Each year I keep a list of the books I read all the way through, typically with brief notes, as a way of tracking my thoughts and a way to look back on each year and see some of what influenced me. So, in this post I have drawn from that list some of the best books I read this year with slightly edited versions of the notes I jotted down after reading them. Since it is really just a booklet, I did not list below Martin Luther’s A Simple Way to Pray, but I must mention it as a wonderfully helpful little piece which was very beneficial to me this year as I read it along with some faculty colleagues.
Though it was difficult, I selected a Top 10 from the books I read this year. These 10 aren’t listed in a particular order and they made this list for various reasons ranging from sheer enjoyment to level of impact on me. Following the Top 10 are some more books from my reading this year (in no particular order). My reading this year was largely shaped by books I’m reading with my older sons for school. This has been beneficial to me over the last several years as it has led me to read some books I should have already read and given me the opportunity to re-read some great books.
I will post a different list of best books read to my younger children at my blog on children’s literature.
- One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Alexander Solzhenitsyn- Very challenging regarding contentment as you follow one day in this man’s life in the gulag; powerful witness of Alyosha the Baptist
- The Jungle, Upton Sinclair- I thought this was a powerful book, compelling story. It drew me in. All that happened to Jurgis and family was horrible and repulsive, but it was believable enough and Jurgis was likable enough that I wanted to keep reading despite the horrors. It did seem to peak about half way through. The evangelistic appeal for socialism at the end though didn’t have the same authenticity of the rest of the book. It was striking to see how clearly Socialism was presented in religious and salvific terms. This book stirred within me gratitude and compassion.
- Why Teach? In Defense of a Real Education, Mark Edmundson- This is an engaging book on education. Edmundson writes well, is provocative, and is willing to speak his mind. While he is not a believer, it is striking how he lands near us in several ways.
- Brave New World, Aldous Huxley- Powerful story; prescient; strong parallels to today. The ending was unsatisfactory to me. He seemed to be nudging close to an answer but in the end had only despair. Mankind can at times recognize the problem but apart from grace can never find the answer
- Uncle Abner, Master of Mysteries, Melville Davisson Post- Wonderful stories! Great fun, filled with biblical terms and phrases as well as biblical worldview. Uncle Abner is a backwoods, Bible-believing “Sherlock Holmes” set in western Virginia just before the Civil War. Thanks to Hunter Baker for recommending this.
- The Case for the Psalms: Why They Are Essential, N. T. Wright- An excellent portrayal of the value and necessity of the Psalms for Christian living.
- Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, Laura Hillenbrand- A powerful story wonderfully told. I was moved to tears at several points. The story of him pulling himself together to pursue running when he was going in a wrong direction was good. The story of his survival through so much during WWII was inspiring. His downward spiral after the war was heartbreaking, but his rescue by the preaching of the gospel through Billy Graham was beautiful! [I haven’t yet seen the movie, but I take it as a truism that for good books, the movie is never as good]
- The First Fast Draw, Louis L’Amour- This was the first L’Amour book I’ve read and I really enjoyed this! Fun story, well told and lots of good lines and lessons about manhood, responsibility, courage, perseverance, treating women right, heroism. I want to read more now.
- The Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradise, Dante (Kindle version with all three volumes)- Very good. I was surprised by how accessible it is. Many good things to ponder, including the gravity, horribleness of hell. In a day when Hell is taken less seriously this is useful. Of course, the description is only imagined but he captures the horror which is stated in scripture. I was also amazed by the strong criticisms of the Catholic Church. He says several popes are in hell and more are expected. The area with greedy people is particularly filled with bishops, etc. since, as Dante says, this sin is particularly found in clergy. I did not expect such open, sharp criticism in this period. Luther gets in trouble for saying not only can popes err, but they have. Dante strongly criticizes the papacy and the church leadership throughout. I found that the writing got more difficult as it progresses but it was well worth the effort.
- The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco- At times I loved this book, and at times it seemed tedious. I found the ending dissatisfactory particularly as he got preachy on his views regarding a lack of meaning. I found myself while reading saying, “This isn’t as great as people said,” but I realized I didn’t want to put it down! So, in the end it makes my top 10 because it is such a compelling story.
Other Good Reads This Year:
- Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times, Os Guinness- Guiness knows how to turn a phrase and is one of the best in cultural commentary. The first chapter or two are particularly moving. This is a vibrant challenge to see the darkness and yet stand firm in hope because God is in control and there is a resurrection. I’m now reading A Third Testament: A Modern Pilgrim Explores the Spiritual Wanderings of Augustine, Blake, Pascal, Tolstoy, Bonhoeffer, Kierkegaard, and Dostoevsky, by Malcolm Muggeridge which seems to have inspired Guinness in places. The books go well together.
- The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson- This was a re-read with my boys and what a gripping story with powerful lessons. The reflection on the inner struggle with sinful desire is powerful. I noticed this time that there is much here as well on male friendship
- Notes from Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky- It is a bit hard to follow, but is a powerfully sad book. In novel form it critiques the idea of modern progress and goodness of humanity. The main character is despicable but I found too often aspects of him in me. He was so foolish it would be unbelievable if not for the fact that I have seen his foolish behaviors too often in people I’ve talked with and sometimes in me.
- Battle Cry of Freedom, James McPherson- A good, readable account. It was striking how often Northern leaders were quoted as saying the goal was to annihilate the Southern way of life.
- All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque- Compelling account of terrible nature of war and human futility. This, like several books I read with my sons this year, points to the emptiness of fallen human life without knowing the answer in Christ. [I commented previously on a parallel to the church found in this novel]
- Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman- well written and engaging, especially at first. It did get slow in places as it moved on.
- The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway- This is such an empty book. My boys described it as “Guy wanders around going to different bars doing basically nothing.” Fair enough. As his tip of the hat to Ecclesiastes in the title suggests, Hemingway portrays the futility of life under the sun.
- That Hideous Strength, C S Lewis- This was another re-read with my sons. What a powerful story, compelling, exciting, and striking critique of society.
- Citizen Soldiers, Stephen Ambrose- This wasn’t the best of Ambrose I have read, but it did give a useful perspective on the war from the guys in the midst of it. It made me grateful.
- Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad- I was glad to re-read this with my sons after Michael Travers had encouraged me to read it a couple of years ago. This is another good example of people recognizing the problem of sinfulness.
- Enduring Courage: Ace Pilot Eddie Rickenbacker and the Dawn of the Age of Speed, John Ross- It was nice to have read this book before reading Unbroken because of the parallels, particularly of spending a long time adrift on the sea. I did not know Rickenbacker drove racing cars before becoming a fighter pilot.
- What is Biblical Theology?: A Guide to the Bible’s Story, Symbolism & Patterns, Jim Hamilton- A very helpful, concise treatment of this important topic
- Good Call: Reflections on Faith, Family & Fowl, Jase Robertson with Mark Schlabach- I continue to enjoy the books from the Duck Dynasty men. This was funny and encouraging in the faith.
- FDR’s Folly: How Roosevelt and His New Deal Prolonged the Great Depression, Jim Powell- A strong, persuasive critique. I realized how so much of what’s wrong today got started under FDR. It is particularly amazing to see the statements of key leaders and others who at that time saw how odd and wrong these big government ideas were. Today many of them are considered normal even among conservatives.
- Weakness is the Way: Life with Christ our Strength, J. I. Packer- Challenging critique of the way I tend to think.
- Finishing Our Course with Joy: Guidance from God for Engaging with Our Aging, J I Packer- Very good. Packer writes directly to senior saints but this book is also of great value to those who pastor people at this stage in life. Also, his stirring calls to zeal and humility are of great value to anyone.
- The Gospel Ministry, Thomas Foxcroft- Very good little book on ministry. Beautifully written in early 18th century style by a man obviously saturated with scripture.
- The Pathfinder, James Fenimore Cooper- fun story, though it was slow in places. I was surprised by how much romance was in it but more so by how explicitly Christian it was. [Here is a previous post drawing from this book]
- Saga of the Volsungs, is a collection of Norse tales which Tolkien drew from. It provides a fascinating contrast of worldviews when compared to the Bible. You get a feel for life in Northern Europe before Christianity came when you ponder a culture which would produce and honor these stories. Nobility can be seen here but the level of bloodthirstiness, the disregard of life and the valuing of revenge and treachery are all striking.
- The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius- Not the easiest read, but it was fascinating to read this book which was so influential in the Medieval world, which C. S. Lewis esteemed highly and listed as one of the books most influential for him (here’s a nice discussion of C S Lewis and this book). These are the thoughts of a man waiting to have his head bashed in, after having risen to the height of social standing, as he preaches to himself not to whine but to hold fast in faith.
- Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Mark Twain – I read this in school and thought it was interesting. I read it this year after reading Mallory’s The Death of Arthur and realized what a scathing critique it is. It is fun, hilarious and profound.
- Idylls of the King, Alfred Tennyson- After reading Mallory I wondered why the Arthur legends gained such regard (as I knew them as a kid) and why Lewis and the Inklings appreciated them so. Then, I read Idylls and discovered this was the version so regarded and Lewis and company. This version is noble and inspiring with Arthur as a Christ figure.
- The Great Divorce, C S Lewis- Good to re-read with my boys. Again, I found it to be so very insightful about human nature, the various subtleties of temptations and the varied manifestations of our depravity.
- Abolition of Man, CS Lewis- Very good and needs to be heard again regularly in our day.
- How to Win an Election, Quintus Cicero- Written to the more famous Cicero to by his brother. Insight into the world of politics then & now. Calculating and conniving, with suggestions like, “promise them everything even if you know you can’t deliver,” “make friends even with unseemly people during an election,” etc. Machiavelli before his time.
- Orthodoxy, G K Chesterton- masterful wit and insight. I’m not sure I followed his flow of thought throughout but simply the nuggets of truth, the felicitous use of words and the flashes of boldly stated insight were wonderful