Books of the Year, 2020

I usually read somewhere between 20-26 books a year. This year I read 44 (and abandoned halfway three others not mentioned here) because I had some extra time on my hands. Maybe you did too?

I set out to have no theme for my reading this year (a rarity). I spent some time cleaning out my shelves, reading things that I meant to get around to but hadn’t. I read some books as part of church leadership training. The condition of our country and world this year turned my eye toward some choices. I read 11 books as part of a book club for my podcast. I continued reading sci-fi classics to see if I can get through a whole 100-book list. It all looks very eclectic. Without further adieu:

Fiction (Most enjoyed to least)

  • The Martian by Andy Weir. If someone yelling SPAAAAAAACE!!!!! SCIENCE!!!! ENGINEERING!!!!! was turned into a novel, it would be this book. I loved it. The most fun I had reading fiction this year.
  • Dark Matter by Blake Crouch. A white-knuckle sci-fi thriller that I can’t explain without giving things away. It’s incredibly good.
  • On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness by Andrew Peterson (Book 1 of the Wingfeather Saga). A comedy-fantasy with compelling characters, twisty plot, and warm vibe.
  • The Princess Bride by William Goldman. There’s pretty much not a fourth wall left after this one. Wacky, inventive, oddball, charming.
  • The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick. A strange and captivating little sci-fi book about the boundary of perception and reality.
  • The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien. This is the book that made me understand why people love the Lord of the Rings so much.
  • Artemis by Andy Weir. A crime thriller set in a hard-science moon colony. This time there are economic maneuvers added to the technical maneuvers.
  • Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton. A book about problems of rural-to-urban development, policing, criminal justice, and racism in 1940s South Africa. Comfortingly hopeful amid the grimness.
  • The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. A slim, enjoyable novel about how lives can change. Set mostly in a small seaside town and its bookstore, it describes sad things in an optimistic way.
  • The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. The classic sci-fi horror story holds up: it’s a genuinely eerie, occasionally nervewracking first-contact book.
  • The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders (2005). A short Animal Farm-esque political parable about the international policy of a lying, misanthropic dictator (Phil) who manipulates people and the media to gain and hold power. The characters are all poorly-designed robots.
  • The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien. That’s a lot of Gollum.
  • Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard. A sci-fi/fantasy mashup that reads like a regency drama meets X-Men meets civil rights movement, as if written by George R.R. Martin. The moral: if you betray others, expect to be betrayed back.
  • North! Or Be Eaten by Andrew Petersen (Book 2 of the Wingfeather Saga). The opening 50 pages of this “very second book in a fantasy series” book are great, the 230 pages in the middle are dreck, and the 50 pages at the end are marvelous.

Nonfiction (in alphabetical order)

  • Azadi: Freedom. Fascism. Fiction. by Arundhati Roy. A hard-left catalog of offenses by Modi and his government against the Indian people, with particular concern about the plight of Kashmir and Jammu.
  • Confessions by Augustine, books I-IX. Comfortingly, people have been people for a really long time.
  • Every Good Endeavor by Tim Keller with Katharine Leary Alsdorf. A very good book synthesizing many streams of Christian thought on work and vocation.
  • Gospel Fluency by Jeff Vanderstelt. A down-to-earth but not simplistic book about how to preach the gospel to yourself, to your community, and then to others.
  • How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems by Randall Munroe. A clever, smile-inducing way to read about the weird and wacky physical elements of the universe, as portrayed through chapters called “How to Dig a Hole” and “How To Get Somewhere Fast.”
  • Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense Of The Old Testament God by Paul Copan. A book of apologetics about the Old Testament, written at a middle-shelf level. Interesting and mostly well-argued.
  • Metaphysics as a Personal Adventure: Christos Yannaras in Conversation with Norman Russell. A strident and thorough-going an attack on Western individualism from a Greek orthodox theologian/philosopher. The fusion of philosophy and theology is fascinating, even as I disagree with some points of theology and philosophy. Challenging and thought-provoking.
  • Mirror Sound: A Look into the People and Processes behind Self-Recorded Music by Spencer Tweedy, Lawrence Azerrad, and Daniel Topete (photography). It’s a love letter to DIY self-recording: A writer/musician, a photographer, and a designer got together to do a bunch of interviews with indie rock, acoustic, electronic, and rap musicians who self-record.
  • My Life, My Fight: Rising up from New Zealand to the Oklahoma City Thunder by Steven Adams. A peculiar, understated memoir of the second New Zealander to play in the NBA. The first chapter is the some of the best writing about the NBA I’ve read in a long time.
  • On Beauty and Being Just by Elaine Scarry. A concise philosophical treatise disputing two arguments against beauty in art: that looking at beautiful things stops people from looking at issues of social justice and that looking at beautiful things reifies/harms them. She instead argues that an awareness of beautiful things can lead to a desire for “beauty” in social arrangements, which is justice.
  • Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan. A book of longform essays generous in spirit and vivid in prose; the majority of the book concerns the poor, the forgotten, and the ignored of Southern culture.
  • Reading John for Dear Life by Jaime Clark-Soles. A book on the Gospel According to John that was helpful in a writing project this year. (Shoutout to Jeff Hinton for the recommendation.)
  • The Disappointment Artist by Jonathan Lethem. A beautiful, sober book of art/music/movie criticism essays that ask the question: can art really save you, as many claim? (His answer: no.)
  • The End of Policing by Alex S. Vitale. I’d be happy to send you a detailed assessment of my opinions on this book via email. It is not a book that lends well to discussion on social media.
  • The Great Oklahoma Swindle: Race, Religion, and Lies in America’s Weirdest State by Russell Cobb. A counter-history of Oklahoma (mostly Tulsa) that tries hard to be all the history that wasn’t in the history books. Boy, some strange and unpleasant things happened in my home state.
  • The Root of the Righteous by A.W. Tozer. A book of essays about personal spiritual piety. I enjoyed it.  
  • The Symphony of Mission by Michael W. Goheen and Jim Mullins. An ambitious book trying to sew back together socially-oriented and evangelism-first focuses to missiology through the lens of vocation.
  • They Can’t Kill Us Till They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib. A collection of essays by a poet/music critic/cultural critic written from 2012-2017, encompassing a big chunk of the #blacklivesmatter era. Much of the book is about black people surviving and finding joy amid systemic and actual violence dealt to them, particularly people killed by/affected by police brutality. Tough to read, but insightful.
  • What If? by Randall Monroe. A hilarious book that takes normal (and not-so-normal) questions to their scientific extremes for humor’s sake. A wonderful book.

Books I Read as Part of the Winning Slowly Book Club (In Chronological Order of My Reading Them)

  1. Phaedrus by Plato. Episode 1, Episode 2
  2. The Postmodern Condition by Jean-François Lyotard. Episode 1, Episode 2
  3. The Age of Spiritual Machines by Ray Kurzweil. Episode 1, Episode 2
  4. Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton. Episode 1, Episode 2
  5. The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (Part 1) by Elizabeth Eisenstein. Episode 1, Episode 2
  6. Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness by Simone Browne. Episode 1, Episode 2
  7. The Real World of Technology by Ursula Franklin. Episode 1, Episode 2
  8. Evolution as a Religion: Strange Hopes and Stranger Fears by Mary Midgley. Episode 1, Episode 2
  9. Contact by Carl Sagan. Episode 1, Episode 2
  10. Twitter and Tear Gas by Zeynep Tufekci. Episode 1, Episode 2
  11. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan.  Episode 1