The Best Books I Read This Year (2021)

I hunt for fabulous books, reads that leave me reeling. Here is what I want from a book, what I demand, what I pray for before I read the first sentence: I want everything and nothing less. By God’s grace, I found 36 fabulous books this year, and I thoroughly enjoyed every last one of them.

My Top 12:

1. God of All Things / Andrew Wilson

All of creation is the theater of God’s glory because “the earth is the LORD’s and everything in it.” (Psalm 24:1) In this wonderful new book, Wilson helps his readers delight in the knowledge that “everything in creation tells us something about our Creator.” (201) The world is theomorphic, that is, all things “take the form they do because they are created to reveal God.” (4) Along the way, Wilson shows the scriptural significance of dust, earthquakes, pigs, livestock, stones, galaxies, honey, mountains, rainbows, gardens, donkeys, salt, rain, water, bread, trees, viruses, clothes, light, and more. (Check out these delicious excerpts here, here, here, and here.)

“For now, the created order is filled with signposts. One of my dreams in writing this book has been that you might look around you and see reasons to worship that you hadn’t noticed before. But the day is coming when the signposts will not be needed, because the reality is here. We will know fully, even as we are fully known. And on that day the things of God will stop pointing and start praising. ‘The mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands’ (Isa. 55:12). ‘Let the rivers clap their hands; let the hills sing for joy together’ (Ps. 98:8). ‘The stones will cry out’ (Luke 19:40). The things of God will sing to the King of Kings and the God of things, for whom and through whom and to whom they exist. So will we.” (201-202)

Charles Simeon once said: “There are but two lessons for the Christian to learn: the one is, to enjoy God in everything; the other is, to enjoy everything in God.” This book, my favorite book of the year, can help you do both.

2. Exodus Old and New: A Biblical Theology of Redemption / L. Michael Morales

When Dr. Morales writes a book about the Bible, I read it. His volume on Leviticus is one of my all-time favorites. This new biblical-theological feast traces the exodus theme in Scripture around three movements: the historical exodus out of Egypt, the prophesied second exodus, and the new exodus of Jesus the Messiah. Exegetical insights abound. The section on the Servant Songs in Isaiah is worth the price of the entire book.

“All the streams of heavenly blessings converge through the one unifying sieve of this servant, the Messiah. He is the Rock through whom every divine promise pours out as a rushing river, transforming the wilderness of this age into the paradise of a new creation.” (145)

Morales helped me see more fully how “the cross on which Jesus shed His blood has become the doorpost of the world (John 19:29; Exodus 12:22).” (164)

3. Faith in the Time of Plague / Eds. Stephen Coleman & Todd Rester

How might pastors learn to shepherd well through a global pandemic? One way is by gleaning heavenly wisdom from godly pastors who faced the worst of plagues in the past. Coleman and Rester have translated and edited an enriching volume of treatises, letters, hymns, and prayers, from the Reformation and Post-Reformation eras, that help us to think theologically and pastorally about living and shepherding during times of great crisis.

“Plague and disease deeply shaped the ministries of pastors and the congregational life of the early modern churches. A faithful pastor in this context needed a solid theology of God’s providence and the dignity of every human being, especially of the sick and the infirm; a deep love of neighbor; a strong commitment to the duties of pastoral vocation; and a robust Christian prudence to navigate the physical and spiritual needs of his family, congregation, and community. As we can all attest, pandemics tend to reveal the seams and tensions within a society. It was no different in the sixteenth century.” (xxvi)

You will find thoughtful reflections on Philippians 2Psalm 91, Exodus 9, 1 Samuel 24, 1 Chronicles 21, and Ezekiel 5 and 14, as well as pearls of wisdom like this one from Theodore Beza:

“This especially must be agreed upon, that as our sins are the chief and true cause of the plague, so this is the only proper remedy against the same: that if the ministers would not dispute about infectiousness (which belongs to physicians) but, by their life and doctrine stir up the people to earnest repentance, love, and charity one towards another, then the sheep themselves would hear clearly and heed the voice of their pastors.” (29)

4. The Incomparableness of God / George Swinnock

George Swinnock is one of the easiest Puritan authors to read. He’s also one of the most edifying. This little volume is a God-enthralled meditation on Psalm 89:6: “For who in the heaven can be compared unto the LORD? Who among the sons of the mighty can be likened unto the LORD?” Here’s a taste:

“Who could have imagined that God should become man, infinite become finite, the Creator a creature; the Father of spirits become flesh, and the Lord of life be put to death? Who could conceive, that He who made all things of nothing, should be made Himself of a woman, made by Him? That He whom the heavens, and heaven of heavens cannot contain, should be contained in the narrow womb of a woman? That the only bread of life should be hungry, the only water of life be thirsty; the only rest be weary, the only ease be pained, and the only joy and consolation be sorrowful, exceeding sorrowful unto death? Who could have imagined that one, yea, millions, should be rich by another’s poverty, filled by another’s emptiness, be exalted by another’s disgrace, healed by another’s wounds, eased by another’s pains, be absolved by another’s condemnation, and live eternally by another’s temporal death? Who could have imagined that infinite justice and infinite mercy should be made fast friends, and fully satisfied by one and the same action; that the greatest fury and the greatest favour, the greatest hatred and the greatest love, should concur in, and be manifested by one and the same thing? Could men or angels speak such mysteries? Surely no.” (106)


5. Be Thou My Vision: A Liturgy for Daily Worship / Jonathan Gibson

If you find yourself wayward and wandering, distracted and distressed, during your times of daily worship with the Lord, you might find help from this simple but incredibly rich devotional guide. Here’s a sample of what’s inside. Praying the daily offices and the rhythms of a fixed liturgy can be an oasis for the soul. Also, especially if you’re a pastor, avail yourself of Gibson’s Reformation Worship. It’s a liturgical goldmine.

6. Pure in Heart: Sexual Sin and the Promises of God / Garrett Kell

Robert Murray M’Cheyne once gave this priceless wisdom: “Do not take up your time so much with studying your own heart as with studying Christ’s heart. For one look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ!” I was reminded of this quote while reading this earnest, humble, and Scripture-saturated book by a pastor and friend I deeply love and respect. Garrett wisely helps us see the deceitfulness of sin and the deception of the devil:

“Satan is a historian. He is the master of replaying old sins to the tune of accusation. He digs up past failures and then blackmails us with reminders of why God is disappointed with us. Before sin, Satan is the tempter who whispers, ‘You should do this!’ After sin, Satan is the accuser who whispers, ‘How could you have done this!’ Satan kills through temptation and then buries with guilt. But whether he allures with sugar on the tongue or accuses with salt in a wound, the devil is always working. His aim is to turn your gaze from God, because seeing him with sober eyes strengthens your fight for faith in the one greater than all your foes.” (64)

But more than anything, Kell helps us long to see God. “When the hope of seeing God fills our hearts, it has a purifying effect on our lives.” (94) “We know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who thus hopes in Him purifies himself as He is pure.” (1 John 3:2-3)

7. Handbook on the Gospels / Benjamin L. Gladd 

I spent much of 2021 pondering and preaching the Gospel according to Luke. No commentary was more helpful to me than this one. This new series of NT handbooks focuses on the content of the biblical books, rather than historical-critical questions. Gladd faithfully summarizes the passage, makes textual connections to other passages, paying careful attention to OT allusions and quotations. Check out this insight on the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:

“The father’s treatment of his prodigal son is remarkable in its similarities to the Joseph narrative. He clothes the son in his ‘best robe’ and puts a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet (Luke 15:22). The language is close to Genesis 41:42, when Pharaoh gives Joseph a ring and dresses ‘him in robes of fine linen.’ A few verses earlier, the prodigal son is forced to work with pigs because ‘there was a severe famine in that whole country’ (Luke 15:14). According to Genesis 41, Pharaoh dreams that seven years of famine would descend upon Egypt after seven years of prosperity (Gen. 41:25-32). The combination of these plot points refers Luke’s audience back to the Joseph narrative. The donning of clothes in the OT symbolizes the right to inherit and rule (Gen. 3:21; 37; Num. 20:24-28; 1 Kings 11:30-31; 19:19-21; Isa. 22:21). The prodigal son, after recognizing his sin, comes and receives a great deal of inheritance and rule over the estate, just as Joseph is given the right to rule over Egypt. The father elevates his prodigal son to the status of ruler. The restoration of the prodigal son, the sinner, symbolizes all the outsiders within Luke’s narrative and their new identity as the true Israel of God. They are all identified with the great patriarch Joseph. The father twice announces that the son ‘was dead’ but is now ‘alive again’ (Luke 15:24, 32). Life here should be understood as resurrection life, the new creational act of God whereby He spiritually resurrects those who trust in Jesus (see John 5:25; Rom. 6:11, 13; 1 Pet. 1:3; Rev. 1:18; 2:8; 20:5).” (267-268)

8. An All-Round Ministry / Charles Spurgeon

I read Spurgeon for admiration, not imitation. I don’t try to imitate him. But I admire God for what He did in and through His faithful servant. This sobering collection of pastoral addresses is full of wisdom, encouragement, and testimonies of God’s amazing grace. Even in the darkness of his depression, Spurgeon was used by the Lord to minister the gospel of Christ to others who, like him, found themselves in the silent shades of sorrow.

“When you and I become weak, and are depressed in spirit, and our soul passes through the valley of the shadow of death, it is often on account of others. One Sabbath morning, I preached from the text, ‘My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?’ (Matthew 27:46) and though I did not say so, yet I preached my own experience. I heard my own chains clank while I tried to preach to my fellow-prisoners in the dark; but I could not tell why I was brought into such an awful horror of darkness, for which I condemned myself. On the following Monday evening, a man came to see me who bore all the marks of despair upon his countenance. His hair seemed to stand upright, and his eyes were ready to start from their sockets. He said to me, after a little parleying, ‘I never before, in my life, heard any man speak who seemed to know my heart. Mine is a terrible case; but on Sunday morning you painted me to the life, and preached as if you had been inside my soul.’

By God’s grace, I saved that man from suicide, and led him into gospel light and liberty; but I know I could not have done it if I had not myself been confined in the dungeon in which he lay. I tell the story, brethren, because you sometimes may not understand your own experience, and the perfect people may condemn you for having it; but what know they of God’s servants? You and I have to suffer much for the sake of the people of our charge. God’s sheep ramble very far, and we have to go after them; and sometimes the shepherds go where they themselves would never roam if they were not in pursuit of lost sheep. You may be in Egyptian darkness, and you may wonder why such a horror chills your marrow; but you may be altogether in the pursuit of your calling, and be led of the Spirit to a position of sympathy with desponding minds. Expect to grow weaker, brethren, that you may comfort the weak, and so may become masters in Israel in the judgment of others; while, in your own opinion, you are less than the least of all saints.” (172-173)

9. Deeper: Real Change for Real Sinners / Dane Ortlund

This is an outstanding book about growing in Christ. Sanctification is about growing “in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 3:18) How does this growth happen? Here’s Ortlund’s answer: “The basic point of this book is that change is a matter of going deeper… Growing in Christ is not centrally improving or adding or experiencing but deepening. Implicit in the notion of deepening is that you already have what you need.” (16) We already have Christ, the One in whom are hidden unsearchable riches of love and all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

“Let me suggest that you consider the possibility that your current mental idea of Jesus is the tip of the iceberg. That there are wondrous depths to Him, realities about Him, still awaiting your discovery. I’m not disregarding the real discipleship already at play in your life and the true discoveries of the depths of Jesus Christ you have already made. But let me ask you to open yourself up to the possibility that one reason you see modest growth and ongoing sin in your life– if that is indeed the case– is that the Jesus you are following is a junior varsity Jesus, an unwittingly reduced Jesus, an unsurprising and predictable Jesus. I’m not assuming that’s the case. I’m just asking you to test yourself, with honesty. When Christopher Columbus reached the Caribbean in 1492, he named the natives “Indians,” thinking he had reached what Europeans of the time referred to as “the Indies” (China, Japan, and India). In fact he was nowhere close to South or East Asia. In his path were vast regions of land, unexplored and uncharted, of which Columbus knew nothing. He assumed the world was smaller than it was. Have we made a similar mistake with regard to Jesus Christ? Are there vast tracts of who He is, according to biblical revelation, that are unexplored? Have we unintentionally reduced Him to manageable, predictable proportions? Have we been looking at a junior varsity, decaffeinated, one-dimensional Jesus of our own making, thinking we’re looking at the real Jesus? Have we snorkeled in the shallows, thinking we’ve now hit bottom on the Pacific?” (22-23)

10. Invitation to Biblical Theology / Kimble & Spellman

I love this intermediate-level introduction to the glorious world of biblical theology, which the authors define as “the study of the whole Bible on its own terms.” (16) The categories of canon, covenants, and Christ structure their approach. After sketching the Bible’s grand storyline, they trace several of the Bible’s significant themes (God’s glory, Kingdom, Covenant, Temple and Priesthood, Worship, Messiah and Atonement, Salvation and Judgment, Holy Spirit, and Mission).

“One of the main purposes of Scripture is to display Jesus Christ.” (81)

“At the heart of the story of the biblical covenants is the bedrock conviction that the God of creation is the God of the covenants.” (82)

“The gospel is still a story that takes two Testaments to tell.” (83)

“Two hermeneutical statements can begin to capture the conviction of the New Testament authors. For them, Jesus both fulfills and fills out the Scriptures.” (94)

“For the biblical theologian, the role of the reader is never to make a path to Christ, but always to follow the path to Christ that the biblical authors have laid down. Taking a canonical line to the cross may not be straight or fast, but it’s true.” (101)

“The Pentateuch was meant to be read as a whole, with each of its five parts connected to and building upon the others. The five books of Moses are really five narrative components of the one Book of Moses.” (121)

“The biblical authors were also biblical readers. The task of biblical theology requires reading and rereading.” (453)

Take up and read.

11. Why God Makes Sense in a World That Doesn’t / Gavin Ortlund

Ortlund offers a winsome, rigorous, and engaging abductive argument for God’s existence. (The sections in Chapter 2 on math and music are phenomenal.) He carefully considers the cause, the meaning, the conflict, and the hope of the world. He then works backwards from a present set of conditions to the most likely explanation, an inference to the best explanation, by showing the beautiful reasonableness of Christian theism. This approach says, “If God doesn’t exist, so much of life– so much of what we already assume in the way we function– becomes inexplicable.” (13) Imagine this volume as a book-length expansion of what good old Puddleglum declared to the Witch in The Silver Chair:

“One word, Ma’am… One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.” (159)

This book is a masterclass in how to treat those with whom you disagree. Ortlund engages the best atheistic arguments with charity, clarity, and grace. And he keeps the promise he makes in the preface:

“I tell you that I’ve given you my best effort as a writer so that I may invite you to give the book your best effort as a reader. We live in an age of distraction and sound bites. The careful reader of books is not our defining strength. But if you will give me your attention from cover to cover, I will do everything I can to make it worth your effort.” (xi)

A worthy effort indeed.

12. Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol. 1 / Francis Turretin

I plodded my way through Volume 1 of Turretin’s Institutes. Like other scholastics, his writings are lectures not sermons. The goal of an elenctic theology is to demonstrate and assert the truth of sound doctrine by refuting false doctrines. So expect an apologetic feel throughout. His reputation for doctrinal precision is well founded. (His section on the Trinity is wonderful!) But I also found some amusing surprises. For example, Turretin has an entire section devoted to the argument that the world was created in autumn rather than in spring, making his case, in part, from the timing of Israel’s feasts in Exodus and Leviticus. (1: 441–444) Most surprising of all was his warm-hearted devotion:

“These four things in the highest manner commend the love of God towards us:

(1) the majesty of the Lover;

(2) the poverty and unworthiness of the loved;

(3) the worth of Him in whom we are loved;

(4) the multitude and excellence of the gifts which flow out from that love to us.”

He in whom we are beloved is Christ, the delight of His heavenly Father and the ‘express image of His person.’ He could have given us nothing more excellent, nothing dearer, even if He had given the whole universe.” (242) (3.20.6)

Logic on fire.

My Next 12:

13. Remembrance of Earth’s Past Trilogy / Cixin Liu

The London Review of Books called this recently translated Hugo Award-winning trilogy “one of the most ambitious works of science fiction ever written.” I found this to be a gross understatement. These novels are mind-blowing, no matter the genre. The scale of the tale is staggering. Three volumes, The Three-Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End, tallying over 1,600 pages. A narrative timeline spanning 18,906,450 years, encompassing ancient Egypt, the Qin dynasty, the Byzantine Empire, the Cultural Revolution, the present, and a time eighteen million years in the future. One entire scene is told from the perspective of an ant. (An ant!) The first book is set on Earth, but many of its scenes take place in virtual reality, inside a video game. By the end of the third book, the scope of the action is interstellar and annihilation unfolds across multiple dimensions.

Liu’s prose is plain. He writes like a computer engineer. This isn’t Dickens. This is hard science fiction (‘hard sci-fi’ has a lot of science in it, ‘soft sci-fi’ doesn’t). So expect lots of astronomy, cosmology, math, particle physics, molecular biology, all shot through with the Fermi Paradox. The Three-Body Problem takes its title from an analytical problem in orbital mechanics which has to do with the unpredictable motion of three bodies under mutual gravitational pull.

This might not be your bag, but I’m telling you the plot pops. Just stick with it. I almost gave up, but everything picks up 300 pages into the second book. Think contact with alien life cranked up to beyond sinister levels. Think H. G. Wells’s “The War of the Worlds” (1898) but on a cosmic scale. The trilogy concerns the catastrophic consequences of humanity’s attempt to make contact with extraterrestrials. According to Liu, the reason we haven’t heard from aliens yet is that we’re the only species dumb enough to reveal our own location in the universe:

“The universe is a dark forest. Every civilization is an armed hunter stalking through the trees like a ghost, gently pushing aside branches that block the path and trying to tread without sound. Even breathing is done with care. The hunter has to be careful, because everywhere in the forest are stealthy hunters like him. If he finds other life—another hunter, an angel or a demon, a delicate infant or a tottering old man, a fairy or a demigod—there’s only one thing he can do: open fire and eliminate them. In this forest, hell is other people. An eternal threat that any life that exposes its own existence will be swiftly wiped out. This is the picture of cosmic civilization. It’s the explanation for the Fermi Paradox.”

Shi Qiang lit another cigarette, if only to have a bit of light.

“But in this dark forest, there’s a stupid child called humanity, who has built a bonfire and is standing beside it shouting, ‘Here I am! Here I am!’” Luo Ji said.

“Has anyone heard it?”

“That’s guaranteed.”

It goes without saying, the author’s darkly pessimistic secularism permeates the story. Which is what makes the glimmers of hope and beauty and love in the face of death all the more strange. It’s like he can’t force himself to go gentle into that good night.

14. Empire of Pain / Patrick Radden Keefe

It’s been said that behind every great fortune there is a crime. For years, the name “Sackler” has been synonymous with art and philanthropy. But instead of their donations to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre, the British Museum, Harvard, and Yale, the Sackler legacy now includes $10 billion in profits from OxyContin, millions of opioid addicts, a half million dead Americans, and an ever-growing tsunami of civil lawsuits. Keefe chronicles the fascinating, devastating, and infuriating history of the family who founded Purdue Pharma, the company which made a painkiller stronger than morphine in 1996. Here’s what happened next:

“In 1996, Purdue introduced a groundbreaking drug, a powerful opioid painkiller called OxyContin, which Americans from every corner of the country found themselves addicted to these powerful drugs. Many people who started abusing OxyContin ended up transitioning to street drugs, like heroin or fentanyl. The numbers are staggering. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the quarter century following the introduction of OxyContin, some 450,000 Americans have died of opioid-related overdoses. Such overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental death in America, accounting for more deaths than car accidents– more deaths, even, than than most quintessentially American of metrics, gunshot wounds. In fact, more Americans have lost their lives from opioid overdoses than died in all of the wars the country has fought since World War II. (4-5)

If you don’t want to read the book, check out Keefe’s 2017 exposé published in The New Yorker, or listen to this NPR interview.

15. Cloud Cuckoo Land / Anthony Doerr

Ursula Le Guin once noted, “There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.” (34) Anthony Doerr tells a beautiful story that will resonate most in the hearts of βιβλιοφάγοι, book worms, those who love and live in books. The story is really several interlocking stories, Swiss-watchery in its construction, dizzyingly told from the perspective of five characters in the ancient past, the present, and the distant future. In my favorite passage, Doerr perfectly describes the transportive power of reading as a frightened orphan named Anna is stranded in a Constantinople under siege. Anna finds consolation in a mysterious tale told on a Greek codex:

“The quiet moments frighten her more: when the work pauses and she can hear the songs of the Saracens out beyond the walls, the creaking of their siege machines, the nickering of their horses and bleats of their camels. When the wind is right, she can smell the food they’re cooking. To be so close to men who want her dead. To know that only a partition of masonry prevents them from doing their will.

She works until she cannot see her hands in front of her face, then trudges home to the house of Kalaphates, takes a candle from the scullery, and climbs onto the pallet beside Maria, her fingernails broken, her hands veined with dirt, and pulls the blanket around them and opens the little brown goatskin codex.

The reading goes slowly. Some leaves are partially obscured by mold, and the scribe who copied the story did not separate the words with spaces, and the tallow candles give off a weak and sputtery light, and she is often so tired that the lines seem to ripple and dance in front of her eyes.

The shepherd in the story accidentally turns himself into an ass, then a fish, and now he swims through the innards of an enormous leviathan, touring the continents while dodging beasts who try to eat him: it’s silly, absurd; this cannot possibly be the sort of compendium of marvels the Italians sought, can it?

And yet. When the stream of the old Greek picks up, and she climbs into the story, as though climbing the wall of the priory on the rock– handhold here, foothold there– the damp chill of the cell dissipates, and the bright, ridiculous world of Aethon takes its place.

Our sea monster battled with another, bigger and more monstrous even than he was, and the waters around us quaked, and ships with a hundred sailors on each sank in front of me, and whole uprooted islands were carried past. I closed my eyes in terror, and fixed my thoughts on the golden city in the clouds…

Turn a page, walk the lines of sentences: the singer steps out, and conjures a world of color and noise in the space inside your head.” (314-315)

Doerr reminded me to be ever thankful for the written word, for books, for libraries, for stories. “A text– a book– is a resting place for the memories of people who have lived before. A way for the memory to stay fixed after the soul has traveled on.” (51)

16. Ghost Wars and Directorate S / Steve Coll

In the Pulitzer Prize-winning Ghost Wars, Steve Coll details the C.I.A.’s operations in Afghanistan, from the Soviet invasion in 1979 through the summer of 2001, including the rise of the Taliban, the secret efforts of the CIA to capture or kill Osama bin Laden beginning in 1998, and the intelligence failures that led to September 11th. In Directorate S, Coll “seeks to provide a thorough, reliable history of how the C.I.A., I.S.I., and Afghan intelligence agencies influenced the rise of a new war in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, and how that war fostered a revival of Al Qaeda, allied terrorist networks, and, eventually, branches of the Islamic State.” (5) Contemplating the myriad catastrophic and unforced errors is incredibly painful. But if you want to know what happened, and especially what went wrong in Afghanistan, read these books. And continue to pray for the Afghan people.

17. The Wild Places / Robert Macfarlane

No living writer helps me marvel at the manifold splendor of God reflected in His creation more than Robert Macfarlane, Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. His prose is perfect. And his point is often the same: go outside, pay attention, find beauty, be still, and be amazed. In this volume, he records his search for the wild places in Britain and Ireland. Here is the lyrical description of his exploration of a sea cave hidden among the jagged cliffs along the shoreline of Ynys Enlli, a small island off the westernmost tip of the Lleyn Peninsula in Wales:

“I dove in. Blue shock. The cold running into me like dye. I surfaced, gasping, and began to swim towards the cliffs at the eastern side of the bay. I could feel the insistent draw of the current, sliding me out to the west, back towards Enlli. I swam at a diagonal to it, to keep my course. Nearing the cliffs, I moved through different ribbons and bands of temperature, warm, then suddenly cold again. A large lustrous wave surged me between two big rocks, and as I put a hand out to stop myself from being barged against them, I felt barnacles tear at my fingers. I swam to the biggest of the caves. Holding on to an edge of rock, and letting the swell lift me gently up and down, I looked inside. Though I could not see the back of the cave, it seemed to run thirty or forty feet into the cliffs: cone-shaped, tightening into the earth from its mouth. I released the rock, and drifted slowly into the opening. As I crossed the shadow cast by the cave’s roof, the water grew cold. There was a big hollow sucking and slapping sound. I shouted, and heard my call come back at me from all sides. As I got deeper in, the water shallowed. I swam breast-stroke, to keep myself as flat as possible. I was passing over dark red and purple rocks: the voodoo colours of basalt, dolerite. The lower sides of the cave were lined with frizzy green seaweed, which was slick and shiny where the water reached it, like wet hair. Further back into the cave, the light was diffused and the air appeared powdery. The temperature had dropped, and I sensed the whole gathered coldness of the unsunned rock around and above me, pushing out into the air and water. I glanced back over my shoulder. The big semicircular mouth of the cave had by now shrunk to a cuticle of light. I could only just see out to the horizon of the sea, and I felt sudden involuntary lurch of fear. I swam on, moving slowly now, trying to sense the sharp rocks over which I was moving. Then I reached the end of the cave, and there, at its very back, and in its very centre, lifted almost entirely out of the water, sat a single vast white boulder, made of smooth creamy rock, shaped roughly like a throne or seat. It must have weighed five or six tons. I climbed awkwardly out of the water, slipping on weed, and sat on the rock, while the water slopped around its base, and looked back down the cave to the curved rim of light, all that remained of the world beyond. Remembering the white rock now, it seems like a hallucination. I cannot explain what it really looked like, certainly not what it was doing there, among the red and purple basalts. Nor could I conceive of the might of the storm waves that, over the centuries, must have brought that boulder to the cave, and then shifted it deeper and deeper in, until finally they had heaved it into that position, placed perfectly at the centre and the back of the cave.” (37-38)


18. Crime and Punishment / Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky)

Mark Twain defined a classic as a book which people praise and don’t read. In my experience, classics are those books I read in high school and didn’t quite grasp. I’ve now read Crime and Punishment three times and it gets better every time. After my re-reading this year, what lingered with me the most was Raskolnikov’s feverish, haunting, and prescient dream at the novel’s end:

“He lay in the hospital all through the end of Lent and Holy Week. As he began to recover, he remembered his dreams from when he was still lying in feverish delirium. In his illness he had dreamed that the whole world was doomed to fall victim to some terrible, as yet unknown and unseen pestilence spreading to Europe from the depths of Asia. Everyone was to perish, except for certain, very few, chosen ones. Some new trichinae had appeared, microscopic creatures that lodged themselves in men’s bodies. But these creatures were spirits, endowed with reason and will. Those who received them into themselves immediately became possessed and mad. But never, never had people considered themselves so intelligent and unshakeable in the truth as did these infected ones. Never had they thought their judgments, their scientific conclusions, their moral convictions and beliefs more unshakeable. Entire settlements, entire cities and nations would be infected and go mad. Everyone became anxious, and no one understood anyone else; each thought the truth was contained in himself alone, and suffered looking at others, beat his breast, wept, and wrung his hands. They did not know whom or how to judge, could not agree on what to regard as evil, what as good. They did not know whom to accuse, whom to vindicate. People killed each other in some sort of meaningless spite. They gathered into whole armies against each other, but, already on the march, the armies would suddenly begin destroying themselves, the ranks would break up, the soldiers would fall upon one another, stabbing and cutting, biting and eating one another. In the cities the bells rang all day long: everyone was being summoned, but no one knew who was summoning them or why, and everyone felt anxious. The most ordinary trades ceased, because everyone offered his own ideas, his own corrections, and no one could agree. Agriculture ceased. Here and there people would band together, agree among themselves to do something, swear never to part– but immediately begin something completely different from what they themselves had just suggested, begin accusing one another, fighting, stabbing. Fires broke out; famine broke out. Everyone and everything was perishing. The pestilence grew and spread further and further. Only a few people in the whole world could be saved; they were pure and chosen, destined to begin a new generation of people and a new life, to renew and purify the earth; but no one had seen these people anywhere, no one had heard their words or voices.” (547-548)

Wow. Here’s a helpful guide to the classics just in case you want to visit (or revisit) that daunting work of literature you’ve never quite finished and was never quite finished with you.

19. Slavery By Another Name / Douglas Blackmon

It’s easy to think that slavery in America is, thankfully, a thing of the past. But in this Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Blackmon, senior national correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, documents with devastating detail the re-enslavement of black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. In an effort to give a voice to the voiceless, Blackmon introduces his readers to Green Cottenham. In many ways, this book is his story:

“On March 30, 1908, Green Cottenham was arrested by the sheriff of Shelby County, Alabama, and charged with ‘vagrancy.’ Cottenham had committed no true crime. Vagrancy the offense of a person not being able to prove at a given moment that he or she is employed, was a new and flimsy concoction dredged up from legal obscurity at the end of the nineteenth century by the state legislatures of Alabama and other southern states. It was capriciously enforced by local sheriffs and constables, adjudicated by mayors and notaries public, recorded haphazardly or not at all in court records, and, most tellingly in a time of massive unemployment among all southern men, was reserved almost exclusively for black men. Cottenham’s offense was blackness. After three days behind bars, twenty-two-year-old Cottenham was found guilty in a swift appearance before the county judge and immediately sentenced to a thirty-day term of hard labor. Unable to pay the array of fees assessed on every prisoner—fees to the sheriff, the deputy, the court clerk, the witnesses— Cottenham’s sentence was extended to nearly a year of hard labor. The next day, Cottenham, the youngest of nine children born to former slaves in an adjoining county, was sold. Under a standing arrangement between the county and a vast subsidiary of the industrial titan of the North—U.S. Steel Corporation—the sheriff turned the young man over to the company for the duration of his sentence. In return, the subsidiary, Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Company, gave the county $12 a month to pay off Cottenham’s fine and fees. What the company’s managers did with Cottenham, and thousands of other black men they purchased from sheriffs across Alabama, was entirely up to them. A few hours later, the company plunged Cottenham into the darkness of a mine called Slope No. 12—one shaft in a vast subterranean labyrinth on the edge of Birmingham known as the Pratt Mines. There, he was chained inside a long wooden barrack at night and required to spend nearly every waking hour digging and loading coal. His required daily ‘task’ was to remove eight tons of coal from the mine. Cottenham was subject to the whip for failure to dig the requisite amount, at risk of physical torture for disobedience, and vulnerable to the sexual predations of other miners— many of whom already had passed years or decades in their own chthonian confinement. The lightless catacombs of black rock, packed with hundreds of desperate men slick with sweat and coated in pulverized coal, must have exceeded any vision of hell a boy born in the countryside of Alabama—even a child of slaves—could have ever imagined… Forty-five years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freeing American slaves, Green Cottenham and more than a thousand other black men toiled under the lash at Slope 12. Imprisoned in what was then the most advanced city of the South, guarded by whipping bosses employed by the most iconic example of the modern corporation emerging in the gilded North, they were slaves in all but name… This slavery did not last a lifetime and did not automatically extend from one generation to the next. But it was nonetheless slavery—a system in which armies of free men, guilty of no crimes and entitled by law to freedom, were compelled to labor without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and were forced to do the bidding of white masters through the regular application of extraordinary physical coercion.” (1-2, 4)

“The commercial sectors of U.S. society have never been asked to fully account for their roles as the primary enforcers of Jim Crow segregation, and not at all for engineering the resurrection of forced labor after the Civil War. The civil rights movement focused on forcing government and individual citizens to integrate public schools, reinstate full voting rights, and end offensive behavior. But it was business that policed adherence to America’s racial customs more than any other actor in U.S. society. American banks maintained ubiquitous discriminatory lending practices throughout the country that until the 1960s prevented millions of working-class African Americans from obtaining the lines of credit that millions of white families used to accumulate wealth and move from lower- to middle-class status. Indeed, the opportunity for blacks to pursue the most basic American formula for achieving middle-class status—buying a home in desirable neighborhoods where real estate values were likely to appreciate over time—was openly barred by legions of real estate agents in every city and region. Until the 1950s, rules of the National Association of Realtors made it a violation of the organization’s code of ethics for an agent to sell a home in a white neighborhood to an African American, or vice versa. It was hundreds of thousands of individual businesses that refused to give blacks jobs, equal pay, or promotions. It was wealthy men on Wall Street and in the executive suites of southern banks that financed the organized opposition to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” (383)

“In my quest to find Green Cottenham, I also discovered an unsettling truth that when white Americans frankly peel back the layers of our commingled pasts, we are all marked by it. Whether a company or an individual, we are marred either by our connections to the specific crimes and injuries of our fathers and their fathers. Or we are tainted by the failures of our fathers to fulfill our national credos when their courage was most needed. We are formed in molds twisted by the gifts we received at the expense of others. It is not our ‘fault.’ But it is undeniably our inheritance.”(383)

Faulkner was right: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” (73)

20. Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11 / Mitchell Zuckoff

In September, on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I began reading Zuckoff’s definitive account of the tragedy, because I never want to forget. The great WWII historian, Ian Toll, once said this about Pearl Harbor: “The passage of time strips away the searing immediacy of the surprise attack and envelops it in layers of exposition and retrospective judgment. Hindsight furnishes us with perspective on the crisis, but it also undercuts our ability to empathize with the immediate concerns of those who suffered through it.” Already an entire generation has no direct memory of 9/11, despite its daily effects on their lives. Zuckoff helps us all remember so that we’ll never forget.

“Torn open, aflame, weakening from within, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center spewed paper like blood from an arterial wound. Legal documents and employee reviews. Pay stubs, birthday cards, takeout menus. Timesheets and blueprints, photographs and calendars, crayon drawings and love notes. Some in full, some in tatters, some in flames. A single scrap from the South Tower, tossed like a bottled message from a sinking ship, captured the day’s horror. In a scrawled hand, next to a bloody fingerprint, the note read:

84th floor
west office
12 People trapped

After the paper came the people. After the people came the buildings. After the buildings came the wars. The ashes cooled, but not the anguish.” (xviii)

21. The Baseball 100 / Joe Posnanski

The best baseball writer in the world gives his best shot at listing the 100 best players of all time. I devoured this book. Each chapter profiles a different player for 4-5 pages, delivering stats and anecdotes galore. And Posnanski is a gem of a writer. This is how he describes Ken Griffey Jr.’s swing: “Junior’s swing was majestic, gorgeous, the Grand Canyon of swings, the Machu Picchu of swings, the ‘Here Comes the Sun’ of swings. It tilted upward, and when bat met ball, you could feel the breath rush out of you.” (366)

I experience shortness of breath every time I watch this home-run swing. And just in case you haven’t heard, the Atlanta Braves finally won the World Series again and it was glorious. Go Braves! That is all.

22. Right Ho, Jeeves / P.G. Wodehouse

I try to read at least one Bertie and Jeeves novel every year because Wodehouse never misses:

“Ask anyone who knows me, and they will tell you that after two months of my company, what the normal person feels is that that will about do for the present.” (34-35)

“She cried in a voice that hit me between the eyebrows and went out at the back of my head.” (40)

“I have had occasion, I fancy, to speak before now of these pick-me-up drinks of Jeeves’s and their effect on a fellow who is hanging to life by a thread on the morning after. What they consist of, I couldn’t tell you. He says some kind of sauce, the yolk of a raw egg and a dash of red pepper, but nothing will convince me that the thing doesn’t go much deeper than that. Be that as it may, however, the results of swallowing one are amazing. For perhaps the split part of a second nothing happens. It is as though all Nature waited breathless. Then, suddenly, it is as if the Last Trump had sounded and Judgement Day set in with unusual severity. Bonfires burst out in all parts of the frame. The abdomen becomes heavily charged with molten lava. A great wind seems to blow through the world, and the subject is aware of something resembling a steam hammer striking the back of the head. During this phase, the ears ring loudly, the eyeballs rotate and there is a tingling about the brow. And then, just as you are feeling that you ought to ring up your lawyer and see that your affairs are in order before it is too late, the whole situation seems to clarify. The wind drops. The ears cease to ring. Birds twitter. Brass bands start playing. The sun comes up over the horizon with a jerk. And a moment later all you are conscious of is a great peace. As I drained the glass now, new life seemed to burgeon within me.” (48)

“He sat listening like a lump of dough.” (71)

“A man’s brain whizzes along for years exceeding the speed limit, and then something suddenly goes wrong with the steering-gear and it skids and comes a smeller in the ditch.” (90)

“His brow cleared, his eyes brightened, he lost that fishy look, and he gazed at the slug, which was still on the long, long trail, with something approaching bonhomie.” (104)

“My guardian angel had not been asleep at the switch.” (115)

“A tankard of their special home-brewed was in my hand, and the ecstasy of that first Gallup is still green in my memory.” (118)

“He rose and began to pace the room in an overwrought sort of way, like a zoo lion who has heard the dinner-gong go and is hoping the keeper won’t forget him in the general distribution.” (123)

“There is a time for studying beetles and a time for not studying beetles.” (166)

“One thing I have never failed to hand the man. Jeeves is magnetic. There is about him something that seems to soothe and hypnotize. To the best of my knowledge, he has never encountered a charging rhinoceros, but should this contingency occur, I have no doubt that the animal, meeting his eye, would check itself in mid-stride, roll over and lie purring with its legs in the air.” (267)

23. Butcher’s Moon / Richard Stark

Parker is a professional super-thief, the brilliant invention of Richard Stark, the prince of noir. Butcher’s Moon is a continuation of a robbery caper Parker began in Slayground, and serves as a culmination of the best of the series. The Parker novels all follow a four-part structure, with prose as orderly as a classical symphony, and most of them begin in medias res with a sentence that starts with the word “when.” For me and Parker, it was love at first line:

The Man With the Getaway Face (1963): “When the bandages came off, Parker looked in the mirror at a stranger.”
The Mourner (1963): “When the guy with the asthma finally came in from the fire escape, Parker rabbit-punched him and took his gun away.”
The Jugger (1965): “When the knock came at the door, Parker was just turning to the obituary page.”
The Seventh (1966): “When he didn’t get any answer the second time he knocked, Parker kicked the door in.”
Slayground (1971): “Parker jumped out of the Ford with a gun in one hand and the packet of explosive in the other.”
Butcher’s Moon (1974): “Running toward the light, Parker fired twice over his left shoulder, not caring whether he hit anything or not.”
Backflash (1998): “When the car stopped rolling, Parker kicked out the rest of the windshield and crawled through onto the wrinkled hood, Glock first.”
Firebreak (2001): “When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.”
Ask the Parrot (2006): “When the helicopter swept northward and lifted out of sight over the top of the hill, Parker stepped away from the tree he’d waited beside and continued his climb.”

24. The Apollo Murders / Chris Hadfield

One of most accomplished astronauts in the world, who graduated as the top U.S. Air Force test pilot, and was CAPCOM for twenty-five Shuttle missions, and NASA’s Director of Operations in Russia, and served as Commander of the International Space Station, wrote a ripping murder mystery that takes place on a fictional Apollo Mission 18 during the space race and the Cold War in the early 1970s. This book is like Clancy’s The Hunt For Red October but set on the moon. Some readers don’t care for all the technical jargon but I dig it:

“Starting the world’s most powerful engine wasn’t easy. It took about nine seconds to crank one up—the time an Olympic sprinter could run 100 yards. The time it takes to tie one shoe. The most dangerous nine seconds of the whole flight. The amount of fuel needed to push the Saturn V off the pad was staggering: 3,400 gallons every second. That required fuel pumps with their own jet engines, just to spin them fast enough.

The rocketship had five of these jets pumping the kerosene and oxygen into the rocket chambers, where it would mix, explode and storm out the 12-foot-tall exhaust nozzles in a 5,800-degree, 160-million-horsepower inferno. The crew’s eyes were glued to the engine instruments as the clock counted down into single digits.

‘T minus ten, nine, and we have ignition sequence start.’

Four fireworks ignited inside each engine: two to spin up the fuel pump, and two to burn any flammable gases lurking in the exhaust nozzle.

‘Six, five, four…’

Two big valves opened, and liquid oxygen poured from its high tank down through the spinning pump and into the rocket, gushing out the huge nozzle under its own weight like a frothy white waterfall. Two smaller valves clicked open, feeding oxygen and kerosene to fuel the jet engines, spinning the pumps up to high speed. The pressure in the main fuel lines suddenly jumped to 380 psi. Conditions were set, with everything ready to ignite the rockets. Just needed some lighter fluid.

Two small discs burst under the high fuel pressure, and a slug of triethylboron/aluminum was pushed into the oxygen-rich rocket chambers. Like the ultimate spark plug, the fluids exploded on contact.

‘Three, two…’

The middle engine lit first, followed quickly by the outer four; if all five had started at once, they would have torn the rocketship and launch pad apart. Two more big valves opened, and high-pressure kerosene poured into the growing maelstrom.

‘One, zero, and liftoff, we have liftoff, at 7:32 a.m. Eastern Standard Time.’

Hell, unleashed, creating 700 tons of thrust in each of the five engines—enough total power to lift more than 7 million pounds straight up. The ultimate deadlift. The last of the ground umbilicals feeding the rocket disconnected and snapped back. The four heavy hold-down arms that had been clamping the base to the pad hissed in pneumatic relief and pivoted away. The Saturn V was free.” (141-142)

My Final 12:

25. Precious Promises / Joseph Alleine

I’ve given away dozens of copies of this devotional classic over the years and I’m thrilled the good folks at the Banner of Truth have reprinted it in a new edition. Alleine uses his encyclopedic knowledge of Scripture to string together the “exceeding great and precious promises” (2 Peter 1:4) of God with the goal of comforting the struggling believer:

“And in that day you shall know that I am a rewarder of them that diligently seek me (Heb. 11:6); and that I did record your words (Mal. 3:16), and bottle your tears, and tell your wanderings (Psa. 56:8), and keep an account, even to a cup of cold water, of whatever you said or did for my name (Matt. 10:42). You shall surely find that nothing is lost (1 Cor. 15:58); but you shall have full measure, pressed down and running over, thousands of years in paradise, for the least good thought, and thousand thousands for the least good word; and then the reckoning shall begin again, till all arithmetic be at a loss. For you shall be swallowed up in a blessed eternity, and the doors of heaven shall be shut upon you, and there shall be no more going out (Dan. 12:2, 3; Rev. 3:12; Luke 16:26).

The glorious choir of my holy angels, the goodly fellowship of my blessed prophets, the happy society of triumphant apostles, the royal hosts of victorious martyrs, these shall be your companions for ever (Matt. 8:1, 12; Heb. 12:22, 23). And you shall come in white robes, with palms in your hands, everyone having the harps of God, and golden bowls full of sweet-smelling aromas, and shall cast your crowns before me, and strike in with the multitude of the heavenly hosts, glorifying God, and saying, Hallelujah! The Lord God omnipotent reigns (Rev. 7:9-12; 19:5, 6). Blessing, honour, glory, and power be to him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb for ever and ever (Rev. 5:13).

In short, I will make you equal to the angels of God (Luke 20:36), and you shall be the everlasting trumpets of my praise (Rev. 7:10-12, 15). You shall be abundantly satisfied with the fatness of my house, and I I will make you drink of the rivers of my pleasures (Psa. 36:8). You shall be an eternal excellency (Isa. 60:15), and if God can die, and eternity run out, then and only then, shall your joys expire. For you shall see me as I am (1 John 3:2), and know me as you are known (1 Cor. 13:12); and shall behold my face in righteousness, and be satisfied with my likeness (Psa. 17:15). And you shall be the vessels of my glory, whose blessed use shall be to receive the overflowings of my goodness, and to have mine infinite love and glory poured out into you brimful, and running over for evermore (Rom. 9:23; 2 2 Tim 2:20; Rev. 22:1).

And blessed is he who has believed, for there shall be a performance of the things that have been told him (Luke 1:45). I the Lord has spoken it, you shall see my face, and my name shall be written in your foreheads; and you shall no more need the sun, nor the moon, for the Lord God shall give you light, and you shall reign for ever and ever (Rev. 22:3-5).” (39-40)

26. How to Eat Your Bible / Nate Pickowicz 

Wise Bishop Ryle once said:

“Next to praying there is nothing so important in practical religion as Bible-reading. God has mercifully given us a book which is “able to make us wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” (2 Tim. 3:15.) By reading that book we may learn what to believe, what to be, and what to do; how to live with comfort, and how to die in peace. Happy is that man who possesses a Bible! Happier still is he who reads it! Happiest of all is he who not only reads it, but obeys it, and makes it the rule of his faith and practice!” (91)

I love books that point me to the Book. Nate Pickowicz’s brief and superb new book does just that. The subtitle says it all: “A Simple Approach to Learning and Loving the Word of God.” I can give this book to any member of my congregation knowing it will help both new and seasoned believers read and study their Bible more faithfully and more fruitfully. Buy several copies and give them away to those you’re discipling as a New Year’s gift.

27. The Deep Places / Ross Douthat

Imagine suffering excruciating and bewildering pain for five years due to a devastating disease that doesn’t officially exist. That’s Douthat’s story, struggling day-by-day with Lyme disease. This poignant memoir helped me grow in sympathy for those who suffer with chronic illness. Chronic sufferers often feel all alone in their pain, surrounded by others who still feel “at home” in their own bodies.

“A friend could listen, another friend could visit, a family member could watch our kids or make us dinner, but there was a gulf fixed between my world and theirs, between my morning-to-evening experience of pain’s variety and novelty and their inability to comprehend what it would mean to be sick every day, the same thing waiting every morning upon waking, without recourse or relief. I could understand their bafflement, because I remembered what the term “chronic illness” had meant to me in the before times. Even with my mother’s struggles as an example, I still associated it with the fatigue that comes after you’ve stayed up with a newborn baby, or the aches and pains you feel after exercising for the first time in monthssuffering that was challenging but manageable, with recourse, in the worst case, to an exhausted sleep. Whereas the reality was pain that didn’t let you relax, let alone sleep; pain that made your body feel like a cage around your consciousness; tension, always tension, the opposite of a Victorian lady picturesquely swooning on a couch. All this was an education, an experience of what it meant to be an embodied human being that could be endured but not really explained to someone whose body was still a home, a cooperator, a friend.” (90)

Douthat has done a great service for the chronic-Lyme community and for those, like me, who don’t live on that “prairie of pain.” He beautifully lays bare both his struggle and his striving for life.

“The gift of chronic illness is the space and opportunity to strive and seek. The purpose of the illness in your life has to involve finding something– finding strength in learning how to endure, finding virtue in how to live for others, finding some hidden truth in unraveling the mystery of what actually ails you. And not to yield is often the hardest task of all.

I can’t claim to have gained all the things I should have gained from the past six years. Who will I be when this is over? my mind would sometimes ask in the depths, since it was hard to imagine the same self that went into this illness coming out the other side. But now that I’m closer, God willing, to the end than the beginning, I can still recognize the person beneath the peeling dragon scales– maybe a little wiser, a little more patient, a little less consumed by the political, little more open-minded, but still carrying many of the same habits and vices and temptations as the me I knew before.

But I have learned, at least, something about what it means not to yield, to go on searching and fighting and simply living in the shadow of despair, to do what must be done even when it seems like your body is incapable of the task and your mind is brutally imprisoned.

What doesn’t kill you doesn’t necessarily make you stronger. But what doesn’t kill you doesn’t kill you, and sometimes that alone supplies the thin reed of hope, the solid thing to cling to when every other help and possibility goes through your fingers like sand.

That first sickened summer in Maine, sixteen months into the illness, when nothing was working and my body blazed with pain, I  forced myself to do what I would do as a child, to run along the packed brown surface of the sandbar, splashing through the inch of water rippling beneath my feet, and then suddenly pivot and stagger out deeper and fling myself up and out and down, belly-whopping into the freezing water of the bay.

For an instant or more, the shock to my system would be more pressing than the pain, and I would come up spluttering, every nerve jangling, and think: I am still alive.

I am still alive.

That’s where this not-yet-finished story ends. I have lived for six years with invaders in my flesh, I have seen the world from way down underneath, I have done things I couldn’t have imagined, I have fought and fought and fought.

And I am still alive.” (196-197)

28. Crux, Mors, Inferi: A Primer and Reader on the Descent of Christ / Samuel Renihan

In 2019, Matthew Emerson wrote an incredible book on Christ’s descent 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) The good news of Good Friday, and the ecstasy of Easter Sunday, is infused with the hope of Holy Saturday. In Samuel Renihan’s new book, he builds upon Emerson’s solid foundation, provides some more exegetical footing, and does significant theological retrieval of his own by including over 100 pages of historical excerpts on the descent from Reformation and Post-Reformation theologians. Hilary of Poitiers is right: “Virgo, partus, et corpus; postque crux, mors, inferi, salus nostra est. The Virgin, birth, and body, then the cross, death, and lower world; this is our salvation.”

29. The God of the Garden / Andrew Peterson

This is a biographical meditation about trees, gardens, and the importance of place. But it’s really all about trees.

“It’s winter. I hear a gusty wind in the night beyond the window, low and groaning like a distant jet plane, and it occurs to me that the trees are speaking. Their limbs are shaken and bent by the cold front tearing across Tennessee. The Chapter House is warm, with the embers of a tired fire crackling like morse code in the hearth beside me—again, the voice of trees. The temperature has been dropping all day, so the wooden bones of this little building are contracting, causing the wood-paneled ceiling to creak now and then. When I came in just now, shoulders up to my ears from the chill, I slammed the arch-top door a friend made out of reclaimed barn wood, rattling the wooden picture frames on the wall—one of them containing that eighteenth-century print of the Castle Kalmar (printed on wood-pulp, of course). I stomped my feet on the hardwood floor, and the trees spoke again. The wooden shelves I built out of pine planks hold hundreds of books: Sayers, Chesterton, Lewis, and Tolkien; Wordsworth, Coleridge, Wilbur, Merton, and Berry. Trees made the pulp that made the pages (also known as leaves) where the words were preserved and printed and bound, each book the fruit of a life’s labor. There are journals full of songwriting ideas: bad lines scratched out and reworked, furious scribblings, prayers preserved on paper. The walls around the drafting desk are covered with drawings made by wooden pencils (there’s no smell quite like the aroma of pencil shavings dumped from the sharpener to the bin). Those drawings are mostly of trees, on sketch paper—again, made from trees. On the wooden mantel over the hearth there’s a collection of old smoking pipes made from briar wood, one of which I bought in a busy tree-lined market in Bordighera, Italy, just across the street from George MacDonald’s house, and it whispers a tale of Scotland and the North Wind and my family’s journey south to Italy from the forested Swiss Alps. To my right, on the little wooden table beside my chair, sits a black, leather-bound Bible with my name embossed on the lower right of the cover. The many pages within carry a translation of the Word of God, the Word that told trees to exist in the first place, and those words are made alive by a holy wind blowing through the book’s leaves. That living Word planted a seed in my parents, a seed that fell on good soil, and they in turn planted in me and my siblings an imagination-grounding story about a tree in a garden, a tree on a hill of death, and a tree in a heavenly city. Those trees fill my heart and my head, and they keep my compass trained on the Kingdom. Here in the Chapter House, at the dark edge of Warren Wood, the trees keep me company, and they keep me warm. I am kept by trees.” (191-192)

I particularly loved the book’s final chapter, where Peterson describes his visit to Israel, culminating with his journey to the Temple Mount at the heart of Jerusalem:

“This was Mount Moriah, where Abraham was spared from sacrificing Isaac by the ram caught in the brambly tree. This was where Solomon completed the temple whose pillars were pomegranate trees, where the Ark of the Covenant rested—the same ark that contained the ten commandments, the manna, and, yes, a tree: Aaron’s staff that had budded with new leaves. Not far away was the site where the crucifixion tree was planted atop Skull Hill, and not far away from that the Root of David, Abraham’s seed, was planted and reborn in a garden. This was where, at Jesus’ triumphant “It is finished!” the curtain was torn in two and he opened for us the gate of glory, which leads his children to a New Jerusalem where a Tree of Life will straddle the holy river. I was overwhelmed with love, and by love. I stood in the eye of a storm made up of living stories. Stories were the wind and the rain and the rolling thunder, and Jesus is king of it all.” (177-178)

Allison and I also visited Israel this year, and we met some new friends, and we saw an old friend, and even though we didn’t see enough trees, we did make some wonderful memories (and friends) that I pray will last a lifetime.

30. The Dark is Rising / Susan Cooper

I was a latecomer to the “Dark is Rising” series. Apparently they’ve been hugely popular for decades, especially in the UK. The opening tale, Over Sea, Under Stone, is wonderful. English children, on holiday in Cornwall, discover an ancient treasure map in a secret room hidden behind a wardrobe. Mysterious enemies lurk about, waiting to steal what the three Drew children are seeking: clues from the map that could lead them to King Arthur’s grail. The second book in the series, The Dark is Rising, is, well, darker. It’s not a horror story, but a story of ever-present dread. A “shadowy awareness of evil” pervades the tale. It’s Midwinter Eve in a small English village, four days before Christmas and one day before Will Stanton’s eleventh birthday. A snowstorm is brewing in the north, animals are fidgeting in the fields, and rooks are swirling in the grey sky. An old farmer sees these signs and warns Will, “This night will be bad and tomorrow will be beyond imagining.” The Dark is rising. But there’s hope:

When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back;
Three from the circle, three from the track;
Wood, bronze, iron; water, fire, stone;
Five will return, and one go alone.’ (63)

31. Rejoice and Tremble / Michael Reeves

Michael Reeves wrote a book on the fear of the LORD. Seriously, what else do you need to know?

“The filial fear of God is the soul of godliness and the essence of the new life implanted by the Spirit. It is the ultimate affection and the very aroma of heaven. It is the affection that expels our sinful fears and our anxieties. It is the affection that expels spiritual lethargy. To grow in this sweet and quaking wonder at God is to taste heaven now.” (168)


32. I Heard You Paint Houses / Charles Brandt

This book is the basis of Martin Scorsese’s film, The Irishman, and Brandt tells the true story of Frank Sheeran. (Maybe.)

“The thread of this story is Frank Sheeran’s unique and fascinating life. The witty Irishman was raised a devout Catholic and was a tough child of the Great Depression; a combat-hardened hero of World War II; a high-ranking official in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters; a man alleged by Rudy Giuliani in a Civil RICO suit to be “acting in concert with” La Cosa Nostra’s ruling commission — one of only two non-Italians on Guiliani’s list of twenty-six top mob figures, which included the sitting bosses of the Bonnano, Genovese, Colombo, Luchese, Chicago, and Milwaukee families as well as various underbosses; a convicted felon, mob enforcer, and legendary stand-up guy; and a father of four daughters and a beloved grandfather.” (5)

Sheeran was not only the right-hand man and mob enforcer for Russell Bufalino, he was also a close friend of Jimmy Hoffa.

“The first words Jimmy ever spoke to me were, ‘I heard you paint houses.’ The paint is the blood that supposedly gets on the wall or the floor when you shoot somebody. I told Jimmy, ‘I do my own carpentry work, too.’ That refers to making coffins and means you get rid of the bodies yourself.” (11)

Before he died, Brandt interviewed Sheeran one last time and he confessed to killing Hoffa. Some doubt the veracity of Sheeran’s claims. (See here and here and if you’re ready to go down the rabbit hole, read the “Hoffex” FBI memo). I don’t know what to believe, but I do know I Heard You Paint Houses is an engrossing glimpse inside La Cosa Nostra. (I think.)

33. The Body Keeps the Score / Bessel van der Kolk

This book does a good job introducing the experience, the history, and the treatment of trauma from a secular perspective. The strength of the book lies in awakening an awareness of what survivors of trauma fear and feel. Two quotes stuck with me:

“One does not have to be a combat soldier, or visit a refugee camp in Syria or the Congo to encounter trauma. Trauma happens to us, our friends, our families, and our neighbors… Trauma, by definition, is unbearable and intolerable. Most rape victims, combat soldiers, and children who have been molested become so upset when they think about what they experienced that they try to push it out of their minds, trying to act as if nothing happened, and move on. It takes tremendous energy to keep functioning while carrying the memory of terror, and the shame of utter weakness and vulnerability. Long after a traumatic experience is over, it may be reactivated at the slightest hint of danger and mobilize disturbed brain circuits and secrete massive amounts of stress hormones. This precipitates unpleasant emotions intense physical sensations, and impulsive and aggressive actions. These posttraumatic reactions feel incomprehensible and overwhelming. Feeling out of control, survivors of trauma often begin to fear that they are damaged to the core and beyond redemption.” (1-2)

“At the opening session for a group of former Marines, the first man to speak flatly declared, “I do not want to talk about the war.” I replied that the members could discuss anything they wanted. After half an hour of excruciating silence, one veteran finally started to talk about his helicopter crash. To my amazement the rest immediately came to life, speaking with great intensity about their traumatic experiences. All of them returned the following week and the week after. In the group they found resonance and meaning in what had previously been only sensations of terror and emptiness. They felt a renewed sense of the comradeship that had been so vital to their war experience. They insisted that I had to be part of their newfound unit and gave me a Marine captain’s uniform for my birthday. In retrospect that gesture revealed part of the problem: You were either in or out—you either belonged to the unit or you were nobody. After trauma the world becomes sharply divided between those who know and those who don’t. People who have not shared the traumatic experience cannot be trusted, because they can’t understand it. Sadly, this often includes spouses, children, and co-workers.” (17-18)

As I reflected on this book, I was reminded of the importance of what Bonhoeffer called “the ministry of listening” in the local church:

“The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear. So it is His work that we do for our brother when we learn to listen to him. Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking. Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either.” (97-98)

It doesn’t mean we don’t speak. We must speak. But we must first be quick to listen and slow to speak.

34. How to Take Smart Notes / Sönke Ahrens

I’m an avid notetaker. My children often make fun of my ever-present notebook and pen. I was immediately drawn to this book when I learned of it from an episode of the Reformed Forum podcast. A German sociologist, Niklaus Luhmann, developed an idiosyncratic form of note-taking that’s organized in an interconnected card catalog-type system called a Zettelkasten (‘notes box’). All of the note-taking is directed toward atomic writing. In the book, Ahrens explains and expands Luhmann’s system. He proposes dividing your note-taking into three types:

  1. Ephemeral notes (these eventually get thrown out)
  2. Literature notes (write these as you read a book, but keep them separate from the next type)
  3. Zettel (process your literature notes and write permanent notes—one note per idea)

Camden Bucey explains what happens next:

“Once written, you must then link a note to the other notes in your existing network of note-ideas. In my conceptualization, Luhmann’s method is a form of atomic writing. You must force yourself to formulate your thoughts and write them as if writing them for someone else. This can be difficult, and you may find much personal inertia to this approach. That’s because you think you know the subject matter better than you do. Writing is the thinking process. By using this method, Luhmann was able to write more than 70 books and 400 scholarly articles before he died at the age of 70. That is impressive. But perhaps even more impressive than his scholarly output is the nature of his scholarship. He was able to approach subjects in fresh ways, finding surprising connections among disparate disciplines. This was due in part to the unexpected connections made within his Zettelkasten.”

I’ll admit we’ve now reached peak levels of nerdishness. But if you’ve made it this far then you have to be… intrigued. You don’t have to build an old-school wooden card catalog. After all, there are lots of digital options for creating a Zettelkasten. I’m gonna give this approach a try in 2022. Have any of y’all ever used the “Smart Notes” method? Let me know.

35. The Law of Innocence / Michael Connelly

Michael Connelly is a storyteller extraordinaire. You probably already know his beloved police detective, Harry Bosch. But you might be less familiar with Bosch’s half-brother, LA defense attorney Mickey Haller, also known as “The Lincoln Lawyer.” Here’s his legal philosophy:

“A murder case is like a tree. A tall tree. An oak tree. It has been carefully planted and cared for by the state. Watered and trimmed when needed, examined for disease and parasites of any kind. Its root system is constantly monitored as it flourishes underground and clings tightly to the earth. No money is spared in guarding the tree. Its caretakers are granted immense powers to protect and serve it. The tree’s branches eventually grow and spread wide in splendor. They provide deep shade for those who seek true justice. The branches spring from a thick and sturdy trunk. Direct evidence, circumstantial evidence, forensic science, motive, and opportunity. The tree must stand strong against the winds that challenge it. And that’s where I come in. I’m the man with the ax. My job is to cut the tree down to the ground and burn its wood to ashes.” (4)

This latest story is the sixth (and best) in the series and we find Mickey in the trial of his life, but this time he’s the one on trial.

“A trial often comes down to who is a better storyteller, the prosecution or the defense. There is evidence, of course, but physical evidence is at first interpreted for the jury by the storyteller. The physical evidence fits both stories. One might be more believable than the other when writ small. But a skilled storyteller can even the scales of justice or maybe even tip them the other way.” (190-191)

36. Prayers of a Parent for Young Adults / Kathleen Nielson

Kathleen Nielson has done a great service for parents who long to pray without ceasing for their children. She’s penned Scriptural prayers for young children, for teens, for young adults, and for adult children, covering requests for saving faith, delight in God’s Word, love for the church, friendships, generosity, humility, hope, strength for suffering, and even one for a good night’s rest.

For Nighttime Rest

My son, do not lose sight of these– keep sound wisdom and discretion, and they will be life for your soul and adornment for your neck. Then you will walk on your way securely, and your foot will not stumble. If you lie down, you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet. (Prov. 3:21-24)

How good to pray for our children’s rest! (We can’t help but be praying for our own rest as well.) And how important– not just that their bodies would be healthy and refreshed by regular, deep, peaceful sleep, but also that their souls would be at rest, at peace with God through the Lord Jesus Christ and the ministry of the Spirit. Our grown children do not go alone into their days and nights. What a comfort to commit them to the Lord who does not slumber or sleep (Ps. 121:4).

May he know the rest of one who labors well and wisely,
having aimed in hours of light to please you, Lord,
then resting in the hours of night as one who knows his way
along the path you put before him,
going before him night and day
and by your Spirit showing him the way.

I pray he would embrace the rhythm of dark and light,
of sleep renewing and of morning zest.
When he lies down, would you make his sleep sweet?
May evening prayers seep into dreams
that would not haunt or frighten–
comfort, rather; gladden; or pass harmless by.
And if he wakes, Lord,
may he know You with him,
there to lighten the dark watches of the night
with echoing sustenance of the Word
and comfort from the saving love of Christ
and songs that sweeten all the shadows
’til the morning sends the dark away.

Now, Lord, I do admit,
I’m praying for my rest as well–
so let me rest
in offering this prayer to you. (56-57)

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 (2021)

  1. Look forward to this post every year! Thank you for blessing others with your reading!

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  4. Pingback: What We’re Reading This Summer (2022) – The Gospel Coalition - North Light Book

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