It would be hard to overstate the role that good books have played in my life. Books have been my conversation partners, challenged my thinking, helped me see issues from a new point of view, transported me to places I have never visited, moved me to repent, and introduced me to people who have been dead for centuries.
In 2014, I started following some good reading advice from Dr. Al Mohler and read across six categories– theology, biblical studies, church life, history, cultural studies, and literature. I usually have a multi-book project going on in each category and this has helped me to dive deeper into my reading than I have previously. Also, though, I appreciated Dr. Alan Jacobs’ advice to read whatever you want, or as he calls it, reading on a “whim.” So, I have done some reading this year unrelated to my projects.
What follows is a list of my favorite ten books that I read this year. Most of these were not published in 2017, but I read them this year, so that’s why they are on the list. Also, I did not include books that I regularly reread. (Knowing God, The Cross of Christ, The Supremacy of God in Preaching, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, and Stephen King’s On Writing.)
Here are my favorite books of 2017.
Deep Work by Cal Newport
The three books I mention in cultural studies are all part of a reading project I did on the influence of technology on our lives. Deep Work was so good that I read it, typed out all of my highlights in a Word document, and listened to the audiobook later in the Summer. Newport argues that the kind of work needed in our culture is produced through periods of deep thought and concentration, or as he calls it, deep work. This kind of work is becoming both rare and valuable, mainly because of the distractions we deal with through open offices, social media, email, and other forms of constant communication. Newport offers solutions that many would deem radical, but they are necessary to produce quality work.
The Tech-Wise Family by Andy Crouch
We cannot escape the ubiquity of technology in our culture. As a Dad with four children, it’s hard to know how to use technology profitably without becoming a slave to it and then teaching our children to do the same. Crouch shares ten commitments of a family that uses technology wisely and in doing so paints a beautiful picture of how we can enjoy life together without our technology overwhelming us. (You can read my favorite quotes from The Tech-Wise family here.)
Reset by David Murray
We hear more and more stories in our culture of people burning the candle and both ends and working without regard for their physical and mental health. Murray shares his story of burnout and how he learned to structure his life so that he could be fruitful for the long haul. (You can read my favorite quotes from Reset here.) He shows how hard work, rest, and time with our families work together for a life well-lived to the glory of God. (Reset is primarily aimed at men. He coauthored Refresh with his wife Shona to apply these principles to the unique challenges that women face.)
Momentum by Colin Smith
I’m preaching through the Gospel of Matthew and read this as I prepared to preach through the Beatitudes. Smith proposes seeing the Beatitudes like rings. We reach out and grab the first one, then it produces the momentum that helps us reach the second, and so on. His exposition of the Beatitudes cuts to the heart of what they mean and how they apply to the heart of a Christian. This book stirred my soul and gave me a greater understanding of the Beatitudes as a whole. (You can read my favorite quotes from Momentum here.)
The Sermon on the Mount by Charles Quarles
Speaking of preaching through the Sermon on the Mount, this work from Charles Quarles in the NAC Studies in Bible and Theology series helped me grapple with its background and theology in a way I never had before. I particularly benefitted from his discussions on the Old Testament background in different sections of the sermon. He also examines differences of opinion on interpretive issues in an engaging and understandable way before staking out a position and persuasively arguing for it. I walked away from this volume with a much greater understanding of the Sermon on the Mount.
HistoryHamilton by Ron Chernow
Until a few years ago, I did not know much about Alexander Hamilton, but he was a fixture in biographies that I read of George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. Chernow’s biography is considered to be the finest work on Hamilton and served as the inspiration and source material for the award-winning musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Chernow paints a gripping picture of this poor orphan whose stunning talents and ceaseless effort lead him to dizzying heights only for it to all slip away. The book is long, the audiobook clocks in at over 30 hours, but the time spent is absolutely worth it.
The Last Lion by William Manchester and Paul Reid
My vocabulary prevents me from expressing the beauty of this three-volume story of the life of Winston Churchill by William Spencer and Paul Reid. (Reid only worked on the final volume.) The first volume covers his birth through his political exile in the early 1930’s. Volume 2, Alone, walks through the years leading up to the Second World War as Churchill sounds the alarm about Adolph Hitler only to be ignored time and time again. Paul Reid wrote the final volume after the death of William Spencer. He begins with Churchill’s first days as Prime Minister through his death in 1965. (I have not finished the third volume, but there’s nothing about this volume that could knock this set off of this list.) This work dives into the details of Churchill’s life while maintaining a narrative drive that keeps the reader engaged.
Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
I’m about halfway through reading a biography of every American president and I chose this one on Abraham Lincoln because of how much I enjoyed her books The Bully Pulpit and No Ordinary Time. She chose to focus on Lincoln by examining his relationship with the men who opposed him for the 1860 Republican nomination and who ultimately became part of his cabinet– William Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates. She weaves their personal narratives together in a way that helps you understand each man better before their lives converge in one of the most impressive cabinets in American history. Her portrayal of each man is so personal that the reader cannot help the emotion that comes from Lincoln’s tragic death.
The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebank
I received this book as a Chrismas present last year with the explanation that Rebank has been called “The British Wendell Berry.” Rebank explains the year-round process of shepherding a flock while interweaving his personal narrative. He shows the beauty of hard and often mundane work and gives great insight into the challenges of the job. I left this book with a great appreciation for the wisdom and skill involved in shepherding as well as a deep desire to put this kind of heart and soul into what God has called me to do.
The Underground Railroad by Collin Whitehead
Even with everything we know about chattel slavery in the United States, many people still find a way to make it sound like slavery “was not that bad.” It was, and Collin Whitehead uses a stunning narrative to help us see it. The story revolves around a woman who escapes slavery in Georgia via the Underground Railroad only to run into many obstacles and terror along the way. I cried, I sat in stunned silence, and I sat transfixed from the first page to the last.
The hardest part of writing this post each year is that I inevitably have to leave out some really good books or the post gets ridiculously long. Here are some books that I also really enjoyed and profited from this year.
Dispatches from Pluto by Richard Grant
God’s Word Alone by Matthew Barrett
Silas Marner by George Eliot
Churchill and Orwell by Thomas Ricks
The Whole Christ by Sinclair Ferguson
“My Favorite Books of 2015“