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:
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.
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:
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, 1941-1942, The 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:
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
- Eph. 1:5; Gal. 4:4–5
- John 1:12; Rom. 8:17
- 2 Cor. 6:18; Rev. 3:12
- Rom. 8:15
- Gal. 4:6; Eph. 2:18
- Ps. 103:13
- Prov. 14:26; 1 Pet. 5:7
- Heb. 12:6
- Isa. 54:8–9
- Lam. 3:31
- Eph. 4:30
- 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:
- Start with the Word
- Let Your Yes Be Yes
- Dissent from the Kingdom of Noise
- Prioritize Your Yeses
- Accept Your ‘Unipresence’
- Embrace Productive Rest
- 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!