It is the time of the year when everyone is posting their ‘Best of’ lists. This is not going to be a ‘Best of 2018’ because less than half of these were published in 2018. And I think that is a good thing. Books should have a life of longer than a year, and even longer than five or ten years.
I have taken a number of different approaches to my end of year lists, reposting over a week or so the reviews of the books I loved the most. Or posting separate lists of best fiction and non-fiction. This year I am going to approach it thematically.
There are too many books here, but I do not really know how to pair them down beyond this and I am already not including a number of books that were excellent, but I think most people will probably already not read though the number I have here.
I have been happy about the fact that the idea of reading to expand our view of the world and gain empathy for others has been on the ascendant. That is not the only reason to read, but it one reason. Death Comes for a Deconstructionist, was partially a satire against deconstructive literary theory that had no use for reading for self improvement, enjoyment or understanding. Grace Lin has a TED talk about the importance of having books as both mirrors (to see yourself in the characters) and windows (to see the world differently). This grouping are books that mostly gave me a window.
I think fiction is particularly good at building empathy and it is one of the reasons I keep wanting to increase my reading of fiction. But this section is not only fiction. Most naturally in this section is Children of God by Mary Doria Russell. This is the sequel to The Sparrow. It is a science fiction book, which naturally expands the idea of how to be empathetic by explained what it means to be human.
Golden Hill by Francis Spufford was the first book I read this year. The plot twists, especially in the last few pages play into the empathy building. The characters change in perspective and the reader suddenly has to re-evaluate everything that has previously happened.
One of the most consistently good series of books I have read has been the Inspector Gamache series of mystery books. This year’s book, Kingdom of the Blind, continues with the big question of the past several books, ‘when it is acceptable to do morally and ethically questionable things, for a greater good.’ There are no simple answers. Many people would make different decisions. But by the end, you understand why the characters have made the decisions they have and you have insight you likely did not have previously.
Memoir and biography/autobiography can be empathy building. But I think I mostly read them for knowledge or inspiration. And while many of these books could easily be in two or more categories, these two were particularly helpful at building empathy. James H Cone finished his second memoir immediately before he passed away and it was not published for several months after his death. But both Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody: The Making of a Black Theologian, and his earlier My Soul Looks Back, really communicated they why of his life and work. Many disagree with aspects of his theology, and I certainly do, but it seems to me to be missing the point if the focus is on the theology and not on the why of his theology.
Complain about Black Liberation Theology if you want, but I think it is better to actually address the reasons that Black Liberation Theology arose instead of complaining about how theologians like Cone take a different approach then you would. Cone’s work is simply just not about the White disagreement, but about the pain of being Black in a world that is designed for Whiteness. I am not sure if I should include Cone’s Cross and the Lynching Tree in empathy or another category, but it is certainly one of the most important books I have read this year.
I really cannot rank books because different books are hitting different areas and how to do you rank an academically rigorous biography and a young adult fantasy book. But Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I have Loved is a really beautifully written book. It is poignant, well crafted, asks all kinds of good questions and it gives a lot of insight into the world of terminal illness, those that care for terminally ill and what that means to faith. And the podcast, I have only listened to a few episodes, seems to be just as good.
James KA Smith has been inspiring me for a while. I have read seven of his books and three of them more than once. I am not sure why it took me so long to getting around to reading his Desiring the Kingdom, but I should have read it way before I did. It is not only Smith, but Smith is one of the people that is inspiring me to take discipleship much more seriously than I have. The group, which includes Smith, is why I have been seeing a spiritual director for over five years and why I am seriously considering attempting formal training to become a spiritual director in the next couple years. Desiring the Kingdom is about 10 years old now, but it has stood up and it is worth reading. (And now it is in audiobook, which is why I actually picked it up this year.)
I think more than anything else, I was inspired by Mister Rogers this year. I have watched the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor three times straight through and several more times I have watch parts of it. The biography of Mister Rogers, The Good Neighbor by Max King, was not probably the best written biography I have read, but it was inspiring because of the subject. The Good Neighbor was not badly written, but I do think there were areas for improvement. However, I loved the subject and I may read it again. Mister Rogers really does make me want to be a better man.
Austin Channing Brown’s I‘m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness is the best memoir I have read in a long time. I really like memoirs. I have read a lot of them. I could easily have put this in my empathy category, but even though this memoir was not written to me, it does make me want to be a better person.
Growth and inspiration are not fundamentally different, but about how I received the book more than differences in the books themselves. Inspiration was focused on how being inspired to be better, Growth was focused on how to be better.
All That’s Good: Recovering the Lost Art of Discernment by Hannah Anderson is about how we gain discernment and put the virtues into practice. There have been a number of books about virtue or character or discipleship that are in this general vein over the past few years. And many of them really are good and worth reading. But because I follow Hannah Anderson on twitter, I usually listen to her podcast and I am in a private facebook group with her, I know she really does attempt to put these things into practice. And I think that matters. Her examples are practical and real. She is thinking clearly about what discipleship (and discernment) means in the cultural context where she is and she is committed to that space. Other spaces will have differences in emphasis or focus, but we cannot be discerning apart from the culture and space where we are rooted.
I have read a lot of books by or about Bonhoeffer. But Bonhoeffer and King: Their Legacies and Import for Christian Social Thought gave me more insight into Bonhoeffer’s thinking than several other books have. I have not read as much about King as I should have by the point, but I will be reading more in 2019. And I think I will be well equipped because of this book to get more out of my reading about King. What moves this out of inspiration or knowledge is the practical insights into social thought, theology, and community. There were a number of academics that were writing chapters, but the focus was on people that actually do ministry and had real experience with movements.
Becoming Dallas Willard: The Formation of a Philosopher, Teacher, and Christ Follower by Gary Black is a non-traditional biography. It hits the basics of telling the reader about Dallas Willard. But it also focuses on placing Willard in context and giving insight into Willard’s spiritual growth and method. I probably would place it in a category of Spiritual Biography, but if it were a real thing, I would say it is a practical biography, in the sense of practical theology. Theology that is designed for living as opposed to academic theology. This is a biography that is not focused on who Dallas Willard was, as much as a biography focused on how Dallas Willard attempted to be more like Christ. While not covering up his weaknesses and turning into hagiography.
Ben Myers’ brief book on The Apostles’ Creed may not be exactly right for Growth, but it is a really approachable theology designed for lay people about the Apostles’ Creed, one of the earliest summaries of what Christians believe. It is theology that is focused on how we are empowered to live as Christians. And it assumes that Christians should know and recite the Apostles’ Creed regularly. I think this would make a great small group study.
These knowledge books are primarily about things I just didn’t know and I was not reading for individual growth or inspiration, but for knowledge. David Blight’s biography of Frederick Douglass is probably what I would list as my favorite book that was published this year, but it would be a hard choice and a very narrow win. I have not previously read anything by Frederick Douglass, other than his 4th of July speech, and not really read anything significant about him. David Blight is an historian that I really respect and I want to read more by him, I will probably make time for his Race and Reunion next year.
One of my goals for the year was to read all of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction. That is not a large goal since there are only four book. But I had only read one book of short stories and I was very mixed. I am still mixed on O’Connor. I can see enormous skill. I am not really a fan of short stories. I am uncomfortable with some of her language around race and racism, even though I know at times she is critiquing the racism, there is also plenty of historical evidence to suggest her own feelings were fairly racist at the time of the Civil Rights movement. But despite my ambivalence about O’Connor as a whole, Michael Bruner’s book of literary analysis, A Subversive Gospel: Flannery O’Connor and the Reimagining of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth was very helpful in thinking about O’Connor and just a pleasure to read. I wish he had done a little more around race, but this is a book of literary analysis that I would like to read again.
Ta’Nehisi Coates’ essay on reparations was largely rooted not just on reparations for slavery, but on reparations for relatively recent racist governmental policy, especially around housing. Coates’ article was excellent and long for an article, but the book The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein is essentially a long legal brief about the governmental role in creating and maintaining segregation and how that plays a large in continued differences in both income and wealth of minorities today, both because of the reality of continued segregation because of historic housing patterns, but also the role of segregation in educational differences. This is a book that details relatively recent history, but history that is significantly less understood than it should be.
Similarly, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas Blackmon details how Convict Leasing in the reconstruction and Jim Crow eras reestablished a form of slavery that was not universally enacted against Blacks, but was widespread and used as a form of terror and frequently based on trumped up charges either because cheap labor was needed or specifically to remove Black, mostly men, that were independent or in places of power. Like Lynching, this form of slavery was widely known about and practiced at the time, but is less known about today. The final section about how we reckon with history is excellent. It is not as broadly important, but Blood at the Root is a smaller local history of an area not far from my home where racial terror kept all Black residents out of the county from 1912 until the mid-1990s. These histories matter.
This ‘Do Better’ section are books that are more practical in scope. They are still mostly around racial issues because that has been my significant concern in reading for the past couple years. But they are more focused on practical issues of conversation and self identification.
So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo is probably the best book I have read about practically how to have conversations about race and how to investigate you own internal racism. Black Women have done an enormous amount of work in this area, Facebook groups, blogging, memoirs, conversations partners, etc. So You Want To Talk About Race is helpful, direct, quite often humorous, but also it does not avoid the hard stuff. Her quote, “A lot of people want to skip ahead to the finish line of racial harmony. Past all this unpleasantness to a place where all wounds are healed and the past is laid to rest” is so accurate and important. If we want to get to the racial harmony and end racism, we have to actually do the work.
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo is very similar in topic, but it is a book by a White woman targeting White progressives that think they are in a fairly good place racially. If you were only going to read one, I would say read Oluo’s. But if you are going to read two, White Fragility pairs well. They have overlapping ideas and content. But they have different focuses and the topic is important. The reason to read her book I think is summed up in a quote toward the end, “When white people ask me what to do about racism and white fragility, the first thing I ask is, “What has enabled you to be a full, educated, professional adult and not know what to do about racism?” It is a sincere question. How have we managed not to know, when the information is all around us? When people of color have been telling us for years?”
I am a Christian and when I read and process, I read and process through the lens of my Christianity. It would be great if the church were really on the forefront of racial issues in the US. And there are parts of the church that are. But much of the church is not only lagging, but digging it its heals around racism. Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith is a bit dated. The main research is now 20 years old. But the identified issues are still relevant even if the research is old. Divided by Faith is where I think most White Evangelicals need to start when thinking about how racism continues to impact the church. I think that recommendation may change next year when Jemar Tisby’s Color of Compromise comes out. But I have not yet read that book to know if they are close enough in focus.
Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove was released in 2018. And it is easy to dismiss if you do not really want to hear what it is trying to say because many will see it as dismissing the whole of Church history. But that is a misreading of the book. Wilson-Hartgrove is trying to get people to take seriously historic sin, especially racism and oppression of the marginalized that was condoned by the church and re-create our theology in a way that would put adequate importance on our practice, not just our theology.
Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America by Jennifer Harvey is not a perfect book. But I do not know of another one that really does what it is trying to do. The main message is that we cannot hope that our kids will be anti-racist if we cannot do the hard work of teaching them. And we cannot really teach them if we do not deal with our own racism in the process. This quote I think communicates the style and focus of the book, “Nerves are normal. So many examples I have shared in Raising White Kids Include Moments of profound discomfort. Urging parents to face head on and precisely create more opportunities to teach our kids about racism means inviting them to accept the inevitability of discomfort. Discomfort may come from worrying about what other adults think, as we swim against a color-blind tide. It may come from worrying out attempts risk getting it so wrong we may screw up our kids in the process! It may come when our children ask questions we can’t quite answer or say things that push us out of our comfort zone. But a bird’s-eye, big-picture view of the positive effects and powerfully healthy outcomes of supporting our kids and being truthful can help us persist.” (page 130)
I did not only read about race this year. Laurus by Evgenij Vodolazkin, was a modern Russian novel, that I read in translation, about a 15th century healer. Throughout his life he was a doctor, and hermit, a fool, a monk, a holy man and more. I do not know how to really talk about the book, except to recommend it. My review is really short because I do not know how to talk about it. I will read it again in 2019 and try to figure how to describe it other than an unatainable view of what it means to be human.
I am not sure where else to put them, but the Gateway Chronicles, a series of six young adult fantasy books that were slightly edited and republished this year were excellent. Good fiction is important. Good fiction that is well crafted and has meaning is even more important. Good fiction that is mostly intended for teens, but was so good that I stayed up way past my bed time or woke up early so I could read them. Reading needs balance. And as much as I tell myself I need to read more fiction, I tend to mostly read non-fiction. But reading good fiction like this reminds me of the importance of good fiction and the need to keep finding good fiction and sharing it. The first book of the series has been released on audiobook and the rest will be released as they are finished. I do not frequently re-read fiction quickly, but with both Laurus and this series, I think that I will re-read them less than a year after I first read them. The series is The Six, The Oracle, The White Thread, The Enchanted, The Scroll, and The Bone Whistle.
There were so many additional books that were good, but this list is already too long. I recommended about 20% of the books I read this year as being among the best. But that did not include another 20 or so books that could have easily made this list.