Best Reads of 2016

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.

I selected a Top 20 from the books I read this year (with some help by combining a series!). These 20 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 20 are some more books I enjoyed reading this year (in no particular order) as well as some disappointing ones.

  1. Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee- Despite all the criticism of the book, I thought it was superb. They say it was a draft. May I be so blessed as to write such drafts! If they announced she had a forthcoming volume of scrap stories about Jean Louise’s childhood, I would pre-order it today (or at least I’d start looking for a sale!). I love the way she writes, and the childhood stories are a favorite part of her books for me. So, even if such a collection had no great moral tale, I’d enjoy reading it. (Further comments).
  2. Total Commitment, Hal Poe- This was a fascinating read. Hal is a good friend, and I have long enjoyed hearing his stories. So, I was excited to see this autobiographical volume published. The book makes good points on call to ministry and contains insight into politics, but the main value in my estimation is the sheer joy of reading. Hal is a consummate story teller and he relishes the telling of them.
  3. The Yemassee, William Gilmore Simms- It is fitting for this to follow Hal’s book since Hal is the one who pointed me to Simms years ago. The book started slow, then was a fun story. The ending was clumsy, but adventure, heroism and insight to the historical era made this a compelling read. The Yemassee war was a major part of colonial America in the South which I knew nothing about previously
  4. All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy- Compelling story, though once again I’d have to say the ending dwindled. My favorite part was the first third- young men on their own living off the land demonstrating large capacity and a time when folks were quite free. This section is also quite humorous.
  5. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Neil Postman- Once again I’m catching up with everyone else by finally reading this book. Reading it in the midst of this presidential election showed how prescient this book was.
  6. The Screwtape Letters, C S Lewis- Again, I was catching up with the rest of the world. It was challenging to see the probing discussion of how sin turns us away from goodness and truth. The points about wasting time, frittering away were convicting as well as some of the stuff about interpersonal strife, etc.
  7. Scottish Christian Heritage, Iain Murray- Excellent! This was likely the most soul stirring, enriching, challenging book I read this year. Murray writes well and the stories of faithfulness under trial are quite moving.
  8. Partisans & Redcoats: The Southern Conflict that Turned the Tide of the American Revolution, by Walter Edgar- I am intrigued by this portion of the Revolutionary War which, it seems, often gets overlooked in popular discussions. This is a great book, well researched and well written. I did not know the info abut Andrew Jackson as a young teenager fighting in the War.
  9. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury- Wow. I had no idea how good this book would be- so prescient, so relevant. I immediately made this required reading for my high school age son. Amidst discussion of “fake news” and lack of reading, this book is a must read.
  10. Salute to Adventurers, John Buchan- fun read. A young Scottish man during the days of the Covenanters (1600’s) moves to Virginia to see after his uncle’s shipping business and he ends up playing a part in an Indian war. This is Buchan does Fenimore Cooper or W G Simms, and it comes off well. It stands well with Pathfinder or Cassique of Kiawah, and is quite similar. Like those other stories it has a romance angle, adventure, stress on hardiness, Indian cunning and vice as well as nobility, and the hero clashing with the upper crust. Christianity is latent and assumed as in Simms and Cooper. With Buchan’s angle it becomes also a critique of the Covenanters as fanatics. Though I differ with him strongly on this point, I really enjoyed the story.
  11. The Christian Scholar in the Age of the Reformation, E. Harris Harbison- I read this with some faculty colleagues at Union. Harbison traces the approach to academic study within the church by comparing and contrasting key leaders at various points in church history up to the Reformation.
  12. Remembering the Reformation: An Inquiry into the Meanings of Protestantism, Thomas Albert Howard- Howard walks through the celebrations of the Reformation at each significant anniversary. This provides interesting and helpful context to see how the Reformation has been used and remembered at each point.
  13. Courage, Endurance, Sacrifice: The Lives and Faith of Three Generations of Missionaries, Charlotte Harris Rees- Mrs. Rees tells the stories of her great-grandparents, grandparents and parents and their missionary endeavors. The stories are compelling and challenging as she recounts their challenges, sacrifices and passion for souls. The first chapter is about W. D. Powell for whom the theater at Union is named. I am excited for Mrs. Rees to come to Union in February for our Founders’ Day to tell the story of W. D. Powell.
  14. The Best Things in Life, Peter Kreeft- Superb! Kreeft does a fabulous job exposing fallacies common in our culture. This would be particularly helpful for college students. I also enjoyed Kreeft’s The Unaborted Socrates: A Dramatic Debate on the Issues Surrounding Abortion.
  15. Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold, C. S. Lewis- I had heard that this book was typically considered lesser among Lewis’s work so I was surprised by how readable and engaging it was. I don’t claim to have understood all he was trying to say, but I enjoyed and benefitted from it.
  16. War in the Wasteland, Douglas Bond- My family loves Douglas Bond books, and I enjoyed reading this work of historical fiction which presents a young man who encounters the pre-conversion C. S. Lewis in the trenches of World War I.
  17. Good Citizenship, Grover Cleveland- This is a small book including two speeches by President Cleveland: “Good Citizenship” and “Patriotism and Holiday Observance”. These are very timely as Cleveland critiques greed and the selling of political favors calling instead for thrift, hard work and love of your homeland.
  18. Scholar Gipsies, John Buchan- I have enjoyed Buchan for some time, I found this wonderful, beautiful book in Scotland this summer. It is largely the overflow of his childhood written in his early twenties. But what writing this is for such an age! He relishes and frolics in his native countryside. You can see the early seeds of so much of his later writing.
  19. Education of a Wandering Man, Louis L’Amour- I found this book at our local library’s sale, and it launched my L’Amour novel reading for the rest of the year (see below). This is a fascinating book about an adventurous life which included a thirst for learning at every stage. L’Amour provides a challenge to being active and for learning both from reading and listening to those who’ve gone before you. I think reading this autobiography is the best place to start before reading the novels, because you can then see his interests and concerns popping up in the novels.
  20. Louis L’Amour, especially his Sackett series. I listened to 17 L’Amour novels since the summer and loved them! I listened to The Man Called Noon and then the first 16 of the Sackett series (I’m on the final book of that series now but don’t expect to finish it before the end of the year). It would take too much space even to record here all the great quotes I’ve gleaned from these books. I appreciate the themes of industry, education, honor, and family. I think you can see L’Amour’s writing mature as well. I think the books at the beginning of the series (which were written later) stand above the later ones. The later ones have the same amount of adventure, but the later ones have more mature reflection. These have been fun companions on travels and errands around town.

Other Good Reads:

  1. J. R. R. Tolkien: A Life Inspired, Wyatt North- very readable, brief, engaging biography
  2. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, J. D. Vance- I enjoyed this and learned from it. I think the hype surrounding it built up my expectations too high, though.
  3. Aeneid, Virgil (Feb)- I didn’t enjoy this nearly as much as The Odyssey.
  4. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Redemption, Shane Kastler- This is not the best book on Forrest, but pretty good. He draws from good sources. It is a bit preachy at times, but it is an account of the spiritual life of Forrest. It doesn’t gloss over his sins, but details his postwar conversion.
  5. How Three Brothers Saved the Navy (The Kare Kids Adventures #3), Charles A. Salter- This was a fun read with my younger two children who enjoyed it. It is sort of “Hardy Boys” in a military family. The author explicitly encourages hard work and perseverance. (I commented previously on this book)
  6. America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, Andrew Bacevich- This is a challenging critique of the way the US has handled the Middle East over the last few decades.
  7. The Crescent and the Cross: The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad, Robert Rogland (April)- This is a well-conceived story building of the well-known 7 voyages of Sinbad and then telling how Sinbad came to faith in Jesus. (See further comments in my previous post).
  8. The Confederate Chronicles: No.1, The Ghost of a Chance, Boyd Parker- This was a fun read, cleverly conceived. I hope more of the series are forthcoming. In the story the Confederate government continues to function meeting as a secret society carrying out benevolent work and helping to protect the United States.
  9. The Body Snatchers, Robert Louis Stevenson- Like Stevenson’s Jekyl & Hyde, this is a compelling portrait of the snare of sin. In this case it shows particularly how one compromise ensnares you to great sin. The ending is abrupt, making me wish he had gone further developing the story since so many loose ends are left. It seems his point was to end with a shocking point, but I’m left wanting a further resolution.

Disappointing Reads

  1. Man in the High Castle, Phillip K. Dick- This was quite disappointing, not nearly as good as the Amazon series, which bears very little resemblance to the book. The most impressive thing to me is that someone was able to find in this subpar novel inspiration for a really good television series. I don’t know where the book is trying to go or what it is trying to say. I want a novel to have an exciting story or to probe deep truths. This did neither.
  2. The Book of Merlyn, T. H. White (July)- I have heard high praise of White’s other Arthurian stories so when I found this book, I decided to read it. However, it is loony. Not very good at all.


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