These are my favorite books that I read in 2016. There are 36 selections this year so I apologize in advance for the length of this post and for all the intense scrolling you’re about to do. Consider yourself warned.
My Top 12:
1. The King in His Beauty / Thomas Schreiner
My favorite book this year was this biblical theological feast by Dr. Tom Schreiner. He walks through the Old and New Testaments, book by book, tracing both the wonders of our King’s glory and grace and the ultimate triumph of the kingdom of God. Any book that helps you understand the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:26) and causes you to treasure the Lord by faith is worth reading. The King in His Beauty does just that.
“Believers are instructed to trust God and to look to Jesus, who went before them. They are promised a final reward whereby they will eat from the tree of life forever. The world will be a new temple and a new garden where God dwells. All that belonged to Adam at the beginning will be theirs and more. Those in the new creation know what it is like to be separated from fellowship with God. They know what it is to be redeemed from the horrific evil that dwelt in their own hearts. They know and exult in the love of God demonstrated in the cross of Jesus Christ. They are safe in the heavenly city, with its impregnable walls. The gates of the city can be left open, for there is no enemy within or without who can conquer God’s people now. They will see God’s face in the person of Jesus Christ. They will see the King in His beauty, and they will be glad forever.” (645-646)
2. Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God / Rankin Wilbourne
Rankin Wilbourne has written a crystal clear and winsome survey of the glories of the believer’s Spirit-wrought, faith-union with Jesus Christ. This book was a joy to read from start to finish. Understanding our identity in Christ changes everything.
- “Union with Christ is not a fact we can put in our pocket, but rather a key to open a door into a whole new reality.”
- “Of all the good news the gospel brings, the greatest—and the door to all the rest—is that you can be united to Christ.”
- “’You are in Christ’ gives you assurance. ‘Christ is in you’ gives you power.’”
- “Union with Christ tells us we are not alone.”
- “Union with Christ is an enchanted reality. The most important things about our lives cannot be seen or touched with our senses.”
- “Union with Christ is not only the anchor of holiness; it is also the engine of our holiness.”
- “If you are in Christ, your life and your story become enfolded by another story, Another’s story.”
- “Union with Christ gives you a completely new self-understanding found outside of yourself in Christ.”
- “Union with Christ says that Christ is not simply at the center of our lives; He is at the center of all creation.”
- “If you are united to Christ, then from Him come both grace and demand, which together lead to a life of joy.”
- “The gospel of extravagant grace requires nothing from us and the gospel of radical discipleship demands everything of us.”
- “Christ dwelling in us by His Spirit is a guarantee that we can and will change.”
- “We are not the center of the gospel because we are not the center of the universe.”
3. His Love Endures Forever: Reflections on The Immeasurable Love of God / Garry Williams
This book is worshipful systematic theology at its best. God is love but His love is different from human love. Williams magnifies God by highlighting these differences from Scripture.
“My argument is that our grasp of the unique manner of God’s love deepens our grasp of its peerless magnitude: it is only when we see the similarities of God’s love to human love and its differences from it that we see how great it is, how great He is.” (18)
“God’s love is different from our love in its manner and the uniqueness of its manner lends it a peerless magnitude. In this book I have tried to offer you a glimpse of the love of God from the Scriptures. I am thrilled by what we have seen, but as I draw to a close my attempt feels flimsy and inadequate against the reality, this book like fragments of crumbling paper scattered by a mighty wind. This majestic, glorious, unfathomable divine love will be our inexhaustible eternal occupation. We are teetering only on the brink of edging across the margins of the very beginning of understanding it.” (195)
4. The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, & Gospel Assurance / Sinclair Ferguson
In The Whole Christ, Dr. Ferguson, in his pastorally wise and winsome way, reminds us that our salvation, all of our salvation, comes to us from God the Father in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. This salvation is a “Christ-centered, Trinity-honoring, eternity-rooted, redemption-providing, adoption-experiencing, holiness-producing, assurance-effecting, God-glorifying salvation.” (228-229) Throughout this rich volume, Ferguson reiterates the truth that real progress in sanctification and real growth in ministry boils down to Christlikeness.
“Perhaps it was the experience of— or at least the desire for— such ministry that led the Scottish forefathers to have a small brass plate fastened inside the pulpit of many churches, the words engraved on it being visible only to the preacher: “Sir, we would see Jesus.” (John 12:21 KJV) For that to be true— whatever our gifts and calling— we who serve Christ and His people must first ‘see Him more clearly, love him more dearly, and follow Him more nearly.’” (229)
5. A Peculiar Glory / John Piper
Near the conclusion of this superb book about the self-authenticating divine glory of Scripture, Piper writes:
“No one decides to see glory. And no one merely decides to experience the Christian Scriptures as the all-compelling, all-satisfying truth of one’s life. In the end, seeing is a gift. And so the free embrace of God’s word is a gift. God’s Spirit opens the eyes of our heart, and what was once boring, or absurd, or foolish, or mythical is now self-evidently real. You can pray and ask God for that miracle. I ask daily for fresh eyes for His glory.” (283)
Amen. I can hardly wait to dig into Part 2 of this series.
I thoroughly enjoyed both of these volumes by Richard Hays on the Old Testament echoes in the Gospels. You don’t have to agree with all of his interpretations or conclusions to marvel at the clarity with which the Evangelists point us to the glory of Jesus Christ, the God of Israel in the flesh.
“There is only one reason why the Evangelists’ Christological interpretation of the Old Testament is not a matter of stealing or twisting Israel’s sacred texts: the God to whom the Gospels bear witness, the God incarnate in Jesus, is the same as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Either that is true, or it is not. If it is not, the Gospels are a delusional and pernicious distortion of Israel’s story. If it is true, then the figural literary unity of Scripture, Old Testament and New Testament together, is nothing other than the climactic fruition of that one God’s self-revelation. As readers, we are forced to choose which of these hermeneutical forks in the road we will take. By forcing this choice upon us, the Evangelists compel us to read their Gospels neither as mere sources of historical information nor as entertaining or edifying tales. They compel us instead to read their Gospels as testimony to the truth, the sort of testimony that demands a self-involving response. We cannot rightly read the Gospels without hearing Jesus’ question to Peter as a question also addressed directly to us: ‘But you— who do you say that I am?’ (Mark 8:29).” (365)
7. ESV Reader’s Gospels / God
I loved reading this book over and over again in 2016. If you’ve never tried reading through each Gospel in one sitting, get this book and go for it. You won’t regret it.
8. The Whole Story of the Bible in 16 Verses / Chris Bruno
The title says it all. Clever idea, faithfully executed, and extremely useful. A great book to use for discipling new believers on the grand story of Scripture.
9. The Essential Trinity / Eds. Brandon Crowe and Carl Trueman
The Trinity is both Biblical and practical. This book has two parts: “Part 1 considers the trinitarian contours of every corpus of the New Testament, along with a chapter on the Trinity and the Old Testament. Part 2 counters the charge that the Trinity is irrelevant as a practical doctrine by considering selected topics in Christian life and ministry.” Scott Swain’s chapter on the mystery of the Trinity is outstanding:
“The doctrine of the Trinity is the most sublime truth of the Christian faith and its supreme treasure. Christian teaching concerning one God in three persons flows from the revelation of the high and holy name of the Lord God Almighty: ‘the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ (Matt. 28:19). This glorious name identifies the true and living God and, because it is the name into which we are baptized, constitutes our only comfort in life and in death. Not only does the doctrine of the Trinity identify God, it also illumines all of God’s works, enabling us to perceive more clearly the wonders of the Father’s purpose in creation, of Christ’s incarnation, and of the Spirit’s indwelling. All things are from the Trinity, through the Trinity, and to the Trinity. And so, seen in the sublime light of the Trinity, we see all things in a new light.” (191-192)
10. Luther on the Christian Life / Carl Trueman
I spend time reading Martin Luther every February. Carl Trueman’s contribution to Crossway’s Theologians on the Christian Life series was a helpful guide for me this year. He reminded me why reading Luther is challenging, rewarding, and, at times, just plain fun.
“I find Luther to be one of the most human theologians there is, certainly among Protestants. His humor alone endears him to me. His last written words—’We are beggars: this is true’—set all human pretensions to greatness and divinity in tragicomic perspective. A theologian who ultimately helps us to remember that we are of no lasting earthly importance whatsoever has crucial importance in an era obsessed with numbers of Twitter followers and Facebook friends. I find Luther to address some of the most basic questions of human existence: despair, illness, sex, love, bereavement, children, enemies, danger, death. Luther touches on them all, and always with an unusual anecdote, an insightful comment, a human touch. There is no false, desiccated, tedious piety about the man. He lived his Christian life to the full, red in tooth and claw. I find Luther to be fun. Who else would describe how a woman scared the Devil away by breaking wind in his face, but then caution his listeners not to do the same as it could prove lethal? Any theologian with advice like that has to be worth reading. Finally, I love Luther because it was his highest ambition to let God be God. And in doing so he realized that the love of God does not find but creates that which is lovely to it.” (29)
11. Job: The Wisdom of the Cross / Christopher Ash
Garrett Kell told me about the awesomeness of this book and it certainly lived up to the hype. It’s one of the most devotionally rich commentaries I’ve ever read. Ash is a wonderful tour guide through one of my favorite books in Scripture.
12. Being There: How to Love Those Who Are Hurting / Dave Furman
I read this book when I was in the middle of preaching a sermon series through the Book of Job. I was served and convicted when I read Dave’s chapter entitled “Whatever You Do, Don’t Do These Things.” I trust you will be too. If you want to help hurting people, consider reading this book.
My Next 12:
13. Station Eleven / Emily St. John Mandel
“The Novel I’ve Discussed the Most With My Wife” Award for 2016 goes to this post-apocalyptic tale about a worldwide pandemic, a traveling symphony, the glories of Shakespeare, the pain of loss, the meaning of life, and the yearning for beauty. Why should you read this book? “Because survival is insufficient.” (58) The passage that stuck with me long after I finished the book details the aftermath and repercussions of the deadly outbreak:
“An incomplete list: No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below. No more ball games played out under floodlights. No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights. No more trains running under the surface of cities on the dazzling power of the electric third rail. No more cities. No more films, except rarely, except with a generator drowning out half the dialogue, and only then for the first little while until the fuel for the generators ran out, because automobile gas goes stale after two or three years. Aviation gas lasts longer, but it was difficult to come by. No more screens shining in the half-light as people raise their phones above the crowd to take photographs of concert stages. No more concert stages lit by candy-colored halogens, no more electronica, punk, electric guitars. No more pharmaceuticals. No more certainty of surviving a scratch on one’s hand, a cut on a finger while chopping vegetables for dinner, a dog bite. No more flight. No more towns glimpsed from the sky through airplane windows, points of glimmering light; no more looking down from thirty thousand feet and imagining the lives lit up by those lights at that moment. No more airplanes, no more requests to put your tray table in its upright and locked position— but no, this wasn’t true, there were still airplanes here and there. They stood dormant on runways and in hangars. They collected snow on their wings. In the cold months, they were ideal for food storage. In summer the ones near orchards were filled with trays of fruit that dehydrated in the heat. Rust blossomed and streaked. No more countries, all borders unmanned. No more fire departments, no more police. No more road maintenance or garbage pickup. No more spacecraft rising up from Cape Canaveral, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, from Vandenburg, Plesetsk, Tanegashima, burning paths through the atmosphere into space. No more Internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken, plans to meet up later, pleas, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room. No more avatars.” (31-32)
And yet, even amidst such loss and absence, something glorious remains: “What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty.” (57) I’m grateful for this beautiful book.
14. Moby Dick / Herman Melville
The best novel I read in 2016 was Melville’s classic. The characters are spectacular: Ismael, Queequeg, Starbuck, and the “all-destroying” white whale. But Captain Ahab steals the show. There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness:
“Am I cut off from the last fond pride of meanest shipwrecked captains? Oh, lonely death on lonely life! Oh, now I feel my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief. Ho, ho! From all your furthest bounds, pour ye now in, ye bold billows of my whole foregone life, and top this one piled comber of my death! Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! And since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!” (477)
15. A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube / Patrick Leigh Fermor
Have you ever daydreamed about backpacking across Europe? Well, I have. But after reading A Time of Gifts, now I just daydream about being Patrick Leigh Fermor instead. He penned this kaleidoscope of a book detailing his walking journey through pre-WWII Europe in the 1930s when he was only 19-years old. Reading Fermor is a surreal literary experience. His knowledge of language, architecture, art, geography and culture is astounding.
“I too heard the change in the bells and the croaking and the solitary owl’s note. But it was getting too dim to descry a figure, let alone a struck match, at the windows of the Archbishopric. A little earlier, sunset had kindled them as if the Palace were on fire. Now the sulphur, the crocus, the bright pink and the crimson had left the panes and drained away from the touzled but still unmoving cirrus they had reflected. But the river, paler still by contrast with the sombre merging of the woods, had lightened to a milky hue. A jade-green radiance had not yet abandoned the sky. The air itself, the branches, the flag-leaves, the willow-herb and the rushes were held for a space, before the unifying shadows should dissolve them, in a vernal and marvellous light like the bloom on a greengage. Low on the flood and almost immaterialised by this luminous moment, a heron sculled upstream, detectable mainly by sound and by the darker and slowly dissolving rings that the tips of its flight-feathers left on the water. A collusion of shadows had begun and soon only the lighter colour of the river would survive. Downstream in the dark, meanwhile, there was no hint of the full moon that would transform the scene later on. No-one else was left on the bridge and the few on the quay were all hastening the same way. Prised loose from the balustrade at last by a more compelling note from the belfries, I hastened to follow. I didn’t want to be late.” (314-315)⠀
16. Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life / William Finnegan
I began reading this book about a writer’s life-long love affair with surfing and I simply couldn’t put it down. It’s absolutely glorious.
“A set rolled through, shining and roaring in the low winter afternoon sun, and my throat clogged with emotion– some nameless mess of joy, fear, love, lust, gratitude.” (356)
“Sloat looked to be at least five refrigerators high as I pulled up one Sunday afternoon in January. The waves breaking on the outside bar were difficult to see, though. The sun was shining, but the surf was generating a salt mist that filled the air on both sides of the Great Highway— a sharp-smelling haze like some essence from the bottom of the ocean. There was no wind, but gray plumes of spray rose nonetheless from the tops of the largest waves, lifted by the sheer mass and speed of their crests as they plunged. The inside bar was a maelstrom of dredging, midsized killer waves, their dark chocolate faces smeared with drifts of foam. The outside bar looked ill-defined, the swell confused, but the outside waves themselves were smooth and shiny, with clean peaks and sections looming randomly in the mist. Some of them looked ridable— loveliness amid lethality.” (388)
But don’t take my word for it. I’ve never even been surfing before. But my friend Bobby Jamieson has surfed a bunch. And he totally dug this book too. If you read his review, I wager you’ll want to read this book.
17. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt / Edmund Morris
18. The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey / Candice Millard
The historical figure I chose to live with in 2016 was Theodore Roosevelt. I’d never read a biography of Teddy before, so I learned a lot. Mr. Roosevelt was quite the character. Here’s the one story from his storied life that will stick with me:
“Roosevelt, still famously energetic at fifty-four, greeted his admirers with characteristic vigor, pumping his left arm in the air like a windmill. His right arm, however, hung motionless at his side. The last time Roosevelt had given a speech—just two weeks earlier, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin—he had been shot in the chest by a thirty-six-year-old New York bartender named John Schrank, a Bavarian immigrant who feared that Roosevelt’s run for a third term was an effort to establish a monarchy in the United States. Incredibly, Roosevelt’s heavy army overcoat and the folded fifty-page manuscript and steel spectacle-case he carried in his right breast pocket had saved his life, but the bullet had plunged some five inches deep, lodging near his rib cage. That night, whether out of an earnest desire to deliver his message or merely an egotist’s love of drama, Roosevelt had insisted on delivering his speech to a terrified and transfixed audience. His coat unbuttoned to reveal a bloodstained shirt, and his speech held high so that all could see the two sinister-looking holes made by the assailant’s bullet, Roosevelt had shouted, ‘It takes more than that to kill a bull moose!'”
-Candice Millard, The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey (New York: Doubleday, 2005), 10.
I spent much of the year gobbling up as much TR material as I could get my hands on. By far, the best book on Roosevelt that I read was Edmund Morris’s Pulitzer-prize winning biography. Morris is quite the wordsmith. Check out his description of the dawn before the Battle of San Juan Hill:
“The first of July, 1898, which Roosevelt ever afterward called ‘the great day of my life,’ dawned to a fugato of bugles, phrase echoing phrase as a reveille sounded in the various camps. The morning was Elysian, with a pink sky lightening rapidly to pale, cloudless blue. Mists filled the basin below El Pozo, evaporating quickly as the air warmed, exposing first the crowns of royal palms, then the lower green of deciduous trees and vines. Hills rippled around the horizon to east, west, and north, like a violent backdrop. As the vapor burned away, the effect to Roosevelt was of shimmering curtains rising to disclose ‘an amphitheater for the battle.’ While his men got up he walked about calmly lathering his face, reassuring the many who had woken afraid.” (681)
Morris tells the history of one man who was really seven men: a naturalist, a writer, a lover, a hunter, a ranchman, a solider, and a politician. And this multifaceted man had an electric personality: “You go to the White House,” writes Richard Washburn Child, “you shake hands with Roosevelt and hear him talk– and then you go home to wring the personality out of your clothes.”
And early on in the book you learn about Teddy’s insatiable appetite for books:
“At about ten o’clock the First Lady will rise and kiss her husband good night. He will continue to read in the light of a student lamp, peering through his one good eye (the other is almost blind) at the book held inches from his nose, flicking over the pages at a rate of two or three a minute. This is the time of the day he loves best. ‘Reading with me is a disease.’ He succumbs to it so totally— on the heaving deck of the Presidential yacht in the middle of a cyclone, between whistle-stops on a campaign trip, even while waiting for his carriage at the front door— that he cannot hear his own name being spoken. Nothing short of a thump on the back will regain his attention. Asked to summarize the book he has been leafing through with such apparent haste, he will do so in minute detail, often quoting the actual text. The President manages to get through at least one book a day even when he is busy. Owen Wister has lent him a book shortly before a full evening’s entertainment at the White House, and been astonished to hear a complete review of it over breakfast. ‘Somewhere between six one evening and eight-thirty next morning, beside his dressing and his dinner and his guests and his sleep, he had read a volume of three-hundred-and-odd pages, and missed nothing of significance that it contained.’ On evenings like this, when he has no official entertaining to do, Roosevelt will read two or three books entire. His appetite for titles is omnivorous and insatiable, ranging from the the Histories of Thucydides to the Tales of Uncle Remus. Reading, as he has explained to Trevelyan, is for him the purest imaginative therapy. In the past year alone, Roosevelt has devoured all the novels of Trollope, the complete works of De Quincey, a Life of Saint Patrick, the prose works of Milton and Tacitus (‘until I could stand them no longer’), Samuel Dill’s Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius, the seafaring yarns of Jacobs, the poetry of Scott, Poe, and Longfellow, a German novel called Jörn Uhl, ‘a most satisfactorily lurid Man-eating Lion story,’ and Foulke’s Life of Oliver P. Morton, not to mention at least five hundred other volumes, on subjects ranging from tropical flora to Italian naval history. The richness of Roosevelt’s knowledge causes a continuous process of cross-fertilization to go on in his mind. Standing with candle in hand at a baptismal service in Santa Fe, he reflects that his ancestors, and those of the child’s Mexican father, ‘doubtless fought in the Netherlands in the days of Alva and Parma.’ Watching a group of American sailors joke about bedbugs in the Navy, he is reminded of the freedom of comment traditionally allowed to Roman legionnaires after battle. Trying to persuade Congress to adopt a system of simplified spelling in Government documents, he unself-consciously cites a treatise on the subject published in the time of Cromwell. Tonight the President will bury himself, perhaps, in two volumes Mrs. Lodge has just sent him for review: Gissing’s Charles Dickens, A Critical Study, and The Greek View of Life, by Lowes Dickinson. He will be struck, as he peruses the latter, by interesting parallels between the Periclean attitude toward women and that of presentday Japan, and will make a mental note to write to Mrs. Lodge about it. He may also read, with alternate approval and disapproval, two articles on Mormonism in the latest issue of Outlook. A five-thousand-word essay on “The Ancient Irish Sagas” in this month’s Century magazine will not detain him long, since he is himself the author. His method of reading periodicals is somewhat unusual: each page, as he comes to the end of it, is torn out and thrown onto the floor. When both magazines have been thus reduced to a pile of crumpled paper, Roosevelt will leap from his rocking-chair and march down the corridor. Slowing his pace at the door of the presidential suite, he will tiptoe in, brush the famous teeth with only a moderate amount of noise, and pull on his blue-striped pajamas. Beside his pillow he will deposit a large, precautionary revolver. His last act, after turning down the lamp and climbing into bed, will be to unclip his pince-nez and rub the reddened bridge of his nose. Then, there being nothing further to do, Theodore Roosevelt will energetically fall asleep.” (xxxii-xxxiv)
And then there’s also the fascinating bit about Roosevelt’s photographic memory:
“Theodore Roosevelt’s memory can, in the opinion of the historian George Otto Trevelyan, be compared with the legendary mechanism of Thomas Babington Macaulay. Authors are embarrassed, during Presidential audiences, to hear long quotes from their works which they themselves have forgotten. Congressmen know that it is useless to contest him on facts and figures. He astonishes the diplomat Count Albert Apponyi by reciting, almost verbatim, a long piece of Hungarian historical literature: when the Count expresses surprise, Roosevelt says he has neither seen nor thought of the document in twenty years. Asked to explain a similar performance before a delegation of Chinese, Roosevelt explains mildly: ‘I remembered a book that I had read some time ago, and as I talked the pages of the book came before my eyes.’ The pages of his speeches similarly swim before him, although he seems to be speaking impromptu. When confronted with a face he does not instantly recall, he will put a hand over his eyes until it appears before him in its previous context.” (xxx)
19. Hillbilly Elegy / J.D. Vance
One of the timeliest reads of 2016 was this deeply moving memoir by J.D. Vance.
“Nearly every person you will read about is deeply flawed. Some have tried to murder other people, and a few were successful. Some have abuse their children, physically or emotionally. Many abused (and still abuse) drugs. But I love these people, even those to whom I avoid speaking for my own sanity. And if I leave you with the impression that there are bad people in my life, then I am sorry, both to you and to the people so portrayed. For there are no villains in the story. There’s just a ragtag band of hillbillies struggling to find their way– both for their sake and, by the grace of God, for mine.” (9)
20. All the Light We Cannot See / Anthony Doerr
Imagine what it’s like to be blind. Now imagine what it would be like to be blind and to live in a war zone that’s occupied by Nazis and under constant Allied bombardment. That’s the setting where we meet the blind heroine of this beautiful and moving story, Marie-Laure LeBlanc. Though blind, she sees.
21. Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America / Jill Leovy
This is an unforgettable and insightful book about a complicated set of life and death issues.
“This is a book about a very simple idea: where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic. African Americans have suffered from just such a lack of effective criminal justice, and this, more than anything, is the reason for the nation’s long-standing plague of black homicides.” (8)
Whatever you make of the author’s thesis, the relentless persistence of the book’s protagonist, Detective John Skaggs, is awe-inspiring.
22. The Terror Years: From Al-Qaeda to the Islamic State / Lawrence Wright
23. ISIS: A History / Fawaz Gerges
I took a trip to visit some dear friends in Iraq earlier this year. Given the state of unrest and fighting that has engulfed this part of the world, I wanted to learn more about Islam, terrorism, and US foreign policy. So I spent 2016 doing a deep dive on these issues, with a special focus on Iraq. God has grown my heart for this war-ravaged land and despite my doubts about any immediate prospects for lasting peace, I am certainly hopeful and prayerful for the furtherance of the gospel in Iraq.
Lawrence Wright has written a good bit about terrorism for the New Yorker and his book, The Terror Years: From Al-Qaeda to the Islamic State, pulls together the best of his material into one volume.
“This age of terror will end one day, but whether our society can restore the feeling of freedom that once was our birthright is hard to predict. The security state that is grown up since 9/11 has transformed our culture; and yes, we have a needed the protection. We are often reminded that we must ‘never forget’ what happened on that fateful day. But if we fail to keep in mind the country we were before 9/11, we may never steer in that direction again. In that case, the terrorists really will have won.” (350)
His chapter about FBI agent, John O’Neil, entitled “The Counter-Terrorist,” is just haunting. Other books worth mentioning are:
- The Looming Tower / Lawrence Wright (Great background on the lead-up to 9/11)
- Y: The Sources of Islamic Revolutionary Conduct / Stephen Lambert (Helpful discussion on Islam’s indicatives and imperatives)
- The ISIS Apocalypse / William McCants (The best book I’ve read on ISIS’s eschatological vision)
- Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS / Joby Warrick (A Pulitzer Prize-winning book on ISIS’s origins)
Warrick helpfully explains ISIS’s past. In his lucidly-written book, ISIS: A History, Fawaz Gerges looks forward at ISIS’s future. I feel like I understand a great deal more about the current crisis in Syria after reading this book.
“What this reformation entails is an intellectual revolution, a cognitive or epistemological rupture with the dominant religious and historical scripts and narratives about the past, as some Arab writers, like Abdullah al-‘ Arwi, George Tarabishi, and others, argue, a cultural revolution that transforms state and society. Arab intellectuals are fully aware of the derailed efforts by al-Nahda and renaissance pioneers who called for such ‘reformation’ in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While there is no assurance of success, this complex, generational struggle must be fought and won regardless of how long it will take. Salafi-jihadists like ISIS must be denied the doctrinal and theological oxygen that nourishes their movement. Ideas are the first line of defense against the Salafi-jihadist nihilistic ideology and the final nail in its coffin. Without this revolution in ideas, the narrative and brand of Salafi-jihadism, of which ISIS is the most recent iteration, will continue to prevail in the Arab-Islamic world.” (292)
24. Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit / P.G. Wodehouse
I’ve gotten into the delightful habit of reading at least one volume of Wodehouse every year. Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit did not disappoint. My favorite line in the book: “Love is a delicate plant that needs constant tending and nurturing, and this cannot be done by snorting at the adored object like a gas explosion and calling her friends lice.” (29) Wodehouse’s prose is always colorful and endlessly entertaining. Don’t believe me? Here’s proof:
- “He was looking definitely piqued, like a diner in a restaurant who has bitten into a bad oyster.” (26)
- “Our relations had always been chummy to the last drop.” (72)
- “No hostess wants a Hamlet on the premises.” (73)
- “What if he does think you the world’s premier louse? Don’t we all?”
- “Did you notice how he looked when he said ‘Florence’? Like a dying duck in a thunderstorm.” (85)
- “And with these words he pranced off like a mustang.” (93)
- “He had all the earmarks of one about whom Love had twined its silken fetters.” (93)
- “She was madder than a wet hen.” (94)
- “What girl would not be delighted who finds herself unexpectedly free from a man with a pink face and a head that looks as if it had been blown up with a bicycle pump?” (94)
- “My ears were sticking up like a wirehaired terrier’s.” (99)
- “His demeanor throughout was that of a homicidal deaf mute.” (102)
- “Uncle Tom is a great lad for prowling in the garden.” (103)
- “Bertie, you revolting object, that mustache of yours is the most obscene thing I ever saw outside a nightmare. It seems to take one straight into another and a dreadful world. What made you commit this rash act?” (110)
- “‘Proceed, Jeeves.’ He did so, turning now to Aunt Dahlia, who was gazing at him like a bear about to receive a bun.” (119)
- “I emerged like a cork out of a bottle.” (134)
- “I had just finished tucking away a refreshing scrambled eggs and coffee, when the door opened as if a hurricane had hit it and Aunt Dahlia came pirouetting in.” (148)
- “Before my eyes she wilted like a wet sock.” (150)
- “I am unable to discern in you the slightest vestige of charm, the smallest trace of any quality that could reasonably be expected to appeal to a girl like Florence.” (157)
- “The Woosters do not desert their aunts in their time of need.” (160)“Suddenly a thought came like a full-blown nose, flushing the brow.” (160)
- “Aunt Dahlia was in the hall, pacing up and down like a distraught tigress.” (164)
- “I’m in agony. I feel as if I’d swallowed a couple of wild cats.” (186)
- “I wilted like a salted snail.” (188)
- “Emotion overcame her, and she grabbed at my arm again. It was like being bitten by an alligator.” (200)
- “She was staring at The Times, which was what she had drawn in the distribution of the morning journals, in much the same manner as a resident of India would have stared at a cobra, had he found it nestling in his bath tub.” (208)
My Final 12:
25. The Name of the Wind / Patrick Rothfuss
I stumbled upon this richly textured fantasy novel, the first in a trilogy, and I was hooked. It’s sort of like LOTR and Harry Potter blended together with a dash of Lev Grossman and Charles Dickens sprinkled on top combined with lots of cool fights, mysterious libraries, and dangerous creatures. This story has all the makings of a huge blockbuster movie. The main character is named Kvothe and he’s not someone you want to mess with:
“I have been called Kvothe the Bloodless, Kvothe the Arcane, and Kvothe Kingkiller. I have earned those names. Bought and paid for them. But I was brought up as Kvothe. My father once told me it meant ‘to know.’ I have, of course, been called many other things. Most of them uncouth, although very few were unearned. I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep. You may have heard of me.” (52)
As entertaining as Kvothe is, even in the happy moments of the book, there’s also an omnipresent sense of foreboding.
“It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts. The first part was a hollow, echoing quiet, made by things that were lacking. If there had been horses stabled in the barn they would have stamped and champed and broken it to pieces. If there had been a crowd of guests, even a handful of guests bedded down for the night, their restless breathing and mingled snores would have gently thawed the silence like a warm spring wind. If there had been music… but no, of course there was no music. In fact there were none of these things, and so the silence remained. Inside the Waystone a man huddled in his deep, sweet-smelling bed. Motionless, waiting for sleep, he lay wide-eyed in the dark. In doing this he added a small, frightened silence to the larger, hollow one. They made an alloy of sorts, a harmony. The third silence was not an easy thing to notice. If you listened for an hour, you might begin to feel it in the thick stone walls of the empty taproom and in the flat, grey metal of the sword that hung behind the bar. It was in the dim candlelight that filled an upstairs room with dancing shadows. It was in the mad pattern of a crumpled memoir that lay fallen and unforgotten atop the desk. And it was in the hands of the man who sat there, pointedly ignoring the pages he had written and discarded long ago. The man had true-red hair, red as flame. His eyes were dark and distant, and he moved with the weary calm that comes from knowing many things. The Waystone was his, just as the third silence was his. This was appropriate, as it was the greatest silence of the three, wrapping the others inside itself. It was deep and wide as autumn’s ending. It was heavy as a great river-smooth stone. It was the patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die.” (662)
What a year for baseball. We witnessed an unforgettable Cubs victory in what will go down in history as one of the most entertaining final games in World Series history. While I was happy for Cubs fans and sad for Cleveland fans, my thoughts were in Atlanta. As a lifelong fan of the Atlanta Braves, the 2016 season was a smorgasbord of defeat. The Bravos finished in last place in the division and only the lowly Twins had a worse league record. And so I plunged myself into the past, remembering the glorious baseball summers of the past. The best baseball book I read in 2016 is an illustrated history created by Ken Burns, the documentary filmmaker. This is how the book opens:
“It measures just 9 inches in circumference, weighs only about 5 ounces, and it made of cork wound with woolen yarn, covered with two layers of cowhide, and stitched by hand precisely 216 times. It travels 60 feet 6 inches from the pitcher’s mound to home–and it can cover that distance at nearly 100 miles an hour. Along the way it can be made to twist, spin, curve, wobble, rise, or fall away. The bat is made of turned ash, less than 42 inches long, not more than 2 3/4 inches in diameter. The batter has only a few thousandths of a second to decide to hit the ball. And yet the men who fail seven times out of ten are considered the game’s greatest heroes. It is played everywhere. In parks and playground and prison yards. In back alleys and farmers fields. By small children and by old men. By raw amateurs and millionaire professionals. It is a leisurely game that demands blinding speed. The only game where the defense has the ball. It follows the seasons, beginning each year with the fond expectancy of springtime and ending with the hard facts of autumn. Americans have played baseball for more than 200 years, while they conquered a continent, warred with one another and with enemies abroad, struggled over labor and civil rights and the meaning of freedom. At the games’s heart lie mythic contradictions: a pastoral game, born in crowded cities; an exhilarating democratic sport that tolerates cheating and has excluded as many as it has included; a profoundly conservative game that sometimes manages to be years ahead of its time. It is an American odyssey that links sons and daughters to father and grandfathers. And it reflects a host of age-old American tensions: between workers and owners, scandal and reform, the individual and the collective. It is a haunted game, where each player is measured by the ghosts of those who have gone before. Most of all, it is about time and timelessness, speed and grace, failure and loss, imperishable hope, and coming home.” (xviii)
That’s glorious, isn’t it? The book is sprinkled with excerpts from the likes of Thomas Boswell, Robert Creamer, Doris Kearns Goodwin, George Will, Walt Whitman, Buck O’Neill, and Ted Williams. The introductory essay by Roger Angell is superb. It was so good that I devoured Angell’s collection The Summer Game. I also enjoyed Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times. If you can find an audiobook version of this book, you’ll discover a treasure. It’s the actual recordings of Ritter interviewing elderly ballplayers. Great stuff.
What did I learn through immersing myself in the glories of baseball’s past? I think it’s a lesson that Cubs fans know all too well. Or maybe something they used to know.
“You may glory in a team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat. Losing after great striving is the story of man, who was born to sorrow, whose sweetest songs tell of saddest thought, and who, if he is a hero, does nothing in life as becomingly as leaving it.”
-Roger Kahn, The Boys of Summer (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), xii.
29. Drone: Remote Control Warfare / Hugh Gusterson
Drones are a big deal. I heard Gusterson do an interview with MIT Press (or read it here) and it made me want to read his book. Drones aren’t going away any time soon. “Less than fifteen years after the first use of an armed drone by the United States, over 50 percent of the pilots being trained by the U.S. Air Force are drone pilots, and the proportion of remotely piloted aircraft in the U.S. fleet went from 5 percent in 2005 to 31 percent by 2012.” (21) This book made me ponder the impact of what Gusterson calls “Remote Intimacy.”
“Remote Intimacy examines the paradoxical mix of closeness and distance in the relationship between drone operators and their targets that can evolve over days of remote surveillance, and looks at what it is like to kill someone from over seven thousand miles away while watching as if close up on screen, whether it is easier or harder to kill someone this way than on the physical battlefield, and why drone operators seem to have high rates of posttraumatic stress disorder.” (7-8)
Did you catch that? Drone operators have high rates of PTSD. The book doesn’t just cover the moral implications of drone warfare. Gusterson begins the book by detailing the technical specs of US military drones:
“A little longer than the average station wagon, and weighing just 1,130 pounds, the Predator is surprisingly small. With its modified snowmobile engine it has a maximum speed of 135 mph, although it usually flies at speeds under 100 mph. The Predator can fly as high as 25,000 feet but usually is operated at 10,000 to 15,000 feet so that it gets better video imagery. It can stay aloft for about 24 hours at a time. About a quarter of the cost of the Predator goes into the ‘Ball,’ which is a rotating sensor ball that is mounted under the nose of the plane. It carries daylight cameras and infrared cameras that can pick up the outline of bodies at night, as well as equipment that scans the ground for cell phone signals, logging sim cards on the ground below. The cameras are said to be able to read a license plate from two miles up, and they feed data streams to controllers in different locations. Even filming from two miles up, the camera has a lens so powerful it feels like a hawk hovering at 100 feet. The Predator is typically equipped with two Hellfire missiles for use against targets on the ground. Each missile costs around $ 70,000. The Predator flashes an infrared beam to ‘light up’ or ‘sparkle’ targets below that are then attacked by the Predator’s missiles, by other planes, or by soldiers on the ground. These targets can be as small as individual insurgents who are fleeing an attack (what the U.S. military refers to as ‘squirters’), although the blast radius of a Hellfire missile is reportedly fifteen to twenty meters.. The Reaper, a larger second-generation armed drone, can fly twice as fast as the Predator, go twice as high, and carry eight times as much ordnance. Both Predators and Reapers are launched from bases near the areas they patrol. The operation of a drone requires about 170 people in multiple locations. The people with their hands on the controls are the tip of a spear that extends from ground crews in Middle Eastern deserts to generals and lawyers in air-conditioned control rooms in the United States.” (19-21)
30. Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets / David Simon
Back in 1988, there were 234 murders in the city of Baltimore. David Simon was the first reporter ever to be given unlimited access to Baltimore’s homicide unit. He was embedded with three homicide squads for an entire year. This book is the fruit of his front-row research. It’s a crime classic for good reason.
31. Seven Brief Lessons in Physics / Carlo Rovelli
I bet your physics professor in college didn’t explain physics this beautifully. Not only was this slim volume packed with mind-bending facts, I was also moved by Rovelli’s tone of humility and awestruck wonder that pervaded the book. He writes:
“Our knowledge of the world continues to grow. There are frontiers where we are learning, and our desire for knowledge burns. They are in the most minute reaches of the fabric of space, at the origins of the cosmos, in the nature of time, in the phenomenon of black holes, and in the workings of our own thought processes. Here, on the edge of what we know, in contact with the ocean of the unknown, shines the mystery and the beauty of the world. And it’s breathtaking.” (80)
32. Daily Rituals: How Artists Work / Mason Currey
This book is brilliant collection of the daily habits of brilliant people. Here were my favorite entries:
Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855): “Kierkegaard had his own quite peculiar way of having coffee: Delightedly he seized hold of the bag containing the sugar and poured sugar into the coffee cup until it was piled up above the rim. Next came the incredibly strong, black coffee, which slowly dissolved the white pyramid. The process was scarcely finished before the syrupy stimulant disappeared into the magister’s stomach, where it mingled with the sherry he had consumed earlier to produce additional energy that percolated up into his seething and bubbling brain—which in any case had already been so productive all day that in the half-light visitors could still notice the tingling and throbbing in the overworked fingers when they grasped the slender handle of the cup.
Flannery O’Connor (1925–1964): After being diagnosed with lupus in 1951 and told she would live only another four years, O’Connor returned to her native Georgia and moved in with her mother at the family farm in rural Andalusia. Years earlier, a writing instructor had advised O’Connor to set aside a certain number of hours each day to write, and she had taken his advice to heart; back in Georgia she came to believe, as she wrote to a friend, that ‘routine is a condition of survival.’ A devout Catholic, O’Connor began each day at 6:00 A.M. with morning prayers from her copy of A Short Breviary. Then she joined her mother in the kitchen, where they would share a Thermos of coffee while listening to the weather report on the radio. Morning mass was at 7:00, a short drive into town at the Sacred Heart. Her religious obligations fulfilled, O’Connor would turn to her writing, shutting herself away between 9:00 and noon for her daily three hours, which would typically yield three pages—although, she told a reporter, ‘I may tear it all to pieces the next day.’ By the afternoon, O’Connor’s energy was spent—the lupus caused her to tire early and experience flulike symptoms and mental fogginess as the day wore on. She passed these hours receiving visitors on the porch and pursuing her hobbies of painting and raising birds—peacocks, which she loved and often incorporated into her stories, as well as ducks, hens, and geese. By sundown she was ready for bed; ‘I go to bed at nine and am always glad to get there,’ she wrote. Before bedtime she might recite another prayer from her Breviary, but her usual nighttime reading was a seven-hundred-page volume of Thomas Aquinas. ‘I read a lot of theology because it makes my writing bolder,’ she said.
Philip Roth (b. 1933): “Writing isn’t hard work, it’s a nightmare,” Roth said in 1987. Coal mining is hard work. This is a nightmare.… There’s a tremendous uncertainty that’s built into the profession, a sustained level of doubt that supports you in some way. A good doctor isn’t in a battle with his work; a good writer is locked in a battle with his work. In most professions there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. With writing, it’s always beginning again. Temperamentally, we need that newness. There is a lot of repetition in the work. In fact, one skill that every writer needs is the ability to sit still in this deeply uneventful business. My schedule is absolutely my own. Usually, I write all day, but if I want to go back to the studio in the evening, after dinner, I don’t have to sit in the living room because someone else has been alone all day. I don’t have to sit there and be entertaining or amusing. I go back out and I work for two or three more hours. If I wake up at two in the morning—this happens rarely, but it sometimes happens—and something has dawned on me, I turn the light on and I write in the bedroom. I have these little yellow things all over the place. I read till all hours if I want to. If I get up at five and I can’t sleep and I want to work, I go out and I go to work. So I work, I’m on call. I’m like a doctor and it’s an emergency room. And I’m the emergency.”
This book sort of freaked me out. Mainly because the author isn’t some weirdo who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Marc Goodman has been a Resident Futurist for the FBI and a senior adviser to Interpol. And he’s very concerned.
“In a world in which all of our critical systems and infrastructures are run by computers, it would be easy to dismiss our profound technological insecurity as just a computing problem. But we don’t just have an IT problem. Because technology is woven through the entire fabric of our modern lives, we also have a social problem, a personal problem, a financial problem, a health-care problem, a manufacturing problem, a public safety problem, a government problem, a governance problem, a transportation problem, an energy problem, a privacy problem, and a human rights problem. We have no choice but to win this battle for the very soul of our own technologies because frankly the alternative is too horrible to consider. This must be our call to action. Accordingly, now is the time to completely reevaluate all that we take for granted in this modern technological world and question our dependence on the ubiquitous machines that so few of us understand. We do this not out of blind technophobia nor in deference to Luddite ancestors but as a commonsensical measure, fully appreciating the vast positive potential these exponential technologies portend. The innovation cannot be stopped, and the technological changes are coming faster and faster. We’ve reached an inflection point, a punctuated moment in time that demands our immediate and greatest possible attention.” (498)
34. Overview: A New Perspective of Earth / Benjamin Grant
The most gorgeous book I read in 2016 is Overview, which features amazing images from the Daily Overview account. Check out some of the pictures here or here. These satellite images will make you feel very small and remind you that the Creator and Upholder of all things is really big. My three kiddos loved this book.
“When we are removed from our usual line of sight on the Earth’s surface, we can see things differently. We can see our world completely.” (20)
35. Life on a Little-Known Planet / Howard Ensign Evans
I read an interview with the great David McCullough where he was asked, “What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?” McCullough’s answer intrigued me: “A book I keep going back to for the sheer pleasure of the writing, as well as all it brings to life about a subject I might otherwise have taken no interest in whatever, is “Life on a Little-Known Planet,” by Howard Ensign Evans, which is all about insects.” Really?! Well, if an out-of-print book about a biologist’s view of insects and their world is good enough for David McCullough, then surely it’s good enough for me. My favorite chapter, “In Defense of Magic: The Story of Fireflies” is worth the price of the book.
“Magic in the sense of something inciting wonder is here to stay; or if it is not, man will have been vastly diminished by its loss. What can rival a twilit meadow rich with the essence of June and spangled with fireflies? Here is magic, and the joy of pursuing through grass just touched with early dew a light now here, now there, now gone. Or of collecting several in a bottle and taking them indoors for illumination; or of tying one lightly with a thread to one’s clothing, as natives of some tropical countries are reported to do at fiesta time. As children, we used to call them lightning bugs; and wingless kinds that emit a steady light from the ground are called glowworms in English-speaking countries wherever they occur. In fact fireflies are neither flies nor bugs nor worms, but soft-bodied beetles called Lampyridae, a name based on an old Greek word that also evolved into our word ‘lamp’… Adult fireflies possess the most complex light organs known to man, and these organs are still far from fully understood. Despite the intensity of the light they produce, the amount of heat is negligible. Only in very recent years has man developed chemical light-producing systems that rival that of the firefly in efficiency.” (103, 104)
Amazing. I’ll never look at a lightning bug on a summer night the same way again.
36. Various Volumes of Poetry:
- A Book of Luminous Things / Ed. Czeslaw Milosz
- Poems / George Herbert
- A Small Porch: Sabbath Poems 2014 / Wendell Berry
- Swan: Poems / Mary Oliver
- Pity the Beautiful / Dana Gioia
- The Green Earth: Poems of Creation / Luci Shaw
- Accompanied by Angels / Luci Shaw
- Sojourner Songs: Poems / Ben Palpant
Time spent with good poets is time well spent. I hung out with George Herbert (a constant companion), Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, Luci Shaw, Ben Palpant. I thoroughly enjoyed the collection of poems pulled together by Czeslaw Milosz, aptly entitled A Book of Luminous Things. The two contemporary poets that I enjoyed the most this year were Dana Gioia and A.E. Stallings. You might be wondering, “Why bother with poetry?” I agree with the assessment of James Parker:
“If you’re a certain kind of reader, with a certain kind of brain, you’re always on the lookout for the poem that will save your life. Existence heaps itself upon you; your tongue thickens and your thoughts get cluttered. But you keep a muddy eye trained on the world’s poetry portals, the places where the poems come flapping through, because you know that a line, a rhyme, a verb can reboot your internal chitchat and zap you out of all your encrustations. You know that this is the poet’s job, in the end: to remind you—oh, the cheesiness, but oh, the urgency—how to be alive.”
Poets remind us of the glories of being alive in this beautifully strange and God-spoke world. Luci Shaw once said: “A poem is a little lens through which we can examine in close range some of the ‘insignificant’ details of the universe, a miniature window on the world. In such small works of art the poet is lending you, the reader, her eyes in hopes that your own eyes will be captivated by things you’ve never noticed before.” Good poems help us notice and remember what would impoverish us to forget.
The poem that captured 2016 for me was this one by A.E. Stallings. May the Lord grant us all the grace of growing in empathy, in tender-hearted brotherly love, and in humility of mind.
My love, I’m grateful tonight
Our listing bed isn’t a raft
As we dodge the coast-guard light,
And clasp hold of a girl and a boy.
I’m glad that we didn’t wake
Our kids in the thin hours, to take
Not a thing, not a favorite toy,
And we didn’t hand over our cash
To one of the smuggling rackets,
That we didn’t buy cheap lifejackets
No better than bright orange trash
And less buoyant.
I’m glad that the dark
Above us, is not deeply twinned
Beneath us, and moiled with wind,
And we don’t scan the sky for a mark,
Any mark, that demarcates a shore
As the dinghy starts taking on water.
I’m glad that our six-year old daughter,
Who can’t swim, is a foot off the floor
In the bottom bunk, and our son
With his broken arm’s high and dry,
That the ceiling is not seeping sky,
With our journey but hardly begun.
Empathy isn’t generous,
It’s selfish. It’s not being nice
To say I would pay any price
Not to be those who’d die to be us.
As always, happy reading and Happy New Year!