It’s now December, which means that, amid all the Christmas shopping and celebrating, publications put out their “best of” lists — movies, books, songs, etc. My favorites are always the book lists. Though often entertaining, they usually consist of a bunch of books that we will never read. The reasons for that are various — we don’t have the time being the most relevant — but the main one for me is this: I prefer old books to new books. C.S. Lewis put it best: “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.” (Read his whole essay on the subject here.)
So, I decided to make my own list. These are the 10 best books I read this year. A few of them were published this year, and admittedly none of them are very old (none were published before the 20th century). However, I think most of their reputations will stay with them for the long haul. I recommend all of these books and hope you choose to read them.
These books are in the order I read them.
The Great Debate by Yuval Levin
I was looking forward to the publication of The Great Debate for some time, and Yuval Levin did not disappoint. Levin’s contention that Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine represent the essential poles of our political democracy is quite persuasive. Though, as a Burkean himself, Levin is partial to Burke, his thought, and influence, Levin does not give short shrift to Paine. One can see attractive and necessary components of each man’s political philosophy that affect both the right and the left in America today. To have an abiding understanding of why there is a right and a left in this country and why they will always be represented in our political process, read this book.
Race and Reunion by David Blight
In this tour-de-force, Blight convincingly argues that the spiritual reunion of North and South in the wake of the Civil War and Reconstruction was achieved at the expense of racial equality and the civil rights of black Americans. Reunion was achieved no through building a new country, one based on the ideals summed up by Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural; rather, it was achieved through subjugating an entire race to a lower class, refusing to allow African-Americans to join the United States as true citizens equal to white people. The rights and liberties of black people, Blight poignantly remarks, “were slowly becoming sacrificial offerings on the altar of reunion.” This book, quite simply, belongs on the American history canon and deserves to be read by anyone interested in the country’s history.
Peace Child by Don Richardson
Richardson’s memoir of his time serving as a missionary to the Sawi people in Western New Guinea, Indonesia is a stirring account of how the gospel can be contextualized into all sorts of settings. Though the people he ministered to seemed beyond any kind of Christian outreach — the entire Sawi culture was based on deceit — Richardson somehow, by the grace of God, found a way to connect them to the Good News. Reading this book will make our efforts to contextualize the gospel to people living in very similar contexts seem pitiful, but also inspire us to be better.
Joy for the World by Greg Forster
Forster, who previously wrote a very helpful book on political philosophy from a Christian perspective, offers a way for cultural engagement for Christians sick of the culture wars in his magnificent Joy for the World. The life of the mind — glorifying God in the way we think — is one of the undersold aspects of the Christian tradition. Though many think of followers of Christ as fundamentalist rubes, Forster reveals a rich history of thought Christians can fall back on, and shows the way to engage with contemporary culture in a most effective way.
OK, more than the ten best books. These are perhaps the two best books to come out of evangelical Protestantism in the twentieth century. One can almost receive a full seminary education just by reading Packer and Stott. Of course right theology is not enough, but true obedience to God is impossible without it. Just as faith without works is dead, works without an understanding of God, his holiness, our sinfulness, and his wonderful grace are dead. Knowing God and The Cross of Christ focuses the mind on theological concepts in a readable way that enhances the mind and affects the emotions, if one reads closely enough. These are books to come back to again, and again, and again, and again.
Here I Stand by Roland Bainton
Because I am heading to Germany very soon, I wanted to gain a fuller understanding of German history. There is no better way to do that than to read about Martin Luther, in many ways the founder of the German nation, and there is no better book about him than this oldie-but-a-goodie by Roland Bainton. Bainton deftly shows the pieces of Protestantism slowly coming together for Luther, and the reader tracks with him the entire time. His portrayal of Luther and the Reformation he began reveals both how necessary the movement was, and also the excesses that Protestantism can trend toward if it is not careful. Though Bainton could have focused more on Luther’s shortcomings, particularly regarding his views at the end of his life toward Jews and his (lack of) action toward Anabaptists, discussions of both of which are relegated to the end of the book, Here I Stand is a powerful example of Christian history done extraordinarily well.
These two were paired because I think they are the two best war novels ever written. Each have pessimistic views on war, yet use entirely different styles. Both are entirely convincing.
Confession: I hated Catch-22 50 pages in. I was confused, didn’t understand why Heller wrote it in the style he did. It seemed so non-sensical. But the further I read, the more I understood how integral to the plot that style was. War is nonsensical. War often does not makes sense. War, even at its best and most justified, always causes destruction. Catch-22 with its inane twistedness and All Quiet with its commitment to realism, both capture this. Any good war novel — or movie, for that matter — will not look to glorify conflict but instead acknowledge the desperate and sad nature of any war. These two books do that in a very effective way.
Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Nowadays, community seems to be a buzzword throughout Christianity, but oftentimes it is simply jargon rather than a reflection of reality. In this short book, Bonhoeffer gives a powerful account of what the Christian life should look like when lived in community. It almost a manual, detailing what life should look like with others, how to do ministry, even how to spend time alone, which he ably shows is a necessity for any good community. Though not as well known as The Cost of Discipleship, this may well be the better book.
This, not The Chronicles of Narnia, is C.S. Lewis’s true counterpart to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. It is, in my opinion, the best thing he ever wrote. The Space Trilogy centers around Dr. Ransom, a philologist, who, in Out of the Silent Planet, is kidnapped and taken to Malacandra (or, Mars). Lewis’s writing is inimitable — when reading, one feels as if he is taking part in a particularly erudite and entertaining conversation. Rather than being straight allegory, as Narnia often is, Space deals with explicitly Christian themes in wonderfully surprising ways. Perelandra in particular is the best treatment of temptation, the effects of sin, and the sovereignty of God, at least for a novel, that I have ever read. Never again can one look at sin cavalierly after reading how Lewis deals with it. I cannot recommend this highly enough. One must simply read it.
Walking with God through Pain and Suffering by Timothy Keller
Timothy Keller is one of our great public intellectuals. The reader can always expect three things from Keller: 1) A summarized account of what scholars, mostly secular, have to say about a given topic, written in such a way as to be understandable to the knowledgeable layman; 2) a devotion to the great Reformed Protestant tradition; and 3) the presentation of gospel truth in a way that no one can dismiss lightly. His approach is absolutely perfect for the topic of suffering. The book is worth reading for his analysis of Job alone. His insights — among them, that it is not possible to come up with a truly satisfying theodicy, nor is it even necessary; that if suffering is a problem for the Christian, it is much more of a problem for the atheist; that nothing in the Christian religion promises good circumstances, but that God does promise to make good out of our circumstances — make this book a necessity for all believers.
11 More that Just Missed the Cut:
Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz
Horwitz is simply hilarious. Who knew a book about Civil War memory could be so funny?
Things that Matter by Charles Krauthammer
As someone who voted for Ron Paul and hopes his son wins the GOP nomination, I disagree with much of what Krauthammer has to say. But, man, can he write.
Wooden by Seth Davis
Davis does an excellent job of writing about Wooden the man, not the myth. Though Davis shows that Wooden was not perfect, as the Wooden mystique would have it, one cannot help but admire the greatest coach in the history of sport.
Memoirs of a Superfluous Man by Albert Jay Nock
Some of Nock’s views are borderline offensive, but that is part of what makes him such an interesting read. The elitist libertarian’s take on “literacy” is quite entertaining.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Gatsby, as a story, falls a bit short of “great book” status, but Fitzgerald’s prose style — sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph — is unmatched.
Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind by Mark Noll
Noll’s perspective on thinking like a Christian is illuminating. Anyone interested in this topic should read this book. And anything else Noll has written.
The Greatest Comeback by Patrick Buchanan
Buchanan’s polemical works are either loved or hated, but his autobiographical works stand apart. Right from the Beginning is by far the best memoir by an American political figure in recent memory, and The Greatest Comeback is of the same quality. Anyone interested in the presidency of Richard Nixon should read this book.
Men at Work by George Will
Reading Will’s book some two decades after he wrote — knowing the extent of the steroid scandal and the sabermetric revolution — is quite fascinating. Men at Work is worth the read for Will’s recollections of baseball lore by itself.
Turning Points by Mark Noll
Noll’s method of studying Christian history by looking at 12 different “turning points” is very effective, and could be used in studying other forms of history as well. I can think of no better way to understand the most important events, ideas, people, and theologies of Christianity, and of no better book to convey and analyze them.
Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life is both tragic and uplifting, sad and encouraging, scary and inspiring. Metaxas’s treatment reveals both the depths of man’s sinfulness and the potential for glory through the work of Jesus Christ.
Prayer by Timothy Keller
At times, Keller gets a little too deep into sociological studies, but he offers some practical patterns of prayer from the greats of the Reformation that add much to a personal prayer life.
What is your list?