Wednesday, January 01, 2020

Favorite Books I Read in 2019

Here are my favorite books that I read in 2019:

1. Lewis on the Christian Life by Joe Rigney (2018)

I loved reading this book so much. Rigney does a masterful job at synthesizing Lewis's works to show the main ideas that fuel them all: I am here and now, God is here and now, God demands our all, every moment of life we're confronted with a Choice towards self/death/hell/emptiness or God/life/heaven/becoming truly human. This book makes me more appreciative of Lewis's brilliance in communicating great truth.

Quote: “Over time, the confusion of worldly, twisted pleasures with God’s design for pleasures builds up a crust around the soul that prevents us from knowing God….Rather than commit acts of high defiance, we drift almost passively and imperceptibly, away from God. As the crust around our souls builds up, we shy away from our spiritual duties. We grow reluctant to actually engage with God. Our sins become big enough to hinder prayer, but not large enough (so we think) to demand repentance. And so we drift and drift and drift.”

2. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (2016)

I checked this one out after being on one of Bill Gates 'best of' lists. It's a fascinating work of historical fiction, centered around Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, who is under house arrest in Moscow's Metropol Hotel in the early twentieth century. While most of the characters were interesting, the Count's civility and appreciation for the people/things around him were especially enjoyable to read. 

Quote: “For his part, the Count had opted for the life of the purposefully unrushed. Not only was he disinclined to race toward some appointed hour - disdaining even to wear a watch - he took the greatest satisfaction when assuring a friend that a worldly matter could wait in favor of a leisurely lunch or stroll along the embankment. After all, did not wine improve with age? Was it not the passage of years that gave a piece of furniture its delightful patina? When all was said and done, the endeavors that most modern men saw as urgent (such as appointments with bankers and the catching of trains), probably could have waited, while those they deemed frivolous (such as cups of tea and friendly chats) had deserved their immediate attention.”


3. Hellhound on his Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Hampton Sides (2010)

I think I read this book faster than any other, because it was so captivating. In one thread of the narrative, you are learning about prisoner #416J, Eric Galt, who we eventually come to know as James Earl Ray. We learn about his early life in and out of prison and his drifting all over the continent. In another thread, you are learning about Martin Luther King, Jr., his civil rights movement, and intimate snapshots of his personal life along the way. I realized that I didn't know much about this story, including that the hunt for James Earl Ray was one the largest manhunts in American history. A very educational and engaging read.

Quote: "For poverty is miserable. It is ugly, disorganized, rowdy, sick, uneducated, violent, afflicted with crime. Poverty demeans human dignity. The demanding tone, the inarticulateness, the implied violence deeply offended us. We didn’t want to see it on our sacred monumental grounds. We wanted it out of sight and out of mind."


4. The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

Although I was a reader in high school while the first few books of this series were released, for some reason, I never did pick them up. Over the years, I had heard that they were well written books and that I should give them a chance, even if I wasn't into wizards and fantasy writing that much (I had only seen two of the movies and though they were just okay).

I finally took the plunge at the beginning of this year. I enjoyed the first book, but really had to push through to make it through books 2, 3, and the first part of book 4. During this difficult run, I remember feeling like there was too much Quidditch, that many of the characters seemed flat, and that the writing was a bit more childish. However, once the Triwizard tournament selection started in The Goblet of Fire, I was hooked until the end. 

I did eventually come to love the world that Rowling created and see why there are so many hardcore fans out there. I think my favorite part of the whole series with the relationship between Harry and Dumbledore. Something about Dumbledore's calm strength and his love for Harry, though he often seemed distant, was endearing, especially in the face of Harry's fear, doubt, anger, and disappointment with life. 

5. To the Golden Shore by Courtney Anderson

I really enjoyed Judson's story and appreciate the many ways that if offered great perspective. Conditions of life were much more difficult in the early 19th century, and Judson willingly chose to endure more hardships and ended up experiencing a lot of additional suffering because of his dedication to bringing the gospel to Burma. This biography shows how so many revered him because of his lifelong efforts, both in Burma and the U.S., but it also revealed the broken man that he was, including his occasional doubt of the mission and how much of his motivation to become the first foreign US missionary stemmed from his ambition to be great in the eyes of others.

Quote: “There were two worlds, two lives, for each person: this one--brief, narrow, finite; and the hereafter-- eternal, limitless, infinite. Fame, to mean anything, should go with one into the next world, where one could enjoy it perpetually.”

6. Tattoos on the Heart by Father Greg Boyle (2010)

Engaging, funny, and heart-warming stories about the work that Father Greg Boyle and HomeBoy Industries are doing with gang members in L.A.. It's beautiful to see Boyle and his ministry give dignity and love to so many in cycles of shame, poverty, violence, and brokenness.

Quote: “No daylight to separate us...Only kinship. Inching ourselves closer to creating a community of kinship such that God might recognize it. Soon we imagine, with God, this circle of compassion. Then we imagine no one standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased. We stand there with those whose dignity has been denied. We locate ourselves with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless. At the edges, we join the easily despised and the readily left out. We stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.”

7. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

A great book summarizing the important discoveries in science (cosmology, chemistry, biology, astronomy, physics, zoology, etc.) and the people involved. Bryson does a good job at not getting too much in the weeds, but also sharing enough detail so that most of the book stays very interesting and engaging. 

I have three main take-aways from the book: 1) Our universe/world is an utterly fascinating place, 2) The fact that life (humans/animals/plants/etc.) exists and continues to exist is scientifically shown to be statistically improbable, 3) The history of scientific study reveals that while there have been smart people discovering amazing things, it's actually really hard to know what is true about our world and what we think we know today might completely change with time.

8. Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi

An insightful and compelling book, but also one that is hard to read because of the countless and consistent examples of violence, injustice, and inequality directed against black people over the history of this country. Dr. Kendi shows that from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration up through today, racial discrimination has always led to racial policies which has always led to ignorance and hate, not the other way around. 

In his words, “Time and again, powerful and brilliant men and women have produced racist ideas in order to justify the racist policies of their era, in order to redirect the blame for their era’s racial disparities away from those policies and onto Black people.” 

The challenge is to pursue antiracism, the belief that all racial groups truly are equal. However, since almost no one ever believes that they are being racist, it will take humility, courage, and a willingness to stand up to the backlash that often accompanies antiracist ideas.

9. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

After struggling through some older English fiction over the last few years, I was pleasantly surprised at how enjoyable this book was. From the beginning, I was taken in by Bronte's style and I loved who she created Jane Eyre to be. I appreciated her humility, strength, and independence, traits shining brightly as they are constantly juxtaposed against other characters around her. I'm now looking forward to watching the movie from 2011.

Quote: “I can live alone, if self-respect, and circumstances require me so to do. I need not sell my soul to buy bliss. I have an inward treasure born with me, which can keep me alive if all extraneous delights should be withheld, or offered only at a price I cannot afford to give.”

10. On Reading Well by Karen Swallow Prior

Prior makes a great case that the way to become the type of person who acts more virtuously is to imagine what virtue looks like and that one of the best ways to do that is through reading great literature. She says that good books can help us vicariously practice virtue, which helps to cultivate our desires towards the good, virtuous life. 

She takes 12 virtues (Cardinal: Temperance, Prudence, Justice, Courage; Theological: Faith, Hope, Love; Heavenly: Chastity, Diligence, Patience, Kindness, Humility) and pairs each one with a certain book (Ex. Temperance - The Great Gatsby), where she both elaborates on the meaning and history of the virtue, but shows how a book or a character in a book is teaching us about that particular virtue. I heartily agree with her thesis and I enjoyed her painting the picture of each virtue through the different stories presented. I had read some of the books she discussed and enjoyed remembering them again through the lens of a particular virtue. Other books I hadn't read and my interest was piqued to read them one day.

Honorable Mentions:
Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
The Locust Effect by Gary Haugen
Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Seculosity by David Zahl

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Best of the Decade (2010s): Books


Reading is one of my favorites things to do in life. Also, right up there, is creating and organizing lists to share about the books that I've most enjoyed and have shaped me most. That's why, despite this blog mostly being dormant during the year, I faithfully return at the end of each December to share my favorite books of that year (that post coming soon for 2019).

Therefore, creating this best of the decade list for books was quite enjoyable and it's my pleasure to share them below.

1. Lewis on the Christian Life by Joe Rigney (2018)


I loved reading this book so much. Rigney does a masterful job at synthesizing Lewis's works to show the main ideas that fuel them all: I am here and now, God is here and now, God demands our all, every moment of life we're confronted with a Choice towards self/death/hell/emptiness or God/life/heaven/becoming truly human. This book makes me more appreciative of Lewis's brilliance in communicating great truth.

Quote: “Over time, the confusion of worldly, twisted pleasures with God’s design for pleasures builds up a crust around the soul that prevents us from knowing God….Rather than commit acts of high defiance, we drift almost passively and imperceptibly, away from God. As the crust around our souls builds up, we shy away from our spiritual duties. We grow reluctant to actually engage with God. Our sins become big enough to hinder prayer, but not large enough (so we think) to demand repentance. And so we drift and drift and drift.”

2. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson (2014)

This is a riveting, well-written book about the countless encounters Stevenson has had with the wrongly accused and excessively punished in this country. From death row to juvenile facilities, he shows the injustice prevailing within our justice system and it is often maddening. Stevenson summarizes the book this way, "this book is about getting closer to mass incarceration and extreme punishment in America. It is about how easily we condemn people in this country and the injustice we create when we allow fear, anger, and distance to shape the way we treat the most vulnerable among us." 

Quote: “Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. Finally, I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.” 

3. Common Ground by Gordon Bals (2012)

This is hands down the best marriage book I've ever read. When Lauren and I were in a difficult place in our marriage a couple of months in, a counselor friend of mine recommended that we read this book. Time and time again, it proved to be so incredibly helpful as it laid out exactly what we were going through. In the book, Bals lays out a lot of wisdom about the lies we are tempted to believe, the unique struggles we face in the roles of husband and wife, and the unique ways we are called to love one another. I cannot recommend this book highly enough for those of you are married, especially if you're facing difficulty in relating to one another.

Quote: "God burdened Adam with futility to frustrate his desire to have impact...He burdened Eve with disappointment in relationships to frustrate her desire to be connected...The burden of Genesis makes clear that the marriage relationship will be more vexing for the wife…The marital relationship is easier for the husband than it is for the wife...Marriage is more tenuous for a wife because she longs for more in marriage than her husband does, and she is wounded more deeply by marital pain.”

4. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt (2013)


This book was a huge paradigm shift for me and one that I've continued to think about more and more every year since reading it. 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 and our reason is mostly there to justify our decisions. He ultimately urges us towards empathy and humility in engaging with people who have ideas different than ours. If you want to understand why it's hard for people to calmly discuss politics or religion, you need to read this book.


“If you really want to change someone’s mind on a moral or political matter, you’ll need to see things from that person’s angle as well as your own...Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathize across a moral divide.”


5. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (2016)


I checked this one out after being one of Bill Gates 'best of' lists. It's a fascinating work of historical fiction, centered around Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, who is under house arrest in Moscow's Metropol Hotel in the early twentieth century. While most of the characters were interesting, the Count's civility and appreciation for the people/things around him were especially enjoyable to read. 

Quote: “For his part, the Count had opted for the life of the purposefully unrushed. Not only was he disinclined to race toward some appointed hour - disdaining even to wear a watch - he took the greatest satisfaction when assuring a friend that a worldly matter could wait in favor of a leisurely lunch or stroll along the embankment. After all, did not wine improve with age? Was it not the passage of years that gave a piece of furniture its delightful patina? When all was said and done, the endeavors that most modern men saw as urgent (such as appointments with bankers and the catching of trains), probably could have waited, while those they deemed frivolous (such as cups of tea and friendly chats) had deserved their immediate attention.”


6. 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 ChicagoGeorge 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."


7. 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.” 


8. Hellhound on his Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Hampton Sides (2010)


I think I read this book faster than any other, because it was so captivating. In one thread of the narrative, you are learning about prisoner #416J, Eric Galt, who we eventually come to know as James Earl Ray. We learn about his early life in and out of prison and his drifting all over the continent. In another thread, you are learning about Martin Luther King, Jr., his civil rights movement, and intimate snapshots of his personal life along the way. I realized that I didn't know much about this story, including that the hunt for James Earl Ray was one the largest manhunts in American history.  

Quote: "For poverty is miserable. It is ugly, disorganized, rowdy, sick, uneducated, violent, afflicted with crime. Poverty demeans human dignity. The demanding tone, the inarticulateness, the implied violence deeply offended us. We didn’t want to see it on our sacred monumental grounds. We wanted it out of sight and out of mind."


9. Tattoos on the Heart by Father Greg Boyle (2010)

Engaging, funny, and heart-warming stories about the work that Father Greg Boyle and HomeBoy Industries are doing with gang members in L.A.. It's beautiful to see Boyle and his ministry give dignity and love to so many in cycles of shame, poverty, violence, and brokenness.

Quote: “No daylight to separate us...Only kinship. Inching ourselves closer to creating a community of kinship such that God might recognize it. Soon we imagine, with God, this circle of compassion. Then we imagine no one standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased. We stand there with those whose dignity has been denied. We locate ourselves with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless. At the edges, we join the easily despised and the readily left out. We stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.”

An insightful and compelling book, but also one that is hard to read because of the countless and consistent examples of violence, injustice, and inequality directed against black people over the history of this country. Dr. Kendi shows that from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration up through today, racial discrimination has always led to racial policies which has always led to ignorance and hate, not the other way around. 

In his words, “Time and again, powerful and brilliant men and women have produced racist ideas in order to justify the racist policies of their era, in order to redirect the blame for their era’s racial disparities away from those policies and onto Black people.” 

The challenge is to pursue antiracism, the belief that all racial groups truly are equal. However, since almost no one ever believes that they are being racist, it will take humility, courage, and a willingness to stand up to the backlash that often accompanies antiracist ideas.

11. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (2011)

Isaacson was the one writer that Jobs wanted to write his biography. With that, Jobs gave Isaacson permission to be honest, even about his many faults and the ways he poorly treated the people around him. Jobs' perfectionism and lack of concern about what others thought certainly made him very hard to be around at times, but these same qualities were driving forces that lead to his being one of the most creative minds of our time, revolutionizing six industries: personal computers, animated movies (Pixar), music, phones, tablet computing, and digital publishing. 

Quote: "Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."



12. The Meaning of Marriage by Tim Keller (2011)

This book was very helpful in preparing Lauren and I for spending our lives together. The Kellers look at what marriage is for, what it means to be married, and how a marriage can last. And I think Tim and Kathy both do a great job at setting expectations for what a biblical marriage is, in contrast to the American view of marriage.


Quote: “In any relationship, there will be frightening spells in which your feelings of love dry up. And when that happens you must remember that the essence of marriage is that it is a covenant, a commitment, a promise of future love. So what do you do? You do the acts of love, despite your lack of feeling. You may not feel tender, sympathetic, and eager to please, but in your actions you must BE tender, understanding, forgiving and helpful. And, if you do that, as time goes on you will not only get through the dry spells, but they will become less frequent and deep, and you will become more constant in your feelings. This is what can happen if you decide to love.”

13. The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place by Andy Crouch (2017)


This is an indispensable book for all parents who want to lead their families well in the 21st century. While Tony Reinke’s book (below) has more of a focus on phones and social media, Crouch’s focus is on the home and how we should more purposefully consider interacting with many different types of technology. His guiding principles (Ten Tech-Wise Commitments) are excellent. In them, he lays out what a family should be about (developing wisdom and courage, more creating than consuming) and then practical commitments in light of those. 

Quote: “Boredom -- for children and for adults -- is a perfectly modern condition. The technology that promises to release us from boredom is actually making it worse -- making us more prone to seek empty distractions than we have ever been...the more you entertain children, the more bored they will get...the videos we put on for our kids -- or the video games we pull up on our phones in our own moments of boredom -- are designed, unconsciously or consciously, to produce a bewitching effect. And this effect is achieved by filling a screen with a level of vividness and velocity that does not exist in the real world -- or only very rarely…So here is one result of our technology: we become people who desperately need entertainment and distraction because we have lost the world of meadows and meteors.”

14. 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You by Tony Reinke (2017)

This was a very engaging, convicting, and helpful read about how our smart phones are changing the way we exist in the world. Reinke interacts with media theorists, psychologists, and everyday examples to point out the ways our phones are shaping us (causing us to be addicted to distraction, to crave immediate approval, to perpetuate our own loneliness, to lose our ability to think deeply, to fear missing out) and that what our hearts are really longing for underneath the constant interaction with our phones (connection with God and others). This book is great because it helps you see the silliness (at best) and destructiveness (at worst) behind our habits, gives some practical tips for using your phone in a healthy way, and also provides great wisdom behind those tips so that there might be lasting change. 

Quote: “...we must become mindful and slow our pace...'The more we take refuge in distraction, the more habituated we become to mere stimulation and the more desensitized to delight. We lose our capacity to stop and ponder something deeply, to admire something beautiful for its own sake’ (Brad Littlejohn)...By seeking trivial pleasure in our phones, we train ourselves to want more of those trivial pleasures. Most seriously of all, ‘either we, out of fear and guilt, lose our delight in God, the source of all good, and thus begin to lose our delight in all the goods he has given us.'"

15. Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity by Nabeel Qareshi (2016)

This was a very moving story and a fascinating read. Qareshi spends a good bit of the book reflecting upon and describing how practices of Islam were meaningful and impactful to him, offering a perspective I had not learned much about before. He also shows how he wrestles with his faith with his good friend, David. Through many disagreements and openly talking about their worldviews, Qareshi begins to see how much of Islam’s belief system and the Quran itself is blindly accepted with little critique, while the Bible and the person of Jesus seem to stand up in the face of much scrutiny. Living in the United States, and especially the South, I don’t have to give up much to be a Christian. It’s humbling and challenging to read about how much Qareshi gives up to follow Jesus.

Quote: “While I was wallowing in self-pity, focused on myself, there was a whole world with literally billions of people who had no idea who God is, how amazing He is, and the wonders He has done for us. They are the ones who are really suffering. They don’t know His hope, His peace, and His love that transcends all understanding. They don’t know the message of the gospel. After loving us with the most humble life and the most horrific death, Jesus told us, 'As I have loved you, go and love one another.' How could I consider myself a follower of Jesus if I was not willing to live as He lived? To die as He died? To love the unloved and give hope to the hopeless?” 


16. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand (2010)

A fascinating true story about Louis Zamperini, a world class runner who ends up serving in World War II as a bombardier. He survives a plane crash, weeks alone in the ocean, and many brutal experiences in Japanese POW camps. It's a great story with a great ending.


Quote: “On Kwajalein, Louie and Phil learned a dark truth known to the doomed in Hitler’s death camps, the slaves of the American South, and a hundred other generations of betrayed people. Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen.”



Written nine years ago, there are parts of this book that seem dated, but overall, this is still a very relevant read in our age of distractedness. The premise is that our brains are literally re-wired by the Internet and other related technologies to become distracted and shallow thinkers in all areas of our lives. I like that Carr leans heavily on McLuhan's Understanding Media and uses history to show how our technology tools have developed over time and both what was lost and gained with each major advancement. Spending less time on the Internet and associated technologies and spending more time in nature are two of the implicit take-aways that will help to build a calm, attentive mind, which can lead to deep thinking and empathy.

Quote: “...after spending time in a quiet, rural setting, close to nature, people exhibit greater attentiveness, stronger memory, and generally improved cognition. Their brains become both calmer and sharper...when people aren’t being bombarded by external stimuli, their brains can, in effect, relax. They no longer have to tax their working memories by processing a stream of bottom-up distractions. The resulting state of contemplativeness strengthens their ability to control their mind.”

18. On Reading Well by Karen Swallow Prior (2018)

Prior makes a great case that the way to become the type of person who acts more virtuously is to imagine what virtue looks like and that one of the best ways to do that is through reading great literature. She says that good books can help us vicariously practice virtue, which helps to cultivate our desires towards the good, virtuous life. 

She takes 12 virtues (Cardinal: Temperance, Prudence, Justice, Courage; Theological: Faith, Hope, Love; Heavenly: Chastity, Diligence, Patience, Kindness, Humility) and pairs each one with a certain book (Ex. Temperance - The Great Gatsby), where she both elaborates on the meaning and history of the virtue, but shows how a book or a character in a book is teaching us about that particular virtue. I heartily agree with her thesis and I enjoyed her painting the picture of each virtue through the different stories presented. I had read some of the books she discussed and enjoyed remembering them again through the lens of a particular virtue. Other books I hadn't read and my interest was piqued to read them one day.

19. Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson (2015)

This was my first Erik Larson book (I've read a few more since), and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's a fascinating tale of how the sinking of the British-owned Lusitania, by a German U-boat, helped launch the United States into World War I. Larson does a great job weaving in stories of the Lusitania passengers, the German navy, Woodrow Wilson's love interest, and a secret British war room. 

Quote: “Families learned of the deaths of kin mostly by telegram, but some knew or sensed their loss even when no telegram brought the news. Husbands and wives had promised to write letters or send cables to announce their safe arrival, but these were never sent. Passengers who had arranged to stay with friends in England and Ireland never showed up. The worst were those situations where a passenger was expected to be on a different ship but for one reason or another had ended up on the Lusitania.”

20. Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God by Tim Keller (2014)

I really appreciated this unique book on prayer. Devoting time to prayer has been a growing struggle for me, especially over the few years. I loved how Keller spent the first several chapters getting to the heart of why prayer is good and beneficial, which is a motivating introduction to everything that comes afterwards. He then takes the reader through biblical and historical examples of prayer and gives plenty of practical suggestions for growing in one's prayer life. This will be a book I will probably revisit again and again throughout my life.

Quote: Prayer is the only entryway into genuine self-knowledge. It is also the main way we experience deep change--the reordering of our loves...Indeed, prayer makes it safe for God to give us many of the things we most desire. It is the way we know God, the way we finally treat God as God. Prayer is simply the key to everything we need to do and be in life.”


21. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015)


I'm thankful for 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."


22. Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical by Tim Keller (2016)


In 2009, Keller wrote the best seller, The Reason for God. In it, he provides a case for belief in God and Christianity. Making Sense of God is a sort of prequel, starting further back in the journey of spiritual exploration as it addresses Christianity's relevance in modern times. Keller also addresses the assumption that the world is getting more secular and the assumptions that many of us wrongly hold about the foundations of what true Christianity is. As always, Keller draws on many philosophical, literary, and cultural sources and lays his argument out in a compelling and easy to read way.

Quote: “Actually, it is quite natural to human beings to move toward belief in God. As humanities scholar Mark Lilla has written: 'To most humans, curiosity about higher things comes naturally, it’s indifference to them that must be learned.' Strict secularism holds that people are only physical entities without souls, that when loved ones die they simply cease to exist, that sensations of love and beauty are just neurological-chemical events, that there is no right or wrong outside of what we in our minds determine and choose. Those positions are at the very least deeply counterintuitive for nearly all people, and large swaths of humanity will continue to simply reject them as impossible to believe.” 

23. Men of Courage by Larry Crabb (2013)


This is an updated and expanded edition of Crabb's, The Silence of Adam, which I had never read. It's a great book for understanding the struggles men face and what our calling is. On one of the hardest nights my wife and I faced this year, as we struggled to believe truth two months into our marriage, I remember reading the quote below out loud with tears in my eyes. It nailed me and my desire to run away from conflict. Although, I'm sure I felt some shame in that moment, the tears seemed to come more from a place of hope, a hope that God had indeed called me to more and promised to give me strength to become more.

Quote: "Since Adam, every man has had a natural inclination to remain silent when he should speak. A man is most comfortable in situations in which he knows exactly what to do. When things get confusing and scary, his insides tighten and he backs away. When life frustrates him with its maddening unpredictability, he feels the anger rise within him. And then filled with terror and rage, he forgets God’s truth and looks out for himself. From then on, everything goes wrong. Committed only to himself, he scrambles to make his own life work.”

24. How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds by Alan Jacobs (2017)


In 2019, it seems that beliefs and ideas about the world are as divisive as ever. Most of us are very quick to mock those who disagree with us, instead of thoughtfully engaging in a dialogue that could possibly change our minds. In this book, Jacobs argues that most of us don’t really want to think, because thinking is hard, and it’s easier to say things that make you feel like part of the in-group. It’s easier to go into “Refutation Mode” and quickly dismiss what others say without considering that they could be right. Jacobs calls us to humility and courage as we do the hard work of considering those with different beliefs to be our neighbors and less as the "Repugnant Cultural Other."

Quote: “Everyone today seems to have an RCO [Repugnant Cultural Other], and everyone’s RCO is on social media somewhere...This is a profoundly unhealthy situation. It’s unhealthy because it prevents us from recognizing others as our neighbors -- even when they are quite literally our neighbors. If I’m consumed by this belief that that person over there is both Other and Repugnant, I may never discover that my favorite television program is also his favorite television program; that we like some of the same books...I may all to easily forget that political and social and religious differences are not the whole of human experience. The cold divisive logic of the RCO impoverishes us, all of us, and brings us closer to that primitive state that the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes called ‘the war of every man against every man.’”

25. How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor by James K.A. Smith (2014)


This book is a commentary on A Secular Age, an award winning book about our postmodern, post Christian culture, written by Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. It’s not likely that I would read Taylor’s massive work anytime soon, so I was glad to be able to read Smith’s summary. Taylor/Smith argue that we formerly lived in an enchanted, God-soaked world, but modernity brought a flatness to life as exclusive humanism started to take hold as a dominant view of life. We don’t live in an age of disbelief, but in an age that believes otherwise, in an Age of Authenticity where choice and tolerance are the highest virtues. As Smith says, "Your neighbors inhabit what Charles Taylor calls an ‘immanent frame’; they are no longer bothered by ‘the God question’ as a question because they are devotees of ‘exclusive humanism’ -- a way of being-in-the-world that offers significance without transcendence. They don’t feel like anything is missing.”

Quote: “Taylor presses the closed, immanentist ‘take’ not by pointing out logical inconsistencies or questioning the veracity of premises, but rather by suggesting that the closed take can’t seem to get rid of a certain haunting, a certain rumbling in our hearts...The upshot will be that Christianity (the ‘open’ take) can provide a better way to account for this -- not necessarily a way to quell it so we can all live happily ever after, but a way to name it and be honest about this dis-ease.”

26. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (2012)

At the recommendation of a friend, I was able to read this before seeing the movie that came out last year (side note: while the movie got some things right and was entertaining in its own way, the book was better, as per the norm). It was very entertaining and hard to put down. The story is all about a futuristic dystopia where most people spend their days plugged into a virtual reality game (OASIS). The protagonist, Wade Watts, ends up learning everything about 80s TV, movies, and video games to help him succeed in the game, so it’s fun to be taken back into that world a bit. It’s also interesting to see how the story is a commentary on how our current lives are more and more bound up in online and virtual relationships and games. It shows what this does to a person, and how connecting with people in the physical, actual world, is the best kind of connection. 

Quote: "I created the OASIS because I never felt at home in the real world. I didn't know how to connect with the people there. I was afraid, for all of my life, right up until I knew it was ending. That was when I realized, as terrifying and painful as reality can be, it's also the only place where you can find true happiness. Because reality is real."


27. The Locust Effect by Gary Haugen (2013)

A very eye-opening and convicting book about how devastating violence is for most of the world's poorest people. Haugen, founder of IJM, makes the compelling case that lack of safety, is one of the greatest problems for the global poor. Most of the world's justice systems are corrupt and ill-equipped to protect its people, and therefore, the poor are "utterly vulnerable to the locusts of violence [Ex. physical violence/abuse, sexual slavery/violence/exploitation, bonded labor, long periods of pre-trial detention for the innocent] that can come on any given day and sweep all other good efforts to improve their lives away.”

Quote: “One would hope that if the world woke up to such a reality, it would swiftly acknowledge and respond to the disaster—but tragically, the world has neither woken up to the reality nor responded in a way that offers meaningful hope for the poor. It has mostly said and done nothing. And as we shall see, the failure to respond to such a basic need—to prioritize criminal justice systems that can protect poor people from common violence—has had a devastating impact on two great struggles that made heroic progress in the last century but have stalled out for the poorest in the twenty-first century: namely, the struggle to end severe poverty and the fight to secure the most basic human rights.”


28. 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.” 

29. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander (2010)


Before this reading this book, I didn't know what the term "mass incarceration" meant. Through various resources this year, including this book, I now understand it to be a huge problem that African Americans have understood and dealt with for years. In this book, Alexander argues that the War on Drugs, famously implemented by the Reagan administration in the 1980s, was the impetus for the systematic mass incarceration of people of color in the United States. While I didn't always agree with her perspective or her solutions, this was a deeply helpful book for understanding how certain laws and systems contribute to racial injustices and mindsets.

Quote: “In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” 

30. The Road to Character by David Brooks (2015)

David Brooks is one of the few newspaper columnists I read. Writing for the New York Times, he sees past partisan agendas and often paints a picture of the good of humanity, calling us to more. This is, in large part, what makes this book compelling. Through brief biographies of some of our greatest thinkers and leaders, Brooks shows us the deficiencies of our often sought after "resumé virtues" (wealth, fame, status) and compels us to seek after the more life giving "eulogy virtues" (kindness, bravery, honesty, faithfulness).

Quote: “We are called at certain moments to comfort people who are enduring some trauma. Many of us don't know how to react in such situations, but others do. In the first place, they just show up. They provide a ministry of presence. Next, they don't compare. The sensitive person understands that each person's ordeal is unique and should not be compared to anyone else's. Next, they do the practical things--making lunch, dusting the room, washing the towels. Finally, they don't try to minimize what is going on. They don't attempt to reassure with false, saccharine sentiments. They don't say that the pain is all for the best. They don't search for silver linings. They do what wise souls do in the presence of tragedy and trauma. They practice a passive activism. They don't bustle about trying to solve something that cannot be solved. The sensitive person grants the sufferer the dignity of her own process. She lets the sufferer define the meaning of what is going on. She just sits simply through the nights of pain and darkness, being practical, human, simple, and direct.”



Other Best of the Decade (2010s) posts: