In retrospect, it seems noteworthy that when the year began, Katie and I were at baggage carousel #5 at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. We were standing shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds of bleary-eyed strangers, each jockeying for position, everyone eager to grab their bags and get home after exhausting holiday travels.
When the clock struck midnight, there were no party hats, no fireworks, no champagne. Nobody was playing Auld Lang Syne.
Nor were any of us wearing masks. With the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the US still three weeks away, none of us yet had cause to ponder the necessary if oxymoronic term “social distancing.” I haven’t been back to an airport since that night. I haven’t been in a crowd – or really out in public very much – since mid-March. Needless to say, the year didn’t turn out as any of us had planned.
But some things, mercifully, have not changed. Like the gift that good books, in all of their boundless specificity, can be in our lives. Don’t worry, none of the books I read this year were about pandemics (not for lack of options, mind you). Such books could not interest me less.
But because reading shouldn’t only be escapist, I’ll begin this roundup of my favorite books of the year with two that truly felt like required reading for a year like this, given that other storyline we can’t afford to ignore.
Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise and Esau McCaulley’s Reading While Black are quite different books. But both authors grapple – one through history, the other through biblical exegesis – with the sin of racism. Both books make for difficult, uncomfortable reading. But the discipline of entering into these conversations is crucial if our country, our churches, and we ourselves are to be made more just, if we are to be healed. Katie and I led a Zoom discussion group with folks from our church through McCaulley’s book, and we’re really glad we did.
Another volume that felt especially instructive this year was David W. Blight’s Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. As I’ve noted elsewhere, it’s a massive book. But because Blight is a brilliant wordsmith with sublime turns of phrase on just about every page, you almost forget about the heft. Put into service of the extraordinary, complicated life and profound eloquence of Frederick Douglass himself, this Pulitzer-winning biography easily lives up to the hype. “Douglass’s great gift, and the reason we know of him today,” Blight writes, “is that he found ways to convert the scars [the slave owner] left on his body into words that might change the world.”
Moving on to somewhat trivial matters, one of the more surreal aspects of the early days of lockdown was the sudden nonexistence of sports. Here in our neck of the woods, Cactus League baseball games were suddenly called off. Across the pond, Liverpool Football Club’s march toward its first domestic title in 30 years ground to an unceremonious halt. Just when we felt the need for diversions the most, pastimes were (yes, wisely) put on hold.
But we still had sports books, including two great ones that happened to be written by friends of mine. Jeremy Beer, with whom I may or may not have cofounded a baseball-related secret society (who’s to say, really), is the award-winning author of a wonderful biography of Oscar Charleston, a forgotten superstar from the Negro Leagues. That Charleston may be one of the top five baseball players of all time, and that most die-hard baseball fans like me had never heard of him is nothing short of a travesty. This book constitutes an important step in setting the record straight.
Another friend (and former client of mine from my Hoiland Media days) is Sam Acho, an NFL linebacker and all-around joy bomb whose book Let the World See You is a tremendous gift to the world. I won’t give too much away, except to say that this is quintessential Sam. If you don’t know him IRL, after reading this book you’ll feel like you do.
Rounding out the category of sports books, I’ve got to mention Home and Away: Writing the Beautiful Game. As I wrote in my newsletter earlier in the year, the book “consists of an exchange of letters between the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgård and his Swedish buddy Fredrik Ekelund. One of them is dour, watching games from his couch in Scandinavia, often falling asleep mid-game. The other, writing from the World Cup in Brazil, is prone to exuberance, soaking up every ounce of the energy around him. Of course their letters stray into all kinds of weird existential territory, which is just as interesting as the soccer talk, if you ask me.”
Speaking of interesting territory, for a long time I’ve been fascinated by Northern Ireland and the Troubles. The ugly mashup of politics, religion, and violence – and all the vexing questions that arise – will always interest me. Two years ago in my roundup of favorite books I highlighted Making Sense of the Troubles, a helpful introduction to the topic. But I’ve got to say, Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing is the one I’ll be recommending from now on. While McKittrick and McVea understandably prioritize impartiality above all else, Keefe delves into the mess of specific human lives, an approach that makes the story much more relatable than any 30,000-foot view would allow.
Dipping down to Dublin for a moment, I’d be remiss not to sing the praises of Bill Flanagan’s dated but delightful book U2 at the End of the World. I’d call it a guilty pleasure, but that would imply guilt. Here’s what I wrote in my review: “As the story unfolds, we find U2 on the last flight into East Berlin before the wall comes down. Five years and 500 pages later, the book ends near the midway point in U2’s weirdest, most polarizing decade. What happens in the early ’90s is nothing less than a full-scale reinvention: the earnest rock band that gave us Joshua Tree morphs into the (supposedly) shallow, image-conscious, electro-infused group of performance artists who brought us MacPhisto. Endlessly entertaining and surprisingly astute, Flanagan’s insider account of that time is a joyride 25 years later. It’s crazy to think of everything that has happened with U2 in the years since – the further reinvention of Pop, the post-9/11 halftime show, the activism of DATA and ONE, ubiquitous iPod ads. For all the reinventions, it occurs to me, U2 has remained surprisingly steady in its ambitions, its values, and its craft. The world needs a sequel, Bill Flanagan; just make sure it doesn’t automatically ‘download’ to our bookshelves.”
We’ve made it this far solely in the world of nonfiction, so it’s time to briefly highlight five of the most enjoyable novels I read this year. Shawn Smucker’s Light from Distant Stars transported me back to my Lancaster City days, living in an apartment literally around the corner from the mortuary I’m preeeetty sure inspired the funeral home in the fictional town where this “eerie and enchanting” story is set. Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesakeresonated with my third-culture-kid self at deep, deep level.
Lincoln in the Bardo by perennial oddball George Saunders is zany and sad and laugh-out-loud funny and unlike anything I’ve ever read before; a dry work of historical fiction this is not. Cara Wall’s The Dearly Beloved, set in and around a Presbyterian church in sixties Greenwich Village, is an evocative exploration of faith, marriage, friendship, and most of all, the persistence of change. The final novel I’ll mention is Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, which I highlighted over the summer. And yes, thanks to Luiselli’s novel, a certain David Bowie song remains stuck in my head all these months later.
As we round out this celebration of books I’ve loved this year, I’m pleased to say I’ve kept two of my absolute favorites for last. David Taylor’s Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life is a book that met me exactly were I needed to be met when I read it this spring. Because the Psalms grapple with every area of human existence, they teach us how to pray about what matters, even when what matters is painful or scary or confusing or maddening. Maybe especially then. If our churches have a tendency to get stuck in happy-clappy mode, for fear of scaring people off or bumming them out, the Psalms break us out of that unhealthy rut by putting joy and sorrow in a mutually enriching conversation. Taylor gets that. As far as unpacking the Psalms go, his book is now right up there with Eugene Peterson’s Answering God, one of my all-time favorites.
Finally, when I wrote in September about Keys to Bonhoeffer’s Haus, Laura Fabrycky’s unforgettable memoir (of sorts) from her time as a guide at the Bonhoeffer house in Berlin, I concluded with this comment: “Each generation, in each place, needs to work out anew what it looks like to live lives marked by courage and love sufficient to the challenges that face us, right here, right now. Bonhoeffer’s life – and this book – offer us some clues.” That sums up why I truly hope each and every one of you will read Fabrycky’s book. It’s my favorite book of the year.
If for some odd reason you’re interested in perusing my annual lists from the days of yore, here you go: 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010. (If I wrote about my favorite books in 2014 and 2015, those lists are regrettably lost in oblivion.)
As always, thanks for reading.