Tag Archives: Reading

The Best Books I Read This Year (2018)

These are my favorite books that I read in 2018. There are 36 selections and I thoroughly enjoyed every last one of them.

My Top 12:

1. Some Pastors and Teachers / Sinclair Ferguson

The best book I read in 2018 is this brilliant cornucopia of essays covering theological topics, historical figures, and spiritual issues. Imagine if you could take a course on pastoral ministry from Sinclair Ferguson. The substance of that class would be the bulk of this book. Ferguson issues a challenge to busy pastors right at the outset:

“Many—probably most—of these chapters were written in the context of busy pastoral ministry, either in Scotland or in the United States—preaching, teaching, pastoral visiting, personal meetings, crises in the lives of individuals and sometimes the whole church, administrative responsibilities, and the wide and wonderful variety of activities that make up the average ministers life. And since virtually all the essays were written by request, their writing has been squeezed into, or out of, an occasional hiatus in the sheer busy-ness of ministry life and the constant preparation involved in preaching anywhere between three and six times in the week.” (xii-xiii)

I am eternally grateful that Sinclair Ferguson took the time to write such edifying material for others. Over the years, I may have read and reread “The Preacher’s Decalogue” (chapter 39) twenty-five times or so. He calls these chapters “some of the leftovers from the abundance of good food the Lord has given us in His Word,” (xv). I call them a feast for the hungry soul.

2. God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ / Stephen Wellum

This book is a worshipfully written, biblical-theological, gold mine of Christology that will help you treasure more dearly God’s own dear Son:

“Because our plight is so desperate, due to sin, the only person who can save us is God’s own dear Son. It is only as the Son incarnate that our Lord can represent us; it is only as the Son incarnate that He can put away our sin, stand in our place, and turn away God’s wrath by bearing our sin. Only Jesus can satisfy God’s own righteous requirements, because He is one with the Lord as God the Son; only Jesus can do this for us because He is truly a man and can represent us.” (442-443)

3. Reformation Worship / Eds. Jonathan Gibson and Mark Earngey

Gibson and Earngey retrieve Protestant liturgies from the past for their use in the present. This volume includes entire orders of service from Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Cranmer, Knox, Ursinus, the Puritans, and others. Gibson pens an incredible opening chapter entitled “Worship: On Earth as It Is in Heaven“:

“Worship is the right, fitting, and delightful response of moral beings—angelic and human—to God the Creator, Redeemer, and Consummator, for who He is as one eternal God in three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit— and for what He has done in creation and redemption, and for what He will do in the coming consummation, to whom be all praise and glory, now and forever, world without end. Amen.” (2)

If you are responsible for planning the corporate worship services of your local church, you will be greatly served by mining the treasures of this book.

4. On Reading Well / Karen Swallow Prior

Reading great works of literature can cultivate a desire for the good life, a life of virtue and excellence, because “reading literature, more than informing, forms us” (22). Here’s what I wrote in my TGC review:

On Reading Well is exquisitely written and will appeal immediately to a certain kind of reader: the kind who reads a book review about a book about the virtues embodied in reading books; the kind of reader who finds it impossible to pass by a used bookstore without slipping inside in search of a story that will stir a homesick hope within; the kind of reader who, like David Copperfield, reads “as if for life” itself (59); the kind of reader who joyfully affirms with C. S. Lewis, “My own eyes are not enough for me; I will see through those of others” (140).

But even if you’re not yet that kind of reader, Prior beckons you to become one. You won’t find a scolding tone or any long list of books you simply must read before you die. Instead, acting as the English professor we all wish we had in school, she humbly kindles a desire in you to leave her own book behind and reach for that daunting work of literature you’ve never quite finished and was never quite finished with you. I suspect this was one of Prior’s goals all along.”

5. The Last Adam: A Theology of the Obedient Life of Jesus in the Gospel / Brandon Crowe

We were plunged into the abyss of sin by the disobedience of the first Adam. Our salvation rests upon the obedience of the last Adam, who humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. “Jesus never erred in any way, remaining faithful throughout His life, demonstrating His faithfulness all the way to Jerusalem and His enthronement upon a Roman cross.” (207) This careful study helped me marvel at how Jesus lived for us and for our great salvation.

6. Remember Death / Matthew McCullough

I did more funerals than weddings this year, and so I’ve been thinking a lot about death recently. Matt McCullough is a godly pastor and an outstanding writer. He shepherds his readers through a topic most of us try desperately to avoid. But as he puts it: “So long as death remains someone else’s problem, Jesus will remain someone else’s Savior.” (59) McCullough’s sober meditation cultivated a “death-awareness” in me and helped me see how “facing up to the truth about death can lead us to a deeper hope in life.” (173)

7. Living Life Backwards / David Gibson

Speaking of death, Ecclesiastes tells us “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die.” (3:1-2) Gibson has written an outstanding exploration of this challenging OT book. Here’s the key paragraph:

“Ecclesiastes teaches us to live life backward. It encourages us to take the one thing in the future that is certain—our death—and work backward from that point into all the details and decisions and heartaches of our lives, and to think about them from the perspective of the end. It is the destination that makes sense of the journey. If we know for sure where we are heading, then we can know for sure what we need to do before we get there. Ecclesiastes invites us to let the end sculpt our priorities and goals, our greatest ambitions and our strongest desires. I want to persuade you that only if you prepare to die can you really learn how to live.” (12)

8. Spurgeon on the Christian Life / Michael Reeves

This book is Charles Spurgeon plus Michael Reeves. Honestly, that’s really all you need to know. I’m unsure if Reeves has read all 18 million words that Spurgeon published in his lifetime. But I do know that he accomplishes his expressed aim in this book: “I generally find reading Spurgeon himself like breathing in great lungfuls of mountain air: he is bracing, refreshing, and rousing. I want, therefore, to try to make myself scarce and let Spurgeon leap at readers himself.” (17) The Prince of Preachers indeed leaps off every page, and that’s a fabulous thing.

9. The Beauty of the Lord: Theology as Aesthetics / Jonathan King

This monograph is one of the most edifying and God-glorifying works I read this entire year. There are wonderful systematic and biblical-theological insights found throughout. The author’s aim is “to explore and develop a theology of beauty based on God’s plan in Christ. Thus the nature of beauty, as defined by the divine economy of redemption, which sums all things up in Jesus Christ (Eph 1:10), is pursued in a specifically biblical and systematic way from beginning to end.” (1)

King makes a compelling case both from biblical evidence and theological warrant that beauty properly should be considered a perfection of the divine nature. The author draws together bright threads of beauty from Scripture and from the writings of Irenaeus, Augustine, Calvin, Balthasar, Bavinck, Edwards, and others, to fashion a glorious “theodramatic” tapestry of redemption. If you read this book carefully and prayerfully, I trust that your eyes too will ‘behold the King in His beauty.’ I’m looking forward to reading King’s next book project, provocatively titled God’s Oikosystem: The Roles that Holy Angels and Fallen Angels Play in God’s Eternal Plan for Humans.

10. J.C. Ryle: Prepared To Stand Alone  / Iain H. Murray

I know of no finer biography of the great Bishop of Liverpool than this one. It’s what I’ve come to expect from Murray: clearly written, theologically astute, and resolutely wise. I’m writing this from my home study where my bookshelves are brimming with works published by the Banner of Truth. I’m forever grateful to the Lord for providentially using Murray to co-found the Banner on July 22, 1957, while he served as an assistant to Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones at Westminster Chapel in London. I actually got the idea to begin this blog in 2003 from an offhand comment Murray made during an interview with Mark Dever in 2002.

Chilling with Iain and Jean at Cracker Barrel

After his funeral, J.C. Ryle’s successor referred to him as “that man of granite with the heart of a child.” (213) That also seems to me to be an apt description of Iain H. Murray.

11. Calling on the Name of the Lord: A Biblical Theology of Prayer / J. Gary Millar

John Calvin observed an unbreakable link between prayer and the gospel: “Just as faith is born from the gospel, so through it our hearts are trained to call upon God’s name.” (Institutes, 3.20.1-3) This connection between prayer and gospel is explored in this outstanding NSBT volume. Millar argues convincingly that “calling on the name of the Lord” is to be primarily understood throughout the Scriptures as asking God to come through on what He has already promised:

“I can find five prayers in the New Testament encourages us to believe God will always come through on: He will always answer our prayers when we ask Him to do His new covenant work through His Word by the Spirit. And what does that look like? Here is a summary of the ‘no brainer’ prayers we should pray for as individuals and communities, because God has already guaranteed to answer:

-when we pray for forgiveness (1 John 5:19);
-when we pray to know God better (Eph. 1:15-22; 3:18-19);
-when we pray for wisdom (James 1:5-6);
-when we pray for strength to obey/love/live for God (Eph. 1:15-22; 3:14-15);
-when we pray for the spread of the gospel (Luke 10:2; Acts 5; Col. 4)” (239)

12. Prayer / John Onwuchekwa

This wonderful little book, written by a dear brother, is packed full of glorious wisdom for making prayer central to the life of your church:

“It’s so much easier to read about prayer than to actually pray.” (16)

“Prayer is oxygen for the Christian. It sustains us. It is to the church what it is to individuals—breathing. Yet many of our gatherings could be likened to people coming together merely to hold their collective breath. This would explain why people seem to have so little energy for actually living out the Christian life.” (23)

“The local church is the best way to define the ‘us’ in our prayers.” (62)

“Jesus stared death square in the face, knowing his fate was inescapable. How did he face it? On his knees in prayer.” (70)

“We’ll always lack peace when we judge God’s love for us by how many of our prayers are answered with a ‘yes.’ False hope is the most fertile soil for a crop of discontentment.” (72)

“Jesus’s faithfulness to do God’s task is directly tied to his prayer. The disciples’ faithlessness is directly tied to their prayerlessness.” (75)

“A church that practices prayer is more than a church that learns; it’s also a church that leans. We learn dependence by leaning on God together.” (92)

“Let the temptation to worry serve as the divine alarm clock reminding you it’s time to pray.” (125)

“The power of our prayers isn’t found in the number of people praying, but the willingness of the One to whom we’re praying.” (126)

Three Honorable Mentions:

Best Out of Print Book: The Collected Writings of Lemuel Haynes / Lemuel Haynes

Lemuel Haynes (1753-1833) was the first African-American ordained by any religious body in America. He was a veteran of the American Revolution and was a powerful preacher, influenced greatly by the works of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. Unfortunately, his collected writings remain difficult to find. I was only able to access them via InterLibrary Loan. Here’s a taste:

“The godly preacher will not be ambitious of saying fine things to win applause, but of saying useful things to win souls. He will consider that he has the weak as well as the strong, children as well as adults to speak to, and that he must be accountable for the blood of their souls if they perish through his neglect. This will influence him to study plainness more than politeness.

Such a preacher will not come into the pulpit as an actor comes to the stage to display his talents, but as one who feels the weight of eternal things. Oh! With what zeal and fervor will he speak! How will death, judgment, and eternity appear as it were in every feature, and every word!

Out of the abundance of his heart, his mouth will speak. He will study and preach with reference to a judgment to come, and deliver every sermon in some respects, as if it were his last, not knowing when his Lord will call him or his hearers to account.” (50-51)

How can sermons like this be out of print?

Best Biblical Commentary: The Gospel According to Mark / James Edwards

The best commentary I read this year was this gem on the Gospel of Mark. Highly recommended!

Best Wodehouse: Very Good, Jeeves! / P.G. Wodehouse

One can really never read too much Wodehouse. So it’s a good thing there are 99 volumes in his collected works. Here’s a sampling from the rip-roaring volume, Very Good, Jeeves!:

“When it is a question of a pal being in the soup, we Woosters no longer think of self; and that poor old Bingo was knee-deep in the bisque was made plain by his mere appearance– which was that of a cat which has just been struck by a half-brick and is expecting another shortly.” (22-23)

“Bingo uttered a stricken woofle like a bull-dog that has been refused cake.” (25)

“Young Bingo, you see, is one of those fellows who, once their fingers close over the handle of a tennis racket, fall into a sort of trance in which nothing outside the radius of the lawn exists for them. If you came up to Bingo in the middle of a set and told him that panthers were devouring his best friend in the kitchen garden, he would look at you and say, ‘Oh, ah?’ or words to that effect.” (26)

“Never give in. Perseverance brings home the gravy.” (59)

“As Shakespeare says, if you’re going to do a thing you might just as well pop right at it and get it over.” (63)

“Tuppy has one of those high, squeaky voices that sound like the tenor of the village choir failing to hit a high note. This voice, however, was something in between the last Trumpet and a tiger calling for breakfast after being on a diet for a day or two.” (76)

“His eyebrows seemed to pierce me like a knife.” (78)

“Reason was beginning to do a bit of tottering on its throne.” (111)

“You know, whatever you may say against old Jeeves– you’ve got to admit that the man can plan a campaign. Naopoleon could have taken his correspondence course.” (126-127)

“The voice of Love seemed to call to me, but it was a wrong number.” (160)

My Next 12:

13. Washington Black / Esi Edugyan

My favorite novel of the year tells the heart-wrenching tale of an eleven-year-old slave named Washington Black. “Wash” escapes from a Barbados sugar plantation with the help of Titch, his master’s brother, who also happens to be a naturalist, explorer, inventor, and abolitionist. Their worldwide adventures begin with a frightful flight and daring getaway in an experimental hot-air balloon. Edugyan is quite the wordsmith. Here’s proof:

A wind was blowing; the Cloud-cutter roared, creaked, leaning into its ropes. The wind was warm, unpleasant, with the scent of iron and rain in it. I watched Titch’s dark figure move to adjust the canister of gas in the blackness, grunting and cursing softly. The canopy hung high above me, a scorch against the lighter sky.

Titch called to me urgently, and I clambered into the wicker-and-wood gondola, its oars stretching like antennae into the sky, its four odd wings creaking like rudders in the wind. How terrifying it all looked, in the dark; a great hot fear of death went through me. As Titch was double-checking the bolts and knots, he paused to give me a strange, quiet look. But I said nothing, and he said nothing, an in silence he turned back to his preparations.

“Well, Wash,” he said at last.

“Well,” I said, terrified.

Then, without another word, he adjusted the canister. A higher column of fire surged upwards into the canopy, and the fabric began to shudder and shake. The shaking was terrible. My teeth rattled in my skull. I stared in fascinated terror at the broad black mouth sucking up fire.

The air stank of char and smoke, of burning oil. Finally Titch leaned over and severed each rope in its turn. All around me I could hear the hissing of the grass as the wicker basket was dragged across it– a vicious, final sound.

In the half-light I could just make out the hollows of Titch’s face, his eyes blacked out, only the white shards of his teeth distinct and visible. I felt a give in my belly; I clutched at the oars of the Cloud-cutter in dread. The air around us began to howl; the sky rushed towards us. We were rising.

I can barely describe the sight of it. I saw the threatening sky below, a great red crack of light, like a monstrous eye just opening. The sky was still black where we were, but the wind was already hurling us seaward. I watched the half-cut cane fields in the faint light, the white scars of harvest glistening like the part in a woman’s hair.

What did I feel? What would anyone feel, in such a place? My chest ached with anguish and wonder, an astonishment that went on and on, and I could not catch my breath. The Cloud-cutter spun, turned gradually faster, rising ever higher. I began to cry– deep, silent, racking sobs, my face turned away from Titch, staring out onto the boundlessness of the world. The air grew colder, crept in webs across my skin. All was shadow, red light, storm-fire and frenzy. And up we went into the eye of it, untouched, miraculous. (130-131)

14. A Gentleman in Moscow / Amor Towles

This is a charming story about a Russian count sentenced by a Bolshevik tribunal to spend the rest of his life in Moscow’s Metropolis Hotel. The Count loses much of his earthly possessions, and yet this doesn’t rob him of his irrepressible joy. A life without luxury can be the richest of all. I was reminded that even something like a simple breakfast and freshly brewed coffee should cause me to pause and give thanks to the Lord, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy:

“Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov stirred at half past eight to the sound of rain on the eaves. With a half-opened eye, he pulled back his covers and climbed from bed. He donned his robe and slipped on his slippers. He took up the tin from the bureau, spooned a spoonful of beans into the apparatus, and began to crank the crank.

Even as he turned the little handle round and round, the room remained under the tenuous authority of sleep. As yet unchallenged, somnolence continued to cast its shadow over sights and sensations, over forms and formulations, over what has been said and what must be done, lending each the insubstantiality of its domain. But when the Count opened the small wooden drawer of the grinder, the world and all it contained were transformed by that envy of the alchemists—the aroma of freshly ground coffee.

In that instant, darkness was separated from light, the waters from the lands, and the heavens from the earth. The trees bore fruit and the woods rustled with the movement of birds and beasts and all manner of creeping things. While closer at hand, a patient pigeon scuffed its feet on the flashing.

Easing the little drawer from the apparatus, the Count poured its contents into the pot (which he had mindfully primed with water the night before). He lit the burner and shook out the match. As he waited for the coffee to brew, he did thirty squats and thirty stretches and took thirty deep breaths. From the little cupboard in the corner, he took a small pitcher of cream, a pair of English biscuits, and a piece of fruit (today an apple). Then having poured the coffee, he began to enjoy the morning’s sensations to their fullest:

The crisp tartness of the apple, the hot bitterness of the coffee, the savory sweetness of the biscuit with its hint of butter… So perfect was the combination that upon finishing, the Count was tempted to crank the crank, quarter the apple, dole out the biscuits, and enjoy his breakfast all over again.” (171-172)

15. Grant / Ron Chernow

Murat Halstead, editor of the Cincinnati Commercial, penned the following scathing indictment of Ulysses S. Grant: “He is a poor drunken imbecile and hopelessly foolish.” Grant did indeed battle alcohol abuse much of his life. But Ron Chernow’s magisterial biography reveals many commendable and inspiring aspects of the man who rose from Union General to the nation’s Commander in Chief. One of my favorite scenes occurred as Grant marched triumphantly towards Vicksburg:

“In less than three weeks, Grant had traversed 130 miles on foot and handily won five consecutive battles in a bravura campaign that would be enshrined in military textbooks. He had shown true virtuosity in spontaneously coordinating many moving parts and adapting to shifting enemy positions. With the Army of the Tennessee, he had created the mobile, lightning-quick army for which Lincoln yearned in contrast to the hidebound eastern forces. As Lincoln’s secretary John Nicolay exclaimed, ‘The praise of our western soldiers is on every lip, Illinois valor particularly receiving as it properly should, large honor.’ Contrary to his image of securing victories at heavy cost, Grant had sacrificed 4,300 men versus 7,200 for the Confederates, even though he had tackled a combined Confederate force at Vicksburg, Grand Gulf, and Jackson of more than 60,000 men, much larger than the 43,000 he transferred across the Mississippi. ‘Grant is now deservedly the hero,’ Sherman proclaimed. ‘He is now belabored with praise by those who a month ago accused him of all the sins in the calendar.’ One journalist traveling with Grant’s army summed up his new stature: ‘Nothing like this campaign has occurred during this war. It stamps Gen. Grant as a man of uncommon military ability—proves him the foremost one in the west; if not in the nation.’ The New York Times, noting that Grant had captured fifty guns and six thousand prisoners, stressed that this whirlwind operation had been accomplished ‘in a foreign climate, under a tropical sun ablaze with the white heat of summer, with only such supplies as could be gleaned from the country.’ As Grant’s columns strode confidently toward Vicksburg, scenes of ecstatic jubilation greeted them as they passed abandoned plantations and were applauded by former slaves. One ex-slave, seated on a lawn, rocking back and forth in joy, kept shouting, ‘Glory, hallelujah, glory, hallelujah… Bless God, bless God. I never spected to see dis day.'” (266-267)

In the book’s last chapter, we encounter Grant spending his final days dying of cancer. Having been swindled by a family friend, Grant was desperate to provide for his family. Despite being racked with excruciating pain, Grant persevered and penned what is widely viewed as a masterpiece, the foremost military memoir in the English language. It was an immediate best-seller. After his death, Grant’s widow received $450,000 in royalties. In his final battle, General Grant once again emerged victorious.

16. Stalin: Waiting For Hitler / Stephen Kotkin

I’d never read anything about Stalin but after watching this lecture by Kotkin, I decided to take the plunge. I learned a bunch. Who was Joseph Stalin? He was a human being, a revolutionary, a dictator, a fearsome contriver of class warfare, a creator of great power, a magnetic leader, and a destroyer of tens of millions of lives.

“Murderous and mendacious do not begin to describe the person readers will encounter in this volume. At the same time, Stalin galvanized millions. His colossal authority was rooted in a dedicated faction, which he forged, a formidable apparatus, which he built, and Marxist-Leninist ideology, which he helped synthesize. But his power was magnified many times over by ordinary people, who projected onto him their soaring ambitions for justice, peace, and abundance, as well as national greatness. (8)

During Stalin’s 30-year rule, the most terrible crimes became morally imperative acts in the name of creating paradise on earth. Kotkin’s section covering the Great Terror, the purge led by Stalin, was horrifying.

“Throughout 1937 and 1938, there were on average nearly 2,200 arrests and more than 1,000 executions per day.” (437)

I’m looking forward to Kotkin’s third volume on Stalin that will pick up the story in 1942.

17. The Power Broker / Robert Caro

Have you ever heard of Robert Moses? I had not. But Caro’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Moses makes plain just how he became America’s greatest builder and the single most powerful man of our age in the City and in the State of New York. But more than an enthralling biography, Caro also eloquently explores the dangers, the temptations, and the acquisition of absolute power.

18. Educated / Tara Westover

Power can be abused at a national level (see Joseph Stalin), and at a city/state level (see Robert Moses). But power can also be tragically abused in a single home, in one family. Tara Westover tells her heart-breaking story of overcoming the lasting effects of growing up in a Mormon survivalist family in Idaho. “It’s strange how you give the people you love so much power over you.” (199) Many parts of this book were hard to read, but I was thankful I made it to the end.

19. The End of the Affair / Graham Greene

Faith, unbelief, God, atheism, love, lust, hatred, desire, life, and death. This riveting novel has it all. I couldn’t put it down. I read it twice. Then I came across this audiobook recording by Colin Firth, and I spent six hours listening to this story again. Searching and superb.

20. To A God Unknown / John Steinbeck

A lush and lyrical story that blends together elements of the creation and fall narratives of Genesis, paganism, pantheism, a Greek tragedy, a tree of life, and, of course, California. This is a strange and haunting book and I was mesmerized by it.

“When his eyes cleared from the lantern light he saw that the night was sharper. The mountain flanks, rounded and flesh-like, stood out softly in shallow perspective and a deep purple essence hung on their outlines. All of the night, the hills, the black hummocks of the trees were as soft and friendly as an embrace. But straight ahead, the black arrow-headed pines cut into the sky. The night was ageing toward dawn, the leaves and grasses whispered and sighed under the fresh morning wind. Whistle of ducks’ wings sounded overhead, where an invisible squadron started over-early for the south. And the great owls swung restlessly through the air at the last of the night’s hunting. The wind brought a pine smell down from the hills, and the penetrating odour of and the pleasant bouquet of a skunk’s anger, smelling, since it was far away, like azaleas. Joseph nearly forgot his mission, for the hills reached out tender arms to him and the mountains were as gentle and insistent as a loving woman who is half asleep. The sharp pines lengthened and pierced higher and higher into the sky.” (88-89)

21. The Man Who Caught the Storm / Brantley Hargrove

In 2013, I read a crazy story in National Geographic about a legendary storm chaser named Tim Samaras, and the infamous El Reno tornado, the widest tornado in recorded history. I remember thinking, “Someone should write a book about that guy.” Brantley Hargrove has not only written a poignant tribute to Samaras, but he’s also penned an unputdownable classic. (And this is Hargrove’s debut book!) If you liked Into Thin Air or The Perfect Storm, you’ll dig this book.

22. The Feather Thief / Kirk Wallace Johnson

The subtitle of this book says it all: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century. Here’s my best attempt at a run-on sentence blurb: A 20-year-old American dude who plays the flute at London’s Royal Academy of Music and who is obsessed with the Victorian art of salmon fly-tying, rides a train to the Tring museum, breaks in, and proceeds to steal thousands of priceless rare bird feathers, and then escapes into the darkness. What could possibly go wrong? A rip-roaring story.

23. The Hunt For Red October / Tom Clancy

My Dad introduced me to the stories of Tom Clancy. I read most of the Jack Ryan books 20 years ago but hadn’t picked one up again until this year. I was digging through the fiction shelves at a used bookstore near Capitol Hill, and I saw an inexpensive hardback first edition of The Hunt of Red October.  It’s hard to believe that a book written in 1984 featuring nuclear submarine warfare would still hold up to rereading decades later. But it does, with flying colors. I agree with the Gipper. “It’s my kind of yarn.”

24. Oranges / John McPhee
The Curve of Binding Energy / John McPhee

John McPhee has written a variety of fascinating long-form stories for The New Yorker over the years. Several of these have been made into books, two of which I read this year. One tells the story of Ted Taylor, a theoretical physicist, who conceived and designed the largest-yield fission bomb ever exploded by any nation in the world. The other McPhee book I devoured was a book about oranges. That’s right. An entire book about oranges! I enjoy eating oranges and find orange juice delicious but I’d never thought much about the history of oranges. McPhee has a forensic eye for detail and this book didn’t disappoint:

“The custom of drinking orange juice with breakfast is not very widespread, taking the world as a whole, and it is thought by many peoples to be a distinctly American habit. But many Danes drink it regularly with breakfast, and so do Hondurans, Filipinos, Jamaicans, and the wealthier citizens of Trinidad and Tobago. The day is started with orange juice in the Colombian Andes, and, to some extent, in Kuwait. Bolivians don’t touch it at breakfast time, but they drink it steadily for the rest of the day. The ‘play lunch’, or morning tea, that Australian children carry with them to school is usually an orange, peeled spirally halfway down, with the peel replaced around the fruit. The child unwinds the peel and holds the orange as if it were an ice-cream cone. People in Nepal almost never peel oranges, preferring to eat them in cut quarters, the way American athletes do. The sour oranges of Afghanistan customarily appear as seasoning agents on Afghan dinner tables. Squeezed over Afghan food, they cut the grease. The Shamouti Orange, of Israel, is seedless and sweet, has a thick skin, and grows in Hadera, Gaza, Tiberias, Jericho, the Jordan Valley, and Jaffa; it is exported from Jaffa, and for that reason is known universally beyond Israel as the Jaffa Orange. The Jaffa Orange is a variety that British people consider superior others, possibly because Richard the Lionhearted spent the winter of 1191-92 in the citrus groves of Jaffa. Citrus trees are spread across the North African coast from Alexandria to Tangier, the city whose name was given to tangerines. Oranges tend to become less tart the closer they are grown to the equator, and in Brazil there is one kind of orange that has virtually no acid in it at all. In the principal towns of Trinidad and Tobago, oranges are sold on street corners. The vender cuts them in half and sprinkles salt on them. In Jamaica, people halve oranges, get down on their hands and knees, and clean floors with one half in each hand. Jamaican mechanics use oranges to clear away grease and oil. The blood orange of Spain, its flesh streaked with red, is prized throughout Europe. Blood oranges grow well in Florida, but they frighten American women. Spain has about thirty-five million orange trees, grows six billion oranges a year, and exports more oranges than any other country, including the United States. A Frenchman sits at the dinner table, as the finishing flourish of the meal, slowly and gently disrobes an orange. In France, peeling the fruit is not yet considered an inconvenience. French preferences run to the blood oranges and the Thomson Navels of Spain, and to the thick-skinned, bland Maltaises, which the French import not from Malta but from Tunisia. Sometimes, Europeans eat oranges with knives and forks. On occasion, they serve a dessert orange that has previously been peeled with such extraordinary care that strips of the peel arc outward like the petals of a flower from the separated and reassembled segments in the centre. The Swiss sometimes serve oranges under a smothering of sugar and whipped cream; on a hot day in a Swiss garden, orange juice with ice is a luxurious drink. Norwegian children like to remove the top of an orange, make a little hole, push a lump of sugar into it, and then suck out the juice. English children make orange-peel teeth and wedge them over their gums on Halloween. Irish children take oranges to the movies, where they eat them while they watch the show, tossing the peels at each other and at the people on the screen. In Reykjavik, Iceland, in greenhouses that are heated by volcanic springs, orange trees yearly bear fruit. In the New York Botanical Garden, six mature orange trees are growing in the soil of the Bronx. Their trunks are six inches in diameter, and they bear well every year. The oranges are for viewing and are not supposed to be picked. When people walk past them, however, they sometimes find them irresistible.” (3-5)

I found this book irresistible and I’ll never look at an orange the same way again.

My Final 12:

25. Charity and Its Fruits / Jonathan Edwards

Every month I spend time reading from my personal Canon of Theologians. In July, I always hang out with Jonathan Edwards. This year I slowly reread his exposition of 1 Corinthians 13, where he scatters jewels throughout. In his sermon on “Love does not envy,” (13:4) Edwards writes:

“The gospel scheme, all of it from beginning to end, tends to the contrary of this spirit of envy. For there we are taught how far God was from grudging us the most exceeding honor and blessedness, and how He has grudged us nothing as too much to be done for us, and nothing as too great and too good to be given us.

He hath not grudged us His only begotten Son, that which was most precious and most dear of all to Himself. For what was dearer to God than His only begotten, dearly beloved Son? He hath not grudged us the highest honor and blessedness in union with Him.

The doctrines of the gospel teach us how far Jesus Christ was from grudging us anything which He could do for or give to us. He did not grudge us a life spent in labor and suffering. He did not grudge us His own precious blood.

He hath not grudged us a sitting with Him on His throne in heaven, and being partakers with Him of that heavenly kingdom and glory which the Father hath given Him, and sitting with Him on thrones judging the world.” (224)


26. Christ From Beginning To End / Trent Hunter & Stephen Wellum

This is an excellent introduction to Biblical theology that will help you see how the full story of Scripture reveals the full glory of Christ. “As the radiance of God’s glory, Jesus is our great prophet. As the purification for our sins, He is our Great High Priest. As the one who sat down at God’s right hand, He is our King.” (211) Amen.

27. The Gospel Comes With a House Key / Rosaria Butterfield

The latest book from Rosaria Butterfield unpacks “radically ordinary hospitality.” I found it to be both encouragingly hopeful and devastatingly convicting. But don’t just take my word for it. Read the first twenty pages for yourself.

“Jesus dined with sinners, but He didn’t sin with sinners. Jesus lived in the world, but He didn’t live like the world. This is the Jesus paradox. And it defines those who are willing to suffer with others for the sake of gospel sharing and gospel living, those who care more for integrity than appearances. Engaging in radically ordinary hospitality means we provide the time necessary to build strong relationships with people who think differently than we do as well as build strong relationships from within the family of God. It means we know that only hypocrites and cowards let their words be stronger than their relationships, making sneaky raids into culture on social media or behaving like moralizing social prigs in the neighborhood. Radically ordinary hospitality shows this skeptical, post-Christian world what authentic Christianity looks like. Radically ordinary hospitality gives evidence of faith in Jesus’s power to save. It doesn’t get dug in over politics or culture or where someone stands on current events. It knows what conversion means, what identity in Christ does, and what repentance creates. It knows that sin is deceptive. To be deceived means to be taken captive by an evil force to do its bidding. It knows that people need to be rescued from their sin, not to be given pep talks about good choice making. It remembers that Jesus rescues people from their sin. Jesus rescued us. Jesus lives and reigns.” (13)

28. The Odyssey / Homer, trans. Emily Wilson

If you ever get the hankering to read this classic epic, you’ll want to read Emily Wilson’s exquisite translation. “Tell me about a complicated man. Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy, and where he went, and who he met, the pain he suffered in the storms at sea, and how he worked to save his life and bring his men back home… Tell the old story for our modern times. Find the beginning.” (105) My favorite line in the book: “My life is thin with weakness.” (195)

29. Why We Sleep / Matthew P. Walker

Two years ago I listened to a fascinating interview on NPR with Matthew Walker, the director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley. Terry Gross asked Walker, “What are we losing when we deprive ourselves of sleep?” I still remember his six-word response: “Short sleep predicts a shorter life.” Walker argues that “our lack of sleep is a slow form of self-euthanasia.” (324) Yikes! Did you know that caffeine is the second most-traded commodity on the planet after oil? I didn’t. I found the really fascinating stuff in this book to be chapters 9, 10, and 11, on how and why human beings dream. Reading this book made me thankful for the gift of sleep and eager to trust the One who neither slumbers nor sleeps.

30. I’ll Be Gone In the Dark / Michelle McNamara

Michelle McNamara was a true crime journalist who spent years in a tireless quest to unmask the identity of a notoriously violent predator, the “Golden State Killer.” Tragically, she died in 2016 before she could complete the final edits to her book. But what’s even more incredible is what happened in April 2018. Detectives, using DNA evidence, believe they have finally solved the case. You can listen to how investigators chased down the clues in a recent audiobook, Evil Has A Name. The diligent pursuit of justice displayed by McNamara and the detectives is awe-inspiring.

31. Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon / Robert Kurson

How can you not devour a book that starts like this?

“Three astronauts are strapped into a small spacecraft thirty-six stories in the air, awaiting the final moments of countdown. They sit atop the most powerful machine ever built. The Saturn V rocket is a jewel of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, a vehicle that will generate the energy of a small atomic bomb. But it has never flown with men aboard, and it has had just two tests, the most recent of which failed catastrophically just eight months earlier. The three astronauts are going not merely into Earth orbit, or even beyond the world altitude record of 853 miles. They intend to go a quarter of a million miles away, to a place no man has ever gone. They intend to go to the Moon. Beneath them, the United States is fracturing. The year 1968 has seen killing, war, protest, and political unrest unlike any in the country’s history, from the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy to the unraveling of Vietnam to the riots in Chicago. Already, Time magazine has named THE DISSENTER its Man of the Year. As the countdown begins, there are engineers and scientists at NASA who question whether the crew will ever return. Even the astronauts are realistic about their chances of surviving the flight, an operation riskier than anything the American space agency has ever attempted. One of them has recorded a final goodbye to his wife, to be played in the event he doesn’t return. In August, this mission did not exist. Nearly everything that has gone into its planning—the training, analysis, calculations, even the politics—has been rushed to the launchpad in a fraction of the time ordinarily required. If anything goes wrong, public opinion—and the will of the United States government—might turn against NASA. The fate of the entire space program hangs on the crew’s safe return. As the moment of launch draws near, one of the astronauts spots a mud dauber wasp building a nest on the outside of one of the spacecraft’s tiny windows. Back and forth the insect moves, grabbing mud and adding to its new home. The astronaut thinks, ‘You are in for a surprise.’ Vapors begin to spew from around the base of the giant rocket. Less than a minute remains before lift-off. When the five first-stage engines ignite, they will deliver a combined 160 million horsepower. In the final few seconds, a typhoon of flames unfurls to either side. Beneath the astronauts, it is not just the launchpad that begins to shake, but the entire world.” (3-4)

32. The Life of Olaudah Equiano / Olaudah Equiano

In 1756, Olaudah Equiano was kidnapped from his home in Nigeria and sold into slavery. Years later, after many dangers, toils, and snares, Olaudah would write these amazing words, as a free man, a man set free from his sins by amazing grace:

“In the evening of October 6th, as I was reading and meditating on the fourth chapter of Acts, the twelfth verse, I had solemn apprehensions of eternity. But the Lord was pleased to break in upon my soul with His bright beams of heavenly light. And in an instant, He removed the veil, and I saw clearly with the eye of faith the crucified Saviour bleeding on the cross: the Scriptures became an unsealed book. I saw myself a condemned criminal under the law of God, but I also saw the Lord Jesus Christ in His humiliation, loaded and bearing my reproach, my sin, and my shame. Christ was revealed to my soul as the chiefest among ten thousand. I felt an astonishing change; the burden of sin, the gaping jaws of hell, and the fears of death, that weighed me down before, now lost their horror. Every providential circumstance that happened to me, from the day I was taken from my parents to that hour, was then in my view. I was sensible of the invisible hand of God, which guided and protected me when I didn’t know the truth. Still the Lord pursued me and His mercy melted me down. I was finally enabled to praise and glorify God’s most holy name. There is no salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved, but Jesus Christ.’ What a Saviour I have! What a great debtor I am to sovereign free grace.” (310-311)

33. A River in Darkness / Masaji Ishikawa

Masaji Ishikawa was born in 1947. His father was a Korean national residing in Japan. His mother was Japanese. In 1960, when he was thirteen years old, his family moved to the “promised land” of North Korea. In 1996, he made a desperate bid to escape. In this book, he tells his unforgettable story.

“What do I remember of that night? The night I escaped from North Korea? There are so many things that I don’t remember, that I’ve put out of my mind forever. But I’ll tell you what I do recall. It’s drizzling. But soon the drizzle turns to torrential rain. Sheets of rain so heavy, I’m soaked to the skin. I collapse under the shelter of a bush, utterly incapable of measuring the passage of time. I am weary to the core. My legs have sunk into the mud, but somehow I crawl out from under the bush. Between the branches, I can see the Yalu River in front of me. But it’s changed—now totally unrecognizable. This morning, kids were wading in what was little more than a stream. But the cascading downpour has turned it into an impassable torrent. Across the river, about thirty yards away, I can make out China, shrouded in mist. Thirty yards—the distance between life and death. I shiver. I know that countless North Koreans have stood here before me, gazing across at China under the cover of darkness, memories of the people they’ve just left behind swirling through their minds. Those people, like the ones I’ve left, were starving. What else could they do? I stare into the torrent and wonder how many of them succeeded. Then again, what difference does it make? If I remain in North Korea, I’ll die of starvation. It’s as simple as that.” (1-2)

Pray for North Korea.

34. The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot / Robert Macfarlane

Macfarlane is a Cambridge literature professor who loves to walk. He’s also an amazing writer. Here’s what it’s like to stroll through Cambridge on a wintry, moon-lit evening:

“Two days short of the winter solstice; the turn of the year’s tide. All that cold day, the city and the countryside around felt halted, paused. Five degrees below freezing and the earth battened down. Clouds held snow that would not fall. Out in the suburbs the schools were closed, people homebound, the pavements rinky and the roads black-iced. The sun ran a shallow arc across the sky. Then just before dusk the snow came — dropping straight for five hours and settling at a steady inch an hour.

I was at my desk that evening, trying to work but distracted by the weather. I kept stopping, standing, looking out of the window. The snow was sinking through the orange cone cast by a street light, the fat flakes showing like furnace sparks.

Around eight o’clock the snow ceased. An hour later I went for a walk with a flask of whisky to keep me warm. I walked for half a mile along dark back roads where the snow lay clean and unmarked. The houses began to thin out. A few undrawn curtains: family evenings underway, the flicker and burble of television sets. The cold like a wire in the nose. A slew of stars, the moon flooding everything with silver.

At the southerly fringe of the suburb, a last lamp post stands by a hawthorn hedge, and next to it is a hole in the hedge which leads down to a modest field path.

I followed the field path east-south-east towards a long chalk hilltop, visible as a whaleback in the darkness. Northwards was the glow of the city, and the red blip of aircraft warning lights from towers and cranes. Dry snow squeaked underfoot. A fox crossed the field to my west at a trot. The moonlight was so bright that everything cast a crisp moon-shadow: black on white, stark as woodcut. Wands of dogwood made zebra-hide of the path; hawthorn threw a lattice. The trees were frilled with snow, which lay to the depth of an inch or more on branches and twigs. The snow caused everything to exceed itself and the moonlight caused everything to double itself.

This is the path I’ve probably walked more often than any other in my life. It’s a young way; maybe fifty years old, no more. Its easterly hedge is mostly hawthorn and around eight feet high; its westerly hedge is a younger mix of blackthorn, hawthorn, hazel and dogwood. It is not normally a beautiful place, but there’s a feeling of secrecy to it that I appreciate, hedged in as it is on both sides, and running discreetly as it does between field and road. In summer I’ve seen small rolling clouds of goldfinches rising from teasel-heads and then curling ahead to settle again, retreating in the measure that I approach them.

That evening the path was a grey snow alley, and I followed it up to the hanger of beech trees that tops the whaleback hill, passing off the clay and onto the chalk proper. At the back brink of the beechwood I ducked through an ivy-trailed gap, and was into the forty-acre field that lies beyond.

At first sight the field seemed flawless; floe country. Then I set out across it and started to see the signs. The snow was densely printed with the tracks of birds and animals — archives of the hundreds of journeys made since the snow had stopped. There were neat deer slots, partridge prints like arrowheads pointing the way, and the pads of rabbits. Lines of tracks curved away from me across the field, disappearing into shadow or hedge. The moonlight, falling at a slant, deepened the dark in the nearer tracks so that they appeared full as inkwells. To all these marks I added my own.” (5-7)

35. The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands / Ed. Huw Lewis-Jones

This volume gets the award for the most beautiful book of 2018. It’s chock-full of delightful, imaginary maps from Pilgrim’s Progress, Middle Earth, Treasure Island, the world of Harry Potter, and more. We all learned at a young age that if you find a map at the start of a book, then an adventure and a journey is about to begin. I can still see in my mind’s eye the Western Woods, building up to the mountains of Ettinsmoor, and then Cair Paravel rising to the east, all because C.S. Lewis included a map at the beginning of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Maps don’t just speak to our soles; they speak to our souls.

36. The Soul in Paraphrase / Leland Ryken

My favorite book of poetry this year was this excellent collection that includes 150 choice poems with insightful comments by Leland Ryken. I close with the words of the great George Herbert, from his poem, “The Elixir”:

Teach me, my God and King,
In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in anything
To do it as for Thee. (101)

As always, happy reading and Happy New Year!

–Nick Roark


Filed under Bible, Book Reviews, Books, Christian Theology, Jesus Christ, Puritanical, Quotable Quotes, Reading, The Gospel

“It was right there in the text” by D.A. Carson

“Paul assesses the significance of Israel and the Sinai covenant within the larger biblical narrative. It is this essentially salvation-historical reading of Genesis that enables him to come within a whisker of treating the Sinai covenant as a parenthesis: the law’s most important function is to bring Israel, across time, to Christ—and to bring others, too, insofar as the ‘law’ is found among those ‘without the law.’

Here, then, too, we obtain a glimpse of how something could be simultaneously long hidden / eventually revealed and long prophesied / eventually fulfilled. It was right there in the text (provided one reads the Scriptures with careful respect for the significance of the historical sequence), even though, transparently, this was not how it was read by Paul the Pharisee.

Doubtless it took the Damascus road Christophany to make Saul of Tarsus recognize that his estimate of Jesus was wrong: Jesus could not be written off as a (literally) God-damned malefactor if in fact His glorious resurrection proved He was vindicated, and so the controlling paradigm of his reading of the Old Testament had to change.

But when it changed, Paul wanted his hearers and readers to understand that the Old Testament, rightly read in its salvation-historical structure, led to Christ.

In other words, as far as Paul was concerned the gospel he preached was announced in advance in the Scriptures, and was fulfilled in the events surrounding the coming, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus—even if this gospel had long been hidden, and was now revealed in those events and thus in the gospel Paul preached—the gospel revealed, indeed, through the prophetic writings.”

–D.A. Carson, “Mystery and Fulfillment: Toward a More Comprehensive Paradigm of Paul’s Understanding of the Old and the New,” in Justification and Variegated Nomism: The Paradoxes of Paul (ed. Peter T. O’Brien and Mark A. Seifrid; vol. 2, 181st ed.; Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament; Grand Rapids, MI; Tübingen: Baker Academic; Mohr Siebeck, 2004), 2: 427–428.

Leave a comment

Filed under Bible, Biblical Theology, Christian Theology, D.A. Carson, Jesus Christ, Justification, Pentateuch, Preaching, Quotable Quotes, Reading, salvation, Sola Scriptura, The Gospel

“Read Scripture as a divine book” by Trent Hunter and Stephen Wellum

“Consider what it means to read Scripture as a divine book— from God to us!

If God wrote every word, sentence, paragraph, chapter and book, then the Bible is unified. The Bible’s sixty-six books really form one book from one Author.

It’s also coherent. If we’re confuses about the meaning of a certain text, we may assume that we’re the ones confused, not God. The Bible coheres with itself and with the world in which its readers live.

It’s complete— the Bible is what God wanted us to have. If it raises questions that it doesn’t completely answer, then that must be on purpose.

And not only is it complete, but it’s also sufficient for what we need.

The Bible is perfect. There’s nothing wrong with it. Every word is good and true.

The Bible is also urgent. If God has spoken to us, then nothing is more important than for us to listen to its message.

All of these truths about Scripture have major implications for how we interpret the Bible.

We should read it with creaturely humility because these words are from our Creator and Lord.

We are to read with expectation. If we look forward to the release of a new novel by a favorite author, how much more should we look forward to reading God’s Word!

We should also read with caution, recognizing that we are inclined to misunderstand what God has written, given our finitude and sinfulness.

That means we should read the Bible patiently to accurately discern what God has said. We cannot assume that what first comes into our minds matches what’s in God’s mind.

We read and we reflect, and once we settle on an interpretation that is faithful to the text and aligned with previous interpretations, we submit to God’s Word.

If we disagree with something the Bible teaches, we assume that our thinking must change, not God’s. We don’t stand over Scripture; we stand under it in submission to God (Isa. 66:1-2).

We are aware of the Bible’s divine authorship, and we are aware of our creaturely position as readers.”

–Trent Hunter and Stephen Wellum, Christ From Beginning to End (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), 44-45.

Leave a comment

Filed under Bible, Biblical Theology, Christian Theology, Humility, Jesus Christ, Preaching, Puritanical, Quotable Quotes, Reading, Sola Scriptura, Stephen Wellum, The Gospel, Worldview

“There is no substitute for reading the Bible” by Stephen Wellum

“There is no substitute for reading the Bible on its own terms to identify the real Christ. The worldview and theology that develops from the structure and storyline of the Scriptures cannot be ignored or altered without losing the ability to see Jesus for who He really is.”

–Stephen Wellum, God the Son Incarnate (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 191-192.

Leave a comment

Filed under Bible, Biblical Theology, Christian Theology, Christology, Jesus Christ, Puritanical, Quotable Quotes, Stephen Wellum, The Gospel

“Read, study, reflect, and write” by Sinclair Ferguson

“Many—probably most—of these chapters were written in the context of busy pastoral ministry, either in Scotland or in the United States—preaching, teaching, pastoral visiting, personal meetings, crises in the lives of individuals and sometimes the whole church, administrative responsibilities, and the wide and wonderful variety of activities that make up the average ministers life.

And since virtually all the essays were written by request, their writing has been squeezed into, or out of, an occasional hiatus in the sheer busy-ness of ministry life and the constant preparation involved in preaching anywhere between three and six times in the week.

So, at some point in the writing of almost all these chapters I have heard an inner voice ask, ‘Whatever possessed you to agree to do this?’ Yet, however far short these various pieces fall, in each case the preparation of them did me good, enlarged my understanding a little, and fed into the day-to-day work of pastoral ministry.

I hope, therefore, that these pages will encourage other ministers to allow themselves to be stretched a little beyond their normal pulpit or lectern preparation. There is no doubt that the wider reflection, reading, study and stretching involved can only strengthen and enrich long-term ministry.

Such stretching produces growth. Sometimes ministers can ‘waste’ the privileged time they have by studying only in relation to their next sermon. This does produce some growth, of course; but perhaps not growth that is constantly putting down deeper roots and producing richer fruit.

Preachers need to be reading and studying more widely, and reflecting theologically if that is to be the case. For only then will our ongoing ministry be deepened and enriched.

Thus, in one sense at least, the undergirding message of these diverse chapters is: if you are a preacher, accept invitations or create opportunities to study, speak, or write on subjects outside of your usual diet of preparation.

Yes, you may find yourself under a little pressure; but pressure can produce diamonds! You will grow personally as a result, and, God-willing, Paul’s exhortation will be fulfilled in your ministry:

Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have… Practise these things, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers (1 Timothy 4:13-16).

It can be an unnerving question to ask oneself, ‘Has anyone in the congregation ever thought, far less said, about me, ‘He is making progress’?”

–Sinclair Ferguson, Some Pastors and Teachers (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2017), xii-xiii.

Leave a comment

Filed under Banner of Truth, Books, Christian Theology, Jesus Christ, Preaching, Puritanical, Quotable Quotes, Reading, Sinclair Ferguson, The Gospel, Work, Writing

“Read and re-read” by D.A. Carson

Read and re-read and re-read and re-read the biblical book. It is a mistake to choose the book and then start reading commentaries. Read the book.

Read it in English. Read it in Greek, or Hebrew, as the case may be. I’m quite flexible. Ideally, that means you should start the process of preparation in this regard a long time before. If you have time to read it only once before the first Sunday you’re going to preach it, you won’t have absorbed a great deal of it.

I knew a man in Toronto a number of years ago (he has long since gone to be with the Lord). His name was William Fitch. He was a Presbyterian minister and a very able expositor. It was his lifelong practice not to preach any part of the Word of God until he had read it in preparation for that sermon 100 times.

I’m not laying that on you as a burden or anything! Still, some of us I suspect have managed to preach on occasion from passages where we barely read it once! We’ve read the commentaries, of course.… But read the text. Read the text. Read, read, read, re-read the text.

Start the process early. Give time to re-reading and, thus, to meditation, to turning it over in your mind, to thinking about it when you’re driving your car, to waking up in the middle of the night and dreaming about it. Partly, this is because a lot of your best insights come when you’re not trying, when you’ve just flooded your mind with the Word of God, and then you begin to see the connections and how it works. You can’t force that. It’s just re-reading plus time.

That also gives you time to start collecting illustrations and bits and pieces that fit into it just from your other reading, from reading the newspaper or reading a novel or talking with your kids or something in the church that happens. Suddenly, you’ll discover, because you have allowed a little extra time in preparation, you enrich the entire process.

Having said that, I have to tell you quite frankly that sometimes I have achieved that, and quite frankly, I often haven’t because I’m just as pressured as the next bloke. I can start my preparation the week before, the same as everybody else, but ideally … ideally.… I like to start a long time in advance. I try.

That also gives you time to pray over the text. That is, to incorporate the text into your personal prayers. In much the same way I incorporated some of the prayers of Paul into personal prayers, this can be done, of course, in one way or another with all kinds of texts.

Eschew the division of head and heart. (This a more general observation but probably still worth making.) Some of us think when we are reading the Bible devotionally we are supposed to go all fluttery in the stomach and feel very spiritual and deeply meditative and highly reverent, and then when we’re doing our exegesis we can forget the reverence and just get on with the commentaries. Fight that dichotomy like the plague.

Make your detailed, analytic, careful, competent exegesis reverent and make your devotional life thoughtful and rigorous. Eschew like the plague this common division between head and heart.

That means, then, so far as your sermon preparation goes, you will simultaneously be trying to do rigorous exegesis and biblical theology and so forth while also thinking reverently and offering up this work to the Lord and wondering how it will apply to people’s lives. It will be part of a unified vision of things that is going on all the time.”

–D.A. Carson, “Preaching through Bible Books,” in D.A. Carson Sermon Library (Bellingham, WA: Faithlife, 2016).

1 Comment

Filed under Bible, Christian Theology, D.A. Carson, Jesus Christ, Preaching, Puritanical, Quotable Quotes, Reading, The Gospel

The Best Books I Read This Year (2017)

These are my favorite books that I read in 2017. Better late than never. There are 36 selections and I thoroughly enjoyed every last one of them.

My Top 12:

1. Christ Alone / Stephen Wellum

My favorite book this year was a beautiful volume on the person and work of Jesus Christ. Wellum argues convincingly that our understanding of who Jesus is and what He does must be developed from Scripture and its entire storyline. This is clearly written, exegetical theology at its finest.

There are many good things in life which legitimately demand our attention. Yet, it is far too easy to forget who is central to everything, namely our Lord Jesus. Given who our Lord is as God the Son incarnate; given what He has done for us as our new covenant head and incomparable Redeemer; given the absolute necessity of His work; given that He has represented us in obedient life and stood in our place in substitutionary death to pay for our sin and accomplish our eternal salvation; given that He is the all-sufficient Savior who meets all of our needs as our great prophet, priest, and king; given all of this, our only reasonable response is to submit ourselves to Him in complete trust, confidence, love, joy, worship, and obedience. He demands and deserves nothing less. (312)


2. How To Understand And Apply The New Testament / Andrew Naselli

There are lots of books that seek to explain how to interpret and apply the Bible. But I’d wager this is the only one in which you’ll find references to B.B. Warfield, D.A. Carson, Harry Potter, and Lebron James. Naselli is a fun and faithful guide who helped me look at the Book more carefully and responsibly. Chapter 5 on tracing the logical argument of a passage by arcing, bracketing, or phrasing is worth the price of the book.

Don’t miss the whole point of exegesis. It’s to know and worship God. So I pray that this book will help you exegete the text in a way that spreads a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ. Exegesis and theology are thrilling because they help you know and worship God. And only God satisfies. You most glorify God when He most satisfies you. He’s better than sex and shopping and new iPhones and hot pizza and chocolate and money and power and anything else your heart may crave. God reigns, saves, and satisfies through covenant for His glory in Christ. That is what you get to see from so many angles when you look at the Book. And when you understand exegesis and theology better, the praise gets richer. So why wouldn’t you look at the Book? (333)

3. Calvin’s Company of Pastors / Scott Manetsch

This book provides “a systematic study of Geneva’s ministers, their pastoral theology, and practical ministry activities during nearly three-quarters of a century from 1536 to 1609,” (8). Manetsch’s meticulous research is brimming with Reformational wisdom and includes one of the best quotes on heaven that I’ve ever read.

4. The Lord’s Prayer / Thomas Watson

When I read Thomas Watson, I often think: “I should read more Thomas Watson.” He’s the most Tweetable of all the Puritans. Short, pithy, and heart-searching:

“Affliction can hurt a man only while he is living, but sin hurts him when he is dead.” (309)

“Our Saviour will have us pray, ‘Give us bread this day,’ to teach us to live every day as if it were our last.” (202)

“God’s glory is as dear to a saint as his own salvation. And that this glory may be promoted he endeavors the conversion of souls.” (44)

“To forgive sin, is for God to cast our sins into the depths of the sea. ‘Thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea,’ (Micah 7:19). This implies God’s burying them out of sight, that they shall not rise up in judgment against us. God will throw them in, not as cork that riseth again, but as lead that sinks to the bottom.” (215)

“The pearl of price, the Lord Jesus, is the quintessence of all good things. To give us Christ is more than if God had given us all the world. He can make more worlds, but He has no more Christs to bestow.” (206)

“Here is comfort for such as can, upon good grounds, call God ‘Father.’ There is more sweetness in this word ‘Father’ than if we had ten thousand worlds.” (15)

You can you see why I plan to mine the riches of Watson’s Body of Divinity in 2018.

5. Majesty in Misery, Vol. 3 / Charles Spurgeon

I read Spurgeon because he consistently leaves me staggered by the glory and the grace of Jesus Christ. This volume is the third in a trilogy of sermons focusing on the passion of the Christ. In a sermon entitled “Christ’s Dying Words For His Church,” Spurgeon writes:

“It appears to me, that if Christ finished the work for us, He will finish the work in us.” (209)

Isn’t that wonderful? I’ve not even come close to reading all that Spurgeon wrote. I’m not sure anyone actually has. But I’ve realized that the man could write on just about anything and make it interesting. Even mosquitoes! But this much I know: Spurgeon on the cross of Christ is not to be missed.

6. All That Is In God / James Dolezal

God is simple. That is, God isn’t compounded or made up of parts. He’s not the sum of His parts. God’s attributes, His excellencies, are identical with His essence. God isn’t just loving; He is love (1 John 4:8). God isn’t just holy; He is holiness (1 John 1:5). This is what classical Christian theism teaches. Dolezal is concerned by recent denials of this vital truth by advocates of theistic mutualism: “The chief problem I address in this work is the abandonment of God’s simplicity and of the infinite pure actuality of His being.” This book on God’s simplicity isn’t simple. It’s what C.S. Lewis called “a tough bit of theology.” But, I believe if you work your way through it carefully and prayerfully, then you’ll find that your heart sings unbidden before the only Sovereign, the immortal God who is the great I AM.

7. God Is / Mark Jones

A few years ago, Mark Jones penned a delightful book called Knowing Christ. Jones does something similar in this volume where he focuses his exegetical attention on God’s attributes. In 27 brief chapters, Jones glories in the God who is Triune, simple, Spirit, infinite, eternal, unchangeable, independent, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, Yahweh, blessed, glorious, majestic, sovereign, love, good, patient, merciful, wise, holy, faithful, gracious, just, angry, and anthropomorphic. This book is worth reading simply for all the amazing citations from Puritans like Stephen Charnock and John Owen and Thomas Watson.

8. The Story of Scripture / Matthew Emerson

I spent June 2016 – June 2017 doing a deep dive in several biblical theology volumes as research for a writing project. Many books in this field are rich but technical and advanced. For example, one book that’s served me well while preaching through the Gospel according to Mark has been Isaiah’s New Exodus in Mark by Rikki Watts. It’s illuminating but also rather thick at times. So when I come across a book of biblical theology that’s clearly written, worshipful, accessible, and grounded and governed by the biblical text, I’m eager to share it with others. Matthew Emerson’s new book is just that. I knew it was going to be an outstanding work even before I finished reading the acknowledgements:

And I am eternally and fundamentally grateful to our Triune God, without whom I would still be blind to the truths of Scripture and deaf to its call to repent and believe in the incarnate, crucified-and-resurrected Son of God. I would be wandering in a story of my own making, a story without meaning and point. Instead, because of the graciousness of God in Christ, I am by the power of his Spirit finding my place in his story, the story of the world that finds its center in the person and work of Jesus.

Emerson tells the Story, and he tells it quite well. See for yourself.

9. Marriage and the Mystery of the Gospel / Ray Ortlund

It’s been said before that the Bible begins (Genesis 2) and ends (Revelation 19) with a wedding. Ray Ortlund humbly and beautifully unpacks the meaning of marriage in his typical Gospel-centered way.

Marriage is not a human invention; it is a divine revelation. Its design never was our own made-up arrangement of infinite malleability. It was given to us, at the beginning of all things, as a brightly shining fixity of eternal significance. We might not always live up to its true grandeur. None of us does so perfectly. But we have no right to redefine it, and we have every reason to revere   it. Only the Bible imparts to us a vision of marriage so transcendent and glorious, far beyond human variation and even human failure. Marriage is of God and reveals a wonderful truth about God. And we have no right to change the face of God in the world. All we can rightly do is receive what God has revealed with gladness and humility. (11)

10. Missions / Andy Johnson

This wise 9Marks volume wins “The Book I’ve Given Away Most to My Congregation in 2017 Award.” The strength of this little book lies in the confidence it produces in Christ’s unhindered gospel and in His unstoppable mission:

We should have confidence because we know the mission will not fail. We may fail in our faithfulness, but God will not fail in His mission. Christ will have the nations for His inheritance. Frantic speculation and guilt are weak motivators compared with the truth of God’s unstoppable plan to rescue every child for whom Christ died. Christ will not lose any of those whom the Father has given Him, and God has chosen to use us– in countless local churches– as the agents of His gospel triumph. (120)

11. The Tech-Wise Family / Andy Crouch
12. 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You / Tony Reinke

I’m grateful to God for help in thinking through the questions related to technology and family and Christian discipleship. Both Andy Crouch and Tony Reinke have written excellent books that serve the the church in these areas. The scope of Crouch’s volume is more broad, while Reinke’s is more narrow. Yet both are hugely helpful. Crouch notes:

Technology is in its proper place when it helps us bond with the real people we have been given to love. It’s out of its proper place when we end up bonding with people at a distance, like celebrities, whom we will never meet.

Technology is in its proper place when it starts great conversations. It’s out of its proper place when it prevents us from talking with and listening to one another. Technology is in its proper place when it helps us take care of the fragile bodies we inhabit. It’s out of its proper place when it promises to help us escape the limits and vulnerabilities of those bodies altogether.

Technology is in its proper place when it helps us acquire skill and mastery of domains that are the glory of human culture (sports, music, the arts, cooking, writing, accounting; the list could go on and on). When we let technology replace the development of skill with passive consumption, something has gone wrong.

Technology is in its proper place when it helps us cultivate awe for the created world we are part of and responsible for stewarding (our family spent some joyful and awefilled hours when our children were ill middle school watching the beautifully produced BBC series Planet Earth). It’s out of its proper place when it keeps us from engaging the wild and wonderful natural world with all our senses.

Technology is in its proper place only when we use it with intention and care. If there’s one thing I’ve discovered about technology, it’s that it doesn’t stay in its proper place on its own; much like my children’s toys and stuffed creatures and minor treasures, it finds its way underfoot all over the house and all over our lives. If we aren’t intentional and careful, we’ll end up with a quite extraordinary mess. (20-21)

Reinke rightly observes that “technology tends to feed our vanity and kill our wonder.” (207-208) Does this mean you should you trade in your smartphone for a dumbphone? Maybe. Reinke concludes his volume with several helpful diagnostic questions:

1. What does my smartphone cost me per year if I add up the price of the device, insurance protection, covers and cases, and monthly service?
2. Do I need mobile web access to fulfill my calling in vocation or ministry?
3. Is texting essential to my care for others? Do those texts need to be seen in real time? And is the smartphone the only way to do it?
4. Do I need mobile web access to legitimately serve others?
5. Do I need mobile web access to navigate unfamiliar cities? Is the device an essential part of my travels?
6. Do I need my smartphone to take advantage of coupons in stores? How much money would I save instead without a smartphone data plan?
7. Can my web access wait? Is the convenience of mobile web access something I can functionally replace with structured time at a laptop or desktop computer later?
8. Can I get along just as well with a dumbphone, a WiFi hotspot, an iPod, or a tablet?
9. Can I listen to audio and podcasts in other ways (through an iPod, for example)?
10. Have I simply grown addicted to my phone? If so, can the problem be solved with moderation, or do I need to just cut it off?
11. Do the mobile lures of my phone insulate me from people and real needs around me?
12. Do I want my kids to see me gazing at a handheld screen so much as they grow up? What does this habit project to them and to others around   me? (197-198)

These two books helped me rethink the way I use my iPhone and the ways I use/don’t use social media. They’ve produced good conversations with my bride this year and, I’m sure, these conversations will continue into 2018. I’m grateful to God for both of these brothers and for their books.

Honorable Mention: The Bible Project Coffee Table Book / The Bible Project

The book my three children enjoyed the most this year was definitely this labor of love from the good folks at The Bible Project. This book is spectacular. Imagine having a literary diagram and written summary of every book in Scripture. It’s a visual learner’s dream come true. If you’ve been helped at all by their Read Scripture videos, consider getting a copy of the print version of this series.

My Next 12:

13. Deep Work / Cal Newport

Cal Newport is a best-selling author. He’s a millennial. He’s an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University. And yet he doesn’t have any social media accounts. Why? Because Newport is committed to deep work, which he defines as follows: “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.” (3) Newport argues persuasively that deep work is valuable, rare, and meaningful. His chapter on quitting social media is the most provocative in the book. If you want a taste of Newport’s message, watch his TedTalk on the subject.

14. Killers of the Flower Moon and The Devil & Sherlock Holmes / David Grann

David Grann is one of my favorite investigative feature writers from The New Yorker. In 2004, he wrote a piece about those who search for the mysterious giant squid entitled “The Squid Hunters.” I’ve been a huge fan ever since. His other famous long-reads include:

You can find other interesting examples of his work in the collection The Devil & Sherlock Holmes. But if you’re only going to read one thing by Grann, it should be Killers of the Flower Moon. He weaves a tragic and disturbing tale of greed, racism, deceit, murder, and justice:

In the early twentieth century, the members of the Osage Nation became the richest people per capita in the world, after oil was discovered under their reservation, in Oklahoma. Then they began to be mysteriously murdered off. In 1923, after the death toll reached more than two dozen, the case was taken up by the Bureau of Investigation, then an obscure branch of the Justice Department, which was later renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The case was among the F.B.I.’s first major homicide investigations. After J. Edgar Hoover was appointed the bureau’s director, in 1924, he sent a team of undercover operatives, including a Native American agent, to the Osage reservation.

You can read the book’s opening chapter article here to whet your appetite. But I promise that you’ll want to see for yourself how this sad and shocking story ends.

15. Hero of the Empire and Destiny of the Republic / Candice Millard

It seems impossible for Candice Millard to write an uninteresting book. Last year, I picked up The River of Doubt, a tale about Theodore Roosevelt’s quest into the Amazon. I loved it. So I went on a quest of my own to devour everything she’s written. If you like reading well-told history, you’ll dig Candice Millard’s books. Hero is about the young Winston Churchill’s dramatic escape from a prison camp during the Boer War. Destiny covers the sad and shocking assassination of President James Garfield, an extraordinary man of whom I knew far too little about. Both are excellent reads.

16. Battle For Middle-Earth / Fleming Rutledge

In the flurry of “best books of the year” posts, I saw a slew of positive endorsements for Rutledge’s magnum opus Crucifixion. While I read and appreciated some aspects of this work, I actually enjoyed her theological commentary on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings far more. I make it a point to try and read LOTR every year, and Rutledge was my companion this year as I journeyed with Frodo and Sam from Hobbiton in the Shire to Mount Doom and back again. Her comments throughout are textual, insightful, and illuminating. For those of us who often breath the sweet air of Middle Earth, this is a book worth reading.

17. The Secret History / Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt’s most famous novel, The Goldfinch, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014. Her debut novel, The Secret History, is not as well known and, perhaps, for good reason. It’s nerdy. It’s literary. It’s bookish. It’s highfalutin. It’s gloomy. It’s way too long. It’s filled with untranslated Greek. It’s not for the faint of heart. But it’s got this startling opening paragraph, and that’s all it took to reel me in:

The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation. He’d been dead for ten days before they found him, you know. It was one of the biggest manhunts in Vermont history—state troopers, the FBI, even an army helicopter; the college closed, the dye factory in Hampden shut down, people coming from New Hampshire, upstate New York, as far away as Boston. (1)

18. True Grit / Charles Portis

Speaking of Donna Tartt, she once wrote:

It’s commonplace to say that we ‘love’ a book, but when we say it, we really mean all sorts of things. Sometimes we mean only that we have read a book once and enjoyed it; sometimes we mean that a book was important to us in our youth, though we haven’t picked it up in years; sometimes what we ‘love’ is an impressionistic idea glimpsed from afar as opposed to the experience of wallowing and plowing through an actual text, and all too often people claim to love books they haven’t read at all. Then there are the books we love so much that we read them every year or two, and know passages of them by heart; that cheer us when we are sick or sad and never fail to amuse us when we take them up at random; that we press on all our friends and acquaintances; and to which we return again and again with undimmed enthusiasm over the course of a lifetime. I think it goes without saying that most books that engage readers on this very high level are masterpieces; and this is why I believe that True Grit by Charles Portis is a masterpiece. Not only have I loved True Grit since I was a child; it is a book loved passionately by my entire family. I cannot think of another novel—any novel—which is so delightful to so many disparate age groups and literary tastes. (215-216)

I love True Grit, too. What’s it about? In the opening paragraph, the young Mattie Ross sets the stage:

People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day. I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band. Here is what happened. (9)

The dialogue in this novel is simply superb. One of my favorite exchanges in the book happens when Mattie is trying to find someone to avenge her father’s death:

“Who is the best marshal they have?”

The sheriff thought on it for a minute. He said, “I would have to weigh that proposition. There is near about two hundred of them. I reckon William Waters is the best tracker. He is a half-breed Comanche and it is something to see, watching him cut for sign. The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don’t enter into his thinking. He loves to pull a cork. Now L. T. Quinn, he brings his prisoners in alive. He may let one get by now and then but he believes even the worst of men is entitled to a fair shake. Also the court does not pay any fees for dead men. Quinn is a good peace officer and a lay preacher to boot. He will not plant evidence or abuse a prisoner. He is straight as a string. Yes, I will say Quinn is about the best they have.”

I said, “Where can I find this Rooster?” (22-23)

And you’ll also find surprising theological jewels like this one:

The Indian woman spoke good English and I learned to my surprise that she too was a Presbyterian. She had been schooled by a missionary. What preachers we had in those days! Truly they took the word into “the highways and hedges.” Mrs. Bagby was not a Cumberland Presbyterian but a member of the U.S. or Southern Presbyterian Church. I too am now a member of the Southern Church. I say nothing against the Cumberlands. They broke with the Presbyterian Church because they did not believe a preacher needed a lot of formal education. That is all right but they are not sound on Election. They do not fully accept it. I confess it is a hard doctrine, running contrary to our earthly ideas of fair play, but I can see no way around it. Read I Corinthians 6:13 and II Timothy 1:9, 10. Also I Peter 1:2, 19, 20 and Romans 11:7. There you have it. It was good for Paul and Silas and it is good enough for me. It is good enough for you too. (109-110)

19. The Last Kingdom / Bernard Cornwell

Have you ever discovered a book you enjoy and then find out that it’s the first in a larger series of stories? My favorite historical fiction series is the sweeping Aubrey-Maturin collection by Patrick O’Brian. I’ve just begun the fourth novel, The Mauritius Command, and I’m thrilled to know that 16 more of these beautiful sea adventures still await me. I had the same experience when I came across The Last Kingdom, the first of ten volumes in Cornwell’s Saxon Tales. This is the exciting—yet little known—story of the making of England in the 9th and 10th centuries, the years in which King Alfred the Great, his son and grandson defeated the Danish Vikings who had invaded and occupied three of England’s four kingdoms. Here’s a flavor of Cornwell’s writing, when the main character sees the Viking ships approaching for the very first time:

And then I saw them. Three ships. In my memory they slid from a bank of sea mist, and perhaps they did, but memory is a faulty thing and my other images of that day are of a clear, cloudless sky, so perhaps there was no mist, but it seems to me that one moment the sea was empty and the next there were three ships coming from the south. Beautiful things. They appeared to rest weightless on the ocean, and when their oars dug into the waves they skimmed the water. Their prows and sterns curled high and were tipped with gilded beasts, serpents, and dragons, and it seemed to me that on that far-off summer’s day the three boats danced on the water, propelled by the rise and fall of the silver wings of their oar banks. The sun flashed off the wet blades, splinters of light, then the oars dipped, were tugged, and the beast-headed boats surged, and I stared entranced. The three boats had been rowing northward, their square sails furled on their long yards, but when we turned back south to canter homeward on the sand so that our horses’ manes tossed like wind-blown spray and the hooded hawks mewed in alarm, the ships turned with us. Where the cliff had collapsed to leave a ramp of broken turf we rode inland, the horses heaving up the slope, and from there we galloped along the coastal path to our fortress. (5)

20. 1984 / George Orwell

The best futuristic fiction is often utterly prescient. If you haven’t reread 1984 since high school, it’s high time you do so.

“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” (3)
“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.” (31)
“Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.” (44)
“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” (154)
“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” (168)
“For the first time he perceived that if you want to keep a secret you must also hide it from yourself.” (177)
“He loved Big Brother.” (187)

21. Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 / Volker Ullrich

Michiko Kakutani, writing in The New York Times, once asked, “How did Adolf Hitler — described by one eminent magazine editor in 1930 as a ‘half-insane rascal,’ a ‘pathetic dunderhead,’ a “nowhere fool,’ a ‘big mouth’ — rise to power in the land of Goethe and Beethoven? What persuaded millions of ordinary Germans to embrace him and his doctrine of hatred? How did this ‘most unlikely pretender to high state office’ achieve absolute power in a once democratic country and set it on a course of monstrous horror?” Ullrich supplies the tragic answer in this first of a two-volume series. It’s long, at over 1,000 pages. But it’s very well written. A timely read.

22. Theodore Rex / Edmund Morris

I spent much of this year hanging out again with Teddy Roosevelt. Last year just wasn’t enough time for me to get to know him, and after spending the year going slowly through volume two in Morris’ magisterial series, I’ve once again been entertained and amazed at the whirling dervish of personality that was Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.. He was quite a piece of work. There are so many splendid examples of the Rooseveltian intensity, strenuosity, and enchantment in Theodore Rex.  I commend the book to you and end by quoting from the personal reflections of Captain Archibald Willingham de Graffenreid Butt (what a name!), the President’s military aide from Georgia who visited Teddy at his home in Sagmore Hill:

Captain Butt stayed at Sagamore Hill for four more days, enchanted by the Roosevelt family, while they in turn found him to be unflappable, tireless, well-bred, and discreet. Like the President, he was a heroic trencherman, and matched Roosevelt plate by oversized plate, from double helpings of peaches and cream for breakfast, followed by fried liver and bacon and hominy grits with salt and butter (“Why, Mr. President, this is a Southern breakfast-), through three-course lunches and meat dinners suppurating with fat. “You think me a large eater,” Butt wrote in his next letter home. “Well, I am small in comparison to him. But he has a tremendous body and really enjoys each mouthful. I never saw anyone with a more wholesome appetite, and then he complains of not losing flesh. I felt like asking him today: ‘How can you expect to.)’ ”

Between meals, there was much strenuous activity. Butt discovered during a midsummer deluge (as Ambassador Jusserand had discovered during a February snowstorm) that Roosevelt considered tennis to be a game for all seasons. The sodden ball was smashed to and fro. Swimming and water-fighting, too, were by their nature compatible with rain. When heat built up in the woods, the President was impelled to seize an ax and get in fuel for the winter. “I think Mr. Roosevelt cuts down trees merely for the pleasure of hearing them fall,” Butt wrote. “Just as he swims and plays tennis merely for the pleasure of straining his muscles and shouting. Yet when he reads he has such powers of concentration that he hears no noise around him and is unable to say whether people have been in the room or not.” The President’s strenuosity extended even to ghost stories. “I want ghosts who do things. I don’t care for the Henry James kind of ghosts. I want real sepulchral ghosts, the kind that knock you over and eat fire… none of your weak, shallow apparitions.”

Much of Roosevelt’s library time that weekend was devoted to books and maps about Africa. He talked about it continually. “You know how you feel when you have all but finished one job and are eager to get at another. Well, that is how I feel. I sometimes feel that I am no longer President, I am so anxious to get on this trip.” He hoped that by the time he came down the Nile, to meet up with Edith in Cairo, he would be “sufficiently forgotten” to return home “without being a target for the newspapers.” Winthrop asked what quarry he feared the most in East Africa. The answer came promptly: “You can kill the lion by shooting him in any part of the body, but his alertness and agility make him the most dangerous to me.”

Roosevelt moved on to discuss the King of Abyssinia, Albert Beveridge’s affectations, Shakespeare’s “compressed thought,” and the Book of Common Prayer, with interspersed witticisms that had his listeners roaring with laughter. “His humour is so elusive, his wit so dashing and his thoughts so incisive that I find he is the hardest man to quote that I have ever heard talk,” Butt wrote. “In conversation he is a perfect flying squirrel, and before you have grasped one pungent thought he goes off on another limb whistling for you to follow.” (532-533)


23. Hellhound On His Trail / Hampton Sides

This book tells the story of one of the darkest moments in America’s history, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Sides then details the subsequent search for the killer, James Earl Ray, which was the largest manhunt in American history.

24. Ten Restaurants That Changed America / Paul Freedman

Almost half the meals eaten in America take place outside the home. I’ve eaten at restaurants all my life but I’d never once considered the history of restaurants in America until I read this book:

This book is not about the ten best restaurants that ever existed in the United States. Some of the establishments on our list have served marvelous food; others changed how we eat, even if in retrospect their innovations don’t seem so wonderful or their food fails to satisfy today’s tastes. The selection is based on influence and exemplification: the importance of each restaurant for setting or reflecting trends in what Americans think about food and particularly dining out. Culinary fashions, as social history shows us, are determined not just by the upper classes who pride themselves on discernment but by the enthusiasms of less pretentious people for modest but ubiquitous places to eat, such as coffee shops, ice-cream parlors, or highway restaurants. What we eat today is the result of the innovations of these ten restaurants.

The opening chapter on Delmonico’s is, as you might expect, mouth-watering.

My Final 12:

25. Shark Drunk / Morten Strøksnes

Perhaps the most unique book I read in 2017 was subtitled, “The Art of Catching a Large Shark from a Tiny Rubber Dinghy in a Big Ocean.” Even though the author writes from an utterly secular perspective, I still found times when his description of creation led me to worship. I pray Mr. Strøksnes comes to know the One deserving of all worship, the One who made the Greenland shark as a display of His matchless glory:

On land, life is lived horizontally. Almost everything takes place on the ground, or at most on a level with the tallest trees. Of course birds can fly higher, but even they spend the majority of their time near the ground. The sea, on the other hand, is vertical, an interconnected column of water with an average depth of approximately 12,000 feet. And there is life from top to bottom. The vast majority of living space on earth, so to speak, can be found in the sea. All other landscapes, including the rain forests, pale in comparison. If we combine what we know about the ocean’s depths, from a purely logical point of view we can conclude that everything found on land—all the mountains, ridges, fields, forests, deserts, even the cities and other man-made phenomena—all this could easily fit into the sea. The average elevation on land is only 2,700 feet. Even if we dumped the whole Himalayan range into the deepest part of the ocean, it would make only a big splash before the mountain chain sank and disappeared without a trace. There is so much water in the ocean that if we imagined the entire seafloor rising up to what is now the surface, all the continents would be totally covered under many miles of salt water. Only the tops of the tallest mountains would stick up out of the ocean. (35)

There is an enormous amount of water in outer space. But in our own solar system, water—in liquid form—presumably exists only on our planet. The earth is the perfect distance from the sun. If we had been farther out in the solar system, all our water would have been in the form of ice or vapor, as in the sperm-like tails of comets racing away from the sun. The earth is big enough for gravity to hold the atmosphere in place, even though that’s not a given. And we’re not close enough to any giant planet with so much gravitational pull that every flow tide would make a wave several hundred feet high wash over the whole planet, like in the movie Interstellar. On Neptune, harsh conditions prevail. Icy winds blowing at more than twelve hundred miles per hour are constantly sweeping across the planet’s polished white surface. The average temperature is about minus 350 degrees Fahrenheit. The distance from our earth to the sun is such that most of our water is liquid. Without these conditions, the water would be ice or gas, if it was present at all. And life as we know it wouldn’t be able to exist. (112)

Moonlight takes more than a second to reach earth. Sunlight takes eight minutes. It occurs to me that astronomers are archaeologists or geologists, searching for fossils of light. Nothing happens in real time; everything we see is from the past. We’re always lagging slightly behind. Even in our interactions, even inside our own heads, we’re a millionth of a second behind. Our own Milky Way, which is one among billions of galaxies, is a hundred thousand light-years in diameter. (113)

Today the sea is not quiet. We know that even before we reach the seaward side. But it’s not outright hostile either. The fourteen-footer sits noticeably low in the water, for obvious reasons. Luckily the sea isn’t too rough, just long breakers that won’t put our heavy, listless boat to the test. Of course that could all change, and much faster than the time it would take to get back to harbor. The boat could serve as a deep freezer. It probably contains enough ice for two thousand cocktails, and four thousand whisky on the rocks. A couple of drinks would be great right now, to stop me from worrying about heading into the open Lofoten Sea in this frozen boat. The seagulls are silent, the snow sparkling white. Even the sun seems cold. For me, coming from the big city only yesterday, the dazzling clear surroundings and the wide horizon are refreshment for my soul. Yet there’s something about the sea today that has me concerned. What could be lurking behind the silvery-white and viscous fluidity? It’s like staring into a glass eye. (169)

To find out what’s lurking just below the service, you’ll have to read Shark Drunk for yourself.

26. Off Speed / Terry McDermott

The best sports book I read in 2017 was far and away this gem of a baseball book by Terry McDermott. He uses the perfect game tossed by King Felix in August 2012 against Tampa Bay as a backdrop to wax eloquent about the sweet science of pitching a baseball, that five-ounce ball roughly the size of your fist. McDermott covers the history and mechanics of the fastball, curveball, spitball, sinker, knuckleball, slider, split, cutter, and change-up.

Consider the major league hitter’s basic problem. The pitcher stands on a small hill sixty feet six inches, give or take a foot, depending on where in the batter’s box the hitter stands. The pitcher strides forward before he throws, and, by the time he releases the ball, has already shrunk the distance between him and the hitter by almost 10 percent. An average fastball from an average pitcher leaves his hand at about 90 mph. A pitcher of average size throwing at average speed gives the hitter approximately four-tenths of a second to see, identify, and attack a pitch. That is about how long it takes to blink your eyes twice. The batter is using an implement uniquely unsuitable to accomplishing his task. A baseball bat is normally somewhat less than a yard long; it weighs somewhere between twenty-nine and thirty-six ounces. At its thickest part it is 2.25 inches in diameter. If the bat is to strike the ball solidly, the ball must hit near the center of the bat’s circumference about six inches from the bat’s end. The spot varies from bat to bat, depending on the type and hardness of the wood and the shape and weight of the bat, but at its largest this spot is about five square inches in area. Think of that for a moment. A hitter must swing a yardlong piece of round wood in such a way that he contacts a small round ball moving faster than he is legally allowed to drive his car. The contact has to occur within a fivesquare-inch area of the wood. The plane of the strike zone varies from hitter to hitter but is theoretically seventeen inches wide and approximately two feet tall. Of course, the zone is not a plane at all, but a volume of approximately 4.5 cubic feet. It extends from the front of home plate to the rear, and a ball passing through it at any point is supposed to be a strike. In real life, the zone tends to be wider and shorter than the rulebook stipulates. Nonetheless, the batter is defending more than four cubic feet of space with a five-square-inch weapon, and he has to swing the bat at a speed of 70 mph in order to move it from his shoulder to the center of the plate. “It is far more likely that the pitcher will accidentally throw the ball in the way of the hitter’s bat than it is for the hitter to time the pitch perfectly and execute flawless swing mechanics to achieve 100 percent on-time contact on their own,” according to Perry Husband, who has studied pitcher-batter interactions extensively. The deck, in other words, is stacked. (7-8)

Early baseball was a hitter’s sport. Hitters could request pitchers to throw the ball in specific locations. Teams routinely scored dozens of runs, sometimes as many as one hundred. Pitchers were placed inside a box about forty feet from the hitters and were required to throw the ball underhanded. They were also supposed to throw the ball as slowly as possible. To ensure the speed limit was adhered to, the pitcher was required to keep his wrist stiff. The rule makers might as well have served the ball to hitters on a platter, which was exactly the point. The rule specified: “The ball must be pitched, not thrown, for the bat. ” It was more like slow-pitch softball, or coach-pitch Little League, than the game we know today. (26)

When a man throws a baseball, it travels at whatever speed he is able to impart to it through the levers of his throwing motion. There is an upper limit, imposed by human physiology, on this speed. It appears to be something less than 110 mph, perhaps as low as 106 mph. By manipulating his grip on the ball and the motion of his wrist at release, the pitcher imparts spin to the pitch. As the ball moves through the air, the spin causes the ball to move in a certain, predictable direction. Because of the spin, the air on one side of the ball moves faster than the other, resulting in uneven pressure on the ball, making it curve in the direction of the lower pressure. This is known as the Magnus Force. Additionally, no matter how fast a ball is thrown, gravity pulls the ball toward the earth as it hurtles homeward. Finally, air resistance, or drag, slows the ball down. A typical major league pitch will lose about 10 percent of its release velocity by the time it gets to the hitter. A 100 mph fastball will be traveling at about 90 mph when it reaches the vicinity of home plate…In the time it takes your brain to register that a baseball has been thrown at it, the baseball has already eliminated a third of the distance between you and it. (81-82, 83-84)

You don’t have to know what Magnus Force is to enjoy this book.

27. The Genius of Birds / Jennifer Ackerman

Reading books is often an exercise in humility because you realize how little you actually know. There’s so much in this God-spoke world that we simply don’t know. I was humbled throughout The Genius of Birds. I was provoked by the title. What’s so special about birds? Well, it turns out, quite a lot actually.

For a long time, the knock on birds was that they’re stupid. Beady eyed and nut brained. Reptiles with wings. Pigeon heads. Turkeys. They fly into windows, peck at their reflections, buzz into power lines, blunder into extinction. Our language reflects our disrespect. Something worthless or unappealing is “for the birds.” An ineffectual politician is a “lame duck.” To “lay an egg” is to flub a performance. To be “henpecked” is to be harassed with persistent nagging. “Eating crow” is eating humble pie. The expression “bird brain,” for a stupid, foolish, or scatterbrained person, entered the English language in the early 1920s because people thought of birds as mere flying, pecking automatons, with brains so small they had no capacity for thought at all. That view is a gone goose. In the past two decades or so, from fields and laboratories around the world have flowed examples of bird species capable of mental feats comparable to those found in primates. There’s a kind of bird that creates colorful designs out of berries, bits of glass, and blossoms to attract females, and another kind that hides up to thirty-three thousand seeds scattered over dozens of square miles and remembers where it put them months later. There’s a species that solves a classic puzzle at nearly the same pace as a five-year-old child, and one that’s an expert at picking locks. There are birds that can count and do simple math, make their own tools, move to the beat of music, comprehend basic principles of physics, remember the past, and plan for the future. (1-2)

Many bird species are highly social. They breed in colonies, bathe in groups, roost in congregations, forage in flocks. They eavesdrop. They argue. They cheat. They deceive and manipulate. They kidnap. They divorce. They display a strong sense of fairness. They give gifts. They play keep-away and tug-of-war with twigs, strands of Spanish moss, bits of gauze. They pilfer from their neighbors. They warn their young away from strangers. They tease. They share. They cultivate social networks. They vie for status. They kiss to console one another. They teach their young. They blackmail their parents. They summon witnesses to the death of a peer. (101)

The sheer profusion and precision of a mockingbird’s imitated songs is a marvel. A tally of one mockingbird’s tunes captured twenty imitations of calls and songs per minute: nuthatches, kingfisher, northern cardinal, kestrel, even the high-pitched seep seep seep begging of a mockingbird chick. The Arnold Arboretum mocker of Boston was said to mimic thirty-nine birdsongs, fifty birdcalls, and the notes of a frog and a cricket. You can tell where a mockingbird lives by the songs he sings. So particular is a song to its bird that individual birds within a population may share only 10 percent of their song patterns. When it came to describing the mockingbird’s imitative skills, the ornithologist Edward Howe Forbush dropped all pretense of scientific detachment, trumpeting the mocker as “the king of song” surpassing “the whole feathered choir.” No wonder the Native Americans of South Carolina called the bird Cencontlatolly, or “Four Hundred Tongues.” It’s only a small exaggeration. Mockingbirds regularly imitate as many as two hundred different songs. (147)

Birds wearing tiny geolocator backpacks have revealed the details of their marathon migrations. The tiny blackpoll warbler, a bird of boreal forest, leaves New England and eastern Canada each fall and migrates to South America, flying nonstop over the Atlantic to its staging grounds in Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Greater Antilles—a flight of up to seventeen hundred miles—in just two or three days. The Arctic tern, a bird who lives by his love of long daylight and bent for high mileage, circles the world in orbit with the seasons, flying from its nesting grounds in Greenland and Iceland to its wintering grounds off the coast of Antarctica—a round-trip of almost forty-four thousand miles. In an average thirty-year lifetime, then, a tern may fly the equivalent of three trips to the moon and back. How in the world does it find its way? How does a red knot resting at Cape May on its spring journey north from Tierra del Fuego know how to pinpoint last year’s breeding grounds in the distant northern Arctic? How does a European bee-eater traveling south from its summer season in a farm field in Spain find a course over the Sahara to its familiar patch of West African forest? How does a bristle-thighed curlew or a sooty shearwater steer homeward over a vast and featureless expanse of sea? As one who gets easily lost in a small patch of woodland, I’m in awe of the navigating abilities of birds. How can they accomplish a feat few humans can carry out even with the help of a compass? (199)

The fog is lifting. I can begin to make out the undulant curtain of the Blue Ridge Mountains across the valley, purpled by the haze. From a grove of trees nearby comes the piercing zeet of a chickadee. I wander over, and there is the bird perched in a pine tree, rolling out its string of dees, perhaps taking measure of my presence. One has only to consider the extraordinary genius packed tightly into that tiny puff of feathers to lay the mind wide open to the mysteries of a bird’s knowing—the what and the why. These are wonderful puzzles to keep around on our intellectual bookshelf, to remind us how little we still know. (266)

28. Fire Season: Field Notes From a Wilderness Lookout / Philip Connors

In his book, An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis makes a fascinating point about the value of reading books:

“Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realize it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through the eyes of others.” (140)

I owe enormous thanks to Philip Connors, the author of his lyrical nonfiction memoir about his life as a wilderness lookout. Connors left his budding career as a Wall Street Journal reporter in order to spend half a year keeping vigil over 20,000 square miles of desert, forest, and mountain chains from atop a tower 10,000 feet above sea level. I’m quite certain I’ll never be a wilderness lookout. But after reading Fire Season, I feel like I’ve looked through the eyes of one:

Since that first summer I’ve returned each succeeding year to sit 10,000 feet above sea level and watch for smoke. Most days I can see a hundred miles in all directions. On clear days I can make out mountains 180 miles away. To the east stretches the valley of the Rio Grande, cradled by the desert: austere, forbidding, dotted with creosote shrubs, and home to a collection of horned and thorned species evolved to live in a land of scarce water. To the north and south, along the Black Range, a line of peaks rises and falls in timbered waves; to the west, the Rio Mimbres meanders out of the mountains, its lower valley verdant with grasses. Beyond it rise more mesas and mountains: the Diablos, the Jerkies, the Mogollons. A peaceable kingdom, a wilderness in good working order—and my job to sound the alarm if it burns. Having spent eight summers in my little glass-walled perch, I have an intimate acquaintance with the look and feel of the border highlands each week of each month, from April through August: the brutal winds of spring, when gales off the desert gust above seventy miles an hour and the occasional snow squall turns my peak white; the dawning of summer in late May, when the wind abates and the aphids hatch and ladybugs emerge in great clouds from their hibernation; the fires of June, when dry lightning connects with the hills and mesas, sparking smokes that fill the air with the sweet smell of burning pine; the tremendous storms of July, when the radio antenna sizzles like bacon on a griddle and the lightning makes me flinch as if from the threat of a punch; and the blessed indolence of August, when the meadows bloom with wildflowers and the creeks run again, the rains having turned my world a dozen different shades of green. I’ve seen lunar eclipses and desert sandstorms and lightning that made my hair stand on end. I’ve seen fires burn so hot they made their own weather. I’ve watched deer and elk frolic in the meadow below me and pine trees explode in a blue ball of smoke. If there’s a better job anywhere on the planet, I’d like to know what it is. (3)

29. How to Steal the Mona Lisa / Taylor Bayouth

One of the perks of living in the Washington, D.C. area is the easy access to wonderful museums and art galleries. During one of our visits to the Smithsonian, my youngest son saw the Hope Diamond and asked, “I wonder if anyone has ever tried to steal that thing?” I don’t know the answer to that question, but after reading How to Steal the Mona Lisa, I now have at least an idea of how someone might try to pull off such a brazen heist. Bayouth describes how he would go about nabbing several priceless art and artifacts including the Hope Diamond, the “Mona Lisa,” the Archaeopteryx Lithographica, Rodin’s “Thinker,” King Tut’s golden death mask, the Crown Jewels, and the Codex Leicester. I’m not sure any of these how-to’s would actually work and I think he’s only kidding. But either way, my boys laughed and giggled mischievously throughout this read. They especially enjoyed the fun diagrams and visual aids, like this one:

Pro tip: When driving your getaway car at a remarkable rate, don’t forget to remove your welder’s goggles.

30. Magpie Murders / Anthony Horowitz

This unputdownable whodunit is a mystery within a mystery, an enigma within an enigma, a novel within a novel. It’s like getting two ingenious novels for the price of one. I thought it was brilliant.

31. The Black Tower and Sleep No More / P.D. James

I miss P.D. James. While she died in 2014, her mystery stories are still being published posthumously, evidenced by the most recent release of Sleep No More. Several of these tales are set during Christmastime, including one morbidly entitled “The Murder of Santa Claus”:

We drove through the village in silence. It lay sombre and deserted in its pre-Christmas calm. I can remember the church half-hidden behind the great yews and the silent school with the children’s Christmas chains of coloured paper gleaming dully against the windows. Marston Turville is a small seventeenth-century manor house, its three wings built round a courtyard. I saw it first as a mass of grey stone, blacked out as was the whole village, under low broken clouds. My uncle greeted me before a log fire in the great hall. I came in, blinking, from the December dusk into a blaze of colour; candles sparkling on the huge Christmas tree, its tub piled with imitation snowballs of frosted cotton wool; the leaping fire; the gleam of firelight on silver. My fellow guests were taking tea and I see them as a tableau, cups halfway to their lips, predestined victims waiting for the tragedy to begin. (64-65)

I also had the pleasure of revisiting one of my favorite Inspector Dalgliesh stories, The Black Tower, that finds the famous Scotland Yard detective-poet downcast and convalescing in a retirement home in an isolated village on the Dorset coast.

He wasn’t sure whether this disenchantment with his job was caused solely by his illness, the salutory reminder of inevitable death, or whether it was the symptom of a more fundamental malaise, that latitude in middle-life of alternate doldrums and uncertain winds when one realizes that hopes deferred are no longer realizable, that ports not visited will now never be seen, that this journey and others before it may have been a mistake, that one has no longer even confidence in charts and compass. More than his job now seemed to him trivial and unsatisfactory. Lying sleepless as so many patients must have done before him in that bleak impersonal room, watching the headlamps of passing cars sweep across the ceiling, listening to the secretive and muted noises of the hospital’s nocturnal life, he took the dispiriting inventory of his life. (11-12)

What I enjoy most about P.D. James is her ability to draw the reader’s attention to God’s bright and bountiful kindness in creation, even atop the dark backdrop of murder and mayhem:

Before he turned again to the car his eye was caught by a small clump of unknown flowers. The pale pinkish white heads rose from a mossy pad on top of the wall and trembled delicately in the light breeze. Dalgliesh walked over and stood stock still, regarding in silence their unpretentious beauty. He smelt for the first time the clean half-illusory salt tang of the sea. The air moved warm and gentle against his skin. He was suddenly suffused with happiness and, as always in these rare transitory moments, intrigued by the purely physical nature of his joy. It moved along his veins, a gentle effervescence. Even to analyse its nature was to lose hold of it. But he recognized it for what it the first clear intimation since his illness that life could be good. (18)

It was a warm misty morning under a sky of low cloud. As he left the valley and began to trudge up the cliff path a reluctant rain began to fall in slow heavy drops. The sea was a milky blue, sluggish and opaque, its slopping waves pitted with rain and awash with shifting patterns of floating foam. There was a smell of autumn as if someone far off, undetected even by a wisp of smoke, was burning leaves. The narrow path rose higher skirting the cliff edge, now close enough to give him a brief vertiginous illusion of danger, now twisting inland between a tatter of bronzed bracken crumpled with the wind, and low tangles of bramble bushes, their red and black berries tight and meagre compared with the luscious fruit of inland hedgerows. The headland was dissected by low broken walls of stone and studded with small limestone rocks. Some, half buried, protruded tipsily from the soil like the relics of a disorderly graveyard. Dalgliesh walked warily. It was his first country walk since his illness. The demands of his job meant that walking had always been a rare and special pleasure. Now he moved with something of the uncertainty of those first tentative steps of convalescence, muscles and senses rediscovering remembered pleasures, not with keen delight but with the gentle acceptance of familiarity. The brief metallic warble and churling note of stonechats, busy among the brambles; a solitary black-headed gull motionless as a ship’s figurehead on a promontory of rock; clumps of rock samphire, their umbels stained with purple; yellow dandelions, pinpoints of brightness on the faded autumnal grass. After nearly ten minutes of walking the cliff path began to slope gently downhill and was eventually dissected by a narrow lane running inland from the cliff edge. About six yards from the sea it broadened into a gently sloping plateau of bright green turf and moss. Dalgliesh stopped suddenly as if stung by memory. This then, must be the place where Victor Holroyd had chosen to sit, the spot from which he had plunged to his death. For a moment he wished that it hadn’t lain so inconveniently in his path. The thought of violent death broke disagreeably into his euphoria. But he could understand the attraction of the spot. The lane was secluded and sheltered from the wind, there was a sense of privacy and peace. (103-104)

32. Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection / Arthur Conan Doyle

My Audiobook of the Year is this Audible production read by Stephen Fry, whose narration sweeps you away to Victorian England, fog-drenched London, and, of course, 221B Baker Street.

33. S Is For Southern / Ed. David DiBenedetto

If you’re from the South, or have visited the South, or just know a Southerner, I think you’ll find this survey both entertaining and illuminating. There are brief articles on all things Southern, from “Absinthe” to “Zydeco,” from the “Atlanta Braves” to “Wonder Bread, and from to “Barbecue” to “Y’all.” Here’s a tasty sampling:

ACCENT: The Southern accent is one of our nation’s greatest treasures. Its beauty rivals that of a songbird or the most resonant cello. Had the Southern accent not been invented, our ears would have fallen off long ago, or become vestigial, fleshy cauliflowers hanging off the sides of our heads, for without the Southern accent there would have been nothing much worth listening to. Someone, somewhere, can make a case that I’m exaggerating its importance to us as a people and to America, but I can assure you I am not. Maybe I am.

But it’s lovely, isn’t it, the Southern accent? It’s not because I have one myself that I say this, because my accent is not what it could be: years of watching I Dream of Jeannie growing tip have me talking more like an out-of-work B actor than like my grandmother Eva Pedigo, who came from Savannah, settled in Birmingham, and sounded as if she marinated her vowels in butter overnight. An accent is your vocal personality. It’s like a hairstyle or a favorite pair of shoes, the only difference being that it’s in your throat.

There’s a Northern accent as well, and it’s easily distinguishable from a Southern accent the same way a paper bag full of broken glass is distinguishable from a cashmere scarf. But when you leave the South and head in other directions, accents tend to disappear, the song of language is lost, and what you’re left with is bland communication, meaning without music. It’s amusing, at least to me, to hear scholarly argot used to understand and investigate our day-to-day lives, especially the most resolutely non-scholarly subjects, like Southern English. My wife, a Vermonter, had no idea what fixin’ to meant when she first heard it. Had she researched the phrase, she would have learned that it indicated “immediate future action.” I could have told her that. (2)

BACON: I remember. Weekend mornings asleep in my attic bedroom in Birmingham, Alabama, not exactly waking to the smell of bacon, but being awakened by it. Similar to that of freshly cut wet grass, the smell of bacon can travel for miles and never lose its potency. It was just like the cartoons I watched at the time— Pepe le Pew I remember most vividly— in which you could see the smells; they wafted through the air like spirits. They could corral you like a lariat; they could capture you. That’s what bacon did to me. Half-asleep, I would follow it downstairs and into the kitchen, and still half-asleep eat it until my mother slapped my hand. “Save some for the rest of us.” Only then would I open my eyes completely, a boy trapped in an unfeeling world where he had to share.

Bacon is a time machine for me to this day. I smell it and it’s Saturday morning. My parents, dead now for many years, are seated around the morning room table. My beautiful sisters— one of whom is also gone— also crowd around me, lunging for what is rightly mine, for what I very clearly had dibs on, being the first down. But they strike as fast as copperheads. Our dog Rudy, that little brown mixed breed, as long as a dachshund with the face of a beagle (we called him a dog, though no one was really sure), hid himself beneath the table, as still as a jungle animal, hoping for crumbs. Everyone is happy, everyone is young. Life is something that is just about to happen, and it’s all good. That is what bacon does to me.

Eating bacon is like dating Taylor Swift: it may not be good for you, but people just keep coming back for more, understanding that a life with a little bacon in it beats a life with no bacon at all. Bacon is full of saturated fat and salt, and yet unlike other foods makes no secret of it. Bacon is honest. Maybe this is one reason we’ve seen an increase in the popularity of bacon and recipes that call for it, such that we can now be said to be experiencing a “bacon mania.״ Those of us who were raised on a farm might count a piglet as a dear first pet and eat him later. That’s because bacon is stronger than love itself. I wasn’t raised on a farm but, rather, in front of a television, and yet I too counted a pig as my first virtual pet: Arnold Ziffel, on Green Acres. But that changes nothing. I would eat him if he were bacon. Bacon is not just bacon. It’s bacon ice cream, chocolate-dipped bacon, and more. It’s the meaty embodiment of Southern culture. (18)

34. Zeal Without Burnout / Christopher Ash

Christopher Ash produces helpful resources for believers year after year. I appreciated his candid and humble missive on sustainable sacrifice. We need sleep… and God does not. We need Sabbath rests… and God does not. We need friends… and God does not. We need inward renewal… and God does not. Sacrifice is not the same as burnout. As a young pastor, I needed to read this book and I plan to read it again in 2018.

If you’re looking for other helpful resources to get organized and focused for the new year ahead, I was helped last year by each of these books in various ways:

35. Between the Woods and the Water and The Broken Road / Patrick Leigh Fermor

Two years ago I began walking across pre-WWII Europe with Patrick Leigh Fermor. We’ve been trekking our way to Constantinople and we finally arrived. I’m sort of sad that the journey is over. Fermor is quite the wordsmith. He never uses one word when ten would do. Here’s a typical Fermorian sentence:

A restless geometry of fire-flies darted about under the spatulate volume of the chestnut trees, and getting up one night to go to bed, we found emerald-coloured tree-frogs smaller than threepenny-bits clinging to the leaves like miniature green castaways on rafts. (Between The Woods and the Water, 107)

Imagine being near a train track when the Orient Express passed by. How would you put that experience into words? Here’s the way Fermor rendered such an event from his own life:

I was pondering these matters, slogging along through the twilight beside the banked railway, when a humming along the rails and an increasing clatter behind me indicated the approach of a train. The shuddering cylinder grew larger and larger and soon it was rocketing by overhead; all the windows were alight in a serpent of bright quadrilaterals, and along the coach work, as it crashed past, was painted: Paris–Munich–Vienna–Zagreb–Belgrade–Sofia–Istanbul and Compagnie Internationale des Wagons Lits. The Orient Express! The pink lampshades glowed softly in the dining car, the brass gleamed. The passengers would be lowering their novels and crosswords as the brown-jacketed attendants approached with trays of aperitifs. I waved, but the gloaming was too deep for an answer. I wondered who the passengers were– they had travelled in two days a journey that had taken me over nine months, and in a few hours they would be in Constantinople. The necklace of bright lights dwindled in the distance with its freight of runaway lovers, cabaret girls, Knights of Malta, vamps, acrobats, smugglers, papal nuncios, private detectives, lecturers in the future of the novel, millionaires, arms’ manufacturers, irrigation experts and spies, leaving a mournful silence in the thirsty Rumelian plateau. (The Broken Road, 22)

How would you describe a sunset? Here’s Fermor doing just that:

The clouds had flushed an astounding pink. But this was not to be compared with the sky behind. The flatness of the Alfold leaves a stage for cloud-events at sunset that are dangerous to describe: levitated armies in deadlock and riderless squadrons descending in slow motion to smouldering and sulphurous lagoons where barbicans gradually collapse and fleets of burning triremes turn dark before sinking. These are black vesper’s pageants… the least said the better. (The Broken Road, 44)

Perhaps my favorite part in these final two volumes is the conclusion of Volume 2 when Fermor finally catches sight of the Carpathian Uplands:

On the one hand a canyon thrust a deep gash north-east into the range I had been skirting for days, and its climb into the Carpathians reached the foot of the great ashen peaks. On the other, it plunged south-west down a gorge that would lead to the lowlands, and, at last, to the everyday world: but there was no hint of this yet. The chasm was silent except for the sound of water and the echo of an occasional rock falling. But while I gazed, clouds at the head of the ravine were breaking loose and spreading crumpled shadows across the juts and the clefts; then they blotted out the sun in an abrupt upland storm.

The wind sent a few sighting shots, followed by a swish of raindrops. Sheltering under an overhang, I watched them turn into hailstones the size of mothballs: they bounced and scattered downhill by the million; and in half an hour, their white drifts were all that was left. The washed rocks looked newly cut, there was not a cloud in sight and a breeze smelling of bracken and wet earth kept the air from stagnating.

Even jumping from ledge to ledge and sliding on wet pine-needles, the downward climb lasted for hours. Scree slowed the pace and buttresses of rock, smooth as boiler-plates or spiked like iguanas, imposed grueling swerves. Gleams across the cliffs revealed faraway threads of water; close to, they coiled and cataracted through the tree-trunks as conifers abdicated when the hardwoods began to outnumber them; and the ravine, deepening fast, coaxed the trees higher and higher until the oaks, mantled with ivy, pronged with the antlers of dead boughs and tufted with mistletoe, grew into giants.

Clearings of beech opened their forest-chambers and bracken gave way to mares’ tails, hemlock and the tatters of old man’s beard. The damp, which covered everything with moss, looped the branches with creepers and plumed the clefts and forks overhead, and the flaking bark, shaggy with lichen, greaved the tree-trunks like metal tainted with verdigris, filling the slanting world underneath with a stagey green-grey light. The woods had become an undercroft of acorns, beech-nuts and moaning wood-pigeons; the sound of water grew louder; and soon, flecked by leaf-shadows and askim with wagtails and redstarts, the ice-cold Cerna was rushing by under the branches.

The mysterious river split and joined again round blades of rock, slid over shelves that combed it into symmetrical waterfalls and rushed on chopping and changing down the gorge. Then I came down into quieter reaches. Shoals of trout anchored themselves among the reflections of elderflower or glided to new retreats, deep in the shade, where only a few wrinkles hinted at the current, and the black rocks, which gave the river its dark Slavonic cumbered the depths. (The Broken Road, 221-222)


36. Devotions / Mary Oliver

Several years ago, I was in a small bookshop with my wife in Cape Cod. While in the poetry section, I found a copy of Thirst. I’ve been a big fan of Mary Oliver ever since. Devotions is a wonderful collection of her work. Some of my favorites aren’t included (like “The Place I Want To Get Back To”), but that doesn’t diminish the quality of this volume for me. Oliver, like all poets worth reading, paints with words what she sees in the world, marvelous mysteries in plain sight and miracles in the commonplace.


I see or hear
that more or less

kills me
with delight,
that leaves me
like a needle

in the haystack
of light.
It was what I was born for —
to look, to listen,

to lose myself
inside this soft world —
to instruct myself
over and over

in joy,
and acclamation.
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,

the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant —
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,

the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help

but grow wise
with such teachings
as these —
the untrimmable light

of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass? (173)

W.H. Davis once wrote: “What is this life if, full of care, / We have no time to stand and stare?” I’m hoping for a more attentive year in 2018, filled with thanksgiving to the Lord for His covenant mercies, fresh every morning.

As always, happy reading and Happy New Year!

–Nick Roark


Filed under Bible, Book Reviews, Books, Christian Theology, Jesus Christ, Puritanical, Quotable Quotes, Reading, The Gospel