The Books I Read in 2018
As I type this, all but a handful of my books are packed away in boxes. I have no bookcases in my house. The only books I have remaining with me are held in a small drawer underneath the TV. Why? Because we’re moving. We’re not going far, but it’s hard to move if you don’t pack your stuff.
I packed the books in late September, believing we’d be in our new house by mid-November. My books would make their reappearance in my life around Thanksgiving, and I’d spend the month of December soaking in their pages. But that didn’t happen. My books are still in boxes.
Boxes or no boxes, though, 2018 was still a good year of reading for me, if not a bit different and more complicated. I read more on Kindle. I listened to more audio books. I took longer breaks than planned. But at the end of the year, I look back with gratitude that God gave us the gift of language, the ability to write, and for all the writers who labored over every word to give the world a treasure.
Here’s what I read in 2018 in chronological order. First, the best. Then, the rest.
This was a weird book. Winner of the Man Booker prize last year, it reads like a series of letters recounting the events leading up to and days after the death of Abraham Lincoln’s eleven-year-old son. Grounded in the historical fact of the young Lincoln's death and his father's grief, the book takes those facts and greif and stretches them into a tale of the afterlife that includes some not-so savory characters, a reverend, and the young,recently deceased Lincoln boy. They all exist in this ghostly otherworld—not heaven and not hell. Over the course of the book, they all vanish from this ethereal world into whatever lays beyond. Mixed with both humor and sorrow, Saunders’s book takes the reader on a weird journey that at it’s best takes you inside the intense grief of a father and makes you feel all the feelings you never want to feel again. It also shows us the hopelessness of a world without a real Heaven and a real Savior who gives real assurance.
“How was I (how are any of us) to do other than that which we, at that time, actually do?”
Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson
My first biography of 2018 was a good one. I wish-listed this book when it released late last year and picked it up on Audible to give it a go. Leonardo da Vinci was a fascinating guy. He took his art seriously and created masterpieces by pulling from experiments and observations in science, math, and geography. This multi-disciplinary life gave him insights many never attain. The Mona Lisa’s smile, for example, is a masterpiece in itself, never mind the rest of the painting. He studied the muscles of the lips, even peeling the skin off of cadavers to find the proper movements. His notebooks are filled with insights and observations well ahead of his time. If they were publish in his lifetime, it’s very possible we would recognize Leonardo as the father of science and math in the same way, if not more so, we admire him for his art.
For a taste of the book, you can read an excerpt from Isaacson here.
“An object will display the greatest difference of light and shade when it is seen in the strongest light. . . . But this should not be much used in painting, because the works would be crude and ungraceful. An object seen in a moderate light displays little difference in its light and shade, and this is the case towards evening or when the day is cloudy; works painted then are tender, and every kind of face becomes graceful. Thus, in everything extremes are to be avoided: Too much light gives crudeness; too little prevents our seeing.”
Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition by Christine D. Pohl
Pohl traces the history of Christian hospitality from the first century down to today. In doing so, she presents the biblical case for welcoming strangers and serving the least of these. It’s an eye-opening look at the importance hospitality has played in the growth of Christianity throughout the centuries. It is especially helpful, I think, for those of us living in the individualized Western world, where our privacy is prioritized and hospitality fits in the most extreme margins of our lives.
“Our contemporary situation is surprisingly similar to the early Christian context in which the normative understandings and practices of hospitality were developed. We, like the early church, find ourselves in a fragmented and multicultural society that yearns for relationships, identity, and meaning. Our mobile and self-oriented society is characterized by disturbing levels of loneliness, alienation, and estrangement. In a culture that appears at times to be overtly hostile to life itself, those who reject violence and embrace life bear powerful witness.”
How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds by Alan Jacobs
Jacobs’s book is a great achievement. It’s a short book that helps us think. Is there anything more needed today than the ability to think well? I think not. In a fractured world, the ability to think rightly is one of the great assets one can bring to the table. But the problem is that so many don’t care about thinking well. They just want to feel well. Thinking and feeling are not at odds, but if we aren’t careful, feeling can overtake us. To think well means we must face our feelings and interpret them through different lenses. If our only desire is to seek, kill, and destroy those on the other side, our ability to think will be greatly hindered. If, however, we seek to understand one another and are able to face the fear of being wrong, we will find that our ability to think increases a hundredfold. In this book, Jacobs does a service to us all. He disarms our need to be right and gives us tools to help us think.
“The person who genuinely wants to think will have to develop strategies for recognizing the subtlest of social pressures, confronting the pull of the ingroup and disgust for the outgroup. The person who wants to think will have to practice patience and master fear”
Grant by Ron Chernow
Chernow’s biography of Grant is a masterpiece. It’s one of the best biographies I’ve ever read. Part of that may be my surprise at how misunderstood Grant was both in his own time and today, especially in the southern part of the US. Grant is not given the respect he is due in the South. He is seen as a drunk idiot who had numbers on his side during the Civil War. Robert E. Lee is the real hero for southerners but it is Grant who deserves the respect and honor of a great general. He may not have been the most important president in our country’s history, but he was certainly the most important general. For as bloody and devastating as the Civil War was, it could have been much worse had another man been running the army of the North. Grant was a gentle man who sought peace and equity to a world at war, both ideologically and physically.
“Summing up Grant’s career, Frederick Douglass wrote: “In him the Negro found a protector, the Indian a friend, a vanquished foe a brother, an imperiled nation a savior.”
Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover
Westover’s life has been nothing short of remarkable. Growing up in a Mormon home separated from the world, she never went to school until the stepped foot on the campus of BYU. She taught herself enough to score a high mark on the ACT and parlayed that into a stint at Cambridge and Harvard. Westover is the America Dream in action, rising above her circumstances to achieve great things. But this story is not about her achievements. The title of the book is a bit misleading as well. You would think it’s about how she educated herself and arrived in the world. Instead, it’s a story of family and struggle. It’s about the hard things of life and how those hard things cut families off from one another and bring them back together. It’s a sad story in many ways, with hope sprinkled in when most needed. It’s a great book that takes you inside the family dynamics that can result when a father is an end-time prepper and the family is beset with mental illness.
“My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.”
Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock by Gregory Thornbury
I had no idea who Larry Norman was until I read this. His story is amazing and tragic and confusing. The book was written so well I forgot I was reading a biography. I felt like I was living life alongside Larry Norman. When I reached the end I was sad it was over and wished so many things had worked out differently for him.
“Larry Norman was a holy fool, often grossly misunderstood, certainly harassed—mostly by fellow Christians—and uniquely constituted to attract controversy. To put it both mildly and crudely, Larry Norman wanted it both ways; he wanted to rock and he wanted to talk about Jesus, he wanted to follow Jesus and to offend other followers of Jesus, for people to enjoy his music but also be discomfited by it. Larry Norman lived a life of fantasy, especially to people who consider themselves faithful believers. He pretty much did as he pleased. He sang about what he felt, made a living doing what he loved, countenanced to no authorities over him, and died a cult hero whose followers and family had to clean up the messes he left behind. Like Soren Kierkegaard’s self-understanding, he lived up to the moniker ‘that individuals,’ the person who is convinced that ‘wherever there is a crowd there is untruth.’”
My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer by Christian Wiman
When a poet writes prose, you know it’s going to be imaginative. But Wiman doesn’t stray too far into the obscure with this book. He deals with faith in light of his cancer. Suffering didn’t destroy his faith. In many ways, it created it. With writing that is, at times, overwhelmingly brilliant, Wiman gives us a look at the insides of a man on a journey toward Christ. He doesn’t have it all figured out (who of us does, really?) but he’s honest about what he sees. And what he sees is Jesus.
“Even when Christianity is the default mode of a society, Christ is not.”
Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by David J. Garrow
It’s been 50 years since Martin Luther King, Jr. Was assassinated outside the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Fifty years later, many wonder how King’s dream is fairing. It’s not as true as he hoped—as we hoped. Instead, racial tension still pulses through our country. It’s a news-cycle staple so long after the death of the Civil Right’s most glorious decade.
Garrow’s biography of MLK won the Pulitzer Prize in 1897. So it comes with substantial critical acclaim. It is well deserved, from what I can tell. Garrow tells the story of King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) through a compelling narrative. King was a man marked by conviction. He believed in non-violent action more firmly than anyone else of his era. He stood tall and that standing cause many to hate him. Eventually, it led to his assassination. King was a complicated man, as all men are. He was not perfect. No man is. But his legacy of fighting for justice lives on today. And one day, though it won’t come easy or quickly. His dream will come to life in fullness.
“Tell Montgomery they can keep shooting and I’m going to stand up to them; tell Montgomery they can keep bombing and I’m going to stand up to them. If I had to die tomorrow morning I would die happy because I’ve been to the mountaintop and I’ve seen the promised land and it’s going to be here in Montgomery.”
Free at Last?: The Gospel in the African-American Experience by Carl F. Ellis Jr.
If you want to understand the African-American experience in the church, read this book. I saw my friend Jared Wilson post a picture of this on his Instagram account a while ago. I added it to my wish list that day and forgot about it until I had some Amazon money to spend. A year ago I decided to diversify my reading population to include more authors of color. I realized I was living inside a white bubble, and I didn’t know how to break out. So I started reading. Through that reading, I’ve learned to see the black experience in America with new eyes. I have not experienced what they have, but I believe them when they say it’s hard. And this book helped me see the gospel in the African-American experience. It should be required reading.
“Slavery had opened the door for the emergence of unchristian Christianity-ism.”
Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis by Craig A. Carter
I enjoyed this book as much as any other I read this year. I always like reading about the Bible and how one preaches the Bible, but what Carter offers is more than just that. It’s a look at the historical importance of preaching Christ from all of Scripture. He opens with the question of if one can be faithful to preach Jesus as the suffering servant in Isaiah 53. He goes on to present a case as to why that’s the only way to preach it. But through the pages, he takes us down the paths of those who would argue against it, and he shows why they’re wrong not only because of their hesitancy to see Christ but because they’re being intellectually dishonest even as they seek intelligence. Carter’s work is a gift to the church and to every gospel preacher.
“Nothing is more fundamental to the Christian life than reading the text of Scripture and submitting one’s life to the One who speaks His Word through the human words of the inspired text. And nothing is more damaging to the Christian life than the attempt to secularize this act of reading; to do so is to act like an atheist. If reading in faith is how we become Christians, reading without faith is how we become atheists. So the stakes are high”
The Gospel Comes with a House Key: Practicing Radically Ordinary Hospitality in Our Post-Christian World by Roasria Butterfield
What an important book! I’ve loved Rosaira Butterfield since the day she came and spent the weekend with us at Immanuel Church a few years ago. Her faith is real, and it is evident. She’s warm and hospitable in conversation and her words to the church are as important as ever. If we are to make a mark on the world with the love of Christ, we must cultivate homes to house that love and invite others into them. Hospitality is a gospel command—one we’ve too long ignored.
“God calls us to practice hospitality as a daily way of life, not as an occasional activity when time and finance allow. Radically ordinary hospitality means this: God promises to put the lonely in families (Ps. 68:6), and he intends to use your house as living proof.”
A Gentleman in Moscow: A Novel by Amor Towles
I saw this book make the rounds last year. It seemed almost everyone loved it. I finally got around to checking it out. I had to wait quite a while from my library. It was worth the wait. The story follows a man sentenced to imprisonment in a hotel. He can’t leave without being shot on the spot. The entire story takes place inside the walls of a great hotel in Moscow. The characters are fully-formed, well created, and interesting. The story is told beautifully through great writing. I highly recommend it.
“Alexander Rostov was neither scientist nor sage; but at the age of sixty-four he was wise enough to know that life does not proceed by leaps and bounds. It unfolds. At any given moment, it is the manifestation of a thousand transitions. Our faculties wax and wane, our experiences accumulate and our opinions evolve--if not glacially, then at least gradually. Such that the events of an average day are as likely to transform who we are as a pinch of pepper is to transform a stew.”
This is a story of hate—at least that’s what our narrator, Mr. Bendrix proclaims in the opening pages. But whom is the focus of the hate? Well, that all depends on where you are in the story. It begins with a hatred for a husband, then turns to a hatred for a mistress, and ends with a hatred for God—or at least that’s what Mr. Bendrix would lead you to believe. A hate-filled story this is not, though it does include plenty of it. Rather, this is the story of one adulterous woman’s way to God and the man who loves her is left to deal with the after-effects. He tells God he hates him. But that’s quite the change from before. At least he recognizes someone there to hate. One has to wonder whether he even understands his story of hate. He got it wrong so many times before. Perhaps he’s wrong again.
“It's a strange thing to discover and to believe that you are loved when you know that there is nothing in you for anybody but a parent or a God to love.”
Holiness by John Webster
Reading John Webster is like diving into the deep end of the theological pool and drowning. But you don’t mind it at all. It’s the kind of theological weight that lights your heart on fire. Webster places thoughts in your mind, wrapped in biblical truth and glory, that come alive and dance in your mind for days. The focus in this volume is on God’s holiness. God’s holiness has never felt so massive to me. If you need a sense of God’s wonder, buy this book today.
“Through the Spirit, Jesus Christ the exalted one generates a new mode of common human life, the life of the Church. To participate in that common human life, hearing the gospel in fellowship under the word of God and living together under the signs of baptism and the Lord's supper, is to exist in a sphere in which God's limitless power is unleashed and extends into the entirety of human life: moral, political, cultural, affective, intellectual. Reason, like everything else, is remade in the sphere of the Church; and theological reason is an activity of the regenerate mind turned towards the gospel of Jesus Christ, which constitutes the Church's origin and vocation.”
Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry
Whew. This book has been on my “to read” list for a long time. I’ve never heard a bad review. I see why. It’s beautifully written. The story is compelling without being overwhelming. The truth laced throughout is poignant and profound. Jayber Crow is the town barber, and if you want to know the truth of the world, it’s best to go sit in his shop for a while. You can’t get much better than this novel. It’s worth a re-read for me, probably next year.
“The mercy of the world is you don't know what's going to happen.”
Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend by Larry Tye
Maybe the best debate in sports is the topic of the greatest pitcher of all time. So many have a strong case: Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax, Greg Maddux. Roger Clemens, and so on. But one name I rarely see mentions is Satchel Paige. That’s probably because he spent most of his career in the Negro Leagues, only breaking into the Majors late in life. Ask anyone who faced him, and they’ll say he was the best. He had innumerable pitches. He could throw them all. He was fast. He was accurate. He was entertaining. He was the whole package. And, amazing as it sounds, he pitched his last Major League game at the age of 59. He was, and is, the best pitcher of all time. I’ll argue that until the day I die.
Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal by Richard F. Lovelace
If you care at all about the Lord’s work in this world, read this book. Lovelace combines devotion, history, and biblical exegesis to create a history of revival. So many of my heroes in the faith point to this book as an influence, and I understand why. Written in 1979, it is still as relevant, if not more so, than at the time of publishing. Lovelace says at one point, “There are not many Evangelical theologians of hope.” I wonder, are there more today? This book will help us become them.
“Most congregations of professing Christians today are saturated with a kind of dead goodness, an ethical respectability which has its motivational roots in the flesh rather than in the illuminating and enlivening control of the Holy Spirit.”
On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books by Karen Swallow Prior
How many top books lists did this make? It should have made all of them. A book about books is hard to pull off in an interesting way. It’s hard to comment on the source material and make a meaningful contribution. But Prior does just that. She gives fresh insight to old works while contributing something new to the world. In arguing that books show us the virtues we must live by, she models those virtues through her writing. It is kind, humble, loving, and everything else that is good. Furthermore, she makes the reader long to read the great books of the world. She accomplishes her goal: to urge the reader to read well.
“Reading well adds to our life—not in the way a tool from the hardware store adds to our life, for a tool does us no good once lost or broken, but in the way a friendship adds to our life, altering us forever.”
The Storm-Tossed Family: How the Cross Reshapes the Home by Russell Moore
Moore’s book on the family was totally different from my expectations. I’m not sure what I expected. I knew it’d be good. Moore is always good. But I didn’t expect it to be this good. You’ve never read anything like this. Moore’s biblical insight on the family is for everyone, because we all have a family of some kind. You cannot pick this book up, read it cover to cover, and not be changed in some profound way. Not only are Moore’s insights profound, his writing is, as always, superb. I both laughed and cried throughout. The chapter on aging is worth the price of the book. I read the final pages aloud to my wife and was surprised to find myself moved to tears. Even after a first reading, the power is still there.
“Family is not the gospel. If you think that family is the source of ultimate meaning in your life, then you will expect your family to make you happy, to live up to your expectations.”
Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight
Frederick Douglass is one of America’s most important men. A slave turned freedom fighter, Douglass did as much as anyone in America to change the attitudes about slavery. He’s an American hero that everyone should know more about. Blight’s biography does the man justice. It’s honest and thorough, encouraging and insightful. It’s long, but well worth the effort.
The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God's Mercy by Tim Keller
Very few men have helped me as much as Tim Keller. Through his writing and preaching, I have gained insight into the Bible that I think about daily, and that’s not an exaggeration. In his latest book, Keller uses the minor prophet book of Jonah to help us see the glory of Jesus. What struck me most about this book is that it really is a 101 course on Keller’s ministry. So much of what he’s written and spoken about over the course of his life can be found in this little book.
“Jesus is the prophet Jonah should have been. Yet, of course, he is infinitely more than that. Jesus did not merely weep for us; he died for us. Jonah went outside the city, hoping to witness its condemnation, but Jesus Christ went outside the city to die on a cross to accomplish its salvation.”
Prayer: How Praying Together Shapes the Church by John Onwuchekwa
John O’s book on prayer is simply exceptional. It helped me think about the way I pray—or don’t pray—with my church. Focusing not only on personal prayer but corporate prayer, he shows us that God has more for us than the stale prayers we tend to pray together. God has all the storehouses of his grace for us, and if we’ll learn to pray together, we’ll grow together in Christ.
“A church that practices prayer is more than a church that learns; it’s also a church that leans. . . . We learn dependence by leaning on God together.”
The Aeneid by Virgil
Exit West: A Novel by Mohsin Hamid
The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis
The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis
The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis
Aesop's Fables by Aesop
The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place by Andy Crouch
Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance
12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You by Tony Reinke
2,000 Years of Christ's Power Vol. 1: The Age of the Early Church Fathers by Nick Neeham
The Passionate Preaching of Martyn Lloyd-Jones by Steven J. Lawson
From Weakness to Strength: 8 Vulnerabilities That Can Bring Out the Best in Your Leadership by Scott Sauls
A Prayer Journal by Flannery O’Connor
Spirits in Bondage: A Cycle of Lyrics by C.S. Lewis
Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home by Jen Pollock Michel
Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America First first edition by Gilbert King
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
Miracles by C.S. Lewis
Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot
Home: A Novel by Marilynne Robinson
Housekeeping: A Novel by Marilynne Robinson
Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer by C.S. Lewis
The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. And E.B. White
Lila: A Novel by Marilynne Robinson
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays by C.S. Lewis
The Boys of Winter: The Untold Story of a Coach, a Dream, and the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team by Wayne Coffey
Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories by C.S. Lewis
Only Killers and Thieves: A Novel by Paul Howarth
Paul: A Biography by N.T. Wright
Out of the Silent Planet (Space Trilogy) by C.S. Lewis
Paul: In Fresh Perspective by N.T. Wright
The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation by Rod Dreher
Three Nights in August by Buzz Bissinger
Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall
An American Marriage: A Novel by Tayari Jones
The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis
Autumn: A Novel (Seasonal Quartet) by Ali Smith
How to Get Unstuck: Breaking Free from Barriers to Your Productivity by Matt Perman
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
The Heart of the Church: The Gospel's History, Message, and Meaning by Joe Thorn
The Character of the Church: The Marks of God's Obedient People by Joe Thorn
The Life of the Church: The Table, Pulpit, and Square by Joe Thorn
Just Kids by Patti Smith
The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis
Christian Reflections by C.S. Lewis
Reflections on the Psalms by C.S. Lewis
The Glory of Their Times: The Story of the Early Days of Baseball Told by the Men Who Played It by Lawrence S. Ritter
Faithful and Virtuous Night: Poems by Louise Glück
Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur
Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot
Versed by Rae Armantrout
Prince Caspian by C.S. Lewis
How to Read and Understand the Biblical Prophets by Peter J. Gentry
It's a Long Story: My Life by Willie Nelson
If You Bite and Devour One Another by Alexander Strauch
Man Overboard!: The Story of Jonah by Sinclair Ferguson
Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson's First Season by Jonathan Eig
The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson
The Necessity of Prayer: Why Christians Ought to Pray by E.M. Bounds
The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels by Jon Meacham
The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt
The Bassoon King: Art, Idiocy, and Other Sordid Tales from the Band Room by Rainn Wilson
Tenth of December: Stories by George Saunders
The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories by Leo Tolstoy
All That's Good: Recovering the Lost Art of Discernment by Hannah Anderson
Made for Friendship: The Relationship That Halves Our Sorrows and Doubles Our Joys by Drew Hunter
True Friendship by Vaughan Roberts
Woke Church: An Urgent Call for Christians in America to Confront Racism and Injustice by Eric Mason
The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You by John C. Maxwell
The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King
Gay Girl, Good God: The Story of Who I Was, and Who God Has Always Been by Jackie Hill Perry
Love Came Down at Christmas: Daily Readings for Advent by Sinclair Ferguson