I have eight categories in my reading rotation (see the whole neurotic system here). Here’s the best book I read in each category this year.
Usually, my reading in this category is novels, but the best in the bunch this year was Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. I’m not a fan of horror books, so I don’t read much Stephen King. This book shows his brilliance as a writer. It was so enjoyable that I read it like you might read one of his thrillers––sneaking a few lines at stop lights. The second half of the book is King’s advice to make good writers out of merely competent ones. If you aspire to be a good writer, you’ll benefit from this.
Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible by N. T. Wright was the most helpful book I read about the Bible this year. I get a lot of questions from people about how to read the Bible, how to understand seeming contradictions, etc. I’ve referenced this book often in those discussions. Wright’s “five-act hermeneutic” has been especially helpful for people who are struggling to understand the difference between how we read the Old and New Testaments.
Abraham Joshua Heschel’s little book The Sabbath changed my life. My family changed our approach to time as a response, and it has been one of the best things to happen to us. I usually highlight something every few pages in a book. In this one, I was choosing what not to highlight so that it wouldn’t all blend together. One quote to give you a taste: “We cannot solve the problem of time through the conquest of space, through either pyramids or fame. We can only solve the problem of time through sanctification of time. To men alone time is elusive; to men with God time is eternity in disguise.”
After a couple of deaths that were especially hard on me this year, I re-read Thomas G. Long’s Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral. This book offers a rich theology of death, dying and the afterlife that strikes against a lot of our modern treatments––even in the Church, or perhaps especially in the Church. With this, Long shows us a way to approach funerals that’s different from what we typically see. I think I’ll forever grieve, mourn, and celebrate more deeply in the face of death because of this book. The book has also shaped how I preside over funerals. With that, I especially recommend it to pastors, but recommend it also for anyone trying to deal with death and dying.
I re-read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship this year, this time the new (and improved, in my opinion) translation by Fortress Press. If nothing else, read his opening chapter. It’s one of the best chapters ever written. Bonhoeffer’s call to discipleship calls at once for entire obedience to Jesus and entire trust in him, leaving no room for faith without works, nor for works without faith. His depiction of the visible church-community is compelling and beautiful. Bonhoeffer achieves what I think Christ’s call intends––an invitation to discipleship that demands everything of us and yet remains a light yoke, providing refreshment and peace for our souls.
Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton (free on Kindle!) was my favorite. An online reviewer may have said it best: “This book sends your head up into the clouds while driving your feet deep into the earth. It spins you dizzier than you’ve ever been, yet makes you walk straighter than you’ve ever walked.” The book is a sort of philosophy of religion, but rather than taking on a textbook form, it reads like Lewis Carroll or Oscar Wilde. Chesterton’s turns of phrase are witty and delightful, his reasoning so roundabout that at times you have no idea where you’re going or why it matters, but if you hang with him, he makes some brilliant points.
Most of my reading in this category tends to be Wesleyan and Methodist. But the best this year was Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body by Pope John Paul II. This magisterial work was the defining theological contribution of John Paul II. I went to it when I was trying to work through a theology of sexuality and realized how impoverished and superficial most Protestant theologies are on this subject. For some of the reflections that came out of that study, see my posts “Sexuality and Webbed Theology” and “Sexuality and Theology–A running start.”
This category is for all the miscellaneous things that don’t fit above. On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser gets the prize here, which now makes for two writing books in this list. As they should be, people who write books about writing are great writers. That makes them enjoyable and easy to read. Even if I never wanted to write anything, I think I would have enjoyed this book. And it probably would have made me want to write.
Honorable mention in the “other” category goes to two self-help books–1–2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2–12 by Thomas Phelan and Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen. These respectively helped me improve my parenting and my workflow. (See a whole post on the workflow here.)
This is my 2013 list. See the 2014 list here.
* Okay, technically this isn’t the best eight books I read. It’s the best book in each of eight categories. That title didn’t have the same ring, though.