Only since 2017 have I kept track of my reading (thanks, Goodreads). I wish I would have done so for years, as books have influenced my direction and priorities in life in so many ways. As a journalist, I should know better about citing and remembering the source of so much inspiration.
The best I can do is start today. Following are my favorite books I read this year, with two quick qualifying notes: 1) I don’t often read new releases; this is solely based on books that were completed in 2019. 2) While entertainment value is important to me, my main consideration is listing books that shaped or grew me in some lasting way and/or leave me still thinking about and referencing them for weeks (in some cases, years) to come.
2019 Book of the Year
“Soul Survivor,” Philip Yancey
I recently saw an interview where Yancey, a journalist known for writing books about deep questions of faith, listed this 2001 book as his favorite of the many he had written. It is part autobiographical, as it tells the story of the impact of 13 mentors who influenced his own life and work. I originally picked it up because I learned he wrote about Fyodor Dostoevsky, the Russian novelist who might find a spot on my own list of 13 (the portrayal in “The Brothers Karamazov” of a wrestling match between intellectual skepticism of faith and innocent sacrificial love had a profound impact on me).
One of my favorite aspects of Yancey’s approach was that he didn’t treat each person like he was writing their Hall of Fame induction speech, but instead showed his appreciation for them through their humanity — warts exposed. I’ve read books about people on pedestals, and they often come off as if building a case for some ideology they represent, which only causes to provide ammunition for a battle line or cement for hardening a particular point of view. In contrast, when I read about real human beings, I can relate, be my imperfect self and find inspiration for growth. Through both the chapters on people I thought I knew well (Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Dostoevsky, Shusaku Endo) as well as those I discovered for the first time (Dr. Paul Brand, Dr. Robert Coles and John Perkins inside the chapter on King, among others), I was challenged to think, to care and to grow by this book. It was one of those reads I kept referencing with Kim, and one I would love to go through again with others.
2019 Honorable Mentions
“Building a Story Brand,” Donald Miller
My new favorite book on marketing, as it teaches you how to harness the power of story. I wish I would have had this book in 2004 when I first started working with small businesses to help them with print advertising. It encapsulates so much of what I’ve had to learn through marketplace experience, but then does such a clear job of providing a language and framework so that the lessons learned are repeatable. If you asked me where to start with clarifying and communicating a message, this is the book I would give you.
“The World Atlas of Coffee,” James Hoffman
I started coffeejosh.com in 2019 but not because I have a sophisticated palate or years as a barista. You know how some people love music, but can’t play an instrument or hit a note for the life of them? That’s me and coffee shops. I love the environment, the coffee and especially the way the combination of those two things helps me connect with and be inspired by the person sitting across the table from me. In my caff-ascination, I’ve read a handful of books about coffee in recent years (and started and cast aside a couple others). This was by far my favorite. It teaches basics like discriminating between a flat white and a latte, but it also has fascinating random facts like how Haiti produced more than half of the world’s coffee from 1750-1788. If you’re a nerd like me and are interested to learn the difference between Sumatra and Sidamo, then this is my favorite comprehensive coffee resource that I’ve found.
“The Road Back to You,” Ian Morgan Cron
Ah, the Enneagram. When I started talking with friends about my new favorite personality discovery tool this year, people often fired back with one of two worries. One, that I might be feeding a culture of navel-gazing, and, two, that the Enneagram was just another weapon used by bullies to typecast people. When used properly, neither is true. The same summer we celebrated 20 years of marriage, Kim and I read this book together. We didn’t discover a ton of new things about one another, but we were given an incredible gift: a framework through which we better understood the things we already knew, and a greater acceptance of the incredible way each of us is wired. “Is this why you often do that one thing I’ve never really understood?” was a common theme from our conversations from the book. If you use this tool to better understand yourself in order to better love others, then that’s a tool put to proper use. (For more on my 2019 Enneadventures, read here.)
“A Long Obedience in the Same Direction,” Eugene Peterson
This is the rare Christian book that gets its title from Nietzsche, who wrote, “The essential thing ‘in heaven and earth’ is … that there should be a long obedience in the same direction; that thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.” Peterson argues that in our “instant society,” this doesn’t typically happen, but it should. Using the “Songs of Ascent” (Psalms 120-134), the songs of pilgrims on the road to Jerusalem to celebrate Jewish festivals, he talks about what it looks like to be both a pilgrim (someone on a journey to a particular place) and a disciple (someone who is an apprentice craftsman always picking up skills for a particular purpose). I’ve wasted a lot of life like living out the “Alice in Wonderland” scene author Lewis Carroll famously capsulizes as, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” For anyone sick of society’s rat race and considering what the pathway of following Jesus looks like, this is a life-giving read that provides equal parts purpose and rest and meaning.
I wish I would have done this in years’ past, but here are four others I read in the 2010s that would have taken the title in years gone by:
“Garden City,” John Mark Comer
(read in 2018)
The subtitle says it all: “Work, Rest and the Art of Being Human.” After this book, Kim and I started incorporating Sabbath into our lives. We’re not doing it anywhere near perfectly, but I love every imperfect ounce of what we have begun.
“Soul Keeping,” John Ortberg
(read in 2015)
I’ve had two major career changes in 20 years. The first is when I bought a community newspaper in 2004. The second is when I left newspaper ownership in January 2016. Newspapering is a tough industry, but leaving was never about that. This book — about being healthy in our deepest places — was the final push that caused me to make an important life change.
“A Million Miles in a Thousand Years,” Donald Miller
(read early last decade)
This book set the table for some of the changes that would come later (referenced in the entry above). It’s about living a more purposeful and more adventurous story. As Larry the Cucumber might say, “I laughed. I cried. It moved me, Bob.”
Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling
(read throughout decade)
I read these first with my daughter, and then I reread them two more times, often late into the night even though I knew what happened. I initially avoided Harry Potter because I’ve never had a shred of interest (amidst a healthy dose of disinclination) toward witches and wizards, but I finally came around. These are stories about friendship, sacrifice and courage in the face of evil, and they are absolutely charming and funny and engaging and brilliant.
What should I read next?
OK, time to create my reading list for 2020. What books have impacted your life recently? Please share suggestions in the comments below or send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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