2020: My Top Reads of the Year
I read a lot of books; such is the life of a nerd. This year, however, I read a lot more than I usually do every year (Thanks, quarantine!). Some folks rightly ask why I read this many books, which is a valid question. Do I really absorb much from what I read, or is it just a way for me to brag online about how much I read? A number of years ago I heard someone say that quality time with your kids is only ever a function of quantity time, i.e. quality time happens when you spend a lot of time with your kids, not when you have very little overlap with them and then put a kid date on the books with a ton of pressure for it to be meaningful and memorable. The reason I have a lot of high-quality time with my kids is because I have a lot more low-quality time with them.
Reading is the same for me: I read over 80 books this year, and there are a fair number of them that are already washed out of my memory. And I'm 100% okay with that, because below I'm going to recommend over 30 books that did stick with me and that I would probably read again. I don't know how good a book is going to be before I read it, and if I had said in January, "I'm going to read 30 really great books that all shape me," the reality is that I probably would have only read 10 that were all that meaningful to me.
With all that said, I have picked 7 categories that generally encompass what I read, and I'll present my top books in each category with hopefully little commentary (I will try to be brief 😅). My categories this year:
- General Fiction
- Personal Finance
- Public Life
- Race and Racial Justice
- Theology & Biblical Studies
If you're curious about what else I read, check out my goodreads Year in Books and follow me to see my reading journey in 2021!
This is an absolutely delightful, utterly quirky little novel. It's great if you want to just smile. When Software Engineer Lois Clary moves to San Francisco and is given a sourdough starter, her life gets turned upside down in a zany parable of how the tech industry is always trying to disrupt every industry and eat the world.
The Evening and the Morning
When I read The Pillars of the Earth for seminary about 7 years ago, I was enthralled by how human Follett made medieval Europe feel. This year he released this prequel set at the turn of the (last) millennium. England is harried by Viking raiders, many contenders vie for royal and ecclesiastical power, and families scrape the dust of the ground to survive another day. Follett isn't for everyone—he's very... gratuitous—but if you can get past that, it's a riveting reflection on power, grit, ingenuity, gender, and progress set in a time very few of us are that familiar with.
Okay, this is not one of Crichton's more well-known novels, and for good reason. Published posthumously from a rough manuscript, I wouldn't recommend this if you're looking for excellent prose or a tightly woven plot. But I found it to be a very fun adventure, especially given that I have been to nearly all the locations its protagonist, William Johnson, visits. (I read it this summer right after returning from Dinosaur National Monument in northwestern Colorado). It trades on racist tropes of Native Americans, but it's nevertheless true to the attitudes of the late 19th century. Don't expect greatness, but it's fun paperback historical fiction if you're into that.
Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation
Kristin Kobes Du Mez
I just finished reading this a couple days ago, and I am already getting ready to read it again. If I had to describe it in one word? Ooooooooof. This book sets out to answer the question, "How could Donald Trump possibly have become the hero of evangelicals that he now is?" Though it's not only about gender—she traces many contours of evangelical development over the course of most of the past century including its racial characteristics—she narrows in on how Christians have consistently fretted about the "feminization" of the faith and therefore their obsessive emphasis on making the faith "muscular," "rugged," "masculine," etc. She spares no punches; though I thought I had a fairly good grasp of this particular history, I was not prepared for just how unsavory it has been. She shows how many names who I am intimately familiar with and who have shaped my own life have nonetheless contributed toward creating a fertile soil for Trumpianity to take root. It's heavy on the historical rather than logical or theological analysis of certain ideas and movements, but even though it doesn't cover the entire picture it's absolutely worth reading and considering.
Man Enough: How Jesus Redefines Manhood
In our world today, gender is viewed as entirely presentational: a descriptor of how you show yourself to the world, but it does not mean anything more than that. In reaction, many Christian men have doubled down on defining manhood in the most obtuse of masculine caricatures. If you don't carry a gun and eat raw red meat every 20 minutes and earn a huge paycheck and yell at the TV when you're watching football, your masculinity is in doubt. Other Christians want to embed gender into the very practice of Christianity, such that women need women's study Bibles and men need their own and the idea of studying it together is craaaazy. Pyle steps into the middle, suggesting that manhood does mean something, but a lot less than some want it to, and that there can be different kinds of masculinities, and that it's probably not all that helpful to expend vast amounts of energy trying to exhaustively define what every man must look like.
Recovering from biblical Manhood and Womanhood: How the Church Needs to Rediscover Her Purpose
This was one of the hot button books of the year, losing Byrd her position as a writer and podcaster with the Association of Christian Evangelicals in a super shady, under-the-table disassociation. The folks in her conservative circles did not like what she had to say, though this book was honestly a timid house cat compared to the lion that was Jesus and John Wayne. It's the theological analysis that J&JW is not, though I found the book to get a little muddled when she got past critique and on to crafting a coherent vision of what men and women in the church should look like. You can read my full review if you're interested.
You Need a Budget: The Proven System for Breaking the Paycheck to Paycheck Cycle, Getting Out of Debt, and Living the Life You Want
I don't typically read a lot in this category, but I started using YNAB (You Need a Budget) this year to manage our family's finances and when I saw they had written a book, I wanted to read it to get a deeper dive on their philosophy behind money management. It's a great little book! If you've ever read Dave Ramsey, this is sort of like that but without the judgmental attitude toward poor people and the pseudo-Christian guilt-mongering. I highly recommend this if you want to get a better handle on your money and make it go further.
Uncommon Ground: Living Faithfully in a World of Difference
Edited by Tim Keller and John Inazu
This set of essays from a variety of diverse Christian voices explores what a faithful Christian witness looks like in a post-Christian nation. How do we live to bless others in an age of unprecedented distrust and division? Many Christians see no alternative to Trumpism, looking to an adulterous, slanderous, lying, philanderer to restore moral order to our nation. Yet there is an alternative, which editor John Inazu calls "confident pluralism" and which the essays seek, in turn, to flesh out. This was easily one of my top three books of the year across all categories. See my full review.
In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World
This book covers very similar territory as Uncommon Ground, making the case that the Christian exists to seek the common good. Christian practice, argues Meador, is not about "taking back" the country from one's perceived enemies—muslims, gays, communists, liberals—nor is it about fighting for the right to live out a set of personal, private values or norms. It is about living in such a way that our communities thrive, our laws are truly just, and those who struggle find help and love. Meador is grounded in a confidence that the world is made to work in a certain way, and when humans live according to the grain of reality, that is when they most flourish. I wasn't on the same page about every last little thing as Meador, but it was one of my top books of the year because I believe he's working toward the right things, and it's a beautiful example of gracious writing in an era of unending tribalistic vitriol.
Compassion (&) Conviction: The AND Campaign's Guide to Faithful Civic Engagement
This book overlaps slightly with the two books above, but focuses on what it looks like for an American citizen to be faithfully, civically engaged. It's a short book, but it's a gem because it moves beyond shallow answers to the question ("Faithfulness is voting for the pro-life candidate") into all arenas of civic life—not just voting. Giboney is likewise exceedingly gracious and even-keeled, not given to outrageous portrayals of those who think differently than him. His agenda here is not to convince you to align yourself with a certain political party, but wherever you land to think through your political commitments via the lenses of compassion and conviction. One's convictions and beliefs matter truly, and the way one treats the other also matters deeply. It will be my go to recommendation for those looking for help in thinking through civic participation.
Race and Racial Justice
I read more books in this category than any other this year—around 24 books related to the subject. I actually started reading on the subject last fall and then kicked off January with Just Mercy and The Water Dancer. I read the cultural flashpoint books on both sides—White Fragility and Cynical Theories—but it remained a fairly impersonal educational exercise until Ahmaud Arbery and then especially George Floyd. I watched video after video on Twitter and couldn't believe what I was seeing. It then became personal, and I needed to dive deep. It was a revealing journey that changed my mind pretty profoundly about a lot of what I had taken for granted about America, its racial past, and its racial present.
I picked three books that I would absolutely read again, and then I added a longer list of honorable mentions that I won't expand on but were also well worth reading.
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
This was the first book I read related to race this year, and in many ways it is the best, because it humanizes racial injustice in a way that you can lose sight of in other books because of the endless proliferation of facts and data and figures. This book does not synthesize controversial conclusions from historical analysis (such as The New Jim Crow), nor does it spend a lot of time preaching at you to recognize your own racialized reactions (such as White Fragility). Instead, Stevenson simply tells the true stories of his legal practice fighting for equal justice in the deep south in the eighties, nineties, and early aughts. In so doing, he closes off the option of thinking that racism was merely a relic of the past, or of the south, or that in some way it's someone else's problem. The book was made into a film that is also very good, but it focuses in on just one of the many stories he told and does give the impression that it's just a southern problem.
The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America
This book was fantastically helpful for me for the very specific reason that it spends little time trying to tell you what to think or what policies should be instituted today, and instead spends the bulk of its time surveying the massive amount of legal, de jure racism baked into America's laws. If you're familiar with the word "redlining" and still think this was the exception that proved the rule, or that this was basically solved with civil rights legislation in the sixties, Rothstein exhaustively demonstrates how everything from HOA rules to building codes to zoning laws and more have shaped the racial contours of our society. He shows that these laws were pervasive (he narrows in on San Francisco to show the problem even in supposed liberal enclaves), systemic, and intentional.
White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity
Robert P. Jones
I read a lot of books about race this year from a non-Christian perspective, but given my investment in the Church, a huge number of books related to the intersection of race and Christianity. The Color of Compromise is probably one of the more well-known books in that subcategory, but I picked this book for this list because it has a slightly less academic tone and takes a (primarily) theological rather than a (primarily) historical tack. He seeks to demonstrate not just that the Church has been complicit with White Supremacy, but how it is so in its doctrine and structures. I'll state up front that I don't think every case he makes is fully convincing, but he did cause me to step back and take stock of why I believe what I believe. The other big takeaway from this book for me was his demonstration of how Christians tend to think of themselves as being against racism, but that they are only willing to be so in ways that cost them essentially nothing. In particular, he describes SBTS President Albert Mohler's "white shuffle" wherein he is willing to make explicit, flashy statements against racism, but is not willing to do anything that would cost him influence in in the SBC. Recently, he made a big announcement about how they would be creating a new scholarship for black students that would cost the school a pittance, but that they would not be changing the names of buildings that were named after its racist forbears (which is what people have actually been asking for, but that would cost Mohler real cachet in the SBC).
- The Hidden Wound, Wendell Berry. Deep reflection on the ways in which racism has twisted and warped white people.
- The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander. An argument that the prison system is functionally a new kind of "Jim Crow."
- Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates. Effective in much the same way as Just Mercy by helping you understand what his life has been like.
- American Prison, Shane Bauer. A brutal undercover look at the absolute mess that is the private prison system.
- Be the Bridge, LaTasha Morrison. A gracious, wonderful guide for improving racial literacy with the end goal of building bridges.
- Caste, Isabel Wilkerson. An argument that the concept of "caste" is more true to what America is than the concept of "racism" specifically.
- Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin. A beautifully written set of essays about black life in Harlem and France and other various topics.
- Weep with Me, Mark Vroegop. A very simple plea that the Church's first response to reports of racism should not be embattlement, but lament. See my full review.
- We Were Eight Years in Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates. Essays reflecting upon the first black president and what it means.
- White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo. This is the book many say is utter trash, and while it made me frustrated to read it, I found it to be helpful as a mirror to my own attitudes and responses to race.
To Sleep in a Sea of Stars
This was an award winner this year, and for good reason. It's an epic, well-written space opera, and a pleasing balance of both the sci and the fi. It's a tale of when first contact goes poorly, and humanity's desperate struggle to survive the sudden appearance of formidable new species that seem lightyears ahead in their capability. It's simply very fun and thrilling to read.
I read this after hearing it recommended on the Liftoff podcast, and it's really a pretty fun little story! It takes a little bit to get going, and the beginning is heavily robed in clichés of the genre, but its contribution is to question the prevailing Mars First dogma in deep space exploration: the costliest part of space is escaping the gravity well, so it follows that asteroid mining is actually a much better first step for humanity than going to Mars or even the Moon. Elements of the plot strain credulity, but overall it's an enjoyable, memorable, unique book.
- Artemis, Andy Weir. A bit of a sophomore slump after The Martian, but not too bad. An interesting vision of humanity's early presence on the Moon.
- The Churn, James S.A. Corey. A novella from The Expanse universe, set in the mess of Amos Burton's Baltimore.
- Children of Time, Adrian Tchaikovsky. An ambitious, unique novel spanning the millennia of a species' development on a planet.
Theology & Biblical Studies
Against the Darkness: The Doctrine of Angels, Satan, and Demons
Graham A. Cole
This is a fantastic example of what I personally believe a systematic theology should strive to be. Instead of the rather common strategy of defining a doctrine and then parenthetically listing out verses that one is expected to go look up on their own, Cole takes the opposite approach: he quotes scripture at length, and then develops his theology expositionally. He also gives attention to related apocryphal and pseudepigraphal writings on the subject, as well as to common contemporary beliefs and attitudes about angels, Satan, and demons. This was a delightfully helpful volume. See my full review.
Jesus and the Forces of Death: The Gospels' Portrayal of Ritual Impurity Within First-Century Judaism
Though this volume did not do nearly as much as I was hoping for, it nevertheless earned a spot on my top reads of the year for covering a subject that is barely understood in Christianity today, and yet is nevertheless monumentally important for understanding not only what Jesus is even doing in the gospels, but also how we are to think about the relationship between the distinct concepts of morality and purity. I have long been convinced that Leviticus is given criminally little attention in the modern Church, and as a result I was greatly heartened to see this book come out this year.
Cur Deus Homo: Why God Became Man, Anselm of Canterbury. I've wanted to read this for a number of years, and while it is rightly held in esteem, I also found it to be a very funny read due to his use of a simpering "yes man" as his rhetorical interlocutor, as well as to his obsessive interest in how many people would need to be elect to make up for the number of angels that fell.
Did you read any of these books? Want to chat about them? Contact me! I love talking about books, and I would love to hear your impression of any of these.