Time for my annual list of best books I’ve read this year.
Each year I set out with a goal to read 52 books — one per week. Admittedly, that’s an ambitious goal and I usually fall short (with the exception of 2011). By the time I wrap up my current read, I’ll be at 38 for the year. Not too shabby.
In the course of that reading, some texts stand out more than others. This year, I had difficulty narrowing my list down. Here are the most meaningful books I read in 2015.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. By far, this was the most important book I read this year. Coates, national correspondent for The Atlantic, has written a timely, challenging, and prophetic work on what it means to be black in America in 2015. Written as a series of letters to his teenage son, Between the World and Me is a hard word that avoids easy, pat answers on the issue of race. As a self-professed atheist (“But some time ago I rejected magic in all its forms,” p12), Coates finds no solace in the hopeful eschatology of African-American Christianity. This gives Between the World and Me a grim, existential feel which is disquieting, at least to a reader like me who is deeply enmeshed in the Christian tradition. Coates holds very little hope for racial reconciliation in our day; he’s simply seen too much. And perhaps we share this pessimism more than we would like to admit, in light of Ferguson and Baltimore and Charleston, much less our checkered history as a nation. What moved me most was Coates’ articulation of what it means to live with a black body in this country. He tells his son that he is “the bearer of a body more fragile than any other in this country,” (p137). What does this mean? To explain, Coates recounts a time when his son was five years old. Father and son had been to see a movie on the Upper West Side, a wealthy part of New York City. At the end of the movie, Coates and his son were descending a crowded escalator and the child slowed down as he struggled to get on the escalator amid the mass of adults. As this happened, an impatient white woman put her hands on the boy, shoved him and yelled, “Come on!” Coates’ temper flared (as mine would) and he verbally confronted the woman. As the (white) crowd witnessed this, a (white) man rushed to the defense of the (white) woman and yelled at Coates, “I could have you arrested!” As Coates reflected on this memory, he tells his son he regrets his error. What error? The error of a black man confronting a white woman in public on the Upper West Side. “My greatest regret was that in seeking to defend you I was, in fact, endangering you. ‘I could have you arrested,’ he said…I had forgotten the rules, an error as dangerous on the Upper West Side of Manhattan as on the Westside of Baltimore. One must be without error out here. Walk in a single file. Work quietly. Pick an extra number 2 pencil. make no mistakes…Not all of us can always be Jackie Robinson — not even Jackie Robinson was always like Jackie Robinson. But the price of error is higher for you than it is for your countrymen…I am ashamed of how I acted that day, ashamed of endangering your body. But I am not ashamed because I’m a bad father, a bad individual or ill mannered. I am ashamed that I made an error, knowing our errors always cost us more. (p95)” As a white, middle class male living in this country, I needed to read this work. I needed to hear Coates tell me the uncomfortable truth about “the rules” he lives with. I needed to hear a young father (Coates and I are the same age) talk to his son about “the struggle” (p69, 71, 107). I think if more people like me read this work, we might have greater empathy and understanding for our black neighbors. Rather than rolling our eyes, we might more fully understand what “Black Lives Matters” really means. And maybe that meaning will begin to matter to us. That, at the least, seems like a good place to start.
- The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man by Abraham Joshua Heschel. You don’t need me to tell you that we live in frenetic times. I read Heschel’s classic text a few weeks ago and I was moved by his description of Sabbath as a sanctuary in time. In Judaism, the temple was an attempt to sacralize space, to designate a specific place for meeting with God. The idea of Sabbath is an attempt to sacralize time, to intentionally allocate our most precious commodity — our time — in order to experience a foretaste of paradise. Heschel’s work moved me to seek such “sanctuary in time” in my own devotional life.
- The Allure of Gentleness: Defending the Faith in the Manner of Jesus by Dallas Willard. Apologetics and gentleness don’t often go hand in hand. Leave it to Willard to join the two in an essential way. Telling the truth in love is a task that must be grounded in the gentle way of Jesus. In an increasingly loud culture where the national discourse is often framed as a shouting match, a humble and gentle apologetic may just be the contrasting way forward for followers of Jesus.
- The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. I read this book aloud to our children while we were on family vacation this summer. Not only was there something “old school” about turning off the TV and sitting together to hear a book each evening, Lewis’ masterful work of fiction evocatively and imaginatively captures the poignancy of the Christ story. Hearing my kids say “One more chapter, please!!!” each night was one of the highlights of the year for me.
- Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church by Scot McKnight. McKnight offers an important voice in the current theological discussion about the nature of the Kingdom, restoring the primacy of the church to our understanding. “We need to learn to tell the story that makes sense of Jesus. Not a story that we ask Jesus to fit into,” (p23).
- The Martian by Andy Weir. I also read this book at the beach this summer. I still haven’t seen the movie and I’m not sure I want to — the book was that good. A pretty gripping fiction work.
- Counterfeit Gods by Timothy Keller. Keller has long been known for his combination of intellect and pastoral sensitivity. These qualities are powerfully manifest in Counterfeit Gods, an eye-opening assault on the comfortable “gods” we live with all too often.
- Play Ball by John Feinstein. This was my summer baseball read. 23 years later, I’m guessing that very few people are still taken in by Feinstein’s documentation of the 1992 baseball season. But I couldn’t get enough. The late 80s and early 90s were an interesting time in baseball’s history: expansion talk swirled; collusion among the owners put them at odds with the players; the MLB players union continued to galvanize its power; and the steroid era was just beginning. But this is the Major League Baseball I fell in love with as a child and Feinstein took me back there with this enthralling read.
- Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtury. I contend that Lonesome Dove is one of the best westerns ever filmed. But I’d never read the original source material. McMurtury’s text is superb. I only wish I’d read it before seeing the miniseries.
- The President’s Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy. I’m fascinated by the presidency and this book looks at the relationship between the sitting and former presidents of the past 60 years. Gibbs and Duffy take you inside the most exclusive fraternity in the world.
Honorable mentions: Scary Close by Donald Miller; The Princess, the Scoundrel, and the Farmboy by Alexandra Bracken; Red Rising by Pierce Brown; The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni; Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White.