2016 was not exactly a year of heavy reading for me. In all, I would say I probably read around 40 books–although I didn’t exactly keep count. Early on in the year, I was really into theology (and you can see some of that in my top 10). Throughout most of the year, though, I’ve been focused on professional development. Rather than reading, I’ve spent much of my free time taking courses on data science and computer programming. (Side note: if you’re interested in free education on a variety of subjects, check out the courses from sites such as edX and Coursera. It’s amazing what great learning resources are available for free today on the Internet).
Although I didn’t read nearly as much as I’ve read in the past, there were some gems that really jumped out for 2016. These books not only intrigued me, but they dramatically altered my view of the world in some way. To me, that’s what a good book does–it doesn’t merely entertain; it also profoundly shapes your way of thinking. That’s what these books did for me. I would highly recommend every one of them, because I think they could do the same thing for you…
10) If the Oceans Were Ink by Carla Power
I read this book early on in the year, and it really helped me understand the intricacies of the Muslim religion. The book is about a journalist who spends months interviewing a certain Sheikh in an attempt to understand how the Quran influences the lives of Muslims. The impression I got from the book is that adherents to Islam are largely peaceful people seeking an ascetic lifestyle to become closer to God. However, the author does touch on some of the issues in the Muslim tradition that clash with Western values. I would highly recommend this book for anyone looking to get a picture of Islam beyond the stereotypes we often associate with it.
Cultural dialogue is the world’s most powerful weapon against extremism of any kind. Genuine engagement between people holding different points of view is the best hope for making this increasingly polarized planet work.
9) In a Different Key by Jon Donvan and Caren Zucker
This book is a remarkable history of the Autism Spectrum Disorder. The condition has an intriguing story, and its development has been fraught with controversy and uncertainty. More than anything, the book smashed a lot of preconceived notions about autism for me (i.e. that every Autistic person is like Rain Man). The book helped me see that people on the Autistic Spectrum (especially those with the condition formerly known as Asperger’s Syndrome) aren’t weird; they just see the world differently. Unlike other mental conditions, Autism isn’t something we can treat or cure; instead, it’s something we must seek to accommodate. Anyway, I highly recommend this book for anyone who knows people with Autism or who simply love a good history.
When a society diminishes the standing of its weakest, the whole society is diminished as well.
8) Faith Seeking Understanding by Daniel Migliore
As mentioned above, I read a lot of theology in 2016. My personal faith and public religious affiliation went through a dramatic shift over the last year, and I now find myself awash in theological concepts I’d never considered before. This book is a basic overview of the major theological concepts in the Christian faith: from creation to incarnation to the Holy Spirit to eschatology. The writing is straightforward and easily digestible for the lay person, but the concepts are really heavy. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who has not read much theology. If you are a Christian, it is (in my view) a must read. If you are not, then the book will help you gain a broader view of the Christian faith and help you realize that not all Christians have the beliefs you might imagine them to have.
This is the spirit of Christian hope: to struggle and to take risks for justice, freedom, and peace for all people; to be zealous for the completion of God’s redemptive activity in the world; to live in the confidence that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord; and to discover ever new reasons to give thanks and glory to God.
7) Room by Emma Donoghue
Just when I think I’ve lost interest in fiction, a story comes along that draws my imagination back into the world of suspended disbelief. This novel was undoubtedly one of the best I’ve ever read. The narrator is a 5-year-old boy, and we find out about everything through his eyes; it is stunningly brilliant writing. The story is rather dark: a woman kidnapped as a teenager bears the child of her captor and eventually finds a way to escape–only to struggle adapting to life outside the shed in which she had been imprisoned. To me, though, the novel was thematically existential. The idea of being trapped in a situation with no escape was felt deeply in the earlier part of the novel–and anyone can relate to this situation. If you haven’t read this book yet, I cannot recommend it more highly.
No, no, he was put into jail by mistake, I mean it was some bad police who put him there. Anyway, he prayed and prayed to get out, and you know what? An angel flew down and smashed the door open.
6) A God that Could Be Real by Nancy Ellen Abrams
I first heard of this book in a podcast I listened to. I know I said I read a lot of theology this year, and you might think that this was one of those books; it isn’t. The author is a philosopher of science and, until very recently, an ardent skeptic when it comes to religious matters. In this book, she tells the story of recent personal developments that have led her to believe in a form of higher power. What really left an impression on me was her understanding of God as an emergent phenomenon. Just like other concepts that we have collectively created (the economy, the government, the media, etc.) but that nevertheless have reality to us, God is real. The author criticizes many of the common understandings of deity that I myself have had difficulty accepting and still leave space for a God that actually exists. I would highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the intersection of science and religion.
God is endlessly emerging from the staggering complexity of all humanity’s aspirations across time.
5) A New Climate for Theology by Sally McFague
I’m really sorry if you’re tired of hearing about theology by this point–okay, not really. This book was the first book I’ve read on the intersection of theology and the environment and introduced me to a whole new world of literature on ecological theology (honorable mentions: Ask the Beasts by Elizabeth A. Johnson and Grounded by Diana Butler Bass). Essentially, the book argues for religiously minded people to protect the world not only as God’s creation but also as an extension of God. If God is omnipresent in the world, then destroying the world must be an affront to the God who inhabits it. The author proposes a model of God that turned my understanding of creation upside down: that the earth is the body of God. I highly recommend this book to any person of faith wrestling with how they ought to view environmental stewardship.
The divine is physical (as well as spiritual), as we–all of us–are. There is no absolute line dividing matter and spirit, body and soul, nature and humanity, or the world and God. Contemporary science tells us this, but it is also the heart of incarnational thinking. The model of the world as God’s body suggests a creation theology of praise to God and compassion for the world in contrast to Christian theologies of redemption that focus on sin and on escape from the world.
4) Homegoing by Y’a’a Gyasi
This novel left such a huge impact on me, because it helped me realized how something that seems so far away in the distant past can have dramatic ripple effects far into the future. The story begins with two half-sisters in Africa–one which is taken captive and enters into slavery and the other which is married to a slave owner. From there, the author traces the lineage of each woman in subsequent generations all the way to the present day. The writing is beautiful and the cohesiveness of the story across so many characters is a remarkable feat. I recommend this to anyone who loves good fiction, but I also recommend it to anyone struggling to understand race relations and the plight faced today by people of color. As a white man living in America, it was a real eye opener. Maybe it could be for you too…
We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there, you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.
3) The Meaning of the Creative Act by Nicolas Berdyaev
This book is a work of existential philosophy. Berdyaev became one of my favorite writers early in the year, because he strikes that perfect balance of being intellectually rigorous and (unlike other existentialists like Sartre and Kierkegaard) relatively easy to understand. This book covers a broad range of themes in human nature, but the concept that really revolutionized my thinking was the emphasis on the human being as a creative being. Writing from a Christian perspective, Berdyaev is aware of the focus many have on the “fallen” nature of man–that we are pitiful creatures in need of saving. But he argues that we are more than that–that we are also fundamentally creative. We aren’t just saved from our destructive tendencies; rather, we are saved to do something creative in the world.
Creativeness is not only the struggle with sin and evil–it wills another world, it continues the work of creation. The law begins the struggle against sin and evil; the redemption finishes that struggle; but man is called to create a new and hitherto unknown world through free and daring creativeness, to continue God’s creation.
2) The Idea of the Holy by Rudolf Otto
One last theology book! I read this book when I was going through a bit of a faith crisis. Specifically, I was questioning whether or not anything supernatural could actually exist. The moment we perceive anything with our senses, I reasoned, it becomes part of the natural world. Even if we see a ghost, the very act of seeing gives the object physical reality. A thing is only supernatural to the extent that we can’t grasp it because, when we do, it becomes a part of our world. Reading this book helped me think of the supernatural in a new way. Since reading it, I’ve come to believe that the supernatural (or, if you will, God) is the feeling of awe and wonder that we experience in our lives. Whew. Faith crisis resolved.
It might be objected that the mysterious is something which is and remains absolutely and invariably beyond our understanding, whereas that which merely eludes our understanding for a time but is perfectly intelligible in principle should be called, not a ‘mystery,’ but a ‘problem.’ But this is by no means an adequate account of the matter. The truly ‘mysterious’ object is beyond our apprehension and comprehension, not only because our knowledge has certain irremovable limits, but because in it we come upon something inherently ‘wholly other’, whose kind and character are incommensurable with our own, and before which we therefore recoil in a wonder that strikes us chill and numb.
1) Doing Good Better by William MacAskill
This book is about philanthropy, but it offers a different perspective than anything I’ve ever read on the subject. Much that I’ve read and heard on the subject of generosity focuses on the motivations of the giver. We give, because it’s the right thing to do. It makes us feel good to feel like we’re helping others. This book, however, takes a different approach. Rather than focusing on the causes that make us feel good about ourselves, why don’t we focus on the causes that actually get results? The book reveals a variety of ways in which we can use our resources to actually make the world a better place rather than simply making us feel like we’re doing so. On a personal level, the book really helped me in reaffirming my career choice. I would recommend the book to anyone who wants to make a difference in the world but doesn’t really know how. I would also recommend it to anyone who thinks they already are making a difference in the world; you might be surprised by what you discover.
We very often fail to think as carefully about helping others as we could, mistakenly believing that applying data and rationality to a charitable endeavor robs the act of virtue. And that means we pass up opportunities to make a tremendous difference.
Book Riot’s 2017 Read Harder Project
So, what are my plans for 2017? Who knows what interests I’ll take up or how many books I’ll get around to reading. However, there are 24 books I’m planning to read for sure. Last year, I participated in Book Riot’s Read Harder challenge. It’s a really cool way to introduce yourself to different kinds of books. They provide a reading prompt consisting of 24 different types of books, and you choose one to fit each category.
If you’re interested in participating in the project for 2017, here’s the link to the instructions. You don’t have to pick all your books out ahead of time, but I did. Here’s the list of reading prompts and what I’m planning to read for each one in the Read Harder Challenge of 2017…
- Read a book about sports. My pick: On the Origins of Sports by Gary Belsky. I heard an interview with this author about the book, and it sounded interesting…
- Read a debut novel. My pick: All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders.
- Read a book about books. My pick: Reading Reconsidered by Doug Lemov. I heard an interview with this author about the book, and it sounded interesting…
- Read a book set in Central or South America, written by a Central or South American author. My pick: The War of the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa.
- Read a book by an immigrant or with a central immigration narrative. My pick: The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri.
- Read an all-ages comic. My pick: Saga Vol. 1 by Brian Vaughn.
- Read a book published between 1900 and 1950. My pick: The Fatal Eggs by Mikhail Bulgakov.
- Read a travel memoir. My pick: Mother Tongue by Christine Gilbert.
- Read a book you’ve read before. My pick: Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. One of my favorite psychology books of all-time. Michael Lewis has written a new book that’s a biographical account of how the research in this book came to be, and I plan on reading that as a companion to rereading this.
- Read a book that is set within 100 miles of your location. My pick: Super Boys by Brad Ricca. The creators of Superman are from Cleveland. Who knew?
- Read a book that is set more than 5000 miles from your location. My pick: The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas. So, I learned that Australia is over 5,000 miles from Ohio…
- Read a fantasy novel. My pick: The Queen of Blood by Sarah Beth Durst.
- Read a nonfiction book about technology. My pick: The Inevitable by Kevin Kelly.
- Read a book about war. My pick: The Spoils of War by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Allistair Smith.
- Read a YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+. My pick: We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson. I think the premise of this books sounded like a really good idea…
- Read a book that has been banned or frequently challenged in your country. My pick: Go Ask Alice by Anonymous.
- Read a classic by an author of color. My pick: The Outsider by Richard Wright. Wright’s classic Native Son is one of my favorite novels of all-time, due to its Existentialist themes. I’ve heard that this more obscure work of his has even greater Existentialist influence, so I’m excited to dig in…
- Read a superhero comic with a female lead. My pick: Black Widow Vol. 1 by Mark Waid and Chris Samnee. Black Widow is definitely my favorite character in the Avengers movies. I’ve never read a comic book in my life, so I figured this would be a good place to start…
- Read a book in which a character of color goes on a spiritual journey (From Daniel José Older, author of Salsa Nocturna, the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series, and YA novel Shadowshaper) My pick: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor.
- Read an LGBTQ+ romance novel (From Sarah MacLean, author of ten bestselling historical romance novels) My pick: Rulebreaker by Cathy Pegau.
- Read a book published by a micropress. (From Roxane Gay, bestselling author of Ayiti, An Untamed State, Bad Feminist, Marvel’s World of Wakanda, and the forthcoming Hunger and Difficult Women) My pick: Ongoingness by Sarah Manguso.
- Read a collection of stories by a woman. (From Celeste Ng, author Everything I Never Told You and the forthcoming Little Fires Everywhere) My pick: Get in Trouble by Kelly Link.
- Read a collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love. (From Ausma Zehanat Khan, author of the Esa Khattak/Rachel Getty mystery series, including The Unquiet Dead, The Language of Secrets, and the forthcoming Among the Ruins) My pick: Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong. I haven’t read much poetry, but I LOVED the title of this collection.
- Read a book wherein all point-of-view characters are people of color. (From Jacqueline Koyanagi, author of sci-fi novel Ascension) My pick: Swing Time by Zadie Smith.