Because it’s impossible (at least for me) to read enough new release books in one year to even begin to make claims to a “best of” list, my book list is strictly a “favorites” list. The following are five books that came out this year that delighted me, provoked me, informed me and thrilled me… books I’ll remember and will recommend to others.
5) Sects, Love & Rock ‘N Roll by Joel Heng Hartse: Part personal narrative and part cultural history, Joel Heng Hartse’s musical memoir is a lovingly written ode to all that is weird and wonderful, disturbing and divine about the world of Christian rock. Conversant in everything from White Town to Rebecca St. James, Radiohead to Michael W. Smith, Hartse provides a richly observant, nostalgic document of the shaping artifacts and sonic ephemera of his evangelical youth. His book paints a picture of the recent past that is funny, poignant, and therapeutic for anyone who grew up in a similar milieu. One of my most enjoyable reading experiences of the year.
4) Half a Life by Darin Strauss: This short, simple memoir focuses on one tragic moment in Darin Strauss’ adolescence and how it’s affected him since. In high school, Strauss was driving in his Long Island town when a girl on a bike rode into the road in front of him. The impact killed her, and though entirely accidental, Strauss spent the next few decades—half of his life—struggling with the grief of having been the cause of a classmate’s death. Through exceptionally vivid, poetic prose, Strauss takes us through the accidental moment and its aftermath, letting us grieve alongside him, but in the gradual direction of healing.
3) Absence of Mind by Marilynne Robinson: Marilynne Robinson amazes me. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of such fiction masterpieces as Housekeeping, Gilead & Home can construct breathlessly melodic sentences, whether she’s writing about an Iowa homestead or the Freudian self. This collection of essays adapted from Robinson’s lectures at Yale in 2009 features the writer/thinker at her most intellectually rigorous and rhetorically forceful. Taking on the science/faith dichotomy and the “parascientific” bias against religion and the complexity of human consciousness, Robinson does some serious in-the-trenches work to bridge the intellectual gap between science and religion. It’s a tall order, but Robinson is up for the task and this book—though sometimes dense and certainly not casual beach reading—is an invaluable resource.
2) Freedom by Jonathan Franzen: Freedom is that rare book that attempts to capture the zeitgeist through a sprawling, ensemble fiction saga, and succeeds. This is one instance where the hype was totally justified. Franzen’s ambitious novel touches on everything from politics to pop culture to religion, spanning several decades of its protagonist family’s history. In addition to being a dead-on portrait of the mid-Bush era Aughts, the book has great insights into the American interplay between populism and elitism and the paradox of wanting to uphold personal liberty and freedom while also wanting people to act the way we want them to.
1) After You Believe by N.T. Wright: It’s been quite the year for N.T. Wright. The prolific pastor/theologian churned out another couple books and continued to elicit much respect and a fair share of criticism in intellectual Christian circles. Wheaton College devoted an entire theology conference to his work in April, and his appearance at this fall’s Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) conference was the talk of the theology blogosphere. In After You Believe, part three of an apparent trilogy which included Simply Christian and Surprised By Hope, Wright puts aside the justification and New Perspective on Paul controversies and focuses on the “how then shall we live?” question in the Christian life. While the debates continue to rage about the ins and outs of how salvation works, Wright offers a refreshing and profound explication of the biblical model for the Christian life after we’re saved—what we are saved for. His analysis of the role and purpose of Christian virtue is grounded in his characteristically comprehensive eschatological framework. In a single chapter (Ch. 3: “Priests and Rulers”), Wright offers a stunningly concise, beautifully holistic summary of God’s mission for earth and man’s role within it. For Christians who might question their purpose or wonder about the significance of their individual life in the grand scheme of things, this book is for you.
Honorable Mention: To Change the World by James Davison Hunter, The Deep Things of God by Fred Sanders, Generous Justice by Tim Keller, For the Beauty of the Church, ed. by David O. Taylor, Generation Ex-Christian by Drew Dyck, Zero History by William Gibson.