Over the course of 2016, I’ve read quite a few books. What follows is a list of the books that I’ve run across for the first time that struck me as those that, in some sense, I would be most likely to recommend to people – selected from the (admittedly, quite limited, and extremely biased) selection of books that I read this year. This isn’t a list of bestsellers, the books that actually are the most important, the books that I most heartily agree with, or even the best books that I’ve read (or reread). My guess is that there’s not a large benefit to me recommending classics that we all should have read sometime in high school or college. If your English teachers couldn’t convince you to read Moby Dick, then I probably won’t be able to, either. 1
As it always does, this list encompasses theology, politics, novels, and anything else that I found interesting. Here we go, starting with theology and religion:
James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love: for my money, James K.A. Smith is the best theologian in the reformed tradition that’s still open for business. If you haven’t read anything that he’s written, this is a good place to start, but this book is difficult to sum up concisely: Smith talks about how habits influence us, how influencing culture isn’t something that only happens in one direction, and how what we worship changes us. He’s one of the few theologians that I’ve run across that seems equally comfortable referencing John Calvin, Charles Taylor, or David Foster Wallace. This book reveals him to be not only a exceptional theologian, but a first-rate cultural critic, as well.
Alan Jacobs, A Visit to Vanity Fair: Moral Essays on the Present Age: this is, as the title suggests, a collection of essays on various topics that was originally published in 2001, some of which have aged better than others. Jacobs is the sort of writer and scholar who deserves higher recognition in evangelical circles than he has. 2 Although Jacobs is probably more well-known for his biography of C. S. Lewis – which is also worth a read – Vanity Fair is Jacobs at his witty and insightful best, and we need more books of essays anyway.
Peter Enns, The Sin of Certainty: I may get some angry email for putting Enns on this list, but I think that this book is a valuable contribution to the current fight over what “inerrancy” means. Enns’s take on this is to the left of where I was raised, but he makes good points and his arguments, seem to me to be convincing. Although he’s out of step with mainstream evangelicalism, here, his ideas don’t strike me as being heretical, but if you’re defining anything outside of evangelicalism as heresy, that probably won’t be your takeaway. Regardless, there isn’t a lot of consensus on this point. 3
Brian Zahnd, A Farewell to Mars: I’ve come to realize that quite a bit of benefit can be had by dipping outside of your interpretation of Christianity into other intellectual traditions. I spend most of my time within the reformed tradition, but Zahnd, as far as I can tell, writes from within the Anabaptist tradition, and for me this was a refreshing change of perspective. Those of us in the reformed tradition are historically comfortable with the idea of “just war,” but over the last year or so, I’ve found myself increasingly uncomfortable if I imagine having to explain this idea to Jesus. Zahnd takes the teachings of Jesus – his rejection of violence as a means to power – seriously, and makes a compelling case that those of us that are trying to follow him should, too.
Let’s move into books about politics:
Yuval Levin, The Fractured Republic: Levin is a rather remarkable character in that he seems to be recognized as one of the most important conservative thinker of the Obama era, but only by the sort of people that read political journals and books. He doesn’t even have a twitter account, so your average conservative that gets their news from social media 4 has a pretty good chance of not even knowing that he exists, much less having read anything by him. This book is important reading for someone who wants to know what conservative intellectuals have found to critique about culture in general, Democrats, and their own party, as well. Fractured Republic keys off the observation that both political parties are nostalgic for certain events of the past, and a substantial amount of their disagreement has come from the fact that they are nostalgic for different things. Levin has a great deal of insight based on this observation, but it’s not clear to me that any of these observations will continue to be true going forward. The Republican party’s president-elect has, over the last year, basically eaten the party from the inside, and the number of changes that have resulted with regards to actual issues 5 and the fact that they happened so quickly suggests that Levin’s thesis may need a revision. Still, this is a valuable book.
Andrew Bacevich, Breach of Trust: Bacevich, like Levin, is another underrated conservative thinker, and like Levin, the conservative movement would have more intellectual cache if he was more widely read. Bacevich is a retired Army Colonel, a professor of history, and a critic of what he sees as an excessively trigger-happy American foreign policy. If you’re not familiar with his work, The Limits of Power may be a better place to start; Breach of Trust fits into and follows his thinking there. His general thesis is that America would be in a better place if we fought wars now in the way that we fought World War II. Bacevich makes a compelling case that the changes in the army that have happened since WWII – a small, all-volunteer force – have made it too easy for the American government to deploy power all over the globe without the approval of the American people that, up until 1940 or so, served as a check on democracies waging war. It’s a compelling case, and if conservatives are serious about reducing the influence of the Federal government and the size of government bureaucracy, Bacevich’s ideas deserve serious consideration.
Jeffery Bell, Populism and Elitism: this book was published in 1992, and is fascinating specifically because it is out-of-date. This was originally a conservative defense of Reagan-style populism in the face of what what was seen as elite pushback to his policies, and in doing so, Bell outlined what he thought healthy populism looked like. It’s fascinating to compare this sort of populism to what we see going on in politics today, and this provides an insightful, if inadvertent, critique of the the Trump phenomenon. If you think Trump’s a populist, you’re either impugning populism or not paying attention.
We’re no longer in politics. Now it’s memoirs, biographies, or general cultural criticism:
J. D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: this has been in the news as an explanation for the Trump phenomenon, which may account for some of it’s popularity, but it’s a fine memoir in its own right. Vance grew up in the drug-plagued Rust Belt, but – unlike so many of his peers – escaped that to become what is now, by any measure, an elite, and this gives him the ability to understand both sides of the debate in a way that those of us who haven’t crossed those barriers can’t. To the extent that Vance’s observations about his roots explain the Trump phenomenon – it’s worth noting that this is the popular opinion about his work, not Vance’s explicit explanation of it – it seems that electing Trump isn’t a guarantee to fix what’s problematic in these areas. A traditional conservative answer would be that it’s not the Federal government’s responsibility to fix them, but no other entities appear to be on the horizon, either. Vance’s work implicitly raises an important question: can we, as a society, afford to not help people in these areas? It’s a question that deserves serious contemplation, even in (or especially in, perhaps) a party that traditionally takes the position that the Federal government’s role should be minimized.
William Manchester, The Last Lion: this is actually a three-volume biography of Winston Churchill, and for those outside of academia that aren’t writing a dissertation on Churchill, this is probably the definitive biography. 6 This is a masterful biography, and despite the length, it doesn’t seem to drag. If, like most Americans, your knowledge about Churchill is mainly based on what he did during World War II, you’ll find yourself amazed. Come for the history, and stay for the hilarious Churchill stories and retorts. 7
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me: Coates wrote this as a letter to his young son, to explain what it means to be black in America, how this impacts the way that he sees history, how he relates to society, and how to find his – and our – way forward. If you are – like me – a white person, listening to Coates’s experiences will present you with a point of view that doesn’t resemble yours, and thus doesn’t come naturally to you. That’s precisely why I recommend this book so highly. Although Coates writes it to his son – and assumes that bond and common frame of reference – it’s valuable to those of us that, frankly, don’t understand what it’s like to be black in America. It may do us some good to listen in.
And finally, a couple novels to finish out the list, with the realization that if these are my favorites, I must not care much for happy endings:
Matthew Thomas, We Are Not Ourselves: this is Thomas’s first novel, as far as I can tell, and it generated quite a bit of interest when it was originally published in 2014. 8 This is a sprawling, beautifully rendered story of a family trying to gain – and then hang onto, with increasing desperation – the life that they’ve always wanted. Quite a few of the reviews of this book object to the length and the pace of the plot, which is slower than your average modern novel. This wasn’t my experience . . . but I loved Lord of the Rings. Listening to this family’s journey is worth the time that Thomas spends describing it.
Adam Haslett, Imagine Me Gone: Haslett’s published a collection short stories, but this is his first novel, and it’s quite a find: this novel explores the impact of mental illness on families, and Haslett doesn’t try a lot of tricks to dazzle the reader. He tells a tragic story honestly, and the result is an heartbreaking book that doesn’t leave you feeling manipulated and is better the second time through. 9 If the idea of postmodern literature scares you, this is an excellent place to start: it’s a serious book, but not as unaccessible as the phrase “it’s a serious book” would lead you to believe. Just don’t expect it to cheer you up.
- But if you haven’t, seriously, go read it. I read it for the first time this year, and thought that it was magnificent. It has a reputation for being a tough read, but I think this is undeserved. For classic literature, it’s pretty accessible. ↩
- History will not judge us kindly, this year, for allowing the collapse of Books and Culture while providing enough interest to support God’s Not Dead 2. ↩
- If you’re interested in a book-length rebuttal of Enns’s points here, Beale’s The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism is the only one that I’ve found and read. Beale raises some valid issues with Enns’s way of thinking, but on the whole, I think that Enns gets the better of this exchange. ↩
- Well, someone that thinks that they are a conservative. I would argue that the majority of people like this – if they’re not grounded in the intellectual traditions of Burkean conservatism – don’t even know what the word means ↩
- For example, to the extent that Republicans follow Trump, the Republican party is no longer be the party of free trade, the party that sees Russia as an existential threat to the spread of American-style democracy, or the party that wants smaller Federal control of local issues. These are enormous changes. ↩
- Not all three books are by Manchester – he died before finishing the third book, and appointed Paul Reid to finish the last book. ↩
- You may think that you know them all. Rest assured, you do not. ↩
- Hey, I’m behind on my reading list. ↩
- Weird fact: I heard about this book, and read it, because James K. A. Smith was talking about it on Twitter. I don’t know of any other theologians that recommend novels, but Smith has excellent taste in literature, which won’t surprise you if you have read his theology. ↩