Each year I set myself a goal to read 52 books — one per week. Most years I don’t hit the mark, but it’s a worthy goal nonetheless. Last year, I crushed it by reading 62 books. Believe it or not, COVID actually impacted my study / reading time quite significantly. I spent most of quarantine cooped up with five other people in my house; not nearly as much quiet time for reading this year. But still, by the time I finish up my current read, I’ll be at exactly 52 books for the year. Audible has been a huge help; I use it for most of the fiction and biographies I read. Non-fiction is usually Kindle or an old school hard copy.
If you’re interested in looking at my “Best Book” lists from previous years, you can find those here. It’s fun to look back over these old lists. It reminds me of how much these books have influenced my understanding throughout the years. Team of Rivals is a Doris Kearns Goodwin biography, but it remains one of the best books on leadership I’ve ever read. I gave my sons copies of The Road last year for Christmas. Other than the Bible, no text has been more formative on my understanding of ministry and theology than Grenz’s Theology for the Community of God. Reading back over this list is like being reminded of some of my favorite memories with some of my best friends.
A few other thoughts before I get to the list. My year-end “Best Music” list is always limited to albums and songs released in that particular calendar year. But this list is different; this is just my ranking of the best books I’ve read this year, not necessarily books that were released in 2020. Not necessarily consistent, but it’s what I do.
Also, this year I committed myself to re-reading some of my favorite books from previous years. I re-read N.T. Wright’s wonderful biography of Paul (#2 on my 2018 list), which might just become an annual thing for me. I also spent the summer working my way through Pierce Brown’s Red Rising trilogy once again. His interstellar epic about a society arbitrarily based on humanity’s assigned “colors” took on even more significance during the summer of George Floyd and the national conversation about race. After perusing my previous “Best Books” lists, I think I’ll circle back around to a few more of these titles for 2021.
Finally, most years, I’ll read one or two books that I know will stay with me for a long time afterward, books that I recommend to everyone I know. This year, I’d put my top five or six books in that category. I wish everyone would read a few of these titles, as they’ve helped foster greater understanding and empathy in my own life. Those qualities are in short supply these days, in my opinion.
Here are my favorite books of 2020:
- Armchair Mystic: How Contemplative Prayer Can Lead You Closer to God by Mark Thibodeaux. I know this is a dramatic statement, but here goes: contemplative prayer practices saved me in 2020. When the world went into quarantine earlier this spring, so many of my regular rhythms were disrupted. I had very little study time because I was suddenly cooped up in my house with five other people all day long. Quiet time was hard to come by, limited to little stretches here and there. But contemplative prayer became my lifeline to God during quarantine and I know I’ll never be the same for it. This book is the practical book on prayer I had been waiting on for a long time. I know “contemplative prayer” may sound a little off-putting or confusing to some, but don’t let the title scare you. The focus here is very much on the “how” of prayer. Thibodeaux taught me that contemplative prayer is not about some “out of this world” experience but rather, it is very much a prayer life grounded in this world. There is a way of praying that is “talking at” God; this is where we all begin. We eventually progress to “talking with” God and then “listening to God.” But the final step in our prayer relationship is simply “being with God,” the kind of relationship characterized by comfortable silence in the presence of a loved one. And this is the kind of communion Thibodeaux works us toward. The gift of this simple but profound book is practical guidance for turning down the noise of the world in order to hear the voice of God, found in the variety of contemplative practices Thibodeaux suggests in each chapter. I’ve already recommended this book several times since reading it and I have a feeling I’ll be handing out copies for years to come. An essential, practical guide to cultivating a richer life of prayer. This is the best book I’ve read this year.
- On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts by James K.A. Smith. This book is a treasure trove of wisdom for our age. I wish everyone would read it. Now, I know the setup will be a bit problematic for some: Smith argues that a North African bishop who lived 1,600 years ago is a trustworthy guide to help lead us out of the restlessness that has ensnared so many of us. But I’m telling you, Smith is on to something. He brings Augustine to life, not as a stuffy church father but as a road weary sage who has tried it all and found it lacking. Augustine has been there, done that, and he’s lived to find life on the other side. He knows where home is, where rest can be found. This existential prodigal ordered his life around many different things in pursuit of purpose — sex, fame, power — only to eventually draw much of his identity from the Gospel story of one who was relentless pursued by a loving Father. Smith uses Augustine’s story — and his copious literary works and recorded sermons — to probe to the level of our desires. Often times, our ever-present anxiety stems from disordered “loves” — as Augustine would say, we love what we love as a substitute for God. But these disordered loves can never deliver on what they promise. It’s not that sex or achievement are bad things; it’s that we overexpect from them. Ever notice why winning leaves us feeling so restless? Have you ever gotten the one thing you’ve always wanted…only to feel even more hollow than before? Smith sees “the road” as our universal experience, indicative of the restlessness Augustine critiqued sixteen centuries ago: “Maybe the fact that every road movie is a buddy movie points to some other fundamental hunger of human nature, some ineffaceable impulse to communion.” Augustine understands this, better than you might think, and offers road-tested wisdom from his own sojourn. Augustine realized that identity is always “storied,” that we find meaning in the story revealed by the Creator. As soon as I finished this book, I went back through and re-read it, typing up a copy of my notes to consult for future reference. You won’t regret the time you spend with Augustine, a guide for those whose hearts are restless.
- The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. This book is about “micro-aggressions” and cancel culture and emotional reasoning and political correctness and vindictive protectiveness and the movement in this country to rid culture of any words, images, or triggers that might cause someone to feel unsafe or offended. This is a fascinating book. Reading this one in early spring helped me at least make sense of some of the movements at work in our culture these past few months.
- The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible by Michael S. Heiser. This book is either brilliant or heresy. I’m half-joking, but that gives you some sense of the seismic implications of Heiser’s work. Heiser argues (quite compellingly) that the “weird” sections of the Bible — the sections we often times avoid — reveal important and deep connections between the earthly realm we inhabit and the unseen realm just beyond our line of sight. Longtime Bible readers will be reaching for their copy of the Scriptures to double check his references, saying, “That’s not in there,” only to be shocked at what they find right there in black and white. I highly recommend this book, but be warned: it will probably disrupt some of your theology, but only in a good and biblical kind of way.
- Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt by Arthur C. Brooks. I heard Brooks keynote the National Prayer Breakfast back in February (seems like five years ago now) and immediately bought a copy of his book. It’s a testament to the strength of this list that it ranks as my fifth favorite book of the year. When I read it back in February, I said I’d be hard pressed to read a more important book this year. Sadly, our culture of contempt has only grown stronger in these last few months as we’ve divided ourselves even further over politics, COVID (is it “real” or not?), even the efficacy of wearing masks…which makes Brooks’ message even more relevant. Again, yet another book that I wish everyone would read.
- Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover. Westover’s autobiographical account of the abuse she experienced growing up in a fundamentalist home in rural Idaho will break your heart. But this is also a story of resilience, strength, and the determination to exercise one’s own agency. Months after reading Educated, that’s what I remember most.
- Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell. I happened to be reading this when many of the protests and demonstrations broke out in the wake of George Floyd’s death. This is a popular-level read, but also eerily prescient for our times.
- Scarred Hope: A Mother and Son Learn to Carry Grief and Live with Joy by Beverly Ross and Josh Ross. I had the opportunity to meet Beverly a few years ago as she shared her story of loss with a group of ministers. So I was grateful to see that she and her son Josh were teaming up to not only share this story in print but to also share practical wisdom for such a journey.
- Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford. I knew NOTHING about Genghis Khan before I started reading this one, but I found Weatherford’s biography to be fascinating.
- Anxious for Nothing: Finding Calm in a Chaotic World by Max Lucado.
- Worry Less, Live More: God’s Prescription for a Better Life by Robert Morgan. I don’t normally read Lucado, but I found his book in early quarantine when statistics showed that our collective anxiety was on the rise. Along with Morgan’s text, these two inspired me to preach a series on the effects of anxiety and ways we can overcome it.
- Brothers in Arms: Koufax, Kershaw, and the Dodgers Extraordinary Pitching Tradition by Jon Weisman. This was my summer baseball read this year, made all the more poignant by the lack of an MLB season until late July.
- The Chain by Adrian McKinty. This novel is super creepy, only because of plausible it seems. A high-stakes thriller about a kidnapping ring called “The Chain.”
- Silence by Shusaku Endo. Endo’s story about faith and martyrdom is both challenging and inspiring in equal measures.
- The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night by Bill Carter. A must-read for Letterman and Leno fans alike.
That’s my list for 2020. I’d love to hear about some of the books you’ve been reading this year.