Every year I set myself a goal to read 52 books — one per week. It’s a pretty ambitious goal and most years I fall short. 2019 was a personal high mark; I actually read 62 books that year. Last year I finished at 52 on the nose. But this year, it’s looking like I’ll miss the mark. By the time I finish the book I’m currently reading, I’ll be at 40 books for the year. Who knows? I still might be able to read another book or two over the final weeks of 2021, but that’s where things stand as of this writing.
One thing that definitely brought my number down a bit was my choice to read several books that were REALLY long. Chernow’s Washington took forever, as did Iron Gold and Dark Age, books four and five of Pierce Brown’s Red Rising series. I also spent the year re-reading a few of my favorites, slowly taking them in to savor the story (Cronin’s The Passage; Weir’s The Martian) or the text’s significance (as in Thibodeaux’s Armchair Mystic, my 2020 Book of the Year).
If you’re interested in reading over my year-to-year list of Best Books dating back to 2006, you can find it here. It’s always fun to read back over these old lists. I really read some great books in 2020. Hardly a week goes by that I don’t refer back to The Coddling of the American Mind, which was #3 on last year’s list. Just last Sunday, I made reference to Smith’s excellent On the Road with Saint Augustine in my sermon. And I continue to be impressed with Thibodeaux’s Armchair Mystic. It’s practical, powerful, and profound. (Notice the alliteration there, boys and girls.)
After doing this for the past fifteen years, I can see how formative many of these books have been, shaping my thinking and my worldview in really profound ways. But a list like this also helps me recognize how some of my thoughts have changed over the years. For example, you’ll notice White Fragility on my 2019 list. But I’ve read a few books this year that really challenged a great deal of Robin DiAngelo’s thesis in that book and Critical Race Theory more broadly. (More on that below.)
But that’s part of the beauty of a list like this. It works kind of like a journal of sorts, helping me to see where I’ve been and where I find myself in the present.
Looking back over fifteen years of ranking my favorite books also makes me want to create a list of the top twenty-five or fifty books I’ve read over that period of time. A personal book Hall of Fame. Maybe I’ll do that before the year ends if time allows.
One final note before I get to the 2021 list. My year-end “Best Music” list is always limited to albums and songs released in that particular calendar year. But I don’t restrict myself in the same way when it comes to this book list. This is just my ranking of the best books I’ve read this year, not necessarily books that were released in 2021. Not necessarily consistent, but it’s my thing.
Here are my Top 15 Books of 2021.
- Managing Leadership Anxiety: Yours and Theirs by Steve Cuss. A friend recommended this book to me last month, saying it basically summed up his years of graduate studies in marriage and family therapy. Intrigued, I picked up a copy and couldn’t put it down. Cuss keys in on what’s going on beneath the surface, helping us identify our anxieties, how they’re triggered, and how to manage them. The best thing I can say about this book is that it increased my self-awareness with regard to my own anxiety. Everyone deals with anxiety. The only thing that varies is our responses to our anxieties. But Cuss’s book hit me at a time when I really needed it. I spend the majority of my time in two primary emotional systems: church (where anxiety abounds in the post-Covid landscape) and home (with three teenage children still under our roof). As you can imagine, these two systems produce their own unique anxieties and those anxieties are always in play for me. I can point you to times when I’ve been able to faithfully manage those anxieties, but I can also look back on many instances when my responses to these anxieties were more reactionary and fear-based. This is where this book has met me in the last several weeks, helping me to recognize my tendencies that are sometimes misaligned with the Gospel. For me, I tend to react to anxiety by isolation, cutting myself off from others. And to be honest, I’ve been doing a bit of that lately. But Cuss really called me out on this old habit and helped me realize that this is an improper response to my anxiety. It’s simply a story I’ve been telling myself for a long time, going all the way back to when my parents died when I was a kid. “You stand alone. You don’t need them. You’re stronger on your own.” Those are just the anxious responses of a teenage kid who was missing his parents. Sadly, I tend to return to that same well worn path even in adulthood as a way of managing my own anxiety. Cuss helped me realize that this is nothing more than idolatry. Jesus died so I wouldn’t have to rely on my own strength any more. That’s just one of the important lessons I’ve gleaned from this incredible book. He goes on to talk about double binds, paradoxes, triangulation, second-order change, differentiation (his chapter on family systems is solid gold), nonanxious presence, genograms … this book is seriously chock full of transformative concepts and ideas. I wish I’d come across this book earlier. An easy pick for my 2021 Book of the Year.
- God’s Voice Within: The Ignatian Way to Discover God’s Will by Mark Thibodeaux. My 2020 Book of the Year was Thibodeaux’s Armchair Mystic, a powerhouse book about contemplative prayer. I re-read Armchair Mystic this year and I stand by what I said in this space a year ago: some of these prayer practices he talks about continue to save my life. Naturally, I was interested in reading some more of Thibodeaux’s work, so I ordered a copy of God’s Voice Within. Most Christians struggle with determining God’s will for their lives. But Thibodeaux introduces readers to the wisdom of Ignatian practices of discernment. Knowing that such practices are likely unfamiliar to modern readers, Thibodeaux carefully walks through each element and provides an accessible and practical guide for the spiritual work of discernment. As with Armchair Mystic, I’d say hang in there with the parts that seem a bit hippie-dippie. This material is solid and sound. I highly recommend it.
- Christianity and Wokeness: How the Social Justice Movement is Hijacking the Gospel — and the Way to Stop It by Owen Strachan. A few months ago, I determined to do a deep dive into Critical Race Theory. I first heard the term on a podcast in the summer of 2020. Although the terminology was new to me, the ideas were not. Over the past few years, Critical Race Theory has been steadily gaining traction in our national discourse. Some of the demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd’s death in May 2020 brought some of the tenets of CRT out of the halls of academia and into the mainstream of American conversation. And this amplification of minority voices and experiences is undoubtedly a good thing, if long overdue. My faith calls me to weep with those who weep and the black community in this country has been weeping for a LONG time. That being said, there are many critiques of CRT and we would do well to examine it more deeply. Many who advocate for greater racial equality in this country simultaneously reject some of the more radical, even militant, expressions of CRT. Others push back from the pointed accusations of “white supremacy” presented in the name of corporate diversity training and at the university level. At the heart of these critiques is a recognition of the divisive nature of Critical Theory in general. Owen Strachan offers a theological critique of CRT (or “Wokeness”), noting it’s many divergences with the Gospel as revealed in the Scriptures. I found almost all of Strachan’s arguments to be well-informed and theologically grounded. There were only a few places where I felt his argument was a bit too “on the nose” or thin. In fact, as I noted earlier in this post, Strachan’s work led me to reevaluate my estimation of a book I read several years ago, White Fragility. As Strachan notes, CRT is an altogether different “gospel” than the one we find revealed in the Scriptures, with different understandings of justice, guilt, repentance, unity, and forgiveness. I recommend this book to any believer who is interested in understanding this cultural moment through theological lenses. If you’d like to read an intellectual companion piece to Strachan, I highly recommend Engaging Critical Theory and the Social Justice Movement by Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer. It can be downloaded as a free PDF here.
- Woke, Inc.: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam by Vivek Ramaswamy. As I said, there are many critiques of Critical Race Theory. Ramaswamy’s critique is economic in nature and I found it to be fascinating. A graduate of Yale Law School and the founder of the biopharmaceutical company Roivant Sciences, Ramaswamy writes against stakeholder capitalism and the dangerous mix of morality with consumerism. Why is this dangerous? From the book’s promotional material: “America’s elites prey on our innermost insecurities about who we really are. They sell us cheap social causes and skin-deep identities to satisfy our hunger for a cause and our search for meaning, at a moment when we as Americans lack both.” What’s worse is that they’re doing so simply as a means of acquiring a greater share of the market. I don’t pretend to be an economist, but Ramaswamy’s book helped simplify some of these economic issues in a way that I could easily understand. A really fascinating book.
- Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. Each year I try to read a biography of a seminal figure in American history. This year, I tackled Chernow’s enormous tome on Washington. (Thank you, Audible.) I spent most of the summer learning about this figure whose shadow still looms large in our nation. I appreciated that Chernow didn’t pull any punches, from pointing out Washington’s flirtatious relationship with an older, married woman during his bachelor years to his thorny relationship with the slave industry. Chernow has a gift for making mythical figures more earthly and authentic.
- The Emotionally Healthy Leader: How Transforming Your Inner Life Will Deeply Transform Your Church, Team, and the World by Peter Scazzero. Scazzero’s “Emotionally Healthy” series covers many of the same concepts that you’ll find in Cuss’s Managing Leadership Anxiety. But Scazzero takes the time to unpack more of these ideas and I found this text to be especially significant for pastors and church leaders.
- A Burning in My Bones: The Authorized Biography of Eugene H. Peterson by Winn Collier. I have always loved Eugene Peterson’s writings but I didn’t know much about his life until I read The Pastor a few years ago. Collier’s authorized biography covers some of the same material but also fills in some of the gaps in the life of this wise and humble man.
- Doc, Donnie, the Kid, and Billy Brawl: How the 1985 Mets and Yankees Fought for New York’s Baseball Soul by Chris Donnelly. This was my baseball read this summer. Much has been written about the ’86 Mets team that won the World Series, but Donnelly’s work serves as an important prequel to that chapter. In addition, Donnelly gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the drama that took place in the Bronx that summer. I’m a sucker for books like this that take me back to the players I knew through my baseball card collection in the 1980s.
- A Community Called Atonement: Living Theology by Scot McKnight. I’ve been working on an atonement series I’ll begin preaching in early 2022 and McKnight’s recent work has been really helpful to me. If you want to join me in a deep dive on atonement, I would consider McKnight’s book a good entree to Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion, which was my 2019 Book of the Year.
- Broken Signposts: How Christianity Makes Sense of the World by N.T. Wright. Wright expands on some earlier work showing how justice, love, spirituality, beauty, freedom, truth and power point beyond themselves to the deeper purposes of God.
- Dark Age by Pierce Brown. I spent the summer of 2020 re-reading Brown’s Red Rising trilogy and I spent part of this summer reading the next two installments, Iron Gold and the middle entry in the new trilogy, Dark Age. It’s basically Star Wars for a new generation.
- Unoffendable: How Just One Change Can Make All of Life Better by Brant Hansen. This little book is filled with practical wisdom. In an age when we are so easily offended at the slightest thing, Hansen calls followers of Jesus to be “unoffendable.” If you struggle with anger from time to time (as I do), do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of this great little book.
- This Isn’t Happening: Radiohead’s “Kid A” and the Beginning of the 21st Century by Steven Hyden. Universally lauded as a masterpiece today, Kid A was a polarizing record twenty years ago. Hyden’s fandom is evident in this reflection on the enduring legacy of a game-changing album at Radiohead’s career-defining crossroads.
- Is This Anything? by Jerry Seinfeld. Imagine reading every joke Jerry Seinfeld has ever written. Well, you don’t have to imagine it. Jerry records them all in this tidy volume. If you’re a fan of his work, you’ll enjoy reading this one at a leisurely pace.
- Talking to GOATs: The Moments You Remember by Jim Gray. I’m pretty indifferent to Gray, but he has covered some of the most important sporting events of the last forty years. There are some great stories here for the sports aficionado.
That’s my 2021 list. I’d love to hear from you to know some of the best books you’ve read in the last few months.