With the decade coming to a close, for a brief moment I contemplated doing a list of favorite books from the past ten years. When the decade dawned in 2010, I was living in Washington, DC, working just a short walk from Capitol Hill. I was newly out of grad school and reading a lot of Nobel laureates at the time. The first book I read that year, I was pleased to remember, was Markings by Dag Hammarskjöld.
I did some quick math just now and realized I’ve read 1,021 books (yep) since then. And I’m not about to choose 10 favorites out of a thousand. But my favorites lists from each year are linked here: 2018, 2017, 2016, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010. (If I made lists in 2014 and 2015, I can’t find them.)
As for 2019, I started my year in books rather anachronistically with Tenth of December, the wonderfully zany collection of short stories by George Saunders. It remains to be seen which book I’ll choose to close out the year. The shortest book I read was Spirits in Bondage by a very young, pre-conversion C.S. Lewis; it felt much, much longer than its 55 pages. The longest one I read was Jon Lee Anderson’s Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, at 814 pages. Che is a tragic figure: he accurately diagnosed some of Latin America’s serious ills, but he prescribed terrible cures.
On to my favorites. I’ll start with David C. Kirkpatrick’s A Gospel for the Poor, which brings together so many of my obsessions: religion, community development, human rights, and Latin America, to name a few. I highly recommend it. My review was published this month over at The Englewood Review of Books.
In addition to the one I’ve already mentioned, I read three remarkable biographies. I used Robert Hilburn’s Paul Simon: The Life as an excuse to listen through the entirety of Simon’s catalog, including a lot of good stuff I’d never heard before. Keep writing music bios, Robert Hilburn, and I’ll keep reading them. I also read Lindsey Hilsum’s In Extremis, about the late war correspondent Marie Colvin. Riveting and moving, a rare combo. Jumping back 1500 years, Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo: A Biography collected dust for the better part of a year before I cracked it open. I expected something dense, dry, and dated. But Brown’s prose is warm and engaging, helped along by such a colorful subject.
Speaking of which, I absolutely loved James K.A. Smith’s On the Road with Saint Augustine. It represents a natural progression in Smith’s thinking, but it’s his best, most winsome – and most urgent – writing to date. I’m working on bringing Jamie back to Phoenix in 2020 for a stop on his book tour, so you’ll be hearing more from me on that, Lord willing.
This was the year I finally read Flannery O’Connor’s The Complete Stories. So much of her writing is hilarious and heartbreaking. Some stories left me cold. But I just couldn’t leave this collection off the list, so here it is. Speaking of books that were long overdue, I also read Mary Karr’s magnificent memoir, The Liars’ Club. As I wrote in this month’s edition of The Bookshelf, “Karr is a maddeningly brilliant wordsmith who has a wonderful sense of humor and possibly the most vivid memory of anyone alive. She’s also experienced a lot of trauma (including sexual abuse), which she describes vividly, so caveat lector.”
Our generous friend Eileen gave us a signed copy of John Hendrix’s beautifully illustrated book The Faithful Spy, about the life and death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I’ve read a lot of Bonhoeffer’s work over the years and already knew much of his story, but this book makes that story come alive. It’s a stunning work of art, and it’s a timely challenge to the complacency and compromise so common these days in our churches and, God knows, in my own heart.
This summer brought me to Fenway Park for the first time while in Boston on a work trip. So naturally, I decided to commemorate the occasion by taking Paul Goldberger’s Ballpark: Baseball in the American City on the plane. Some may say it’s weird to actually read coffee table books. Some may say it’s even weirder to read them on airplanes. But I did just that and I don’t regret it, even though I had to lug it while running at breakneck speed through the Philadelphia airport to catch my connecting flight. The things we do for love.
I’ll close out this roundup with two books that served as needed soul medicine. John O’Donohue’s To Bless the Space Between Us is a collection of generous blessings in the Celtic tradition. The blessing “For Longing” is one I will return to again and again. (A snippet: “May you come to accept your longing as divine urgency. / May you know the urgency with which God longs for you.”) And Douglas Kaine McKelvey’s Every Moment Holy is a collection of liturgies for the moments of daily life: for the ritual of morning coffee, for those who feel awkward in social gatherings, for arriving at the ocean, for the writing of liturgies, among many others. Taken together, these two books of prayers and blessings have enriched my life this year. May they enrich yours.
The header image is a photo I took of a spread in John Hendrix’s The Faithful Spy.