To live a life amongst quality books has, for me, always been a supreme value and a sign of a life well lived. Although I've always struggled to read, I've always loved books. I love shopping for them, organizing them, and planning which new volumes to tackle next. I'm always collecting lists of books recommended by trusted thinkers and writers and towards the end of every year I consult these lists and make my own spreadsheet of all the books I hope to read during the next year. (And let me tell you, 2017 is looking promising.) Because so many of the books I've lived my life amongst in 2016 were recommended to me by others, I feel it is an essential service to put a list of these favourites together, with the hope that you too will come across something worth pursuing is. Perhaps a title or two from this list strikes your interest and deepens or enriches your life in some way.
Last year I read 72 books. That number astonished me and I remained convinced it would never repeat that feat. This year I read 74 books, so go figure. I'm not holding my breath for 2017 though. My goal is always to close the month with five completed titles.
I offer this list in a roughly chronological order.
I read Malcolm Guite's advent poetry anthology Waiting on the Word: A Poem A Day for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany last year and found it to be a delightful poetry education. Malcolm selects poems from across time and genre, including religious and secular poems. Then he offers a short essay walking us through the language and meaning of the poem, explaining why it offers value for our advent journey. Malcolm also reads each poem aloud on his website, which is itself an education on how to savour poetry's language.
I listened to Will Paton's excellent recording of Jack Kerouac's On the Road. It's a breathless and detailed look at what it means to be alive and to truly notice and enjoy the life around us. Since I'm a sucker for anything Inklings related, I really enjoyed the fine new biography of the group The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings. It was a joy to read and it was great to have a more up to date examination of their lives and their influences.
This year I also prayed through The Psalms for the first time. It has shaped my prayer life more than anything else. I plan on re-reading them indefinitely for the foreseeable future. The Psalms are the prayerbook of the Bible. They were prayerbook of Jesus, and have been the prayerbook of the church for two millenniums. How can they not become my prayerbook as well? My vision is that these songs will be woven into my own life as I pray, sing, read about, and make art around them in the year ahead.
My best friend recommended East of Eden and what a book! Some books you read quickly because you can't wait to hear what happens next. Others you read slowly to savour each sentence. This book was the first time I encountered both. Every year I pick up an Annie Dillard volume, and this year I picked up An American Childhood. And Makoto Fujumura's book Silence & Beauty helped reshape my view of how Christ can be shown in a culture and through that culture's art.
Mike Cosper's book Stories We Tell was crucial in reframing the way I approached stories and cinema in particular. When I look back on my year of movie going, I notice now how little I watched prior to reading this book and how much more willing I was to engage with this medium after reading it. His approach acknowledges the power that stories old over us. It brings out the deep desires that stories tap into. And it opened up how many of our society's greatest stories hint at the True Storyline of scripture. I've been thinking, talking, and writing about the ideas in this book all year and I hope these thoughts continue.
If I were to choose one book of 2016, it would be Eugene Peterson slender volume Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer. Rarely have I read a book that includes such elegant writing with such spiritual truth. I ended up reading one chapter from the book aloud to three different friends. I also did a photo project based off that chapter. I can't wait to read more of Eugene Peterson on the Psalms.
James K.A. Smith's You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit was another influential read. In it, he argues that although Christian thinkers and culture have been focused on changing what we think, it is in fact our desires and habits that are much more formative. These habits of the heart are shaped in subconscious ways by the shopping malls, cinemas, and Facebook feeds, but God has given the church an even more powerful tool: the rhythms of church worship. Since Mike Cosper is very much influenced by Jamie Smith and since I got to meet Jamie in September, the thinking in this book has been flowing throughout my year.
At one point I was trying to read Bob Dylan's memoir, Chronicles Volume One while eating a meal. Every time I put my pencil down to take a bit of food, I was forced to pick the pencil back up again to underline yet another sentence. This book describes the well-worn grooves of Dylan's artistic creation process. The last half of the book, which walked us through the week surrounding the recording of my favourite Dylan record, 'Oh Mercy', captured the frustrations and break-throughs of creating an album.
I really enjoyed how Brett Lott integrated the steady, heart work of being a Christian with the steady, hard work of being a writer in Of Letters & Life. The tiny, jewel-like story The Angel Knew Papa and the Dog is a volume I hope to read aloud one of these Christmases. Listening to Neil Gaiman read his terrifying volume The Ocean at the End of the Lane was a fantastic audiobook experience. The Gift: Creativity in the Modern World helped change my approach to how to give away the art I create. Driven to Distraction and The Dyslexic Advantage re-woke and changed my perspective on my very real disabilities. I hope these books don't just sit on the shelf but make a difference in my 2017.
I spent most of the year reading through the Harry Potter series and it's accompanying complementary books. What a ride! Although I remain unimpressed by her prose, I'm floored by the richly detailed world J. K. Rowling has created and am shocked at how deeply Christian her stories are. Her world is a treasure and I thoroughly repent of my prudish and judgmental attitude what I thought was a superfluous and dangers world of mere "witchcraft and wizardry."
Finally, Art & Fear was an encouraging and confronting book that I've already given away many times and hope to return to. And it took me three years to work my way through Seamus Heany's giant poetry anthology Opened Ground. Those words became melodies that I worked, created, slept, prayed, and lived amongst these last three years. I'm grateful.