Below are my favorite books that I read this year:
1. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson (2011)
From 1915 to 1970, 6 million black southerners to the North, the greatest migration of any people in American history. This book tells the story of this migration by telling the stories of three different people: Ida Mae, who in 1937 left central Mississippi for Chicago; George Starling, who in 1945 left central Florida for Harlem; and Robert Foster, who in 1953 left Monroe, Louisiana for Los Angeles. It is a captivating read, as it speaks to the brutal inequality these and others dealt with in the Jim Crow South and to the courage they exhibited by leaving everything they knew for the possibility of a better life.
Quote: "The layers of accumulated assets built up by the better-paid dominant caste, generation after generation, would factor into a wealth disparity of white Americans having an average net worth ten times that of black Americans by the turn of the twenty-first century, dampening the economic prospects of the children and grandchildren of both Jim Crow and the Great Migration before they were even born."
2. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (2016)
A beautifully moving story about a neurosurgeon, who at 36, receives a fatal diagnosis of lung cancer. His thoughtful reflections on life and death, both as the doctor and the patient, are great reminders of what is truly important in life and how death awaits us all.
Quote: “Don’t think I ever spent a minute of any day wondering why I did this work, or whether it was worth it. The call to protect life—and not merely life but another’s identity; it is perhaps not too much to say another’s soul—was obvious in its sacredness. Before operating on a patient’s brain, I realized, I must first understand his mind: his identity, his values, what makes his life worth living, and what devastation makes it reasonable to let that life end. The cost of my dedication to succeed was high, and the ineluctable failures brought me nearly unbearable guilt. Those burdens are what make medicine holy and wholly impossible: in taking up another’s cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight.”
3. The Looming Tower: Al-Queda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright (2007)
This is a fascinating read, focusing on the birth of radical Islam in the 20th century. This book won the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction in 2007 and I understand why. Wright does a great job providing rich history in a seamless, interesting way. One of the biggest ideas I gleaned from this work was how critical Osama bin Laden really was at fanning the flames of hatred towards the United States, ultimately leading to the attacks of 9/11.
Quote: “Radicalism usually prospers in the gap between rising expectations and declining opportunities. This is especially true where the population is young, idle, and bored; where the art is impoverished; where entertainment—movies, theater, music—is policed or absent altogether; and where young men are set apart from the consoling and socializing presence of women.”
4. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt (2013)
I meant to review this book with it's own blog post, but didn't get around to it. Though it's fourth on the list, this very accessible (not-too-academic) book was a huge paradigm shift for me. I've thought about it's principles many times since I finished it earlier this year, especially during the election season, when people seemed to be more divided politically than ever. Haidt is a social psychologist who looks into how moral psychology can help us understand our political and religious views better. We think we use our reason much more than we actually do, when in fact, our intuition/gut is much more involved in our judgments. He ultimately urges us towards empathy and humility in engaging with people who have ideas different than ours. A good introduction to this book is a 30 minute talk he gave at a Mockingbird conference, entitled "The Rationalist Delusion and the Perils of Certainty."
Quote: “Morality binds and blinds. It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.”
5. A Place on Earth by Wendell Berry (1983)
My third in the fictional Port William Series (previously read Hannah Coulter and Jayber Crow). I love Berry and his writings. There is a certain peace and wisdom in his words. Like others in the series, this book is rich with stories of an imperfect, yet loving community in the farmland of Kentucky. I'm looking forward to the next one.
“Now, as from the extremity of his embarrassment, she grows aware of his caring for her. She understands, with shame at her misapprehension, that he is not there because he is flattered by her small attentions; he has come to offer himself. In all her life she has known nothing like it. She sees how free he leaves her. His love for her requires nothing of her, not even that she find it useful. He has simply made himself present, turning away, as he has now, to allow her to sleep if she wants to. She feels enclosed by this generosity as by a room, ample and light. Turning on her side, she does sleep.” - Hannah, speaking of Old Jack after having her baby
6. Jonathan Edwards: A Life by George Marsden (2004)
This was the last of four biographies I read within a year (Bonhoeffer, John Adams, Steve Jobs). I enjoyed it and would rank ahead of Bonhoeffer, but behind Adams and Jobs. Edwards was a brilliant man, pastor and theologian, and Marsden does a great job revealing all of these facets of his life.
Quote: “Having once thought that most of his parishioners shared the life-changing encounter with blazing beauty, it was all the harder for him to see them day after day preoccupied with petty jealousies, avarice, and lusts, and to endure their sullen expressions and bored irreverence as they went through the forms of weekly worship.”
7. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015)
I really appreciated hearing the perspective of Coates, a man who thoughtfully writes to his son of his experience of being black in this white dominated world. He speaks most of the preciousness of the black body and how many will try to abuse and destroy it. This book has helped me understand the fear that many people in our country face today and has challenged me think more about the privileges I and my ancestors have had purely because of our whiteness.
Quote: "But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming “the people” has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white."
8. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene (1951)
This was my second book by Greene after first reading The Power in the Glory. I really like Greene's style and themes. This is a book about two lovers mixed up in an adulterous relationship and about how they wrestle with God in the midst of their love and hate.
Quote: "I went to a priest two days ago before you rang me up and I told him I wanted to be a Catholic. I told him about my promise and about you. I said, I’m not really married to Henry any more. We don’t sleep together—not since the first year with you. And it wasn’t really a marriage, I said, you couldn’t call a registry office a wedding. I asked him couldn’t I be a Catholic and marry you?...No, no, no, he said, I couldn’t marry you, I couldn’t go on seeing you, not if I was going to be a Catholic. I thought, to hell with the whole lot of them and I walked out of the room where I was seeing him, and I slammed the door to show what I thought of priests. They are between us and God, I thought; God has more mercy, and then I came out of the church and saw the crucifix they have there, and I thought, of course, he’s got mercy, only it’s such an odd sort of mercy, it sometimes looks like punishment."
9. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance (2016)
I began reading this as it seemed most everyone else was. The New York Times says it's one of several books to explain the rise of Trump. It's basically about a rural working class white family, which is a microcosm of the hillbilly world described. Cycles of poverty, substance abuse, and family instability and dysfunction plague J.D.'s family and most of the families around him. Against the odds, and mostly due to a always present Mamaw along with some mentors along the way, J.D. breaks out of the cycle and ends up graduating from Yale Law School.
Quote: “If you believe that hard work pays off, then you work hard; if you think it’s hard to get ahead even when you try, then why try at all? Similarly, when people do fail, this mind-set allows them to look outward. I once ran into an old acquaintance at a Middletown bar who told me that he had recently quit his job because he was sick of waking up early. I later saw him complaining on Facebook about the “Obama economy” and how it had affected his life. I don’t doubt that the Obama economy has affected many, but this man is assuredly not among them. His status in life is directly attributable to the choices he’s made, and his life will improve only through better decisions. But for him to make better choices, he needs to live in an environment that forces him to ask tough questions about himself. There is a cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society or the government, and that movement gains adherents by the day.”
10. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K.A. Smith (2016)
After Smith's Desiring the Kingdom rocked my world several years ago, I was excited to see a shorter, less academic version of the concepts he previously laid out. In many ways, this book is a summary, but also has some fresh takes and new sections that DTK did not have. In it, he continues to remind us that what we do shapes what we love more than what we think. Also, he adds a particularly relevant warning to the rise of mega-churches, or really any church that removes the opportunity to corporately confess sin. He explains...
Quote: "In the 1980s, North American evangelicalism experienced an almost revolutionary innovation: what later came to be known as the megachurch…...One common aspect of traditional Christian worship that was excised from seeker-sensitive congregations was the practice of corporate confession of sin.....But what if the opportunity to confess is precisely what we long for?...What if we want to confess our sins and didn’t even realize it until given the opportunity?”
"Look--everybody knows there's something wrong with them. They just don't know what it is. Everybody wants confession, everybody wants some cathartic narrative for it. The guilty especially. And everybody's guilty." - Rust Cohle, True Detective