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. These are only books that I read all the way through and do not involve commentaries and reference works I’ve used. You can see my assessment of new Bible reference works from the past year in the Fall 2022 issue of Preaching Magazine.
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 I enjoyed reading this year (in no particular order) as well as some disappointing ones.
- The Letters of Samuel Rutherford, ed. Andrew Bonar (Edinburgh, 1891)- Truly a spiritual classic. Six years ago I began reading slowly through these letters, and have been delayed several times. It is easy to get lost in certain parts, but there is much wisdom and richness here. The most profound reflections on suffering I’ve read. Strong, earnest counsel to those in suffering from one in the midst of it himself. I’m struck by the directness of his words to those in suffering and those facing death. Good examples of pastoral counsel. [I did not link to a copy because I couldn’t find a link to the one I have. There are abridgements, but I’d encourage you to get the full treatment).
- Fight for Your Pastor, Peter Orr- This is the best, concise treatment I’ve seen on how a congregation ought to support and help their pastors. I had our church buy a copy for every family in our membership in preparation for the coming of a new lead pastor.
- The Good Shepherd, C S Forester- I read this book because I appreciated so much the Tom Hanks movie, “Greyhound,” which was based on this book. I saw parallels to pastoral ministry and this was heightened when I saw the title to this book. The book is shot through with scriptural allusions. It is a great story and portrait of leadership: duty, sacrifice, put yourself aside and work of the good of others (which may explain my disappointment with the Hornblower novel; see “Disappointments”).
- How To Be a Pastor, Theodore Cuyler- Published in 1890, this is an excellent treatment of my main theme on pastoral ministry, the necessity of knowing your people and caring for them.
- No Apologies: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men, Anthony Esolen- Vintage Esolen, no holds barred, exceptionally well written, convicting.
- Between You And Me: My Philosophy Of Life, Edgar Guest- I have loved Guest’s poetry for years, after finding R G Lee’s library filled with Guest’s books. So, I was excited to find this gem in a used bookstore recently. This book is a beautiful example of the general wisdom that used to be widely held in our culture.
- Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, James Webb- I did a dive into Webb this year and was fascinated by him. This was chief among his books which I read. I wish we had more democrats like Webb. His love of country is rooted in a love of family and knowledge of family line which is rare today. This is an insightful treatment of how history continues to shape our country. This book, written well before J. D. Vance’s Hilbilly Elegy, provides the background for much of what Vance explored. I also enjoyed Webb’s, I Heard My Country Calling: A Memoir, particularly his growing up, his take on Viet Nam, and his politics. His celebrated Viet Nam novel, Fields of Fire, was more crude than I expected. Too bad. It does portray the hardship and feeling of senselessness of the war. Having read his memoir, it is easy to see the autobiographical parts.
- The Lessons of History, Will and Ariel Durant- I also did a dive into these smaller books by the Durants- which I’ve loved! Durant writes exceptionally well and is someone worth disagreeing with. In this first book, they see religion as something to get over, even thought they recognize the good it has brought. Fallen Leaves: Last Words on Life, Love, War, and God, is a manuscript discovered after his death in which he sought to give his thoughts on most of the pressing issues of the day (1970’s). It is fascinating, even as I disagree deeply on God, religion, etc. as well as deeply in fundamental politics. However, I resonate strongly with where he ends up on many things related to culture, politics, education, human relations, etc. I also found very striking one of his early books, Tragedy of Russia, Impressions from a Brief Visit. Will and Ariel were sympathetic to communism so in the early 1930’s they visited the Soviet Union and were repulsed by what they saw. This book is his devastating report on what things were really like in Soviet Russia.
- First Blood, David Morrell- I gave this a try because I like the movie and heard the book was a bit different. I was surprised to learn the book had been commonly assigned in high school literature courses before the movie was made. The author’s retrospective introduction was intriguing as he explained what he was after in the book which is different from the movie. I can see how he sought to bring the Viet Nam war home to people in the US- what if these sorts of things were happening in our little towns. The novel is much more “in the heads” of Rambo and the sheriff. The sheriff is a bigger deal in the book, as are religious ideas. The book is both deeper and more religious than the movie. It is well worth reading.
- Lord of the World, Robert Hugh Benson- fascinating. Written in 1907 (one place said 1909) about the end of the world and eerie in its prescience. He imagines a century or so in the distance and how things have developed. He has mass commercial flight and what seems to be wireless telegraph, but no computers. But he writes about the rise of universal socialism, of the “collectivists” as opposed to the “individualists,” with Christians being the main individualists. The author is a Catholic priest so not surprisingly the Catholic church is the last holdout with all other Christians groups capitulating or joining Rome. Despite with my differences with Catholic ideas, this is a penetrating analysis as socialism is on the rise in the US. Tolerance is preached, though that means Christians must be kept out of the public square, and eventually- in the name of peace- exterminated. Human beings will worship, so they turn to the worship of man, which is also what is going on around us with the praise of who we are and the rejection of any idea of our fallenness.
- How the Church Fathers Read the Bible: A Short Introduction, Gerald Bray- very stimulating. Along the way Bray provides a good intro to doctrine, history, and hermeneutics. Engaging, accessible.
- Amidst Us Our Beloved Stands: Recovering Sacrament in the Baptist Tradition, Michael Haykin- This is a very good treatment of how Baptists have thought about and practiced baptism and communion. I have written a full review for Southwestern Journal of Theology.
- Chosen by God, R C Sproul- Returning to this classic reminded me of how great a teacher Sproul was and how much he influenced me.
- The Consequences of Ideas: Understanding the Concepts that Shaped Our World, R C Sproul- A well-done overview of Western philosophy. This book helped me think about how to get into ideas that shape our thinking and apply the scripture so that the biblical affirmations don’t just fall on the tough outer exterior.
- Merry & Bright: A Practical Guide to Celebrating Christmas to the Glory of God, Eric Smith- This is a helpful, enjoyable devotional. Eric’s devotional books have become sensational favorites in my family and my church because of their clarity, faithfulness, and grace. You can get Eric’s devotionals simply by contacting Sharon Baptist Church.
- The Causal & Casual in History, John Buchan (1929 Rede Lecture)- Enjoyable, interesting. He essentially argues that history cannot be seen merely as a science. He firsts tips his hat to some of the ways history can be seen as scientific but then argues it cannot be merely scientific because human nature and the vicissitudes of life fit no single paradigm or theory. He does this largely by pointing to a series of events (illustrative of many, many more) when large turns in history hinged on very minor things which could be seen as accidental. In this way he points to the very things which make counterfactual history so interesting and valuable to me. Many professional historians despise it, but I value counterfactual history not because it points to any different history we can know but because it illustrates the fragility of events and should point us to humility and even to ponder the sovereign hand of God in history. Buchan explicitly makes the point about humility and suggests the contemplation of God’s providence as well.
- The Whig Interpretation of History, Herbert Butterfield- Buchan prompted me to finally read this important work which I often see cited.
- The Origins of Wisdom: Chivalry, O. B. Duane- A nice brief overview of the history and ideals of chivalry. It does not scoff at chivalry as seems to be the custom today, but takes it seriously noting its weaknesses and decline but asserting its value and continuing influence
- Saving Bravo: The Greatest Rescue Mission in Navy SEAL History, Stephen Talty – An amazing story, even though the author meandered into the backgrounds of various other people in the story rather than staying on the main track, which I found distracting. The basic story of a middle-aged officer having to survive behind enemy lines for many days in Viet Nam and the US effort to rescue him- because he knew too much classified info to allow him to be captured- is fascinating, as is the effort of those who eventually rescued him. An inspiring story of perseverance, courage, bravery. The main guy does come off looking bad I how he grasped at fame after being rescued. The guy who rescued him, however, is great in how he dealt with adversity. Because of this I watched the movie “BAT 21” which tells this story, but it distorts the story and isn’t as compelling.
- Indestructible: One Man’s Rescue Mission That Changed the Course of WWII, John Bruning- fascinating story, well told. I had never heard of Pappy Gunn and here I learn what an influence he had on WWII in the Pacific theater, all the while worrying about his family who had been left behind in Manilla when the Japanese overran it. There are many portraits here of perseverance, and it is compelling for that reason alone. Kids having appendectomies without being anesthesia and without antibiotics, the ingenuity and grit of Pappy as he came up with new ways to arm aircraft, guided planes into a makeshift landing strip with just a flashlight taped to a frying pan, and more! I loved the part where engineers in the US told Pappy his plans for arming certain planes could never work only for Pappy to tell him he’d already outfitted several planes in this same way on the field and they worked well!
- The Saga of Pappy Gunn, Gen George C. Kenney- I liked the previous book so I read this one by Pappy’s commanding officer. Not as exciting, but it was helpful to read the official take as well.
- River of the Gods: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile, Candice Millard- she tells a story very well. I loved her previous three books, but the main guys in this story weren’t likeable.
- Uncommon Valor: The Recon Company that Earned Five Medals of Honor and Included America’s Most Decorated Green Beret, Stephen Moore- This wasn’t the best in terms of weaving the different stories together, but it is a deeply compelling collection of stories particularly in terms of bravery and perseverance of these soldiers. I was struck by 1) how commonly these men thought of others over themselves, 2) the use of other ethnic groups in the region who disliked the Vietnamese, 3) how well the US soldiers treated the Montagnards(always put them on the rescue choppers first), 4) how often it seemed that everyone was injured 5) injured men carrying on like it wasn’t a big deal, 6) the resilience of the enemy even though they were getting hit with serious ordinance from jets, prop planes, and helicopters; but they kept coming
- The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution, John Oller- Very good! It was great to find a book that, while not hagiographic, did not mind affirming the heroic, especially of one whom I’ve appreciated since boyhood. Oller seemed to be careful with sources and in piecing together the evidence we have. Marion did not defeat the British army in the South, but he kept them from moving on to victory. In a sense he “held the fort” (metaphorically) for a few years until more help (in the form of Greene) could come. He did this while friends were killed and had their homes burned, while losing his own home, while being maligned by other SC militia leaders, while being looked down upon by the leaders of the Continental Army. He stuck with it and in the end was instrumental to victory.
- I Will Hold: The Story of USMC Legend Clifton B. Cates, from Belleau Wood to Victory in the Great War, James Carl Nelson- I am fascinated by Cates, but this book is just average. At the beginning and end it focuses on him, but in WWI it seems to lose focus on Cates and to slip into mere recounting of battle facts. Plenty of data, but not compellingly told. Still, I am glad there is at least this book on Cates. I haven’t found another.
- Legend: The Incredible Story of Green Beret Sergeant Roy Benavidez’s Heroic Mission to Rescue a Special Forces Team Caught Behind Enemy Lines, Eric Blehm- an amazing story.
- Leadership in War: Essential Lessons from Those Who Made History, Andrew Roberts- Roberts writes very well. More of a history book with some leadership lessons tacked on, but I love good history!
- Give Me Tomorrow: The Korean War’s Greatest Untold Story — The Epic Stand of the Marines of George Company, Patrick O’Donnell- interesting. I appreciated learning more about the Korean War, which I had known little about before the last year or so of reading. A compelling tale of perseverance.
- When Character Was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan, Peggy Noonan- I love Reagan and enjoyed Noonan’s account. The audiobook is significantly abridged even though it doesn’t indicate that.
- The Last Hill: The Epic Story of a Ranger Battalion and the Battle That Defined WWII, Bob Drury and Tom Clavin- For the last few years I watch for anything written by these two men. This is another good one, history engagingly told. I learned new info on Pointe Du Hoc and I wasn’t previously familiar with “The Hill.” Powerful examples of perseverance
- Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author, Herman Wouk- I stumbled across this one. I have not read Wouk’d famous works, but was intrigued by the idea of reflections of a prominent author after 100 years! On that point, it was quite interesting.
- Portrait of a Father, Robert Penn Warren- Interesting. I can’t imagine this getting published except that the author was already famous. Still, good things here in terms of reflection on humanity, just usually oblique.
- I enjoyed several Louis L’Amour novels again this year. How the West Was Won is a longer, wide sweeping novel, with the classic L’Amour focus on brave people willing to work hard. Matagorda and The Empty Land were good too. Here’s a quote: “We’re all responsible. … Law and order is a job for all of us. If we shirk it long enough we will have anarchy, and all we’ve built will be destroyed.” I also enjoyed some short story collections- which I hadn’t before. I searched for Bowdrie’s Law because Reagan alluded to Bowdrie in the ceremony honoring L’Amour. The Strong Shall Live is an enjoyable collection of short stories, especially “Bluff Creek Station,” which is a rich reflection on life.
- Deep Sleep(Devin Gray, Book 1) & Coming Dawn(Devin Gray series, book 2), Steven Konkoly- I continue to enjoy Konkoly’s stories. This series like several of his others deal with special agents thwarted high profile good guys. Action and intrigue. Language warning.
- The Two Towers, & The Return of the King,J R R Tolkien- Just as good this time through. Full of lessons as Tolkien brings to bear all that he thinks concerning the way life ought to be and the realities of a fallen world
- The Black Tulip, Alexandre Dumas- Not the best from Dumas (Dumas was often paid by the word, and it shows here), but interesting especially with a view on the darker side of William of Orange before he became the Protestant hero in Britain.
- Maria Chapdelaine, Louis Hémon, – I listened to this because Anthony Esolen mentioned it. Only fair in terms of story but did represent hardy people in Canada wresting a living from harsh conditions while holding to one another and their Catholic faith.
- The Little Minister, J M Barrie- Interesting story with some good insights on pastoral ministry, with examples of ministry ought to be, common problems (gossip, people watching a minister very closely and holding him to too high a standard, affectation, etc.).
- The Red Pony, John Steinbeck- I read this and thought, “So what?” With the Grandfather I could see some point- perhaps that the father wanted to live up to the grandfather but missed love. It seemed, overall, a rambling story without a point
- Right Ho, Jeeves, P G Wodehouse- finally completed my first Wodehouse. I tried one before but didn’t finish it. I was ready to stop this one shortly after starting but persevered. I appreciate watching slapstick but not so much reading (or listening to it). There were humorous moments, but overall, it was not an enjoyable experience, and I am glad to have finished it so that I might move on.
- Fightin’ Fool, Max Brand- Inferior compared to Louis L’Amour. Brand does have some good turns of phrase. This is more of a comedy, almost slapstick in places.
- The Black Monk and Peasants, Anton Chekhov- I don’t see the point in either of these stories unless it is to describe life in Russia at the time as miserable and brutish. The back cover describes these stories as “Two masterpieces of psychological insight”, but I don’t see it.
- The Happy Return, C S Forester- I did not like Hornblower at all. Perhaps we are to identify with his struggles, but he just seems to be a very poor model of leadership to me.