Like some others at this time of the year, I have decided to share my ten favourite books from those I read in 2017.
A few years ago I committed to reading more widely, and to aim to finish books that I start. A key thing that’s helped me is tracking what I’ve read. So take this list of highlights as much as being for my own good as much as for others!
Not all of my favourite reads in 2017 were published recently, but I only got around to reading them over the past twelve months. There is a range of genres – and includes a mix of Christian and secular titles. I’d love to hear any recommendations for 2018, as well as any thoughts you have on my 2017 top ten.
In no particular order, here they are:
Being Mortal (Atul Gawande). I loved all of the books that have made this list, but Being Mortal is possibly my favourite read of the year. Atul Gawande has written a beautiful book about death. Gawande believes that a combination of our struggle to be willing to talk about death and contemporary medicine’s overwhelming priority of extending length of life at any cost has led Western societies to fail to fight for quality of life for elderly people. I found this book stimulating at so many levels – intellectually, philosophically, emotionally and relationally.
Strangers in their Own Land (Arlie Russell Hochschild). My boss Richard encouraged me to read this book, a sociological and ethnographic study of Tea Party Republicans in Louisiana Ostensibly it’s an explanation of how the Trump phenomenon gathered pace in the United States. More significantly, it’s a poignant model of empathy. Hochschild is a left-leaning Californian academic but through her commitment to understanding her subjects’ ‘deep story’, she forms a deeper understanding of and connection with them than many would have considered possible. It’s a brilliant example for those of us who aim to have conversations of common currency with others whose starting point of looking at and making sense of the world is very different to our own.
Silence (Shusako Endo). I resolved to read this novel before I saw the film adaptation. Two Portuguese Jesuit priests travel to Japan because they have heard that a major spiritual upon their lives has abandoned faith in Christ. Silence is beautifully composed but isn’t an easy read – in fact, it’s quite disturbing in places. It prompted me to consider all sorts of questions about suffering, persecution, cross-cultural evangelism, perseverance and the character of God.
Provided You Don’t Kiss Me (Duncan Hamilton). As a young journalist newly arrived at the Nottingham Evening Post, one of Duncan Hamilton’s first jobs was to go and interview Brian Clough, freshly installed as manager of Nottingham Forest. This encounter marked the beginning of a long relationship with Clough over his eighteen years as Forest manager, and beyond, right up until his death. Through Hamilton’s eyes, in Brian Clough we see a man who is driven, insecure, exasperating and conniving, but also humorous, generous and inspiring. Though Provided You Don’t Kiss Me carries a sense of nostalgia for football world now consigned to history, the complexities of the inter-generational relationship at its heart is timeless.
For the Glory (Duncan Hamilton). Eric Liddell – of Chariots of Fire fame – has long been one of my heroes. Duncan Hamilton, the only author to have two works on this list, and to my knowledge not a committed Christian, has written a wonderful biography of Liddell. He tells the story of Liddell’s Olympic success, but focuses on his later life as a missionary to China and his eventual death in a prisoner of war camp. It’s an incredible narrative of a life that is willing to embrace suffering at personal cost to offer gospel hope to others.
Just Mercy (Bryan Stevenson). Just Mercy is the account of Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, which offers legal representation to often poor, black people on death row. Part an expose of the US justice system, Stevenson tells the stories of dozens of people who have been denied a fair trial. I had not previously appreciated the pressures and discriminatory tendencies of the American penal system. Having been moved to join the UK’s Prison Reform Trust after reading this book, I was dismayed to realise that – whilst capital punishment is not a function of the British penal system, our legal system is characterised by many of the same biases. A truly life-changing read.
Bible Delight (Christopher Ash). If I’m honest, I’ve always found Psalm 119 hard to read. Prior to reading Christopher Ash’s little commentary, I’d never been quite sure what to make of the psalmist’s expression of piety, or how to read a psalm which seems both highly structured (as an acrostic) but apparently disconnected in its flow. Ash opened my eyes to the psalm’s flow and structure and placed it helpfully within the canon. In recent pressure and affliction I’ve found the psalm’s encouragement to hold to the trustworthiness of the Lord and his word incredibly precious.
Commentary on Galatians (Martin Luther). I re-read Luther’s Commentary on Galatians to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and wasn’t disappointed. It’s always tempting to want to judge historical theological works on the basis of later theological thought which built upon them. But let Luther speak for himself and the wonderful truths of justification by faith alone and adoption in Christ into God’s family shine with clarity, pastoral insight and tremendous freedom.
Running Scared (Ed Welch). Ed Welch is a seasoned author and counsellor with CCEF. Having had Running Scared on my shelf for several years, I found it a very helpful read – personally and for ministry with others. Welch digs into the causes of our anxiety and fear, and brings deep biblical truth to bear. I was personally deeply encouraged by the thought that, even if we are unable to see how Jesus’ grace will be enough if our worst nightmare happens, this is nonetheless a promise upon which we can hang our lives. Essential reading for worriers of all stripes.
Our Deepest Desires (Greg Ganssle). I reviewed this book recently. By way of shorter summary, Ganssle argues that the Christian worldview and the God revealed by the gospel makes sense of our deepest intuitions and hopes about what the world should be like. Christianity dignifies and does not deny our desires for those things we want most of all. Our Deepest Desires is not only a helpful apologetic approach to a culture that thinks Christianity has nothing to say to what they want most, it also offers a beautiful vision for human flourishing.