I’m not a literary critic, nor pretend to be. Simple fact, I don’t read enough. A busy, pressured life affords me only some smaller windows of time within which to read anything that’s not directly related to my ministry. Nonetheless, I try to be faithful to a discipline I set for myself years ago, namely, to read eight to ten pages every day from a book (magazines and newspapers don’t count). In a normal year that adds up to some three thousand pages.
Among the books I read this past year, which would I most recommend? What’s my list for 2021?
Among non-fiction books, books on spirituality, human growth, and personal transformation, I recommend the following books:
- Dorothy Day, On Pilgrimage, The Sixties – A Chronicle of faith and action through a decade of protest, idealism, and change, by Robert Ellsberg. In recent generations, we haven’t produced many Dorothy Days, namely, spiritual writers who have stood out so singularly for their personal engagement in both social justice and personal piety. Saints aren’t always activists and activists aren’t always saints. Dorothy Day was both. Robert Ellsberg lived with her during the last years of her life, is her literary executor, and has put together this wonderful collection of articles Dorothy wrote during the turbulent 1960’s, a decade that spawned one of the most massive social and religious revolutions ever.
- Human(Kind) – How Reclaiming Human Worth and Embracing Radical Kindness Will Bring Us Back Together, by Ashlee Eiland. I bought this book as a gift for someone else and had the good sense of reading it first to see if it was true to its glowing reviews. It was, and more. This is a series of autobiographical essays by a young Afro-American woman who, for me, helps explicate how the Sermon on the Mount might be lived today. An exceptional book! Struggling to be kind in an unkind world.
- Elderhood, Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life, by Louise Aronson. The title is a good synopsis of the book. A medical doctor working with elderly persons, Aronson challenges our health care system towards a deeper compassion and each of us towards a better understanding of aging.
- Still Christian, Following Jesus out of American Evangelicalism, by David Gushee. This is an autobiographical account of Gushee’s religious and academic journey, from an early (deep and authentic) conversion to Evangelicalism to how the voice of his own conscience eventually strained his relationship to that expression of Christianity, though not his relationship to Jesus. Anyone, of any denomination, who is struggling with his or her church, will profit from reading this book.
- Living Between Worlds – Finding Personal Resilience in Changing Times, by James Hollis. Psychology with a soul. No therapist can solve your problems, but he or she can help you find a bigger story that can give more meaning and dignity to your misery. This book does that.
Among fiction books, here are the books that touched me in 2021.
6. Oscar and the Lady in Pink, by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt. This is an older book (c2002), a short book, and a translation (from French). It’s a collection of fictional letters that a dying young boy writes to God. Deceptive in simplicity and deceptive in depth. A worthwhile read. 6.Oscar and the Lady in Pink, by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt. This is an older book (c2002), a short book, and a translation (from French). It’s a collection of fictional letters that a dying young boy writes to God. Deceptive in simplicity and deceptive in depth. A worthwhile read.
7. Payback, by Mary Gordon. On principle, I read anything Mary Gordon publishes. She always has something important to share. This book measures up. Payback is Mary Gordon writing about the cancer we call revenge and the consequences we pay for confusing catharsis with closure.
8. Whereabouts, by Jhumpa Lahire. Again, given her previous works, Lahire is an author I read on principle. This book is somewhat different in genre from her other works, but it doesn’t disappoint. Someone once said that wisdom is distinct from knowledge in that wisdom is intelligence fused with understanding. That’s Lahiri’s signature trait, and this book bears that signature.
9. Miss Garnet’s Angel, by Salley Vickers. Someone sent me this book while I was in recovery from a major surgery. It’s a book about “miracles”, not the kind where you walk on water, but the kind that is just as real, more meaningful, and more hidden within our normal lives.
10. The Forest of Vanishing Stars, by Kristen Harmel. A fictional account about a number of Jewish families trying to escape the Nazis by hiding in a deep forest. This story can seem a bit fantastical initially; but, though it’s fictional, it’s actually a composite account of the flight from the Nazis through this particular forest by a number of actual historical families.
The book you need to read finds you, and finds you at the time when you most need to read it. That’s been true in my life. I’m not sure why these particular books found me this year, but they’re the ones that I needed at this time in my life. Admittedly, they may not speak to you in the same way.
But, happy reading! Of these books, or of others!