Any book-lover knows that there are bad books, good books, and books that leave a permanent mark. There are some books that for one reason or another imprint on your heart and leave you a different person than you were before. For me, books such as The Lord of the Rings, Of Mice and Men, and Les Misérables have stuck with me for years after I read them for the first time. While it is not every year that I read a book quite as impactful as these, I have to come find that there are certain books that require some reflection. Too often I put a book down – even a particularly good book – and move on to the next without letting everything settle. So as 2019 came to a close, I tried taking some time to reflect on some of my favorite books from this last year and reconsider why I appreciate them.
I will not be providing summaries or reviews of the following books. Rather I will simply be reflecting on my experience of reading them and what I liked most about them. If you want to know more about the books listed, I encourage you to look them up and read them for yourself.
These are also not necessarily my favorite five books or “the best” that I read last year. These are just five particular books that I wanted to reflect upon and share with others.
With that said, here are five books I loved reading in 2019:
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak – There is a reason this book is so popular. My wife read it years ago and adored it but for some reason I just could not bring myself to pick it up. But when the library book club chose it last February, my time finally came and I enjoyed every moment of it. The unique point-of-view that a personified Death gives the reader is a hook from the beginning. Yet it never becomes a gimmick or a crutch. The true strength of this book is in its characters who struggle to truly live in a world surrounded by death.
I have read numerous books about life in Nazi Germany, both fictional and non-fictional. But despite the bleak subject matter and the potentially morbid point-of-view, this book was able to charm me. Any reader knows the power of books, but The Book Thief shows that their real power is in who we share those books and stories with. I read it back in February and I do not believe I read a better work of fiction the rest of the year.
A Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor’s Journey Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace by Brian Zahnd – Let me begin by saying that I am not a pacifist even though I have long been sympathetic and attracted toward pacifistic views. This book did not make me a pacifist but it did push me closer in that direction.
I truly appreciated reading about Zahnd’s personal journey as he wrestled with issues of war, violence, and nationalism from a Christian perspective. This is another book that I read toward the beginning of 2019 so it has been a while, but what I remember most from A Farewell to Mars is not so much about violence and peace as it is about idolatry. It is so easy to place more faith in country and violence than it is in God.
This book is convicting and challenging. I am sure that many would strongly disagree with what much of Zahnd has to say. But at the very least he is posing questions than anyone following Jesus has to wrestle with. Not least of which is the question: do we just believe in Jesus as a means to salvation or do we actually believe in the ideas that Jesus taught and lived? One of the many quotes from this book that has stuck with me is, “We forget that when we see Christ dead upon the cross, we discover a God who would rather die than kill his enemies.”
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott – If you have never read Anne Lamott, stop reading this right now and pick up something (anything) by her and start reading. Thank me later.
I read several great books by Lamott this year but it was Bird by Bird that encouraged me to begin writing again. Although I have not written as much as I would like to this past year (I will blame becoming a parent on that detail), I can honestly say that I doubt I would have written much of anything other than Sunday sermons if it had not been for this book. The simple reminder to take things one step at a time – “bird by bird” – has been invaluable for me. On almost a weekly basis as I look at all that I have to do, I find myself saying, “I’m just going to have to take this bird by bird.”
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – I thought I would hate this book. It is a book I would never have picked up on my own. I remember almost rolling my eyes when it was passed out at book club – it looked like some kind of bad Rom-Com. But I was reminded that one of the reasons I joined the library book club was to make myself read things that I would not otherwise read. So I gave it a try and I am better for it.
In the early stages of the book I wanted to rename it, Eleanor Oliphant is a Batman Villain Waiting to Happen. But as I continued, I decided a better name would simply be Eleanor Oliphant Needs a Hug. This is a powerful book about a broken woman coming to terms with her past and finding healing and redemption. It is at times tragic and painful to read but I ultimately found it hopeful and important. Sometimes we have to learn that there is power in naming our pain and brokenness. We have to come to a point where we acknowledge that certain things that have happened in our lives are not okay or normal. It is okay to acknowledge that everything is not “fine”.
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson – I have never read a book that made me so angry. There were times I had to put this book down because I could actually feel my face turning red with rage. The true stories of injustice that Stevenson shares in this book are heart-wrenching and infuriating.
There was a time in my life where I considered becoming a lawyer and doing similar work to what Stevenson does. Although the Lord led me in a different direction, I could not admire the work that Stevenson does more. He has become a bit of a hero of mine. If you have not seen his TED Talk, watch it here.
If there is one word I could use to describe this book, it would be “Important”. This is a book that needs to be read.
I have come to find that we need to completely rethink how we do criminal justice as a society. Right now it seems to be, “Well, someone broke the law…let’s lock them up in prison and hope that they’ll come out better.” What if we asked questions like why did this person do such and such and how can we help them find redemption and healing?
Stevenson repeats throughout the book: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done.” We need a criminal justice system that understand that fact.
This book angered and challenged me like no book ever has. Besides issues of criminal justice, Stevenson offers painful reminders of the issues of systemic racism and prejudice that continue to plague our country. This is a dark book, but Stevenson does offer hope to those of us who acknowledge our brokenness and have eyes to look with mercy upon the brokenness of those around us.
It was these powerful reminders that made Just Mercy stand far and above any other book I read this year. Suffice it to say – this one left a mark.