Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Best Books I Read This Year (2022)

The Best Books I Read This Year (2022)

The Lord has brought us once again by a way we did not know to the end of another year. 2022 was a year of transition for my family. We moved half-way across the nation this summer. We’re building a new home and I’m serving a new church. Most of my books remain in storage, so I was unable to read or post as much during this busy season. But, by God’s grace, here are 36 magnificent books I read this year. I enjoyed every last one of them.

My Top 12:

My Top 12

1. Jesus and the God of Classical Theism / Steven Duby

C.S. Lewis is right. Doctrinal books are often the most devotional books.

“For my own part, I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others. I believe that many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hands.” (205)

This doctrinal book, my favorite book of the year, is a profoundly deep book that explores how the revelation of God in Christ and Holy Scripture implies and is illumined by the theological claims of the early church fathers. I was so eager to read this book by theologian Steven Duby that I had it shipped directly to the rental home in North Carolina where we were staying during our family vacation at the beach. It didn’t disappoint. It requires rigorous reading, and it also caused my heart to sing unbidden. Here’s a taste where Duby is expounding God’s glorious self-existence:

“Divine aseity lies at the heart of this doctrine of God. It is an attribute that signifies that God is not dependent on anything or anyone else to be the God that He is but instead has life in and of Himself. This is a life eternally fulfilled in the fellowship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That God is not dependent on anything or anyone to be the God that He is can be seen in various places in the Old and New Testaments. Unlike other ancient Near Eastern origins accounts, the opening chapter of the Bible tellingly lacks a theogony, a divine becoming in which God might strive to obtain an identity of His own and an authority over the world.

Instead, the God of the Bible just is who He is: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). He creates the world not from a deficiency in Himself or a need to have others accomplish things for Him but from a generous will to communicate life, to provide for the human race, and to invite the human race into the cultivation of His world (1:26–30). Already in its creation account Holy Scripture begins to convey that God does not need us but has freely chosen to bring us into being. Moreover, as the Creator of all things, God is not a constituent part of a greater encompassing reality.

God’s independence and plenitude are displayed throughout the history of Israel. In Exodus, when God reveals His name, I am who I am, He is making it clear that Moses and the people of Israel do not determine who He is or what He will do, though they can count on His covenant faithfulness (Exod. 3:13–15). The name is characterized by God in terms of His freedom to be gracious to whom He will be gracious and to have mercy on whom He will have mercy (33:19). This note of divine prevenience comes through in the establishment of the covenant with Israel: “I am YHWH, your God, who brought you up out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (20:2). YHWH chose Israel to be hHis treasured people and delivered them from Egypt not for any benefit they could bestow upon Him but simply because He loved them and because He is faithful to His promises (Deut. 7:7–8). According to Psalm 50, God does not need the worship of His people. All things already belong to Him because all things are from Him: “If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and all that is in it is mine. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?” (Psalm 50:12–13).

Isaiah’s prophecy likewise attests the underived life and prevenience of God. This takes place in a number of texts that echo the giving of the divine name in Exodus 3 by use of the nominal clause אֲנִי הוּא (“I am he”). Speaking of His sovereignty over all things, God declares, “I am YHWH, the first and with the last, I am He” (Isa. 41:4). In reaffirming His plan for Israel, God assures them that He is trustworthy, unlike the false gods, again emphasizing “I am he” and adding, “Before me no God was formed, and after me none will be.” He alone is the true God who can save: “Yes, from of old I am He, and there is none who can deliver from my hand. I act, and who will reverse it?” (43:10–13). “Even to your old age I am He, even in your gray hair I will sustain you” (46:4). YHWH distinguishes himself from the idols by pointing out that He foretold the fall of Babylon and will tell of things still to come. “I am He,” he says, “I am the first and I am the last. And my hand founded the earth, and my right hand stretched out the heavens” (48:12–13). The book of Isaiah presents God as the one who cares deeply about the future of Israel and as the one who can bring about Israel’s future hope precisely because He is the God who is a se and is not dependent on or limited by another.” (23-24)

Here are Duby’s closing words:

“In the end, it is Christian theology’s greatest privilege to confess and bear witness to the triune God, who both transcends the economy of salvation and, in the person of the Son, has partaken of flesh and blood to deliver us from our sin. If the claims of this study are accurate, then grasping that the triune God does indeed transcend the economy is precisely what is needed to understand the meaning and efficacy of the incarnate Son’s work. Because He always remains the Son who has life in Himself, He can give His flesh for the life of the world. Because He always remains rich even in the midst of His human lowliness, He can make us rich with the gift of salvation.” (377)

2. A Dozen Things God Did with Your Sin (And Three Things He’ll Never Do) / Sam Storms

This is a stunningly spectacular meditation on the grace of God in the gospel. It has been a balm for my weary soul in 2022. It’s not to be rushed through but lingered in.

Christian, what has God done with your sin? He laid your sin upon His Son. He has forgiven you of your sins. He has cleansed you of your sin. He has covered your sin. He has cast all your sin behind His back. He has removed your sin as far as the east is from the west. He has passed over your sin. He has trampled your sin underfoot. He has cast your sin into the sea. He has blotted out your sin. He has turned His face away from your sin. He has forgotten your sin and refuses to remember it. He does not deal with you as your sins deserve. He does not repay you as your sins deserve. And He does not count your sins against you.

“If our sins are truly trampled underfoot, cast into the depths of the sea, and utterly blotted out of sight, never to rise up with shouts of condemnation, it is only because of what Jesus has done to secure our salvation. But we must never forget that the saving and preserving work of Christ on our behalf did not end with the cross and the empty tomb. Jesus was exalted to the right hand of the Father and there defends us and serves as our ‘advocate’ (1 John 2:1) and intercessor (Rom. 8:34).” (193)

Christian, resolved to be loved in God’s Beloved Son, because neither in heaven nor among all the creatures on earth is there anyone who loves you more than Jesus Christ does.

3. Biblical Reasoning / R.B. Jamieson & Tyler Wittman

Exegesis fuels theology and theology helps exegesis. “Biblical reasoning,” according to Bobby and Tyler, “is that form of attention to Holy Scripture that is taught by God, teaches about God, and leads to God.” (xviii)

“Our goal in this book is to assemble a toolkit for biblical reasoning. The toolkit’s goal is to enable better exegesis. The goal of that exegesis is, ultimately, to see God. Hence, by ‘better exegesis’ we mean exegesis that is not only more adequate to the text itself but also, especially, more adequate to the ultimate reality to which the text bears witness and more adequate to the text’s ultimate goal. That reality is the triune God and that goal is the sight of God’s face that will eternally satisfy our souls.” (xvii)

Scripture is the curriculum, God is the teacher, and disciples are students. This wonderful book equips disciples of Jesus to humbly sit at His feet, to faithfully listen to Him, and to eagerly learn from Him about the glory He has with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

4. God, Technology, and the Christian Life / Tony Reinke

Wow. What a book. Reinke wisely and winsomely shows from Scripture how disciples of Jesus ought to think Christianly about technology. Our tech tools are a gift from God to fuel gratitude, a wealth from God to steward, and a power from God to wield, all for the global glory of Christ.

“Tech intensifies our dexterity, augments our influence, and empowers our previously feeble intentions. And no innovation more potently amplifies us like the computer chip. By weight these little chips are the most powerful things in the continuous universe. Excluding cosmic explosions and nuclear bombs that exhaust their power in a hyperblink, of all the sustainable things in the universe, from a planet to a star, from a daisy to an automobile, from a brain to an eye, the thing that is able to conduct the highest density of power— the most energy flowing through a gram of matter each second— lies at the core of your laptop. Yes, the tiny microprocessor conducts more energy per second per gram through its tiny corridors than animals, volcanoes, or the sun. The computer chip is the most energetically active thing in the known universe. As I write, Apple has just unveiled M1, the most powerful chip the company has ever made, packed with an astounding 16 billion transistors. With this much power in every iPhone and MacBook, we can do a lot with our tools—a lot of damage or a lot of good. So how will we wield this power?” (14-15)

“We abuse technology when we forget the Giver who gave us all these material blessings in the first place. Many Christians struggle here, failing to inventory the tens of thousands of innovations God has given us to use every day. Many Christians, like non-Christians, sever the technologies that surround them from the grand metanarrative of God’s generosity. But if God’s glory shines in untouched creation (in the sun, moon, and mountains), it also shines in the innovations that concentrate and refine creation into new forms. Sixty of the earth’s elements, compressed into our smartphones, give us a perspective of creation that no other generation has seen. None of our innovations are perfect. Every material gift in this life is tainted by the fall. Yet it seems that quite a lot of Christians are withholding their tech gratitude for some future innovation that will drop from the heavens, incorruptible by human misuse and without any possible side-effects.

If a tech violates your conscience, abstain from it. But if it doesn’t, and you embrace it into your life, thank God for it. Give him your worship and your gratitude. Refuse to be a tech-agnostic, someone who uses the gifts but ignores the Giver. The technologist may be deaf to the Creator, but God’s sheep hear his voice. We can hear the Creator’s extravagance in every technological gift we use—our cars, computers, smartphones, electrified homes, running water, appliances, books, magazines, plastics, Internet, Wikipedia, television, music, medicine, airliners, and Nike Air Jordans. It includes the 150,000 things you can buy in a Walmart and the 12 million things you can order from Amazon. Make a list of everything you have access to, thanks to innovation. Count up all your microprocessors, if you can. Every blessing is to be received with thanksgiving as a gift from our radically generous Giver.” (147-148)

Reinke helped me to marvel at the wonders of technology, and he pointed me afresh to greatest wonder of all: God’s gift of His Beloved Son to sinners in the gospel of His amazing grace. In the fall of 1888, Charles Haddon Spurgeon heard recorded music for the first time: “I sat yesterday with two tubes in my ears to listen to sounds that came from revolving cylinders of wax. I heard music, though I knew that no instrument was near… I sat and listened, and I felt lost in the mystery.” (MTPS, 34: 531) Spurgeon then makes this glorious application:

“To us, my dear hearers, who believe in Jesus, the gospel is the most wonderful thing that can ever be. The more we know of it, the more astounded we are at it. It is a compound of divine and infinite things. When we study it, we go from wonder to wonder. Here we behold the heart of God, and hear the voice of His infinite tenderness, His infallible wisdom, His stern justice, and His supreme beneficence… In the gospel of the Lord Jesus, God speaks into the ear of His child more music than all the harps of heaven can yield. I pray you, do not despise it.” (MTPS, 34: 532)

In our tech-saturated times, may we be ever increasingly lost in the mystery of Christ, lost in wonder, love, and praise.

5. The Complete Works of John Owen, Volume 7 / John Owen

J.I. Packer once said, “Without John Owen I might well have gone off my head or got bogged down in mystical fanaticism, and certainly my view of the Christian life would not be what it is today.” (12) My view of the Christian life has been greatly helped by Owen, particularly through the green hardback Banner of Truth set of his works. Over the years, I’ve read and reread them. I’ve underlined passages and written marginalia throughout. So, I’m delighted that Crossway aims to release a new edition of Owen’s complete works, beautifully published, freshly typeset, slightly edited (“Vile semicolon, begone!”), with helpful editorial introductions, and illuminating footnotes, all for a new generation of readers.

In this first of a planned 40-volume set, we find Owen’s “The Reason of Faith” and “The Causes, Ways, and Means of Understanding the Mind of God.” In the preface of the latter work, I was freshly affected by the following passage. What are Dr. Owen’s pastoral aims in wanting his readers to understand the mind of God in the Scriptures with a Holy Spirit-wrought certainty? Owen supplies a two-fold reason: so that we might obey the truth and suffer well for the truth, all for the glory of God.

“Unless believers have a full assurance of understanding in themselves, unless they hold their persuasion of the sense of Scripture revelations from God alone, if their spiritual judgment of truth and falsehood depend on the authority of men, they will never be able to undergo any suffering for the truth or to perform any duty unto God in a right manner.” (222)

6. Knowing Sin / Mark Jones

Martin Luther once said, “Nothing is easier than sinning.” As sinners, sinning comes naturally to us. We are more familiar with sin than we are with grace. And yet, while we know much of the practice of sin, and the presence of sin, how much do we truly know of the doctrine of sin? It’s always wise to know one’s enemy. “Other than knowing God, your greatest advocate, nothing else in this world is more important than knowing sin, your greatest enemy. A proper understanding of grace requires a thorough grasp of sin.” (13)  In Knowing Sin, Mark Jones helps us see hamartiology, the doctrine of sin, through the eyes of the Puritans, those ministers of God’s grace who knew the deceitfulness of sin meticulously, forthrightly, and extensively.

“Even a cursory glance at sins of omission should cause a number of reactions from Christians. First, if we are able to have words with God before our death, we probably ought to confess as Archbishop James Ussher (1581-1656) did on his deathbed, ‘O Lord forgive me, especially my sins of omission.’

Second, we should marvel at the obedience of Jesus Christ on our behalf. He not only refrained from sinning during the course of His life on earth, but He was positively obedient to the precepts of Gods law. He did not lack in love to God or His neighbor. His righteousness is imputed to us simply by embracing Him in faith. God cannot reject us because we have, through imputation, fulfilled the law as Christ did. His righteousness really is our righteousness. That anyone could think that they can stand before God and enter eternal life on the basis of their own obedience, even in the slightest way, testifies to the marvel of human madness. Our sins are as numerous as the sand on the sea, but Christ’s perfect, complete righteousness answers to this predicament. No one else can or will offer you what Christ alone can. Whether you are a Christian or non-Christian, your greatest need is the One who came into the world to save sinners (1 Tim. 1:15).” (191-192)

Thomas Watson was right: “The more bitterness we taste in sin, the more sweetness we shall taste in Christ.” (30)

7. Lessons From the Upper Room / Sinclair Ferguson

One of my favorite Scottish Presbyterian pastors gave this wise counsel:

“The four Gospels are a narrative of the heart of Christ. They show His compassion to sinners, and His glorious work in their stead. If you only knew that heart as it is, you would lay your weary head with John on His bosom. 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!” (279)

This book that will help you do just that. It contains the expository thoughts of another one of my favorite Scottish Presbyterians, Sinclair Ferguson, covering the 155 verses of John 13-17, Christ’s Upper Room Discourse, a passage that is indeed “a window into Christ’s heart.” (4: 96) It’s vintage Ferguson. He helps you to behold the heart of the Savior. Here’s a taste from John 15:21:

“Opposition and intimidation make me feel small, marginalized, lonely. But I have a great privilege: I am a child of the heavenly Father. Sparrows sell for next to nothing, but not one of them is forgotten by God. I am much more valuable to Him than many sparrows (Luke 12:6-7)! I need not fear. He has a tender care for me and watches over me.

As the Heidelberg Catechism affirms, this is my “comfort in life and death”:

I am not my own, but belong- body and soul, in life and in death-to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has delivered me from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to Him, Christ, by His Holy Spirit, also assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for Him. (Q&A 1)

I could not be more secure! Now I see those who are antagonistic to my faith no longer as giants but as people to be pitied, who know nothing of the grace of God in the gospel. By comparison with my heavenly Father, they are small and insignificant. They are powerless to do anything to me that He is not able to use for my ultimate good.

A memory from childhood comes back to me in this context. As young boys, we used to play football (soccer!) in our street. The father of one of my friends had played for a Scottish professional soccer team. Sometimes he came home early from work while we were still playing and joined the losing team! If he joined your side, you knew no matter how many goals behind you might be that you would win the game! No team could hold out against my friend’s father!

So it is with the friends of Jesus Christ the Son of the Father of infinite majesty. He is our Father and we are now His children– we have not been left orphans! This gives peace and poise. Those who seek to destroy the faith and fruit of His children do not realize that everything they do to harm them will be transformed by the heavenly Father into an instrument to do good:

No weapon that is fashioned against you shall succeed, And you shall refute every tongue that rises against you in judgment. This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD and their vindication from me, declares the Lord.’ (Isa. 54:17)” (131-132)

8. You’re Only Human / Kelly M. Kapic

God does not communicate all of His glorious perfections to His creatures. Some of His divine attributes are incommunicable. We are not omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. But oftentimes, I sin because I live as if I shared God’s incommunicable attributes. I don’t sleep enough because I think I’m omnipotent. I live distractedly and fail to be all there wherever I am because I’m trying in vain to be omnipresent. I worry and get overwhelmed with what tomorrow holds because I act like I’m omniscient and know what’s best. Can you relate at all to this struggle? The root problem of this sinful perspective is a failure to understand the good news that our creaturely limits reflect our Creator’s good and wise design. Our limitations as finite image bearers perpetually remind us that we are not God and that, my friend, is gloriously good news! No book helped me to explore this train of thought more fruitfully in 2022 than You’re Only Human.

“Many of us fail to understand that our limitations are a gift from God, and therefore good. This produces in us the burden of trying to be something we are not and cannot be. Creaturely finitude is less an idea we discover than a reality we run into.” (3)

Søren Kierkegaard once wrote, “The result of busyness is that an individual is very seldom permitted to form a heart.” Kapic’s book will help you to slow down, ponder your own God-given limits, face your finitude, and, by God’s Spirit, cultivate a heart of worship.

9. Trinitarian Dogmatics / Glenn Butner

In the summer of 2016, an evangelical donnybrook erupted online over the doctrine of the Trinity, particularly relating to what is called “eternal functional subordination” (EFS) or “eternal relational authority-submission” (ERAS) or “eternal subordination of the Son” (ESS). Before, during, and after this discussion began, Dr. Butner proved to be a gift from the Lord in helping his readers grow in understanding and delighting in our Triune God. His newest work is a wonderful introductory grammar of the Christian doctrine of God. He covers dogmatic topics like consubstantiality, processions and personal properties, divine simplicity, divine persons and relations, perichoresis, inseparable operations, and communion, grounding these truths in God’s Word and drawing upon the breadth of the Christian tradition.

“My hope is that the readers will find what follows to be a robust, biblical, and precise dogmatic account of the one God who is eternally Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I remain convinced that this hope may be fulfilled only through the Father’s gracious gift, through the Son, of the illuminating Holy Spirit, so I pray that that gift may be found in author and reader alike.” (12)

Also the glossary in the back of the book is 🔥. Chances are you’ll need it.

10. Romans / Andrew Naselli

This is one of greatest books I’ve ever read on the greatest letter ever written. Naselli serves as a wise exegetical escort, briskly but insightfully, tracing Paul’s argument and guiding the reader verse by verse through the Apostle’s glorious letter to the Romans. D.A. Carson often says, “The aim of thoughtful Christians, after all, is not so much to become masters of Scripture, but to be mastered by it, both for God’s glory and His people’s good.” (12)

Why not try to be mastered by Romans in 2023?

11. Natural Theology / David Haines

Christians believe that we know God by two means, by “reading” God off the pages of “two books,” the book of nature and the book of Scripture:

“First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe, since that universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God: God’s eternal power and divinity (Romans 1:20). All these things are enough to convict humans and to leave them without excuse.

Second, God makes Himself known to us more clearly by His holy and divine Word, as much as we need in this life, for God’s glory and for our salvation.” (Belgic Confession, Article 2, 1561)

Haines has written a superb exegetical, theological, and historical primer on the natural knowledge of God, on what we can know about God from the “book of nature.”

“The God who is the majestic Creator is also our loving Father who forgives our sins, overlooks our faults, and loves us through His Church. God reveals Himself to us in His world (in each of its elements: the natural world, human history, and even the individual human being), in His Word, and in His Church (in each of its elements: His people, the preaching of the Word, and the sacraments).

Through His world He reveals Himself as great and majestic, distinct, beyond our imagination and even our words, ineffable, immutable, eternal, omnipotent, eternal, Good, True, and Beautiful; but also as worthy of worship and as the judge of those who turn from Him to idolatry and evil. We are all prone to turn from God. To those who will listen, this world calls us back. We are all prone to what Stephen Charnock called ‘practical atheism.’ Natural theology, or even a nice brisk walk in the woods, is a great remedy for this spiritual sickness.

Through His Word and His Church, God reveals Himself as all of this, but especially as the loving, compassionate, merciful, longsuffering, patient, gracious Redeemer, Savior, and Lord. Divine truth, preached in Word and in sacrament, reminds us that we are ‘miserable offenders’ in need of daily repentance.” (v)

12. Trinity, Revelation, and Reading / Scott R. Swain

Theology is concerned with God and all things in relation to God. This delicious little volume by Dr. Swain provides a theological introduction to the Bible and its interpretation.

“Just as the Spirit laid the foundation for the church in the writings of prophets and apostles, so He builds upon that foundation through, among other things, the reading of the saints.

The same Spirit who publishes God’s Word through inspiration and writing creates an understanding of God’s Word through illumination and interpretation (1 Cor. 2:14–16). The reading of Holy Scripture is a creaturely activity that corresponds to, and is also sustained and governed by, the Spirit’s work of regeneration and renewal.

The Christian life begins with regeneration (John 3:3, 5; Eph. 2:5; James 1:18; 1 Pet. 1:3, 23–25). When the Spirit brings the gospel effectually to bear upon the sinner’s heart, He breaks our relation to the Old Man and creates a relation to the New Man (Rom. 6:1–7; Gal. 5:24).

In so doing, He also implants a new principle of life (1 John 3:9). This new principle of life enables a new vision. Apart from this new vision, the gospel of Jesus Christ—and therefore the ultimate meaning of Scripture—remains hidden from us (2 Cor. 3:14–18).

However, being born again, we are enabled to “see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). This new principle of life not only enables new vision, it also issues forth in new desires, new thirsts, and new hungers.

Chief among these is a longing for the word of truth (see 1 Pet. 1:22–2:3). God’s word is “sweeter than honey” to the regenerate taste (Ps. 19:10; 119:103).

The awakening of spiritual organs of perception and taste is essential to a profitable reading of Scripture.” (96-97)

“The duty of reading, memorizing, and familiarizing oneself with the Bible is incumbent upon everyone who would gain proficiency as an interpreter. In On Christian Doctrine, perhaps the most influential text on biblical interpretation ever written, Augustine provides an instructive discussion of some of the ways in which we may attain a greater proficiency as readers of the scriptures.

According to Augustine, the “first rule” for becoming a skilled reader of the Bible is “to know these books” and “to read them so as to commit them to memory.” Though scriptural memorization ultimately serves a number of sanctifying ends (cf. Ps. 119:11), it also serves the process of reading.

Scripture is characterized by a rich intertextuality. On almost every page, the Bible either quotes or alludes to other biblical passages. Closely related to this phenomenon, the Bible projects an internally coherent symbolic world. Accordingly, symbols in one text shape the way we interpret symbols in another text. Given this fact, much of the biblical message will be lost on us if we are not intimately familiar with the symbolic and allusive features of its textual reality. Memorization is one of the best ways of establishing such intimate knowledge.” (123–124)

In 2023, take up and read and memorize God’s Word.

Honorable Mentions:

I am blessed to have several wonderful friends who also happen to be gifted writers. The following friends published these outstanding books this year. Be sure to check them out.

Bub: Essays from Just North of Nashville / Drew Bratcher

Literarily: How Understanding the Bible Genres Transforms Bible Study / Kristie Anyabwile

We Go On: Finding Purpose in All of Life’s Sorrows and Joys / John Onwuchekwa

It Takes More Than Love: A Christian Guide to Navigating the Complexities of Cross-Cultural Adoption / Brittany Salmon

The Church: Delighting in the Doctrine of the Church / Erin Wheeler

My Next 12:

My Next 12

13. The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue / V.E. Schwab

Imagine retaining the beauty and vigor of youth, traveling the globe, living hundreds of years in this world, and meeting countless people, yet never being remembered by anyone. Adeline LaRue, a French woman from the early eighteenth-century, lives a cursed life, an unacknowledged life, an invisible life. No one even remembers her name. She is eternally anonymous because she once made a grave mistake, a Faustian bargain to the gods that answer after dark.

“There is a rhythm to moving through the world alone. You discover what you can and cannot live without, the simple necessities and small joys that define a life. Not food, not shelter, not the basic things a body needs—those are, for her, a luxury—but the things that keep you sane. That bring you joy. That make life bearable. Addie thinks of her father and his carvings, the way he peeled away the bark, whittled down the wood beneath to find the shapes that lived inside. Michelangelo called it the angel in the marble—though she’d not known that as a child. Her father had called it the secret in the wood. He knew how to reduce a thing, sliver by sliver, piece by piece, until he found its essence; knew, too, when he’d gone too far. One stroke too many, and the wood went from delicate to brittle in his hands. Addie has had three hundred years to practice her father’s art, to whittle herself down to a few essential truths, to learn the things she cannot do without. And this is what she’s settled on: she can go without food (she will not wither). She can go without heat (the cold will not kill her). But a life without art, without wonder, without beautiful things—she would go mad. She has gone mad. What she needs are stories. Stories are a way to preserve one’s self. To be remembered. And to forget. Stories come in so many forms: in charcoal, and in song, in paintings, poems, films. And books. Books, she has found, are a way to live a thousand lives—or to find strength in a very long one.” (35)

There are many things I don’t like about this book but I am quite grateful for Addie’s heart-rending reminder that some of the most loving words you can ever say or hear are three words large enough to tip one’s whole world: “I see you. I know you. I remember you.” What a comfort it is to know that in Christ even if we are among the number who live faithfully a hidden life, an invisible life, and rest in unvisited tombs, one day we will know fully even as we are fully known. (1 Cor. 13:12)

14. The Life We’re Looking For / Andy Crouch

I happened to finish Crouch’s latest just as I began reading The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. They will be for me forever joined at the hip. I read Addie’s story of being alone, unknown, and unremembered in this world through the illuminating lens of Crouch’s poignant, searching, and hopeful book. Relationship– true abiding relationship– may be reclaimed even in an impersonal technological world. Crouch inspires his readers to not retreat in fear, but to walk forward by faith in a courageous pursuit of what could be.

“If there is one word that sums up the crisis of personhood in our time, for the powerful and powerless alike, it is loneliness.” (11)

“We have never been so connected—and never so lonely. And indeed, those of us who eagerly joined Facebook and other platforms during the social media explosion of the 2000s could hardly have imagined that we were actually going to feel more alienated, not less, all these years later. Is it coincidence, or just a kind of grand irony, that loneliness has spiked just as our media became ‘social,’ our technology became ‘personal,’ and our machines learned to recognized our faces? In fact, this is no coincidence.

Our relational bankruptcy has been unfolding through the five-hundred-year story of technology, from its earliest stirrings in Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to Silicon Valley in the twenty-first. There is a consistent shadow side of the bright promises and genuine achievements of the technological world: It has been based all along on a false understanding of what human beings really are and what we most need.

We thought we were looking for impersonal power, the kind that doesn’t need persons to be effective. And now we have it, with everything we want delivered straight to our doorstep by processes and systems we scarcely understand employing persons we never see—or who may actually not exist.

If you picked up this book, chances are you feel it too: that this dream that began so pleasantly is, like so many dreams, beginning to spin out of control. There must be a different and better life to seek, a different and better way to be persons, a different and better way to deploy all the knowledge, wealth, and power that we have spent on our shallow, mirrored selves.

And in fact, alongside the gradual and sudden development of our personalized impersonal world, another story has been playing itself out, a story not of bankruptcy but of redemption, in which, rather than persons dwindling into anonymity, the anonymous and neglected have found recognition and been recalled to life.

This book is about how we can rejoin that story—about how, in an impersonal world, it is still possible to become persons again.” (12-13)

“We flatter ourselves that we live in a ‘developed world’—but it is an adapted world, a lopsided world. And it is a lonely world because the one thing that you cannot enhance, supercharge, or outsource in human life is the one thing we most need: the patient process of search and recognition, absence and return, rupture and repair that adds up to being known.

Over time, the active verbs of the Shema—recite, walk, talk, lie down, rise, bind, fix, write, all in the service of love—become too much for us to imagine, let alone perform. Our search for superpowers has created many of the most pressing problems of our time.

The defining mental activity of our time is scrolling. Our capacities of attention, memory, and concentration are diminishing; to compensate, we toggle back and forth between infinite feeds of news, posts, images, episodes—taking shallow hits of trivia, humor, and outrage to make up for the depths of learning, joy, and genuine lament that now feel beyond our reach.

The defining illness of our time is metabolic syndrome, the chronic combination of high weight, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and high blood sugar that is the hallmark of an inactive life. Our strength is atrophying and our waistline expanding, and to compensate, we turn to the superpowers of the supermarket, with the aisles of salt and fat convincing our bodies’ reward systems, one bite at a time, that we have never been better in our life.

The defining emotional challenge of our time is anxiety, the fear of what might be instead of the courageous pursuit of what could be. Once, we lived with allness of heart, with a boldness of quest that was too in love with the good to call off the pursuit when we encountered risk. Now we live as voyeurs, pursuing shadowy vestiges of what we desire from behind the one-way mirror of a screen, invulnerable but alone. And, of course, the soul is the plane of human existence that our technological age neglects most of all.

Jesus asked whether it was worth gaining the whole world at the cost of losing one’s soul. But in the era of superpowers, we have not only lost a great deal of our souls—we have lost much of the world as well. We are rarely overwhelmed by wind or rain or snow. We rarely see, let alone name, the stars. We have lost the sense that we are both at home and on a pilgrimage in the vast, mysterious cosmos, anchored in a rich reality beyond ourselves.

We have lost our souls without even gaining the world. So it is no wonder that the defining condition of our time is a sense of loneliness and alienation. For if human flourishing requires us to love with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength, what happens when nothing in our lives develops those capacities? With what, exactly, will we love?” (57-59)

“How many generations can be shaped by one household who gather together around a table, recognize one another, and send one another out into the world?” (213)

15. Rogues / Patrick Radden Keefe

No one writes better true stories about grifters, killers, rebels, gangsters, and crooks than Patrick Madden Keefe. His mesmerizing history of the Sackler family and the opioid crisis was one of my favorite reads from 2021. Rogues is collection of Keefe’s long-form profiles written for The New Yorker and it’s just as unputdownable as Empire of Pain. The sordid lineup includes a wine fraudster, a Dutch gangster, a Swiss bank heister, a real estate swindler, and an arms broker.

My favorite piece, “The Hunt for El Chapo,” details the rise and fall of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the man who ran Mexico’s multi-billion dollar Sinaloa cartel, the biggest drug-trafficking organization in world history. The profile was so well-researched and written, do you know who contacted Keefe after its publication? The attorney representing the imprisoned El Chapo. The lawyer asked on behalf of “El Señor” if Keefe might consider ghost-writing his boss’s memoirs. “This was, to put it mildly, alarming.” (xi) Keefe declined. And he made sure to place that phone call to the attorney from his office phone, not from his home.

16. Means of Ascent / Robert Caro

Robert Caro is a national treasure. He’s an 87-year-old investigative reporter who types his tomes on an ancient Smith-Corona. I loved his 1,300-page, Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Robert Moses. And I’ve found his award-winning series on Lyndon Baines Johnson, totalling 3,000 pages so far, to be utterly astonishing. I devoured volumes 1 and 2, I’m almost done with volume 3, and I’m eager to dive into volume 4 as I await volume 5. In Means of Ascent, Caro tells the unbelievable tale of how LBJ used his freshly-acquired political power in Texas to build highways and dams, to get electricity to the Hill country, to get rich, and to steal an election to the United States Senate. The election in question is the 1948 Johnson-Stevenson race. If you only read one part of Means of Ascent, read Chapter 13, “The Stealing.” It’s worth the price of the book and it’s absolutely gobsmacking. In many ways, the chapter reveals how present-day politics was born.

“The 1948 campaign was not only the new politics against the old, it was political morality made vivid, as political techniques were made vivid, by the sharpness in the contrast between the two principals. The pattern of pragmatism, cynicism and ruthlessness that pervaded Lyndon Johnson’s entire early political career was marked by a lack of any discernible limits. Pragmatism shaded into the morality of the ballot box, a morality in which any maneuver is justified by the end of victory—into a morality that is amorality. In the 1948 campaign, this pattern came clearer than ever before, in part because of the lengths to which Lyndon Johnson went in order to win—and in part because of the contrast between his extreme pragmatism and Coke Stevenson’s extreme idealism, which makes Johnson’s methods stand out in the clearest possible relief.

The Johnson-Stevenson campaign was merely an election in a single state for a single Senate seat—one of hundreds of senatorial elections that have been held in the United States. But if, upon close study, elections seem to blur together and to have only meager larger significance, this election is an exception to that tendency, because of the sharpness in contrast between the philosophy, principles, strategy and tactics of the two candidates. The clash of such mighty—and violently contrasting—opposites illuminates not only Lyndon Johnson’s path to power but some of the most fundamental ethical, moral and philosophical issues of American politics and government in the twentieth century.

That campaign raises, in fact, one of the greatest issues invoked by the life of Lyndon Baines Johnson: the relationship between means and ends. Many of the ends of Lyndon Johnson’s life—civil rights in particular, perhaps, but others, too—were noble: heroic advances in the cause of social justice. Although those ends are not a part of this volume, those ends are a part of that life: many liberal dreams might not be reality even today were it not for Lyndon Johnson. Those noble ends, however, would not have been possible were it not for the means, far from noble, which brought Lyndon Johnson to power. Their attainment would not have been possible without that 1948 campaign.

And what are the implications of that fact? To what extent are ends inseparable from means? Of all the questions raised by the life of Lyndon Baines Johnson, no question is more important than that.” (xii)

17. The Passenger / Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. He’s certainly an acquired taste. I’ve read every one of his books because he affords one the opportunity of pondering a world with a Creator, a fall, but no redemption. Living in that fictional world helps me to better appreciate the real world. The Passenger isn’t his best novel, but it’s certainly his most mature and thought-provoking. Unforgettable characters. Vintage, punctuation-less dialogue. Esoteric, doom-laden rants about God, nuclear fusion, quantum mechanics, the meaning or lack of meaning of life, the certainty of death, the mysterious nature of time, along with a plot featuring deep sea diving and salvage.

“He thought that God’s goodness appeared in strange places. Don’t close your eyes.” (71)

“Grief is the stuff of life. A life without grief is no life at all. But regret is a prison. Some part of you which you deeply value lies forever impaled at a crossroads you can no longer find and never forget.” (140)

“You will never know what the world is made of. The only thing that’s certain is that it’s not made of the world. As you close upon some mathematical description of reality you cant help but lose what is being described. Every inquiry displaces what is addressed. A moment in time is a fact, not a possibility. The world will take your life. But above all and lastly the world does not know that you are here. You think that you understand this. But you don’t. Not in your heart you don’t. If you did you would be terrified. And you’re not. Not yet. And now, good night.” (128)

“Certainly there are mornings when I awake and see a grayness to the world I think was not in evidence before. The horrors of the past lose their edge, and in the doing they blind us to a world careening toward a darkness beyond the bitterest speculation. It’s sure to be interesting. When the onset of universal night is finally acknowledged as irreversible even the coldest cynic will be astonished at the celerity with which every rule and stricture shoring up this creaking edifice is abandoned and every aberrancy embraced. It should be quite a spectacle. However brief.” (142-143)

“You have to believe that there is good in the world. I’m goin’ to say that you have to believe that the work of your hands will bring it into your life. You may be wrong, but if you don’t believe that then you will not have a life. You may call it one. But it won’t be one.” (174)

“Beauty makes promises that beauty can’t keep.” (180)

“I suppose in the end what we have to offer is only what we’ve lost.” (376)

“So how bad is the world? How bad. The world’s truth constitutes a vision so terrifying as to beggar the prophecies of the bleakest seer who ever walked it. Once you accept that then the idea that all of this will one day be ground to powder and blown into the void becomes not a prophecy but a promise. So allow me in turn to ask you this question: When we and all our works are gone together with every memory of them and every machine in which such memory could be encoded and stored and the Earth is not even a cinder, for whom then will this be a tragedy? Where would such a being be found? And by whom?” (377)

“Mercy is in the province of the person alone. There is mass hatred and mass grief. Mass vengeance and even mass suicide. But there is no mass forgiveness. There is only you.” (381)

The narrative is split into interwoven chapters fluctuating between sanity and madness. Coupled with its companion volume, Stella Maris, McCarthy’s vision of the world is profoundly sad. But as a native of East Tennessee (as is McCarthy), reared on Rocky Top, and a lifelong fan of the Tennessee Volunteers, this line did make me smile:

“Does Knoxville produce crazy people or does it just attract them? Interesting question. Nature nurture. Actually the more deranged of them seem to hail from the neighboring hinterlands. Good question though. Let me get back to you on that.” (32)

The answer is, of course, both. Here’s the evidence. Go Vols!

18. Rembrandt’s Eyes / Simon Schama

Rembrandt van Rijn, the great 17th-century Dutch artist, is an enigma. He left behind a slew of masterful paintings and self-portraits, but when he died in poverty his personal effects were sold off and dispersed, leaving historians only fragmentary records with which to build a biography. In Rembrandt’s Eyes Simon Schama does the impossible. He recreated Rembrandt’s personal history by scouring surviving biographical fragments of archival information, and crafted a stunningly written narrative of Rembrandt’s life as well as a lucid commentary on all of his paintings. This book is a world of wonders. I read it slowly over the course of three years. And the last page made me weep. I wholeheartedly commend it to you.

“No painter would ever understand the theatricality of social life as well as Rembrandt. He saw the actors in men and the men in the actors. Western art’s first images of stage life– the dressing room and the wardrobe– came from his hand. But Rembrandt’s drama did not stop at the stage door. He also painted historical figures and his own contemporaries in their chosen personae, rehearsing their allotted manners as if before an audience. And he cast himself in telling bit parts– the executioners of St. Stephen and Christ; a scared sailor on the churning Sea of Galilee and just occasionally in a significant lead: the Prodigal Son, whoring in a tavern. For Rembrandt as for Shakespeare, all the world was indeed a stage, and he knew in exhaustive detail the tactics of its performance: the strutting and mincing; the wardrobe and the face paint; the full repertoire of gesture and grimace; the flutter of hands and the roll of the eyes; the belly laugh and the half-stifled sob. He knew what it looked like to seduce, to intimidate, to wheedle, and to console; to strike a pose or preach a sermon; to shake a fist or uncover a breast; how to sin and how to atone; how to commit murder and how to commit suicide. No artist had ever been so fascinated by the fashioning of personae, beginning with his own. No painter ever looked with such unsparing intelligence or such bottomless compassion at our entrances and our exits and the whole rowdy show in between.” (8)

“From the beginning, Rembrandt was powerfully drawn to ruin; the poetry of imperfection. He enjoyed tracing the marks left by the bite of worldly experience: the pits and pocks, the red-rimmed eyes and scabby skin which gave the human countenance a mottled rich-ness. The piebald, the scrofulous, the stained, and the encrusted were matters for close and loving inspection; irregularities to run through his fingering gaze.

Other than the Holy Scripture, he cared for no book as well as the book of decay, its truths written in the furrows scored on the brows of old men and women; in the sagging timbers of decrepit barns; in the lichenous masonry of derelict buildings; in the mangy fur of a valetudinarian lion. And he was a compulsive peeler, itching to open the casing of things and people, to winkle out the content packed within. He liked to toy with the poignant discrepancies between outsides and insides, the brittle husk and the vulnerable core.

In the corner of his room, Rembrandt’s eye ran over the fishtail triangle of decomposing wall, coming apart in discrete layers, each with its own pleasingly distinct texture: the risen, curling skin of the limewash; the broken crust of the chalky plaster, and the dusty brick beneath; the minute crevices gathering dark ridges of grunge. All these materials, in their different states of deterioration, he translated faithfully into paint, and did so with such intense scrutiny and devotion that the patch of crumbling fabric begins to take on a necrotic quality like damaged flesh. Above the door another veinous crack is making swift progress through the plaster.

To give his gash in the wall physical immediacy and visual credibility, Rembrandt would have used the most precisely pointed of his brushes: a soft-bristled instrument made from the pelt of some silky little rodent, the kind the miniaturists favored, a brush capable of making the finest pencil line or, turned and lightly flattened against the surface of the panel, a more swelling stroke.

Slick with pigment red lake, ocher, and lead white for the brick; lead white with faint touches of black for the grimy plaster-the squirrel-hair brush deposited perfect traces of paint over a scant few millimeters of space on the panel, one set of earthy materials (the painter’s) translating itself into another (the builder’s). It seems like alchemy. But the transmutation happens not in the philosopher’s alembic but in our beguiled eye.

Was the description of the patch of crumbled wall achieved in a matter of minutes or a matter of hours? Was it the result of painstakingly calculated design or imaginative impulse? Rembrandt’s critics, especially once he was dead, disagreed on whether the problem with him had been that he worked too impetuously or too laboriously. Either way, he is generally, and not incorrectly, remembered as the greatest master of the broad brush there ever was.” (13-14)

19. Farnsworth’s Classical English / Ward Farnsworth

This exquisite book explains and illustrates how brilliant writers of the past chose to answer questions of literary style: the selection of words, the arrangement of a sentence, the creation of a cadence. Farnsworth shows how their choices made their writings come alive. In other words, becoming a better writer requires breaking bread with the dead:

“Abraham Lincoln wrote more beautifully and memorably than anyone in public life does now. So did Winston Churchill; so did Edmund Burke; so did many others, none of whom sound quite alike but all of whom achieved an eloquence that seems foreign to our times. What did they know that we don’t? It might seem strange to seek instruction from writers who lived so long ago. It certainly would sound odd to imitate their styles directly. But writers of lasting stature still make the best teachers. They understood principles of style that are powerful and enduring, even if the principles have to be adapted to our era, or to any other, before they become useful. That is the premise of this book, at any rate. It is a set of lessons on style drawn from writers whose words have stood the test of time.” (vii)

“Most books on style offer advice: write this way, not that way. This book does not offer advice of that kind, let alone formulas; it certainly doesn’t say that if you do this or that, you will sound like Lincoln or anyone else. Rhetorical magic is not so easily bottled. But the book does offer some more ideas (to go with the ones from earlier entries in this series) about the elements of style that have made the writings of Lincoln – and Churchill, and Holmes, and others – so compelling. The approach of this book resembles the indirect tradition from which Lincoln himself learned. He spent long hours reading Shakespeare and the King James Bible – writings from 200 years before he was born. He didn’t try to copy them or write as though he were living in the 17th century. He wrote, as everyone must, in a manner acceptable to his own times. Yet his reading still affected him in ways that we hear in his words. Now we can read Lincoln (and Churchill, and others) in something like the way that Lincoln read Shakespeare and the Bible: not to mimic but to listen, learn, and adapt.” (ix)

20. The Final Empire / Brandon Sanderson

Imagine an epic heist story suffused with magic. That’s The Final Empire, the first novel in Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy. Sanderson himself gives you the gist:

“I came into this book with two big ideas for the plot. The first was that of a heist story, like Sneakers or Ocean’s Eleven involving a gang of gentlemen thieves who each had a distinctive magic power. I wanted to tell the story of how their different magics and abilities worked together for them to pull an incredible caper.

The second idea was to write a story about a world where the good guys lost. I wanted to take the standard fantasy story I’d read a dozen times, that of a young peasant hero who went on a quest to defeat a Dark Lord, and turn it on its head. What if the Dark Lord won? What if, in the final climactic moments, he killed the hero and took over the world?

Hence, Mistborn. A thousand years ago, the prophesied hero from lore rose up to overthrow a great and terrible evil. Only, he lost, and the Dark Lord took over and has been ruling with an iron fist for a thousand years. Ash falls from the sky in this barren land, and mists come every night, deep and mysterious. In this setting, a gang of thieves decides that the prophecies were all lies and that they can’t trust in some fabled hero to save them. They decide to take matters into their own hands, and plan a daring heist of the dark lord himself, planning to use the emperor’s own wealth to bribe his armies away from him and take over the empire.

The book has a little of everything for everyone. Romance, lots of action, a wiz-bang cool magic system, dark lords running amok, great visuals, and character tension. And that’s just Book One.”

I’m excited about diving into Book Two and Book Three in 2023.

21. The Pacific War Trilogy / Ian Toll 

After visiting Pearl Harbor in 2021, I wanted to learn more about the war in the Pacific. A dear friend recommended Ian Toll’s magisterial trilogy: Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942–1944, and Twilight of the Gods: War in the Western Pacific, 1944-1945. The narrative begins with the attack on Pearl Harbor and concludes 2,240 pages later with the Japanese surrender following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It took the author three times longer to produce this three-volume history of the Pacific War than it took the combatant nations to fight it. It’s filled with tons of details but it’s also wonderfully written.

“The Pacific War was the largest, bloodiest, most costly, most technically innovative, and most logistically complex amphibious war in history. To roll back the tide of Japanese conquests, the Allies would be required to seize one island after another, advancing across thousands of miles of ocean in two huge parallel offensives on either side of the equator. The army, navy, and marines were compelled to work together in sustained and intricate cooperation.” (The Conquering Tide, 8)

Toll’s description of the deadly aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack reminded me of the conclusion of Herman Wouk’s novel, The Winds of War:

“The darkness was merciful to Pearl Harbor. The smashed battleships were invisible. Overhead a clear starry black sky arched, with Orion setting in the west, and Venus sparkling in the east, high above a narrow streak of red. Only the faintest smell of smoke on the sea breeze hinted at the gigantic scene of disaster below. But the dawn brightened, light stole over the harbor, and soon the destruction and the shame were unveiled once more. At first the battleships were merely vague shapes; but even before all the stars were gone, one could see the Pacific Battle Force, a crazy dim double line of sunken hulks along Ford Island—and first in the line, the U.S.S. California. Victor Henry turned his face from the hideous sight to the indigo arch of the sky, where Venus and the brightest stars still burned: Sirius, Capella, Procyon, the old navigation aids. The familiar religious awe came over him, the sense of a Presence above this pitiful little earth. In a world so rich and lovely, could God’s children find nothing better to do than to dig iron from the ground and work it into vast grotesque engines for blowing each other up? Yet this madness was the way of the world. He had given all his working years to it. Now he was about to risk his very life at it. Why? Because the others did it, he thought. Because Abel’s next-door neighbor was Cain.” (884)

22. The Making of the Atomic Bomb / Richard Rhodes

At 5:29 a.m. on July 16, 1945, the first man-made nuclear explosion occurred in the skies over New Mexico. The test, code-named ‘Trinity,’ successfully detonated an implosion-design plutonium device. J. Robert Oppenheimer and his Manhattan Project team worked nonstop clandestinely for 27 months at the Los Alamos Lab to build a bomb big enough to end WWII. The blast produced on that day is equivalent to the explosion of 18,600 tons of T.N.T. This Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the making of the atomic bomb is superb. Rhodes tells the fascinating and frightening story of how the vast energy locked inside the atom was unleashed into the world. A nuclear bomb is a total-death machine, compact and efficient, a weapon of mass slaughter. Here are some of the descriptions of what was witnessed at the Trinity test:

“Men saw what theoretical physics cannot notice and what cameras cannot record: pity and terror and menace. We were lying there, very tense, in the early dawn, and there were just a few streaks of gold in the east; you could see your neighbor very dimly. Those ten seconds were the longest ten seconds that I ever experienced. Suddenly, there was an enormous flash of light, the brightest light I have ever seen or that I think anyone has ever seen. It blasted; it pounced; it bored its way right through you. It was a vision which was seen with more than the eye. It was seen to last forever. You would wish it would stop; altogether it lasted about two seconds. Finally it was over, diminishing, and we looked toward the place where the bomb had been; there was an enormous ball of fire which grew and grew and it rolled as it grew; it went up into the air, in yellow flashes and into scarlet and green. It looked menacing. It seemed to come toward one. A new thing had just been born; a new control; a new understanding of man, which man had acquired over nature. The burst was like opening the heavy curtains of a darkened room to a flood of sunlight. Had astronomers been watching they could have seen it reflected from the moon, literal moonshine.” (979-980)

Oppenheimer’s brother, Frank, said:

“There was this sense of this ominous cloud hanging over us. It was so brilliant purple, with all the radioactive glowing. And it just seemed to hang there forever. Of course it didn’t. It must have been just a very short time until it went up. It was very terrifying. And the thunder from the blast. It bounced on the rocks, and then it went—I don’t know where else it bounced. But it never seemed to stop. Not like an ordinary echo with thunder. It just kept echoing back and forth in that Jornada del Muerto. It was a very scary time when it went off. And I wish I would remember what my brother said, but I can’t—but I think we just said, ‘It worked.’ I think that’s what we said, both of us. ‘It worked.’ No one who saw it could forget it, a foul and awesome display.” (983-984)

The reaction of Oppenheimer remains chilling, even seventy-seven years later:

“We waited until the blast had passed, walked out of the shelter and then it was extremely solemn. We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita: Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him he takes on his multiarmed form and says:

Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’” (985)

23. All Quiet on the Western Front / Erich Maria Remarque

I began rereading this WWI masterpiece after learning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The radical simplicity of Remarque’s prose describing life and death in the trenches of the Great War remains raw and visceral and utterly heartbreaking:

“The evening benediction begins. Night comes, out of the craters rise the mists. It looks as though the holes were full of ghostly secrets. The white vapour creeps painfully round before it ventures to steal away over the edge. Then long streaks stretch from crater to crater.

It is chilly. I am on sentry and stare into the darkness. My strength is exhausted as always after an attack, and so it is hard for me to be alone with my thoughts. They are not properly thoughts; they are memories which in my weakness haunt me and strangely move me.

The parachute-lights soar upwards—and I see a picture, a summer evening, I am in the cathedral cloister and look at the tall rose trees that bloom in the middle of the little cloister garden where the monks lie buried. Around the walls are the stone carvings of the Stations of the Cross. No one is there. A great quietness rules in this blossoming quadrangle, the sun lies warm on the heavy grey stones, I place my hand upon them and feel the warmth. At the right-hand corner the green cathedral spire ascends into the pale blue sky of the evening. Between the glowing columns of the cloister is the cool darkness that only churches have, and I stand there and wonder whether, when I am twenty, I shall have experienced the bewildering emotions of love.

The image is alarmingly near; it touches me before it dissolves in the light of the next starshell.

I lay hold of my rifle to see that it is in trim. The barrel is wet, I take it in my hands and rub off the moisture with my fingers.

Between the meadows behind our town there stands a line of old poplars by a stream. They were visible from a great distance, and although they grew on one bank only, we called them the poplar avenue. Even as children we had a great love for them, they drew us vaguely thither, we played truant the whole day by them and listened to their rustling. We sat beneath them on the bank of the stream and let our feet hang in the bright, swift waters. The pure fragrance of the water and the melody of the wind in the poplars held our fancies. We loved them dearly, and the image of those days still makes my heart pause in its beating.

It is strange that all the memories that come have these two qualities. They are always completely calm, that is predominant in them; and even if they are not really calm, they become so. They are soundless apparitions that speak to me, with looks and gestures silently, without any word—and it is the alarm of their silence that forces me to lay hold of my sleeve and my rifle lest I should abandon myself to the liberation and allurement in which my body would dilate and gently pass away into the still forces that lie behind these things.

They are quiet in this way, because quietness is so unattainable for us now. At the front there is no quietness and the curse of the front reaches so far that we never pass beyond it. Even in the remote depots and rest-areas the droning and the muffled noise of shelling is always in our ears. We are never so far off that it is no more to be heard. But these last few days it has been unbearable.

Their stillness is the reason why these memories of former times do not awaken desire so much as sorrow—a vast, inapprehensible melancholy. Once we had such desires—but they return not. They are past, they belong to another world that is gone from us. In the barracks they called forth a rebellious, wild craving for their return; for then they were still bound to us, we belonged to them and they to us, even though we were already absent from them. They appeared in the soldiers’ songs which we sang as we marched between the glow of the dawn and the black silhouettes of the forests to drill on the moor, they were a powerful remembrance that was in us and came from us. But here in the trenches they are completely lost to us.

They arise no more; we are dead and they stand remote on the horizon, they are a mysterious reflection, an apparition, that haunts us, that we fear and love without hope. They are strong and our desire is strong—but they are unattainable, and we know it.

And even if these scenes of our youth were given back to us we would hardly know what to do. The tender, secret influence that passed from them into us could not rise again. We might be amongst them and move in them; we might remember and love them and be stirred by the sight of them. But it would be like gazing at the photograph of a dead comrade; those are his features, it is his face, and the days we spent together take on a mournful life in the memory; but the man himself it is not.

We could never regain the old intimacy with those scenes. It was not any recognition of their beauty and their significance that attracted us, but the communion, the feeling of a comradeship with the things and events of our existence, which cut us off and made the world of our parents a thing incomprehensible to us—for then we surrendered ourselves to events and were lost in them, and the least little thing was enough to carry us down the stream of eternity. Perhaps it was only the privilege of our youth, but as yet we recognized no limits and saw nowhere an end. We had that thrill of expectation in the blood which united us with the course of our days.

Today we would pass through the scenes of our youth like travellers. We are burnt up by hard facts; like tradesmen we understand distinctions, and like butchers, necessities. We are no longer untroubled—we are indifferent. We might exist there; but should we really live there?

We are forlorn like children, and experienced like old men, we are crude and sorrowful and superficial—I believe we are lost.” (65-67)

24. Desolation Island / Patrick O’Brian

Two of my favorite friends are Captain Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. The twenty volumes of the Aubrey-Maturin series tell the story of life and war and adventure on the high seas in the Royal Navy during the the Napoleonic Wars. I believe they are the best historical novels ever written. This stories have everything. A lifetime of friendship, marriage, children, fallings-out, reconciliation, international intrigue, the death of a spouse, war, peace, feasting, laughter, and music. And adventure, lots of adventure, ranging from ship groundings, chases, collisions, dismastings, fires, lightning strikes, plagues, near-drownings, and imprisonment. Here’s a scene from Desolation Island, in which Aubrey’s ship, The Leopard, is preparing to fight to the death on a raging sea with the Dutch ship Waakzaamheid:

The Leopard brought the wind a little abaft the larboard beam in a fine fierce curve– white water sweeping over her waist– and began to run northwards under courses and reefed topsails, her deck sloping like a moderately pitched roof and her lee chains buried in the foam that came racing from her bows. She was heading for dirty weather, for a low bank of cloud with rain-squalls drifting across its face and hidden lightning within the mass; it was precious cold, and spray, whipping across the deck in the eddy of the mainsail, kept wetting the Captain’s face.

But he was warm within: not only had he a comfortable coat of blubber as well as his pilot-jacket, but he also had a glow of satisfaction. He continued his pacing, counting the number of turns on the fingers clasped behind his back. One thousand he would take before he went below. At each turn he glanced up at the sky and out over the sea: a mottled sky, blue and white to the south with a steely gleam on the farthest rim, grey, high-piled storm-breeders in the west, darkness north and east; and of course a mottled sea, though in quite different tones, running from middle blue through every shade of glaucous grey to black, and the whole streaked with a white that owed nothing to the sky but all to the broken water and the spindrift of former storms.

The long, even fairly heavy swell lifted him and set him down at a measured pace, so that sometimes his horizon was no more than three miles away, and sometimes he saw an enormous disk of ocean, a cold, uneasy sea, endless miles of desolation, the comfortless element in which he was at home.” (236-237)

These twenty stories are really one story, a single 6,443-page novel, a tale as addicting as your favorite dessert. O’Brian’s themes– friendship, courage, honor, loyalty, duty, love of country, and gentlemanliness– are oceanic. I don’t read these novels. I ration them. And by the time I finish the series, reading only one a year, my memory won’t be what it is now, and I’ll return and begin the journey with my dear friends all over again.

My Final 12:

My Final 12

25. The Medieval Mind of C.S. Lewis / Jason Baxter

C.S. Lewis was an Oxford (and Cambridge) scholar, a Christian apologist, a story teller, a myth maker, an essayist, and a poet. But, chiefly, Lewis was a medievalist. He thought of himself as a medieval man living in the 20th Century, a living dinosaur of a lost age. Baxter notes:

“This was the man who read fourteenth-century medieval texts for his spiritual reading, carefully annotating them with pencil; who summed himself up as ‘chiefly a medievalist’; the philologist, who wrote essays on semantics, metaphors, etymologies, and textual reception; the schoolmaster who fussed at students for not looking up treacherous words in their lexicons; the polyglot pedant who did not translate his quotations from medieval French, German, Italian, or ancient Latin and Greek in his scholarly books; the man who wrote letters to children recommending that they study Latin until they reached the point they could read it fluently without a dictionary; the critic who, single-handedly, saved bizarre, lengthy, untranslated ancient books from obscurity. Before he was famous as a Christian and writer of fantasy, he was famous among his students for his academic lectures, which bore such scintillating titles as ‘Prolegomena to Medieval Literature’ and ‘Prolegomena to Renaissance Literature.” This was Lewis the antiquarian, who devoted much—indeed, most—of his life to breathing in the thoughts and feelings of distant ages, and reconstructing them in his teaching and writing. We find him recommending to general audiences that they read one old book for every modern one, and advising those seeking spiritual advice to old books. In sum, this was C. S. Lewis the medievalist.” (2-4)

Baxter does a fabulous job showing how the great books of the Middle Ages shaped the great mind of C.S. Lewis. Those great books of the past kindled a holy longing and a bright hope for the future, a future-oriented nostalgia.

“Nostalgia for this world of wild and disorienting joy was probably the chief sentiment of Lewis and his friends the Inklings throughout their lives. They repeatedly confessed to experiencing such nostalgia while reading ancient texts. But what they always insisted on was that the nostalgia they experienced was not just sentimentality for a past age. Lewis echoes Tolkien’s words, in describing a longing ‘almost like heartbreak, the memory of Joy itself, the knowledge that I had once had what I had now lacked for years, that I was returning at last from exile and desert lands to my own country.’ But this desire for this distant country should not be conflated with what is merely old; that ‘Other Time’ merely uses the literature of the past as a medium. The past cannot be the object of nostalgia itself. In other words, nostalgia—viewed rightly—metamorphosizes into hope.” (160-161)

Lewis puts it like this:

“The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things– the beauty, the memory of our own past– are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” (The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, 31)

Lewis, the medievalist, the living dinosaur, still has much to teach us. “Where I fail as a critic, I may yet be useful as a specimen. I would even dare to go further. Speaking not only for myself but for all other Old Western men whom you may meet, I would say, use your specimens while you can. There are not going to be many more dinosaurs.” (17)

26. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy / John le Carré

Confession is good for the soul. Here’s my confession: somehow I made it this far in life without ever reading any of le Carré’s Smiley novels. I remedied that epic fail of a mistake this year and I’m excited to tackle the next two stories in the Karla trilogy in 2023. Le Carré is not a great genre writer. He’s a great writer.

“Smiley was soaked to the skin and God as a punishment had removed all taxis from the face of London.” (27)

“One calls it politeness whereas in fact it is nothing but weakness.” (28)

“Good intelligence work, Control had always preached, was gradual and rested on a kind of gentleness.” (35)

“It’s the oldest question of all, George. Who can spy on the spies? Who can smell out the fox without running with him?” (84)

“After a lifetime of living by his wits and his considerable memory, he had given himself full time to the profession of forgetting.” (86)

“Reason as motive, or reason as logic, or reason as a way of life?” (91)

“As a good Socialist, I’m going for the money.” (172)

“He has a saying: he’ll only believe what can be written on a postcard.” (145)

“The more identities a man has, the more they express the person they conceal.” (234)

“Few men can resist expressing their appetites when they’re making a fantasy about themselves.” (234)

“That in the hands of politicians grand designs achieve nothing but new forms of the old misery?” (239)

“Learn the facts, Steed-Asprey used to say, then try on the stories like clothes.” (342)

“A committee is an animal with four back legs.” (357)

“Survival, as Jim Prideaux liked to recall, is an infinite capacity for suspicion.” (370)

“There are moments that are made up of too much stuff for them to be lived at the time they occur.” (394)

“Nothing is worth the destruction of another human being. Somewhere the path of pain and betrayal must end. Until that happened, there was no future; there was only a continued slide into still more terrifying versions of the present.” (389)

“Treason is very much a matter of habit, Smiley decided.” (416)

27. Unmasked: My Life Solving America’s Cold Cases / Paul Holes

Paul Holes is a living legend in the world of murder. He hunted serial killers and closed cold cases. He’s the dude who unmasked the Golden State Killer and he has written a absorbing memoir revealing the realistic and painstaking process of solving unsolvable cold cases and the emotional cost on the families of the victims and the detectives. If you enjoy true crime, check out this book.

28. Creeds, Confessions, & Catechisms / Ed. Chad Van Dixhoorn

In this lovely readers edition, you’ll find several glorious patterns of sound words. For nearly 2,000 years, believers have been taught, edified, and comforted by the teachings of Scripture contained in these historic creeds, confessions of faith, and catechisms. These treasures have been passed down to us. Will we read them, learn from them, hold fast to them, and pass them on to the next generation? One of my favorite passages is from the 2LCF, article 12, on the believer’s adoption in Christ:

All those that are justified, God conferred, in and for the sake of his only Son Jesus Christ, to make partakers of the grace of adoption,1 by which they are taken into the number, and enjoy the liberties and privileges of the children of God,2 have his name put on them,3 receive the spirit of adoption,4 have access to the throne of grace with boldness, are enabled to cry Abba, Father,5 are pitied,6 protected,7 provided for,8 and chastened by him as by a Father,9 yet never cast off,10 but sealed to the day of redemption,11 and inherit the promises as heirs of everlasting salvation.12

  1. Eph. 1:5; Gal. 4:4–5
  2. John 1:12; Rom. 8:17
  3. 2 Cor. 6:18; Rev. 3:12
  4. Rom. 8:15
  5. Gal. 4:6; Eph. 2:18
  6. Ps. 103:13
  7. Prov. 14:26; 1 Pet. 5:7
  8. Heb. 12:6
  9. Isa. 54:8–9
  10. Lam. 3:31
  11. Eph. 4:30
  12. Heb. 1:14, 6:12 (259)

29. The Innocence of Father Brown / G.K. Chesterton

You always know what you’re gonna get from GKC in his Father Brown mysteries: lyrical prose, clever plotting, wholesome wisdom, hearty common sense, sanctified reason, insights from Thomas Aquinas, persistent paradoxes, subtle humor, classical apologetics, and yes, frequent jabs at Calvinists. No one is perfect. But Chesterton never wrote a boring sentence. His gift of gab is wondrous:

“The street they threaded was so narrow and shut in by shadows that when they came out unexpectedly into the void common and vast sky they were startled to find the evening still so light and clear. A perfect dome of peacock-green sank into gold amid the blackening trees and the dark violet distances. The glowing green tint was just deep enough to pick out in points of crystal one or two stars. All that was left of the daylight lay in a golden glitter across the edge of Hampstead and that popular hollow which is called the Vale of Health. The holiday makers who roam this region had not wholly dispersed; a few couples sat shapelessly on benches; and here and there a distant girl still shrieked in one of the swings. The glory of heaven deepened and darkened around the sublime vulgarity of man.” (12-13)

“The winter afternoon was reddening towards evening, and already a ruby light was rolled over the bloomless beds, filling them, as it were, with the ghosts of the dead roses.” (53)

“There were hollows and bowers at the extreme end of that leafy garden, in which the laurels and other immortal shrubs showed against sapphire sky and silver moon, even in that midwinter, warm colours as of the south. The green gaiety of the waving laurels, the rich purple indigo of the night, the moon like a monstrous crystal, make an almost irresponsible romantic picture; and among the top branches of the garden trees a strange figure is climbing, who looks not so much romantic as impossible. He sparkles from head to heel, as if clad in ten million moons; the real moon catches him at every movement and sets a new inch of him on fire. But he swings, flashing and successful, from the short tree in this garden to the tall, rambling tree in the other, and only stops there because a shade has slid under the smaller tree and has unmistakably called up to him.” (61)

“They were cresting a corner of London which is almost as precipitous as Edinburgh, if not quite so picturesque. Terrace rose above terrace, and the special tower of flats they sought, rose above them all to almost Egyptian height, gilt by the level sunset. The change, as they turned the corner and entered the crescent known as Himylaya Mansions, was as abrupt as the opening of a window; for they found that pile of flats sitting above London as above a green sea of slate. Opposite to the mansions, on the other side of the gravel crescent, was a bushy enclosure more like a steep hedge or dyke than a garden, and some way below that ran a strip of artificial water, a sort of canal, like the moat of that embowered fortress. As the car swept round the crescent it passed, at one corner, the stray stall of a man selling chestnuts; and right away at the other end of the curve, Angus could see a dim blue policeman walking slowly. These were the only human shapes in that high suburban solitude; but he had an irrational sense that they expressed the speechless poetry of London.” (70-71)

“A stormy evening of olive and silver was closing in, as Father Brown, wrapped in a grey Scotch plaid, came to the end of a grey Scotch valley and beheld the strange castle of Glengyle. It stopped one end of the glen or hollow like a blind alley; and it looked like the end of the world. Rising in steep roofs and spires of seagreen slate in the manner of the old French-Scotch chateaux, it reminded an Englishman of the sinister steeple-hats of witches in fairy tales; and the pine woods that rocked round the green turrets looked, by comparison, as black as numberless flocks of ravens. This note of a dreamy, almost a sleepy devilry, was no mere fancy from the landscape. For there did rest on the place one of those clouds of pride and madness and mysterious sorrow which lie more heavily on the noble houses of Scotland than on any other of the children of men. For Scotland has a double dose of the poison called heredity; the sense of blood in the aristocrat, and the sense of doom in the Calvinist.” (78)

“The path up the hill to the churchyard was crooked but short; only under that stress of wind it seemed laborious and long. Far as the eye could see, farther and farther as they mounted the slope, were seas beyond seas of pines, now all aslope one way under the wind. And that universal gesture seemed as vain as it was vast, as vain as if that wind were whistling about some unpeopled and purposeless planet. Through all that infinite growth of grey-blue forests sang, shrill and high, that ancient sorrow that is in the heart of all heathen things. One could fancy that the voices from the under world of unfathomable foliage were cries of the lost and wandering pagan gods: gods who had gone roaming in that irrational forest, and who will never find their way back to heaven.” (84)

“Pretty and unique as it was, the place had about it a curious luminous sadness. Hours passed in it like days. The long, well-windowed rooms were full of daylight, but it seemed a dead daylight. And through all other incidental noises, the sound of talk, the clink of glasses, or the passing feet of servants, they could hear on all sides of the house the melancholy noise of the river.” (109)

“The thousand arms of the forest were grey, and its million fingers silver. In a sky of dark green-blue-like slate the stars were bleak and brilliant like splintered ice. All that thickly wooded and sparsely tenanted countryside was stiff with a bitter and brittle frost. The black hollows between the trunks of the trees looked like bottomless, black caverns of that Scandinavian hell, a hell of incalculable cold.” (149)

30. The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson / Jeff Pearlman

Bo Jackson was excitement incarnate. He is the type of mythological multi-sport superstar athlete you expect to find only in the pages of fiction. Even Nintendo video game programmers recognized this. Bo performed his impossible-to-conceive feats without the benefit or curse of a thousand camera angles and a 24-hour news cycle. His exploits on the diamond and the field forced you to ask, “Did I just see that? Did that actually happen?” In this splendid definitive biography (the author interviewed 700 people!), Jeff Pearlman beautifully describes the living mythology of Bo Jackson: “The mythology is a paradox—by not quite believing what you witnessed, you remember what you witnessed. It’s permanence via dumbfoundedness.” (5) If you aren’t a child of the 1980s and you don’t know Bo, watch this 30 for 30 trailer to get the vibe of this book:

Here is one of my favorite Bo stories from his baseball career from the pen of one of our greatest baseball writers:

July 17, 1990: Bo Jackson was complaining in the dugout to a bunch of reporters before a game against the Yankees. It was one year after the debut of the famous “Bo Knows” Nike ad campaign, that celebrated Bo Jackson as the first modern athlete to play both professional baseball and football in the same year. But Bo was never impressed with himself. “Everything I do, people tend to exaggerate it,” he moaned. “With me, they want to make things bigger than they are. I’m just another player, you know?”

Then the game began, Royals vs. Yankees at Yankee Stadium.

First time up, Bo hit a 412-foot homer to center field.

Second time up, Bo smashed a 464-foot opposite-field home run. The ball landed more than halfway up the bleacher section, a place that longtime Yankees fans said only home runs by Ruth, Gehrig and Mantle from the left side ever reached. “Colossal,” teammate George Brett would say. “I had to stop and watch.”

Third time up, Yankees manager Stump Merrill walked out to the mound to ask pitcher Andy Hawkins how he intended to get Bo out this time. “I’ll pitch it outside,” Hawkins said. “It better be way outside,” Merrill replied. Hawkins threw it way outside. Jackson poked the ball over the right-field fence for his third homer. The New York crowd went bananas.

Bo never got a fourth time up that day. Instead, Bo separated his shoulder while diving and almost making one of the great catches in baseball history. New Yorkers stood and cheered Bo as he walked off the field. It’s possible that no opposing player ever heard those sorts of cheers at Yankee Stadium.

A month later, Bo returned from the injured list and faced the Mariners at home in Kansas City. His first at bat came in the second inning. The pitcher was Randy Johnson. First pitch, Bo crushed a long fly ball to center field. The ball splashed in the waterfall to the left of the scoreboard. The Royals estimated the homer flew 450 feet.

“You know what?” Royals Hall of Famer Frank White would say almost 20 years later. “I really did play baseball with Superman.”

31. Going to Church in Medieval England / Nicholas Orme

I’m obsessed with all things ecclesiological. So, I was thoroughly enamored with this engrossing historical study of church life in England in the Middle Ages. Orme details the origins of the parish system, drops factoids about medieval church buildings, church staffs, congregational life, the structure of the Lord’s Day, the weekly liturgy, the annual liturgical seasons, and concludes with a chapter on the Protestant Reformation.

“From at least about AD 597, when St. Augustine started his mission to the English at Canterbury, Christianity reached the people of England through churches. The earliest were those known as minsters, staffed by groups of dlergy. These were joined and to a large extent superseded from the tenth century by much greater numbers of local parish churches, run by single clergy. By about the year 1200 England possessed some 9,500 churches of both kinds, forming a network that covered the whole of the country. Until the Toleration Act of 1689 they were places which every adult was expected to attend for baptism, marriage, and burial, to visit for worship on Sundays and festivals, and to support by helping to maintain the buildings and their furnishings. Many thousands of medieval parish churches still survive in their original or altered forms, as do most of their territories or parishes, albeit often with modified boundaries. The following book sets out to tell their story and that of their clergy and congregations from Augustine’s arrival to the final establishment of a Reformed Church of England under Elizabeth I in 1559.” (1)

32. The Physiology of Taste / Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

The subtitle says it all: “Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy.” That might not be your bag, but answer me this: what book has a chapter on the end of the world as well as a section featuring a stern parental warning on the dangers of adolescent coffee consumption?

“I have tried among many other methods to make coffee in a high-pressure pot; but the result was a drink bursting with oils and bitterness, good at its best for scraping out the gullet of a Cossack. Coffee is a much more powerful stimulant than is believed. It is a sacred duty for all the fathers and mothers of the world to forbid coffee to their children with great severity, if they do not wish to produce dried-up little monsters, stunted and old before they are twenty.” (115-116)

33. The Proverbs of Middle-Earth / David Rowe

I reread The Lord of the Rings every year. I’m never not reading it. I just finish and start over at the beginning. I hardly ever read books about LOTR because I’d rather just read LOTR. But this outstanding book by David Rowe is a worthy exception. Rowe gathers up all the proverbial sayings of Middle-earth and meditates on them. It’s genius. It’s delightful. It’s wise. I cannot put it better than the great Peter Kreeft, who wrote the foreword:

“A foreword to a book has two purposes: to tell the prospective reader what the book is about, and to persuade him or her to read it. But let me tell you a secret. Most authors who write forewords to other writers’ books don’t usually read the whole book, only enough of it to know what it’s about and why it’s good enough for them to put their name to. I’ve now been asked to write a foreword or introduction to about 50 books, but have done it for only 5 or 6, because I will do it only out of love, not duty—duty is a desperate fallback when love fails. (This is why the Judaeo-Christian ethic of love is better and stronger than the Kantian ethic of duty, by the way.) If I don’t love the book enough to read the whole thing through for myself, for pleasure, then I won’t try to persuade other people to read it either. The Proverbs of Middle-earth is worth reading, for fun as well as for (mental) profit. Those two are the twin purposes of books: literary critics used to say that a book should ‘please and instruct,’ while an old Arabic proverb says the same thing: ‘Before you shoot the arrow of truth, dip it in honey.’ This book is both a quiver-full of well-pointed arrows, and a large jar of honey. It is a romp, as well as a thorough and deeply penetrating exploration of its subject. Its subject is not only the proverbs of the numerous species and civilizations in Tolkien’s Middle-earth (as its title advertises), but also of the cultures these proverbs express. The short and simple proverbs are the humble little gates into the big, wide, and complex cities of these various cultures. So this book is really an act of anthropology. And while we may think of Tolkien’s inventions as fantastical, this is not fantasy but realism. The cultures Tolkien invented are real—even the non-human species are real. In reading about elves and ents, Gondor and Gimli, we are reading about ourselves. If you want pleasure and profit, arrows of truth dipped in honey, read on and ‘Know thyself!’”

Proverbs are the ships in which wisdom sails. The proverbs of Middle-earth are some of the loveliest leaves on Tolkien’s tree: beautiful and intricate. If you love Tolkien, heed my counsel: “Do not despise the lore that has come down from distant years; for oft it may chance that old wives keep in memory word of things that once were needful for the wise to know.” (LOTR, 365)

34. Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals / Oliver Burkeman

I’ve lived for 2,285 weeks. If I make to 80 years old, the average human lifespan, I only have 1,715 weeks left to live. James reminds us: “Come now, you who say, “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” (James 4:14) Burkeman is not a Christian and he is not writing for Christians. He doesn’t believe in an afterlife. “When people stop believing in an afterlife, everything depends on making the most of this life.” (45) But the strength of the book is found in the humbling and helpful reminder that life is short, death is fast approaching, and the “outrageous brevity” of life ought to cause us to focus less on getting everything done on our to-do lists (a mirage!), and more on reveling in the astonishing gift of life in this world of wonders.

“The world is bursting with wonder, and yet it’s rare the productivity guru who seems to have considered the possibility that the ultimate point of our frenetic doing might be to experience more of that wonder. The world is bursting with wonder, and yet it’s the rare productivity guru who seems to have considered the possibility that the ultimate point of all our frenetic doing might be to experience more of that wonder. At the very least, you might have assumed there’d be a handful of productivity books that take seriously the stark facts about the shortness of life, instead of pretending that we can just ignore the subject. But you’d be wrong. So this book is an attempt to help redress the balance to see if we can’t discover, or recover, some ways of thinking about time that do justice to our real situation: to the outrageous brevity and shimmering possibilities of our four thousand weeks.” (5)

“Productivity is a trap. Becoming more efficient just makes you more rushed, and trying to clear the decks simply makes them fill up again faster. Nobody in the history of humanity has ever achieved ‘work-life balance,’ whatever that might be, and you certainly won’t get there by copying the ‘six things successful people do before 7:00 a.m.’ The day will never arrive when you finally have everything under control— when the flood of emails has been contained; when your to-do lists have stopped getting longer; when you’re meeting all your obligations at work and in your home life; when nobody’s angry with you for missing a deadline or dropping the ball; and when the fully optimized person you’ve become can turn, at long last, to the things life is really supposed to be about. Let’s start by admitting defeat: none of this is ever going to happen. But you know what? That’s excellent news.” (13-14)

“The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. Who considers the power of your anger, and your wrath according to the fear of you? So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:10-12)

35. Redeeming Your Time / Jordan Raynor

If you want a glorious alternative to Four Thousand Weeks, then look no further than this excellent book by Jordan Raynor. He offers, as a follower of Jesus, seven biblical principles for being purposeful present and wildly productive:

  1. Start with the Word
  2. Let Your Yes Be Yes
  3. Dissent from the Kingdom of Noise
  4. Prioritize Your Yeses
  5. Accept Your ‘Unipresence’
  6. Embrace Productive Rest
  7. Eliminate All Hurry

“The solution to our perennial struggle with time management is found in Jesus Christ. How? In two ways. First Jesus offers you peace before you do anything. Nearly every time-management expert says that the path to peace and productivity is found in implementing his or her system. This is what we might call ‘works-based productivity,’ which claims that if you do exercises X, Y, and Z, then you will find peace. This book begins with the opposite premise, in what we might call ‘grace-based productivity,’ which says that through Jesus Christ, we already have peace (Romans 5:1), and we do time-management exercises X, Y, and Z as a response of worship. As Christians, our ultimate source of peace– our ultimate solution to being swamped– is found in the God-man sleeping through the storm. As the apostle Paul said in Ephesians 2:14, ‘[Jesus] Himself is our peace.’

Here’s the second way that Jesus is the solution to our time-management problems: He shows us how God would manage His time. This book accounts for how the Author of time managed His time.” (xviii-xx)

This book is thoroughly Biblical, super practical, and extremely helpful. Pick up a copy, read it carefully and prayerfully, and redeem the time the Lord lends you in 2023.

36. Selected Poems / William Wordsworth

I lived with Wordsworth all year long. I tried in vain to memorize his majestic poem, “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798.” Alas, God is still our home.

“Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home.” (159)

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

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

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

The Best Books I Read This Year (2019)

“There is no substitute for reading,” a wise woman once wrote. “A book is a door and on the other side is somewhere else.” (111) I stepped through several literary doors to somewhere else in 2019 and these were my favorite destinations. There are 36 selections and I thoroughly enjoyed every last one of them.

My Top 12:

1. Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? A Biblical Theology of Leviticus / L. Michael Morales

The best book I read in 2019 is this worshipful biblical-theological feast. Morales unpacks the glories of Leviticus and shows that the central hope of the Pentateuch is fixed upon the Last Adam who ushers His people into the holy presence of God through His perfect atoning sacrifice. Here’s a taste:

“The tabernacle was not merely the earthly house of God, but the way to God– the way of YHWH. Now, keeping in mind the parallels between the garden of Eden and the tabernacle, one may discern readily how the entrance into the holy of holies, ‘the archetypal priestly act,’ comprised a liturgical drama: the annual re-entry into the garden of Eden.

On the Day of Atonement Adam’s eastward expulsion from the garden of Eden was reversed as the high priest, a cultic Adam, ascended westward through the cherubim-woven veil and into the summit of the cultic mountain of God.

At the heart of the Pentateuch, we find an answer to the question Who shall ascend into the mountain of YHWH? The one able to ascend is the Adam-like high priest, with blood, on the Day of Atonement. This is the way YHWH has opened for humanity to dwell in His Presence.” (177)

I’m really looking forward to digging into his new book on the exodus in 2020.

2. Justification, Volumes 1-2 / Michael Horton

What is more precious or paramount than justification? Martin Luther wrote that “justification by itself creates true theologians and therefore it is indispensable in the church and so we must frequently work on it.” (Works, 34: 157) Michael Horton has worked hard to give students of Scripture a true gift in his two volumes on justification. He models how to carefully present and graciously interact with opposing viewpoints, and over the span of nearly 900 pages he positively articulates the glorious truth that sinners are declared right with God by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, all to the glory of God alone. Horton is also a swell writer:

“Justification is a particular gift that we have in Christ alone, received through faith alone. It is a legal decision but not a legal fiction. Unlike the arbitrary decree of the nominalist deity, this justification is the most real event imaginable. Its ground is the covenantal obedience, faithfulness, and merits of God incarnate. This righteousness—the Messiah’s faithfulness—is really imputed or credited to real sinners. We are no longer in the ambit of created substances but of an exchange between persons: rags for a robe, debts for an inheritance, curse for blessing, death for life, condemnation for justification. Everything that we had in Adam, which included our own debts, is transferred to Christ, and everything that He possesses is transferred to His people. Even the faith to embrace Christ comes with, and is strengthened by, the gift of Christ Himself as He is delivered through His word and sacraments.” (1: 268)

3. Wise Counsel: John Newton’s Letters to John Ryland Jr. / John Newton

Imagine being a young and relatively inexperienced Baptist pastor, only to become theological penpals with one of the wisest and godliest ministers in all of England. That’s precisely what happened to John Ryland Jr. when he began his decades-long correspondence with the great Anglican divine John Newton. These letters are brimming with heavenly wisdom and reading them made my heart sing.

“That monster Self has as many heads as Hydra, as many lives as a cat. It’s more than 25 years since I hoped it was fast nailed to the cross, but alas it’s alive still mixing with and spoiling everything I do.” (70)

“I advise you to take a lodging as near as you can to Gethsemane, and to walk daily to Mount Golgotha.” (100)

“We may be very orthodox, skilled in defense of the five points, satisfied that our constitution of church order is the very best in the world, and yet be lamentably cold and formal in the feelings of our hearts towards Him.” (128)

“I am admitted to a throne of grace. I have an Advocate with the Father. And such is the power, care, and compassion of my great Shepherd that, prone as I am to wander, He keeps me from wandering quite away.” (170)

“Accept this hasty line as a token my sympathy. May the Lord bless you both. And may we all so weep as becomes those who expect, ere long, to have all our tears wiped away.” (187)

“The older I grow, the more I am drawn to preach much concerning the person of the Saviour, the atonement of the Saviour, the glory of the Saviour, and the influences of the Holy Spirit.” (232)

“I am a striking proof that the atoning blood of Jesus can cleanse from the most enormous sins, that His grace can soften the hardest heart, subdue the most obstinate habits of evil, and that He is able to save to the uttermost.” (396)

“My memory is nearly gone; but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour.” (401)

4. The Preacher’s Catechism / Lewis Allen

I don’t read to “have read.” I read to survive. This book helped me to survive as a preacher.

“God loves a cheerful preacher. Our ever-blessed, ever-joyful God wants to be proclaimed by those who are brimful of the joy of His grace in Christ brings. He calls us to delight in Him and, out of that joy, to call others to the feast. Preacher and sermon must be filled with gospel joy. ‘With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation’ (Isaiah 12:3). Preachers who taste, teach, and share the joy of the gospel are truly fulfilling their calling as they serve those who listen.” (31)

“Worship the Lord when no one notices you and when the work is unexciting. Remember in those times that God loves you. He sees you and honors all your labors. Remember that in due season you will receive your reward if you don’t give up (Galatians 6:9). Self-pity is as much out of place in Christian ministry as self-promotion is. Worship Him because of who He is, the Lord of heaven and earth. You’re preaching for God. You’re preaching because He has been pleased to call and equip you to preach, and He is pleased as you preach.” (49)

“The Ten Commandments as we’ve been discussing them round our dinner table read like this:

1. Put nothing in the place of Jesus.
2. Make nothing which gets in the way of your love for Jesus.
3. Honour Jesus’ Name in all you do.
4. Seek your soul’s rest in Jesus.
5. Honour your parents, as a love-expression for Jesus.
6. Do not murder, as Jesus brings life, never death.
7. Keep sexually pure, because Jesus has won your body, as well as your heart.
8. Do not steal, because Jesus is enough.
9. Do not lie, because Jesus is the truth, and loves the truth.
10. Don’t set your heart on anything, because Jesus really is enough.” (116)

5. None Greater / Matthew Barrett

The Puritan pastor-theologian Stephen Charnock issued a timely warning in 1681: “Though we cannot comprehend God as He is, we must be careful not to fancy Him to be what He is not.” (Works, 1: 276) Matthew Barrett helps believers to heed this counsel, alerting us to be on guard against vainly imagining God as a being who is just like us, only bigger and better: “There is none greater than God, not because He is merely a greater version of ourselves but because He is nothing like ourselves.” (xvi) This book is a stupendous introduction to the classical understanding of the doctrine of God and it’s chock full of quotes about the divine attributes from the theological “A-Team” (Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas). Barrett is a sure-footed guide to helping you grasp God’s ungraspable greatness. (Psalm 145:3)

6. God Without Passions, A Reader / Ed. Samuel Renihan

Why would you want to read a collection of excerpts written hundreds of years ago by theologians with names like “Wolfgang Musculus,” all of which advocate for the doctrine of divine impassibility? Here’s an insightful answer from Carl Trueman:

“It is arguably the doctrine of God, rather than that of Scripture, which has historically been the place where assaults on orthodoxy have typically started within the church, at least prior to the rise of Higher Criticism. When someone starts to tinker with the doctrine of Scripture, many Christians instinctively feel that something nefarious is being done. But when someone starts to tinker with the doctrine of God, many simply assume that very clever people are engaged in improving the tradition.” (15-16)

Let the reader understand.

7. Theoretical-Practical Theology, Volumes 1-2 / Petrus Van Mastricht

“A man is not so inclined to give up when he sees in panoramas,” writes Robert Kurson. (9) No book in 2019 outside of Scripture did more to give me a panoramic vision of God than these beautiful volumes published by Reformation Heritage Books. Van Mastricht begins every chapter with exegesis and ends every chapter in application. It’s all theological gold.

“The infinite greatness of God supplies an argument for us to make Him great with infinite praises (Luke 1:46). For He is (1) great, and therefore, greatly to be praised. Indeed, He is (2) most great, infinitely great: ‘and His greatness is unsearchable.’ (Ps. 145:3) And also (3) He is the only One who is such (Isa. 40:12; 15, 17). Indeed, (4) great in so many ways; great, in fact, in all ways: in His essence, His presence, His duration, His wisdom, His strength and power, His grace and mercy (Ps. 147:5). And in this greatness He is (5) above the gods, whether earthly, such as kings and magistrates, or heavenly (at lease in the opinion of the pagans), the false gods; and above all gods (2 Chron. 2:5; Ps. 135:5).

For if, then we celebrate the sun for its great greatness, and the heavens for their greater greatness, why would we not celebrate God for His greatest greatness, for His infinite greatness?

Let us therefore make Him great (1) in our heart (Ps. 103:1; Luke 1:46), by always thinking of Him great things, indeed the greatest of things, for He is the One who is infinitely greater than all our thoughts (Eph. 3:20); by esteeming as great, indeed, as most great, both Him and all that is His– His presence, favor, promises, worship– in such a way that we approach Him and all things of His with an infinite (that is, an insatiable) appetite and desire (Ps. 84:1-2).

(2) In our mouth, that with a great voice, in the presence of others, we celebrate Him who is infinitely great (Ps. 103:8), indeed that we call others to celebrate Him with us (Ps. 103:20-22).

Finally, (3) in our work, that we do it (a) with profound reverence for the infinite deity, and with fear of offending Him, even in the least things, because He is the most great King (Mal. 1:14; Deut. 10:17; Neh. 1:5; Dan. 9:4). (b) By a careful zeal for obeying and pleasing Him (2 Cor. 5:9). (c) By an infinite desire or concern for possessing and enjoying Him (Ps. 73:25).” (2: 190)

8. The Son Who Learned Obedience / D. Glenn Butner

In the summer of 2016, an evangelical donnybrook erupted online over the doctrine of the Trinity, particularly relating to what is called “eternal functional subordination” (EFS) or “eternal relational authority-submission” (ERAS) or “eternal subordination of the Son” (ESS). In this wise book, Butner calmly clarifies the arguments on both sides, analyzes key texts like 1 Corinthians 15:28, demonstrates the doctrinal implications of EFS/ERAS/ESS, and nimbly expounds pro-Nicene teaching, inseparable operations, and dyothelite Christology. He concludes:

“The claim that the Son eternally submits to the Father is not explicitly taught in the Bible, and its acceptance offers an inferior second-order explanation of scriptural patterns, undermines rational explanations of Christology, Soteriology, and the doctrine of God, deviates from tradition, and provides little conceptual clarity. Simply put, theologians ought to stop claiming that the Son eternally submits to the Father.” (196)

I agree.

9. Enjoying God / Tim Chester

Man does not live on polemics alone. And so I’m thankful that Chester penned this richly devotional meditation on the Triune God. He shows how to enjoy God in the messiness of life in a fallen world. It’s like John Owen’s Communion with God, but for dummies. It’s tremendous.

“Each day reflect on how God is being kind to you. And think of Jesus as the Father’s kindness in person. ‘But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared,’ says Paul in Titus 3:4-5, ‘He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of His mercy.’ The Father’s kindness ‘appeared’ and it looks like Jesus. If you want to see the kindness of God, then look at the life and death of Jesus. This is the measure of God’s kindness. This is divine kindness clothed in human flesh. This is His kindness to you.” (64)

10. The Sacrifice of Praise / Herman Bavinck

2019 was a spectacular year for Bavinck devotees. This, and this, and this (!!!!) all came hot off the press. But after reading a ton of Herman this year, I loved this one most of all. The book takes its title from Hebrews 13:15 and focuses on the Christian’s delightful and daunting duty of confessing Jesus Christ as Lord before God and the world. For me, Chapter 9 on the “Opposition to Confession” was worth the price of the book:

“Christ was not ashamed of us at His incarnation. To be sure, He had many reasons to be. He Himself was the firstborn of the Father, the radiance of the Father’s glory and the exact image of His being– who thought it not robbery to be equal with God (John 3:16; 10:30; 17:5; Heb. 1:3; Col. 1:15; Phil. 2:6).

We were laden with guilt, unclean from head to toe, and subject to decay (Ps. 38:4; Rom. 8:20-21), yet He was not ashamed to call us His brothers (Heb. 2:11). He was not ashamed of us before God or before the holy angels (Mark 8:38).

He took on our flesh and blood, assumed our nature, and became like us in everything apart from sin. In Christ, even God was not ashamed to be called our God (Heb. 11:16).

Therefore, He will likewise not be ashamed of us in the day of His future. To be sure, at that time He will come again not as a servant but as Lord, not to suffer but to be glorified, not to a cross but with a crown (Rev. 6:2; 19:16).

Nevertheless, He will not be ashamed of us, for the One who ascended far above the heavens is the same One who descended to the lowest parts of the earth. The One who judges is the Son of Man who once came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10).

Our Judge is our Savior; He never forgets nor forsakes His people (Deut. 31:6; Isa. 33:22). ‘So everyone who acknowledges Me before men, I also will acknowledge before My Father who is in heaven’ (Matt. 10:32).

In full view of the whole world so that all of creation may hear it, He will publicly stand up for His faithful confessors. However despised they may have been in this world, Christ will take their name upon His lips and proclaim it to every ear that they are His– the ones whom He has bought with His own blood and of whom no power in the world or in Hell will be able to rob Him (Rom. 8:38-39).

As Christ says, so it will be. His judgment will apply to the whole of creation. His confession will concern all creation. No one will be able to criticize it. No one will dare to oppose it. His judgment will be exalted above all criticism and will stand high above the judgment of all men and devils. The heavens and the earth and Hell and all creation will eternally submit to it.

Of greater importance than all of this is that the Father will rest in this work of His Son (Heb. 4:9-10). Just as after creation God saw all that He had made and, behold, it was very good, in that way at the end of days He will look down with divine pleasure upon the great work of redemption that Christ accomplished (Gen. 1:31).

When the church without spot or wrinkle is set before Him, and the perfected kingdom has been given to Him, then the Father will adopt all of the redeemed of the Son as His children, inviting them to participate in His communion and enjoy His presence (Eph. 5:25-27; Rev. 21:2, 7).

The public confession on behalf of believers by Christ before His Father, who is in heaven, will be the guarantee of their eternal salvation and glory (Matt. 10:32).” (80-81)


11. Matthew, Disciple and Scribe / Patrick Schreiner

The Gospel according to Matthew was the first book of the Bible I ever read as a non-Christian and then as a new Christian. So Matthew is and will always be the First Gospel for me. In his latest book, Dr. Schreiner helped me see more of the glory and grace of the Savior as He is revealed in the First Gospel. I am certain he will help you too.

“The magi have come to worship Jesus, but Jerusalem, the scribes, and Herod the king are troubled when they hear that a new king has appeared on the scene. As Matthew indicated in the genealogy, Jesus is not only the King of the Jews but now also the King of the whole world. Jesus both fulfills the old covenant and inaugurates the new. The star is in the east because the King has come to welcome those ‘east of Eden’ who were cast out so long ago (cf. Gen. 3:24; 4:16).” (80)


12. Seeing Green / Tilly Dillehay

Envy, that green-eyed monster, is the art of counting the other fellow’s blessings instead of your own. Tilly Dillehay has written an excellent book on what envy is, what envy has to do with glory, how envy robs your joy, and how to put envy to death by the Spirit.

“There’s nothing more natural than envy: it belongs to the debased mind of a natural man, not to a mind that has been transformed supernaturally by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 1:28-31; James 3:14-16).” (18)

“Envy is more interested in getting rid of the other person’s advantage than in acquiring it for itself. In a complete demonic reverse of logic, the envious person believes that it would be better for no one to have it than for another person to have it while he himself goes without.” (41)

“Compared to what’s coming, this present age is breathtakingly short. It’s an eye-blink’s worth of prosperity (cf. 1 Peter 1:4). Envying your neighbor’s lifestyle is an extreme form of tunnel vision.” (105)

Three Honorable Mentions:

Best Biblical Commentary: Philippians (Mentor) / Matthew S. Harmon

The best commentary I read this year was Harmon’s on Philippians. It has everything you’d want: Exegetical precision, doxological theology, pastoral application, and lucid brevity. And it’s also Christ-centered through and through: “God calls us in Christ, and to Christ. As our life begins in Him (1 Cor. 1:30), it continues in and because of Him (John 15:1) and will be consummated in Him (Col. 1:28). The Christian life is a Christ-centered, Christ-focused, Christ-enabled life.” (359)

Best Audiobook: Beloved / Toni Morrison

I first encountered Morrison’s searching novels in college. When she passed away in August, I decided it was time to reread Beloved. Hearing her read this haunting story in her own voice was an experience I’ll never forget. 

Best New Edition of an Old Classic: The Book of Common Prayer (2019) / ARCNA

The Anglican Church in North America published a new edition of the BCP. You can read it all online here for free. I picked up the leather edition and it’s outstanding. If you’re unfamiliar with the BCP, Thomas Cranmer’s collects are the best place to start:

Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and the comfort of your holy Word we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of this world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

O heavenly Father, you have filled the world with beauty: Open our eyes to behold your gracious hand in all your works; that, rejoicing in your whole creation, we may learn to serve you with gladness; for the sake of him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Eternal God, in whose perfect kingdom no sword is drawn but the sword of righteousness, no strength known but the strength of love: So mightily spread abroad your Spirit, that all peoples may be gathered under the banner of the Prince of Peace; to whom be dominion and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

Almighty God, you sit on your throne giving righteous judgment: We humbly ask you to bless all courts of justice and all magistrates in this land; give them a spirit of wisdom and understanding, that fearing no power but yours alone, they may discern the truth and impartially administer the law; through him who shall come to be our Judge, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

O God, almighty and merciful, you heal the broken-hearted, and turn the sadness of the sorrowful to joy, Let your fatherly goodness be upon all whom you have made. Remember in pity all those who are this day destitute, homeless, elderly, infirm, or forgotten. Bless the multitude of your poor. Lift up those who are cast down. Mightily befriend innocent sufferers, and sanctify to them the endurance of their wrongs. Cheer with hope all who are discouraged and downcast, and by your heavenly grace preserve from falling those whose poverty tempts them to sin. Though they be troubled on every side, suffer them not to be distressed; though they are perplexed, save them from despair. Grant this, O Lord, for the love of him who for our sakes became poor, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

O God, grant that we may desire you, and desiring you seek you, and seeking you find you, and finding you be satisfied in you for ever. Amen.

Best Wodehouse: The Inimitable Jeeves

No year is complete for me without spending time with Bertie and Jeeves. Wodehouse is a wordsmith and he never disappoints.

“Right from the first day Jeeves came to me, I have looked on him as a sort of guide, philosopher, and friend.” (10)
“You were always a fat-headed worm without any soul, weren’t you?” (12)
“I’ve always said, and I always shall say, that for sheer brains, Jeeves, you stand alone. All the other great thinkers of the age are simply in the crowd, watching you go by.” (22)
“At that moment, the gong sounded, and the genial host came tumbling downstairs like the delivery of a ton of coals.” (25)
“I came upon on young Bingo dancing like an untamed gazelle.” (31)
“The manager was a whiskered cove who looked like a bandit.” (34)
“I don’t pretend to be Sherlock Holmes or anything of that order, but the moment I looked at her I said to myself, ‘The girl plays the organ in a village church!'” (36)
“I turned round and Jeeves shied like a startled mustang.” (36)
“Dash it, a fellow must call his soul his own. You can’t be a serf to your valet.” (37)
“Relief was surging over me in great chunks by now.” (47) 

My Next 12:

13. Paris in the Present Tense / Mark Helprin

A few years ago, Andy Crouch wrote a short piece that I’ve returned to again and again because we both share a love for the writings of Mark Helprin: “I know no other writer who can craft such moving sentences in such simple words. Helprin’s language rarely calls attention to itself, but it never fails to make you pay deeper attention to the world and your own life.” I feel the same way about Helprin’s latest novel about an old man named Jules who hears music everywhere, whether he is walking down a busy Parisian street, or sitting aboard a commercial airliner awaiting liftoff.

“Music even of this kind was everywhere the bearer of messages from an unreachable but always beckoning place out of which perfection spilled easily and without limit. In his deepest despair — when his wife died, when his only grandchild was diagnosed with leukemia (the reason he had come to America) — Jules Lacour might still hear music arising from unexpected quarters: from the rhythms of steel wheels on train tracks, though this was now rare in France after the joints in the rails had been bridged by welds; from the clickings of elevators moving in their shafts; the unpredictable harmonies of traffic; wind in the trees; the workings of machines; and water flowing, falling, or surging in waves. Even in desperation, music would sound as if from nothing, and wake him to life. He was a cellist, and could never have been anything else. The world had courage, faith, beauty, and love, and it had music, which, although not merely an abstraction, was equal to the greatest abstractions and principles— its power to lift, clarify, and carry the soul forever unmatched.” (15-16)

“We’ve become addicted to praise. At an early age we look not to the music but to the teacher’s approval, and later to the applause of the audience, the reviewer’s sentence or two, or perhaps, eventually, to the world tour, posters in front of the concert hall, the wide-eyes of hotel clerks and managers as fame knocks them back like a wave. And as you seek approval, praise, position, wealth, and fame, the music becomes the means rather than the end… Grocery clerks, railroad workers, farmers, private soldiers, and street cleaners expect neither praise nor fame. Their reward comes quietly as they pass through life unrecognized. Learn to live like them. The music is all you need.” (348-349)

There are beauties here which pierce like swords and burn like cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart. Some readers will know that this is good news, good beyond hope.

14. Fahrenheit 451 / Ray Bradbury

I only vaguely recall some of those mandatory summer reading books I breezed through back in high school. So I reread this classic by Bradbury that was published in 1953. And guess what? It sounds just like 2019.

“Peace, Montag. Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change. Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy. Any man who can take a TV wall apart and put it back together again, and most men can nowadays, is happier than any man who tries to slide-rule, measure, and equate the universe, which just won’t be measured or equated without making man feel bestial and lonely. I know, I’ve tried it; to hell with it. So bring on your clubs and parties, your acrobats and magicians, your dare-devils, jet cars, motorcycle helicopters, your sex and heroin, more of everything to do with automatic reflex. If the drama is bad, if the film says nothing, if the play is hollow, sting me with the theremin, loudly. I’ll think I’m responding to the play, when it’s only a tactile reaction to vibration. But I don’t care. I just like solid entertainment. I must be going. Lecture’s over. I hope I’ve clarified things. The important thing for you to remember, Montag, is we’re the Happiness Boys, the Dixie Duo, you and I and the others. We stand against the small tide of those who want to make everyone unhappy with conflicting theory and thought. We have our fingers in the dyke. Hold steady. Don’t let the torrent of melancholy and drear philosophy drown our world. We depend on you.” (80-81)

15. The Spy and the Traitor / Ben Macintyre

This nerve-wracking read wins the coveted “most-likely-book-to-soon-be-made-into-a-movie-or-miniseries-on-Netflix Award.” If you like Cold War international intrigue and spy fiction, you will totally dig this true and nerve-wracking Cold War espionage story.

16. Underland: A Deep Time Journey / Robert Macfarlane

Special grace is encircled by common grace. There’s a ton we can learn from others who are made in God’s image but who don’t share a Christian view of reality. Few living writers help me to see more wonder in this God-spoke world than Robert Macfarlane. Even the way he describes a simple stroll through the woods can take your breath away. Imagine being able to write a paragraph like this:

“We almost pass it by. Late afternoon, late summer: harvest time in the mountains to the north of the Carso. Smell of woodsmoke, meadow. Wooden cabins with steep eaves speaking of heavy winter snowfall. An old man sitting in a chair drawn up to a western gable end, eyes closed, catching the last of the sun. Long-handled scythes leaning against walls, cut grass on the blades. Cyclamens in the shade, purple fungi poking through leaf litter under the beeches. Apple trees here and there, hit by small yellow fruit. The land’s surface dimpled with grassed-in sinkholes. It is one of the most peaceful landscapes through which I have ever walked. Then we follow, because we are curious as to where it leads, a side path that turns away from the open ground of meadows and cabins, curving gently through beech and oak, and then angling up, the trees thinning in number but growing in height, poplars now, their leaves hissing in the wind. We walk the path in innocence because we do not know what is at its end, and through the poplars we can see golden reefs of cloud massing out over the sea, black on their undersides. The sun is warm on our faces, the rich smell of the meadow grass is thickening to rank — and then there is the first of the marks, cut deeply into the pale bark, and there is the edge of the chasm.” (213)

Macfarlane beckons you to pause and pay attention to what you can see in all that surrounds you. And in the glorious second chapter of Underland, he summons you to stare in amazement at that which you cannot see (or hear!):  dark matter, neutrinos, and WIMPS (weakly interacting massive particles).

“Dark matter is fundamental to everything in the universe; it anchors all structures together. Without dark matter, super-clusters, galaxies, planets, humans, fleas and bacilli would not exist. Presently, the particle thought most likely to be the constituent of dark matter is known wryly as a WIMP —a weakly interacting massive particle. What we know of WIMPs suggests that they are heavy (up to more than a thousand times the weight of a proton), and that they were created in sufficiently vast quantities in the seconds after the birth of the universe to account for the missing mass. WIMPs — like neutrinos, nicknamed ‘ghost particles’ — have scant regard for the world of baryonic matter.

WIMPs traverse our livers, skulls and guts in their trillions each second. Neutrinos fly through the Earth’s crust, mantle and solid iron-nickel core without touching a single atom as they go. To these subatomic particles, we are the ghosts and ours the shadow-world, made at most of a diaphanous webwork. The great challenge faced by physicists has been how to compel such elusive particles to interact with experiments; how to weave a net that might catch these quick fish. One of the solutions has been to go underground.

Subterranean laboratories have been established around the world, dedicated to the detection of evidence that a WIMP or a neutrino has briefly interacted with baryonic matter. The experiments under way in these deep-sunk laboratories are all forms of ghost hunting, and they are located far underground because the surrounding rock shields the experiments from what physicists call ‘noise’.

Noise is the trundle of everyday particles through the air, the din of the ordinary atomic world going about its business. Radioactivity is deafening noise. Cosmic-ray muons are noise. If you wish to listen for sounds so faint they may not exist at all, you can’t have someone playing the drums in your ear. To hear the breath of the birth of the universe, you must come below ground to what are, experimentally speaking, among the quietest places in the universe.” (57, 58-59)

For by Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things (including dark matter and WIMPS) were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things (including neutrinos) hold together. I’m glad I read this book. I’m thankful I didn’t pass it by.

17. The Body: A Guide For Occupants / Bill Bryson

“As we age, we lose our sense of the intimate otherness of things; we allow habit to displace awe, inevitability to banish delight; we grow into adulthood and put away childish things.”(88)

One book that helped reinvigorate my awe at the wonder of the human body is the latest book by Bill Bryson. Here are some of the mind-blowing factoids I discovered: 

“That is unquestionably the most astounding thing about us– that we are just a collection of inert components, the same stuff you would find in a pile of dirt.” (4)

“You blink fourteen thousand times a day– so much that your eyes are shut for twenty-tree minutes of every waking day. Yet you never have to think about it, because every second of every day your body undertakes a literally unquantifiable number of tasks– a quadrillion, a nonillion, a quindecillion, a vigintillion (these are actual measures), at all events some number vastly beyond imagining– without requiring an instant of your attention.” (4-5)

“In the second of so since you started this sentence, your body has made a million red blood cells.” (5)

“Altogether it takes 7 billion billion billion (that’s 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, or 7 octillion) atoms to make you.” (5)

“Unpacked, you are positively enormous. Your lungs, smoothed out, would cover a tennis court, and the airways within them would stretch nearly from coast to coast. The length of all your blood vessels would take you two and a half times around Earth.” (5)

“You have a meter of DNA packed into every cell, and so many cells that if you formed all the DNA in your body into a single strand, it would stretch ten billion miles, to beyond Pluto. Think of it: there is enough of you to leave the solar system.” (5)

“You would need twenty billion strands of DNA laid side by side to make the width of the finest human hair.”

“All humans share 99.9 percent of their DNA, and yet no two humans are alike. My DNA and your DNA will differ in three to four million places, which is a small proportion of the total but enough to make a lot of difference between us.” (7)

“The body is often likened to a machine, but it is so much more than that. It works twenty-four hears a day for decades without (for the most part) needing regular servicing or the installation of spare parts, runs on water and a few organic compounds, is soft and rather lovely, is accommodatingly mobile and pliant, reproduces itself with enthusiasm, makes jokes, feels affection, appreciates a red sunset and a cooling breeze. How many machines do you know that can do any of that? There is no question about it. You are truly a wonder. But then so, it must be said, is an earthworm.” (8)

“The skin consists of an inner layer called the dermis and an outer epidermis. The outermost surface of the epidermis, called the stratum corneum, is made up entirely of dead cells. It is an arresting thought that all that makes you lovely is deceased. Where body meets air, we are all cadavers. These outer skin cells are replaced every month. We shed skin copiously, almost carelessly: some twenty-five thousand flakes a minute, over a million pieces every hour. Run a finger along a dusty shelf, and you are in large part clearing a path through fragments of your former self. Silently and remorselessly we turn to dust.” (11-12)

I could keep going but, alas, my fingers are tired of typing. There are chapters on the brain, the heart and blood, the immune system, the lungs, the skeleton, skin and hair, nerves and pain, and conception and birth. I found it interesting that while the author writes from a secular evolutionary perspective, he repeatedly uses the same word over and over to describe human beings: “miracle.” (4, 9, 84, 113, 194, 206, 249, 293, 299)

18. Edison / Edmund Morris

Just when I was feeling pretty productive, I came across the following zinger in this wonderful new biography of the famous inventor Thomas Edison:

“Edison averaged one patent for every ten to twelve days of his adult life. This does not include inventions, such as the X-ray fluoroscope, that he chose to leave patent-free.” (5, #fn 1)


19. Eyes in the Sky: The Secret Rise of Gorgon Stare and How It Will Watch Us All / Arthur Holland Michel

Fallen man apes to be like God. We long for omniscience and omnipresence. We yearn to know all and see all. And technology is the means to this end. C.S. Lewis wisely replied in a letter to Arthur C. Clarke on Dec. 7, 1943: “A race devoted to the increase of its own power by technology with complete indifference to ethics does seem to me a cancer in the universe.” (Letters, 2: 594) Consider, for instance, both the security benefits and the ethical concerns involved in wide-area drone surveillance. “In one exercise off the Scottish coast in 2016, a solitary albatross-sized catapult-launched surveillance drone equipped with a wide-area camera was able to peruse every square inch of an area the size of Wales in just 55 hours.” (91) Before reading this bracing book, I tended to think of drone surveillance as something that happened “over there.”

But Holland Michel makes clear that it’s already happening “over here.” It’s not just some Will Smith conspiracy movie. WAMI (Wide Angle Motion Imagery) and Gorgon Stare allow for something like “closed-circuit television on steroids” across city-sized areas. Earlier versions of this technology had 1,854,296,064 pixels, enough imaging power to spot an object six inches wide from an altitude of 25,000 feet in a frame twice the width of Manhattan.

As astounding as this is, the surveillance capabilities have dramatically improved. But here is the most disturbing Orwellian factoid from this book: the airspace over the United States of America falls into the same legal category as other public spaces like sidewalks, roads, parks, and beaches. Therefore, just as it isn’t illegal to take photographs of private property, or private citizens, from public space, in the same way, we have no expectation of privacy from above.

20. Butcher’s Crossing / John Williams

This may be the best novel I’ve ever read about the American West. Spectacularly written by an author who died as a literary nobody but who is now considered by many to be one of the greatest writers of the last 100 years. 

21. Over Sea, Under Stone / Susan Cooper

I’m a latecomer to the “Dark is Rising” series. Apparently they’ve been hugely popular for decades. I’d never even heard of these stories prior to their re-release earlier this year. The opening tale 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.

This story has it all: a glorious setting, a frightening villain, a strong emphasis on the good triumphing over the evil through sacrifice, prophecy and mystery, pain and loss, boys acting bravely, girls acting brilliantly, adventure galore, and old manuscripts written in Latin translated below by an Indiana Jones-like Uncle:

“The darkness draws toward Cornwall, and the long ships creep to our shore, and the battle is near which must lead to final defeat and the end of all that we have known. No guardian for the grail is left. And to save my life, and the secret of the grail that only its guardian knows, I must flee even as Bedwin the strange knight fled. But in all the land of Logres no haven remains, so that I must cross the sea to the land where, they say, Cornishmen have fled whenever terror comes. But the grail may not leave this land, but must wait the Pendragon, till the day comes. So therefore, I trust it to this land, over sea and under stone, and I mark here the signs by which the proper man in the proper place, may know where it lies: the signs that wax and wane but do not die. The secret of its charge I may not write, but carry unspoken to my grave. Yet the man who finds the grail and has other words from me will know, by both, the secret for himself. And for him is the charge, the promise and the proof, and in his day the Pendragon shall come again. And that day shall see a new Logres, with evil cast out; when the old world shall appear no more than a dream.” (63)

I’m planning on reading the entire series aloud to the Roark kiddos in 2020. 

22. Norco ’80 / Peter Houlahan

This book is intense. It’s got guns, and bullets, and Dispensational eschatology, and more guns, and the most spectacular bank robbery in American history. If that sounds like your bag, then have at it.

23. Working / Robert Caro

Last year I devoured Caro’s massive biography of Robert Moses. This year I read this collection of shorter pieces covering his approach to research, his writing process, and his interview tricks of the trade. Caro is a real gem. He’s 84 years old and he’s spent his entire adult life producing incredibly well-written biographies of two powerful, larger-than-life men: Robert Moses and Lyndon B. Johnson. He’s won a Pulitzer Prize and he’s published millions of words. How does he do it?

“When I decided to write a book, I determined to do something to slow myself down, to not write until I had thought things through. That was why I resolved to write my first drafts in longhand, slowest of the various means of committing thoughts to paper, before I started doing later drafts on the typewriter; that is why I still do my first few drafts in longhand today; that is why, even now that typewriters have been replaced by computers, I still stick to my Smith-Corona Electra 210. And yet, even thus slowed down, I still, when I’m writing, set myself the goal of a minimum of a thousand words a day, and, as a chart I keep on my closet door attests, most days meet it.” (xii)

I love his advice about interviewing others:

“Silence is the weapon, silence and people’s need to fill it– as long as the person isn’t you, the interviewer. Two of fiction’s greatest interviewers– Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret and John le Carre’s George Smiley– have little devices they use to keep themselves from talking, and let silence do its work. Maigret cleans his ever-present pipe, tapping it gently on his desk and then scraping it out until the witness breaks down and talks. Smiley takes off his eyeglsses and polishes them with the thick end of his necktie. As for myself, I have less class. When I’m waiting for the person I’m interviewing to break a silence by giving me a piece of information I want, I write ‘SU’ (for Shut Up!) in my notebook. If anyone were ever to look through my notebooks, he would find a lot of ‘SUs’ there.” (137)

24. Digital Minimalism / Cal Newport

I was helped a bunch by Newport’s previous book Deep Work. It caused me to reevaluate how I structure my work week. As the title indicates, the main thrust of Newport’s newest book is this: the key to thriving in our high-tech world is to spend much less time using technology. “Less can be more in our relationship with digital tools.” (xv) Newport helped me reconsider how I use my iPhone. As a result my smartphone has been kind of a dumbphone for quite a while. No Internet, no social media. I use my phone the following activities: calls, texts, maps, and audio (music/podcasts/books). “Declaring freedom from your smartphone is probably the most serious step you can take toward embracing the attention resistance. This follows because smartphones are the preferred Trojan horse of the digital attention economy.” (246) This would be a fantastic book to pick up and read in January and prayerfully consider how 2020 might be a different kind of year, with more time spent with people and enjoying God’s creation, and less time staring at screens.

My Final 12:

25. The Ten Commandments / Thomas Watson

I preached through Exodus this year and we spent several weeks working through the Ten Commandments as a church. Thomas Watson was at my side all the way. I’ve said before that Watson is by far the most Tweetable of all the Puritans. His comments on the Ten Words didn’t disappoint. Here’s a snippet of his thoughts on the prologue to the Decalogue (Ex. 20:1-2):

“Great was the work of creation, but greater was the work of redemption. Great wisdom was seen in making us,—but more miraculous wisdom in saving us. Great power was seen in bringing us out of nothing,—but greater power in helping us when we were worse than nothing. It cost more to redeem us than to create us. In the creation there was but ‘speaking a word,’ (Ps. 148:5). In the redeeming us, there was shedding of blood (1 Pet. 1:19). The creation was the work of God’s fingers (Ps. 8:3); redemption was the work of His arm (Luke 1:5). In the creation, God gave us ourselves; in the redemption, He gave us Himself. By creation, we have a life in Adam; by redemption, we have a life in Christ (Col. 3:3). By creation, we had a right to an earthly paradise; by redemption, we have a title to an heavenly kingdom.” (96)

26. Atomic Habits / James Clear

I’ll revisit this book again and again. Clear explains how habits form, how to kill bad habits, and how to cultivate good ones.

“All big things come from small beginnings. The seed of every habit is a single, tiny decision. But as that decision is repeated, a habit sprouts and grows stronger. Roots entrench themselves and branches grow. The task of breaking a bad habit is like uprooting a powerful oak within us. And the task of building a good habit is like cultivating a delicate flower one day at a time.” (22)

27. Before You Open Your Bible / Matt Smethurst

Reading this book will help you read the Book. I’ve recently given away dozens of copies of this jewel to members of our church as a way of encouraging prayerful, faithful, careful, and joyful Bible reading in 2020.

“Until Jesus splits the skies in blazing glory and our faith becomes sight, we must live in the age of the ear as we await the age of the eye. So ‘for now,’ Augustine said sixteen centuries ago, ‘treat the Scripture of God as the face of God. Melt in its presence.’ And as Spurgeon put it, ‘To me the Bible is not God, but it is God’s voice, and I do not hear it without awe.’ Your Bible is a bottomless treasure chest of beauty and wonder, strength and joy. May you approach it for the rest of your days as if that’s true, because it is.” (79)

28. Piercing Heaven: Prayers of the Puritans / Robert Elmer

I received my first copy of The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions nearly twenty years ago. It has been a constant companion ever since. I’ve wondered if anyone was going to get around to publishing some more Puritan. This new volume of prayers is a feast. Warm-hearted, Scriptural, and ardent.

29. Dark Clouds Deep Mercy / Mark Vroegop

I was taught the ACTS model of prayer as a new believer: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered how much of the Bible, especially the Psalms, speaks in the language of lament. One-third of the prayers in the Psalms are prayers of lament. After the loss of a stillborn daughter, Mark Vroegop and his wife found solace in these Scriptures. “The Bible gave voice to my pain and I discovered a minor-key language for my suffering: lament.” (17) Vroegop walks through several Psalms of lament (77, 10, 22, and 13) and provides examples of pastoral prayers of lament that serve as models for corporate prayer.

“Lament stands in the gap between pain and promise.” (26)
“Lament is a prayer in pain that leads to trust.” (28)“Pain has a way of awakening us to our need for God’s help.” (60)
“Hope springs from truth rehearsed.” (119)
“Lament helps us interpret pain through the lens of God’s character and his ultimate mercy. The power of lament is the opportunity to express our sorrow we feel while also anchoring our hearts in the truth we believe.” (119)
“Lament is the language of a people who know the whole story—the gospel story” (150).

This book is a helpful guide to voice our laments to the Lord until that glorious day comes when sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

30. The Creaking On The Stairs / Mez McConnell

One of the reasons to lament is because of the pervasiveness of child abuse in this fallen world. In The Creaking on the Stairs, Mez shares not only about the abuse he endured as a child at the hands of his own mother but he also powerfully shares the good news of Jesus Christ.

“I am conflicted even further when I think about my own family today, almost three decades after she beat me for the last time. My wife of 20 years lies next to me soundly sleeping. My teenage girls are in their rooms. Because of the scars of my childhood, they have never known violence in our home. Because of the horrors of my pain, they have never known cigarette burns on pale, skinny arms. Because of the nightmare of systematic abuse I faced, they have never spent endless lonely nights in locked cupboards without food and clothing. Because of my shame, they have never known the horrors of being stripped and mocked in front of drunken strangers. Because of my humiliations, they have never known hunger so deep they’ve been forced to eat their own faeces. Because of the extreme violence of my upbringing, they’ve never been beaten with poles and sticks. Because of the trauma of my childhood, they’ve never been knocked unconscious for failing to wash a dish properly. Ironically, because of ‘her’, my own children have never known the horrors of deeply psychological and traumatic abuse. Of course, there is another reason they have never known and experienced these things. They’ve never known these things because I know Jesus.”

Rosaria Butterfield puts it well: “This is the most disturbing book that I have ever read. And I cannot recommend it highly enough.”

31. Mystic River / Dennis Lehane

No novel troubled me more in 2019 than this one. It’s a tragic story that is beyond sad. Lehane writes in the minor key but he makes it all sound so beautiful.

“When Garret Anderson blooped a dying sigh of a single into shallow right and ended Pedro’s bid for a no-hitter, any excitement that had been left in the 8-0 game floated out past the bleachers, and Dave found himself paying more attention to the lights and the fans and Anaheim Stadium itself than to the actual game. He watched the faces in the bleachers most—the disgust and defeated fatigue, the fans looking like they were taking the loss more personally than the guys in the dugout. And maybe they were. For some of them, Dave figured, this was the only game they’d attend this year. They’d brought the kids, the wife, walked out of their homes into the early California evening with coolers for the tailgate party and five thirty-dollar tickets so they could sit in the cheap seats and put twenty-five-dollar caps on their kids’ heads, eat six-dollar rat burgers and $4.50 hot dogs, watered-down Pepsi and sticky ice cream bars that melted into the hairs of their wrists. They came to be elated and uplifted, Dave knew, raised up out of their lives by the rare spectacle of victory. That’s why arenas and ballparks felt like cathedrals—buzzing with light and murmured prayers and forty thousand hearts all beating the drum of the same collective hope. Win for me. Win for my kids. Win for my marriage so I can carry your winning back to the car with me and sit in the glow of it with my family as we drive back toward our otherwise winless lives. Win for me. Win. Win. Win. But when the team lost, that collective hope crumbled into shards and any illusion of unity you’d felt with your fellow parishioners went with it. Your team had failed you and served only to remind you that usually when you tried, you lost. When you hoped, hope died. And you sat there in the debris of cellophane wrappers and popcorn and soft, soggy drink cups, dumped back into the numb wreckage of your life, facing a long dark walk back through a long dark parking lot with hordes of drunk, angry strangers, a silent wife tallying up your latest failure, and three cranky kids. All so you could get in your car and drive back to your home, the very place from which this cathedral had promised to transport you.” (50-51)

This book isn’t for the faint of heart. But Lehane shows in vivid relief more than any novel I’ve ever read the haunting and lasting effects of the abuse of authority, especially the abuse of a child.

“I will come home to you, Celeste. We will make that good life. We will. And then, I promise, no more lies. No more secrets. But I think I need to tell this one last lie, the worst lie of my lying life, because I can’t tell the worst truth of my life.” (365)

32. The Moon Is Always Round / Jonathan Gibson

This was not only the best children’s book I read all year; it’s one of the best children’s books I’ve ever read. How do you teach your children about the goodness of God when you walk with them through the valley of the shadow of death? You show them that just as the moon is always round, our God is always good. What a truth to believe and to pass along to our children.

P.S.: Andrew Wilson’s Sophie and the Heidelberg Cat is also spectacular!

33. Superheroes Can’t Save You / Todd Miles

I imagine most of the folks in our congregations, especially our young people, wouldn’t have a clue how to articulate the dangers of docetism, liberalism, modalism, Arianism, adoptionism, Apollinarianism, or Eutychianism. In fact, most pastors I know couldn’t explain all of these aberrant teachings and ancient Christological heresies. But I bet lots of us could say a thing or two about Superman, Batman, Ant-Man, Thor, Green Lantern, Hulk, and Spider-Man.

Enter Todd Miles. He used to be a nuclear scientist, but now he’s a theology professor at Western Seminary in Portland. He loves Jesus and His Word and he’s had a lifelong passion for comic books. In this book, he takes the superheroes that we know and uses them as a way of explaining false understandings of who Jesus is. It’s brilliant. It’s like Chalcedon meets Marvel.

“We all need and want a Savior– a hero who will deliver us. I believe this is why the superhero comics, movies, and television shows are so popular. There is something inside each one of us that years for a champion to rise up and deliver us.

Jesus is only able to do all the things that the Bible says He does because He is everything that the Bible says He is. The Bible testifies to the full humanity and full deity of Jesus. Jesus had to possess true and authentic human and divine natures in order to fulfill biblical prophecy, save a people for God, and then see that people through to the new heavens and new earth. No run-of-the-mill savior could do all that—not the greatest of real human heroes, not even the best creations of our most imaginative comic writers.

Unlike Superman, Jesus, the Son of God, did not just seem to be human. Jesus actually is human in every respect that it takes to be authentically human.

Unlike Batman, Jesus, the Son of Man, is more than a remarkable human. He is in fact fully God, sharing the divine essence equally and eternally with God the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Unlike Hank Pym, and his alter egos, Ant-Man, GiantMan, and Yellowjacket, God exists simultaneously as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the three coequal and coeternal members of the Trinity. Jesus could and did interact with both the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Unlike Thor, a god but inferior to his father, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is not just a god. He is fully equal to God the Father. All that it takes to be God is found in the person of Jesus Christ.

Unlike Green Lantern, a mere man empowered by a ring, Jesus Christ is not a mere man empowered by the Holy Spirit. Jesus depended on the Holy Spirit throughout His life and ministry, but it was not because of anything He lacked in and of Himself. The Son possesses all the attributes of deity, fully and completely; He always has and always will.

Unlike Bruce Banner, who is overwhelmed by the Hulk upon transformation, Jesus Christ at all times possesses all that it takes to make Him authentically human, and His divine nature does not overwhelm or trivialize any of those essential human attributes.

And unlike Spider-Man, who is a bizarre combination of human and spider, Jesus Christ has a divine nature and a human nature, not a weird hybrid of the two. His humanity is not mixed into His deity.

Because Jesus Christ is all these things, we have found that He is able to reign as: King of kings, save us from sin, pioneer our resurrection, serve as our example and help in temptation, be our great High Priest, establish us as his coheirs, and much,  much more.” (176-178)

34. Recursion / Blake Crouch

Crouch seems unable to write a boring tale. His previous book was a mind-bender. His latest is a rip-roaring, sci-fi, time travel story. It’s a fun beach-read kind of a book and for me it was unputdownable.

35. Ordinary Grace / William Kent Krueger

The final novel I read in 2019 was one of the best. It reminded me of a short story by Stephen King entitled “The Body.” There are many unforgettable scenes, but my favorite took place at a funeral:

My father drove the Packard to the cemetery which was set on a hill on the east side of town. The hole was already dug and Gus was waiting and Sheriff Gregor was there though I didn’t know why and moments after we arrived Mr. van der Waal drove up in the hearse and my father and Gus and the sheriff and the mortician slid the coffin from the back. It was a simple box of pine planed and sanded smooth and it had no handles. The men lifted and carried it on their shoulders to the grave. They laid it on wooden two-by-fours that Gus had arranged across the opening along with canvas straps for the eventual lowering into the earth. Then the men stood back and I with them and my father opened his Bible.

It seemed to me a good day to be dead and by that I mean that if the dead cared no more about the worries they’d shouldered in life and could lie back and enjoy the best of what God had created it was a day for exactly such. The air was warm and still and the grass of the cemetery which Gus kept watered and clipped was soft green and the river that reflected the sky was a long ribbon of blue silk and I thought that when I died this was the place exactly I would want to lie and this was the scene that forever I would want to look upon. And I thought that it was strange that a resting place so kingly had been given to a man who had nothing and about whom we knew so little that even his name was a mystery. And though I didn’t know at all and still do not the truth of the arrangement, I suspected that it was somehow my father’s doing. My father and his great embracing heart.

He read the Twenty-Third Psalm and then he read from Romans ending with: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

He closed the book and said, “We believe too often that on the roads we walk we walk alone. Which is never true. Even this man who is unknown to us was known to God and God was his constant companion. God never promised us an easy life. He never promised that we wouldn’t suffer, that we wouldn’t feel despair and loneliness and confusion and desperation. What he did promise was that in our suffering we would never be alone. And though we may sometimes make ourselves blind and deaf to his presence he is beside us and around us and within us always. We are never separated from his love. And he promised us something else, the most important promise of all. That there would be surcease. That there would be an end to our pain and our suffering and our loneliness, that we would be with him and know him, and this would be heaven. This man, who in life may have felt utterly alone, feels alone no more. This man, whose life may have been days and nights of endless waiting, is waiting no more. He is where God always knew he would be, in a place prepared. And for this we rejoice.”

My father led us in the Lord’s Prayer and we stood in silence for a few moments staring down at the simple coffin which was pale yellow against the black of the hole beneath. And then my father said something that amazed me. He said, “It’s a good day to be dead.” Which were almost the exact words I’d been thinking. And he said, “Let this man in this place of beauty rest forever in peace.” Which was also very nearly what I’d been thinking. (70-71)

36. The Complete Poetical Works of James Thomson, Vol. 1 / James Thomson

James Thomson (1700–1748) has become one of my favorite poets but I’ve only read one of his poems. I spent the whole year, season by season, meandering slowly but surely through the 5,500 lines (!) of his epic poem about the seasons creatively entitled, “The Seasons.” It’s incredible. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Below you’ll find Thomson’s wonderful description of the One who is the Author of all seasons, the One who is the Lord of the summer, the One who is light Himself:

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, Puritanical, Quotable Quotes, Reading

The Best Books I Read This Year (2018)

These are my favorite books that I read in 2018. There are 36 selections and I thoroughly enjoyed every last one of them.

My Top 12:

1. Some Pastors and Teachers / Sinclair Ferguson

The best book I read in 2018 is this brilliant cornucopia of essays covering theological topics, historical figures, and spiritual issues. Imagine if you could take a course on pastoral ministry from Sinclair Ferguson. The substance of that class would be the bulk of this book. Ferguson issues a challenge to busy pastors right at the outset:

“Many—probably most—of these chapters were written in the context of busy pastoral ministry, either in Scotland or in the United States—preaching, teaching, pastoral visiting, personal meetings, crises in the lives of individuals and sometimes the whole church, administrative responsibilities, and the wide and wonderful variety of activities that make up the average ministers life. And since virtually all the essays were written by request, their writing has been squeezed into, or out of, an occasional hiatus in the sheer busy-ness of ministry life and the constant preparation involved in preaching anywhere between three and six times in the week.” (xii-xiii)

I am eternally grateful that Sinclair Ferguson took the time to write such edifying material for others. Over the years, I may have read and reread “The Preacher’s Decalogue” (chapter 39) twenty-five times or so. He calls these chapters “some of the leftovers from the abundance of good food the Lord has given us in His Word,” (xv). I call them a feast for the hungry soul.

2. God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ / Stephen Wellum

This book is a worshipfully written, biblical-theological, gold mine of Christology that will help you treasure more dearly God’s own dear Son:

“Because our plight is so desperate, due to sin, the only person who can save us is God’s own dear Son. It is only as the Son incarnate that our Lord can represent us; it is only as the Son incarnate that He can put away our sin, stand in our place, and turn away God’s wrath by bearing our sin. Only Jesus can satisfy God’s own righteous requirements, because He is one with the Lord as God the Son; only Jesus can do this for us because He is truly a man and can represent us.” (442-443)

3. Reformation Worship / Eds. Jonathan Gibson and Mark Earngey

Gibson and Earngey retrieve Protestant liturgies from the past for their use in the present. This volume includes entire orders of service from Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Cranmer, Knox, Ursinus, the Puritans, and others. Gibson pens an incredible opening chapter entitled “Worship: On Earth as It Is in Heaven“:

“Worship is the right, fitting, and delightful response of moral beings—angelic and human—to God the Creator, Redeemer, and Consummator, for who He is as one eternal God in three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit— and for what He has done in creation and redemption, and for what He will do in the coming consummation, to whom be all praise and glory, now and forever, world without end. Amen.” (2)

If you are responsible for planning the corporate worship services of your local church, you will be greatly served by mining the treasures of this book.

4. On Reading Well / Karen Swallow Prior

Reading great works of literature can cultivate a desire for the good life, a life of virtue and excellence, because “reading literature, more than informing, forms us” (22). Here’s what I wrote in my TGC review:

On Reading Well is exquisitely written and will appeal immediately to a certain kind of reader: the kind who reads a book review about a book about the virtues embodied in reading books; the kind of reader who finds it impossible to pass by a used bookstore without slipping inside in search of a story that will stir a homesick hope within; the kind of reader who, like David Copperfield, reads “as if for life” itself (59); the kind of reader who joyfully affirms with C. S. Lewis, “My own eyes are not enough for me; I will see through those of others” (140).

But even if you’re not yet that kind of reader, Prior beckons you to become one. You won’t find a scolding tone or any long list of books you simply must read before you die. Instead, acting as the English professor we all wish we had in school, she humbly kindles a desire in you to leave her own book behind and reach for that daunting work of literature you’ve never quite finished and was never quite finished with you. I suspect this was one of Prior’s goals all along.”

5. The Last Adam: A Theology of the Obedient Life of Jesus in the Gospel / Brandon Crowe

We were plunged into the abyss of sin by the disobedience of the first Adam. Our salvation rests upon the obedience of the last Adam, who humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. “Jesus never erred in any way, remaining faithful throughout His life, demonstrating His faithfulness all the way to Jerusalem and His enthronement upon a Roman cross.” (207) This careful study helped me marvel at how Jesus lived for us and for our great salvation.

6. Remember Death / Matthew McCullough

I did more funerals than weddings this year, and so I’ve been thinking a lot about death recently. Matt McCullough is a godly pastor and an outstanding writer. He shepherds his readers through a topic most of us try desperately to avoid. But as he puts it: “So long as death remains someone else’s problem, Jesus will remain someone else’s Savior.” (59) McCullough’s sober meditation cultivated a “death-awareness” in me and helped me see how “facing up to the truth about death can lead us to a deeper hope in life.” (173)

7. Living Life Backwards / David Gibson

Speaking of death, Ecclesiastes tells us “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die.” (3:1-2) Gibson has written an outstanding exploration of this challenging OT book. Here’s the key paragraph:

“Ecclesiastes teaches us to live life backward. It encourages us to take the one thing in the future that is certain—our death—and work backward from that point into all the details and decisions and heartaches of our lives, and to think about them from the perspective of the end. It is the destination that makes sense of the journey. If we know for sure where we are heading, then we can know for sure what we need to do before we get there. Ecclesiastes invites us to let the end sculpt our priorities and goals, our greatest ambitions and our strongest desires. I want to persuade you that only if you prepare to die can you really learn how to live.” (12)

8. Spurgeon on the Christian Life / Michael Reeves

This book is Charles Spurgeon plus Michael Reeves. Honestly, that’s really all you need to know. I’m unsure if Reeves has read all 18 million words that Spurgeon published in his lifetime. But I do know that he accomplishes his expressed aim in this book: “I generally find reading Spurgeon himself like breathing in great lungfuls of mountain air: he is bracing, refreshing, and rousing. I want, therefore, to try to make myself scarce and let Spurgeon leap at readers himself.” (17) The Prince of Preachers indeed leaps off every page, and that’s a fabulous thing.

9. The Beauty of the Lord: Theology as Aesthetics / Jonathan King

This monograph is one of the most edifying and God-glorifying works I read this entire year. There are wonderful systematic and biblical-theological insights found throughout. The author’s aim is “to explore and develop a theology of beauty based on God’s plan in Christ. Thus the nature of beauty, as defined by the divine economy of redemption, which sums all things up in Jesus Christ (Eph 1:10), is pursued in a specifically biblical and systematic way from beginning to end.” (1)

King makes a compelling case both from biblical evidence and theological warrant that beauty properly should be considered a perfection of the divine nature. The author draws together bright threads of beauty from Scripture and from the writings of Irenaeus, Augustine, Calvin, Balthasar, Bavinck, Edwards, and others, to fashion a glorious “theodramatic” tapestry of redemption. If you read this book carefully and prayerfully, I trust that your eyes too will ‘behold the King in His beauty.’ I’m looking forward to reading King’s next book project, provocatively titled God’s Oikosystem: The Roles that Holy Angels and Fallen Angels Play in God’s Eternal Plan for Humans.

10. J.C. Ryle: Prepared To Stand Alone  / Iain H. Murray

I know of no finer biography of the great Bishop of Liverpool than this one. It’s what I’ve come to expect from Murray: clearly written, theologically astute, and resolutely wise. I’m writing this from my home study where my bookshelves are brimming with works published by the Banner of Truth. I’m forever grateful to the Lord for providentially using Murray to co-found the Banner on July 22, 1957, while he served as an assistant to Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones at Westminster Chapel in London. I actually got the idea to begin this blog in 2003 from an offhand comment Murray made during an interview with Mark Dever in 2002.

Chilling with Iain and Jean at Cracker Barrel

After his funeral, J.C. Ryle’s successor referred to him as “that man of granite with the heart of a child.” (213) That also seems to me to be an apt description of Iain H. Murray.

11. Calling on the Name of the Lord: A Biblical Theology of Prayer / J. Gary Millar

John Calvin observed an unbreakable link between prayer and the gospel: “Just as faith is born from the gospel, so through it our hearts are trained to call upon God’s name.” (Institutes, 3.20.1-3) This connection between prayer and gospel is explored in this outstanding NSBT volume. Millar argues convincingly that “calling on the name of the Lord” is to be primarily understood throughout the Scriptures as asking God to come through on what He has already promised:

“I can find five prayers in the New Testament encourages us to believe God will always come through on: He will always answer our prayers when we ask Him to do His new covenant work through His Word by the Spirit. And what does that look like? Here is a summary of the ‘no brainer’ prayers we should pray for as individuals and communities, because God has already guaranteed to answer:

-when we pray for forgiveness (1 John 5:19);
-when we pray to know God better (Eph. 1:15-22; 3:18-19);
-when we pray for wisdom (James 1:5-6);
-when we pray for strength to obey/love/live for God (Eph. 1:15-22; 3:14-15);
-when we pray for the spread of the gospel (Luke 10:2; Acts 5; Col. 4)” (239)

12. Prayer / John Onwuchekwa

This wonderful little book, written by a dear brother, is packed full of glorious wisdom for making prayer central to the life of your church:

“It’s so much easier to read about prayer than to actually pray.” (16)

“Prayer is oxygen for the Christian. It sustains us. It is to the church what it is to individuals—breathing. Yet many of our gatherings could be likened to people coming together merely to hold their collective breath. This would explain why people seem to have so little energy for actually living out the Christian life.” (23)

“The local church is the best way to define the ‘us’ in our prayers.” (62)

“Jesus stared death square in the face, knowing his fate was inescapable. How did he face it? On his knees in prayer.” (70)

“We’ll always lack peace when we judge God’s love for us by how many of our prayers are answered with a ‘yes.’ False hope is the most fertile soil for a crop of discontentment.” (72)

“Jesus’s faithfulness to do God’s task is directly tied to his prayer. The disciples’ faithlessness is directly tied to their prayerlessness.” (75)

“A church that practices prayer is more than a church that learns; it’s also a church that leans. We learn dependence by leaning on God together.” (92)

“Let the temptation to worry serve as the divine alarm clock reminding you it’s time to pray.” (125)

“The power of our prayers isn’t found in the number of people praying, but the willingness of the One to whom we’re praying.” (126)

Three Honorable Mentions:

Best Out of Print Book: The Collected Writings of Lemuel Haynes / Lemuel Haynes

Lemuel Haynes (1753-1833) was the first African-American ordained by any religious body in America. He was a veteran of the American Revolution and was a powerful preacher, influenced greatly by the works of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. Unfortunately, his collected writings remain difficult to find. I was only able to access them via InterLibrary Loan. Here’s a taste:

“The godly preacher will not be ambitious of saying fine things to win applause, but of saying useful things to win souls. He will consider that he has the weak as well as the strong, children as well as adults to speak to, and that he must be accountable for the blood of their souls if they perish through his neglect. This will influence him to study plainness more than politeness.

Such a preacher will not come into the pulpit as an actor comes to the stage to display his talents, but as one who feels the weight of eternal things. Oh! With what zeal and fervor will he speak! How will death, judgment, and eternity appear as it were in every feature, and every word!

Out of the abundance of his heart, his mouth will speak. He will study and preach with reference to a judgment to come, and deliver every sermon in some respects, as if it were his last, not knowing when his Lord will call him or his hearers to account.” (50-51)

How can sermons like this be out of print?

Best Biblical Commentary: The Gospel According to Mark / James Edwards

The best commentary I read this year was this gem on the Gospel of Mark. Highly recommended!

Best Wodehouse: Very Good, Jeeves! / P.G. Wodehouse

One can really never read too much Wodehouse. So it’s a good thing there are 99 volumes in his collected works. Here’s a sampling from the rip-roaring volume, Very Good, Jeeves!:

“When it is a question of a pal being in the soup, we Woosters no longer think of self; and that poor old Bingo was knee-deep in the bisque was made plain by his mere appearance– which was that of a cat which has just been struck by a half-brick and is expecting another shortly.” (22-23)

“Bingo uttered a stricken woofle like a bull-dog that has been refused cake.” (25)

“Young Bingo, you see, is one of those fellows who, once their fingers close over the handle of a tennis racket, fall into a sort of trance in which nothing outside the radius of the lawn exists for them. If you came up to Bingo in the middle of a set and told him that panthers were devouring his best friend in the kitchen garden, he would look at you and say, ‘Oh, ah?’ or words to that effect.” (26)

“Never give in. Perseverance brings home the gravy.” (59)

“As Shakespeare says, if you’re going to do a thing you might just as well pop right at it and get it over.” (63)

“Tuppy has one of those high, squeaky voices that sound like the tenor of the village choir failing to hit a high note. This voice, however, was something in between the last Trumpet and a tiger calling for breakfast after being on a diet for a day or two.” (76)

“His eyebrows seemed to pierce me like a knife.” (78)

“Reason was beginning to do a bit of tottering on its throne.” (111)

“You know, whatever you may say against old Jeeves– you’ve got to admit that the man can plan a campaign. Naopoleon could have taken his correspondence course.” (126-127)

“The voice of Love seemed to call to me, but it was a wrong number.” (160)

My Next 12:

13. Washington Black / Esi Edugyan

My favorite novel of the year tells the heart-wrenching tale of an eleven-year-old slave named Washington Black. “Wash” escapes from a Barbados sugar plantation with the help of Titch, his master’s brother, who also happens to be a naturalist, explorer, inventor, and abolitionist. Their worldwide adventures begin with a frightful flight and daring getaway in an experimental hot-air balloon. Edugyan is quite the wordsmith. Here’s proof:

A wind was blowing; the Cloud-cutter roared, creaked, leaning into its ropes. The wind was warm, unpleasant, with the scent of iron and rain in it. I watched Titch’s dark figure move to adjust the canister of gas in the blackness, grunting and cursing softly. The canopy hung high above me, a scorch against the lighter sky.

Titch called to me urgently, and I clambered into the wicker-and-wood gondola, its oars stretching like antennae into the sky, its four odd wings creaking like rudders in the wind. How terrifying it all looked, in the dark; a great hot fear of death went through me. As Titch was double-checking the bolts and knots, he paused to give me a strange, quiet look. But I said nothing, and he said nothing, an in silence he turned back to his preparations.

“Well, Wash,” he said at last.

“Well,” I said, terrified.

Then, without another word, he adjusted the canister. A higher column of fire surged upwards into the canopy, and the fabric began to shudder and shake. The shaking was terrible. My teeth rattled in my skull. I stared in fascinated terror at the broad black mouth sucking up fire.

The air stank of char and smoke, of burning oil. Finally Titch leaned over and severed each rope in its turn. All around me I could hear the hissing of the grass as the wicker basket was dragged across it– a vicious, final sound.

In the half-light I could just make out the hollows of Titch’s face, his eyes blacked out, only the white shards of his teeth distinct and visible. I felt a give in my belly; I clutched at the oars of the Cloud-cutter in dread. The air around us began to howl; the sky rushed towards us. We were rising.

I can barely describe the sight of it. I saw the threatening sky below, a great red crack of light, like a monstrous eye just opening. The sky was still black where we were, but the wind was already hurling us seaward. I watched the half-cut cane fields in the faint light, the white scars of harvest glistening like the part in a woman’s hair.

What did I feel? What would anyone feel, in such a place? My chest ached with anguish and wonder, an astonishment that went on and on, and I could not catch my breath. The Cloud-cutter spun, turned gradually faster, rising ever higher. I began to cry– deep, silent, racking sobs, my face turned away from Titch, staring out onto the boundlessness of the world. The air grew colder, crept in webs across my skin. All was shadow, red light, storm-fire and frenzy. And up we went into the eye of it, untouched, miraculous. (130-131)

14. A Gentleman in Moscow / Amor Towles

This is a charming story about a Russian count sentenced by a Bolshevik tribunal to spend the rest of his life in Moscow’s Metropolis Hotel. The Count loses much of his earthly possessions, and yet this doesn’t rob him of his irrepressible joy. A life without luxury can be the richest of all. I was reminded that even something like a simple breakfast and freshly brewed coffee should cause me to pause and give thanks to the Lord, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy:

“Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov stirred at half past eight to the sound of rain on the eaves. With a half-opened eye, he pulled back his covers and climbed from bed. He donned his robe and slipped on his slippers. He took up the tin from the bureau, spooned a spoonful of beans into the apparatus, and began to crank the crank.

Even as he turned the little handle round and round, the room remained under the tenuous authority of sleep. As yet unchallenged, somnolence continued to cast its shadow over sights and sensations, over forms and formulations, over what has been said and what must be done, lending each the insubstantiality of its domain. But when the Count opened the small wooden drawer of the grinder, the world and all it contained were transformed by that envy of the alchemists—the aroma of freshly ground coffee.

In that instant, darkness was separated from light, the waters from the lands, and the heavens from the earth. The trees bore fruit and the woods rustled with the movement of birds and beasts and all manner of creeping things. While closer at hand, a patient pigeon scuffed its feet on the flashing.

Easing the little drawer from the apparatus, the Count poured its contents into the pot (which he had mindfully primed with water the night before). He lit the burner and shook out the match. As he waited for the coffee to brew, he did thirty squats and thirty stretches and took thirty deep breaths. From the little cupboard in the corner, he took a small pitcher of cream, a pair of English biscuits, and a piece of fruit (today an apple). Then having poured the coffee, he began to enjoy the morning’s sensations to their fullest:

The crisp tartness of the apple, the hot bitterness of the coffee, the savory sweetness of the biscuit with its hint of butter… So perfect was the combination that upon finishing, the Count was tempted to crank the crank, quarter the apple, dole out the biscuits, and enjoy his breakfast all over again.” (171-172)

15. Grant / Ron Chernow

Murat Halstead, editor of the Cincinnati Commercial, penned the following scathing indictment of Ulysses S. Grant: “He is a poor drunken imbecile and hopelessly foolish.” Grant did indeed battle alcohol abuse much of his life. But Ron Chernow’s magisterial biography reveals many commendable and inspiring aspects of the man who rose from Union General to the nation’s Commander in Chief. One of my favorite scenes occurred as Grant marched triumphantly towards Vicksburg:

“In less than three weeks, Grant had traversed 130 miles on foot and handily won five consecutive battles in a bravura campaign that would be enshrined in military textbooks. He had shown true virtuosity in spontaneously coordinating many moving parts and adapting to shifting enemy positions. With the Army of the Tennessee, he had created the mobile, lightning-quick army for which Lincoln yearned in contrast to the hidebound eastern forces. As Lincoln’s secretary John Nicolay exclaimed, ‘The praise of our western soldiers is on every lip, Illinois valor particularly receiving as it properly should, large honor.’ Contrary to his image of securing victories at heavy cost, Grant had sacrificed 4,300 men versus 7,200 for the Confederates, even though he had tackled a combined Confederate force at Vicksburg, Grand Gulf, and Jackson of more than 60,000 men, much larger than the 43,000 he transferred across the Mississippi. ‘Grant is now deservedly the hero,’ Sherman proclaimed. ‘He is now belabored with praise by those who a month ago accused him of all the sins in the calendar.’ One journalist traveling with Grant’s army summed up his new stature: ‘Nothing like this campaign has occurred during this war. It stamps Gen. Grant as a man of uncommon military ability—proves him the foremost one in the west; if not in the nation.’ The New York Times, noting that Grant had captured fifty guns and six thousand prisoners, stressed that this whirlwind operation had been accomplished ‘in a foreign climate, under a tropical sun ablaze with the white heat of summer, with only such supplies as could be gleaned from the country.’ As Grant’s columns strode confidently toward Vicksburg, scenes of ecstatic jubilation greeted them as they passed abandoned plantations and were applauded by former slaves. One ex-slave, seated on a lawn, rocking back and forth in joy, kept shouting, ‘Glory, hallelujah, glory, hallelujah… Bless God, bless God. I never spected to see dis day.'” (266-267)

In the book’s last chapter, we encounter Grant spending his final days dying of cancer. Having been swindled by a family friend, Grant was desperate to provide for his family. Despite being racked with excruciating pain, Grant persevered and penned what is widely viewed as a masterpiece, the foremost military memoir in the English language. It was an immediate best-seller. After his death, Grant’s widow received $450,000 in royalties. In his final battle, General Grant once again emerged victorious.

16. Stalin: Waiting For Hitler / Stephen Kotkin

I’d never read anything about Stalin but after watching this lecture by Kotkin, I decided to take the plunge. I learned a bunch. Who was Joseph Stalin? He was a human being, a revolutionary, a dictator, a fearsome contriver of class warfare, a creator of great power, a magnetic leader, and a destroyer of tens of millions of lives.

“Murderous and mendacious do not begin to describe the person readers will encounter in this volume. At the same time, Stalin galvanized millions. His colossal authority was rooted in a dedicated faction, which he forged, a formidable apparatus, which he built, and Marxist-Leninist ideology, which he helped synthesize. But his power was magnified many times over by ordinary people, who projected onto him their soaring ambitions for justice, peace, and abundance, as well as national greatness. (8)

During Stalin’s 30-year rule, the most terrible crimes became morally imperative acts in the name of creating paradise on earth. Kotkin’s section covering the Great Terror, the purge led by Stalin, was horrifying.

“Throughout 1937 and 1938, there were on average nearly 2,200 arrests and more than 1,000 executions per day.” (437)

I’m looking forward to Kotkin’s third volume on Stalin that will pick up the story in 1942.

17. The Power Broker / Robert Caro

Have you ever heard of Robert Moses? I had not. But Caro’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Moses makes plain just how he became America’s greatest builder and the single most powerful man of our age in the City and in the State of New York. But more than an enthralling biography, Caro also eloquently explores the dangers, the temptations, and the acquisition of absolute power.

18. Educated / Tara Westover

Power can be abused at a national level (see Joseph Stalin), and at a city/state level (see Robert Moses). But power can also be tragically abused in a single home, in one family. Tara Westover tells her heart-breaking story of overcoming the lasting effects of growing up in a Mormon survivalist family in Idaho. “It’s strange how you give the people you love so much power over you.” (199) Many parts of this book were hard to read, but I was thankful I made it to the end.

19. The End of the Affair / Graham Greene

Faith, unbelief, God, atheism, love, lust, hatred, desire, life, and death. This riveting novel has it all. I couldn’t put it down. I read it twice. Then I came across this audiobook recording by Colin Firth, and I spent six hours listening to this story again. Searching and superb.

20. To A God Unknown / John Steinbeck

A lush and lyrical story that blends together elements of the creation and fall narratives of Genesis, paganism, pantheism, a Greek tragedy, a tree of life, and, of course, California. This is a strange and haunting book and I was mesmerized by it.

“When his eyes cleared from the lantern light he saw that the night was sharper. The mountain flanks, rounded and flesh-like, stood out softly in shallow perspective and a deep purple essence hung on their outlines. All of the night, the hills, the black hummocks of the trees were as soft and friendly as an embrace. But straight ahead, the black arrow-headed pines cut into the sky. The night was ageing toward dawn, the leaves and grasses whispered and sighed under the fresh morning wind. Whistle of ducks’ wings sounded overhead, where an invisible squadron started over-early for the south. And the great owls swung restlessly through the air at the last of the night’s hunting. The wind brought a pine smell down from the hills, and the penetrating odour of and the pleasant bouquet of a skunk’s anger, smelling, since it was far away, like azaleas. Joseph nearly forgot his mission, for the hills reached out tender arms to him and the mountains were as gentle and insistent as a loving woman who is half asleep. The sharp pines lengthened and pierced higher and higher into the sky.” (88-89)

21. The Man Who Caught the Storm / Brantley Hargrove

In 2013, I read a crazy story in National Geographic about a legendary storm chaser named Tim Samaras, and the infamous El Reno tornado, the widest tornado in recorded history. I remember thinking, “Someone should write a book about that guy.” Brantley Hargrove has not only written a poignant tribute to Samaras, but he’s also penned an unputdownable classic. (And this is Hargrove’s debut book!) If you liked Into Thin Air or The Perfect Storm, you’ll dig this book.

22. The Feather Thief / Kirk Wallace Johnson

The subtitle of this book says it all: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century. Here’s my best attempt at a run-on sentence blurb: A 20-year-old American dude who plays the flute at London’s Royal Academy of Music and who is obsessed with the Victorian art of salmon fly-tying, rides a train to the Tring museum, breaks in, and proceeds to steal thousands of priceless rare bird feathers, and then escapes into the darkness. What could possibly go wrong? A rip-roaring story.

23. The Hunt For Red October / Tom Clancy

My Dad introduced me to the stories of Tom Clancy. I read most of the Jack Ryan books 20 years ago but hadn’t picked one up again until this year. I was digging through the fiction shelves at a used bookstore near Capitol Hill, and I saw an inexpensive hardback first edition of The Hunt of Red October.  It’s hard to believe that a book written in 1984 featuring nuclear submarine warfare would still hold up to rereading decades later. But it does, with flying colors. I agree with the Gipper. “It’s my kind of yarn.”

24. Oranges / John McPhee
The Curve of Binding Energy / John McPhee

John McPhee has written a variety of fascinating long-form stories for The New Yorker over the years. Several of these have been made into books, two of which I read this year. One tells the story of Ted Taylor, a theoretical physicist, who conceived and designed the largest-yield fission bomb ever exploded by any nation in the world. The other McPhee book I devoured was a book about oranges. That’s right. An entire book about oranges! I enjoy eating oranges and find orange juice delicious but I’d never thought much about the history of oranges. McPhee has a forensic eye for detail and this book didn’t disappoint:

“The custom of drinking orange juice with breakfast is not very widespread, taking the world as a whole, and it is thought by many peoples to be a distinctly American habit. But many Danes drink it regularly with breakfast, and so do Hondurans, Filipinos, Jamaicans, and the wealthier citizens of Trinidad and Tobago. The day is started with orange juice in the Colombian Andes, and, to some extent, in Kuwait. Bolivians don’t touch it at breakfast time, but they drink it steadily for the rest of the day. The ‘play lunch’, or morning tea, that Australian children carry with them to school is usually an orange, peeled spirally halfway down, with the peel replaced around the fruit. The child unwinds the peel and holds the orange as if it were an ice-cream cone. People in Nepal almost never peel oranges, preferring to eat them in cut quarters, the way American athletes do. The sour oranges of Afghanistan customarily appear as seasoning agents on Afghan dinner tables. Squeezed over Afghan food, they cut the grease. The Shamouti Orange, of Israel, is seedless and sweet, has a thick skin, and grows in Hadera, Gaza, Tiberias, Jericho, the Jordan Valley, and Jaffa; it is exported from Jaffa, and for that reason is known universally beyond Israel as the Jaffa Orange. The Jaffa Orange is a variety that British people consider superior others, possibly because Richard the Lionhearted spent the winter of 1191-92 in the citrus groves of Jaffa. Citrus trees are spread across the North African coast from Alexandria to Tangier, the city whose name was given to tangerines. Oranges tend to become less tart the closer they are grown to the equator, and in Brazil there is one kind of orange that has virtually no acid in it at all. In the principal towns of Trinidad and Tobago, oranges are sold on street corners. The vender cuts them in half and sprinkles salt on them. In Jamaica, people halve oranges, get down on their hands and knees, and clean floors with one half in each hand. Jamaican mechanics use oranges to clear away grease and oil. The blood orange of Spain, its flesh streaked with red, is prized throughout Europe. Blood oranges grow well in Florida, but they frighten American women. Spain has about thirty-five million orange trees, grows six billion oranges a year, and exports more oranges than any other country, including the United States. A Frenchman sits at the dinner table, as the finishing flourish of the meal, slowly and gently disrobes an orange. In France, peeling the fruit is not yet considered an inconvenience. French preferences run to the blood oranges and the Thomson Navels of Spain, and to the thick-skinned, bland Maltaises, which the French import not from Malta but from Tunisia. Sometimes, Europeans eat oranges with knives and forks. On occasion, they serve a dessert orange that has previously been peeled with such extraordinary care that strips of the peel arc outward like the petals of a flower from the separated and reassembled segments in the centre. The Swiss sometimes serve oranges under a smothering of sugar and whipped cream; on a hot day in a Swiss garden, orange juice with ice is a luxurious drink. Norwegian children like to remove the top of an orange, make a little hole, push a lump of sugar into it, and then suck out the juice. English children make orange-peel teeth and wedge them over their gums on Halloween. Irish children take oranges to the movies, where they eat them while they watch the show, tossing the peels at each other and at the people on the screen. In Reykjavik, Iceland, in greenhouses that are heated by volcanic springs, orange trees yearly bear fruit. In the New York Botanical Garden, six mature orange trees are growing in the soil of the Bronx. Their trunks are six inches in diameter, and they bear well every year. The oranges are for viewing and are not supposed to be picked. When people walk past them, however, they sometimes find them irresistible.” (3-5)

I found this book irresistible and I’ll never look at an orange the same way again.

My Final 12:

25. Charity and Its Fruits / Jonathan Edwards

Every month I spend time reading from my personal Canon of Theologians. In July, I always hang out with Jonathan Edwards. This year I slowly reread his exposition of 1 Corinthians 13, where he scatters jewels throughout. In his sermon on “Love does not envy,” (13:4) Edwards writes:

“The gospel scheme, all of it from beginning to end, tends to the contrary of this spirit of envy. For there we are taught how far God was from grudging us the most exceeding honor and blessedness, and how He has grudged us nothing as too much to be done for us, and nothing as too great and too good to be given us.

He hath not grudged us His only begotten Son, that which was most precious and most dear of all to Himself. For what was dearer to God than His only begotten, dearly beloved Son? He hath not grudged us the highest honor and blessedness in union with Him.

The doctrines of the gospel teach us how far Jesus Christ was from grudging us anything which He could do for or give to us. He did not grudge us a life spent in labor and suffering. He did not grudge us His own precious blood.

He hath not grudged us a sitting with Him on His throne in heaven, and being partakers with Him of that heavenly kingdom and glory which the Father hath given Him, and sitting with Him on thrones judging the world.” (224)


26. Christ From Beginning To End / Trent Hunter & Stephen Wellum

This is an excellent introduction to Biblical theology that will help you see how the full story of Scripture reveals the full glory of Christ. “As the radiance of God’s glory, Jesus is our great prophet. As the purification for our sins, He is our Great High Priest. As the one who sat down at God’s right hand, He is our King.” (211) Amen.

27. The Gospel Comes With a House Key / Rosaria Butterfield

The latest book from Rosaria Butterfield unpacks “radically ordinary hospitality.” I found it to be both encouragingly hopeful and devastatingly convicting. But don’t just take my word for it. Read the first twenty pages for yourself.

“Jesus dined with sinners, but He didn’t sin with sinners. Jesus lived in the world, but He didn’t live like the world. This is the Jesus paradox. And it defines those who are willing to suffer with others for the sake of gospel sharing and gospel living, those who care more for integrity than appearances. Engaging in radically ordinary hospitality means we provide the time necessary to build strong relationships with people who think differently than we do as well as build strong relationships from within the family of God. It means we know that only hypocrites and cowards let their words be stronger than their relationships, making sneaky raids into culture on social media or behaving like moralizing social prigs in the neighborhood. Radically ordinary hospitality shows this skeptical, post-Christian world what authentic Christianity looks like. Radically ordinary hospitality gives evidence of faith in Jesus’s power to save. It doesn’t get dug in over politics or culture or where someone stands on current events. It knows what conversion means, what identity in Christ does, and what repentance creates. It knows that sin is deceptive. To be deceived means to be taken captive by an evil force to do its bidding. It knows that people need to be rescued from their sin, not to be given pep talks about good choice making. It remembers that Jesus rescues people from their sin. Jesus rescued us. Jesus lives and reigns.” (13)

28. The Odyssey / Homer, trans. Emily Wilson

If you ever get the hankering to read this classic epic, you’ll want to read Emily Wilson’s exquisite translation. “Tell me about a complicated man. Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy, and where he went, and who he met, the pain he suffered in the storms at sea, and how he worked to save his life and bring his men back home… Tell the old story for our modern times. Find the beginning.” (105) My favorite line in the book: “My life is thin with weakness.” (195)

29. Why We Sleep / Matthew P. Walker

Two years ago I listened to a fascinating interview on NPR with Matthew Walker, the director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley. Terry Gross asked Walker, “What are we losing when we deprive ourselves of sleep?” I still remember his six-word response: “Short sleep predicts a shorter life.” Walker argues that “our lack of sleep is a slow form of self-euthanasia.” (324) Yikes! Did you know that caffeine is the second most-traded commodity on the planet after oil? I didn’t. I found the really fascinating stuff in this book to be chapters 9, 10, and 11, on how and why human beings dream. Reading this book made me thankful for the gift of sleep and eager to trust the One who neither slumbers nor sleeps.

30. I’ll Be Gone In the Dark / Michelle McNamara

Michelle McNamara was a true crime journalist who spent years in a tireless quest to unmask the identity of a notoriously violent predator, the “Golden State Killer.” Tragically, she died in 2016 before she could complete the final edits to her book. But what’s even more incredible is what happened in April 2018. Detectives, using DNA evidence, believe they have finally solved the case. You can listen to how investigators chased down the clues in a recent audiobook, Evil Has A Name. The diligent pursuit of justice displayed by McNamara and the detectives is awe-inspiring.

31. Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon / Robert Kurson

How can you not devour a book that starts like this?

“Three astronauts are strapped into a small spacecraft thirty-six stories in the air, awaiting the final moments of countdown. They sit atop the most powerful machine ever built. The Saturn V rocket is a jewel of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, a vehicle that will generate the energy of a small atomic bomb. But it has never flown with men aboard, and it has had just two tests, the most recent of which failed catastrophically just eight months earlier. The three astronauts are going not merely into Earth orbit, or even beyond the world altitude record of 853 miles. They intend to go a quarter of a million miles away, to a place no man has ever gone. They intend to go to the Moon. Beneath them, the United States is fracturing. The year 1968 has seen killing, war, protest, and political unrest unlike any in the country’s history, from the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy to the unraveling of Vietnam to the riots in Chicago. Already, Time magazine has named THE DISSENTER its Man of the Year. As the countdown begins, there are engineers and scientists at NASA who question whether the crew will ever return. Even the astronauts are realistic about their chances of surviving the flight, an operation riskier than anything the American space agency has ever attempted. One of them has recorded a final goodbye to his wife, to be played in the event he doesn’t return. In August, this mission did not exist. Nearly everything that has gone into its planning—the training, analysis, calculations, even the politics—has been rushed to the launchpad in a fraction of the time ordinarily required. If anything goes wrong, public opinion—and the will of the United States government—might turn against NASA. The fate of the entire space program hangs on the crew’s safe return. As the moment of launch draws near, one of the astronauts spots a mud dauber wasp building a nest on the outside of one of the spacecraft’s tiny windows. Back and forth the insect moves, grabbing mud and adding to its new home. The astronaut thinks, ‘You are in for a surprise.’ Vapors begin to spew from around the base of the giant rocket. Less than a minute remains before lift-off. When the five first-stage engines ignite, they will deliver a combined 160 million horsepower. In the final few seconds, a typhoon of flames unfurls to either side. Beneath the astronauts, it is not just the launchpad that begins to shake, but the entire world.” (3-4)

32. The Life of Olaudah Equiano / Olaudah Equiano

In 1756, Olaudah Equiano was kidnapped from his home in Nigeria and sold into slavery. Years later, after many dangers, toils, and snares, Olaudah would write these amazing words, as a free man, a man set free from his sins by amazing grace:

“In the evening of October 6th, as I was reading and meditating on the fourth chapter of Acts, the twelfth verse, I had solemn apprehensions of eternity. But the Lord was pleased to break in upon my soul with His bright beams of heavenly light. And in an instant, He removed the veil, and I saw clearly with the eye of faith the crucified Saviour bleeding on the cross: the Scriptures became an unsealed book. I saw myself a condemned criminal under the law of God, but I also saw the Lord Jesus Christ in His humiliation, loaded and bearing my reproach, my sin, and my shame. Christ was revealed to my soul as the chiefest among ten thousand. I felt an astonishing change; the burden of sin, the gaping jaws of hell, and the fears of death, that weighed me down before, now lost their horror. Every providential circumstance that happened to me, from the day I was taken from my parents to that hour, was then in my view. I was sensible of the invisible hand of God, which guided and protected me when I didn’t know the truth. Still the Lord pursued me and His mercy melted me down. I was finally enabled to praise and glorify God’s most holy name. There is no salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved, but Jesus Christ.’ What a Saviour I have! What a great debtor I am to sovereign free grace.” (310-311)

33. A River in Darkness / Masaji Ishikawa

Masaji Ishikawa was born in 1947. His father was a Korean national residing in Japan. His mother was Japanese. In 1960, when he was thirteen years old, his family moved to the “promised land” of North Korea. In 1996, he made a desperate bid to escape. In this book, he tells his unforgettable story.

“What do I remember of that night? The night I escaped from North Korea? There are so many things that I don’t remember, that I’ve put out of my mind forever. But I’ll tell you what I do recall. It’s drizzling. But soon the drizzle turns to torrential rain. Sheets of rain so heavy, I’m soaked to the skin. I collapse under the shelter of a bush, utterly incapable of measuring the passage of time. I am weary to the core. My legs have sunk into the mud, but somehow I crawl out from under the bush. Between the branches, I can see the Yalu River in front of me. But it’s changed—now totally unrecognizable. This morning, kids were wading in what was little more than a stream. But the cascading downpour has turned it into an impassable torrent. Across the river, about thirty yards away, I can make out China, shrouded in mist. Thirty yards—the distance between life and death. I shiver. I know that countless North Koreans have stood here before me, gazing across at China under the cover of darkness, memories of the people they’ve just left behind swirling through their minds. Those people, like the ones I’ve left, were starving. What else could they do? I stare into the torrent and wonder how many of them succeeded. Then again, what difference does it make? If I remain in North Korea, I’ll die of starvation. It’s as simple as that.” (1-2)

Pray for North Korea.

34. The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot / Robert Macfarlane

Macfarlane is a Cambridge literature professor who loves to walk. He’s also an amazing writer. Here’s what it’s like to stroll through Cambridge on a wintry, moon-lit evening:

“Two days short of the winter solstice; the turn of the year’s tide. All that cold day, the city and the countryside around felt halted, paused. Five degrees below freezing and the earth battened down. Clouds held snow that would not fall. Out in the suburbs the schools were closed, people homebound, the pavements rinky and the roads black-iced. The sun ran a shallow arc across the sky. Then just before dusk the snow came — dropping straight for five hours and settling at a steady inch an hour.

I was at my desk that evening, trying to work but distracted by the weather. I kept stopping, standing, looking out of the window. The snow was sinking through the orange cone cast by a street light, the fat flakes showing like furnace sparks.

Around eight o’clock the snow ceased. An hour later I went for a walk with a flask of whisky to keep me warm. I walked for half a mile along dark back roads where the snow lay clean and unmarked. The houses began to thin out. A few undrawn curtains: family evenings underway, the flicker and burble of television sets. The cold like a wire in the nose. A slew of stars, the moon flooding everything with silver.

At the southerly fringe of the suburb, a last lamp post stands by a hawthorn hedge, and next to it is a hole in the hedge which leads down to a modest field path.

I followed the field path east-south-east towards a long chalk hilltop, visible as a whaleback in the darkness. Northwards was the glow of the city, and the red blip of aircraft warning lights from towers and cranes. Dry snow squeaked underfoot. A fox crossed the field to my west at a trot. The moonlight was so bright that everything cast a crisp moon-shadow: black on white, stark as woodcut. Wands of dogwood made zebra-hide of the path; hawthorn threw a lattice. The trees were frilled with snow, which lay to the depth of an inch or more on branches and twigs. The snow caused everything to exceed itself and the moonlight caused everything to double itself.

This is the path I’ve probably walked more often than any other in my life. It’s a young way; maybe fifty years old, no more. Its easterly hedge is mostly hawthorn and around eight feet high; its westerly hedge is a younger mix of blackthorn, hawthorn, hazel and dogwood. It is not normally a beautiful place, but there’s a feeling of secrecy to it that I appreciate, hedged in as it is on both sides, and running discreetly as it does between field and road. In summer I’ve seen small rolling clouds of goldfinches rising from teasel-heads and then curling ahead to settle again, retreating in the measure that I approach them.

That evening the path was a grey snow alley, and I followed it up to the hanger of beech trees that tops the whaleback hill, passing off the clay and onto the chalk proper. At the back brink of the beechwood I ducked through an ivy-trailed gap, and was into the forty-acre field that lies beyond.

At first sight the field seemed flawless; floe country. Then I set out across it and started to see the signs. The snow was densely printed with the tracks of birds and animals — archives of the hundreds of journeys made since the snow had stopped. There were neat deer slots, partridge prints like arrowheads pointing the way, and the pads of rabbits. Lines of tracks curved away from me across the field, disappearing into shadow or hedge. The moonlight, falling at a slant, deepened the dark in the nearer tracks so that they appeared full as inkwells. To all these marks I added my own.” (5-7)

35. The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands / Ed. Huw Lewis-Jones

This volume gets the award for the most beautiful book of 2018. It’s chock-full of delightful, imaginary maps from Pilgrim’s Progress, Middle Earth, Treasure Island, the world of Harry Potter, and more. We all learned at a young age that if you find a map at the start of a book, then an adventure and a journey is about to begin. I can still see in my mind’s eye the Western Woods, building up to the mountains of Ettinsmoor, and then Cair Paravel rising to the east, all because C.S. Lewis included a map at the beginning of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Maps don’t just speak to our soles; they speak to our souls.

36. The Soul in Paraphrase / Leland Ryken

My favorite book of poetry this year was this excellent collection that includes 150 choice poems with insightful comments by Leland Ryken. I close with the words of the great George Herbert, from his poem, “The Elixir”:

Teach me, my God and King,
In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in anything
To do it as for Thee. (101)

As always, happy reading and Happy New Year!

–Nick Roark

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

The Best Books I Read This Year (2017)

These are my favorite books that I read in 2017. Better late than never. There are 36 selections and I thoroughly enjoyed every last one of them.

My Top 12:

1. Christ Alone / Stephen Wellum

My favorite book this year was a beautiful volume on the person and work of Jesus Christ. Wellum argues convincingly that our understanding of who Jesus is and what He does must be developed from Scripture and its entire storyline. This is clearly written, exegetical theology at its finest.

There are many good things in life which legitimately demand our attention. Yet, it is far too easy to forget who is central to everything, namely our Lord Jesus. Given who our Lord is as God the Son incarnate; given what He has done for us as our new covenant head and incomparable Redeemer; given the absolute necessity of His work; given that He has represented us in obedient life and stood in our place in substitutionary death to pay for our sin and accomplish our eternal salvation; given that He is the all-sufficient Savior who meets all of our needs as our great prophet, priest, and king; given all of this, our only reasonable response is to submit ourselves to Him in complete trust, confidence, love, joy, worship, and obedience. He demands and deserves nothing less. (312)


2. How To Understand And Apply The New Testament / Andrew Naselli

There are lots of books that seek to explain how to interpret and apply the Bible. But I’d wager this is the only one in which you’ll find references to B.B. Warfield, D.A. Carson, Harry Potter, and Lebron James. Naselli is a fun and faithful guide who helped me look at the Book more carefully and responsibly. Chapter 5 on tracing the logical argument of a passage by arcing, bracketing, or phrasing is worth the price of the book.

Don’t miss the whole point of exegesis. It’s to know and worship God. So I pray that this book will help you exegete the text in a way that spreads a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ. Exegesis and theology are thrilling because they help you know and worship God. And only God satisfies. You most glorify God when He most satisfies you. He’s better than sex and shopping and new iPhones and hot pizza and chocolate and money and power and anything else your heart may crave. God reigns, saves, and satisfies through covenant for His glory in Christ. That is what you get to see from so many angles when you look at the Book. And when you understand exegesis and theology better, the praise gets richer. So why wouldn’t you look at the Book? (333)

3. Calvin’s Company of Pastors / Scott Manetsch

This book provides “a systematic study of Geneva’s ministers, their pastoral theology, and practical ministry activities during nearly three-quarters of a century from 1536 to 1609,” (8). Manetsch’s meticulous research is brimming with Reformational wisdom and includes one of the best quotes on heaven that I’ve ever read.

4. The Lord’s Prayer / Thomas Watson

When I read Thomas Watson, I often think: “I should read more Thomas Watson.” He’s the most Tweetable of all the Puritans. Short, pithy, and heart-searching:

“Affliction can hurt a man only while he is living, but sin hurts him when he is dead.” (309)

“Our Saviour will have us pray, ‘Give us bread this day,’ to teach us to live every day as if it were our last.” (202)

“God’s glory is as dear to a saint as his own salvation. And that this glory may be promoted he endeavors the conversion of souls.” (44)

“To forgive sin, is for God to cast our sins into the depths of the sea. ‘Thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea,’ (Micah 7:19). This implies God’s burying them out of sight, that they shall not rise up in judgment against us. God will throw them in, not as cork that riseth again, but as lead that sinks to the bottom.” (215)

“The pearl of price, the Lord Jesus, is the quintessence of all good things. To give us Christ is more than if God had given us all the world. He can make more worlds, but He has no more Christs to bestow.” (206)

“Here is comfort for such as can, upon good grounds, call God ‘Father.’ There is more sweetness in this word ‘Father’ than if we had ten thousand worlds.” (15)

You can you see why I plan to mine the riches of Watson’s Body of Divinity in 2018.

5. Majesty in Misery, Vol. 3 / Charles Spurgeon

I read Spurgeon because he consistently leaves me staggered by the glory and the grace of Jesus Christ. This volume is the third in a trilogy of sermons focusing on the passion of the Christ. In a sermon entitled “Christ’s Dying Words For His Church,” Spurgeon writes:

“It appears to me, that if Christ finished the work for us, He will finish the work in us.” (209)

Isn’t that wonderful? I’ve not even come close to reading all that Spurgeon wrote. I’m not sure anyone actually has. But I’ve realized that the man could write on just about anything and make it interesting. Even mosquitoes! But this much I know: Spurgeon on the cross of Christ is not to be missed.

6. All That Is In God / James Dolezal

God is simple. That is, God isn’t compounded or made up of parts. He’s not the sum of His parts. God’s attributes, His excellencies, are identical with His essence. God isn’t just loving; He is love (1 John 4:8). God isn’t just holy; He is holiness (1 John 1:5). This is what classical Christian theism teaches. Dolezal is concerned by recent denials of this vital truth by advocates of theistic mutualism: “The chief problem I address in this work is the abandonment of God’s simplicity and of the infinite pure actuality of His being.” This book on God’s simplicity isn’t simple. It’s what C.S. Lewis called “a tough bit of theology.” But, I believe if you work your way through it carefully and prayerfully, then you’ll find that your heart sings unbidden before the only Sovereign, the immortal God who is the great I AM.

7. God Is / Mark Jones

A few years ago, Mark Jones penned a delightful book called Knowing Christ. Jones does something similar in this volume where he focuses his exegetical attention on God’s attributes. In 27 brief chapters, Jones glories in the God who is Triune, simple, Spirit, infinite, eternal, unchangeable, independent, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, Yahweh, blessed, glorious, majestic, sovereign, love, good, patient, merciful, wise, holy, faithful, gracious, just, angry, and anthropomorphic. This book is worth reading simply for all the amazing citations from Puritans like Stephen Charnock and John Owen and Thomas Watson.

8. The Story of Scripture / Matthew Emerson

I spent June 2016 – June 2017 doing a deep dive in several biblical theology volumes as research for a writing project. Many books in this field are rich but technical and advanced. For example, one book that’s served me well while preaching through the Gospel according to Mark has been Isaiah’s New Exodus in Mark by Rikki Watts. It’s illuminating but also rather thick at times. So when I come across a book of biblical theology that’s clearly written, worshipful, accessible, and grounded and governed by the biblical text, I’m eager to share it with others. Matthew Emerson’s new book is just that. I knew it was going to be an outstanding work even before I finished reading the acknowledgements:

And I am eternally and fundamentally grateful to our Triune God, without whom I would still be blind to the truths of Scripture and deaf to its call to repent and believe in the incarnate, crucified-and-resurrected Son of God. I would be wandering in a story of my own making, a story without meaning and point. Instead, because of the graciousness of God in Christ, I am by the power of his Spirit finding my place in his story, the story of the world that finds its center in the person and work of Jesus.

Emerson tells the Story, and he tells it quite well. See for yourself.

9. Marriage and the Mystery of the Gospel / Ray Ortlund

It’s been said before that the Bible begins (Genesis 2) and ends (Revelation 19) with a wedding. Ray Ortlund humbly and beautifully unpacks the meaning of marriage in his typical Gospel-centered way.

Marriage is not a human invention; it is a divine revelation. Its design never was our own made-up arrangement of infinite malleability. It was given to us, at the beginning of all things, as a brightly shining fixity of eternal significance. We might not always live up to its true grandeur. None of us does so perfectly. But we have no right to redefine it, and we have every reason to revere   it. Only the Bible imparts to us a vision of marriage so transcendent and glorious, far beyond human variation and even human failure. Marriage is of God and reveals a wonderful truth about God. And we have no right to change the face of God in the world. All we can rightly do is receive what God has revealed with gladness and humility. (11)

10. Missions / Andy Johnson

This wise 9Marks volume wins “The Book I’ve Given Away Most to My Congregation in 2017 Award.” The strength of this little book lies in the confidence it produces in Christ’s unhindered gospel and in His unstoppable mission:

We should have confidence because we know the mission will not fail. We may fail in our faithfulness, but God will not fail in His mission. Christ will have the nations for His inheritance. Frantic speculation and guilt are weak motivators compared with the truth of God’s unstoppable plan to rescue every child for whom Christ died. Christ will not lose any of those whom the Father has given Him, and God has chosen to use us– in countless local churches– as the agents of His gospel triumph. (120)

11. The Tech-Wise Family / Andy Crouch
12. 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You / Tony Reinke

I’m grateful to God for help in thinking through the questions related to technology and family and Christian discipleship. Both Andy Crouch and Tony Reinke have written excellent books that serve the the church in these areas. The scope of Crouch’s volume is more broad, while Reinke’s is more narrow. Yet both are hugely helpful. Crouch notes:

Technology is in its proper place when it helps us bond with the real people we have been given to love. It’s out of its proper place when we end up bonding with people at a distance, like celebrities, whom we will never meet.

Technology is in its proper place when it starts great conversations. It’s out of its proper place when it prevents us from talking with and listening to one another. Technology is in its proper place when it helps us take care of the fragile bodies we inhabit. It’s out of its proper place when it promises to help us escape the limits and vulnerabilities of those bodies altogether.

Technology is in its proper place when it helps us acquire skill and mastery of domains that are the glory of human culture (sports, music, the arts, cooking, writing, accounting; the list could go on and on). When we let technology replace the development of skill with passive consumption, something has gone wrong.

Technology is in its proper place when it helps us cultivate awe for the created world we are part of and responsible for stewarding (our family spent some joyful and awefilled hours when our children were ill middle school watching the beautifully produced BBC series Planet Earth). It’s out of its proper place when it keeps us from engaging the wild and wonderful natural world with all our senses.

Technology is in its proper place only when we use it with intention and care. If there’s one thing I’ve discovered about technology, it’s that it doesn’t stay in its proper place on its own; much like my children’s toys and stuffed creatures and minor treasures, it finds its way underfoot all over the house and all over our lives. If we aren’t intentional and careful, we’ll end up with a quite extraordinary mess. (20-21)

Reinke rightly observes that “technology tends to feed our vanity and kill our wonder.” (207-208) Does this mean you should you trade in your smartphone for a dumbphone? Maybe. Reinke concludes his volume with several helpful diagnostic questions:

1. What does my smartphone cost me per year if I add up the price of the device, insurance protection, covers and cases, and monthly service?
2. Do I need mobile web access to fulfill my calling in vocation or ministry?
3. Is texting essential to my care for others? Do those texts need to be seen in real time? And is the smartphone the only way to do it?
4. Do I need mobile web access to legitimately serve others?
5. Do I need mobile web access to navigate unfamiliar cities? Is the device an essential part of my travels?
6. Do I need my smartphone to take advantage of coupons in stores? How much money would I save instead without a smartphone data plan?
7. Can my web access wait? Is the convenience of mobile web access something I can functionally replace with structured time at a laptop or desktop computer later?
8. Can I get along just as well with a dumbphone, a WiFi hotspot, an iPod, or a tablet?
9. Can I listen to audio and podcasts in other ways (through an iPod, for example)?
10. Have I simply grown addicted to my phone? If so, can the problem be solved with moderation, or do I need to just cut it off?
11. Do the mobile lures of my phone insulate me from people and real needs around me?
12. Do I want my kids to see me gazing at a handheld screen so much as they grow up? What does this habit project to them and to others around   me? (197-198)

These two books helped me rethink the way I use my iPhone and the ways I use/don’t use social media. They’ve produced good conversations with my bride this year and, I’m sure, these conversations will continue into 2018. I’m grateful to God for both of these brothers and for their books.

Honorable Mention: The Bible Project Coffee Table Book / The Bible Project

The book my three children enjoyed the most this year was definitely this labor of love from the good folks at The Bible Project. This book is spectacular. Imagine having a literary diagram and written summary of every book in Scripture. It’s a visual learner’s dream come true. If you’ve been helped at all by their Read Scripture videos, consider getting a copy of the print version of this series.

My Next 12:

13. Deep Work / Cal Newport

Cal Newport is a best-selling author. He’s a millennial. He’s an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University. And yet he doesn’t have any social media accounts. Why? Because Newport is committed to deep work, which he defines as follows: “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.” (3) Newport argues persuasively that deep work is valuable, rare, and meaningful. His chapter on quitting social media is the most provocative in the book. If you want a taste of Newport’s message, watch his TedTalk on the subject.

14. Killers of the Flower Moon and The Devil & Sherlock Holmes / David Grann

David Grann is one of my favorite investigative feature writers from The New Yorker. In 2004, he wrote a piece about those who search for the mysterious giant squid entitled “The Squid Hunters.” I’ve been a huge fan ever since. His other famous long-reads include:

You can find other interesting examples of his work in the collection The Devil & Sherlock Holmes. But if you’re only going to read one thing by Grann, it should be Killers of the Flower Moon. He weaves a tragic and disturbing tale of greed, racism, deceit, murder, and justice:

In the early twentieth century, the members of the Osage Nation became the richest people per capita in the world, after oil was discovered under their reservation, in Oklahoma. Then they began to be mysteriously murdered off. In 1923, after the death toll reached more than two dozen, the case was taken up by the Bureau of Investigation, then an obscure branch of the Justice Department, which was later renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The case was among the F.B.I.’s first major homicide investigations. After J. Edgar Hoover was appointed the bureau’s director, in 1924, he sent a team of undercover operatives, including a Native American agent, to the Osage reservation.

You can read the book’s opening chapter article here to whet your appetite. But I promise that you’ll want to see for yourself how this sad and shocking story ends.

15. Hero of the Empire and Destiny of the Republic / Candice Millard

It seems impossible for Candice Millard to write an uninteresting book. Last year, I picked up The River of Doubt, a tale about Theodore Roosevelt’s quest into the Amazon. I loved it. So I went on a quest of my own to devour everything she’s written. If you like reading well-told history, you’ll dig Candice Millard’s books. Hero is about the young Winston Churchill’s dramatic escape from a prison camp during the Boer War. Destiny covers the sad and shocking assassination of President James Garfield, an extraordinary man of whom I knew far too little about. Both are excellent reads.

16. Battle For Middle-Earth / Fleming Rutledge

In the flurry of “best books of the year” posts, I saw a slew of positive endorsements for Rutledge’s magnum opus Crucifixion. While I read and appreciated some aspects of this work, I actually enjoyed her theological commentary on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings far more. I make it a point to try and read LOTR every year, and Rutledge was my companion this year as I journeyed with Frodo and Sam from Hobbiton in the Shire to Mount Doom and back again. Her comments throughout are textual, insightful, and illuminating. For those of us who often breath the sweet air of Middle Earth, this is a book worth reading.

17. The Secret History / Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt’s most famous novel, The Goldfinch, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014. Her debut novel, The Secret History, is not as well known and, perhaps, for good reason. It’s nerdy. It’s literary. It’s bookish. It’s highfalutin. It’s gloomy. It’s way too long. It’s filled with untranslated Greek. It’s not for the faint of heart. But it’s got this startling opening paragraph, and that’s all it took to reel me in:

The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation. He’d been dead for ten days before they found him, you know. It was one of the biggest manhunts in Vermont history—state troopers, the FBI, even an army helicopter; the college closed, the dye factory in Hampden shut down, people coming from New Hampshire, upstate New York, as far away as Boston. (1)

18. True Grit / Charles Portis

Speaking of Donna Tartt, she once wrote:

It’s commonplace to say that we ‘love’ a book, but when we say it, we really mean all sorts of things. Sometimes we mean only that we have read a book once and enjoyed it; sometimes we mean that a book was important to us in our youth, though we haven’t picked it up in years; sometimes what we ‘love’ is an impressionistic idea glimpsed from afar as opposed to the experience of wallowing and plowing through an actual text, and all too often people claim to love books they haven’t read at all. Then there are the books we love so much that we read them every year or two, and know passages of them by heart; that cheer us when we are sick or sad and never fail to amuse us when we take them up at random; that we press on all our friends and acquaintances; and to which we return again and again with undimmed enthusiasm over the course of a lifetime. I think it goes without saying that most books that engage readers on this very high level are masterpieces; and this is why I believe that True Grit by Charles Portis is a masterpiece. Not only have I loved True Grit since I was a child; it is a book loved passionately by my entire family. I cannot think of another novel—any novel—which is so delightful to so many disparate age groups and literary tastes. (215-216)

I love True Grit, too. What’s it about? In the opening paragraph, the young Mattie Ross sets the stage:

People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day. I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band. Here is what happened. (9)

The dialogue in this novel is simply superb. One of my favorite exchanges in the book happens when Mattie is trying to find someone to avenge her father’s death:

“Who is the best marshal they have?”

The sheriff thought on it for a minute. He said, “I would have to weigh that proposition. There is near about two hundred of them. I reckon William Waters is the best tracker. He is a half-breed Comanche and it is something to see, watching him cut for sign. The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don’t enter into his thinking. He loves to pull a cork. Now L. T. Quinn, he brings his prisoners in alive. He may let one get by now and then but he believes even the worst of men is entitled to a fair shake. Also the court does not pay any fees for dead men. Quinn is a good peace officer and a lay preacher to boot. He will not plant evidence or abuse a prisoner. He is straight as a string. Yes, I will say Quinn is about the best they have.”

I said, “Where can I find this Rooster?” (22-23)

And you’ll also find surprising theological jewels like this one:

The Indian woman spoke good English and I learned to my surprise that she too was a Presbyterian. She had been schooled by a missionary. What preachers we had in those days! Truly they took the word into “the highways and hedges.” Mrs. Bagby was not a Cumberland Presbyterian but a member of the U.S. or Southern Presbyterian Church. I too am now a member of the Southern Church. I say nothing against the Cumberlands. They broke with the Presbyterian Church because they did not believe a preacher needed a lot of formal education. That is all right but they are not sound on Election. They do not fully accept it. I confess it is a hard doctrine, running contrary to our earthly ideas of fair play, but I can see no way around it. Read I Corinthians 6:13 and II Timothy 1:9, 10. Also I Peter 1:2, 19, 20 and Romans 11:7. There you have it. It was good for Paul and Silas and it is good enough for me. It is good enough for you too. (109-110)

19. The Last Kingdom / Bernard Cornwell

Have you ever discovered a book you enjoy and then find out that it’s the first in a larger series of stories? My favorite historical fiction series is the sweeping Aubrey-Maturin collection by Patrick O’Brian. I’ve just begun the fourth novel, The Mauritius Command, and I’m thrilled to know that 16 more of these beautiful sea adventures still await me. I had the same experience when I came across The Last Kingdom, the first of ten volumes in Cornwell’s Saxon Tales. This is the exciting—yet little known—story of the making of England in the 9th and 10th centuries, the years in which King Alfred the Great, his son and grandson defeated the Danish Vikings who had invaded and occupied three of England’s four kingdoms. Here’s a flavor of Cornwell’s writing, when the main character sees the Viking ships approaching for the very first time:

And then I saw them. Three ships. In my memory they slid from a bank of sea mist, and perhaps they did, but memory is a faulty thing and my other images of that day are of a clear, cloudless sky, so perhaps there was no mist, but it seems to me that one moment the sea was empty and the next there were three ships coming from the south. Beautiful things. They appeared to rest weightless on the ocean, and when their oars dug into the waves they skimmed the water. Their prows and sterns curled high and were tipped with gilded beasts, serpents, and dragons, and it seemed to me that on that far-off summer’s day the three boats danced on the water, propelled by the rise and fall of the silver wings of their oar banks. The sun flashed off the wet blades, splinters of light, then the oars dipped, were tugged, and the beast-headed boats surged, and I stared entranced. The three boats had been rowing northward, their square sails furled on their long yards, but when we turned back south to canter homeward on the sand so that our horses’ manes tossed like wind-blown spray and the hooded hawks mewed in alarm, the ships turned with us. Where the cliff had collapsed to leave a ramp of broken turf we rode inland, the horses heaving up the slope, and from there we galloped along the coastal path to our fortress. (5)

20. 1984 / George Orwell

The best futuristic fiction is often utterly prescient. If you haven’t reread 1984 since high school, it’s high time you do so.

“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” (3)
“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.” (31)
“Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.” (44)
“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” (154)
“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” (168)
“For the first time he perceived that if you want to keep a secret you must also hide it from yourself.” (177)
“He loved Big Brother.” (187)

21. Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 / Volker Ullrich

Michiko Kakutani, writing in The New York Times, once asked, “How did Adolf Hitler — described by one eminent magazine editor in 1930 as a ‘half-insane rascal,’ a ‘pathetic dunderhead,’ a “nowhere fool,’ a ‘big mouth’ — rise to power in the land of Goethe and Beethoven? What persuaded millions of ordinary Germans to embrace him and his doctrine of hatred? How did this ‘most unlikely pretender to high state office’ achieve absolute power in a once democratic country and set it on a course of monstrous horror?” Ullrich supplies the tragic answer in this first of a two-volume series. It’s long, at over 1,000 pages. But it’s very well written. A timely read.

22. Theodore Rex / Edmund Morris

I spent much of this year hanging out again with Teddy Roosevelt. Last year just wasn’t enough time for me to get to know him, and after spending the year going slowly through volume two in Morris’ magisterial series, I’ve once again been entertained and amazed at the whirling dervish of personality that was Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.. He was quite a piece of work. There are so many splendid examples of the Rooseveltian intensity, strenuosity, and enchantment in Theodore Rex.  I commend the book to you and end by quoting from the personal reflections of Captain Archibald Willingham de Graffenreid Butt (what a name!), the President’s military aide from Georgia who visited Teddy at his home in Sagmore Hill:

Captain Butt stayed at Sagamore Hill for four more days, enchanted by the Roosevelt family, while they in turn found him to be unflappable, tireless, well-bred, and discreet. Like the President, he was a heroic trencherman, and matched Roosevelt plate by oversized plate, from double helpings of peaches and cream for breakfast, followed by fried liver and bacon and hominy grits with salt and butter (“Why, Mr. President, this is a Southern breakfast-), through three-course lunches and meat dinners suppurating with fat. “You think me a large eater,” Butt wrote in his next letter home. “Well, I am small in comparison to him. But he has a tremendous body and really enjoys each mouthful. I never saw anyone with a more wholesome appetite, and then he complains of not losing flesh. I felt like asking him today: ‘How can you expect to.)’ ”

Between meals, there was much strenuous activity. Butt discovered during a midsummer deluge (as Ambassador Jusserand had discovered during a February snowstorm) that Roosevelt considered tennis to be a game for all seasons. The sodden ball was smashed to and fro. Swimming and water-fighting, too, were by their nature compatible with rain. When heat built up in the woods, the President was impelled to seize an ax and get in fuel for the winter. “I think Mr. Roosevelt cuts down trees merely for the pleasure of hearing them fall,” Butt wrote. “Just as he swims and plays tennis merely for the pleasure of straining his muscles and shouting. Yet when he reads he has such powers of concentration that he hears no noise around him and is unable to say whether people have been in the room or not.” The President’s strenuosity extended even to ghost stories. “I want ghosts who do things. I don’t care for the Henry James kind of ghosts. I want real sepulchral ghosts, the kind that knock you over and eat fire… none of your weak, shallow apparitions.”

Much of Roosevelt’s library time that weekend was devoted to books and maps about Africa. He talked about it continually. “You know how you feel when you have all but finished one job and are eager to get at another. Well, that is how I feel. I sometimes feel that I am no longer President, I am so anxious to get on this trip.” He hoped that by the time he came down the Nile, to meet up with Edith in Cairo, he would be “sufficiently forgotten” to return home “without being a target for the newspapers.” Winthrop asked what quarry he feared the most in East Africa. The answer came promptly: “You can kill the lion by shooting him in any part of the body, but his alertness and agility make him the most dangerous to me.”

Roosevelt moved on to discuss the King of Abyssinia, Albert Beveridge’s affectations, Shakespeare’s “compressed thought,” and the Book of Common Prayer, with interspersed witticisms that had his listeners roaring with laughter. “His humour is so elusive, his wit so dashing and his thoughts so incisive that I find he is the hardest man to quote that I have ever heard talk,” Butt wrote. “In conversation he is a perfect flying squirrel, and before you have grasped one pungent thought he goes off on another limb whistling for you to follow.” (532-533)


23. Hellhound On His Trail / Hampton Sides

This book tells the story of one of the darkest moments in America’s history, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Sides then details the subsequent search for the killer, James Earl Ray, which was the largest manhunt in American history.

24. Ten Restaurants That Changed America / Paul Freedman

Almost half the meals eaten in America take place outside the home. I’ve eaten at restaurants all my life but I’d never once considered the history of restaurants in America until I read this book:

This book is not about the ten best restaurants that ever existed in the United States. Some of the establishments on our list have served marvelous food; others changed how we eat, even if in retrospect their innovations don’t seem so wonderful or their food fails to satisfy today’s tastes. The selection is based on influence and exemplification: the importance of each restaurant for setting or reflecting trends in what Americans think about food and particularly dining out. Culinary fashions, as social history shows us, are determined not just by the upper classes who pride themselves on discernment but by the enthusiasms of less pretentious people for modest but ubiquitous places to eat, such as coffee shops, ice-cream parlors, or highway restaurants. What we eat today is the result of the innovations of these ten restaurants.

The opening chapter on Delmonico’s is, as you might expect, mouth-watering.

My Final 12:

25. Shark Drunk / Morten Strøksnes

Perhaps the most unique book I read in 2017 was subtitled, “The Art of Catching a Large Shark from a Tiny Rubber Dinghy in a Big Ocean.” Even though the author writes from an utterly secular perspective, I still found times when his description of creation led me to worship. I pray Mr. Strøksnes comes to know the One deserving of all worship, the One who made the Greenland shark as a display of His matchless glory:

On land, life is lived horizontally. Almost everything takes place on the ground, or at most on a level with the tallest trees. Of course birds can fly higher, but even they spend the majority of their time near the ground. The sea, on the other hand, is vertical, an interconnected column of water with an average depth of approximately 12,000 feet. And there is life from top to bottom. The vast majority of living space on earth, so to speak, can be found in the sea. All other landscapes, including the rain forests, pale in comparison. If we combine what we know about the ocean’s depths, from a purely logical point of view we can conclude that everything found on land—all the mountains, ridges, fields, forests, deserts, even the cities and other man-made phenomena—all this could easily fit into the sea. The average elevation on land is only 2,700 feet. Even if we dumped the whole Himalayan range into the deepest part of the ocean, it would make only a big splash before the mountain chain sank and disappeared without a trace. There is so much water in the ocean that if we imagined the entire seafloor rising up to what is now the surface, all the continents would be totally covered under many miles of salt water. Only the tops of the tallest mountains would stick up out of the ocean. (35)

There is an enormous amount of water in outer space. But in our own solar system, water—in liquid form—presumably exists only on our planet. The earth is the perfect distance from the sun. If we had been farther out in the solar system, all our water would have been in the form of ice or vapor, as in the sperm-like tails of comets racing away from the sun. The earth is big enough for gravity to hold the atmosphere in place, even though that’s not a given. And we’re not close enough to any giant planet with so much gravitational pull that every flow tide would make a wave several hundred feet high wash over the whole planet, like in the movie Interstellar. On Neptune, harsh conditions prevail. Icy winds blowing at more than twelve hundred miles per hour are constantly sweeping across the planet’s polished white surface. The average temperature is about minus 350 degrees Fahrenheit. The distance from our earth to the sun is such that most of our water is liquid. Without these conditions, the water would be ice or gas, if it was present at all. And life as we know it wouldn’t be able to exist. (112)

Moonlight takes more than a second to reach earth. Sunlight takes eight minutes. It occurs to me that astronomers are archaeologists or geologists, searching for fossils of light. Nothing happens in real time; everything we see is from the past. We’re always lagging slightly behind. Even in our interactions, even inside our own heads, we’re a millionth of a second behind. Our own Milky Way, which is one among billions of galaxies, is a hundred thousand light-years in diameter. (113)

Today the sea is not quiet. We know that even before we reach the seaward side. But it’s not outright hostile either. The fourteen-footer sits noticeably low in the water, for obvious reasons. Luckily the sea isn’t too rough, just long breakers that won’t put our heavy, listless boat to the test. Of course that could all change, and much faster than the time it would take to get back to harbor. The boat could serve as a deep freezer. It probably contains enough ice for two thousand cocktails, and four thousand whisky on the rocks. A couple of drinks would be great right now, to stop me from worrying about heading into the open Lofoten Sea in this frozen boat. The seagulls are silent, the snow sparkling white. Even the sun seems cold. For me, coming from the big city only yesterday, the dazzling clear surroundings and the wide horizon are refreshment for my soul. Yet there’s something about the sea today that has me concerned. What could be lurking behind the silvery-white and viscous fluidity? It’s like staring into a glass eye. (169)

To find out what’s lurking just below the service, you’ll have to read Shark Drunk for yourself.

26. Off Speed / Terry McDermott

The best sports book I read in 2017 was far and away this gem of a baseball book by Terry McDermott. He uses the perfect game tossed by King Felix in August 2012 against Tampa Bay as a backdrop to wax eloquent about the sweet science of pitching a baseball, that five-ounce ball roughly the size of your fist. McDermott covers the history and mechanics of the fastball, curveball, spitball, sinker, knuckleball, slider, split, cutter, and change-up.

Consider the major league hitter’s basic problem. The pitcher stands on a small hill sixty feet six inches, give or take a foot, depending on where in the batter’s box the hitter stands. The pitcher strides forward before he throws, and, by the time he releases the ball, has already shrunk the distance between him and the hitter by almost 10 percent. An average fastball from an average pitcher leaves his hand at about 90 mph. A pitcher of average size throwing at average speed gives the hitter approximately four-tenths of a second to see, identify, and attack a pitch. That is about how long it takes to blink your eyes twice. The batter is using an implement uniquely unsuitable to accomplishing his task. A baseball bat is normally somewhat less than a yard long; it weighs somewhere between twenty-nine and thirty-six ounces. At its thickest part it is 2.25 inches in diameter. If the bat is to strike the ball solidly, the ball must hit near the center of the bat’s circumference about six inches from the bat’s end. The spot varies from bat to bat, depending on the type and hardness of the wood and the shape and weight of the bat, but at its largest this spot is about five square inches in area. Think of that for a moment. A hitter must swing a yardlong piece of round wood in such a way that he contacts a small round ball moving faster than he is legally allowed to drive his car. The contact has to occur within a fivesquare-inch area of the wood. The plane of the strike zone varies from hitter to hitter but is theoretically seventeen inches wide and approximately two feet tall. Of course, the zone is not a plane at all, but a volume of approximately 4.5 cubic feet. It extends from the front of home plate to the rear, and a ball passing through it at any point is supposed to be a strike. In real life, the zone tends to be wider and shorter than the rulebook stipulates. Nonetheless, the batter is defending more than four cubic feet of space with a five-square-inch weapon, and he has to swing the bat at a speed of 70 mph in order to move it from his shoulder to the center of the plate. “It is far more likely that the pitcher will accidentally throw the ball in the way of the hitter’s bat than it is for the hitter to time the pitch perfectly and execute flawless swing mechanics to achieve 100 percent on-time contact on their own,” according to Perry Husband, who has studied pitcher-batter interactions extensively. The deck, in other words, is stacked. (7-8)

Early baseball was a hitter’s sport. Hitters could request pitchers to throw the ball in specific locations. Teams routinely scored dozens of runs, sometimes as many as one hundred. Pitchers were placed inside a box about forty feet from the hitters and were required to throw the ball underhanded. They were also supposed to throw the ball as slowly as possible. To ensure the speed limit was adhered to, the pitcher was required to keep his wrist stiff. The rule makers might as well have served the ball to hitters on a platter, which was exactly the point. The rule specified: “The ball must be pitched, not thrown, for the bat. ” It was more like slow-pitch softball, or coach-pitch Little League, than the game we know today. (26)

When a man throws a baseball, it travels at whatever speed he is able to impart to it through the levers of his throwing motion. There is an upper limit, imposed by human physiology, on this speed. It appears to be something less than 110 mph, perhaps as low as 106 mph. By manipulating his grip on the ball and the motion of his wrist at release, the pitcher imparts spin to the pitch. As the ball moves through the air, the spin causes the ball to move in a certain, predictable direction. Because of the spin, the air on one side of the ball moves faster than the other, resulting in uneven pressure on the ball, making it curve in the direction of the lower pressure. This is known as the Magnus Force. Additionally, no matter how fast a ball is thrown, gravity pulls the ball toward the earth as it hurtles homeward. Finally, air resistance, or drag, slows the ball down. A typical major league pitch will lose about 10 percent of its release velocity by the time it gets to the hitter. A 100 mph fastball will be traveling at about 90 mph when it reaches the vicinity of home plate…In the time it takes your brain to register that a baseball has been thrown at it, the baseball has already eliminated a third of the distance between you and it. (81-82, 83-84)

You don’t have to know what Magnus Force is to enjoy this book.

27. The Genius of Birds / Jennifer Ackerman

Reading books is often an exercise in humility because you realize how little you actually know. There’s so much in this God-spoke world that we simply don’t know. I was humbled throughout The Genius of Birds. I was provoked by the title. What’s so special about birds? Well, it turns out, quite a lot actually.

For a long time, the knock on birds was that they’re stupid. Beady eyed and nut brained. Reptiles with wings. Pigeon heads. Turkeys. They fly into windows, peck at their reflections, buzz into power lines, blunder into extinction. Our language reflects our disrespect. Something worthless or unappealing is “for the birds.” An ineffectual politician is a “lame duck.” To “lay an egg” is to flub a performance. To be “henpecked” is to be harassed with persistent nagging. “Eating crow” is eating humble pie. The expression “bird brain,” for a stupid, foolish, or scatterbrained person, entered the English language in the early 1920s because people thought of birds as mere flying, pecking automatons, with brains so small they had no capacity for thought at all. That view is a gone goose. In the past two decades or so, from fields and laboratories around the world have flowed examples of bird species capable of mental feats comparable to those found in primates. There’s a kind of bird that creates colorful designs out of berries, bits of glass, and blossoms to attract females, and another kind that hides up to thirty-three thousand seeds scattered over dozens of square miles and remembers where it put them months later. There’s a species that solves a classic puzzle at nearly the same pace as a five-year-old child, and one that’s an expert at picking locks. There are birds that can count and do simple math, make their own tools, move to the beat of music, comprehend basic principles of physics, remember the past, and plan for the future. (1-2)

Many bird species are highly social. They breed in colonies, bathe in groups, roost in congregations, forage in flocks. They eavesdrop. They argue. They cheat. They deceive and manipulate. They kidnap. They divorce. They display a strong sense of fairness. They give gifts. They play keep-away and tug-of-war with twigs, strands of Spanish moss, bits of gauze. They pilfer from their neighbors. They warn their young away from strangers. They tease. They share. They cultivate social networks. They vie for status. They kiss to console one another. They teach their young. They blackmail their parents. They summon witnesses to the death of a peer. (101)

The sheer profusion and precision of a mockingbird’s imitated songs is a marvel. A tally of one mockingbird’s tunes captured twenty imitations of calls and songs per minute: nuthatches, kingfisher, northern cardinal, kestrel, even the high-pitched seep seep seep begging of a mockingbird chick. The Arnold Arboretum mocker of Boston was said to mimic thirty-nine birdsongs, fifty birdcalls, and the notes of a frog and a cricket. You can tell where a mockingbird lives by the songs he sings. So particular is a song to its bird that individual birds within a population may share only 10 percent of their song patterns. When it came to describing the mockingbird’s imitative skills, the ornithologist Edward Howe Forbush dropped all pretense of scientific detachment, trumpeting the mocker as “the king of song” surpassing “the whole feathered choir.” No wonder the Native Americans of South Carolina called the bird Cencontlatolly, or “Four Hundred Tongues.” It’s only a small exaggeration. Mockingbirds regularly imitate as many as two hundred different songs. (147)

Birds wearing tiny geolocator backpacks have revealed the details of their marathon migrations. The tiny blackpoll warbler, a bird of boreal forest, leaves New England and eastern Canada each fall and migrates to South America, flying nonstop over the Atlantic to its staging grounds in Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Greater Antilles—a flight of up to seventeen hundred miles—in just two or three days. The Arctic tern, a bird who lives by his love of long daylight and bent for high mileage, circles the world in orbit with the seasons, flying from its nesting grounds in Greenland and Iceland to its wintering grounds off the coast of Antarctica—a round-trip of almost forty-four thousand miles. In an average thirty-year lifetime, then, a tern may fly the equivalent of three trips to the moon and back. How in the world does it find its way? How does a red knot resting at Cape May on its spring journey north from Tierra del Fuego know how to pinpoint last year’s breeding grounds in the distant northern Arctic? How does a European bee-eater traveling south from its summer season in a farm field in Spain find a course over the Sahara to its familiar patch of West African forest? How does a bristle-thighed curlew or a sooty shearwater steer homeward over a vast and featureless expanse of sea? As one who gets easily lost in a small patch of woodland, I’m in awe of the navigating abilities of birds. How can they accomplish a feat few humans can carry out even with the help of a compass? (199)

The fog is lifting. I can begin to make out the undulant curtain of the Blue Ridge Mountains across the valley, purpled by the haze. From a grove of trees nearby comes the piercing zeet of a chickadee. I wander over, and there is the bird perched in a pine tree, rolling out its string of dees, perhaps taking measure of my presence. One has only to consider the extraordinary genius packed tightly into that tiny puff of feathers to lay the mind wide open to the mysteries of a bird’s knowing—the what and the why. These are wonderful puzzles to keep around on our intellectual bookshelf, to remind us how little we still know. (266)

28. Fire Season: Field Notes From a Wilderness Lookout / Philip Connors

In his book, An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis makes a fascinating point about the value of reading books:

“Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realize it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through the eyes of others.” (140)

I owe enormous thanks to Philip Connors, the author of his lyrical nonfiction memoir about his life as a wilderness lookout. Connors left his budding career as a Wall Street Journal reporter in order to spend half a year keeping vigil over 20,000 square miles of desert, forest, and mountain chains from atop a tower 10,000 feet above sea level. I’m quite certain I’ll never be a wilderness lookout. But after reading Fire Season, I feel like I’ve looked through the eyes of one:

Since that first summer I’ve returned each succeeding year to sit 10,000 feet above sea level and watch for smoke. Most days I can see a hundred miles in all directions. On clear days I can make out mountains 180 miles away. To the east stretches the valley of the Rio Grande, cradled by the desert: austere, forbidding, dotted with creosote shrubs, and home to a collection of horned and thorned species evolved to live in a land of scarce water. To the north and south, along the Black Range, a line of peaks rises and falls in timbered waves; to the west, the Rio Mimbres meanders out of the mountains, its lower valley verdant with grasses. Beyond it rise more mesas and mountains: the Diablos, the Jerkies, the Mogollons. A peaceable kingdom, a wilderness in good working order—and my job to sound the alarm if it burns. Having spent eight summers in my little glass-walled perch, I have an intimate acquaintance with the look and feel of the border highlands each week of each month, from April through August: the brutal winds of spring, when gales off the desert gust above seventy miles an hour and the occasional snow squall turns my peak white; the dawning of summer in late May, when the wind abates and the aphids hatch and ladybugs emerge in great clouds from their hibernation; the fires of June, when dry lightning connects with the hills and mesas, sparking smokes that fill the air with the sweet smell of burning pine; the tremendous storms of July, when the radio antenna sizzles like bacon on a griddle and the lightning makes me flinch as if from the threat of a punch; and the blessed indolence of August, when the meadows bloom with wildflowers and the creeks run again, the rains having turned my world a dozen different shades of green. I’ve seen lunar eclipses and desert sandstorms and lightning that made my hair stand on end. I’ve seen fires burn so hot they made their own weather. I’ve watched deer and elk frolic in the meadow below me and pine trees explode in a blue ball of smoke. If there’s a better job anywhere on the planet, I’d like to know what it is. (3)

29. How to Steal the Mona Lisa / Taylor Bayouth

One of the perks of living in the Washington, D.C. area is the easy access to wonderful museums and art galleries. During one of our visits to the Smithsonian, my youngest son saw the Hope Diamond and asked, “I wonder if anyone has ever tried to steal that thing?” I don’t know the answer to that question, but after reading How to Steal the Mona Lisa, I now have at least an idea of how someone might try to pull off such a brazen heist. Bayouth describes how he would go about nabbing several priceless art and artifacts including the Hope Diamond, the “Mona Lisa,” the Archaeopteryx Lithographica, Rodin’s “Thinker,” King Tut’s golden death mask, the Crown Jewels, and the Codex Leicester. I’m not sure any of these how-to’s would actually work and I think he’s only kidding. But either way, my boys laughed and giggled mischievously throughout this read. They especially enjoyed the fun diagrams and visual aids, like this one:

Pro tip: When driving your getaway car at a remarkable rate, don’t forget to remove your welder’s goggles.

30. Magpie Murders / Anthony Horowitz

This unputdownable whodunit is a mystery within a mystery, an enigma within an enigma, a novel within a novel. It’s like getting two ingenious novels for the price of one. I thought it was brilliant.

31. The Black Tower and Sleep No More / P.D. James

I miss P.D. James. While she died in 2014, her mystery stories are still being published posthumously, evidenced by the most recent release of Sleep No More. Several of these tales are set during Christmastime, including one morbidly entitled “The Murder of Santa Claus”:

We drove through the village in silence. It lay sombre and deserted in its pre-Christmas calm. I can remember the church half-hidden behind the great yews and the silent school with the children’s Christmas chains of coloured paper gleaming dully against the windows. Marston Turville is a small seventeenth-century manor house, its three wings built round a courtyard. I saw it first as a mass of grey stone, blacked out as was the whole village, under low broken clouds. My uncle greeted me before a log fire in the great hall. I came in, blinking, from the December dusk into a blaze of colour; candles sparkling on the huge Christmas tree, its tub piled with imitation snowballs of frosted cotton wool; the leaping fire; the gleam of firelight on silver. My fellow guests were taking tea and I see them as a tableau, cups halfway to their lips, predestined victims waiting for the tragedy to begin. (64-65)

I also had the pleasure of revisiting one of my favorite Inspector Dalgliesh stories, The Black Tower, that finds the famous Scotland Yard detective-poet downcast and convalescing in a retirement home in an isolated village on the Dorset coast.

He wasn’t sure whether this disenchantment with his job was caused solely by his illness, the salutory reminder of inevitable death, or whether it was the symptom of a more fundamental malaise, that latitude in middle-life of alternate doldrums and uncertain winds when one realizes that hopes deferred are no longer realizable, that ports not visited will now never be seen, that this journey and others before it may have been a mistake, that one has no longer even confidence in charts and compass. More than his job now seemed to him trivial and unsatisfactory. Lying sleepless as so many patients must have done before him in that bleak impersonal room, watching the headlamps of passing cars sweep across the ceiling, listening to the secretive and muted noises of the hospital’s nocturnal life, he took the dispiriting inventory of his life. (11-12)

What I enjoy most about P.D. James is her ability to draw the reader’s attention to God’s bright and bountiful kindness in creation, even atop the dark backdrop of murder and mayhem:

Before he turned again to the car his eye was caught by a small clump of unknown flowers. The pale pinkish white heads rose from a mossy pad on top of the wall and trembled delicately in the light breeze. Dalgliesh walked over and stood stock still, regarding in silence their unpretentious beauty. He smelt for the first time the clean half-illusory salt tang of the sea. The air moved warm and gentle against his skin. He was suddenly suffused with happiness and, as always in these rare transitory moments, intrigued by the purely physical nature of his joy. It moved along his veins, a gentle effervescence. Even to analyse its nature was to lose hold of it. But he recognized it for what it the first clear intimation since his illness that life could be good. (18)

It was a warm misty morning under a sky of low cloud. As he left the valley and began to trudge up the cliff path a reluctant rain began to fall in slow heavy drops. The sea was a milky blue, sluggish and opaque, its slopping waves pitted with rain and awash with shifting patterns of floating foam. There was a smell of autumn as if someone far off, undetected even by a wisp of smoke, was burning leaves. The narrow path rose higher skirting the cliff edge, now close enough to give him a brief vertiginous illusion of danger, now twisting inland between a tatter of bronzed bracken crumpled with the wind, and low tangles of bramble bushes, their red and black berries tight and meagre compared with the luscious fruit of inland hedgerows. The headland was dissected by low broken walls of stone and studded with small limestone rocks. Some, half buried, protruded tipsily from the soil like the relics of a disorderly graveyard. Dalgliesh walked warily. It was his first country walk since his illness. The demands of his job meant that walking had always been a rare and special pleasure. Now he moved with something of the uncertainty of those first tentative steps of convalescence, muscles and senses rediscovering remembered pleasures, not with keen delight but with the gentle acceptance of familiarity. The brief metallic warble and churling note of stonechats, busy among the brambles; a solitary black-headed gull motionless as a ship’s figurehead on a promontory of rock; clumps of rock samphire, their umbels stained with purple; yellow dandelions, pinpoints of brightness on the faded autumnal grass. After nearly ten minutes of walking the cliff path began to slope gently downhill and was eventually dissected by a narrow lane running inland from the cliff edge. About six yards from the sea it broadened into a gently sloping plateau of bright green turf and moss. Dalgliesh stopped suddenly as if stung by memory. This then, must be the place where Victor Holroyd had chosen to sit, the spot from which he had plunged to his death. For a moment he wished that it hadn’t lain so inconveniently in his path. The thought of violent death broke disagreeably into his euphoria. But he could understand the attraction of the spot. The lane was secluded and sheltered from the wind, there was a sense of privacy and peace. (103-104)

32. Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection / Arthur Conan Doyle

My Audiobook of the Year is this Audible production read by Stephen Fry, whose narration sweeps you away to Victorian England, fog-drenched London, and, of course, 221B Baker Street.

33. S Is For Southern / Ed. David DiBenedetto

If you’re from the South, or have visited the South, or just know a Southerner, I think you’ll find this survey both entertaining and illuminating. There are brief articles on all things Southern, from “Absinthe” to “Zydeco,” from the “Atlanta Braves” to “Wonder Bread, and from to “Barbecue” to “Y’all.” Here’s a tasty sampling:

ACCENT: The Southern accent is one of our nation’s greatest treasures. Its beauty rivals that of a songbird or the most resonant cello. Had the Southern accent not been invented, our ears would have fallen off long ago, or become vestigial, fleshy cauliflowers hanging off the sides of our heads, for without the Southern accent there would have been nothing much worth listening to. Someone, somewhere, can make a case that I’m exaggerating its importance to us as a people and to America, but I can assure you I am not. Maybe I am.

But it’s lovely, isn’t it, the Southern accent? It’s not because I have one myself that I say this, because my accent is not what it could be: years of watching I Dream of Jeannie growing tip have me talking more like an out-of-work B actor than like my grandmother Eva Pedigo, who came from Savannah, settled in Birmingham, and sounded as if she marinated her vowels in butter overnight. An accent is your vocal personality. It’s like a hairstyle or a favorite pair of shoes, the only difference being that it’s in your throat.

There’s a Northern accent as well, and it’s easily distinguishable from a Southern accent the same way a paper bag full of broken glass is distinguishable from a cashmere scarf. But when you leave the South and head in other directions, accents tend to disappear, the song of language is lost, and what you’re left with is bland communication, meaning without music. It’s amusing, at least to me, to hear scholarly argot used to understand and investigate our day-to-day lives, especially the most resolutely non-scholarly subjects, like Southern English. My wife, a Vermonter, had no idea what fixin’ to meant when she first heard it. Had she researched the phrase, she would have learned that it indicated “immediate future action.” I could have told her that. (2)

BACON: I remember. Weekend mornings asleep in my attic bedroom in Birmingham, Alabama, not exactly waking to the smell of bacon, but being awakened by it. Similar to that of freshly cut wet grass, the smell of bacon can travel for miles and never lose its potency. It was just like the cartoons I watched at the time— Pepe le Pew I remember most vividly— in which you could see the smells; they wafted through the air like spirits. They could corral you like a lariat; they could capture you. That’s what bacon did to me. Half-asleep, I would follow it downstairs and into the kitchen, and still half-asleep eat it until my mother slapped my hand. “Save some for the rest of us.” Only then would I open my eyes completely, a boy trapped in an unfeeling world where he had to share.

Bacon is a time machine for me to this day. I smell it and it’s Saturday morning. My parents, dead now for many years, are seated around the morning room table. My beautiful sisters— one of whom is also gone— also crowd around me, lunging for what is rightly mine, for what I very clearly had dibs on, being the first down. But they strike as fast as copperheads. Our dog Rudy, that little brown mixed breed, as long as a dachshund with the face of a beagle (we called him a dog, though no one was really sure), hid himself beneath the table, as still as a jungle animal, hoping for crumbs. Everyone is happy, everyone is young. Life is something that is just about to happen, and it’s all good. That is what bacon does to me.

Eating bacon is like dating Taylor Swift: it may not be good for you, but people just keep coming back for more, understanding that a life with a little bacon in it beats a life with no bacon at all. Bacon is full of saturated fat and salt, and yet unlike other foods makes no secret of it. Bacon is honest. Maybe this is one reason we’ve seen an increase in the popularity of bacon and recipes that call for it, such that we can now be said to be experiencing a “bacon mania.״ Those of us who were raised on a farm might count a piglet as a dear first pet and eat him later. That’s because bacon is stronger than love itself. I wasn’t raised on a farm but, rather, in front of a television, and yet I too counted a pig as my first virtual pet: Arnold Ziffel, on Green Acres. But that changes nothing. I would eat him if he were bacon. Bacon is not just bacon. It’s bacon ice cream, chocolate-dipped bacon, and more. It’s the meaty embodiment of Southern culture. (18)

34. Zeal Without Burnout / Christopher Ash

Christopher Ash produces helpful resources for believers year after year. I appreciated his candid and humble missive on sustainable sacrifice. We need sleep… and God does not. We need Sabbath rests… and God does not. We need friends… and God does not. We need inward renewal… and God does not. Sacrifice is not the same as burnout. As a young pastor, I needed to read this book and I plan to read it again in 2018.

If you’re looking for other helpful resources to get organized and focused for the new year ahead, I was helped last year by each of these books in various ways:

35. Between the Woods and the Water and The Broken Road / Patrick Leigh Fermor

Two years ago I began walking across pre-WWII Europe with Patrick Leigh Fermor. We’ve been trekking our way to Constantinople and we finally arrived. I’m sort of sad that the journey is over. Fermor is quite the wordsmith. He never uses one word when ten would do. Here’s a typical Fermorian sentence:

A restless geometry of fire-flies darted about under the spatulate volume of the chestnut trees, and getting up one night to go to bed, we found emerald-coloured tree-frogs smaller than threepenny-bits clinging to the leaves like miniature green castaways on rafts. (Between The Woods and the Water, 107)

Imagine being near a train track when the Orient Express passed by. How would you put that experience into words? Here’s the way Fermor rendered such an event from his own life:

I was pondering these matters, slogging along through the twilight beside the banked railway, when a humming along the rails and an increasing clatter behind me indicated the approach of a train. The shuddering cylinder grew larger and larger and soon it was rocketing by overhead; all the windows were alight in a serpent of bright quadrilaterals, and along the coach work, as it crashed past, was painted: Paris–Munich–Vienna–Zagreb–Belgrade–Sofia–Istanbul and Compagnie Internationale des Wagons Lits. The Orient Express! The pink lampshades glowed softly in the dining car, the brass gleamed. The passengers would be lowering their novels and crosswords as the brown-jacketed attendants approached with trays of aperitifs. I waved, but the gloaming was too deep for an answer. I wondered who the passengers were– they had travelled in two days a journey that had taken me over nine months, and in a few hours they would be in Constantinople. The necklace of bright lights dwindled in the distance with its freight of runaway lovers, cabaret girls, Knights of Malta, vamps, acrobats, smugglers, papal nuncios, private detectives, lecturers in the future of the novel, millionaires, arms’ manufacturers, irrigation experts and spies, leaving a mournful silence in the thirsty Rumelian plateau. (The Broken Road, 22)

How would you describe a sunset? Here’s Fermor doing just that:

The clouds had flushed an astounding pink. But this was not to be compared with the sky behind. The flatness of the Alfold leaves a stage for cloud-events at sunset that are dangerous to describe: levitated armies in deadlock and riderless squadrons descending in slow motion to smouldering and sulphurous lagoons where barbicans gradually collapse and fleets of burning triremes turn dark before sinking. These are black vesper’s pageants… the least said the better. (The Broken Road, 44)

Perhaps my favorite part in these final two volumes is the conclusion of Volume 2 when Fermor finally catches sight of the Carpathian Uplands:

On the one hand a canyon thrust a deep gash north-east into the range I had been skirting for days, and its climb into the Carpathians reached the foot of the great ashen peaks. On the other, it plunged south-west down a gorge that would lead to the lowlands, and, at last, to the everyday world: but there was no hint of this yet. The chasm was silent except for the sound of water and the echo of an occasional rock falling. But while I gazed, clouds at the head of the ravine were breaking loose and spreading crumpled shadows across the juts and the clefts; then they blotted out the sun in an abrupt upland storm.

The wind sent a few sighting shots, followed by a swish of raindrops. Sheltering under an overhang, I watched them turn into hailstones the size of mothballs: they bounced and scattered downhill by the million; and in half an hour, their white drifts were all that was left. The washed rocks looked newly cut, there was not a cloud in sight and a breeze smelling of bracken and wet earth kept the air from stagnating.

Even jumping from ledge to ledge and sliding on wet pine-needles, the downward climb lasted for hours. Scree slowed the pace and buttresses of rock, smooth as boiler-plates or spiked like iguanas, imposed grueling swerves. Gleams across the cliffs revealed faraway threads of water; close to, they coiled and cataracted through the tree-trunks as conifers abdicated when the hardwoods began to outnumber them; and the ravine, deepening fast, coaxed the trees higher and higher until the oaks, mantled with ivy, pronged with the antlers of dead boughs and tufted with mistletoe, grew into giants.

Clearings of beech opened their forest-chambers and bracken gave way to mares’ tails, hemlock and the tatters of old man’s beard. The damp, which covered everything with moss, looped the branches with creepers and plumed the clefts and forks overhead, and the flaking bark, shaggy with lichen, greaved the tree-trunks like metal tainted with verdigris, filling the slanting world underneath with a stagey green-grey light. The woods had become an undercroft of acorns, beech-nuts and moaning wood-pigeons; the sound of water grew louder; and soon, flecked by leaf-shadows and askim with wagtails and redstarts, the ice-cold Cerna was rushing by under the branches.

The mysterious river split and joined again round blades of rock, slid over shelves that combed it into symmetrical waterfalls and rushed on chopping and changing down the gorge. Then I came down into quieter reaches. Shoals of trout anchored themselves among the reflections of elderflower or glided to new retreats, deep in the shade, where only a few wrinkles hinted at the current, and the black rocks, which gave the river its dark Slavonic cumbered the depths. (The Broken Road, 221-222)


36. Devotions / Mary Oliver

Several years ago, I was in a small bookshop with my wife in Cape Cod. While in the poetry section, I found a copy of Thirst. I’ve been a big fan of Mary Oliver ever since. Devotions is a wonderful collection of her work. Some of my favorites aren’t included (like “The Place I Want To Get Back To”), but that doesn’t diminish the quality of this volume for me. Oliver, like all poets worth reading, paints with words what she sees in the world, marvelous mysteries in plain sight and miracles in the commonplace.


I see or hear
that more or less

kills me
with delight,
that leaves me
like a needle

in the haystack
of light.
It was what I was born for —
to look, to listen,

to lose myself
inside this soft world —
to instruct myself
over and over

in joy,
and acclamation.
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,

the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant —
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,

the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help

but grow wise
with such teachings
as these —
the untrimmable light

of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass? (173)

W.H. Davis once wrote: “What is this life if, full of care, / We have no time to stand and stare?” I’m hoping for a more attentive year in 2018, filled with thanksgiving to the Lord for His covenant mercies, fresh every morning.

As always, happy reading and Happy New Year!

–Nick Roark

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

The Best Books I Read This Year (2016)


These are my favorite books that I read in 2016. There are 36 selections this year so I apologize in advance for the length of this post and for all the intense scrolling you’re about to do. Consider yourself warned.

My Top 12:


1. The King in His Beauty / Thomas Schreiner

My favorite book this year was this biblical theological feast by Dr. Tom Schreiner. He walks through the Old and New Testaments, book by book, tracing both the wonders of our King’s glory and grace and the ultimate triumph of the kingdom of God. Any book that helps you understand the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:26) and causes you to treasure the Lord by faith is worth reading. The King in His Beauty does just that.

“Believers are instructed to trust God and to look to Jesus, who went before them. They are promised a final reward whereby they will eat from the tree of life forever. The world will be a new temple and a new garden where God dwells. All that belonged to Adam at the beginning will be theirs and more. Those in the new creation know what it is like to be separated from fellowship with God. They know what it is to be redeemed from the horrific evil that dwelt in their own hearts. They know and exult in the love of God demonstrated in the cross of Jesus Christ. They are safe in the heavenly city, with its impregnable walls. The gates of the city can be left open, for there is no enemy within or without who can conquer God’s people now. They will see God’s face in the person of Jesus Christ. They will see the King in His beauty, and they will be glad forever.” (645-646)

2. Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God / Rankin Wilbourne

Rankin Wilbourne has written a crystal clear and winsome survey of the glories of the believer’s Spirit-wrought, faith-union with Jesus Christ. This book was a joy to read from start to finish. Understanding our identity in Christ changes everything.

  • “Union with Christ is not a fact we can put in our pocket, but rather a key to open a door into a whole new reality.”
  • “Of all the good news the gospel brings, the greatest—and the door to all the rest—is that you can be united to Christ.”
  • “’You are in Christ’ gives you assurance. ‘Christ is in you’ gives you power.’”
  • “Union with Christ tells us we are not alone.”
  • “Union with Christ is an enchanted reality. The most important things about our lives cannot be seen or touched with our senses.”
  • “Union with Christ is not only the anchor of holiness; it is also the engine of our holiness.”
  • “If you are in Christ, your life and your story become enfolded by another story, Another’s story.”
  • “Union with Christ gives you a completely new self-understanding found outside of yourself in Christ.”
  • “Union with Christ says that Christ is not simply at the center of our lives; He is at the center of all creation.”
  • “If you are united to Christ, then from Him come both grace and demand, which together lead to a life of joy.”
  • “The gospel of extravagant grace requires nothing from us and the gospel of radical discipleship demands everything of us.”
  • “Christ dwelling in us by His Spirit is a guarantee that we can and will change.”
  • “We are not the center of the gospel because we are not the center of the universe.”

3. His Love Endures Forever: Reflections on The Immeasurable Love of God / Garry Williams

This book is worshipful systematic theology at its best. God is love but His love is different from human love. Williams magnifies God by highlighting these differences from Scripture.

“My argument is that our grasp of the unique manner of God’s love deepens our grasp of its peerless magnitude: it is only when we see the similarities of God’s love to human love and its differences from it that we see how great it is, how great He is.” (18)

“God’s love is different from our love in its manner and the uniqueness of its manner lends it a peerless magnitude. In this book I have tried to offer you a glimpse of the love of God from the Scriptures. I am thrilled by what we have seen, but as I draw to a close my attempt feels flimsy and inadequate against the reality, this book like fragments of crumbling paper scattered by a mighty wind. This majestic, glorious, unfathomable divine love will be our inexhaustible eternal occupation. We are teetering only on the brink of edging across the margins of the very beginning of understanding it.” (195)

4. The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, & Gospel Assurance / Sinclair Ferguson

In The Whole Christ, Dr. Ferguson, in his pastorally wise and winsome way, reminds us that our salvation, all of our salvation, comes to us from God the Father in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. This salvation is a “Christ-centered, Trinity-honoring, eternity-rooted, redemption-providing, adoption-experiencing, holiness-producing, assurance-effecting, God-glorifying salvation.” (228-229) 
Throughout this rich volume, Ferguson reiterates the truth that real progress in sanctification and real growth in ministry boils down to Christlikeness.

“Perhaps it was the experience of— or at least the desire for— such ministry that led the Scottish forefathers to have a small brass plate fastened inside the pulpit of many churches, the words engraved on it being visible only to the preacher: “Sir, we would see Jesus.” (John 12:21 KJV) For that to be true— whatever our gifts and calling— we who serve Christ and His people must first ‘see Him more clearly, love him more dearly, and follow Him more nearly.’” (229)

5. A Peculiar Glory / John Piper

Near the conclusion of this superb book about the self-authenticating divine glory of Scripture, Piper writes:

“No one decides to see glory. And no one merely decides to experience the Christian Scriptures as the all-compelling, all-satisfying truth of one’s life. In the end, seeing is a gift. And so the free embrace of God’s word is a gift. God’s Spirit opens the eyes of our heart, and what was once boring, or absurd, or foolish, or mythical is now self-evidently real. You can pray and ask God for that miracle. I ask daily for fresh eyes for His glory.” (283)

Amen. I can hardly wait to dig into Part 2 of this series.

6. Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels and Reading Backwards / Richard Hays

I thoroughly enjoyed both of these volumes by Richard Hays on the Old Testament echoes in the Gospels. You don’t have to agree with all of his interpretations or conclusions to marvel at the clarity with which the Evangelists point us to the glory of Jesus Christ, the God of Israel in the flesh.

“There is only one reason why the Evangelists’ Christological interpretation of the Old Testament is not a matter of stealing or twisting Israel’s sacred texts: the God to whom the Gospels bear witness, the God incarnate in Jesus, is the same as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Either that is true, or it is not. If it is not, the Gospels are a delusional and pernicious distortion of Israel’s story. If it is true, then the figural literary unity of Scripture, Old Testament and New Testament together, is nothing other than the climactic fruition of that one God’s self-revelation. As readers, we are forced to choose which of these hermeneutical forks in the road we will take. By forcing this choice upon us, the Evangelists compel us to read their Gospels neither as mere sources of historical information nor as entertaining or edifying tales. They compel us instead to read their Gospels as testimony to the truth, the sort of testimony that demands a self-involving response. We cannot rightly read the Gospels without hearing Jesus’ question to Peter as a question also addressed directly to us: ‘But you— who do you say that I am?’ (Mark 8:29).” (365)

7. ESV Reader’s Gospels / God

I loved reading this book over and over again in 2016. If you’ve never tried reading through each Gospel in one sitting, get this book and go for it. You won’t regret it.

8. The Whole Story of the Bible in 16 Verses / Chris Bruno

The title says it all. Clever idea, faithfully executed, and extremely useful. A great book to use for discipling new believers on the grand story of Scripture.

9. The Essential Trinity / Eds. Brandon Crowe and Carl Trueman

The Trinity is both Biblical and practical. This book has two parts: “Part 1 considers the trinitarian contours of every corpus of the New Testament, along with a chapter on the Trinity and the Old Testament. Part 2 counters the charge that the Trinity is irrelevant as a practical doctrine by considering selected topics in Christian life and ministry.” Scott Swain’s chapter on the mystery of the Trinity is outstanding:

“The doctrine of the Trinity is the most sublime truth of the Christian faith and its supreme treasure. Christian teaching concerning one God in three persons flows from the revelation of the high and holy name of the Lord God Almighty: ‘the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ (Matt. 28:19). This glorious name identifies the true and living God and, because it is the name into which we are baptized, constitutes our only comfort in life and in death. Not only does the doctrine of the Trinity identify God, it also illumines all of God’s works, enabling us to perceive more clearly the wonders of the Father’s purpose in creation, of Christ’s incarnation, and of the Spirit’s indwelling. All things are from the Trinity, through the Trinity, and to the Trinity. And so, seen in the sublime light of the Trinity, we see all things in a new light.” (191-192)

10. Luther on the Christian Life / Carl Trueman

I spend time reading Martin Luther every February. Carl Trueman’s contribution to Crossway’s Theologians on the Christian Life series was a helpful guide for me this year. He reminded me why reading Luther is challenging, rewarding, and, at times, just plain fun.

“I find Luther to be one of the most human theologians there is, certainly among Protestants. His humor alone endears him to me. His last written words—’We are beggars: this is true’—set all human pretensions to greatness and divinity in tragicomic perspective. A theologian who ultimately helps us to remember that we are of no lasting earthly importance whatsoever has crucial importance in an era obsessed with numbers of Twitter followers and Facebook friends. I find Luther to address some of the most basic questions of human existence: despair, illness, sex, love, bereavement, children, enemies, danger, death. Luther touches on them all, and always with an unusual anecdote, an insightful comment, a human touch. There is no false, desiccated, tedious piety about the man. He lived his Christian life to the full, red in tooth and claw. I find Luther to be fun. Who else would describe how a woman scared the Devil away by breaking wind in his face, but then caution his listeners not to do the same as it could prove lethal? Any theologian with advice like that has to be worth reading. Finally, I love Luther because it was his highest ambition to let God be God. And in doing so he realized that the love of God does not find but creates that which is lovely to it.” (29)

11. Job: The Wisdom of the Cross / Christopher Ash

Garrett Kell told me about the awesomeness of this book and it certainly lived up to the hype. It’s one of the most devotionally rich commentaries I’ve ever read. Ash is a wonderful tour guide through one of my favorite books in Scripture.

12. Being There: How to Love Those Who Are Hurting / Dave Furman

I read this book when I was in the middle of preaching a sermon series through the Book of Job. I was served and convicted when I read Dave’s chapter entitled “Whatever You Do, Don’t Do These Things.” I trust you will be too. If you want to help hurting people, consider reading this book.

My Next 12:


13. Station Eleven / Emily St. John Mandel

“The Novel I’ve Discussed the Most With My Wife” Award for 2016 goes to this post-apocalyptic tale about a worldwide pandemic, a traveling symphony, the glories of Shakespeare, the pain of loss, the meaning of life, and the yearning for beauty. Why should you read this book? “Because survival is insufficient.” (58) The passage that stuck with me long after I finished the book details the aftermath and repercussions of the deadly outbreak:

“An incomplete list: No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below. No more ball games played out under floodlights. No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights. No more trains running under the surface of cities on the dazzling power of the electric third rail. No more cities. No more films, except rarely, except with a generator drowning out half the dialogue, and only then for the first little while until the fuel for the generators ran out, because automobile gas goes stale after two or three years. Aviation gas lasts longer, but it was difficult to come by. No more screens shining in the half-light as people raise their phones above the crowd to take photographs of concert stages. No more concert stages lit by candy-colored halogens, no more electronica, punk, electric guitars. No more pharmaceuticals. No more certainty of surviving a scratch on one’s hand, a cut on a finger while chopping vegetables for dinner, a dog bite. No more flight. No more towns glimpsed from the sky through airplane windows, points of glimmering light; no more looking down from thirty thousand feet and imagining the lives lit up by those lights at that moment. No more airplanes, no more requests to put your tray table in its upright and locked position— but no, this wasn’t true, there were still airplanes here and there. They stood dormant on runways and in hangars. They collected snow on their wings. In the cold months, they were ideal for food storage. In summer the ones near orchards were filled with trays of fruit that dehydrated in the heat. Rust blossomed and streaked. No more countries, all borders unmanned. No more fire departments, no more police. No more road maintenance or garbage pickup. No more spacecraft rising up from Cape Canaveral, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, from Vandenburg, Plesetsk, Tanegashima, burning paths through the atmosphere into space. No more Internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken, plans to meet up later, pleas, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room. No more avatars.” (31-32)

And yet, even amidst such loss and absence, something glorious remains: “What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty.” (57) I’m grateful for this beautiful book.

14. Moby Dick / Herman Melville

The best novel I read in 2016 was Melville’s classic. The characters are spectacular: Ismael, Queequeg, Starbuck, and the “all-destroying” white whale. But Captain Ahab steals the show. There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness:

“Am I cut off from the last fond pride of meanest shipwrecked captains? Oh, lonely death on lonely life! Oh, now I feel my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief. Ho, ho! From all your furthest bounds, pour ye now in, ye bold billows of my whole foregone life, and top this one piled comber of my death! Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! And since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!” (477)

My two favorite chapters were “The Sermon” and “The Whiteness of the Whale.” I agree with R.C. Sproul. This novel is worth all the attention you can give it.

15. A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube / Patrick Leigh Fermor 

Have you ever daydreamed about backpacking across Europe? Well, I have. But after reading A Time of Gifts, now I just daydream about being Patrick Leigh Fermor instead. He penned this kaleidoscope of a book detailing his walking journey through pre-WWII Europe in the 1930s when he was only 19-years old. Reading Fermor is a surreal literary experience. His knowledge of language, architecture, art, geography and culture is astounding.

“I too heard the change in the bells and the croaking and the solitary owl’s note. But it was getting too dim to descry a figure, let alone a struck match, at the windows of the Archbishopric. A little earlier, sunset had kindled them as if the Palace were on fire. Now the sulphur, the crocus, the bright pink and the crimson had left the panes and drained away from the touzled but still unmoving cirrus they had reflected. But the river, paler still by contrast with the sombre merging of the woods, had lightened to a milky hue. A jade-green radiance had not yet abandoned the sky. The air itself, the branches, the flag-leaves, the willow-herb and the rushes were held for a space, before the unifying shadows should dissolve them, in a vernal and marvellous light like the bloom on a greengage. Low on the flood and almost immaterialised by this luminous moment, a heron sculled upstream, detectable mainly by sound and by the darker and slowly dissolving rings that the tips of its flight-feathers left on the water. A collusion of shadows had begun and soon only the lighter colour of the river would survive. Downstream in the dark, meanwhile, there was no hint of the full moon that would transform the scene later on. No-one else was left on the bridge and the few on the quay were all hastening the same way. Prised loose from the balustrade at last by a more compelling note from the belfries, I hastened to follow. I didn’t want to be late.” (314-315)⠀

Big thanks to the New York Review of Books for bringing this trilogy back into print. I’m eager to tackle into Part 2 and Part 3 in 2017.

16. Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life / William Finnegan

I began reading this book about a writer’s life-long love affair with surfing and I simply couldn’t put it down. It’s absolutely glorious.

“A set rolled through, shining and roaring in the low winter afternoon sun, and my throat clogged with emotion– some nameless mess of joy, fear, love, lust, gratitude.” (356)

“Sloat looked to be at least five refrigerators high as I pulled up one Sunday afternoon in January. The waves breaking on the outside bar were difficult to see, though. The sun was shining, but the surf was generating a salt mist that filled the air on both sides of the Great Highway— a sharp-smelling haze like some essence from the bottom of the ocean. There was no wind, but gray plumes of spray rose nonetheless from the tops of the largest waves, lifted by the sheer mass and speed of their crests as they plunged. The inside bar was a maelstrom of dredging, midsized killer waves, their dark chocolate faces smeared with drifts of foam. The outside bar looked ill-defined, the swell confused, but the outside waves themselves were smooth and shiny, with clean peaks and sections looming randomly in the mist. Some of them looked ridable— loveliness amid lethality.” (388)

But don’t take my word for it. I’ve never even been surfing before. But my friend Bobby Jamieson has surfed a bunch. And he totally dug this book too. If you read his review, I wager you’ll want to read this book.

17. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt / Edmund Morris
18. The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey / Candice Millard

The historical figure I chose to live with in 2016 was Theodore Roosevelt. I’d never read a biography of Teddy before, so I learned a lot. Mr. Roosevelt was quite the character. Here’s the one story from his storied life that will stick with me:

“Roosevelt, still famously energetic at fifty-four, greeted his admirers with characteristic vigor, pumping his left arm in the air like a windmill. His right arm, however, hung motionless at his side. The last time Roosevelt had given a speech—just two weeks earlier, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin—he had been shot in the chest by a thirty-six-year-old New York bartender named John Schrank, a Bavarian immigrant who feared that Roosevelt’s run for a third term was an effort to establish a monarchy in the United States. Incredibly, Roosevelt’s heavy army overcoat and the folded fifty-page manuscript and steel spectacle-case he carried in his right breast pocket had saved his life, but the bullet had plunged some five inches deep, lodging near his rib cage. That night, whether out of an earnest desire to deliver his message or merely an egotist’s love of drama, Roosevelt had insisted on delivering his speech to a terrified and transfixed audience. His coat unbuttoned to reveal a bloodstained shirt, and his speech held high so that all could see the two sinister-looking holes made by the assailant’s bullet, Roosevelt had shouted, ‘It takes more than that to kill a bull moose!'”
-Candice Millard, The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey (New York: Doubleday, 2005), 10.

I spent much of the year gobbling up as much TR material as I could get my hands on. By far, the best book on Roosevelt that I read was Edmund Morris’s Pulitzer-prize winning biography. Morris is quite the wordsmith. Check out his description of the dawn before the Battle of San Juan Hill:

“The first of July, 1898, which Roosevelt ever afterward called ‘the great day of my life,’ dawned to a fugato of bugles, phrase echoing phrase as a reveille sounded in the various camps. The morning was Elysian, with a pink sky lightening rapidly to pale, cloudless blue. Mists filled the basin below El Pozo, evaporating quickly as the air warmed, exposing first the crowns of royal palms, then the lower green of deciduous trees and vines. Hills rippled around the horizon to east, west, and north, like a violent backdrop. As the vapor burned away, the effect to Roosevelt was of shimmering curtains rising to disclose ‘an amphitheater for the battle.’ While his men got up he walked about calmly lathering his face, reassuring the many who had woken afraid.” (681)

Morris tells the history of one man who was really seven men: a naturalist, a writer, a lover, a hunter, a ranchman, a solider, and a politician. And this multifaceted man had an electric personality: “You go to the White House,” writes Richard Washburn Child, “you shake hands with Roosevelt and hear him talk– and then you go home to wring the personality out of your clothes.”

And early on in the book you learn about Teddy’s insatiable appetite for books:

“At about ten o’clock the First Lady will rise and kiss her husband good night. He will continue to read in the light of a student lamp, peering through his one good eye (the other is almost blind) at the book held inches from his nose, flicking over the pages at a rate of two or three a minute. This is the time of the day he loves best. ‘Reading with me is a disease.’ He succumbs to it so totally— on the heaving deck of the Presidential yacht in the middle of a cyclone, between whistle-stops on a campaign trip, even while waiting for his carriage at the front door— that he cannot hear his own name being spoken. Nothing short of a thump on the back will regain his attention. Asked to summarize the book he has been leafing through with such apparent haste, he will do so in minute detail, often quoting the actual text. The President manages to get through at least one book a day even when he is busy. Owen Wister has lent him a book shortly before a full evening’s entertainment at the White House, and been astonished to hear a complete review of it over breakfast. ‘Somewhere between six one evening and eight-thirty next morning, beside his dressing and his dinner and his guests and his sleep, he had read a volume of three-hundred-and-odd pages, and missed nothing of significance that it contained.’ On evenings like this, when he has no official entertaining to do, Roosevelt will read two or three books entire. His appetite for titles is omnivorous and insatiable, ranging from the the Histories of Thucydides to the Tales of Uncle Remus. Reading, as he has explained to Trevelyan, is for him the purest imaginative therapy. In the past year alone, Roosevelt has devoured all the novels of Trollope, the complete works of De Quincey, a Life of Saint Patrick, the prose works of Milton and Tacitus (‘until I could stand them no longer’), Samuel Dill’s Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius, the seafaring yarns of Jacobs, the poetry of Scott, Poe, and Longfellow, a German novel called Jörn Uhl, ‘a most satisfactorily lurid Man-eating Lion story,’ and Foulke’s Life of Oliver P. Morton, not to mention at least five hundred other volumes, on subjects ranging from tropical flora to Italian naval history. The richness of Roosevelt’s knowledge causes a continuous process of cross-fertilization to go on in his mind. Standing with candle in hand at a baptismal service in Santa Fe, he reflects that his ancestors, and those of the child’s Mexican father, ‘doubtless fought in the Netherlands in the days of Alva and Parma.’ Watching a group of American sailors joke about bedbugs in the Navy, he is reminded of the freedom of comment traditionally allowed to Roman legionnaires after battle. Trying to persuade Congress to adopt a system of simplified spelling in Government documents, he unself-consciously cites a treatise on the subject published in the time of Cromwell. Tonight the President will bury himself, perhaps, in two volumes Mrs. Lodge has just sent him for review: Gissing’s Charles Dickens, A Critical Study, and The Greek View of Life, by Lowes Dickinson. He will be struck, as he peruses the latter, by interesting parallels between the Periclean attitude toward women and that of presentday Japan, and will make a mental note to write to Mrs. Lodge about it. He may also read, with alternate approval and disapproval, two articles on Mormonism in the latest issue of Outlook. A five-thousand-word essay on “The Ancient Irish Sagas” in this month’s Century magazine will not detain him long, since he is himself the author. His method of reading periodicals is somewhat unusual: each page, as he comes to the end of it, is torn out and thrown onto the floor. When both magazines have been thus reduced to a pile of crumpled paper, Roosevelt will leap from his rocking-chair and march down the corridor. Slowing his pace at the door of the presidential suite, he will tiptoe in, brush the famous teeth with only a moderate amount of noise, and pull on his blue-striped pajamas. Beside his pillow he will deposit a large, precautionary revolver. His last act, after turning down the lamp and climbing into bed, will be to unclip his pince-nez and rub the reddened bridge of his nose. Then, there being nothing further to do, Theodore Roosevelt will energetically fall asleep.” (xxxii-xxxiv)

And then there’s also the fascinating bit about Roosevelt’s photographic memory:

“Theodore Roosevelt’s memory can, in the opinion of the historian George Otto Trevelyan, be compared with the legendary mechanism of Thomas Babington Macaulay. Authors are embarrassed, during Presidential audiences, to hear long quotes from their works which they themselves have forgotten. Congressmen know that it is useless to contest him on facts and figures. He astonishes the diplomat Count Albert Apponyi by reciting, almost verbatim, a long piece of Hungarian historical literature: when the Count expresses surprise, Roosevelt says he has neither seen nor thought of the document in twenty years. Asked to explain a similar performance before a delegation of Chinese, Roosevelt explains mildly: ‘I remembered a book that I had read some time ago, and as I talked the pages of the book came before my eyes.’ The pages of his speeches similarly swim before him, although he seems to be speaking impromptu. When confronted with a face he does not instantly recall, he will put a hand over his eyes until it appears before him in its previous context.” (xxx)

I so enjoyed hanging out with Teddy that I’m gonna try to tackle other Roosevelt volumes in 2017. Probably this one and this one.

19. Hillbilly Elegy / J.D. Vance

One of the timeliest reads of 2016 was this deeply moving memoir by J.D. Vance.

“Nearly every person you will read about is deeply flawed. Some have tried to murder other people, and a few were successful. Some have abuse their children, physically or emotionally. Many abused (and still abuse) drugs. But I love these people, even those to whom I avoid speaking for my own sanity. And if I leave you with the impression that there are bad people in my life, then I am sorry, both to you and to the people so portrayed. For there are no villains in the story. There’s just a ragtag band of hillbillies struggling to find their way– both for their sake and, by the grace of God, for mine.” (9)

20. All the Light We Cannot See / Anthony Doerr

Imagine what it’s like to be blind. Now imagine what it would be like to be blind and to live in a war zone that’s occupied by Nazis and under constant Allied bombardment. That’s the setting where we meet the blind heroine of this beautiful and moving story, Marie-Laure LeBlanc. Though blind, she sees.

21. Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America / Jill Leovy

This is an unforgettable and insightful book about a complicated set of life and death issues.

“This is a book about a very simple idea: where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic. African Americans have suffered from just such a lack of effective criminal justice, and this, more than anything, is the reason for the nation’s long-standing plague of black homicides.” (8)

Whatever you make of the author’s thesis, the relentless persistence of the book’s protagonist, Detective John Skaggs, is awe-inspiring.

22. The Terror Years: From Al-Qaeda to the Islamic State / Lawrence Wright
23. ISIS: A History /  Fawaz Gerges

I took a trip to visit some dear friends in Iraq earlier this year. Given the state of unrest and fighting that has engulfed this part of the world, I wanted to learn more about Islam, terrorism, and US foreign policy. So I spent 2016 doing a deep dive on these issues, with a special focus on Iraq. God has grown my heart for this war-ravaged land and despite my doubts about any immediate prospects for lasting peace, I am certainly hopeful and prayerful for the furtherance of the gospel in Iraq.

Lawrence Wright has written a good bit about terrorism for the New Yorker and his book, The Terror Years: From Al-Qaeda to the Islamic State, pulls together the best of his material into one volume.

“This age of terror will end one day, but whether our society can restore the feeling of freedom that once was our birthright is hard to predict. The security state that is grown up since 9/11 has transformed our culture; and yes, we have a needed the protection. We are often reminded that we must ‘never forget’ what happened on that fateful day. But if we fail to keep in mind the country we were before 9/11, we may never steer in that direction again. In that case, the terrorists really will have won.” (350)

His chapter about FBI agent, John O’Neil, entitled “The Counter-Terrorist,” is just haunting. Other books worth mentioning are:

Warrick helpfully explains ISIS’s past. In his lucidly-written book, ISIS: A History, Fawaz Gerges looks forward at ISIS’s future. I feel like I understand a great deal more about the current crisis in Syria after reading this book.

“What this reformation entails is an intellectual revolution, a cognitive or epistemological rupture with the dominant religious and historical scripts and narratives about the past, as some Arab writers, like Abdullah al-‘ Arwi, George Tarabishi, and others, argue, a cultural revolution that transforms state and society. Arab intellectuals are fully aware of the derailed efforts by al-Nahda and renaissance pioneers who called for such ‘reformation’ in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While there is no assurance of success, this complex, generational struggle must be fought and won regardless of how long it will take. Salafi-jihadists like ISIS must be denied the doctrinal and theological oxygen that nourishes their movement. Ideas are the first line of defense against the Salafi-jihadist nihilistic ideology and the final nail in its coffin. Without this revolution in ideas, the narrative and brand of Salafi-jihadism, of which ISIS is the most recent iteration, will continue to prevail in the Arab-Islamic world.” (292)

24. Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit / P.G. Wodehouse

I’ve gotten into the delightful habit of reading at least one volume of Wodehouse every year. Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit did not disappoint. My favorite line in the book: “Love is a delicate plant that needs constant tending and nurturing, and this cannot be done by snorting at the adored object like a gas explosion and calling her friends lice.” (29) Wodehouse’s prose is always colorful and endlessly entertaining. Don’t believe me? Here’s proof:

  • “He was looking definitely piqued, like a diner in a restaurant who has bitten into a bad oyster.” (26)
  • “Our relations had always been chummy to the last drop.” (72)
  • “No hostess wants a Hamlet on the premises.” (73)
  • “What if he does think you the world’s premier louse? Don’t we all?”
  • “Did you notice how he looked when he said ‘Florence’? Like a dying duck in a thunderstorm.” (85)
  • “And with these words he pranced off like a mustang.” (93)
  • “He had all the earmarks of one about whom Love had twined its silken fetters.” (93)
  • “She was madder than a wet hen.” (94)
  • “What girl would not be delighted who finds herself unexpectedly free from a man with a pink face and a head that looks as if it had been blown up with a bicycle pump?” (94)
  • “My ears were sticking up like a wirehaired terrier’s.” (99)
  • “His demeanor throughout was that of a homicidal deaf mute.” (102)
  • “Uncle Tom is a great lad for prowling in the garden.” (103)
  • “Bertie, you revolting object, that mustache of yours is the most obscene thing I ever saw outside a nightmare. It seems to take one straight into another and a dreadful world. What made you commit this rash act?” (110)
  • “‘Proceed, Jeeves.’ He did so, turning now to Aunt Dahlia, who was gazing at him like a bear about to receive a bun.” (119)
  • “I emerged like a cork out of a bottle.” (134)
  • “I had just finished tucking away a refreshing scrambled eggs and coffee, when the door opened as if a hurricane had hit it and Aunt Dahlia came pirouetting in.” (148)
  • “Before my eyes she wilted like a wet sock.” (150)
  • “I am unable to discern in you the slightest vestige of charm, the smallest trace of any quality that could reasonably be expected to appeal to a girl like Florence.” (157)
  • “The Woosters do not desert their aunts in their time of need.” (160)“Suddenly a thought came like a full-blown nose, flushing the brow.” (160)
  • “Aunt Dahlia was in the hall, pacing up and down like a distraught tigress.” (164)
  • “I’m in agony. I feel as if I’d swallowed a couple of wild cats.” (186)
  • “I wilted like a salted snail.” (188)
  • “Emotion overcame her, and she grabbed at my arm again. It was like being bitten by an alligator.” (200)
  • “She was staring at The Times, which was what she had drawn in the distribution of the morning journals, in much the same manner as a resident of India would have stared at a cobra, had he found it nestling in his bath tub.” (208)

My Final 12:


25. The Name of the Wind / Patrick Rothfuss 

I stumbled upon this richly textured fantasy novel, the first in a trilogy, and I was hooked. It’s sort of like LOTR and Harry Potter blended together with a dash of Lev Grossman and Charles Dickens sprinkled on top combined with lots of cool fights, mysterious libraries, and dangerous creatures. This story has all the makings of a huge blockbuster movie. The main character is named Kvothe and he’s not someone you want to mess with:

“I have been called Kvothe the Bloodless, Kvothe the Arcane, and Kvothe Kingkiller. I have earned those names. Bought and paid for them. But I was brought up as Kvothe. My father once told me it meant ‘to know.’ I have, of course, been called many other things. Most of them uncouth, although very few were unearned. I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep. You may have heard of me.” (52)

As entertaining as Kvothe is, even in the happy moments of the book, there’s also an omnipresent sense of foreboding.

“It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts. The first part was a hollow, echoing quiet, made by things that were lacking. If there had been horses stabled in the barn they would have stamped and champed and broken it to pieces. If there had been a crowd of guests, even a handful of guests bedded down for the night, their restless breathing and mingled snores would have gently thawed the silence like a warm spring wind. If there had been music… but no, of course there was no music. In fact there were none of these things, and so the silence remained. Inside the Waystone a man huddled in his deep, sweet-smelling bed. Motionless, waiting for sleep, he lay wide-eyed in the dark. In doing this he added a small, frightened silence to the larger, hollow one. They made an alloy of sorts, a harmony. The third silence was not an easy thing to notice. If you listened for an hour, you might begin to feel it in the thick stone walls of the empty taproom and in the flat, grey metal of the sword that hung behind the bar. It was in the dim candlelight that filled an upstairs room with dancing shadows. It was in the mad pattern of a crumpled memoir that lay fallen and unforgotten atop the desk. And it was in the hands of the man who sat there, pointedly ignoring the pages he had written and discarded long ago. The man had true-red hair, red as flame. His eyes were dark and distant, and he moved with the weary calm that comes from knowing many things. The Waystone was his, just as the third silence was his. This was appropriate, as it was the greatest silence of the three, wrapping the others inside itself. It was deep and wide as autumn’s ending. It was heavy as a great river-smooth stone. It was the patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die.” (662)

26. Baseball: An Illustrated History / Ken Burns and Geoffrey Ward
27. The Glory of Their Times / Lawrence Ritter
28. The Boys of Summer / Roger Kahn

What a year for baseball. We witnessed an unforgettable Cubs victory in what will go down in history as one of the most entertaining final games in World Series history. While I was happy for Cubs fans and sad for Cleveland fans, my thoughts were in Atlanta. As a lifelong fan of the Atlanta Braves, the 2016 season was a smorgasbord of defeat. The Bravos finished in last place in the division and only the lowly Twins had a worse league record. And so I plunged myself into the past, remembering the glorious baseball summers of yesteryear. The best baseball book I read in 2016 is an illustrated history created by Ken Burns, the documentary filmmaker. This is how the book opens:

“It measures just 9 inches in circumference, weighs only about 5 ounces, and it made of cork wound with woolen yarn, covered with two layers of cowhide, and stitched by hand precisely 216 times. It travels 60 feet 6 inches from the pitcher’s mound to home–and it can cover that distance at nearly 100 miles an hour. Along the way it can be made to twist, spin, curve, wobble, rise, or fall away. The bat is made of turned ash, less than 42 inches long, not more than 2 3/4 inches in diameter. The batter has only a few thousandths of a second to decide to hit the ball. And yet the men who fail seven times out of ten are considered the game’s greatest heroes. It is played everywhere. In parks and playground and prison yards. In back alleys and farmers fields. By small children and by old men. By raw amateurs and millionaire professionals. It is a leisurely game that demands blinding speed. The only game where the defense has the ball. It follows the seasons, beginning each year with the fond expectancy of springtime and ending with the hard facts of autumn. Americans have played baseball for more than 200 years, while they conquered a continent, warred with one another and with enemies abroad, struggled over labor and civil rights and the meaning of freedom. At the games’s heart lie mythic contradictions: a pastoral game, born in crowded cities; an exhilarating democratic sport that tolerates cheating and has excluded as many as it has included; a profoundly conservative game that sometimes manages to be years ahead of its time. It is an American odyssey that links sons and daughters to father and grandfathers. And it reflects a host of age-old American tensions: between workers and owners, scandal and reform, the individual and the collective. It is a haunted game, where each player is measured by the ghosts of those who have gone before. Most of all, it is about time and timelessness, speed and grace, failure and loss, imperishable hope, and coming home.” (xviii)

That’s glorious, isn’t it? The book is sprinkled with excerpts from the likes of Thomas Boswell, Robert Creamer, Doris Kearns Goodwin, George Will, Walt Whitman, Buck O’Neill, and Ted Williams. The introductory essay by Roger Angell is superb. It was so good that I devoured Angell’s collection The Summer Game I also enjoyed Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times. If you can find an audiobook version of this book, you’ll discover a treasure. It’s the actual recordings of Ritter interviewing elderly ballplayers. Great stuff.

What did I learn through immersing myself in the glories of baseball’s past? I think it’s a lesson that Cubs fans know all too well. Or maybe something they used to know.

“You may glory in a team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat. Losing after great striving is the story of man, who was born to sorrow, whose sweetest songs tell of saddest thought, and who, if he is a hero, does nothing in life as becomingly as leaving it.”
-Roger Kahn, The Boys of Summer (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), xii.

29. Drone: Remote Control Warfare / Hugh Gusterson

Drones are a big deal. I heard Gusterson do an interview with MIT Press (or read it here) and it made me want to read his book. Drones aren’t going away any time soon. “Less than fifteen years after the first use of an armed drone by the United States, over 50 percent of the pilots being trained by the U.S. Air Force are drone pilots, and the proportion of remotely piloted aircraft in the U.S. fleet went from 5 percent in 2005 to 31 percent by 2012.” (21) This book made me ponder the impact of what Gusterson calls “Remote Intimacy.”

“Remote Intimacy examines the paradoxical mix of closeness and distance in the relationship between drone operators and their targets that can evolve over days of remote surveillance, and looks at what it is like to kill someone from over seven thousand miles away while watching as if close up on screen, whether it is easier or harder to kill someone this way than on the physical battlefield, and why drone operators seem to have high rates of posttraumatic stress disorder.” (7-8)

Did you catch that? Drone operators have high rates of PTSD. The book doesn’t just cover the moral implications of drone warfare. Gusterson begins the book by detailing the technical specs of US military drones:

“A little longer than the average station wagon, and weighing just 1,130 pounds, the Predator is surprisingly small. With its modified snowmobile engine it has a maximum speed of 135 mph, although it usually flies at speeds under 100 mph. The Predator can fly as high as 25,000 feet but usually is operated at 10,000 to 15,000 feet so that it gets better video imagery. It can stay aloft for about 24 hours at a time. About a quarter of the cost of the Predator goes into the ‘Ball,’ which is a rotating sensor ball that is mounted under the nose of the plane. It carries daylight cameras and infrared cameras that can pick up the outline of bodies at night, as well as equipment that scans the ground for cell phone signals, logging sim cards on the ground below. The cameras are said to be able to read a license plate from two miles up, and they feed data streams to controllers in different locations. Even filming from two miles up, the camera has a lens so powerful it feels like a hawk hovering at 100 feet. The Predator is typically equipped with two Hellfire missiles for use against targets on the ground. Each missile costs around $ 70,000. The Predator flashes an infrared beam to ‘light up’ or ‘sparkle’ targets below that are then attacked by the Predator’s missiles, by other planes, or by soldiers on the ground. These targets can be as small as individual insurgents who are fleeing an attack (what the U.S. military refers to as ‘squirters’), although the blast radius of a Hellfire missile is reportedly fifteen to twenty meters.. The Reaper, a larger second-generation armed drone, can fly twice as fast as the Predator, go twice as high, and carry eight times as much ordnance. Both Predators and Reapers are launched from bases near the areas they patrol. The operation of a drone requires about 170 people in multiple locations. The people with their hands on the controls are the tip of a spear that extends from ground crews in Middle Eastern deserts to generals and lawyers in air-conditioned control rooms in the United States.” (19-21)

30. Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets / David Simon

Back in 1988, there were 234 murders in the city of Baltimore. David Simon was the first reporter ever to be given unlimited access to Baltimore’s homicide unit. He was embedded with three homicide squads for an entire year. This book is the fruit of his front-row research. It’s a crime classic for good reason.

31. Seven Brief Lessons in Physics / Carlo Rovelli

I bet your physics professor in college didn’t explain physics this beautifully. Not only was this slim volume packed with mind-bending facts, I was also moved by Rovelli’s tone of humility and awestruck wonder that pervaded the book. He writes:

“Our knowledge of the world continues to grow. There are frontiers where we are learning, and our desire for knowledge burns. They are in the most minute reaches of the fabric of space, at the origins of the cosmos, in the nature of time, in the phenomenon of black holes, and in the workings of our own thought processes. Here, on the edge of what we know, in contact with the ocean of the unknown, shines the mystery and the beauty of the world. And it’s breathtaking.” (80)

32. Daily Rituals: How Artists Work / Mason Currey

This book is  brilliant collection of the daily habits of brilliant people. Here were my favorite entries:

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855): “Kierkegaard had his own quite peculiar way of having coffee: Delightedly he seized hold of the bag containing the sugar and poured sugar into the coffee cup until it was piled up above the rim. Next came the incredibly strong, black coffee, which slowly dissolved the white pyramid. The process was scarcely finished before the syrupy stimulant disappeared into the magister’s stomach, where it mingled with the sherry he had consumed earlier to produce additional energy that percolated up into his seething and bubbling brain—which in any case had already been so productive all day that in the half-light visitors could still notice the tingling and throbbing in the overworked fingers when they grasped the slender handle of the cup.

Flannery O’Connor (1925–1964): After being diagnosed with lupus in 1951 and told she would live only another four years, O’Connor returned to her native Georgia and moved in with her mother at the family farm in rural Andalusia. Years earlier, a writing instructor had advised O’Connor to set aside a certain number of hours each day to write, and she had taken his advice to heart; back in Georgia she came to believe, as she wrote to a friend, that ‘routine is a condition of survival.’ A devout Catholic, O’Connor began each day at 6:00 A.M. with morning prayers from her copy of A Short Breviary. Then she joined her mother in the kitchen, where they would share a Thermos of coffee while listening to the weather report on the radio. Morning mass was at 7:00, a short drive into town at the Sacred Heart. Her religious obligations fulfilled, O’Connor would turn to her writing, shutting herself away between 9:00 and noon for her daily three hours, which would typically yield three pages—although, she told a reporter, ‘I may tear it all to pieces the next day.’ By the afternoon, O’Connor’s energy was spent—the lupus caused her to tire early and experience flulike symptoms and mental fogginess as the day wore on. She passed these hours receiving visitors on the porch and pursuing her hobbies of painting and raising birds—peacocks, which she loved and often incorporated into her stories, as well as ducks, hens, and geese. By sundown she was ready for bed; ‘I go to bed at nine and am always glad to get there,’ she wrote. Before bedtime she might recite another prayer from her Breviary, but her usual nighttime reading was a seven-hundred-page volume of Thomas Aquinas. ‘I read a lot of theology because it makes my writing bolder,’ she said.

Philip Roth (b. 1933): “Writing isn’t hard work, it’s a nightmare,” Roth said in 1987. Coal mining is hard work. This is a nightmare.… There’s a tremendous uncertainty that’s built into the profession, a sustained level of doubt that supports you in some way. A good doctor isn’t in a battle with his work; a good writer is locked in a battle with his work. In most professions there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. With writing, it’s always beginning again. Temperamentally, we need that newness. There is a lot of repetition in the work. In fact, one skill that every writer needs is the ability to sit still in this deeply uneventful business. My schedule is absolutely my own. Usually, I write all day, but if I want to go back to the studio in the evening, after dinner, I don’t have to sit in the living room because someone else has been alone all day. I don’t have to sit there and be entertaining or amusing. I go back out and I work for two or three more hours. If I wake up at two in the morning—this happens rarely, but it sometimes happens—and something has dawned on me, I turn the light on and I write in the bedroom. I have these little yellow things all over the place. I read till all hours if I want to. If I get up at five and I can’t sleep and I want to work, I go out and I go to work. So I work, I’m on call. I’m like a doctor and it’s an emergency room. And I’m the emergency.”

33. Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It / Marc Goodman

This book sort of freaked me out. Mainly because the author isn’t some weirdo who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Marc Goodman has been a Resident Futurist for the FBI and a senior adviser to Interpol. And he’s very concerned.

“In a world in which all of our critical systems and infrastructures are run by computers, it would be easy to dismiss our profound technological insecurity as just a computing problem. But we don’t just have an IT problem. Because technology is woven through the entire fabric of our modern lives, we also have a social problem, a personal problem, a financial problem, a health-care problem, a manufacturing problem, a public safety problem, a government problem, a governance problem, a transportation problem, an energy problem, a privacy problem, and a human rights problem. We have no choice but to win this battle for the very soul of our own technologies because frankly the alternative is too horrible to consider. This must be our call to action. Accordingly, now is the time to completely reevaluate all that we take for granted in this modern technological world and question our dependence on the ubiquitous machines that so few of us understand. We do this not out of blind technophobia nor in deference to Luddite ancestors but as a commonsensical measure, fully appreciating the vast positive potential these exponential technologies portend. The innovation cannot be stopped, and the technological changes are coming faster and faster. We’ve reached an inflection point, a punctuated moment in time that demands our immediate and greatest possible attention.” (498)


34. Overview: A New Perspective of Earth  / Benjamin Grant

The most gorgeous book I read in 2016 is Overview, which features amazing images from the Daily Overview account. Check out some of the pictures here or here. These satellite images will make you feel very small and remind you that the Creator and Upholder of all things is really big. My three kiddos loved this book.

“When we are removed from our usual line of sight on the Earth’s surface, we can see things differently. We can see our world completely.” (20)

35. Life on a Little-Known Planet / Howard Ensign Evans

I read an interview with the great David McCullough where he was asked, “What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?” McCullough’s answer intrigued me: “A book I keep going back to for the sheer pleasure of the writing, as well as all it brings to life about a subject I might otherwise have taken no interest in whatever, is “Life on a Little-Known Planet,” by Howard Ensign Evans, which is all about insects.” Really?! Well, if an out-of-print book about a biologist’s view of insects and their world is good enough for David McCullough, then surely it’s good enough for me. My favorite chapter, “In Defense of Magic: The Story of Fireflies” is worth the price of the book.

“Magic in the sense of something inciting wonder is here to stay; or if it is not, man will have been vastly diminished by its loss. What can rival a twilit meadow rich with the essence of June and spangled with fireflies? Here is magic, and the joy of pursuing through grass just touched with early dew a light now here, now there, now gone. Or of collecting several in a bottle and taking them indoors for illumination; or of tying one lightly with a thread to one’s clothing, as natives of some tropical countries are reported to do at fiesta time. As children, we used to call them lightning bugs; and wingless kinds that emit a steady light from the ground are called glowworms in English-speaking countries wherever they occur. In fact fireflies are neither flies nor bugs nor worms, but soft-bodied beetles called Lampyridae, a name based on an old Greek word that also evolved into our word ‘lamp’… Adult fireflies possess the most complex light organs known to man, and these organs are still far from fully understood. Despite the intensity of the light they produce, the amount of heat is negligible. Only in very recent years has man developed chemical light-producing systems that rival that of the firefly in efficiency.” (103, 104)

Amazing. I’ll never look at a lightning bug on a summer night the same way again.

36. Various Volumes of Poetry:

Time spent with good poets is time well spent. I hung out with George Herbert (a constant companion), Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, Luci Shaw, Ben Palpant. I thoroughly enjoyed the collection of poems pulled together by Czeslaw Milosz, aptly entitled A Book of Luminous Things. The two contemporary poets that I enjoyed the most this year were Dana Gioia and A.E. Stallings. You might be wondering, “Why bother with poetry?” I agree with the assessment of James Parker:

“If you’re a certain kind of reader, with a certain kind of brain, you’re always on the lookout for the poem that will save your life. Existence heaps itself upon you; your tongue thickens and your thoughts get cluttered. But you keep a muddy eye trained on the world’s poetry portals, the places where the poems come flapping through, because you know that a line, a rhyme, a verb can reboot your internal chitchat and zap you out of all your encrustations. You know that this is the poet’s job, in the end: to remind you—oh, the cheesiness, but oh, the urgency—how to be alive.”

Poets remind us of the glories of being alive in this beautifully strange and God-spoke world. Luci Shaw once said: “A poem is a little lens through which we can examine in close range some of the ‘insignificant’ details of the universe, a miniature window on the world. In such small works of art the poet is lending you, the reader, her eyes in hopes that your own eyes will be captivated by things you’ve never noticed before.” Good poems help us notice and remember what would impoverish us to forget.

The poem that captured 2016 for me was this one by A.E. Stallings. May the Lord grant us all the grace of growing in empathy, in tender-hearted brotherly love, and in humility of mind.


My love, I’m grateful tonight
Our listing bed isn’t a raft
Precariously adrift
As we dodge the coast-guard light,

And clasp hold of a girl and a boy.
I’m glad that we didn’t wake
Our kids in the thin hours, to take
Not a thing, not a favorite toy,

And we didn’t hand over our cash
To one of the smuggling rackets,
That we didn’t buy cheap lifejackets
No better than bright orange trash

And less buoyant.
I’m glad that the dark
Above us, is not deeply twinned
Beneath us, and moiled with wind,
And we don’t scan the sky for a mark,

Any mark, that demarcates a shore
As the dinghy starts taking on water.
I’m glad that our six-year old daughter,
Who can’t swim, is a foot off the floor

In the bottom bunk, and our son
With his broken arm’s high and dry,
That the ceiling is not seeping sky,
With our journey but hardly begun.

Empathy isn’t generous,
It’s selfish.  It’s not being nice
To say I would pay any price
Not to be those who’d die to be us.

As always, happy reading and Happy New Year!

–Nick Roark

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“For an adult reader, the possible verdicts are five” by W. H. Auden

“As readers, we remain in the nursery stage so long as we cannot distinguish between Taste and Judgment, so long, that is, as the only possible verdicts we can pass on a book are two: this I like; this I don’t like.

For an adult reader, the possible verdicts are five: I can see this is good and I like it; I can see this is good but I don’t like it; I can see this is good and, though at present I don’t like it, I believe that with perseverance I shall come to like it; I can see that this is trash but I like it; I can see that this is trash and I don’t like it.”

–W. H. Auden, A Certain World: A Commonplace Book, The Complete Works of W. H. Auden, Volume VI: Prose: 1969-1973, Ed. Edward Mendelson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 222.

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The Best Books I Read This Year (2015)


These are my favorite books that I read in 2015:

1. Newton on the Christian Life / Tony Reinke
John Newton was dramatically converted to Christ after a thunderstorm on the high seas. He then faithfully pastored two congregations for 43 years. J.I. Packer called Newton the “friendliest, wisest, humblest” evangelical leader of his day, and he was “perhaps the greatest pastoral letter-writer of all time.” (25) Tim Keller claims that Newton is “the best pastor I’ve ever seen in my life.” (23) The former slave trader encouraged William Wilberforce in his efforts to help end the slave trade in England. And he also penned the most well-known hymn in the English language. I think it’s safe to say that we can learn much from John Newton about living for Christ in this world.

To that end, Tony Reinke has written the best book in what is a wonderful collection of books, Crossway’s Theologians On the Christian Life series. “Think of this book,” Reinke says, “as a field guide meant to get dirty, dog-eared, and faded in the clenched hands of a Christian pilgrim.” (32) This “field guide” is glorious. It’s a delight from beginning to end and brimming with golden selections from Newton:

“All shall work together for good: everything is needful that He sends; nothing can be needful that He withholds.” (195)

“My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Savior.” (49)

“Have we not a Saviour, a Shepherd full of compassion and tenderness? If we wish for love in a friend, He has shewn love unspeakable; —He left His glory, assumed our nature, and submitted to shame, poverty, and death, even the death of the cross, that He might save us from sin and misery, and open the kingdom of heaven to us, who were once His enemies. For He saw and pitied us, when we knew not how to pity ourselves. If we need a powerful friend, Jesus is almighty: our help is in Him who made heaven and earth, who raises the dead, and hushes the tempest and raging waves into a calm with a word. If we need a present friend, a help at hand in the hour of trouble, Jesus is always near, about our path by day, and our bed by night; nearer than the light by which we see, or the air we breathe; nearer than we are to ourselves; so that not a thought, a sigh, or a tear, escapes His notice. Since then His love and His wisdom are infinite, and He has already done so much for us, shall we not trust Him to the end? His mercies are countless as the sands, and hereafter we shall see cause to count our trials among our chief mercies.” (17)

Newton and Reinke served me this year by calling me again and again to fix my eyes on Christ. For that, I am grateful.

2. Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy With God / Tim Keller
Prayer is crucial. Keller writes: “Prayer is simply the key to everything we need to do and to be in life.” (18) He spends the next 300 pages helping his readers understand what prayer is and how to do it. Along the way Keller relies on choice lessons that he’s learned from Augustine (“Letter 130”), Martin Luther (“A Simple Way to Pray”), John Calvin, John Owen, and several others. My only beef with Prayer is with the publisher: I think we all can agree that Dutton’s decision to use endnotes in Tim Keller’s books is barbaric. So, Dutton, please do us all a favor, give the people what we want, and start using footnotes instead. Thank you.

3. Enjoy Your Prayer Life / Michael Reeves
This helpful book is brief, convicting, and life-giving. Reeves writes:

“The Son has brought us with Him– in Him– before His Father. That’s what we enjoy in prayer.” (35)

“It is the word of God, the gracious message of Christ, that awakens faith and so prayer – and so that must be the basic shape of our everyday communion with God. We need to set Christ before ourselves. That is, we hear the word of Christ in Scripture, in song, through each other and by reminding ourselves as we praise him. We should long that our eyes might be opened to see the beauty of the Lord and that we might be drawn afresh to want him – and then prayer is simply the articulation of our heart’s response. To summarise what we have discovered so far, prayer is the chief exercise of faith. Naturally we’re rubbish at prayer because we’re sinners. Yet the solution – what will give us the true life of real communion with God – is the gospel of Christ that awakens faith.” (19)

4. A Way to Pray / Matthew Henry
Henry is known for his whole-Bible commentary. But he also wrote this excellent primer on how to pray scripturally. This volume, edited by O. Palmer Robertson, is sort of like The Valley of Vision meets D.A. Carson’s A Call to Spiritual Reformation a.k.a Praying Like Paul. Henry is helping me to grow in praying according to God’s will. (1 John 5:14) Consider this simple prayer before a meal (373):

“Gracious God, You are the Protector and Preserver of the whole creation. You have nourished us throughout our lives up to the present day with sufficient food, though we are evil and unthankful. Forgive all our sins, for by them we have forfeited Your mercies. Restore our right standing with you in Christ Jesus. Enable us to taste covenant love in commonplace mercies. Give us the grace to use these mercies and all the comforts of Your creation to the glory of Christ, our great Benefactor and Redeemer. Amen.”

5. Edwards on the Christian Life / Dane Ortlund
What is the role of beauty in the Christian life? Ortlund’s answer: “To become a Christian is to become alive to beauty… Sinners are beautified as they behold the beauty of God in Jesus Christ.” (23, 24) This book is an accessible way to introduce others to the beautiful, God-entranced vision of Jonathan Edwards.

6. The Greatest Fight in the World / Charles Spurgeon
Spurgeon’s final address to his beloved students in his Pastors College is as timely now as it was back in 1891:

“On his knees a believer is invincible.” (31)
“We need nothing more than God has seen fit to reveal.” (40)
“God’s Word is our ultimatum.” (41)
“The very root of holiness lies in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (50)
“We are ourselves trophies of the power of the sword of the Spirit.” (54)
“A good textuary is a good theologian.” (60)
“Believers in verbal inspiration should be studiously careful to be verbally correct.” (61)
“The gospel has the singular faculty of creating a taste for itself.” (63)
“There is no arguing after we find that ‘It is written.’” (64)

7. The Ministry Medical / Jonathan Griffiths
Griffiths walks through 2 Timothy, the Apostle Paul’s last letter, and asks 36 textual questions to help diagnose the spiritual health of your ministry. I’m eager to read this volume again with my fellow elders.

8. Who is Jesus? and Why Trust the Bible? / Greg Gilbert
9Marks and Crossway continue to crank out wonderfully helpful books, especially books that busy pastors can give away to bless their church members. I thoroughly enjoyed both of these volumes by Gilbert and plan to get a bunch of copies to give away throughout the year.

9. Knowing Christ / Mark Jones
Following Jesus means growing in our knowledge of Jesus. This book helps us know Christ better. My favorite chapter in Knowing Christ was “Chapter 26 — Christ’s Names”:

“All that God has revealed to us concerning His Son, Jesus Christ, and the various names attributed to him, leave us in little doubt that His names ought to be exceedingly precious to His people. What more can be said? He is the last Adam (1 Cor. 15:45), Almighty (Rev. 1:8), Alpha and Omega (Rev. 1:8), Amen (Rev. 3:14), Arm of the Lord (Isa. 51:9), Pioneer of our faith (Heb. 12:2), Ruler of God’s creation (Rev. 3:14), beloved Son (Matt. 12:18), Branch (Isa. 4:2), Bread of life (John 6:32), Cornerstone (Ps. 118:22), Counsellor (Isa. 9:6), Faithful witness (Rev. 1:5), God (Rom. 9:5), Ruler (Matt. 2:6), Holy One (Acts 3:14), Horn of Salvation (Luke 1:69), I Am (John 8:58), Immanuel (Isa. 7:14), Righteous One (Acts 7:52), King (Zech. 9:9), King of kings and Lord of lords (1 Tim. 6:15), Lamb of God (John 1:29), Life (John 14:6), Light of the world (John 8:12), Lion of Judah (Rev. 5:5), Lord of glory (1 Cor. 2:8), the Lord our righteousness (Jer. 23:6), Man of sorrows (Isa. 53:3), Messenger (Mal. 3:1), Mighty God (Isa. 9:6), Morning star (Rev. 22:16), Passover lamb (1 Cor. 5:7), Prince of life (Acts 3:15), Prince of peace (Isa. 9:6), Redeemer (Job 19:25), Resurrection and the life (John 11:25), Rock (1 Cor. 10:4), Root of David (Rev. 22:16), Rose of Sharon (Song of Sol. 2:1), Overseer of our souls (1 Pet. 2:25), Sun of righteousness (Mal. 4:2), True vine (John 15:1), and Witness (Isa. 55:4). Perhaps we now have some glimpse into why Isaiah said: ‘and his name shall be called Wonderful…’ (Isa. 9:6). What is it to know Christ? It is to know his names and all that they mean. For this reason, we shall spend eternity worshipping the One whose names are past finding out.” (217-218)

10. Stuff Matters / Mark Miodownik
Materials are marvelous. That’s the lesson I learned from Stuff Matters. It’s the #1 bestseller in the Inorganic Chemistry section of for good reason. The book begins with a lackluster photograph of a man relaxing on his outdoor deck. The man in the photo is Mark Miodownik, a professor of materials at University College London. Captured in the picture are also ten common materials that we see and use everyday without really stopping and marveling. When is the last time you were amazed by paper, concrete, glass, graphite, plastic, steel, and chocolate? Chesterton was right when we wrote: “We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders.” This booked helped me wonder. The chapter on chocolate is worth the price of the book:

“Take a piece of dark chocolate and pop it in your mouth. For a few minutes you will feel its hard corners against your palate and tongue but taste little in the way of flavor. It is almost impossible to resist the urge to give it a good bite, but try very hard not to, so that you can experience what happens next: the lump becoming suddenly limp as it absorbs the heat from your tongue. As it becomes liquid, you will notice your tongue feels cooler, and then a combination of sweet and bitter flavors floods your mouth. These are followed by fruity and nutty sensations, and finally an earthy, muddy taste down the back of your throat. For one blissful moment you will be in thrall to the most deliciously engineered material on earth. Chocolate is designed to transform into a liquid as soon as it hits your mouth. This trick is the culmination of hundreds of years of culinary and engineering effort, aimed initially at creating a popular drink that could hold its own against tea and coffee. That effort failed miserably until chocolate manufacturers realized that making hot chocolate in the mouth instead of a saucepan was much more delightful, much more modern, and far more widely liked. In effect they created a solid drink, made possible by their understanding and control crystals– specifically, cocoa butter crystals. The chocolate industry has never looked back.” (73-74)

11. Do More Better / Tim Challies
There are lots of productivity books out there. I found this one by Challies to be concise and clear and practical. He writes: “Productivity is effectively stewarding your gifts, talents, time, energy, and enthusiasm for the good of others and the glory of God.” (16) Amen.

12. The Ology / Marty Machowski
We read The Ology during our family worship in the morning and the Roark kids loved it. Deep truths, beautifully communicated and illustrated.

13. The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert and Openness Unhindered / Rosaria Butterfield
I was fascinated by both of these books by Butterfield. If you’re only able to read one of them, I’d encourage you to read Openness Unhindered because of her extended treatment on sexual identity and union with Christ. Secret Thoughts begins in this way:

“When I was 28 years old, I boldly declared myself lesbian. I was at the finish of a PhD in English Literature and Cultural Studies. I was a teaching associate in one of the first and strongest women’s studies departments in the nation. I was being recruited by universities to take on faculty and administrative roles in advancing radical leftist ideologies. I genuinely believed that I was helping to make the world a better place. At the age of 36, I was one of the few tenured women at a large research university, a rising administrator, and a community activist. I had become one of the ‘tenured radicals.’ By all standards, I had made it. That same year, Christ claimed me for himself and the life that I had known and loved came to a humiliating end.” (ix)

14. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena / Anthony Marra
The best story I read in 2015 was this beautiful and brutal debut novel about a surgeon in war-torn Chechnya. Marra was asked about the book’s title and he replied:

“One day I looked up the definition of life in a medical dictionary and found a surprisingly poetic entry: ‘A constellation of vital phenomena—organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.’ As biological life is structured as a constellation of six phenomena, the narrative life of this novel is structured as a constellation of six point-of-view characters.”

These characters stay with you. In a variety of ways, Constellation reminded me of Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son. I’m not ashamed to say that I wept like a baby when I got to the last page. Just a beautiful, heartrending story of loss and hope and “immense, spinning joy.” (379)

While were are on fiction, let me briefly mention two other novels that I loved.

15. Crossing to Safety / Wallace Stegner
Last year was a season of transition for me, for my family, and for several of our dearest friends in ministry. So I’m thankful to have read this wise and tender novel that follows the lives of two couples, the Morgans and the Langs, along with their joys and losses. When I think of Crossing to Safety, I’ll think of our family’s life on Capitol Hill: “There it was, there it is, the place where during the best time of our lives friendship had its home and happiness had its headquarters.” (6)

16. The Other / Thomas Tryon
This might not be your cup of tea but I couldn’t put The Other down. It’s bizarre, beautifully written, and by far the spookiest book that I’ve ever read. And the ending… wow. Tryon’s story has the power to makes an apple cellar on a bucolic New England farm seem menacing:

“I’ve told Miss DeGroot all kinds of stories about the apple cellar. She says it’s a spooky place; she’s right. Buried deep in the heart of the barn, with thick walls of New England traprock, and no electrical illumination, the room was a marvelously clandestine place. For six months of the year, October to March, the bushel baskets stood in rows, brimful with apples; onions dug out of the kitchen garden swagged from the rafters, and garlands of dried peppers, and along the shelves lay bunches of beets, parsnips, and turnips. But during the remaining months, its store of provender spent, the apple cellar served for other, more devious, employment. Shut away from the light, free from intrusion, you felt it was such a place as could be peopled by a boy’s imagination with all the creatures of his fancy, with kings, courtiers, and criminals—whatever; stage, temple, prison, down there seeds were sown, to grow magically overnight, like mushrooms. A place whose walls could be made to recede into airy spaciousness, the ceiling and floor into a limitless void, wood and stone and mortar dissolved at will. But in June, with the whole of the summer stretching endlessly before you, the apple cellar was forbidden and you had to be close and cunning not to get caught. You had matches hidden in a Prince Albert tobacco tin and a candle butt stuck in a Coca-Cola bottle for light. All was dead secret; you listened carefully, one ear cocked, fearful of discovery; you envisioned every sound a Betrayer, a Giant, a Walking Horror…” (9-10)

Did I mention the ending?

17. Founders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln / Richard Brookhiser
I try to spend time every year with masters of English prose. In 2014, I spent the year with Winston Churchill. In 2015, I lived with Abraham Lincoln. I thoroughly enjoyed Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. If you want a brief biography of Lincoln, check out Abraham Lincoln by James McPherson. As I slowly worked my way through Lincoln’s Speeches and Writings: 1859-1865, I stumbled across one of my favorite passages, Lincoln’s consoling letter to Mrs. Bixley, who had lost five sons in the Civil War:

November 21, 1864

Dear Madam,

I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant-General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.

Yours very sincerely and respectfully,

Abraham Lincoln

As enjoyable as his speeches and letters were, the Lincoln book that will stay with me, and the one that I’ll return to again, is Richard Brookhiser’s Founder’s Son. Brookhiser shows how Lincoln’s “greatest curiosity was about the great things.” (301) I loved this book and I learned a bunch.

18. The Warmth of Other Suns / Isabel Wilkerson
In early 2015, a friend and dear brother in the Lord gave a sweet and challenging meditation on 1 Peter 3:8. One of his applications was, “Diversity with sympathy is key to unity. Diversity without sympathy is assimilation.” That got me thinking and I was provoked to spend more time reading books that might help me grow in understanding, tender-heartedness, sympathy, and brotherly love, especially for those who have experienced (and continue to endure) racism in all its manifold ugliness. No book served me more than The Warmth of Other Suns, a riveting history of the Great Migration told through the lives of four individuals who experienced the horrors of life in the Jim Crow South:

“Younger blacks could see the contradictions in their world—that, sixty, seventy, eighty years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, they still had to step off the sidewalk when a white person approached, were banished to jobs nobody else wanted no matter their skill or ambition, couldn’t vote, but could be hanged on suspicion of the pettiest infraction. These were the facts of their lives: There were days when whites could go to the amusement park and a day when blacks could go, if they were permitted at all. There were white elevators and colored elevators (meaning the freight elevators in back); white train platforms and colored train platforms. There were white ambulances and colored ambulances to ferry the sick, and white hearses and colored hearses for those who didn’t survive whatever was wrong with them. There were white waiting rooms and colored waiting rooms in any conceivable place where a person might have to wait for something, from the bus depot to the doctor’s office. A total of four restrooms had to be constructed and maintained at significant expense in any public establishment that bothered to provide any for colored people: one for white men, one for white women, one for colored men, and one for colored women… There was a colored window at the post office in Pensacola, Florida, and there were white and colored telephone booths in Oklahoma. White and colored went to separate windows to get their license plates in Indianola, Mississippi, and to separate tellers to make their deposits at the First National Bank of Atlanta. There were taxicabs for colored people and taxicabs for white people in Jacksonville, Birmingham, Atlanta, and the entire state of Mississippi. Colored people had to be off the streets and out of the city limits by 8 P.M. in Palm Beach and Miami Beach. Throughout the South, the conventional rules of the road did not apply when a colored motorist was behind the wheel. If he reached an intersection first, he had to let the white motorist go ahead of him. He could not pass a white motorist on the road no matter how slowly the white motorist was going and had to take extreme caution to avoid an accident because he would likely be blamed no matter who was at fault. In everyday interactions, a black person could not contradict a white person or speak unless spoken to first. A black person could not be the first to offer to shake a white person’s hand. A handshake could occur only if a white person so gestured, leaving many people having never shaken hands with a person of the other race. The consequences for the slightest misstep were swift and brutal. Two whites beat a black tenant farmer in Louise, Mississippi, in 1948, wrote the historian James C. Cobb, because the man ‘asked for a receipt after paying his water bill.’ It was against the law for a colored person and a white person to play checkers together in Birmingham. White and colored gamblers had to place their bets at separate windows and sit in separate aisles at racetracks in Arkansas. At saloons in Atlanta, the bars were segregated: Whites drank on stools at one end of the bar and blacks on stools at the other end, until the city outlawed even that, resulting in white-only and colored-only saloons. There were white parking spaces and colored parking spaces in the town square in Calhoun City, Mississippi. In one North Carolina courthouse, there was a white Bible and a black Bible to swear to tell the truth on.” (44-45)

To think that all of this happened in this country just a few decades ago. Twelve Years A Slave by Solomon Northup, Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward, and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates were all unforgettable reads for me. The most poignant paragraph from these books was the one below from Jesmyn Ward, who tragically lost her brother, Joshua, in October 2000:

“Every year on the day he died, I wake up to the dread of another year passing. I lock myself in my room, wherever I am living, and I cry until my eyes swell shut. And at the edge of the longing, the terror that I will forget who he was and forget our lives together immobilizes me, pulls me down further, until I am like someone in those cartoons from our youth, stuck in a quagmire of quicksand, mired in the cold, liquid crush, and then: drowning. After Joshua died, my father stopped working, lived on Top Ramen and hot dogs by working odd jobs, and watched television on two different sets at the same time for hours a day. My mother cleans my brother’s grave every few weeks, picking stray grass, brushing the sand to an even smoothness. Every death anniversary, she takes to her room, closes her blinds, wraps herself in silence and darkness. Every year on his birthday, she buys mums for his grave and cleans the small ceramic figures of angels and teddy bears she’s placed around it, while Nerissa and Charine attach balloons, one for every birthday year, this year thirty-three, to his headstone. ‘I only dream of him as a child,’ my mother says. ‘He’s always my little boy.’ This is grief.” (242-243)

19. Spying in America / Michael Sulick
Can you keep a secret? The United States government clearly cannot. In this book, Michael Sulick, former head of the CIA’s clandestine service, details thirty fascinating espionage cases from the American Revolution to the Cold War. Imagine if David McCullough wrote a history of espionage. That’s what Spying in America is like. (And, while we’re on spying, if you’re looking for some fun spy novels, check out Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon books. I liked this The English Spy, The Prince of Fire, and The Messenger).

20. The Boys in the Boat / Daniel James Brown
I enjoyed several nonfiction books abouts boats this year. In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick is the harrowing true story of the whale ship Essex that was attacked by a huge whale that later inspired Moby Dick. Erik Larson’s Dead Wake (I follow the simple rule of reading everything Larson writes.) tells the story of the sinking of the luxury ocean liner Lusitania by the Nazi U-boat in 1915 during the first year of WWII. But my favorite book about boats in 2015 was definitely The Boys in the Boat. It’s about the quest for rowing gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. I was inspired by the story.

21. Beowulf: A New Translation / Translated by Seamus Heaney
One of my favorite reads from last year was N.D. Wilson’s Boys of Blur, which is a kind of modern re-telling of Beowulf with swamps and sugarcane fields and the Everglades and high school football. So I decided to reread the original Beowulf, an epic that I hadn’t read since college. I’ll probably tackle Tolkien’s translation in 2016, but for 2015 I chose the award-winning translation by Seamus Heaney, one of the best poets in the world. It did not disappoint. Even though it’s abridged, also consider checking out Heaney’s audiobook version.

22. Thirst: Poems / Mary Oliver
A few years ago, I was in a bookshop with my wife in Cape Cod and stumbled across Thirst, a collection by a poet who lived just up the road a bit, in Provincetown, MA. I’ve enjoyed Oliver’s poems ever since. (Check out: Blue Iris, Evidence, Swan, A Thousand Mornings, Blue Horses, and Felicity). Poets are shepherds of words. They can teach us to see and to say. Oliver has mainly helped me to marvel more at the beauty of God’s creation. “Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work, which is mostly standing still learning to be astonished.” (“Messenger,” Thirst, p. 1). If you are looking for some wonderful poetry about the incarnation of our Lord, it’s hard to beat Accompanied by Angels by Luci Shaw.

23. The Wingfeather Saga / Andrew Peterson
I spent nearly all of 2015 traveling with my three children through the magical world of Aerwiar alongside the three amazing Wingfeather children. Peterson is a talented singer and songwriter (Dear Andrew, please bring the Behold the Lamb of God tour back to the DC area! We missed you this year). So I wasn’t surprised when we loved all four books in this bittersweet series:

My kiddos gave the following reviews:

Emmaline (6): “I like the characters. They all have creative names.”
Hudson (8): “I like the stories because they’re about a different world with interesting creatures.”
Elijah (9): “I like the Wingfeather books because they’re adventurous.”

Daddy likes how Peterson weaves the redemptive power of self-sacrificial love throughout the saga from beginning to end. “Blood was shed that you three might breathe the good air of life.” (On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, 17)

The Warden and the Wolf King concludes with the following poem (516-517):

The world is whispering–listen child!–
The world is telling a tale.
When the seafoam froths in the water wild
Or the fendril flies in the gale,
When the sky is mad with the swirling storm
And thunder shakes the hall,
Child, keep watch for the passing form
Of the one who made it all.
Listen, child to the Hollish wind,
To the hush of heather down,
To the voice of the brook at the stony bend
And the bells of Rysentown.
The dark of the heart is a darkness deep
And the sweep of the night is wide
And the pain of the heart when the people weep
Is an overwhelming tide–
And yet! and yet! when the tide runs low
As the tide will always do
And the heavy sky where the bellows blow
Is bright at last, and blue
And the sun ascends in the quiet morn
And the sorrow sinks away,
When the veil of death and dark is torn
Asunder by the day,
Then the light of love is the flame of spring
And the flow of the river strong
And the hope of the heart as the people sing
Is an everlasting song.
The winter is whispering, “green and gold,”
And the heart is whispering, too–
It’s a story the Maker has always told
And the story, my child, is true.

As always, happy reading and Happy New Year!

–Nick Roark

p.s. This year marks the 10-year anniversary of Tolle Lege. If you like this blog, consider leaving a comment below with your favorite books of 2015. I’d enjoy learning what books you enjoyed.

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Filed under Bible, Book Reviews, Books, Christian Theology, Jesus Christ, Quotable Quotes, Reading, The Gospel, Writing

The Best Books I Read This Year (2014)

tl-books2014-1These are my fourteen favorite books that I read in 2014:

1. One With Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation / Marcus Peter Johnson
To be saved is to be united to the Savior because Jesus is in Himself the blessings He provides. John Murray once noted that nothing is more basic than a believer’s union with Christ. My favorite book of the year helped me see that few things are more beautiful. For example, Johnson writes:

“The Son’s relationship to His Father is everything to Him, for He has existed eternally in the intimate love of His Father. The love of the Father for His Son is the source of all love and the ground of all life. It is a love so extravagant that it overflowed into the creation of the world— God the Father created all things through and for His Son (Col. 1:16). In joining Himself to us, the Son of God has signaled the recreation of all things by opening up to us the love the Father has for Him. He became one with us to make known the love the Father has for Him. But let us be perfectly clear—Jesus came to do more than preach about the Father’s love for us; He came to make this love known in us. (John 17:25-26) To be joined to Jesus Christ is to participate in the love the Father has for the Son. It means we now belong to God as His children, and the Father now loves us no less than He loves His only begotten. It is difficult to conceive of a greater benefit than this because it impossible to conceive of a love deeper than this. How incredible, then, is the doxology that pours forth from John’s pen: ‘See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are’ (1 John 3:1). Jesus Christ is our salvation because in Him, and only in Him, we share in the love that alone can be called eternal life.” (pp. 167-168)

Isn’t that glorious? Get this book and read it slowly. You won’t regret it.

2. Expositional Preaching / David Helm
I’ve been blessed through the writing ministry of David Helm. I often use One to One Bible Reading in my discipling relationships and my daughter loves the Big Picture Story Bible. His latest book is on preaching and it’s excellent. He offers wise and practical instruction to help preachers to both faithfully get the text right and get the text across. The folks at 9Marks cranked out a bunch of jewels this year, but this one was my favorite.

3. Stoner / John Williams
The first novel I read in 2014 was the best I’ve read in a while. And it’s haunted me ever since. C.S. Lewis once reviewed a book by his friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, and wrote the following: “Such a book has of course its predestined readers, even now more numerous and more critical than is always realised. To them a review need say little, except that here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart. They will know that this is good news, good beyond hope.” That’s pretty much how I feel about Stoner.

4. From the Mouth of God / Sinclair Ferguson
Imagine if you got coffee with a godly, wise, and seasoned minister of God’s Word and you asked him to share the greatest lessons he’s gleaned from his many decades of trusting, reading, and applying the Bible. That’s what it feels like reading this book. I read several excellent works on Scripture this year (like this one, this onethis one, and this one). But it was this one by Sinclair Ferguson that affected me the most.

5. Music At Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert / John Drury
If you love Herbert’s poetry, then you won’t want to miss this beautiful biography. Illuminating and moving throughout. 

6. American Spies / Michael Sulick
I live in a city with a higher concentration of spies than any other location in the world. Michael Sulick, a retired intelligence operations officer who was director of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service and chief of CIA counterintelligence, has written a fascinating study on espionage against the United States from the Cold War to the present that helps answer this question: What motivates people to sell their country’s most precious secrets?

7. Justification Reconsidered / Stephen Westerholm
This brief book is one of the most lucid and elegant treatments of justification that I’ve ever read. In a span of 100 pages, Westerholm helpfully, humbly, and critically interacts with recent proposals from New Perspectivists. Westerholm argues convincingly from the biblical text that “Justification through the gospel of Jesus Christ represents one way in which Paul can respond to the question inevitably provoked by a message of pending eschatological doom: ‘How can I find a gracious God?'” (p. 9)

8. Christ Our Life / Michael Reeves
Sometimes you know a book is gonna be good from the opening paragraph. Such is the case with Christ Our Life. Take it away Mr. Reeves:

“Jesus Christ, God’s perfect Son, is the Beloved of the Father, the Song of the angels, the Logic of creation, the great Mystery of godliness, the bottomless Spring of life, comfort and joy. We were made to find our satisfaction, our heart’s rest, in Him. Quite simply, this book will be about enjoying Him, revelling in His all-sufficiency for us, and considering all that He is: how He reveals such an unexpectedly kind God, how He makes, defines– how He is– the good news, and how He not only gives shape to but is Himself the shape of the Christian life.” (p. ix)

NOTE: This book will be published soon in America under the title Rejoicing In Christ.

9. The Gospel Story Bible / Marty Machowski
We used this book as part of our family worship in the mornings and absolutely loved it. Check out this sample and see for yourself.

10. With the Old Breed / E.B. Sledge
This book is a first-hand account of the experiences in training and combat of E.B. Sledge with Company K, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division during the Peleliu and Okinawa campaigns in World War II. Sledge and his comrades were swept into an abyss of war and brutality that often beggars belief. He kept copious battle notes on slips of paper in his copy of the New Testament. Years later, he wrote about his war experiences to explain them to his family.

 “War is brutish, inglorious , and a terrible waste. Combat leaves an indelible mark on those who are forced to endure it. The only redeeming factors were my comrades’ incredible bravery and their devotion to each other. Marine Corps training taught us to kill efficiently and to try to survive. But it also taught us loyalty to each other— and love. That esprit de corps sustained us.” (p. 316)

11. Master and Commander / Patrick O’Brian
I finally got around to reading the first volume in the Aubrey and Maturin series. It was just as good as advertised. The fun thing is knowing that the remaining 20 volumes (!) are really just one long and wonderfully told story of life and war and adventure on the high seas.

12. The Gospel at Work / Sebastian Traeger and Greg Gilbert
John Piper once wrote, “Books don’t change people; paragraphs do. Sometimes even sentences.” One of the best sentences in The Gospel at Work is one that could transform your entire outlook on your job: “Who you work for is more important than what you do.” (p. 16) The writers do a fine job showing how working for King Jesus gives purpose and meaning to the work we do everyday.

13. The Painted Word / Philip Cousineau
If you’re in love with the English language and fascinated by words, then you should pick up a copy of The Painted Word which is billed as “A Treasure Chest of Remarkable Words and Their Origins.” That’s exactly what it is. I promise you’ll learn something interesting. Check out these two examples of things near and dear to my heart, books and coffee:

A collection of words printed on paper and bound by covers. Tracing the roots of such an elemental word reminds me of what art critic Bernard Berenson called “the aesthetic moment,” which he defined as “that flitting instant so brief as to be timeless, when the spectator is at one with the work of art.” That’s what happened when I discovered that book comes from the Anglo-Saxon boc, the bark of a beech tree, traditionally believed to have emerged into German as buch, from Buche, beech. The page turns, and we’re into Old English boc, book, any written document. The notion is of beech-wood tablets on which runes were inscribed, but the word may come from the tree itself. (People still carve initials in them.) Latin and Sanskrit also have words for “writing” that are based on tree names (birch and ash, respectively). Book, meaning “libretto of an opera,” dates from 1768. The self-taught Cherokee scholar Tecumseh described books as “talking leaves.” The irrepressible Groucho Marx said, “I find television very educational. Every time someone turns on a set I go into the other room and read a book.” The first essayist, Michel de Montaigne, wrote, “Books give not wisdome where none was there. But where there is, reading makes it before.” My father was fond of the bookmarks handed out by his favorite bookstore in Dearborn, Michigan, which featured the words of Thomas Carlyle: “Blessings upon Cadmus or the Phoenicians or whoever it was that invented books.” The tea cookie inspired Marcel Proust to write, in In Search of Lost Time, “It seemed to be that they would not be my readers, but readers of their own selves, my book being merely a magnifying glass.” The ultimate mythologization of books is Jorge Luis Borges’s The Library of Babel: “On some shelf, in some hexagon, it was argued, there must be a book that is a cipher and a compendium of all other books.” Companion words include book as a verb, “to enter for a seat or place, issue tickets,” from 1841; betting book, from 1856; bookmaker, 1862. A bookkeeper was originally someone who never returns a borrowed book. (p. 43)

A tree, a beverage, a way of life. A beverage and a word that seems to have been around forever, but dates back only to 1598, when it appeared on the doorsteps of Europe as the Turkish kalve, from Arabic qalwa, and eventually Italian caffè. The crop grows in the tropics; the beverage is made in a café by percolation, infusion, or decoction from the roasted and ground seeds of any of several Old World tropical plants (genus Coffea, especially C. arabica and C. canephora). Its storied roots lie in the hills of Ethiopia, where, it is said, a goatherd noticed his flock capering about one afternoon. Wondering what had made them so capricious, goatlike, he watched them chewing a red berry from a bush. The roots of the word coffee probably come from the soil of Dutch koffie, from Turkish kaveh, and earlier from Arabia, where it was considered a kind of wine. Coffee entered the Western world during the Siege of Vienna, in 1529, when the marauding Turkish soldiers left their sacks of coffee beans behind when they were repelled at the gates of the city. The next day the victorious Austrians celebrated with croissants, as a tribute to the crescent moon that shone above the city the night of the attack. Coffeehouse, in merry old England, was vulgar slang for a woman who was taken advantage of, suggestive of “coming and going and spending nothing.” (p. 75)

See what I mean?

14. Boys of Blur / N.D. Wilson
Only a writer as talented as N.D. Wilson could take swamps and sugarcane fields and the Everglades and high school football and Beowulf and turn it into an amazing story. My two boys kept asking me to read and re-read the opening line of the book. They told me that hearing it read aloud was just fun. “When the sugarcane’s burning and the rabbits are running, look for the boys who are quicker than flame.” (p. 2).

As always, happy reading and Happy New Year!

–Nick Roark

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Filed under Bible, Book Reviews, Books, Christian Theology, Quotable Quotes, Reading, The Gospel, Writing