Before starting a new reading journey in 2023, here are a few of my favorite reads from this past year. Two quick notes: 1) there were a number of theology and Christian/pastoral books that I read this year, but frankly none of them were very enjoyable – at least compared to the books on this list. 2) these ten are not in any particular order, but organized by category.
I really enjoyed this memoir because it offered a fresh and personal voice to a presidency and an administration that were either greatly adored or greatly despised. It’s an open and honest account of the possibilities and limitations of American Government, the eager, over-zealous, and sometimes beautifully naive confidence of a young and charismatic leader, and a kind of love letter to a nation that aspires to so much, but often falls far short of those aspirations. Through it all, Obama is a talented and comedic storyteller, and for me the best part of this book is how much he tells not just his own story but the stories of others. This book will inspire you to think about how you can work to change the world around you, and maybe – just maybe – challenge you to believe in the spirit of democracy as a force for good.
I’ve long had a fascination with John Adams. He was a brilliant diplomat and statesmen, cared deeply about education, and probably did more to influence the direction and outcome of the Revolutionary era than any other person. Plus, I’m told by my mother that he is a distant relative to me. Even so, David McCullough presents an excellent and well-researched portrait of the first Vice-President and second President of the United States of America, who wrote copiously and with great style. His letters to Abigail, his wife, are some of the most affectionate and exceptional models of mutual love and companionship that I have read. There’s really too much here to try to touch on that makes this a must-read for any fan of American history, but suffice it to say, McCullough’s John Adams is a book that will help you dig deep into the ideals of the American Republic from the perspective of one of the few men who helped found it.
Few people are as intellectually capable as Leonardo da Vinci was in his time. I started this book because I wanted to understand what the creative and critical mind of a genius looked life, and what kind of life one might lead. Strangely enough, despite the very different cultural and historical milieus of our times, I found that Leonardo as a giant is actually quite approachable. In fact, several times throughout the book, my mind drifted to considering my son who, like Leonardo, is particular and exact in many ways. This is what I think this biography really achieves – due in part because Walter Isaacson is a master biographer of creative as well as actual geniuses – helping reframe what exceptionalism can look like, even when it is under-appreciated and under-utilized in its own day. Even if Leonardo da Vinci is the quintessential inventor/artist/anatomist/teacher/absent-minded-genius, he was human, too.
This is the second McCullough title on the list, though I read three of his works in total this year (The Pioneers). Since he passed in August of this year, I thought I’d read a little more of him to appreciate his lasting contributions to the study and preservation of American history. McCullough captures the hope and resilience of the American Revolution without pretending that things were glorious and as heroic as they are often thought or imagined to be. As an historian, McCullough was unrivaled, and his work shows it. This book is a thoroughly researched and well-sourced account of that fateful year in which our small resistance nearly suffered defeat (and should have, on a few occasions) but overcame enormous odds to become an unexpected rival to the greatest military power on earth at the time.
This book was important and impactful to me for a number of reasons. First, because obviously as a white pastor of an American church, I want to lead with courage on racial issues, not compromise. But second, because it spoke to many of the frustrations that I have seen and felt but didn’t fully understand or know how to wrap my mind around. Though this is largely a work of history, Tisby helps the reader understand that there is still much work to be done. Yet, despite the subject matter, Tisby doesn’t come across angry or condescending – though some ambivalence can be detected, I think. Instead, this book is a sobering reminder of what has come before and a gut-check challenge for what might come after. I am far from done having to think through this topic, but I am glad for Tisby’s book in its personal challenge and the light it sheds on the issue.
Business & Personal Growth
I read several books by Mike Michalowicz this year (Clockwork and Fix This Next), but Profit First was the most informative. The premise is simple: make sure you are paying yourself. The beauty of prioritizing a pay-yourself-first kind of profit means that you are forced to keep the expenses down. This book is practical, winsome, and full of helpful insights that will motivate any entrepreneur to make the necessary changes to ensure true profitability.
I love learning about habits and productivity, and Atomic Habits has been generating praise from pretty much everybody. This is a simple book, but it’s principles have the ability to change the game. I won’t try to summarize the concept, but after reading the book, I do honestly feel better equipped to head into this next year with the ability to build better habits and move on from old ones. I have even been helped in my business and ministry. There’s nothing particularly controversial in these pages, and that’s kind of the point – small, atomic-level changes that have giant outcomes.
Caravaggio is probably my favorite painter of all time. Not only is his style and mastery just simply amazing to behold, but his own life (what little we actually know about it) is one that resonates with me. This little book is not really fiction, but more of a novelization of a real event, viz. the search for and subsequent discovery of a long-lost painting by one of Italy’s most misunderstood artists. It’s a fun read, full of everything you’d want in a novel – mystery, intrigue, a little betrayal, and lots of archival digging.
Shusaku Endo might be best known for his other novel, Silence, a heartbreaking exploration of the nature of faith and persecution, or rather a persecuted faith. That’s why I wanted to read The Samurai – because of Endo’s rare capacity to get inside the head and heart of a person and relate what’s going on in such a way that really captures the reader’s own heart and mind. The way Endo explores the nature of faith in both novels displays a mature and seasoned approach to both storytelling and belief, and what makes them substantive. The Samurai starts a bit slow, and there’s no real “action” as one might expect from the title, but really all the action is happening inside the mind, and you’re right along with it. Endo is a master, and this book proves it.
Believe it or not, I had not read The Chronicles of Narnia series until this year. I thought I would read them with my kids for bedtime stories, but they are (as of yet) uninterested, so I decided to move on without them – and I’m glad I did! As advertised, this series is wonderful in so many ways. Lewis, as always, is a master of storytelling, letting you in on his tricks when they’re obvious, and keeping you guessing when they’re not. I appreciate the world Lewis built and the many characters that inhabit it. If you would, for a time, allow your inner-child to experience the wonder and fascination that we lost somewhere along the way to adulthood, you’ll find after reading The Chronicles of Narnia that it will tend to stick around (and even show up uninvited on a few occasions!). If you haven’t read this series and are looking for a fun one to start this year, The Chronicles of Narnia is an excellent choice.
If any of these books look or sound interesting to you, I hope you’ll pick one or two of them up. The links in this post are affiliate links to Amazon, meaning I’ll make a few bucks if you buy them, but they won’t cost you anything extra.
Have you read any of these books before? Did you like them, or am I too easily impressed? What was your favorite read this year? Let me know!