The Best Books I Read This Year (2020)

E.B. White is right: “Books are good company, in sad times and happy times.” I kept company with many good books in 2020, but these were my favorites. There are 36 selections and I thoroughly enjoyed every last one of them.

My Top 12:

1. The Wonderful Works of God / Herman Bavinck

I lingered in this palace of a book for most of 2020 because I didn’t want it to end. Think of it as a more accessible and less footnotey alternative to the four-volume Reformed Dogmatics. The fear of God is evident on every page. To read Bavinck is to be reminded afresh that theology must lead us to rest in the arms of our gracious God:

“To know God does not consist of knowing a great deal about Him, but of this, rather, that we have seen Him in the person Christ, that we have encountered Him on our life’s way, and that in the experience of our soul we have come to know His virtues, His righteousness and holiness, His compassion and His grace. That is why this knowledge, in distinction from all other knowledge, bears the name of the knowledge of faith. It is the product not of scientific study and reflection but of a childlike and simple faith. This faith is not only a sure knowledge but also a firm confidence that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits. Only those who become as little children shall enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 18:3). Only the pure of heart shall see the face of God (Matt. 5:8). Only those born of water and of the Spirit can enter the kingdom (John 3:5). Those who know His name will put their trust in Him (Ps. 9:10). God is known in proportion to the extent that He is loved.” (13)

2. Gentle and Lowly / Dane Ortlund

The “Sweet Dropper,” the heavenly Doctor Sibbes, once asked: “What will we do for Christ, if we will not feast with Him?” (Works, 2: 34) Few books helped me feast more with Christ this year than this meditation on the Savior’s beautiful heart towards sinners. Most books are cul-de-sacs; few are express lanes. This book is the latter. Packer’s Knowing God steered me to Spurgeon, Sproul’s The Holiness of God led me to Luther, and Piper’s The Pleasures of God plunged me into Edwards. I hope Gentle and Lowly serves others as an express lane to the glories of Christ in the writings of Thomas Goodwin, John Bunyan, and Richard Sibbes.

“Meek. Humble. Gentle. Jesus is not trigger-happy. Not harsh, reactionary, easily exasperated. He is the most understanding person in the universe. The posture most natural to Him is not a pointed finger but open arms.” (19)

“We cannot present a reason for Christ to finally close off His heart to His own sheep. No such reason exists. Every human friend has a limit. If we offend enough, if a relationship gets damaged enough, if we betray enough times, we are cast out. The walls go up. With Christ, our sins and weaknesses are the very resumé items that qualify us to approach Him. Nothing but coming to Him is required.” (64)

“For those united to Him, the heart of Jesus is not a rental; it is your new permanent residence. You are not a tenant; you are a child. His heart is not a ticking time bomb; His heart is the green pastures and still waters of endless reassurances of His presence and comfort, whatever our present spiritual accomplishments. It is who He is.” (66)

“The sins of those who belong to God open the floodgates of his heart of compassion for us. The dam breaks. It is not our loveliness that wins his love. It is our unloveliness.” (75)

“Repent of your small thoughts of God’s heart.” (170)

“Jesus does not love like us. We love until we are betrayed. Jesus continued to the cross despite betrayal. We love until we are forsaken. Jesus loved through forsakenness. We love up to a limit. Jesus loves to the end.” (198)

3. Reformed Systematic Theology, Vol. 1 / Joel Beeke & Paul Smalley

Chances are Joel Beeke published another book while you were reading this post. He’s at over 100 books now! This introductory volume of his systematic theology lectures is his best project yet. It’s exegetical, theological, confessional, doxological, pastoral, practical, and full of spicy quotes from the Fathers, the Reformers, and the Puritans. I’m eager to dive into Volume 2 on the doctrines of anthropology and Christology in 2021.

“God’s call for men to repent of idolatry is not the death knell of human happiness, but the beginning of real life. God commands us to turn from broken cisterns and drink from the Fountain of living waters. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit say, ‘Come, eat and drink.’ The feast to which they summon us is nothing less than fellowship with the One true and living God.” (1: 602-603)

4. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self / Carl Trueman

Trueman discerns our own errors and those of this evil age. The subtitle says it all: “Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution.” He explains how so many have come to understand sexual difference as a matter of psychological choice. This brilliant volume serves as a faithful guide to understanding our confusing times, and as a clarion call for the church to be courageous:

“This book is not a lament for a lost golden age or even for the parlous state of culture as we now face it… As for the notion of some lost golden age, it is truly very hard for any competent historian to be nostalgic. What past times were better than the present? An era before antibiotics when childbirth or even minor cuts might lead to septicemia and death? The great days of the nineteenth century when the church was culturally powerful and marriage was between one man and one woman for life but little children worked in factories and swept chimneys? Perhaps the Great Depression? The Second World War? The era of Vietnam? Every age has had its darkness and its dangers. The task of the Christian is not to whine about the moment in which he or she lives but to understand its problems and respond appropriately to them.” (29-30)

5. Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition / Craig A. Carter

I judge books by their covers. “The book cover functions simultaneously as an invitation to potential readers,” Peter Mendelsund notes. “Come, it says, join the party– or at least save the date.” (2) I love the cover of Craig Carter’s book on the glories of the Great Tradition and premodern exegesis, and I’m glad I accepted his invitation to join the rip-roaring party found inside. The picture on the cover is “Simeon’s Song of Praise,” painted by Rembrandt in 1631:

“It depicts an aged Simeon quoting Isaiah 52:10 as he prophesies that this baby Jesus is ‘the Lord’s Christ’ (Luke 2:26). A faithful and skilled reader of Scripture, Simeon sees the messianic thrust of the Old Testament as pointing toward the coming of the Suffering Servant. The text stresses that he understood this by the Holy Spirit. My book is about how to read like Simeon, Anna, and other faithful people of God, who discerned the Christological meaning of the Holy Scriptures by the illumination of the Spirit, symbolized in the painting by the bright light shining down on the child and Simeon’s face.” (xx-xxi)

This is a firecracker of a book. In his feisty way, Carter challenges his readers to recognize that all theology should be exegetical, and all exegesis should be theological. I’ve already pre-ordered Carter’s next volume: Contemplating God with the Great Tradition: Recovering Trinitarian Classical Theism. Consider doing the same.

6. “He Descended to the Dead” / Matthew Emerson

The doctrine of Christ’s descent is a derelict doctrine. Emerson remedies this deficiency by clearing away many misunderstandings, and by retrieving this comforting truth: “He descended to the dead.” Christ experienced the fullness of human death; He also defeated it. He entered the realm of death itself, our mighty enemy, and came away with his keys. The keys of Death and Hades are now held in our Savior’s nail-pierced hands. (Rev. 1:18) Emerson illuminates the good news of Good Friday, and the ecstasy of Easter Sunday, with the hope of Holy Saturday.

“There is something more immediate than Christ’s second coming and believers’ resurrection to eternal life that we can preach to those grieving but not without hope. The hope that is more immediate, and one that is descriptive of our departed love ones’ eternal state right now, not just some distant day, is that Christ, too, has experienced death. He did not just experience dying only to rise again moments later, but He actually remained dead in the grave. He did not simply have his breath expire and then immediately rise to glory, but His body was buried and His soul departed to the place of the dead. And because He is God in the flesh, He defeated the place of the dead and the grave by descending into them and then rising again on the third day. In the Christian tradition, this hope is known as the the doctrine of Christ’s descensus— His descent to the dead.” (xi)

7. The Trinity / Scott Swain

This is the best concise introduction to the doctrine of the Trinity I’ve ever read. The Bible is central. The writing is clear. The chapter on divine simplicity is pure gold. The critique of ERAS/EFS is correct. The tone is worshipful. Even the glossary led me to praise.

“Christians praise God the Trinity because He is supremely worthy of our praise. The blessed Trinity is supreme in being, beauty, and beatitude.” (15)

“No topic of study is more rewarding, or more challenging, than the doctrine of the Trinity. Nor is any topic of study fraught with greater possibility of error. Nevertheless, we may enter our study with confidence because the triune God has revealed Himself in His Word. It is God’s good pleasure that we would know Him, that we would receive Him, and that our souls would find rest in Him (Matt. 11:25–30).” (22)

“Christians praise the triune God because that is how God presents Himself to us in Holy Scripture: as one God in three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Bible is the primary discourse of Trinitarian theology. Fluently, almost effortlessly, the prophets and apostles narrate, bless, pray, and sing the name of the triune God.” (25)

“The God who is Father, Son, and Spirit has reached out through the Son and by the Spirit to embrace us as sons and daughters to the end that we may call God our Father in the Spirit of the Son.” (26)

“God is not composed of parts. God is pure God, and nothing but God is God.” (54)

“The Bible’s basic Trinitarian grammar affirms the oneness of God, identifies the three persons of the Trinity with the one God, and distinguishes the three persons of the Trinity by their relations of origin.” (59)

“God plus the world is not more sufficient, more glorious, or more blessed than God minus the world.” (127)

“The heart of the blessed Trinity is to benefit us by giving Himself to us. This is the love of the Father. This is the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 13:14).” (127-128)

“The triune God alone is the ultimate end of all His works, the supreme benefit He gives, the supreme benefit that can be received.” (132)

8. The Mystery of Christ, His Covenant, and His Kingdom / Samuel Renihan

This book helped me read my Bible better. Renihan explains typology, expounds the mystery of Christ, and exegetes the biblical covenants from a 1689 Federalist perspective. If you want a solid primer on covenant theology from a confessional Baptist, start here.

“Studying the covenant theology of the Bible magnifies the majesty of the triune God’s plan of redemption.” (7)

“All of Scripture, and thus all redemptive history, is driving towards the arrival of the promised Seed of the woman.” (31)

“The purpose of the Old Covenant was to produce the New Covenant because the purpose of the Old Covenant was to provide the Messiah, the Christ, the Mediator of the New Covenant.” (135)

“The New Covenant of grace, established in the blood of Christ, founded in the Covenant of Redemption, and preached to the world in the gospel, is God’s master plan.” (178)

“The study of the mystery of Christ, His covenant, and His kingdom is a devotional experience. It is a way of wonderment, a path of praise. It is a balm, a salve, a nepenthe, a panacea, a cordial, a precious remedy, a sweet medicine, ‘a sure and steadfast anchor for the soul’ (Hebrews 6:19). The mystery is free everlasting salvation in Christ, and it is for everyone. For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in Him will not be put to shame. For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on Him. For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ (Rom. 10:11-13)” (209)

9. Bavinck: A Critical Biography / James Eglinton

I’ve imbibed a lot of Bavinck’s writings, but I knew little of his life. I didn’t know about his lonely years as a pastor. I didn’t know he was a Bible translator. I didn’t know he wrote a book on raising teenagers. I didn’t know about his political career. I didn’t know his children and grandchildren were heroes and martyrs in the anti-Nazi resistance movement. I didn’t know about his trips to America. I didn’t know he hung out with Teddy Roosevelt at the White House. This is the best biography I’ve read about one of my theological heroes since Marsden’s life of Jonathan Edwards.

“Why does Herman Bavinck (1854–1921), a prolific theologian who worked within the Dutch neo-Calvinist movement, deserve a biography? In his own era, the answer to that question would have been fairly obvious: in the early twentieth-century Netherlands, Herman Bavinck was a household name. To his contemporaries, he was known not only as a brilliant theologian. To them, he was also—among other things—a pioneer in psychology, a pedagogical reformer, a champion for girls’ education and advocate of women’s voting rights, a parliamentarian, and a journalist. He was, and in some circles today remains, a person of international signifi- cance. In 1908, for example, Bavinck gave the prestigious Stone Lectures in Princeton, before which President Theodore Roosevelt received him and his wife at the White House. Bavinck was the kind of Dutchman whose foreign travels were chronicled in the national press and who would then return to give sold-out lectures across the country on his impressions and experiences overseas. A century later, a growing international audience reads his works in a host of languages.” (xvii)

10. The Crucified King: Atonement and Kingdom in Biblical and Systematic Theology / Jeremy Treat

More people would read dissertations if they were this well-written. Treat unites what should never have been torn apart: the cross of Christ and the kingdom of God (Rev. 5:9-10). God’s reign and redemption both arise from the cross of our crucified Lord. “His main message was the kingdom and His main mission was to go to Golgotha.” (17) Treat helped grow my love for the King who came into the world to be the propitiation for our sins (penal substitution), and to destroy the works of the devil (Christus Victor). (1 John 4:10; 3:8)

“The thief on the cross looked at the man from Nazareth being crucified next to him and said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom’ (Luke 23:42). Somehow this man conceived of the crucified Jesus as ruling over a kingdom. While the title on Christ’s cross—’The King of the Jews’—makes explicit that there is a connection between the kingdom and the cross, perhaps the crown of thorns provides the best image for explaining how they relate. This is not, after all, the first time that thorns have shown up in the story. Adam was to be a servant-king in the garden, but because he did not exercise dominion over the ground and the animals, the serpent ruled over him and the ground was cursed by God. Thorns first appear as a direct result and manifestation of the curse (Gen 3:17–18). Jesus comes as the last Adam, the faithful servant-king who not only fulfills Adam’s commission of ruling over the earth but removes the curse by taking it onto Himself. As Jesus wore the crown of thorns, He bore the curse of God. He is the ‘[seed] of a woman’ who crushed Satan with a bruised heel (Gen 3:15). He is the seed of Abraham who ‘redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us… so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles’ (Gal 3:13–14). The thorns, which were a sign of the curse and defeat of Adam, are paradoxically transformed into a sign of the kingship and victory of Jesus. Jesus is the king who reigns by bearing the curse of the people whom He so loves. The connection between the cross and the curse, however, does reveal that the title given to Jesus during his crucifixion—’The King of the Jews’—was only partially correct. Inasmuch as the task of the Jews was to bring God’s blessing to all the earth (Gen 12:3) and thereby reverse the curse of sin in Genesis 3–11, Jesus—the Jewish Messiah—was claiming His throne not only over Israel but over all the earth. God accomplished His mission of restoring His creation through Jesus as He was enthroned as king on the cross. The kingdom of God comes in power, but the power of the gospel is Christ crucified.” (252-253)


11. Devoted to God’s Church / Sinclair Ferguson

What a wondrous privilege it is to belong to the family of God! In a year when so many have been distanced from the local church, this is a winsome and worthy read. “If push comes to shove, Christ and His people come first.” (5) The chapters on the centrality of the Bible and the priority of prayer in the life of the local church are worth the price of the book.

“In some countries the Bible is a banned book. Government agents hunt Bibles down and confiscate them. Imagine for a moment that this happened to your favourite Bible—and in order to prosecute you your Bible was handed over to a CSI Unit (‘Crime Scene Investigation’)—the kind of law enforcement unit you have probably seen on TV–Would there be enough recent fingerprint and DNA evidence on your Bible to bring charges against you of being a Christian? And would there be enough evidence of a transformed life to secure a conviction against you?” (98)

12. The Pastor of Kilsyth / Islay Burns

Most pastors serve in relative obscurity. Unknown beyond their own flock, they labor in the vineyard of the Lord for a season, and then are soon forgotten. I’d never heard of William Hamilton Burns (1779-1859). He was an ordinary pastor of a small rural congregation in Scotland for over 60 years. He held no prestigious pulpit, founded no institution, and published no books. But he was a faithful shepherd who ministered God’s Word to God’s people for decades. I wept while reading this memoir written by a son who described his father as a man of God, unnoticed by the world, who sought to live under the eye and smile of the Lord all his days.

“The simple annals of a country pastor’s daily life are uniform and uneventful, and afford little scope for the biographer’s pencil. Interesting and precious as any work done on earth in Heaven’s eyes, it is the obscurest possible in the world’s regard. Angels look down upon it; busy, eager, bustling men heed it not. A calm routine of lowly, though sacred duties, a constant unvaried ministry of love, it flows on in a still and quiet stream, arresting no attention by its noise, and known alone to the lowly homes it visits on its way, and the flowers and the fields it waters. The young pastor of Dun was no exception to this.

He preached the Word. He dispensed the sacred Supper. He warned the careless. He comforted the sorrowing. He baptized little children. He blessed the union of young and loving hearts. He visited the sick and the dying. He buried the dead. He pressed the hand, and whispered words of peace into the ear of mourners. He carried to the poor widow and friendless orphan the charity of the Church and his own. He slipped in softly into some happy home and gently broke the sad news of the sudden disaster far away. He lifted up the fallen one from the ground. And he pointed to Him who receiveth the publicans and the sinners. These things and such as these, he did in that little home-walk for twenty successive years day by day; but that was all.

There is much here for the records of the sky, but nothing, or next to nothing, for the noisy annals of time. Such as the work was, however, he did it, as all who knew him witnessed, faithfully and well, with a calm, serious, conscientious, cheerful, loving diligence that was the fruit of faith and prayer; always at his work, and always happy in it, and desiring nothing better or higher on earth.” (43-44)

There is nothing flashy here; only faithfulness over the long haul. I thank God for faithful, ordinary pastors, who lead ordinary lives, and minister God’s ordinary means of grace. Your labors in the Lord are not in vain.

Honorable Mentions:

Best New Edition of a Classic: Let Slavery Die / Henry H. Garnet

Best New Commentary: Colossians and Philemon / G.K. Beale

Best Old Commentary: James: A Practical Commentary / Thomas Manton

Best New Audiobook of a Classic: The Hobbit / J.R.R. Tolkien / Narrated by Andy Serkis

My Next 12:

13. Lonesome Dove / Larry McMurtry

The best novel I read in 2020 was this Pulitzer Prize-winning Odyssey of the Wild West. There’s plenty of action, along with a bunch of cowboys, cattle, sagebrush, horse stealing, Comanche raids, kidnapping, murders, boredom, loneliness, gambling, whiskey-drinking, bar fights, prostitutes, river crossings, water moccasins, coarse humor, broken hearts, shootouts, and homesickness. But what makes this book so captivating are the many great scenes in which nothing happens except that W. F. Call and Gus McCrae talk. And these two former Texas Rangers talk so well you never want them to stop:

“My main skills are talking and cooking biscuits,” Augustus said. “And getting drunk on the porch. I’ve probably slipped a little on the biscuits in the last few days, and I’ve lost the porch, but I can still talk with the best of them.” (405)

“Captain, what’ll we do?” he asked. “Live through it,” Call said. “That’s all we can do.” (566)

“Yesterday’s gone on down the river and you can’t get it back.” (505)

“I doubt it matters where you die, but it matters where you live,” Augustus said. (389)

“It’s like I told you last night, son,” Captain Call said. “The earth is mostly just a boneyard. But pretty in the sunlight.” (628)

McMurtry also knows how to paint a scene:

“Evening took a long time getting to Lonesome Dove, but when it came it was a comfort. For most of the hours of the day— and most of the months of the year— the sun had the town trapped deep in dust, far out in the chaparral flats, a heaven for snakes and horned toads, roadrunners and stinging lizards, but a hell for pigs and Tennesseans. There was not even a respectable shade tree within twenty or thirty miles; in fact, the actual location of the nearest decent shade was a matter of vigorous debate in the offices— if you wanted to call a roofless barn and a couple of patched-up corrals offices— of the Hat Creek Cattle Company, half of which Augustus owned.” (3-4)

“The eastern sky was red as coals in a forge, lighting up the flats along the river. Dew had wet the million needles of the chaparral, and when the rim of the sun edged over the horizon the chaparral seemed to be spotted with diamonds. A bush in the backyard was filled with little rainbows as the sun touched the dew. It was tribute enough to sunup that it could make even chaparral bushes look beautiful, Augustus thought, and he watched the process happily, knowing it would only last a few minutes. The sun spread reddish-gold light through the shining bushes, among which a few goats wandered, bleating. Even when the sun rose above the low bluffs to the south, a layer of light lingered for a bit at the level of the chaparral, as if independent of its source. Then the sun lifted clear, like an immense coin. The dew quickly died, and the light that filled the bushes like red dust dispersed, leaving clear, slightly bluish air. It was good reading light by then, so Augustus applied himself for a few minutes to the Prophets. He was not overly religious, but he did consider himself a fair prophet and liked to study the styles of his predecessors.” (50)

During this difficult year, I relished the company of Gus and Call. “It’s a fine world,” Augustus said, “though rich in hardships at times.” (873) At the end of their long trek north to Montana, no riches await these old Rangers. But their journey and friendship are riches enough.

14. Irreversible Damage / Abigail Shrier

Between 2016 and 2017, the number of adolescent girls seeking gender transition surgery quadrupled in the United States. In Great Britain, the increase for the last decade was an astounding 4,400%. In this valiant, humane, well-written, and well-researched book, Wall Street Journal reporter Abigail Shrier investigates why.

“Gender dysphoria– formerly known as ‘gender identity disorder’– is characterized by a severe and persistent discomfort in one’s biological sex. It typically begins in early childhood– ages two to four– though it may grow more severe in adolescence. But in most cases– nearly 70 percent– childhood gender dysphoria resolves. Historically, it afflicted a tiny sliver of the population (roughly .01 percent) and almost exclusively boys. Before 2012, in fact, there was no scientific literature on girls ages eleven to twenty-one ever having developed gender dysphoria at all.

In the last decade that has changed, and dramatically. The Western world has seen a sudden surge of adolescents claiming to have gender dysphoria and self-identifying as ‘transgender.’ For the first time in medical history, natal girls are not only present among those so identifying– they constitute the majority.

Why? What happened? How did an age group that had always been the minority of those afflicted (adolescents) come to form the majority? Perhaps more significantly– why did the sex ratio flip: from overwhelmingly boys, to majority girls?” (xxi)

Most of the mainstream media have boycotted this book, labeling it as transphobic. That’s a real shame because Shrier makes her aim crystal clear throughout the book: she wants to protect the vulnerable.

“I have nothing but respect for the transgender adults I’ve interviewed. They were among the most sober, thoughtful, and decent people I had come to know in the course of writing this book. But I was concerned about another population, too, one I considered more vulnerable. A population we seem to have abandoned in pursuit of identity politics and progressive bona fides. A group that should, by right, be making us awfully proud, but instead seems to be teetering on the edge of disaster, the brink of despair– teenage girls. They hold the very possibility for our future. If only they weren’t tearing themselves apart.” (219)

Shrier concludes with some practical instructions to parents of young girls:

  1. Don’t get your kid a smartphone.
  2. Don’t relinquish your authority as the parent.
  3. Don’t support gender ideology in your child’s education.
  4. Reintroduce privacy into the home.
  5. Consider big steps to separate your daughter from harm.
  6. Stop pathologizing girlhood.
  7. Don’t be afraid to admit: it’s wonderful to be a girl.

“Remember to tell your daughter that a woman’s most unique capacity– childbirth– is perhaps life’s greatest blessing. But whatever else you teach your daughter, remember to include something more. Tell her because the culture so often denies it. Tell her because people will try to make a victim of her. Tell her because it’s natural to doubt. Most of all, tell her because it’s true. She’s lucky. She’s special. She was born a girl. And being a woman is a gift, containing far too many joys to pass up.” (218)

NOTE: Amazon refuses to allow U.S. sales of the hardback of this book. But you can purchase it directly from the publisher at 50% off. Enter “WHERESAMAZON50” at checkout.

15. Piranesi / Susanna Clarke

This novel is unlike anything I’ve ever read. Clarke asks the reader to ponder many astonishing what ifs: What if there were a house so large it contained an entire ocean? What if the house was so vast it made it impossible to say how large it was because no one had ever seen all of it? What if one person set out to explore it? That one person is called Piranesi. “It is my belief,” he assures us, “that the World (or, if you will, the House, since the two are for all practical purposes identical) wishes an Inhabitant for Itself to be a witness to its Beauty and the recipient of its Mercies.” (11-12)

The House is quite beautiful. It’s a three-story labyrinth, a limitless white marble temple. Its colossal halls are linked by unending staircases, doorways, and vestibules. Each room is adorned with classical columns and filled with spectacular statues. The bottom floor encompasses an ocean. Waves come crashing up the stairs of the Drowned Halls, causing sudden floods when the tides converge. The top floor contains the clouds and their rainfall. Above the House, Piranesi can see a boundless sky with sun, moon, and stars. Only the ground floor is habitable. That’s where Piranesi lives, explores, and journals what he sees.

This story is weird, haunting, and mesmerizing. It’s the stuff of half-remembered dreams. I read it in one sitting. Clarke loves the Inklings, especially Owen Barfield and C.S. Lewis. Narnian allusions abound. (A faun adorns the cover!) Saying anything more about the plot risks spoiling the tale. When I look back on this year, and the feelings of prolonged isolation, this is the story I’ll call to mind. “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable,” Piranesi says, “its Kindness infinite.” (245)

16. Rise and Kill First / Ronen Bergman

The Talmud says: “If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first.” Since World War II, Israel has assassinated more people than any other country in the Western World. This book tells the origin and secret history of Israel’s targeted assassinations.

“Of all the means that democracies use to protect their security, there is none more fraught and controversial than ‘killing the driver’– assassination. Some, euphemistically, call it ‘liquidation.’ The American intelligence community calls it, for legal reasons, ‘targeted killings.’ In practice, these terms amount to the same thing: killing a specific individual in order to achieve a specific goal– saving the lives of people the target intends to kill, averting a dangerous act that he is about to perpetrate, and sometimes removing a leader in order to change the course of history. The use of assassinations by a state touches two very different dilemmas. First, is it effective? Can the elimination of an individual, or a number of individuals, make the world a safer place? Second, it is morally and legally justifiable? Is it legitimate, both ethically and judicially, for a country to employ the gravest of all crimes in any code of ethics or law– the premeditated taking of a human life– in order to protect its own citizens? This book deals mainly with the assassinations and targeted killings carried out by the Mossad and by the other arms of the Israeli government, in both peacetime and wartime– as well as, in the early chapters, by the underground militias in the pre-state era, organizations that were to become the army and intelligence services of the state, once it was established… The Mossad and Israel’s other intelligence arms have down away with individuals who were identified as direct threats to national security, and killing them also sent a bigger message: If you are an enemy of Israel, we will find and kill you, wherever you are. This message has indeed been heard around the world.” (xxi-xxiii)

17. Midnight in Chernobyl / Adam Higginbotham

After watching the HBO Miniseries Chernobyl, I read this riveting reconstruction of the worst nuclear disaster in the history of the world. On the night of April 26, 1986, what began as a standard safety test plunged into a full-scale meltdown of Chernobyl’s Reactor No. 4. The radioactive release from the giant explosion was 400 times the size of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

“Radiation is invisible and has neither taste nor smell. Although it’s yet to be proved that exposure to any level of radiation is entirely safe, it becomes manifestly dangerous when the particles and waves it gives off are powerful enough to transform or break apart the atoms that make up the tissues of living organisms. This high-energy radiance is ionizing radiation. Ionizing radiation takes three principal forms: alpha particles, beta particles, and gamma rays… Gamma rays—high-frequency electromagnetic waves traveling at the speed of light—are the most energetic of all. They can traverse large distances, penetrate anything short of thick pieces of concrete or lead, and destroy electronics. Gamma rays pass straight through a human being without slowing down, smashing through cells like a fusillade of microscopic bullets. Severe exposure to all ionizing radiation results in acute radiation syndrome (ARS), in which the fabric of the human body is unpicked, rearranged, and destroyed at the most minute levels. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, hemorrhaging, and hair loss, followed by a collapse of the immune system, exhaustion of bone marrow, disintegration of internal organs, and, finally, death.” (27-28)

18. Apollo, the Race to the Moon / Charles Murray and Catherine Cox

In The Right Stuff, the late Tom Wolfe answered this question: What is it that makes a man willing to sit up on top of an enormous Roman candle, such as a Redstone, Atlas, Titan, or Saturn rocket, and wait for someone to light the fuse? Charles Murray and Catherine Cox answer a different, but no less fascinating, set of questions:

Who were the brilliant engineers and designers and programmers who made the Apollo space program happen? Who built the five F-1 engines on the Saturn V that generated 7.5 million pounds of thrust? Who got our astronauts all the way to the moon and back in a command and lunar module that used far less computing capacity than what’s in a single iPhone? Who were the 45 people in the Space Task Group who began the US space program from scratch on November 5, 1958, with no launch vehicle, no spacecraft, no launch facilities, no experience with manned space flight— and landed the first human on the moon on July 20, 1969, only 10 years and 9 months later?

I found their answers enthralling. If you enjoy engineering and design, if you’re intrigued by Elon Musk’s Space-X efforts, if you like books about Skunk Works, if you’ve ever wondered what happens when rocket boosters ignite, then you’ll love this epic story of the Apollo space program.

“As soon as the sensors within the combustion chambers of the F-1s determined that the igniters were lit, the main LOX valves opened, releasing liquid oxygen into each combustion chamber where it combined with a fuel-rich combustion gas, an exhaust product from the turbine. The gas was comparatively cool—only 800 degrees Fahrenheit—and would help cool the nozzle during flight; now, it prepared the interior of the chamber for the thermal shock to come. This process took three seconds. The combustion of the exhaust gas produced a thick orange smoke. At T–5.3 seconds, as sensors within each combustion chamber determined that the pressure at the face of the injector had reached 20 pounds per square inch, the main fuel valves opened and a torrent of kerosene burst through the painstakingly sized and angled orifices of the injection plate, past and through the copper baffles that had been redesigned so often. The streams of kerosene (a ton per second per engine) and liquid oxygen (two tons per second per engine) then impinged, formed their fans, and, mingling, ignited. At T–8.9 seconds, the people in the bleachers could see an eruption of orange smoke pushing down and bouncing off the flame deflector under the launcher, then bursting out at either side. Then, a few seconds later, the flame directly under the engines turned to an incandescent white as the orange smoke billowed outward and upward, beginning to envelop the rocket. Still 501 didn’t move. The noise of the preparatory burn that had created the orange cloud was inaudible across the four miles separating the viewers from the launch site. Even as the engines went to mainstage and they saw the incandescent white flame, the sound had yet to reach them. As the Saturn V moved off the pad, the sound finally reached across the marsh and slammed into the viewing area. It came first through the ground, tremors that shook the viewing stand and rattled its corrugated iron roof. Then came the noise, 120 decibels of it, in staccato bursts. People who were there would recall it not as a sound, but as a physical force. In the C.B.S. broadcast booth, the plate-glass window began to shake so violently that Walter Cronkite had to hold it in place with his hands as he tried to continue his commentary. At the beginning, it seemed more a levitation than a liftoff—the Saturn rose so ponderously that it took more than ten seconds for it to clear the top of the umbilical tower. Then, as the Saturn got farther from the ground, the scale of the F-1’s inferno became more fully apparent. And then the rocket climbed.” (199-202)

19. Hitler: Downfall: 1939-1945 / Volker Ulrich

This second volume of a magisterial biography of Adolph Hitler begins at the height of his power in the summer of 1939. Ulrich records the Führer’s fatal descent, showing how one man terrorized a whole continent, fueled the murder of over 6 million Jews, and challenged the entire civilized world. By early January 1945, a depressed Hitler admitted, “I know the war is lost. Our enemies’ superiority is too great. We will not surrender, never ever. We may go down, but we will take a world with us.” (535)

“Hitler’s tyranny lasted only twelve years, but it fundamentally changed the face of the world– albeit in a way completely different from what the dictator had intended. Hitler had wanted to lead the Third Reich from hegemony in Europe to global domination. In the end, the Reich lay in ruins, and the German national state Bismarck had forged in three wars in the nineteenth century perished in an orgy of violence and criminal atrocities. The moral trauma Hitler left behind lasted far longer than Germany’s temporal loss of its status as a sovereign nation… We are not and we cannot be done with confronting Adolf Hitler. In a certain sense, we will be bound to him for all eternity. Hitler will remain a cautionary example for all time. If his life and career teaches us anything, it is how quickly democracy can be priced from its hinges when political institutions fail and civilizing forces in society are too weak to combat the lure of authoritarianism; how thin the mantle separating civilization and barbarism actually is; and what human beings are capable of when the rule of law and ethical norms are suspended and some people are granted unlimited power over the lives of others.” (630, 632)

20. The War Poems / Siegfried Sassoon

In a few short lines, a poet can cleave your heart. I spent the year revisiting the Great War Poets: Brooke, Owen, Graves, and Rosenberg. But I found Sassoon’s piercing words on war, “the hell where youth and laughter go,” to be unforgettable.

Aftermath (1919)

Have you forgotten yet?…
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same–and War’s a bloody game…
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz,
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench–
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, “Is it all going to happen again?”

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack–
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads–those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.

21. The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien / John Garth

Tolkien lamented in one of his letters, “Many reviewers seem to assume that Middle-Earth is another planet!” (283) In this gorgeous book, Garth explores the earthly places that inspired Middle-Earth. I knew Tolkien’s visit to the Swiss valley of Lauterbrunnen became the imaginative foundation for Rivendell. But I didn’t grasp how much his battle-zone experiences in the Great War shaped his writings. Tolkien’s life in the trenches at the brutal Battle of the Somme shaped many locales in The Lord of the Rings, from Hobbit holes to the Dead Marshes.

“Tolkien knew personally how a hole can mean comfort and security, a place to try and shut out all dangers. Officers’ dugouts were meticulously positioned, engineered for safety, built and maintained by each unit’s dedicated carpenters, blacksmiths, bricklayers and miners. An amazingly efficient supply network supplied their needs, from food to post. The Somme chalk made them both solid and bright. A British officers’ dugout could be an enviable snug, as well furnished as a student room at Oxford– a place of camaraderie, humour, civilized conversation.

It hardly needs saying that this cosiness is only part of the picture. The world of the trenches was also a place of suffocating squalor, exhaustion, boredom and terror. To reflect this dichotomy, Tolkien used a favourite technique– creating contrasting opposites. The plucky, home-loving Hobbits are ranged against the even more subterranean Orcs, who have no life except soldiering. These goblins know their way through the labyrinthine tunnels of the Misty Mountains as well as soldiers knew the maze of trenches.

The underground world often shows touches of the Somme. The battlefield was transformed by war and weather. When Tolkien said the Dead Marshes ‘owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme,’ he meant the autumn rains had turned the chalky clay to claggy mud and slime. In the Marshes, we are in a world unlike anything else in Middle-Earth, but remarkably like the battlefield Tolkien knew, with its desolations, its smoke and gas barrages, and its deadly observers in the sky and to the east. Mists curl upward from the pools and the air is filled with a perpetual reek. The travelers cower from flying Ringwraiths and, for the first time, Frodo stoops to avoid the unseen Eye of Sauron. They tread with extreme caution lest they ‘go down to join the Dead ones’– a real hazard for Somme soldiers if they slipped criss-crossing the waste. Gollum explains that the Dead Marshes have grown and ‘swallowed up the graves’ from the ancient battle. So it was on the Somme, where the swollen Ancre inundated the makeshift cemeteries around it, and rain filled the hellholes where soldiers had crawled to die. In trench memoirs, it is the faces of the dead that horrify most. ” (163-166)

I revisit Middle-Earth every year. When I walk with Frodo and Sam through the Dead Marshes in 2021, it will be the Battle of the Somme, not Dagorlad, that’s fixed in my mind’s eye:

“Here nothing lived, not even the leprous growths that feed on rottenness. The gasping pools were choked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey, as if the mountains had vomited the filth of their entrails upon the lands about. High mounds of crushed and powdered rock, great cones of earth fire-blasted and poison-stained, stood like an obscene graveyard in endless rows, slowly revealed in the reluctant light. They had come to the desolation that lay before Mordor: the lasting monument to the dark labour of its slaves that should endure when all their purposes were made void; a land defiled, diseased beyond all healing – unless the Great Sea should enter in and wash it with oblivion. ‘I feel sick,’ said Sam. Frodo did not speak.” (631-632)

22. A Sportsman’s Notebook / Ivan Turgenev

Turgenev doesn’t disappoint. His lush descriptions of nineteenth-century Russia, the inhabitants of the steppe and the vast forests, are beautiful beyond all conveyance:

“I was sitting in a birch-wood one autumn, about the middle of September. Ever since morning a fine drizzle had been falling, giving way now and again to warm sunshine: it was fluky weather. One moment the sky would be all overcast with puffy white clouds, at another it would suddenly clear in places for a moment, and, through the rift, the azure would appear, clear and smiling, like the glance of a brilliant eye. I sat and looked about me and listened. The leaves were whispering faintly over my head: you could have told the time of year from their whisper alone. It was not the gay, laughing shiver of spring, nor the soft murmur, the long discourse of summer, nor the cold, frightened rustling of late autumn, but a scarcely perceptible, drowsy converse. A little breeze was just stirring among the treetops. The interior of the wood, drenched with rain, kept changing its appearance as the sun shone out or went in behind the clouds: sometimes it was all ablaze, as if everything there was smiling. The slender boles of the scattered birches suddenly took on the fresh brilliance of white silk, the tiny leaves on the ground gleamed and blazed with purple and gold, and the handsome stems of the tall, curly bracken, already tinged with their autumn hue, the hue of overripe grapes, stood out luminously before me in an infinite, criss-crossed maze. Then suddenly the whole scene took on a faint shade of blue: in an instant, the bright colors went out, the birches stood blankly white as new-fallen snow, not yet touched by the cold light of the winter sun; and furtively, slyly, the finest of drizzles began to spray and whisper through the wood. The leaves of birches were almost all of them still green, though of a marked pallor; only here and there stood a single young one, quite red or quite gold, and it was a sight to see how brightly it flared up when the sun’s rays suddenly found their way to it, slipping and dappling through the thick net of fine branches, all newly washed in sparkling rain. There was not a sound from the birds: they were all snuggled down and keeping quiet.” (261-262)

23. Breaking Bread with the Dead / Alan Jacobs

What do Robinson Crusoe, To Kill a Mockingbird, Huckleberry Finn, and Of Mice and Men have in common? They’re all cancelled classics. Alan Jacobs tells why: “This neatly sums up a common current attitude: all history hitherto is at best a sewer of racism, sexism, homophobia, and general social injustice, at worst an abattoir which no reasonable person would even want to peek at.” (11) Jacobs argues that paying attention to old books from strange times (even those with ideas we find loathsome!) can help us lead loving lives in the present.

“Ideas and ambitions aren’t worth much unless they are transformed into a settled disposition, a habit of mind. And what I’m talking about, and indeed have been talking about throughout this book, is a need for a disposition to love; to love the too-often-neglected voices from our past, from the world’s past. I counsel to give the dead the blood of our attention for our own sake, to enrich and strengthen our identities, to make ourselves more solid and less tenuous. There’s an important sense in which we cannot use the past to love ourselves unless we also learn to love our ancestors. We must see them not as others but as neighbors— and then, ultimately as kin, as members our (very) extended family. These writers who help us to encounter our ancestors not as anthropological curiosities whom we observe from a critical distance, but as those with whom we can, and should, break bread.

When we own our kinship to those people, they may come alive for us not just as exemplars of narrowness and wickedness that we have to overcome, but as neighbors and even as teachers. When we acknowledge that even when they go far astray they do so in ways that we surely would have, had we been formed as they were, we extend them not just attention but love, the very love that we hope our descendants will extend to us. The argument that I have made here for the cultivation of personal density is also an argument for serving as links in the living chain that extends into the distant past and also into the distant future. It is an argument for a genealogy of love.” (150-151)

“Breaking bread with the dead is not a scholarly task to be completed but a permanent banquet, to which all who hunger are invited.” (80)

24. K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches / Tyler Kepner

After my beloved Braves blew a 3-1 lead to the Dodgers in the NLCS, I sought solace in this spellbinding history of the national pastime as told through the craft of pitching. Kepner devotes each chapter to a different pitch. Each page brims with stats from archival research, saber-metrics (exit velo, spin rate, launch angle, etc.), and stories from over 300 interviews with Hall of Fame and superstar players.

“The pitches are the DNA of baseball, the fundamental coding of the game. The sport could easily be called ‘pitching,’ because the pitcher controls everything. He is the most influential player on the field, by far, but he can’t play every day. That factor, more than any other, makes baseball so interesting. A major league pitcher is part boxer and part magician; if he’s not punching you in the face, he’s swiping a quarter from behind your ear. If you ever square him up, you’d better savor it. Even in batting practice, the world’s best hitters tap harmless grounders and punch lazy fly balls. In the heat of competition, every hit is an exquisite anomaly.” (xiii)

Other books do a better job explaining the science of baseball. (See Off Speed by Terry McDermott). But no book I’ve ever read surpasses Kepner’s seamless narrative on the miracle of baseball. Walt Whitman wrote the truth in The Brooklyn Eagle on July 23, 1846:

“Let us enjoy life a little. Let us go forth awhile, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our close rooms, and taste some of the good things Providence has scattered around so liberally. The game of ball is glorious.”

My Final 12:

25. Adorning the Dark / Andrew Peterson

There’s much to love in Peterson’s latest book. His rifts on the mystery of making are magical.

On making a stone wall and a Roman arch:

“You wouldn’t believe how much unwanted stone is just lying around in Tennessee. The next time I walked around our woods I noticed a ton (literally) of rocks scattered about the property, so I loaded them into a wheelbarrow and heaved them up to the front yard. The kids had a list of daily chores anyway, so I added the assignment of walking the woods each morning and bringing two rocks each day to the pile. Then, satisfied that I had enough to get started, I watched hours of YouTube videos about dry stack walls. During a warm snap in January I walked outside with a shovel and dug the first footer for the foundation. I figured we had enough rocks piled up to make some real progress, but after fussing with it for a few chilly hours I had gone through all our rocks and had completed about six feet of two-foot-high wall. Just 94 feet to go. I thought about Roy Scheider in Jaws and said to myself, “We’re gonna need more rocks.” My obsessive nature kicked in, and I spent weeks scouring the Nashville area for more stones. I pilfered construction sites, walked the woods around our house for hours, searched the shoulders of highways—and discovered treasure troves of discarded stones, which I surreptitiously hauled away in my old truck. Years later, I still can’t help but notice orphaned stones beside the road, and my kids still make fun of me. Slowly but surely, the wall took shape. My arms did, too, to Jamie’s delight. At some point I got it into my head that the wall needed an archway—as in, a bona fide Roman Arch, suspended by nothing but a keystone and this thing called gravity. Once again, YouTube provided all I really needed to know. I built up the sides of an opening, then measured and built a wooden frame with a round top. By now my older brother decided he needed to come over and inform me in classic older-brother fashion that it would never work—which, of course, was all the motivation I needed to carry through. I stacked the stones on top of the frame, set the keystone, and used a hammer to tighten it all with little shims of flinder. When all was ready, with the whole family watching, I nervously removed the legs from the frame. The round wooden support fell away, and—lo, and behold!—the thing held. My brother grunted something congratulatory and went home as I high-fived Jamie and the kids. It took another few weeks to complete the other arm of the wall, and before long the footpaths were dug, some plants were in the ground, and we had an actual enclosed cottage garden, complete with a stone archway, right here at The Warren.” (54-55)

On making a sonnet:

“I finished the wall that spring around Easter, and one morning I woke at dawn, just as the sun broke over the hill and shot a ray of new light across the property. Because the earth had been slowly tilting its way toward summer, that light landed in a new place, illuminating the stone arch. I peeked through the blinds and gasped, because the arch, suspended by gravity looked like the mouth of the empty tomb. Those rocks, repurposed and reborn, were crying out praise.

Lenten Sonnet March 8, 2017

This morning I woke and opened the shade,
Saw frost in the shadows, dew in the light,
Steam hovering up through each gleaming blade
Of grass. The stone arch caught the sun.
The sight Of it all, first thing in the morning, wakes
A contentment with the world. I feel young
Knowing the slow turn of the planet rakes
A bright edge of infant light, a tune sung
As long as the world has spun: new again,
New again, the mercies of God are new
Each morning, and morning moves with the spin
Of the old earth and greets each eye on cue—
Mercy, speeding west from here to the plain
To the peaks, to the sea, then back again.” (55)

On making a home:

“I love this place. I love it because I have loved it with my labor, with sweat and blood and a persistent longing to belong to it. My name is on the deed, which means I own it, inasmuch as a human can own a part of the earth. It belongs to me more than any place I’ve ever known—but in a deeper, truer way, I belong to it. In the honey from my bees and the bounty from the berry bushes I have literally tasted the fruit of my co-laboring with this corner of creation, and it is profoundly sweet. It speaks to me of its Maker. And my Maker speaks to me through it. I love to watch people taste my honey. They always close their eyes and breathe deep, and they always proclaim it better by far than whatever they buy at the grocery store. I’m not sure it tastes all that different, but their enjoyment is heightened by the knowledge that it came from the flowers underfoot and the long labor of the bees’ sweet alchemy. I think it reminds them of Eden. The world that is whispers of the world to come, just as Julie’s thirty-year plan invites me into the long struggle of begetting something new and beautiful made out of Tennessee stones as old as Everest. The Kingdom is coming, but the Kingdom is here. That’s why we’re homesick, and it’s also why we might as well get busy planting.” (56)

26. On the Apostolic Preaching / Irenaeus of Lyons

This brief book from the great Greek Father displays the whole content of the apostolic preaching. What’s so striking is how much this preaching is derived from the Old Testament. But this isn’t surprising. In his youth Irenaeus (A.D. 130-202) often heard the aged Polycarp preach. Polycarp was discipled by the Apostle John. So when you read Irenaeus, you’re reading a guy who was discipled by the guy, who was discipled by John, who was discipled by Jesus. And Jesus said, “If you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote of Me.” (John 5:46) Irenaeus helped me to praise the Lord that “the transgression which occurred through the tree was undone by the obedience of the tree.” (33)

27. Does God Suffer? / Thomas Weinandy

Does God experience emotional change? Is He subject to mood swings like His creatures? And does God suffer like we do? Throughout church history, most Christians have answered with an emphatic “No!” But much of 20th century theology has answered “Yes!” Weinandy spent his teaching career expounding the classical understanding of God’s immutabilty and impassibility. Since God is immutable, He must also be impassible. Weinandy responds to those who advocate a passible God by rooting impassibility in Scripture and in the Christological tradition inherited from the Fathers. As a Protestant, I don’t agree with all that Weinandy writes, but this book, and his book on divine immutability, Does God Change?, are both exceptional.

28. None Like Him / Jen Wilkin

This is an excellent and accessible book on the incommunicable attributes of God. God is not like us. And that’s good news. “When we fear God rightly, we recognize Him for who He truly is: a God of no limits, and therefore, utterly unlike anyone or anything we know. This is the start of becoming wise.” (13) Wilkin makes this wise observation:

“Human beings created to bear the image of God instead aspire to become like God. Designed to reflect His glory, we choose instead to rival it. We do so by reaching for those attributes that are true only of God, those suited only to a limitless being. Rather than worship and trust in the omniscience of God, we desire to be all-knowing ourselves. Rather than celebrate and revere His omnipotence, we seek ultimate power in our own spheres of influence. Rather than rest in the immutability of God, we point to our own calcified sin patterns and declare ourselves unchanging and unchangeable. Like our father Adam and our mother Eve, we long for that which is intended only for God, rejecting our God-given limits and craving the limitlessness we foolishly believe we are capable of wielding and entitled to possess. Even as the redeemed, we crave the forbidden fruit of rivalry.” (23-24)

29. Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings / Neil Price

In June 793, a boat filled with warriors reached the island monastery of Lindisfarne on the coast of Northumbria. A brutal attack followed, the first recorded Viking raid in Britain. “Never before has such terror appeared in Britain,” wrote the English cleric Alcuin. “Behold, the church of St. Cuthbert was spattered with the blood of the priests of God, and despoiled of all its ornaments.” This was only the beginning.

In this brilliant new book, the leading expert on Vikings tells the history of a people notorious for violence, but who also ice-skated, skied, left beautiful runic inscriptions, and built some of the greatest seagoing vessels in history. Behind the bloodshed and pillaging was an allegiance to cruel gods, and a vision of the afterlife that held no link between how a life was lived and the dead person’s ultimate fate. Theology always fuels actions, and eschatology always shapes ethics.

Did you know the Vikings fought their way into Ireland and France? Did you know they populated Iceland, Greenland, the Faroe Islands, and even reached continental America? Did you know that a Viking fleet sailed south into the Mediterranean, attacked Morocco, then went even further east and reached Egypt? Did you know that in 1013, the Vikings launched a full-scale invasion of Britain, conquered the city of London, and Svein Forkbeard became the first Viking king of England? If you’re as hooked as I am on Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon series, then you’ll enjoy this fascinating deep-dive on the ruthless and renowned men of the North, the children of Ash and Elm.

30. The Children of Men / P.D. James

Baroness James of Holland Park is best known for her superb Inspector Dalgliesh novels. I reread this dystopian story set in 2021, cherishing it more than ever before. It’s the most overtly Christian book James ever wrote. A mysterious disease causes global infertility. No child has been born anywhere in the world since 1995. Society unravels when it becomes clear no cure will be found. Nothing exposes idolatry like a pandemic.

“We are outraged and demoralized less by the impending end of our species, less even by our inability to prevent it, than by our failure to discover the cause. Western science and Western medicine haven’t prepared us for the magnitude and humiliation of this ultimate failure. There have been many diseases which have been difficult to diagnose or cure and one which almost depopulated two continents before it spent itself. But we have always in the end been able to explain why. We have given names to the viruses and germs which, even today, take possession of us, much to our chagrin since it seems a personal affront that they should still assail us, like old enemies who keep up the skirmish and bring down the occasional victim when their victory is assured. Western science has been our god. In the variety of its power it has preserved, comforted, healed, warmed, fed and entertained us and we have felt free to criticize and occasionally reject it as men have always rejected their gods, but in the knowledge that, despite our apostasy, this deity, our creature and our slave, would still provide for us; the anesthetic for the pain, the spare heart, the new lung, the antibiotic, the moving wheels and the moving pictures. The light will always come on when we press the switch and if it doesn’t we can find out why. Science was never a subject I was at home with. I understood little of it at school and I understand little more now that I’m fifty. Yet it has been my god too, even if its achievements are incomprehensible to me, and I share the universal disillusionment of those whose god has died. It is twenty-five years now since a human being was born and in our hearts few of us believe that the cry of a new-born child will ever be heard again on our planet. ” (5-7)

And yet in this bleakness, hope abounds. A child is born, a son is given, and the yoke of an oppressor is broken.

31. The Guardians / John Grisham

Not every Grisham novel is worth reading, but most are. Especially this one, his 33rd! It’s like a legal thriller version of Bryan Stevenson’s unforgettable Just Mercy. The main character, Cullen Post, is loosely based on James McCloskey, the founder of Centurion Ministries. The wrongful convictions of 63 men and women on death row were overturned because of the efforts of McCloskey and his team. Grisham’s page-turner reminded me that to do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice.

32. How to Become a Federal Criminal / Mike Chase

The most amusing book I read this year is an illustrated handbook for the aspiring felon. The owner and operator of @CrimeADay on Twitter documents the countless ways you can become a federal criminal. For example, removing a bald eagle from your home without a permit is a felony offense according to Title 50, Section 21.12(d). When you visit a National Park, please remember 36 C.F.R. § 2.1 (a)(3) prohibits “tossing, throwing or rolling rocks or other items inside caves or caverns, into valleys, canyons, or caverns, and down hillsides or mountainsides.” Keep in mind that (182) Title 18, Section 1716(c) of the U.S. Code permits the mailing of live scorpions provided the scorpions are packaged in a box clearly marked “Live Scorpions.” However, another statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1716D, makes it a federal crime to send a live mongoose in the mail. Mongoose mailers are subject to as much as one year in federal prison. “For the aspiring offender, Washington D.C. is Graceland. It’s a Mecca. It’s the only place where a person can become a three-time federal offender by abandoning a fish in the National Arboretum, taking a nap at the Smithsonian, and posting an unauthorized flyer on a bulletin board at the Government Accountability Office– all before lunch.” (208) What’s the main lesson of this book? Of the making of many laws, there is no end.

33. Blacktop Wasteland / S.A. Cosby

S.A. Cosby’s crime novel is Amazon’s #1 Mystery and Thriller of the Year. I imagine it’ll be made into a movie soon. Cosby grew up in Mathews County, Virginia, on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, where he worked as a bouncer, a forklift driver, a retail manager, a landscaper, a construction worker, and a mortuary attendant, all while writing crime stories on the side. He can now add full-time writer to his résumé. This book isn’t for everyone. It’s a gritty tale, a kind of eclectic mashup of the classic “one last job” heist story, several Fast and Furious car-chase scenes, a huge dose of Southern rural noir, and a glimpse of what it’s like being a black father living below the Mason Dixon line. Here’s a sampling of when the main character drove his getaway car off an overpass:

“Beauregard slammed on the brakes and yanked the steering wheel to the left. The Buick did a 180 as a gray cloud of smoke engulfed them. Without a second of hesitation he slammed the car in reverse and stomped on the gas. The wooden pickets that had surrounded the median had been replaced with orange snow fencing. Ronnie was screaming in his ear. No words, just one long nonsensical wail. They were doing 60, hurtling toward an unfinished section of road. Backwards. The police were closing in like wolves chasing a deer. Then the deer sprouted wings. Beauregard didn’t say hold on. He didn’t say watch out. But in his mind, he heard his father’s voice. ‘She flying now, Bug!’ The Buick sailed off the overpass. It plummeted twenty-five feet like a stone. The trunk slammed into the pile of dirt, but the dirt helped to cushion their fall. The edge of the overpass rapidly receded from Beauregard’s vision as they fell. He braced himself by gripping the steering wheel and leaning back in his seat as hard as he could. The rear bumper took some of the force. The load-leveling shocks he had installed took the rest. He could feel every inch of the steel plating he welded to the chassis stretch to its tensile limit. The cop car that had been closest to them had slammed on the brakes. The cop car behind hadn’t. It crashed into the first one and sent it careening off the edge. It landed nose first into the asphalt. Steam and engine coolant burst from the crumpled hood even as the car fell forward on its roof. Beauregard jerked on the gearshift, dropped the car into drive and extricated himself from the dry dirt pile. Red clay flew fifty feet into the air as the rear tires strained for purchase. Finally, after what seemed like ten years Beauregard felt the rubber meet the road. He slipped by the upside-down cop car and crashed through the traffic cones. He took the road back to Route 314 and turned right.” (119-120)

34. Every Day Matters / Brandon Crowe

Time is slippery. How you spend your days is how you spend your life. Every day matters. But Crowe understands true productivity is more than just getting things done. It’s about being a faithful steward in the sight of the Lord. “Being productive does not mean seeking first our own interests. Biblical productivity must be guided by two great commands: loving God and loving our neighbor (Matthew 22:37-39). Loving God and doing what He commands means we must be faithful stewards of what God has entrusted to us.” (5) Crowe grounds his approach in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, highlighting the benefits and limitations of diligent work. His chapter on Paul’s grace-driven effort is super. This is the perfect book to (re)read at the dawn of 2021.

“Each day is a gift from God, and those things you do on a daily basis add up. Aim to make small improvements each day. Strive to get a little bit closer to your goals each day. The ultimate goal is not personal promotion, but serving Christ and His kingdom. Remember, every day matters. If every day matters, then today must be the day to get started.” (129)

35. The Ascension of Christ / Patrick Schreiner

Back in 2007, I read an awe-inspiring book by Gerrit Scott Dawson entitled Jesus Ascended. (You can read a bunch of the best quotes here.) Dawson led me to contemplate Christ’s ascension and His continuing incarnation. But given its price ($60!) and academic style, it’s not a book I would ever give away to my flock. So I was thrilled to read Patrick Schreiner’s wonderful little book on this neglected doctrine. It balances deep theology and lucid brevity. Much what happened in 2020 tempted me to look down. But this book summoned me to look up. With uplifted head we look to our ascended Savior and King, who holds both the scepter of the universe and all of our concerns in His wise and gracious hands. Weary saint, look up and remember the Day is fast approaching when “all God’s people will ascend, follow their forerunner, and be with God forever.” (116)

36. Every Moment Holy, Volume 1 / Douglas Kaine McKelvey 

This collection of prayers, blessings, liturgies, and laments was a close companion for the Roark family in 2020. We said goodbye to friends who moved away. We prayed for medical providers. We feasted together on the Lord’s Day. We pondered our consumption of media. We celebrated the winter’s first snowfall. We comforted one another during illness. We marked the first hearth-fire of the season. We did all these things together using the words of this book, giving voice to prayers we didn’t know we needed to pray. “There are no unsacred moments; there are only sacred moments and moments we have forgotten are sacred.” (xvii) Every Moment Holy will help you reclaim the sacredness of all of life.

Lament Upon the Finishing of a Beloved Book
“I am stirred and saddened, O Lord,
in coming to this tale’s end,
to bid farewell and return now
from my sojourn in that storied place
where longings for something
more than the life I lead
were wakened.
It is in the receding glow of that small,
bright sorrow that I now linger.
Let it do its work in me,
inviting me to dig beneath these
fresh-stirred longings, to see
that their roots are not at last a longing
for the places depicted in these pages;
but are, in truth,
profound and holy wounds,
yearnings for a lost garden and a more
perfect city, where justice and righteousness
are restored, and harms are healed, and losses
redeemed, and love proved true,
and earth and heaven reconciled.
What I feel is, at its heart, a homesick hope
for a place of unbroken communion
with my Creator, and with His people,
and with all of His creation.
What I most desire
is to open my eyes and find that,
for the first time in my life,
I am home and breathing
the wild winds of my native land.
So of course my heart aches
each time I receive these beautiful, distant
rumors of that far country!
Of course I do not want such a story to end,
for it has wedged open for me
a way like a window,
through which I have glimpsed
a vision of things more as they will one day be
than as they now are in these hard
and sorrowing lands of our exile.
Thank you, O my God,
for loving me enough
that you would rouse
my deepest desires again through story,
appointing these longings as true signposts
planted in a war-torn and cratered landscape,
reminding me that all of history
is leading at last
to a King and a kingdom,
and pointing me ever onward toward.
His righteous and eternal city.
May I return now
from the world of this book
to the daily details of my own life
with truer vision and fiercer hope,
trailing with me
remnants of that coming glory
I have glimpsed again
in story.  Amen.” (95-98)

Now may the God of peace grant you perfect peace, and living hope, and glorious grace, and steadfast love with faith, through Jesus Christ our Lord, until the day breaks and the shadows flee away.

As always, happy reading and Happy New Year!

–Nick Roark

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Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Christian Theology, Jesus Christ, Puritanical, Quotable Quotes, Reading, Sanctification, The Gospel

5 responses to “The Best Books I Read This Year (2020)

  1. I'm going to have to revist some of the titles you highlighted here. 


    I am currently reading Gentle and Lowly and I'm savoring this. 


    Thanks for updating. 



    Joey Zorina | ジョーイゾリナ The Bridge Fellowship Tokyo ザ・ブリッジフェローシップ東京

    Pastor | church planter 牧師 | チャーチプランター

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  4. Dear Brother,
    Thanks so much for these. I’ve just circulated the post to members of our church drawing particular attention to No.10, Jeremy Treat’s “The Crucified King” which I’ve found so spiritually nourishing this year. Also greatly appreciated the extract from Spurgeon’s sermon you circulated last week on the surpassing wonderfulness of Christ.
    Thank you,
    Nigel Smethers,
    Birmingham, UK

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