I read 105 books in 2019. That total is down from 111 books last year. Yet, in a year jammed full of transition and newness, I’m pleased with the 105 book total.
Many people ask: “How do you read so many books?” Or they ask the more offensive question: “But do you read every word or just skim?”
Here are my tips for reading more books:
Be Selective in the Books You Read. Nothing slows down reading like a bad book. Thus, you must be selective. I only pick up books that I’m sure I will enjoy or books that I know contain information that will be helpful and useful. I know the topics I will enjoy. I know the authors I will enjoy. I read reviews upon reviews upon reviews. Each week I listen to the New York Times Book Review podcast and number of other book podcasts. I actively seek out book recommendations. It is extremely rare that I ever pick up a book simply because “It looks interesting.”
Build a large “To Be Read” stack. Deciding which book to read next causes a major bottleneck in your reading totals. You can destroy this bottleneck by building a TBR (To Be Read) pile. In my office I have a large number of stacks that function as my TBR pile. When I finish a book, I merely pull a book from the top. Remember from my first suggestion: These stacks have been selectively curated. I don’t have to “think” but merely grab the next book.
Read A Handful of Books Simultaneously. I have 3 to 5 books going at one time. If I’m really enjoying a book – it gets finished quickly. If I’m not enjoying a book – it gets finished slowly (rarely not at all). Sometimes you’re in a mood for something serious. At other times you’re in a mood for something lighter. Reading a handful of books at one time keeps you from getting bogged down.
Take Books With You Everywhere. This is an ongoing joke in my household. I take books with me every time I get in the car. I mean every. single. time. You’ll be surprised how often you find yourself waiting … a great time for reading a few pages. When I meet people for lunch I’m often waiting for them to arrive. A great time to steal 10 minutes of reading. Remember, for a book a week you only need 3.5 hours a week. You can easily gain an hour of reading a week by stealing 10 minutes a day here and there.
On the the list! I want to stress that these are my favorite books that I read in 2019 (they made have been released in years gone by).
Book of the Year
THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT BY RT KENDALL
This was the most beneficial and uplifting book of the year. Not all books are created equal. This should be required reading for pastors and disciples of all sorts. Here’s the write from October’s book log:
I heard RT Kendall preach at Truett Seminary during my doctoral education. The sermon was different from those often preached in a seminary chapel. It had less of the tone of an academic treatise and more of the tone of a charismatic evangelist. It stayed with me for some time.
Kendall was the pastor at Westminster Chapel for 25 years following in the footsteps of the legendary Martyn Lloyd-Jones who followed in the footsteps of legends G. Campbell Morgan and John Henry Jowett. This volume is the product of Kendall preaching through the Sermon on the Mount while behind the Westminster Chapel pulpit. It is pure gold. I can not remember reading a collection of sermons that hum from the page in such a way. It challenged my mind and nourished my soul.
I’ve read a large number of works on the Sermon on the Mount. The list ranges from heavyweight commentaries to theological treatises to devotional guides. Kendall’s volume rises to the top. If one paired Kendall’s The Sermon on the Mount along with Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, you’d not need much else.
The Years of Lyndon Johnson Series by Robert Caro
From April to December I read the four volumes in Robert Caro’s masterpiece. It required a ton of diligence and patience but it was worth every flip of the page. I can’t rundown the entire series but here is the entry from May over Means of Ascent, my favorite volume:
The Means of Ascent could also be titled, “How LBJ Stole the Senatorial Selection of 1948.” Johnson beat Coke Stevenson for the senate seat by 87 votes. Yet, Caro shows, through extensive interviews, that LBJ and friends stole those 87 votes plus hundreds more. Through paying for votes, stuffing ballot boxes, intentionally miscounting, and turning 700 to 900 with a pen stroke, Johnson ascended to a senate seat.
With the skill of a master biographer, Caro weaves into the book an almost complete biography of Coke Stevenson. Yet, one is never bored. Stevenson, the beloved former governor of Texas, wears the white hat. He rides into the story as man of integrity, moral character, and a man of the people. Yet, his positive attributes keep him from opposing Johnson’s mud slinging and it ultimately leads to his political demise. After the election, Stevenson fights his battle in court but Johnson wins again.
For the preacher, this second volume in Caro’s LBJ series, provides fertile ground for the illustration that the right thing to do is often the hard thing to do. Beyond that, the right thing to do just might cost you in the eyes of the world. Stevenson lost an election but maintained his integrity.
WORKING: RESEARCHING, INTERVIEWING, WRITING BY ROBERT CARO
Along with the LBJ series, I also read Caro’s brief memoir. It is fantastic look at journalism and the skill and handwork of writing. Here’s the rundown from May’s log:
Robert Caro has spent his career writing a biography of Robert Moses and a five-volume biography on LBJ (fifth volume in progress). Yet, Caro states that he has yet to write a biography on a person. Rather, his published works are biographies on power. After reading reading book two in the LBJ series – I get it.
This volume is a collection of essays on Caro’s life as a writer. Some essays are previously published works while others are fresh material. I loved every page. You get insight into Caro’s interviews with Moses, his experience digging through the massive volumes in the LBJ library, and the awkward interview with Lady Bird about LBJ’s mistresses. You even get discussion on Caro’s writing office. Yet, what sticks out is less the gossip and quirky nature of a career tome writer, and more the love and passion for the craft. Caro is a writer. Nothing more. Nothing less. Of course, he has literary awards (to include a pair of Pulitzers) to his credit. But he’s a writer. He loves the art of putting pencil to paper.
This is a great read but likely only of interest to those who’ve read the LBJ volumes or those who never plan to read them. The book is riddle with spoilers.
I AIM TO BE THAT MAN: HOW GOD USED THE ORDINARY LIFE OF AVERY WILLIS JR. BY SHERRIE WILLIS BROWN
This was in serious contention for my favorite of the year. Here’s the rundown from May’s log:
I was thrilled when I learned that this book existed. I never knew Avery Willis but he had a tremendous impact on my life … and my eternity. I came to faith through the study of Willis’ Masterlife material. I owe a debt to his faithfulness to discipleship through the writing ministry. I learned of the book through my church member Roy Edgemon, who worked with Avery Willis to produce Masterlife. When Roy told me the book had recently been published I immediately hit the “buy with one click” button on Amazon.
The book just might be the most inspirational biography I’ve ever read. And believe me … I’ve read enough biographies to fill a small, local library. The book is a full length biography but the core of the material are the daily journals of Avery Willis. As major life events and decisions are discussed, Willis’ daughter uses his journal entries to demonstrate Willis’ heart and thought process and then fill out the context in greater detail.
It was incredibly moving to read Willis’ journal entries as he cried out the the Lord in time of need and discernment. I was overwhelmed by his love for his family, the ministry, and passion to see the lost come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.
INEXPRESSIBLE: HESED AND THE MYSTERY OF GOD’S LOVINGKINDNESS BY MICHAEL CARD
If you stumble across a Card book – pick it up and be blessed. Here’s my entry from January’s log:
This is an extremely early candidate for the book of the year. Card is an award wining musician and performing artists. His songs are known for keen biblical insights. I first came across his writing when I read his commentary on Luke in the Biblical Imagination series. I appreciate his heart and varied areas of interest and skill.
This volume is a deep dive into the Hebrew word hesed. It is a description/characteristic of God that is referenced throughout the Old Testament. Yet, the word is so weighty that it is often translated in various ways. It is translated as love, lovingkindness, enduring love, steadfast love, unfailing love, covenantal faithfulness, and generous mercy to name just a few. Card uses the following working definition of heed: “When the person from whom I have a right to expect nothing gives me everything.” While that seems a bit ethereal and esoteric, the book is nothing but a biblical understanding of the character of God.
Card comes at the topic of hesed from many different angles and all of it is helpful. My only complaint is that the three chapters focus on the work of Rabbis. I wish Card would have cut the final three chapters and ended with the chapters focused upon Jesus.
On top of being biblical and helpful, the book is downright beautiful in prose. Here is a sample from the preface:
The most profound mysteries are not hidden away in remote, secret places; they are mostly an unrecognized part of everyday life. We fret over mowing the lawn and miss the deep mystery of how the grass grows. We seek to shush a weeping baby but rarely ask where the tears come form and what they could possibly mean.
Most mysterious of all are the sound see make with our teeth and tongue, the symbols we scratch across a legal pad and peck out on a keyboard. They seem the most ordinary part of our world ~ words ~ but they are a mystery. At this moment I am writing them and you are reading them the thoughts that my words elicit in your brain are composed words. In fact, we count even think without them
This book is founded on this inexpressible mystery in general and on perhaps the most mysterious and inexpressible word of all, the Hebrew word hesed.
ETERNITY IS NOW IN SESSION: A RADICAL REDISCOVERY OF WHAT JESUS REALLY TAUGHT ABOUT SALVATION ETERNITY, AND GETTING TO THE GOOD PLACE BY JOHN ORTBERG
I’m going to read this one again soon. Here is my entry from February’s log:
I came to this book via podcast. The podcast book recommendation is perhaps my favorite form of book recommendation. When an author is a guest on a podcast to promote/discuss a book, I finish the podcast with a fairly substantial understanding of the book’s content and point of view. It is easy to say “not for me” or head over to Amazon.
John Ortberg was recently the guest of the Carey Neuhoff Leadership podcast. The conversation just might be the best theology discussion I’ve ever heard on a podcast. Give that podcast a listen and you’ll get a great feel for the contents of this book.
This volume is an early candidate for book of the year. It is a crystal clear explanation of heaven, but ultimately soteriology, that is deep enough for those well versed on the topics and yet assessable for the layperson. It’s main point is that salvation and heaven is not about quantity of days but quality of life. Jesus brings life! Ortberg argues that when Jesus becomes our center we “orient ourselves toward God and his will and his love. We will want to be ever moving toward it. We will want to invite and help other people to be ever moving toward it. What matters is the orientation and posture of our lives.”
My favorite quote: “Have you ever committed a sexual sin? I’ll bet you didn’t do it while your mother was watching you. That would have taken all the fun out of it. In order to commit a sin and enjoy it, you have to be someplace your mother isn’t. In heaven, there is no place where God is not. Once you’re in heaven, there is nowhere to run to for a quick sin. If you want to gossip, hoard, judge, self promote, overindulge, or be cynical, where will you go?”
The only down side of the book is its heavy reliance upon Dallas Willard and CS Lewis. Each source is quoted numerous times in each chapter. It gets a bit predictable. Ortberg makes a point and you predict that a W&L quote will be in the next paragraph or on the next page.
THE CROSS AND THE PRODIGAL: LUKE 15 THROUGH THE EYES OF MIDDLE EASTERN PEASANTS BY KENNETH BAILEY
Not for everybody but a terrific resource. Here’s my entry from June’s log:
Bailey spent 40 years living and teaching in seminaries and institutes in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem and Cyprus. He knows a thing or two about the Middle East. He wrote more than 150 articles in English and Arabic. He knows a thing or two about scholarship. Yet, this volume also shows a tremendous pastoral heart and a creative mind.
The cultural and biblical exegesis in this volume is topnotch scholarship. Yet, perhaps even more fascinating, is the final 60 pages which provide a one act play in four scenes written by Bailey to further plunge the depth of the parable of the prodigal son. As the jacket copy states, “He highlights the underlying tensions between law and love, servanthood and sonship, honor and forgiveness that grant this story such timeless spiritual and theological power.”
This is one of those volumes in which you must read without a pen. Otherwise, you will underline, star, and circle nearly every paragraph, line, and phrase. For those preaching Luke 15, this is required study. For those interested in learning more about the prodigal story, this is a useful tool for the toolbox.