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity―and Why This Harms Everybody Hardcover by James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose–a deep dive into critical theory and the social justice movement from two critics. The authors are not Christians, so there are places I disagree, but on the whole was helped by this book. A helpful review here.
- 10 Questions of Every Teen Should (and Answer) About Christianity by Rebecca MacLaughlin–Tim Keller for Gen-Z, read my review here.
- Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters by Abigail Shrier–a WSJ journalist writes about the skyrocketing statistics on adolescent girls self-identifying as trans. Not a Christian book, but lots of helpful data and first hand stories. A genuinely heartbreaking book. A helpful review here.
- The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton–a remarkable true story of an innocent man who spent 30 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. It is a frustrating read in some ways; frustrating at the displays of racism and systems that seem bent towards injustice. But it is also a beautiful story of courage, resilience, and humanity.
- A Promised Land by Barack Obama–I have never read a book by a president before, so I found this fascinating simply as an inside look into what it was like being a president. It was also eye-opening to see just how little power the president has (at least, “little” in comparison to how much power he is commonly understood to have). While I didn’t vote for Obama (and disagree with much he stands for), by the end of the book I still found myself liking him as a person. Is the book a little self-congratulatory? Sure. But what memoir isn’t?