This was a weird book-reading year for me. My life felt so full that much of my reading felt perfunctory (reading for work, reading for school, etc). My reading lacked the kind of spontaneity and randomness that I cherish—I did a lot less bookshelf browsing and a lot more reading what I had to read. To quote Dean Wormer, that’s no way to go through life. As a result, many of the best books I read were new—lots more recent titles than in years past. Let’s hope 2023 will be a more spontaneous and pleasurable reading year.
A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis (1961)
This book is so interesting. It reminds me, now that I think of it, of a scene from Steven Spielberg’s recent semi-autobiographical movie The Fabelmans. It depicts the divorce of the Spielberg character’s parents, and in the midst of a heated argument, he envisions himself directing the scene. It shows how his love of movies crowds in an infects the rest of his life, such that he cannot experience even his parents’ divorce unless it is through a lens. Lewis does something similar here. Of course, he is dealing with grief, but he is doing so in service of some of the most beautiful prose I have read. It’s a very helpful read, but it must have been quite the burden writing it.
The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present by Paul McCartney (2021)
McCartney doesn’t get nearly enough credit as a songwriter. No, his songs do not scan poetically like Bob Dylan’s do. But songwriting is more than words—it is music too. And no one has been better at writing ear worms than Sir Paul. It’s the way he combines the two—lyrics and music—that make him among the greats.
Based on a True Story: Not a Memoir by Norm Macdonald (2016)
This is probably the funniest book I have ever read, from perhaps the funniest human in history. But even more, the book is well written! It is engrossing. As the subtitle to the paperback edition puts it, it is not a memoir, so one should not read it as such. But one can also see, in the midst of farcical stories, the rich inner life of Norm. The kind that reads Russian literature and takes Christian faith seriously. RIP.
You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World by Alan Noble (2021)
This was the book I read this year that proved most helpful in my preaching. Noble has perfectly capture the contemporary spirit. Our whole world is ordered as if we are our own—but it is exactly this that is the source of so much of our pain and anxiety. Noble ably shows the weaknesses of our world, while pointing us to the grace of another.
Be Thou My Vision: A Liturgy for Daily Worship by Jonathan Gibson (2021)
For years, I have been trying to create my own personal liturgy, something I could use at home that would combine my own evangelical instincts with a more liturgical practice based on church history. For years, I have been unsuccessful. It turns out, Jonathan Gibson did it for me—and I am grateful for it! As a prayer guide, Gibson leads the pilgrim through praise, confession, absolution, petition, and more, using the Scriptures, free prayer, the prayers of the saints, and catechisms. This is now what I use for my regular devotions, and it has deepened my prayer life, broadened my prayer vocabulary, and brought me closer to God.
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, translated. by John Cardi (1321; 1970)
Starting in 2021, I read Dante’s masterwork along with thousands of others through “100 Days of Dante.” I had read The Inferno as an undergrad, and the reread did not disappoint—the late cantos were among the most hardcore things I’ve ever read. If I’m being honest, The Purgatorio and The Paradiso did not capture me quite so much—could I really be among those who count evil as more interesting than good?—though I am readily admit that it is my fault. I am looking forward to rereading this again in a few years, using a different translation.
The Scandal of Holiness: Renewing Your Imagination in the Company of Literary Saints by Jessica Hooten Wilson (2022)
Wilson is an excellent guide to 20th-century literature. I suppose the best praise I can give the book is that it caused me to want to read—and actually read—some of the books about which she writes.
Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s by Jeff Pearlman (2014)
This was candy. I devoured it.
Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep by Tish Harrison Warren (2021)
Warren has a knack for writing about deep, spiritual themes under the guise of everyday living. Our prayers are powerful.
Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Spirit and Flesh by Thomas Kidd (2022)
Thomas Kidd is one of the best American historians around, and this book continues a project of his, of covering the spiritual side of many of early America’s greatest people. (He has already written biographies of Patrick Henry, George Whitefield, and Benjamin Franklin.) None of what Kidd writes is necessarily surprising if one has read a bit about Jefferson. But Kidd, because of his theological and biblical proficiency, spots things about Jefferson and his America that other historians and writers are simply incapable of spotting. As I have written, “we cannot fathom the level of biblical literacy that existed not only for brilliant thinkers like Jefferson, but even for casual readers of the newspaper.” If I had to choose one Jefferson biography to recommend, it might be this one.
Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution by Carl R. Trueman (2022)
This is the shorter version of his book, which I recommended last year, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. Here is what I have written: “First, Trueman’s work really does explain much about our cultural milieu—including the ways it has seeped into the thought patterns of those who are, at least on the surface, contra mundum. (Take a look at the biggest hits on the Christian music charts and tell me that the expressive-individualized self does not have a foothold in the American church.) Second, Trueman’s work is a model for cultural engagement. There is a place for the jeremiad—much of the work of the prophets was in this mold. But if everyone’s pose toward the world is obviously antagonistic, our views end up in a cacophonous echo chamber, with none of our screeds actually convincing anybody. More of us—even if we are taking an oppositional stance—need to do the work of understanding. This book helps us to do so.”
Forgive: Why Should I and How Can I? by Timothy Keller (2022)
This is probably Keller’s best book since Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. Each page is teeming with theological insight and practical wisdom. My main takeaway: Forgiveness always includes a cost. To forgive someone else means you bear the cost of that person’s misdeeds—you take it upon yourself to not insist on what you believe is owed to you. Thus, Christ’s forgiveness for us includes the ultimate cost of death on the cross. Yet, forgiveness is always worthwhile, because it is only through that cost that we are freed from the shackles of self-righteousness and bitterness. Maybe my favorite read of the year, and one to return to again often.
The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis (1945)
It is amazing how many Lewis quotes I repeat over and over again are from this slim novel. Nobody understands the psychology of the Western sinner than CSL. It just feels like he is inside my brain.
The Philosophy of Modern Song by Bob Dylan (2022)
This book is hilarious, and inimitably Dylan. Here is my take: I think people are too quick to say Dylan is joking when, though certainly he is a prankster, we should be taking him seriously.
Tree and Leaf by J. R. R. Tolkien (1964)
“On Fairy Stories” and “Leaf by Niggle” are two of the best things I have ever read, and have influenced my thinking and preaching for years.
What did you read this year?