Favorite Books of 2021

I read 110 books in 2021. This is my fifth consecutive year of reading 100 books.

2020: 106 books

2019: 105 books

2018: 111 books

2017: 100 books

Many people ask:  “How do you read so many books?”  Or they ask the more offensive question: “But do you really read all of them?”

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 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 to my favorite books for 2021. I want to stress that these are my favorite books that I read in 2021 (they made have been released in years gone by).

Book of the Year

Adorning the Dark: Thoughts on Community, Calling, and the Mystery of Making by Andrew Peterson

I read this volume in February and then reread it in October. It is the first of two Andrew Peterson volumes to appear on my list of favorites. This stat almost cements Peterson’s face on my Mount Rushmore of writers. I’m also a fan of his music and I’m currently reading his fantasy series (The Wingfeather Saga) to my children.

It is hard to place this volume into a category. Part memoir of Peterson’s musical journey and part advice for those who create, it is a personal meandering through a variety of topics and life experiences. I love every page.

At times Peterson speaks like a poet: “I want you, dear reader, to remember that one holy way of mending the world is to sing, to write, to paint, to weave new worlds. Because the seed of your feeble-yet-faithful work fell to the ground, died, and rose again, what Christ has done through you will call forth praise from lonesome travelers long after your name is forgotten. They will know someone lived and loved here.” At other points, he gets technical and practical as Peterson shares a story of his life on the road or his personal ups and downs of writing songs and books.

This is not a how-to book. Yet, wisdom is found on every page. Not every person will like this book. But those who like this book, will love this book.

Theology

The Life Beyond: An Interpretation of New Testament Teaching on Death, the Resurrection, the Second Coming, and Eternal Destiny by Ray Summers

I read this volume in preparation to preach on the topic of eternal hope. In it I found an old friend. I fully admit that my eschatology is underdeveloped. Yet, the things which I hold tight are things I find to be crucial aspects of theology as a whole. This book read like a chat with a trusted friend over commonly held believes.

Summers tackles the topics of death, disembodied spirits, resurrection, the second coming, judgment, and eternal destiny with the skill of a scholar and heart of a pastor.

I truly appreciated his chapter on the disembodied state because it is far too often unmentioned by preachers and misunderstood by people in the pews. Don’t get me started on funeral sermons! Summers defines the disembodied sate as “the conscious existence of both the righteous and the wicked after death and prior to the resurrection.” It is common for preachers and laypeople to make a quick jump from death to the New Heaven and the New Earth. Yet, much more needs to be discussed – to include the disembodied state. Of course, “disembodied state” is a strange phrase. I’d never use it, but the theology is on point.

This book includes a fair share of scholarship but it does not do so to the neglect of readability. It is accessible, while also being thoroughly technical in theological concepts. If I were to recommend one book on eschatology – this is it.

Biblical Studies

GENTLE AND LOWLY: THE HEART OF CHRIST FOR SINNERS AND SUFFERERS BY DANE ORTLUND

This book pushes all the right buttons for me. It tackles a Biblical subject with great depth and purpose, yet it is highly readable and leads one to further devotion to Jesus. My one criticism is the tendency of heavy-handed reliance on Puritans writers. Ortlund quotes them – a lot. It is always helpful but also disrupts from time to time. I’ve recommended this book to a handful of people who have offered up the same critique.

From the introduction: “This is a book about the heart of Christ. Who is he? Who is he really? What is most natural to him? What ignites within him most immediately as he moves toward sinners and suffers? What flows out most freely, most instinctively? Who is he?” The book then proceeds, chapter by chapter, looking at biblical passages that allow us to see the heart of Jesus, who welcomes sinners like you and me. Along the way you get a quick tour of the character of God in both the Old and New Testament. 

The book is just over 200 pages in a 5.5 X 8 format. It’s small and readable. Pick it up, read it, and then pass it along to someone else.

A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament by Michael Card

This book will move from my “favorite books of the year” list to the “books which I often recommend” list. The church needs a better understanding of lament. Card provides a great deal of help.

Card provides a well-written and structured book in six parts: an ancient lament, Job, David, Jeremiah, Jesus and conclusions. The main strength is found in Card’s reflection on the biblical text. He walks through the stories of Job, David, Jeremiah, and Jesus in order to provide us insight into lament and lead us to greater faithfulness through lament.

As a songwriter, Card has a skill in turning a phrase. His prose is both beautiful and powerful. It doesn’t merely sound pretty. It sounds biblical, helpful … and pretty.

Here’s a taste: ” All of our journeys, yours and mine, began with lament, did they not? Before we uttered our first breathless cries, our mothers lamented in pain giving birth to us, just as God has said would be one of the consequences of Adam and Eve’s first doubting (Genesis 3:16). We were all ushered into a world in which the first sounds we heard were inevitably weeping – weeping for pain and weeping for joy, because the two are often linked more closely that we can imagine.”

The God of the Garden: Thoughts on Creation, Culture, and the Kingdom by Andrew Peterson

Like the other Peterson volume on this list, this book is hard to define. In short, it is a book about trees. Yet, it is so much more.

I preordered this book the moment I could do so. In return for my preorder, I was sent a print of a poem and drawing from the book. It now hangs in my study. I look at it … and smile.

Yes, this book is about trees. But is also a book about Peterson. Is it a memoir? Is it a book on creation theology? Get back to me when I read it two or three more times. It is filled with Peterson’s stories and sketches of trees. Along with stories about Peterson’s home and about the God of the Creation.

From the books promotional material: “There’s a strong biblical connection between people and trees. They both come from dirt. They’re both told to bear fruit. In fact, arboreal language is so often applied to humans that it’s easy to miss, whether we’re talking about family trees, passing along our seed, cutting someone off like a branch, being rooted to a place, or bearing the fruit of the Spirit. It’s hard to deny that trees mean something, theologically speaking.” Does that describe the book? No. But perhaps it helps.

Presidential

The Zealot an the Emancipator: John Brown and Abraham Lincoln and the Struggle for American Freedom by HW Brands

I’m a fan of Brands. He’s my favorite popular level biographer. I’m also a fan of his two subject books. I read his biography on MacArthur and Truman this year but his volume on Lincoln and John Brown made my list.

I’ve always enjoyed presidential biographies but in recent days I have jumped off into the deep end of Lincoln volumes. That is a bit strange since Lincoln is where most begin their presidential biography journey. I guess I took the scenic route.

John Brown was a charismatic preacher determined to destroy slavery … by any means. This led Brown and his men to terrorize slavery settlers and ultimately assault the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Abraham Lincoln, also interested in destroying slavery, took a different path. He turned to politics. Brown was arrested and executed. Lincoln was elected president and assassinated.

This is a fast-paced volume filled with historical context and intriguing insight into the character and decision making of Brown and Lincoln. It is fun to read their stories side-by-side throughout the narrative. Go ahead and all of Brand’s backlog of books to your TBR pile.

Biography

A Burning in My Bones: The Authorized Biography of Eugene Peterson by Winn Collier

I have previously professed my love for Eugene Peterson. I never met him. Yet, I often reflect on what it would have been like to give him a call and hear his thoughts on a given topic. When Peterson died I wrote this post: You can find it here. He is by far the author I’ve read the most. I return to his books time and time again. His pastoral memoir, The Pastor, might be the book I’ve reread more than any other book.

A Burning in my Bones is an “authorized” biography. That means Collier was given exclusive access to Eugene and his personal archives for the purpose of a biography. Yet, Peterson had no input on what was produced. Would Peterson be pleased? I think so. But again, I never met him.

I think Peterson would be pleased because the book is far from hagiography. Peterson’s flaws and failures are exposed. This would lead him to smile. I don’t think he’d be honored by a white-washed biography. Yet, I personally think the book focuses too much on the negative. Peterson did a tremendous amount of good in the pulpit, classroom, and printed page. I would have loved a large number of chapters that spoke of him among the great preachers, scholars, and literary giants.

Reading Peterson’s The Pastor and Collier’s A Burning in my Bones might be my yearly reread tandem.

In the Name of God: The Colliding Lives, Legends, and Legacies of J. Frank Norris and George W. Truett by OS Hawkins

There is nothing that gets me more excited than reading about Norris and Truett. The two discussed in one book? Take my money now.

This book makes my list more for the subject matter than for the literary quality or viewpoint expressed in the book. It would not take much for me to place a book about Norris and Truett on my list of favorites. I gobbled up this book, finishing it in two long sittings over a weekend.

The book chronicles J. Frank Norris, longtime pastor of First Baptist Ft. Worth and George W. Truett, longtime pastor of First Baptist Dallas. The two pastored churches in neighboring cities and harbored a rivalry in a number of ways. The book is authored by OS Hawkins who, for a couple of years, pastored First Baptist Dallas. The author surprisingly often seems to highlight Norris.

In pastor circles, Norris is often described as a heel and Truett receives saintly status. Hawkins seems to go out of his way to shine up Norris and smudge up Truett. Fair? I’m sure Hawkins knows more than me. Yet, I believe the ministry of Truett has been esteemed all these years for good reason and Norris did not become a heel by accident or mistake.

Criticism of the framing of the story aside, it was a thrilling read. Pastors – read the book. Then pick which ministry you’d rather imitate. I’ll take Truett every time.

Current Events

The Plague Year: America in the Time of COVID by Lawrence Wright

I was tipped off this year to the writing of the Lawrence Wright while I was sitting in the dentist chair. I love bookish friends! This tip led me to read three of Wright works: God Save Texas, The Looming Tower, and The Plague year. The latter makes my list.

You cannot get a more timely topic than an immediate reflection on America in the time of Covid. I’m always amazes me that books can be researched and written so quickly on a given subject. Obviously, much of Wright’s thinking will be proven incomplete or incorrect over time. Yet, attempting to understand the origin and impact of Covid is well worth our effort.

This book is not commentary. Wright does his best to document. Some will think the work needs much more commentary. Others will see some evidence of commentary and say it is too much. Even others will look at a lack of commentary and see silence as commentary. You can’t make everyone happy.

I look forward to returning to this book in another year or so to see what holds up.

Travel/Adventure Writing

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson

I was also introduced to the work of Bill Bryson this year via picking up a book at a “Little Free Library Stand”. Tip: Never pass up a stack of books. I’ve read three volumes: A Walk in the Woods, Shakespeare, and Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words. I also read a portion of his collected essays on life in America. I’ll finish it soon. His narrative of walking in the woods made my list.

This book documents Bryson’s walk along the 2,000 mile Appalachian trail which stretches from Georgia to Maine. He does so with an out-of-shape friend, Stephen Katz. The book is part adventure and part stand-up comedy. It made desire to pack a bag, take a trip, and hike a trail. It also made me chuckle a time or two.

If you’re familiar with Bryson you will recognize his humor and narrative storytelling. This book offers all of that, plus beautiful scenery. This is the type of book I’ll reread. It’s fast, fun, and filled with great prose.

The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel

I can’t overstate how much I enjoyed this book. I read it in a day and a half during the Thanksgiving break. I’ll probably give it another reading very soon. I just flat out liked it. And who knew that two books with “in the woods” in the title would make my list?

In 1986 Christopher Knight left his home in Massachusetts, drove to Maine, and became a hermit. He lived undetected in a forest. He did not have a conversation with another human being for 30 years. He survived by stealing needed items and food. Until he was caught.

Knight committed around 1,000 burglaries, at a rate of roughly 40 per year. Knight was captured and arrested while burgling the Pine Tree Camp in Rome, Maine. He was sentenced to seven months in jail and $2,000 in restitution.

The story alone is fascinating but it is told with crisp, fast-paced detail. Finkel met with Knight for nine one-hour sessions while Knight served time behind bars. These interviews were the genesis for a GQ article and then the book.

Other

Is This Anything? by Jerry Seinfeld

I often comment on the similarities between preachers and stand-up comedians. We are a rare breed of people who stand before audiences and attempt to hold attention with mere words. Sometimes we do it well and sometimes we don’t. Comparisons probably stop right there!

This book is nothing more than a collection of Seinfeld’s bits since the 1970s. There is no commentary or background. Just the bits. Each one given a title and double spaced. Reading through this volume is a master class in the economy of words. Seinfeld told short jokes with very few words.

This was a fascinating read, since as a preacher, I have a very slow delivery and extremely low word count in my sermons. I spend massive amount of time attempting to rid my sermons of waisted words and rabbit trails. Of course, I’m a lover of a good joke, but never tell jokes from the pulpit.

Will it take lover of jokes to like this book? Yes. Will it take a love of Seinfeld? Yes. But isn’t that everyone?

Longest Book of the Year

Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro

The book ends at page 1162. The end notes are completed at page 1246. I won’t even mention the small print. Oops, I just did. This is a big book. And the “Longest Book of the Year” is a new category for my favorite list!

Robert Caro is a masterful biographer. This is cemented in history by his landmark biography of Lyndon Johnson. The LBJ series currently sits at four volumes with a promised and long awaited fifth volume. Those books are boat anchors as well.

I wanted to put this book on my list for a reason other than its size, but I could not do so with integrity. This book won the Pulitzer Prize. This book gave Caro the street cred to publish the LBJ series. Yet, I struggled through it. It took me from May to November to sludge to the finish.

Ultimately, I think I lacked the interest in the subject necessary to wade through all the backstory and side details common to a Caro biography. Was I interested in NYC and Moses? Sure! But I guess not enough. The volume provides endless insight to conversations about bridges and city parks along with plenty of power moves, power deals, and questionable ethics.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s