I am ambivalent about posting a best of 2017 list. My books are not, for the most part books that were published in 2017. And what is best, or most important for me, is unlikely to be the best for anyone else. So this is a recounting of what is important, but not really what was ‘best’. I would probably come up with a slightly different list on a different day. Overall I read 101 books in 2017, roughly two-thirds were non-fiction.
Two rough themes emerge as I looked back on the year. One is an exploration of race and history in the United States and the other is a seeking out of wisdom in memoirs.
The memoirs are far easier to look at. Madeleine L’Engle, over a 20 year period wrote four memoirs that are together called the Crosswick Journals. They will be books that I read again in the future. I have appreciated L’Engle as a great young adult author, but I had not really explored the range of her writing. Many of her books have been out of print and over the past year have been reissued in ebook versions. It is because of these new editions that I stumbled across the Crosswick Journals.
They start with A Circle of Quiet, which is roughly about creativity, writing, family, and seeking wisdom from life. The second, The Summer of the Great Grandmother, is her memories of her life that are brought about by the dying of her mother. The third, The Irrational Season, is a riff off of the liturgical year and what that structure has brought to her life. The last, Two Part Invention, is about her husband and their life together as he grew sick and eventually passed away. I also read three of her fiction books. The best of which I think was A Live Coal in the Sea, but none of which I think were among her best books.
The other two memoirs that were worth reading are Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering by Makoto Fujimura, which yes, was on last year’s list of most important books. But I read it again and then read his Culture Care, which is also worth reading. Fujimura’s focus on what art and culture bring to life and faith are important. And it is largely because of his work that I want to read more about the concept of beauty this next year.
The other memoir that was worth reading is Stanley Hauerwas’ Hannah’s Child. Part of what is important in this memoir is the reminder that as much as a person may be doing important things or thinking great thoughts, they are still human and still likely have regular human failings and problems. Hauerwas’ long marriage to a severely mentally ill wife had an impact on this theology and work in both positive and negative ways. But without a memoir or some other writing by him about it, only gossip or maybe a future biography would prompt me to remember how much brokenness is part of our life as Christians in the same way. (This is still on sale for $1.99 on kindle.)
The exploration of race and history is a much harder picture to paint. Race matters today and it matters today in large part because of the history of our country. What I never did write up, but it part of my history this year is a David Blight’s Yale history course on the Civil War and Reconstruction. Listening to the 20+ hours of lectures on the civil war and reconstruction in combination with Eric Foner’s history of Reconstruction and Edward Baptist’s exploration of slavery and the development of the American Economy and Amar’s biography of the Constitution and the fictional Underground Railroad gave some historical context to the problems of race in the United States.
On the modern side, Intervarsity has been publishing a number of books about race that are worth reading. The Myth of Equality and White Awake are good primers for Whites to explore how race matters to our current day. Both are written by white men, which is part of the discussion. But also we need others voices. So I read James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son and Fire Next Time for some mid 20th century context. And then a trio of books by Michael Eric Dyson, The Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, The Black Presidency (which is more about what is means to be Black in the US than about Obama) and the not quite as good, but still interesting April 4, 1968.
Ta’Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power fit well with the previous books, but it is a series of essays that I had mostly previously read. So it was the introductions to those essays about why they were important and why he wrote them that were more interesting to me.
Coates is clearly an atheist and is famously not particularly hopeful about racial issues in the US. It is an interesting pairing to have read Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman, who was a mentor to Martin Luther King Jr and who did a lot of the background theology that gave rise to the Civil Rights era. I have picked up Thurman’s memoir and I will read that this year. Thurman’s books also was an interesting pairing with James H Cone’s memoir My Soul Looks Back. Cone and Thurman are in quite different places theologically, but have quite a bit of overlap in the diagnosis of the problem. The black authors I read this year were born in 1899 (Thurman), 1924 (Baldwin), 1936 (Cone), 1944 (Alice Walker), 1945 (John Perkins), 1957 (James McBride), 1958 (Dyson), 1969 (Colson Whitehead) and 1975 (Coates). That 76 year spread is interesting because of what seems to be similar and what changed.
Part of what I know is important is to keep listing to different voices. No one person can be the voice of a race. I did not read a lot of minority women (Color Purple and Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ I think were the only books I read by minority women this year.) I also did not read much by non-black voices about racial issues. Although Aliens in the Promise Land as a book of essays was excellent about including a range of voices beyond the standard Black minority voice. And Still Evangelical, which won’t be published until later this month also had several Asian voices talking about racial issues within the Evangelical church world.
The two books that I haven’t yet mentioned but I think need to be at least quickly referenced are: How to Survive the Apocalypse, which was an excellent book about theology and philosophy using pop culture as a teaching tool. And Richard Beck’s Reviving Old Scratch about the need for the theological left to embrace the concept of Satan was well worth reading. Both of these books talked about Charles Taylor a good bit and at some point I will get around to reading Taylor.
I didn’t read much fiction this year that I was blown away with. Color Purple was very well written and very difficult to read. I thought Underground Railroad was worth reading in context of my other reading but I thought was too much of a concept book that didn’t quite live up to its hype. The latest of the Inspector Gamache books, Glass Houses, is among the best of the series, which is impressive for a series that has 14 books. The two Binti books, the novella Binti and the longer novel Home were refreshingly original. And I look forward to reading the conclusion of the trilogy that comes out in a couple weeks.
2018 Reading Goals
I am not much of a goal setter. My reading is usually focused on whatever happens to catch my eye right now. But I have tended to set some rough goals most years. I have four goals this year. I am a bit over half way through Subversive Gospel about Flannery O’Connor. And because of that and the biography of her I read a couple weeks ago I want to read the two novels and the rest of the short stories that I have not previously read.
My second goal is to work toward finishing a couple of author’s books. There are two novels of Octavia Butler that I have not yet read. I am not sure I will ever read all of Madeleine L’Engle’s books, but I want to read at least three more L’Engle books and at least three more of James Baldwin’s books. I have not yet read any of his fiction. So at least two of those I want to be fiction.
My third goals is to continue to explore racial issues and history and expand my reading to include more women and additional voices that I have not yet read.
The final goal is to read some formal books on the concept of Beauty in Christian theology. If anyone has some suggestions in that area I would love to hear them.
I have a goal every year of reading more fiction. But I tend to not read as much fiction as I want to because I get lost in the information. But fiction, in part because of its ability to communicate beauty is important and I hope I will move closer to even ratio of fiction to non-fiction this year.