I started keeping a list of books I read, in January 1986, following the advice of motivational speaker Jim Rohn. The first two books on my list have lost their value over the years, but the third book was Chronicles of Narnia (which I now count as seven small books) by C. S. Lewis. I reread them every four or five years, in January, which gives me a jump start on my annual goal.
1986 wasn’t the beginning of my reading practice. I’ve been an aggressive reader for as long as I can remember, and still have my first Texas State Library Reading Club Certificate from the summer of 1963, between 1st and 2nd grades in Kermit, Texas, and it includes J. Hamilton Hamster and I Want to be a Scientist.
My mom once reminded me how I took encyclopedias on road trips and read them while sitting in the back seat of the car. I loved to browse one page at a time, learning new unexpected things. As an elementary-school-aged student I was already a book nerd, solving problems and answering questions I was too young to understand or ask. I had no idea everyone else my age was reading comic books.
I learned early that it was not only acceptable to write in the margins of books and use a highlighter to accent important passages; it was integral to the joy of reading. I do the same with my Daily Bible, and if I ever lose it, I’ll miss my own notes the most. One of my favorite writers, Austin Kleon, wrote, “The first step towards becoming a writer is becoming a reader, but the next step is becoming a reader with a pencil.” Someday, when I’m gone and they divvy up my library, those margin notes may be the most revealing thing I leave behind.
I don’t expect everyone to love reading as much as I do. But I know all of us would be better people if we read a book or two every year. And so, here are some suggestions. These are listed in the order I read them; I didn’t try to rank them by importance or enjoyment … that’s a paralyzing and pointless exercise. However, if you’re interested, give me your email address and I’ll send you my entire Excel reading list for 2018. In fact, I’ll send you my complete list going back to 1986 if you want, but that’s a lot of list, more than 2,000 titles.
I made one change in reading strategy this year. For quite some time I’ve been disappointed in my gradual migration to playing on my phone while sitting in a waiting room rather than reading a book like I used to do. So I downloaded the Kindle app, and now I can read without carrying a book with me. So far, in 2018, I have completed two books that way, and I’m now on my third: Letterman, The Last Giant of Late Night, by Jason Zinoman.
This is my list of 20 Good Books I Read in 2018, the books that turned out to be the most meaningful for me over the past twelve months. Reviewing my list to find these particular twenty books helps me remember God’s providence throughout the year. What was it that I thought I needed to hear or to learn, or to remember? Sometimes these lists give me a clue.
Should you choose to read one of these, I’d love to hear from you. I don’t expect you to like everything I like, but I enjoy hearing different takes on books that made my year better.
1. The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien … Probably the first book I ever bought voluntarily with my own money, and still better than the movie(s)
2. Fellowship of the ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King, by J.R.R. Tolkien … I read the Chronicles of Narnia every four years or so; this year, partly influenced by Clark Moreland, I realized I need to do the same with the LOTR books
3. The Rider, by Tim Krabbe … One of the best cycling books I've ever read. A fast-paced eyewitness chronicle of bicycle racing
4. My Best Friend's Funeral, by Roger Thompson … recommended to me by Vern Hyndman, a memoir of a young man learning to be a grownup while navigating through family and grief
5. The Art of Practicing, by Madeline Bruser … a recommendation from my music mentor Rabon Bewley, about living and practicing life, as well as making music from the heart
6. Leonardo Da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson … fascinating biography of one of the smartest men ever to live
7. Stories from the Dirt: Indiscretions of an Adventure Junkie, by John Long … wide-ranging collection of adventure stories
8. Subversive Kingdom: Living as Agents of Gospel Transformation, by Ed Stetzer … how to live as believers, as the church, in a broken and unbelieving culture
9. Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel, by Russell Moore … a thoughtful and practical charge to a church that speaks to social and political issues with a bigger vision in mind: that of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
10. Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe, by Mike Massimino … Simply the best (and most fun) astronaut book I've read
11. On Trails: An Explanation, by Robert Moor … an exploration of how trails help us understand the world
12. Everybody Always: Becoming Love in a World Full of Setbacks and Difficult People, by Bob Goff … reminder how simple it can be to follow Jesus
13. You & a Bike & a Road, by Eleanor Davis … A comic diary of Davis’s bike across the south. I enjoyed the graphics and real-time descriptions of her ride.
14. Theodore Roosevelt: A Literary Life, by Thomas Bailey … A different view of Roosevelt's life; how important writing and reading were to him
15. North: Finding My Way While Running the Appalachian Trail, by Scott Jurek … an Account of Jurek's attempt to set a speed record running the Appalachian Trail
16. Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, by Laurence Gonzales … A mix of adventure narrative, survival science, and practical advice on how to take control of stress, learn to assess risk, and make better decisions under pressure.
17. The Man Who Walked Through Time: The Story of the First Trip Afoot Through the Grand Canyon, by Colin Fletcher … Fletcher's story of hiking the length of the Grand Canyon in 1963
18. Ghosts of the Fireground: Echoes of the Great Peshtigo Fire and the Calling of a Wildland Firefighter, by Peter Leschak … A ministry student who becomes a wildland firefighter
19. David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, by Malcomb Gladwell … a new interpretation of what things are obstacles and disadvantages, and what are strengths
20. As Kingfishers Catch Fire: A Conversation on the Ways of God Formed by the Words of God, by Eugene Peterson … strikingly beautiful prose and deeply grounded insights that bring us to a new understanding of how to live out the good news of the Bible.
Here are six other good books I read, many of which, in another year, would be in my top 20 (again, listed in the order in which I read them):
1. Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, by Nadia Bolz-Weber … an unconventional life of faith that couldn't be more different than my own
2. Lucky 666: The Impossible Mission That Changed War in the Pacific, by Bob Drury … A WW2 narrative of fliers in the Pacific, recommended by my cousin-in-law Bob Tcherneshoff
3. The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei, by John Stevens … An ancient tradition of seeking spiritual enlightenment through repeated endurance running
4. 41: A Portrait of My Father, by George W. Bush … a unique and intimate biography, a love story, about a President who lived family values in everything he did. I hope my own kids think as well of me when I’m gone.
5. The Bad Food Bible: How and Why to Eat Sinfully, by Aaron Carroll … this physician, professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine, and popular NYT contributor mines the latest evidence to show that many “bad” ingredients actually aren’t unhealthy, and in some cases are essential to our well-being
6. Tracks of a Fellow Struggler: Living and Growing through Grief, by John Claypool … This was recommended to me by Jim Dennison years ago, as “the best book I’ve read about understanding loss and grief.” I reread it this year, after our family lost a tiny baby. I needed it again.
“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32