Here’s a post about some books I read in 2013.
It’s not a list of the best or worst or most or least important books to be published in 2013. I’ve read far too few books published in 2013 to be able to make such a list. And honestly, who cares what I think about the matter? There are lots of other people with opinions much more informed than mine that can give you a list like that. This is just a list. A list of books I read this year that I think deserve to be put in a list. Some were good, some were bad, some were important (to me), some made me forget all about 2013 and the earth and the universe.
I read a lot of fiction this year, which I plan to do next year as well. A mixture between new and old, and mostly sci fi/fantasy. I didn’t read enough theology and the theology I did read wasn’t heavy enough. I plan to rectify that next year.
So, yeah. The list.
Best Theology Book
Timothy Keller’s Center Church (Zondervan, 2012)
There are two ways you can be a Calvinist, I think, and hold to the doctrine of total depravity, specifically. You can either distrust human reason so much you become a total dogmatist, uncreatively constructing theological structures out of wooden literalism and uncritically attributing their design and execution to God himself. Or you can develop a more subtle understanding, distrusting human reason, yes, but also your distrust of human reason, therefore not isolating yourself in theological solipsism, but rather opening yourself up to God where ever he sees fit to reveal himself. Tim Keller is a Calvinist of this latter kind. He is a Calvinist of the best kind.
To me, Center Church was incredible important. As I talked about in a post a couple of days ago, it was an almost providential read for me: I started the book in the spring, but lost interest towards the end, so I put it down. In the summer, a pastor friend of mine approached me to join their church and become part of the ministry team there. I was very conflicted about this, wanting to say yes to an exciting opportunity, but not wanting to let my old church down. As I was thinking these things through, I picked up Center Church again and read the last chapters. They, as they say, spoke to me, right in to my situation. They helped me sort through the issues and become OK with my eventual decision to leave the church of the first 30 years of my life and join a new one. For that reason alone, Center Church was the best theology book I read in 2013. Incidentally, it’s also a really, really good book. It is full of wisdom. It’s born out of decades of thought, research and, most importantly, experience. It is balanced and fair. It’s worth getting for the chapter on missional church alone.
Other Good Theology Books:
Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel
Matthew Lee Anderson, Earthen Vessels
Best Fiction Book
Brandon Sanderson, The Way of Kings: The Stormlight Archive (Gollancz, 2010)
I like fiction that takes its time. That isn’t afraid of properly telling a story, with all its details fleshed out. With its 1000 pages, The Way Of Kings, then, was a deeply satisfying read. Don’t you just love that feeling when, 300 pages in, you think, “I don’t want this to end!” – and you’ve got 700 pages to go! It’s beautiful. The book is so epic. Sanderson has built a world steeped in mythology and mystery, with God-like beings and powers, both good and bad, setting the stage for humans, both good and bad, to make do and rise above their lot. The main characters – Dalinar Kholin, Kaladin and Szeth, especially – are flawed and deeply sympathetic. I really appreciated Sanderson’s depiction of goodness and honour and virtue, particularly in relation to leadership. The sequel, Words of Radiance, will be out in March. I cannot wait. Perhaps I’ll have time to read Sanderson’s Mistborn books, which according to the friend who originally recommended I read The Way of Kings, are really good too.
Other Good Fiction Books:
Neil Gaiman, The Ocean At The End Of The Lane
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
Isaac Asimov, The Foundation Trilogy
Timothy Zahn, The Thrawn Trilogy
Best Science Book
Mary Roach, Packing For Mars: The Curious Science of Life In The Void (W. W. Norton & Company, 2010)
What is space like? And how can we know? Packing For Mars details the sometimes insane, sometimes tedious, sometimes incredibly exciting lengths scientists, astro-/cosmonauts and space agencies have gone to find out. With discussions ranging from sex in space, to astral hygiene, to space psychology and a beautiful tribute to animals in space, Mary Roach, with her characteristic and funny voice, answers all the questions you could dream up – and lots you probably couldn’t. Lots of anecdotes to impress your friends with.
Other Good Science Books:
Rupert Sheldrake, The Science Delusion: Freeing The Spirit of Enquiry
Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld, Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience
Roger Ebert, Life Itself (Grand Central Publishing, 2011)
I bought this the day after Roger Ebert died. After having read the book, I’m sorry I didn’t know the man in person. Yet I’m thankful for getting to know him, to the extent that that’s possible, through these, his memoirs.
What emerges is a deeply sympathetic man, who was essentially conservative (especially in his relationship to place and to the past), but who lived quite an exciting life. He was an unashamed liberal, but he cherished tradition – his non-theological devotion to Catholicism being the most touching instance of this fusion. The book is funny, it’s touching and like so much of Ebert’s other writing, it’s poignant in its observations on human nature and experience. Some of my favourite parts are his memories of other people, some famous like Lee (“F…ing”) Marvin and John Wayne, some not so much like Chaz, his wife.
It’s bittersweet to read a book about the life of a man so recently departed. Especially one as alive as Ebert was. But somehow that makes the book and the life partly contained within its pages that more precious. Ebert was a good man. He lived a good life. And this was a good book.
Other Good Memoirs:
Rod Dreher, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming
Rachel Held Evans, A Year Of Biblical Womanhood
Yngwie J. Malmsteen, Relentless: The Memoir
Alister McGrath, C.S. Lewis: A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet (Tyndale House, 2013)
I read a lot of Lewis in my teens and I loved it (and, more recently, I’ve read “Narnia” for my daughter – she loved it), but over the years, especially during my theological studies, I’ve “gotten over” him somewhat. He turned out not to be as brilliant a philosopher as I used to think. I’ve changed my mind now. What I most appreciated about McGrath’s new Lewis biography, more than the detailed account of his life, the critical engagement with the form and development of his thought and writing, the contextualisation, both during and after his life, was how it rekindled not only my love, but my respect for Lewis. He wasn’t trying to be an academic philosopher or theologian and I guess I forgot that. Now I remember. I also remember he was a popular apologist second to none. As a result, I’ve recovered all my old books from the attic, especially Screwtape Letters and Until We Have Faces, and put in orders for the ones I didn’t get around to reading when I was younger, the space trilogy chief among them.
A most highly recommended book.
Another Good Biography:
Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy
Best History Book
A compulsive read! Reel masterfully weaves together a very complete portrait of both a deeply sympathetic and intriguing man, but also of a time that is no longer: Where there still were places on this Earth genuinely mysterious and unknown, where men could forge for themselves mythic legacies of bravery and discovery. Paul du Chaillu was such a man. Coming from humble beginnings, he was a genuinely self-made man – a remarkable feat in his time, characterised as it was by overt class and race snobbery, du Chaillu accomplished this through a staggering amount of inner strength and force of character. Following his story I found myself growing truly fond of the man and I was rooting for him throughout his remarkable journey(s). The story centres around the beast, the gorilla, but is ultimately about humanity – at its best and at its worst.
In other words, a really, really, really good book.
Another Good History Book:
Best Economics/Philosophy Book
Michael Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012)
Markets leave their mark.
Michael J. Sandel has written a very interesting and thought-provoking book on the morality of markets. With an abundance of anecdotes and examples he quite effectively illustrates that markets often exert a moral influence on both product and consumer, and that that moral influence is often negative. He argues convincingly that standard market thinking is unequipped to deal with this negative moral influence. As such, What Money Can’t Buy is a defence and call to return to good old fashioned moral reasoning. I found Sandel’s broader conception of corruption to be especially helpful and as someone who sees himself as something of a virtue ethicist, I resonated with his concerns about the corrosive effects markets have on consumers’ characters.
This is not only a book of economics. It’s a book of moral philosophy. And it’s very accessible, with literally no jargon or equations. It’s not ideologically driven. Sandel is not against the free market. He just recognises, as he says in the beginning, that we should have a market economy, not a market society. His argument is not one that cannot be trampled underfoot by the rigid logic of market thinking. But those who are honest with themselves and open themselves up to their reasonable moral intuitions will see the sense he makes.
Worst Science/Philosophy Book
Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape (Free Press, 2010)
This was a frustrating read. I read it because a friend kept bringing it up in debates about morality, science and religion. While I found some parts of the book quite interesting (specifically where Harris details neuroscientific findings, both his own and others’), I found following his train of thought annoying. I kept bringing up what to me felt like obvious objections. He simply ignored most of them and the ones that he did address, he more or less dismissed. Careful argumentation against critics is very hard to find in this book. Which in the end just comes across as arrogance. With arguments so lacking, Harris very much failed to convince me of his brain based moral system. Also, his chapter on religion was literally the worst.
Worst Fiction Book
Dmitry Glukhovsky, Metro 2033 (Self-published (I think), 2005)
A post-apocalyptic zombie story? Set in the Moscow metro? Sounds like a brilliant idea! And it is. Unfortunately, the author drops the ball almost immediately and gets lost in a maze of irrelevant plot lines and characters the reader couldn’t care less about. The ending is pretty cool, but that’s about the single positive thing I can say about this book. Don’t know why I forced myself to read this one, but for some reason I did. Which I regret. It’s terrible.
Another Bad Fiction Book:
Veronica Roth, Allegiant (Book 3 of the Divergent Trilogy)