Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Best Books of 2019

A TAC author looks back at the year's finest reads on place, faith, and community.

What does it mean to be a “good” reader?

The term suggests a degree of dutifulness: the determination to finish what you start, perhaps, or to read with attentiveness. Maybe those who can absorb information quickly, or recall book details with perfect clarity, are the “good readers.” According to this definition, reading has an almost athletic quality to it. The intellectualism and skill you bring are what matter most.

But reading well is also a practice in faithfulness, which is more of a learned virtue than a talent. In the modern world, full of smartphones and Netflix, it is difficult to commit oneself to the discipline of reading. There are always distractions and pleasures that offer us more immediate gratification, whereas reading requires us to be patient, steadfast. Thus choosing to read can be an act of love. It’s a choice to turn off and tune out all the things that demand our attention, and instead to turn our minds to the written word. The more challenging the book, the more faithfulness and determination are required to complete it.

But reading should not be all work. If we turn it into a chore, we lose the delight—and it grows harder to pick up a book, no matter how worthy it might be. This is why we need books that are pure fun, binge-worthy books that may not feel as edifying, but that keep our enthusiasm for the written word alive.

The best books, however, are neither guilty pleasures nor tedious work. Last week, I pulled Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping off my shelf—and instantly remembered why it is so magnificent. Robinson’s first book is a haunting work on loss and decay, about the practices that stave off our entropy and the beauty of things that die. One of the things I love most about it is that it requires you to slow down and still your mind, to focus on the lovely complexity of each sentence. You can’t hurry through Robinson’s prose (not that you’d want to). Yet every single page is enjoyable.

This year, I decided to change some of my reading habits. First, I no longer force myself to finish books I’m not enjoying and don’t find particularly edifying. For ages, I’ve been reluctant to leave any book unfinished—perhaps out of a sense of duty to the person who recommended it, or the worthiness of the subject. But I don’t have the time or energy to do this anymore (few of us do). We are finite creatures—so why spend our time reading books we dislike?

Second, I’ve long felt an obligation to read new books on a given topic of interest (such as agriculture). But keeping up with new releases often prevents me from re-reading old favorites. And I’ve realized this year that re-reading is one of the best and most enjoyable forms of reading. So reading books just because they’re new is another bad habit I’m hoping to throw aside in the years to come.

Finally: I have always tried to form reading resolutions—books to read, authors to explore, et cetera—at the end of every year. But I never follow through on them. I could blame this on my kids or my own book writing or any manner of things, but I think the simple fact is that I never know, at the beginning of the year, which books will land on my bookshelf. So my resolution for 2020 is to make no reading resolutions whatsoever, and enjoy one book at a time.

Perhaps these resolutions make me a bad reader. But I care less and less about that these days. I just want to keep reading.

So without further ado, here are the best books I read in 2019. I hope one or two of them will pique your interest.

Books About Farming and the Land

The Shepherd’s Life, James Rebanks

The Profit of the Earth, Courtney Fullilove

The Law of the Land, John Opie

One Size Fits None, Stephanie Anderson

Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, Wallace Stegner

Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner

Each of these books considers agriculture from a slightly different perspective. The Shepherd’s Life is a memoir about place, family, and vocation—it’s perhaps one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. This was my second time reading it, and I had to dog-ear more pages and make more notes as I went.

Opie, Reisner, and Fullilove outline specific issues related to land stewardship: Opie examines the politics that have shaped modern agriculture, while Reisner offers a fascinating, sensational look at water policies in the West. And Fullilove gives a detailed history of seed collection, circulation, and preservation.

Wallace Stegner’s biography of 19th-century explorer John Wesley Powell is a considered, elegant work. It gives us a glimpse into a West that is steadily disappearing—and proffers the wisdom of one of America’s greatest (and most ignored) scientists.

Finally, Anderson’s book was an instant favorite. Anderson grew up on a ranch, and used to write from a defensive position, arguing for conventional agriculture in its various forms. But as she visited farms and ranches, she began to notice the things that were not working—and she began researching regenerative agriculture. Her book explains how and why she changed her mind about farming and its rhythms, and presents a beautiful, detailed picture of regenerative agriculture and why it matters.

Books About Gardening and the Earth

Life in the Garden, Penelope Lively

How to Make a Plant Love You, Summer Rayne Oakes

These were delightful reads, and I would strongly recommend them as gifts to any relative or friend with a green thumb. Lively writes with a warm, comforting voice—hers is the sort of book to enjoy by the fire, or out on the front porch on a summer’s day. It moves slowly, lyrically. Her book considers gardening writers and gardens in literature—from the legacy of Gertrude Jekyll to Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, Beatrix Potter, and more. Lively is an avid gardener, with a knowledge of plant names and types that often left me reaching for the dictionary. I left with a new book list and a deepened desire to go out and work in the earth.

How To Make a Plant Love You is a different but equally enjoyable look at plants and nature. Oakes writes with a much more impassioned, activist style. Her book is about the environment, about “plant blindness,” about our deep ignorance of the plants that fill our homes. The goal of this book is not to lecture the reader—it is to instill in them a deeper appreciation for the intricacy, mystery, and interconnectedness of soil, climate, plant, and human.

Books About Place and Community

My Father Left Me Ireland, Michael Brendan Dougherty

Alienated America, Tim Carney

Dignity, Chris Arnade

Our Towns, James and Deborah Fallows

Sabbath Poems, Wendell Berry

Each of these offers different insights into the importance of place. The Fallows’ book is a detailed look at various towns across America that are “working.” It considers their economic creativity, manners, mores, and local leaders (among other topics). Carney’s book, meanwhile, offers more of a contrast between places that are doing well and places that have been “left behind.” He considers the vital role of the church and other local associations in cultivating vibrancy and health—and the peril and polarization that can arise when these associations disappear.

Dougherty’s book considers identity, place, and fatherhood: the ties that bind us to the past and to our homelands, no matter how far away they might seem. It is a book about “nationalism steeped in familism,” as Yuval Levin has put it, and considers the danger of losing the ties that bind us to our forebears, our religion, our place.

Arnade’s Dignity was perhaps my favorite read of the year. There’s a simple elegance and poignancy to his writing. Dignity presents challenge to every reader: to look beyond the class bubble or partisan group we might belong to and consider the brokenness and beauty of the places he refers to as “back-row America.” The photographs Arnade took while writing this book are magnificent and heartbreaking. The quiet, thoughtful words that accompany them offer nuance, respect, kindness, and depth. I pray this book makes a lasting difference in our national conversation about place and poverty.

Books About Life and Faith

Roots and Sky, Christie Purifoy

The Grace of Enough, Haley Stewart

Liturgy of the Ordinary, Tish Harrison Warren

New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton

Besides Dignity, Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation was my favorite book of the year. Its deep wisdom inspired me page by page, chapter by chapter. Merton challenges us to radically reimagine our lives, our selves, and the world we inhabit. It is a book about love and faith, pride and humility, that breaks down stereotypes and offers thoughtful (and often convicting) insights.

Tish Harrison Warren’s Liturgy of the Ordinary offers a simple, embodied look at some of the themes Merton explores. It considers how, from the time we wake up in the morning to the moment we lay down to rest, we can live out the Gospel and seek to build virtue and love into our daily rhythms.

Purifoy and Stewart both explore the rhythms of home and their importance. Purifoy’s Roots and Sky is written in a seasonal format, and considers our hunger for home, the spiritual thirst we feel in times of anxiety or exhaustion, and the challenges of being uprooted and transplanted in a new place. Stewart’s book urges us to live with less in a world obsessed with more—to become creators rather than mere consumers, and embrace contentment in our everyday rhythms.

Children’s Books

The Tasha Tudor Book of Fairy Tales, Tasha Tudor

Tiny Perfect Things, M.H. Clark

Once Upon an Alphabet, Oliver Jeffers

The Pout-Pout Fish, By Deborah Diesen

Let’s be honest: this year, I read Angelina Ballerina, Ella Bella Ballerina, and Disney princess books over and over (and over). Those are the books my daughter loves, and so we read them together. But there were also some we both loved reading.

First, Tasha Tudor’s Book of Fairy Tales is one of my favorite children’s books. I still remember reading these fairy tales at Christmas time as a little kid, and there are stories in here for every child. Her illustrations make the book enchanting (her books 1 Is One and First Delights also have beautiful illustrations).

Tiny Perfect Things is about attentiveness and wonder, about seeing all the beautiful little things that often escape our notice. My daughter now asks me, whenever we go on a walk, if we can look for “tiny perfect things.”

Jeffers’ Once Upon an Alphabet is a delightful set of short stories based on each letter of the alphabet. Many of the stories have their own surprises, and I love the witty humor throughout.

Finally, The Pout-Pout Fish is a fun little book for a variety of ages. My one-year-old can understand a lot of it and my four-year-old still loves it. When you’ve got a moody toddler on your hands, it’s great to be able to remind them not to be a pout-pout fish.