Some Thoughts on Reading & My 2017 Book List

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Trinity College Library, Dublin, Ireland. Prob the coolest looking collection of books that you can’t touch in the world.  Almost as cool as my personal library.

Growing up in a digital age where the most expansive and colorful universes lived behind every illuminated screen, bound paper and ink were not always my favorite medium of mental engagement.  Additionally, I was not always, and am still not the fastest of readers.  Reading always felt like homework while movies and video games were invitations into sensory experiences at another level entirely.

At some point in early adulthood things began to change.  I began to be interested in things of deeper consequence.  I began to wonder about current events, global challenges, human complexity, and especially about God and the nature of existence. In trying to find conversation partners that I could explore these questions with, I was led back to books, this time with fresh eyes, and in them I’ve found a soil rich and fertile with a potential for nourishing my being in ways that silver screens and first person shooters never could.   Now, I still love film and enjoy digital escapes as much as anyone, but I’ve learned that the written and spoken word actually invites us into something unique and beautiful, some of which I’d like to explore with a haiku introduction:

Reading is like Scotch
Pure like a fresh mountain spring
It’s good for the soul

Reading is like Scotch
For many, Scotch is an acquired taste.  What does that mean and what does that have to do with reading?  It means that in order to acquire the capacity for experiencing the symphony of  flavors, aromas, narratives, and dynamism contained in each dram of, what Ron Swanson calls, “God’s chosen elixir”, one must learn to develop an awareness of those dynamics.  Over time, and often with the help of others, what at first sip appears to be nothing more than a golden, fumy liquid becomes a work of art.

In the same way, literature may at first appear like a less engaging way to communicate or tell stories, but with a little bit of time and curiosity, it can quickly become a labyrinth of discovery and wonder.  For some people this process comes easier and for others it takes more effort, but the same treasure is available to us all.  In my case I had to endure for a little while, but eventually the galaxies of prose revealed themselves in the sky as my eyes adjusted to the new lighting scheme.

Pure like a fresh mountain spring
There is something deeply refreshing about the the written word.  Even though papyrus scrolls have become bound pages, which have become kindle pixels, and even though quill and paper has become printing presses, which have become digital keypads, the essence of reading and writing is still ancient and true.  And in an age of constant sensory distraction, exploring the words and thoughts of another human being through nothing more than symbols and shapes taps into a part of our humanity as profound as any other.  Literature is simple, raw, quite, uncontaminated and unassuming.  It was there before we were, and will likely be there after me.  It’s like drinking cold, clean, clear water after years of carbonated, colorful, corn-syrup infused soda.

It’s good for the soul
Reading does something for my insides.   For both my mind and body.  It lowers my blood pressure and nurtures my spirit.  Spiritual traditions often call this intersection of being, soul, and it’s that part of me that reading tends to, like a gardener to a garden.   The ideas, phrases, and stories that I encounter in books have a way of sticking around my subconscious and exposing my unconscious.

Most days I read in the morning, usually the Bible and some other book (recently from the list below).  While this habit doesn’t seem to have a particular impact on any given morning, over time I see the affect.  It helps me center, takes my mind off the the news cycle, and sparks my imagination.  And as I converse with authors from across the centuries and continents, I learn about our shared humanity, about things unseen, and about myself.

So,

Reading is like Scotch
Pure like a fresh mountain spring
It’s good for the soul


2017 Book List

Below you’ll find a list of the books I read this last year.  I’ve noted my favorite books of the year with three of these ***.  Also, I’ve included an amazon link and a brief sentence or two recap for some context and for my own documentation and, done my best to place them in similar categories. The aim of this list is for my own benefit- so that I won’t forget. I tend to do that pretty often. Where was I?  For an explanation of my process here is my introduction from last year.

Alright, here they are:

Autobiographical-ish:

The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell, W Kamau Bell***
One of my favorites of the year.  This book is essentially an first person exploration of Bell’s journey as black male comic who also happens to be a nerd and spends a lot of time in the Bay Area.  I found Bells writing funny, engaging, and interesting.

If It Were Not For Love, Kook-Hui Lee Kim
This one is not hyperlinked because it was given to me as a PDF translated from Korean.  The author of this book is a dear friend’s mom who retells her family’s epic, multi-generational story as they leave North Korea, find themselves in church ministry in Japan, and eventually put down roots on the west coast of the US.  I was inspired and amazed as I read of the experiences of their family.

Mother Teresa: In Her Own Words, Mother Teresa
This book was a collection of Mother Teresa’s sayings, sermons, and teachings woven together by a narrator who spent time with her and offered some wonderful commentary and context along the way.  For anyone looking to get a glimpse into this beautiful and complex saint, In Her Own Words is a great resource.

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coats
In what’s already an important work that I had only skimmed the year before, Coats’ writing opens a window in the the American black experience through the form of narrative/letter between a father and a son.  For anyone looking to understand the perspective and forces underneath American race dynamics this book is a must read.

We Goin’ Be Alright, Jeff Chang
During some challenging and important conversations at our church, a friend organized a discussion on this book which was timely, at times difficult, and productive as we processed together some recent events regarding the racial and economic inequality affecting our country today.  As Chang wrestled with his own position and documented recent demographic shifts and current issues like gentrification, the reader is challenged to become more deeply aware of privilege and marginalization.  For a recent exploration of these issues, Chang’s work is a great supplement to Coats’.  I especially liked this book because Chang talks a lot about Oakland and the Bay Area.

Learning-ish:

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Neil deGrasse Tyson
This book was so good!  I’ve always loved pretty much everything Neil deGrasse Tyson does and says and this book felt like it was written for me- an overview of the entire field of Astrophysics in a few hundred pages!  No need to get a PHD, just spend a couple days with this book!

A Little History of Philosophy, Nigel Warburton
In a similar fashion to my previous entry, Warburton quickly summarizes the major names and movements in the history of (mostly Western) Philosophy.  For anyone who’s taken a philosophy class in college, this will likely serve as a refresher course, and could be a great help if you’re on a pub trivia team, which everyone should be.

The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt ***
The subtitle for this book is “Why good people are divided by politics and religion”.  As a moral psychologist, Haidt draws on his years of work to explore why we’re so divided, placing the causes in our biology and culture, and eventually offering ways we can work past our inherent “us vs them” instincts.  This book couldn’t be any more relevant to our modern predicament and though it was a rather long and at times academic read, I found it an extremely important contribution.

The Myth of Equality, Ken Wytsma
This aim of this book is to unpack the roots on racial inequality in America with a theological lens.  Ken spoke at our church this Summer and was obviously well studied in this subject.  Admittedly, Ken was writing to a largely white audience with the intention of helping them understand and deconstruct their privilege, so Myth of Equality might not be for everyone, but as a white leader in a faith community I found his historical overviews and connections very important.  I’d recommend this book to anyone who identifies as a Christian and cares about justice, equality, etc., especially if you voted for Trump 🙂

Originals, Adam Grant
Every year dozens of books get written by CEOs, sociologists, and other Malcom Gladwell like voices that offer their insight into how/why people are successful, how society changes, and what cultivates great corporate cultures.  Generally I’m not a fan of these kinds of books, but I found Originals… well, somewhat original.  In summary the book is an exploration of people who create culture and chart new pathways instead being simply successful at life.  As some one who’s mostly created jobs for myself, I resonated with much of Grant’s research and musings.  Great book if you like that kind of stuff.

Travel:

Greetings from Myanmar, David Bockino
Have you ever had a conversation with someone who was really excited about something and talked to you about it as if you didn’t know much about it but in actuality you knew way more than them?  That’s what this book felt like to me.  I’ve pretty much lost count of the times I’ve traveled to Myanmar, but it was still fun reading the experiences of this wonderful country from some one who was having them for the first time.  It reminded me of the times I’ve taken people to places I love and watched their responses.  For anyone interested in Myanmar’s history or curious about what travelling there might be like, Greetings is worth checking out.

Poetry:

Bone, Yrsa Daley-Ward ***
Through conversation with a really inspiring friend I was turned on to Yrsa’s poetry.  She crafts words that expose a her own rawness in ways that draw readers into her experiences and reflections.  Bone explores womanhood, sexuality, being a minority, relationships and more.   I found that her art and vantage point felt deeply authentic and in many ways original.  If you’re into poetry and haven’t checked out Yrsa’s work, do it.

Spiritual-ish:

Help, Thanks, Wow, Ann Lamott
In her typical sarcastic-but-profound style, Ann explores here the idea that most of our prayers, whether we call them that or not, derive from one of three base postures: help, thanks, and wow.  I’ve always enjoyed Ann’s reflections and like most of her other work, the reader is just as likely to laugh as they are to cry.

Hallelujah Anyway, Ann Lamott***
I deeply resonate with Ann Lamott’s understanding of spirituality, humanity, God, life, etc., and read this book while traveling through Scotland, which was breathtakingly beautiful, which might have affected why I have such positive memories of it.  Hallelujah Anyway is all about finding meaning in the messiness of life in mercy and kindness.  For anyone interested in the big questions, you should read any of her work- but this is one of her best IMHO.

Prayer and the Modern Man, Jacques Ellul
French, Christian, and an Anarchist are three words that you don’t often hear together, but in Jacques Ellul they sing like a three piece harmony.  Writing after WWII, Ellul explores the nature of modern society in ways that are just as relevant today as they were at the time of writing.  In Prayer he reflects on the nature of prayer by deconstructing and reconstructing some of the various ways we’ve misunderstood its essence in ways that I found very thought provoking and challenging.

Presence in the Modern World, Jacques Ellul
While Prayer dealt with the practice of prayer in specific, Presence deals being a person spiritually awake within the trappings of modern society.  So many times while reading this book I had to remind myself that it was written five decades ago because it felt like something that would have been penned today.  Of the two Ellul books I read this year, I’d recommend Presence over Prayer.  Also, I think I’m a Christian Anarchist.

Life and Holiness, Thomas Merton***
For a good chunk of the year, a small section book was part of my daily reading ritual each morning.  Generally working in the same genre as the two Ellul books above,  in Life Merton, who is a Trappist monk, explores how to learn peace and holiness amidst the anxieties of modern life.  This book was one of my favorites because of Merton’s straightforward, honest, and deeply true writing.  Life and Holiness was good for my soul

Culture Care, Makoto Fujimora
As an well respected artist who also oversees The Brehm Center at Fuller Seminary (often rated the best seminary in the universe), which seeks to strengthen the relationship between the arts and the church, Fujimora is uniquely steeped in creativity and theology.  Culture Care is essentially an exploration of the relationship between Christian efforts and societies culture.  In the past Christians have often had an antagonistic relationship with secular culture, seeking to convert it or in some cases stand against it.  Fujimora argues that we should instead care for culture, bringing out the glimmers of beauty and goodness inherently found within it, especially through the arts.  Anyone interested in the intersection of art, faith, and modern culture would find this work thought provoking and worth reading.

Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Ruth Haley Barton
In Strengthening, Ruth Haley Barton invites readers, especially those who are in faith-community leadership roles, to examine  health of their soul.  Often public positions can lead people to neglect their inner health and spirituality while externally appearing to have it all together.  Using the example of Moses, Barton writes about how to maintain health and also warns of potential pitfalls that come with spiritual leadership.  I’ve ready lots of books in this genre, and many of them regurgitate the same ideas, but I found Barton’s offering fresh and encouraging.  I’d recommend this book to anyone in or thinking about getting into ministry.

Chasing Francis: A Pilgrims Tale, Iran Morgan Cron***
I loved this book even though it was a little cheesy at times.  Chasing Francis tells the story of a megachurch pastor who’s burnt out on flashy Americanized Christianity and finds himself traveling with a group of Franciscan monks through Italy.  As high jinks ensue, the lead pilgrim discovers the simple and subversive spirituality of St. Francis and is “re-converted” into a a robust faith, refreshed and nurtured in ways he hadn’t experienced before.  I appreciated this book because it made fun of many aspects of American Christianity in ways that I could relate to and also because the story introduced readers to St. Francis in an engaging way.  Anyone who’s processing faith issues or interested in St. Francis would be encouraged by this book.

Between Heaven and Mirth, Fr James Martin
I’ve really enjoyed getting acquainted with the work of Father Martin.  He’s a catholic priest with a heart for justice and who frequently appeared as guest on the Colbert Report.  This book outlines something that often gets neglected in Jesus faith circles, that humor is a big part of the Bible.  While I didn’t laugh quite as much as I would have thought reading a book about humor in the Bible, it was still worth the read.

As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Eugene Petersen***
Petersen has been one of my favorite authors for a long time.  He’s a humble, soft spoken, well read, pastor.  This book is a compilation of some of his sermons from his career at a small local church.  As a pastor myself, I’ve always found his example inspiring, and getting a glimpse into his heart through his conversations with his congregation is a treasure.

A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Eugene Petersen
As he explores the wisdom of the Psalms, Petersen paints a picture of life and faith as something more about simplicity, patience, and faithfulness rather than immediacy or pomp and circumstance.  You could say that his thesis in this book is that living a life of faith is summarized in the books title, “A long obedience in the same direction”, which interestingly enough was a phrase he borrowed from Niche.  In my experience, this concept has proven true, and it’s within this simple faithfulness that the richness and presence of the Divine become known.

Fiction:

The Princess and the Goblin, George MacDonald***
I guess I don’t really read a lot of fiction.  There are probably some good reasons behind this that would shed light on my personality and proclivities, but I’ll save that for another time.  I chose this book because I was traveling in Scotland earlier this year and out of all the legendary Scottish authors to choose from as travel partners I chose George MacDonald, I think because he was a pastor too.  And also because he was one of C.S. Lewis’ biggest influences.  The Princes is a fairy tale story that follows a young heiress and her miner friend as they uncover a sinister underworld of goblins who are scheming to take down the kingdom.  It’s a fun read with short chapters, which I like.

For Reference:
2016 Book List
2015 Book List

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