A few weeks ago, I read an article in the New York Times about its top book picks in 2009. As a result, I have asked several people around me for their own top picks, the best books that they have read this past year. I have been negligent in posting my own. I keep a running list of the books that I read – and that list is buried somewhere in one of the many unpacked boxes in our new house. So, based on my (often faulty) memory, here is my list of top ten.
1. The Bible. Someone told me that the Bible didn’t count, but as yet, it was my most consistent reading over the course of the year. I would encourage you to read it through in 2010. There is something amazing in grasping it in its entirety. Its depth never ceases to astonish me. I can email you a “schedule” if you are interested. That helps me to stay consistent.
2. Once A Runner and Again to Carthage, both by John L. Parker. The first book was originally self-published in 1978 and sold out of the back of the author’s car at running races. In 2007, it ranked as the number one most-sought-after out-of-print book in the United States. It was just reprinted this year. Again to Carthage is its sequel. If you were ever a high school or college athlete (which I never was), you would appreciate these books. If you run, the writing in the race sequences is powerful. If you rather just sit on the couch and read about sweat, it will help you understand the mindset of those with worn-out running shoes and fading dreams.
3. Home by Marilynne Robinson, newly published and the winner of many writing awards, including the coveted Orange Award in the United Kingdom which sent the Brits into an uproar that an American would win THEIR own trophy. I read this book first, although its predecessor and companion piece is Gilead, which won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 2005. Actually, both books dwell on the same situation, seen from two very different perspectives. When Gilead first came out, I had a hard time jumping in. Home pulled me in instantly, and then I went back and read Gilead. I was then able to appreciate it. I also re-read Marilynne’s first book Housekeeping, her first novel published in 1980 which was nominated for the Pulitzer, an amazing feat for a first-time novelist. Her writing in itself is profound. She is on the permanent faculty at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop. I met her there when we lived in Iowa City, long before I realized who I was meeting.
4. Grace-Based Parenting by Tim Kimmel. I have read A LOT of parenting books through the years. This one stands far and above the rest. I taught this book in a small group Bible study for young moms last summer. We learned a lot about parenting based on grace rather than performance, but the deepest discussions revolved around learning about ourselves, our backgrounds, and how we can live grace-filled lives. Highly recommended.
5. Transforming Leadership by Leighton Ford. Everyone is interested nowadays in leadership books. I felt that this book should have been titled Transforming Servanthood, but then, who would have read it? Published in 1991, it does not relay information about successful models of leadership, but the transforming servanthood model of Jesus Christ. This book was on a prescribed reading list for a course that I was taking. I did not want to read it. It surprised me.
6. On the same vein, Transforming Discipleship by Greg Ogden. How many small group Bible studies have you participated in through the years? And what can you remember from them? How did they change you? This book is based on the premise that information without transformation is a waste of time. Ogden believes in the transforming power of a small group. The key word here is “transformation.”
7. Decades ago, Flannery O’Connor took the literary world by storm. A single woman living with lupus on a peacock farm in Georgia, she wrote with a rare giftedness that did not mince words. In Mystery and Manners, many of her unpublished essays and talks have been gathered together. The underlying theme throughout this little book is the grace of God and the power of story. I have something underlined on just about every page.
8. At the University of Memphis, I had the privilege to hear author Elizabeth Strout read aloud portions of her new book Olive Kitteridge. It is a witty book of short stories that are interwoven. The common thread is the character Olive Kitteridge. One’s perceptions about this odd woman remarkably change through the course of the book. The stories are somewhat reckless and often quite irreverent, but the second story in this book is one of the most powerful testimonies about the sanctity of life that I have read.
9. I was re-introduced this year to the works of the Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz who is now deceased. He is one of the writers that I wonder why I never heard of him before now. Even though he passed away in 2004, his work is still being published. I testify that I don’t understand much of his work, but his words are rich. “One clear stanza can take more weight/ Than a whole wagon of elaborate prose.” (from the preface of A Treatise On Poetry). The other book of his that I read this year was The Witness of Poetry, a series of lectures in 1981-82 at Harvard. Not light reading.
10. The surprise story of the year in many circles was the publication of Called Out of Darkness by Anne Rice. Her writing career was launched with her legendary 1973 publication of Interview with the Vampire and the remainder of her vampire series. Her fiction was dark and gothic. This memoir focuses on Anne Rice’s return to Christianity after decades of hardcore atheism. One of the most poignant passages that I remember was her stating “I missed God.” She had walked away from the faith, and the reality of His absence in her life took her breath away. No one stands beyond the grace of God. The most spiritually thirsty people you know may be the least obvious.
This list includes books of all genres and worldviews. It is in the revealing of human nature that we see our shortcomings. Even a false worldview reveals what is really Truth, and even more firmly establishes the validity and consistency of a Biblical worldview. Read everything with that lens. As Flannery O’Connor states, fiction “should reinforce our sense of the supernatural by grounding it in concrete, observable reality.”
I’d love to see YOUR list. Merry Christmas.