Every year around Christmas, I make a book list: chronicling books read over the course of the year, as well as books I want to read the next year. This year I read about 45—unless I’m forgetting a few, or counting a couple books that I actually read last December. Nonetheless, it’s relatively certain I read 45: four less than last year, unfortunately. (Since I graduated from college, got married, and started a new job this year, I’ve decided to cut myself some slack. Hopefully you will as well.).
How to choose which books to read? It’s a question that assaults me whenever I visit Barnes & Noble, Capitol Hill Books, or any other place crowded and cluttered with books. There are so many glorious choices. This is probably why I haven’t read many new books this year—I’m still trying to “catch up,” so to speak, on all the classics one must read. So without further ado, here are my thoughts on the books read this year.
Top 10 Reads:
East of Eden, by John Steinbeck
Confession: I cried at the end of this book. The characters are wonderful, complex, often frightening. Steinbeck’s descriptions of rugged land and ruthless human character create a wild and fiery story. It’s got grit, gut, and poetry, all mixed up together. The deep character development in Cal, Aron, and their father is poignant and rich.
Confessions, by St. Augustine
This is the sort of book one has to sip and savor, slowly, taking in the richness of Augustine’s writing. But it’s truly beautiful and unique. Augustine’s testimony has a foreign yet attractive poignancy to the modern mind: while writing about himself, he is never truly focused on himself. Ultimately, this is a story of theological, not personal fulfillment.
Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson
Robinson’s Gilead is a beautiful, intimate novel. Her protagonist, John Ames, muses on religion, atheism, kinship, and mortality with depth and fervor. It’s a poetic, enchanting novel. It will pull at your heartstrings and mind in one tug. Also: if you haven’t read Rob Long’s article on Marilynne Robinson (“Christian, Not Conservative”), you should do so immediately.
The Fall, by Albert Camus
This book’s raw grief and anger is haunting. The author draws us into his own pained, vengeful soul—and we realize we are looking into a mirror. This, so often, is the human heart: prideful, bitter, poisoned by lust and conceit. Camus doesn’t let us escape. The jarringly personal style builds a deep narrator-reader relationship.
The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, by Rod Dreher
Rod’s book about his sister transcends biography, and forces us to ask important questions about family, community, place, and mortality. The work is profound, but Rod’s style is incredibly accessible and personal.
After Virtue, by Alasdair MacIntyre
This isn’t the sort of book one can just pick up and read in a day. MacIntyre’s writing is dense and thick. But the effort is well worth it: his exploration of virtue and its history is invaluable, and sheds light on the errors inherent in our modern understanding of virtue.
Witness, by Whittaker Chambers
Chambers’ book reads like a spy novel. His account of life as an American Communist is intriguing—but I love the way in which he weaves it into a larger search for philosophical meaning. Even if you don’t feel like reading the book, just read his forward to his children—it’s one of the most powerful passages I’ve read.
Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry
Wendell Berry’s Remembering was one of my favorite books from last year’s reads. And this one is equally good. His style is very simple, but compelling. Jayber Crow is an intriguing character—but the story seems less about him than his community, with all its oddities and traditions. It’s almost an elegy to the land, in some passages, as the town changes with the rise of urbanism.
Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
This is one of the loveliest books I’ve read. Hurston’s writing is poetic and diverse, eloquent and unpretentious at the same time. The story strikes at the heart of our longing for love and beauty.
Words of Delight, by Leland Ryken
Ryken’s book is a guide to reading the Bible as literature. It gave me insights into the book that I had not seen before—especially in his dissection of the Psalms. It is difficult to read ancient, translated poetry, and to see all its hidden beauty—unless one has a guide like Ryken. His explanation of the Bible’s epic style (especially in Genesis) is also very insightful.
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Revolt of the Elites, by Christopher Lasch
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
The Kite Runner, by Khaleid Hosseini
Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo
Don’t get me wrong, this is a brilliant book in many ways. But it is so long. So very, very long. If only Hugo had a good editor. Chambers actually has a very apt description of Les Mis in Witness, which sums up its faults better than I can. Like Chambers, I believe it’s a lovely book—but we must love it despite its faults.
The Fault In Our Stars, by John Green
Everyone said this was good, the most fun young adult’s novel one could read. But it was just the hipster version of Twilight. Oh, well.
Finally, here are a few of the books I’m considering for next year. Your recommendations and thoughts are highly appreciated.
The Embers and the Stars, by Erahim Kozak
Home, by Marilynne Robinson
Bleak House, by Charles Dickens
The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner
Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, by Ross Douthat
Cranford, by Elizabeth Gaskell
Babette’s Feast, by Karen Blixen
Lost in the Cosmos, by Walker Percy
The Politics of Gratitude, by Mark Mitchell
The Experience of God, by David Bentley Hart
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera
Small, Gritty, and Green, by Catherine Tumber
Beauty Will Save the World, by Gregory Wolfe
And last, but not least … the entire Jeeves series by P.G. Wodehouse.