January 01, 2020

My Top 10 Books of 2019

It's been a busy year, a fact which becomes more vivid to me a I see precisely one post I've made since last year's Top 10. But I have managed to do a little reading, so I'll share some thoughts with you here.

Reading is one of those things which I never have time to do, but which is vital for the life of my mind, my emotional stability, and at times my sanity. So I make time to read. I'm not a voluminous reader, but I try to be a dedicated plodder. If you, too, are strapped for time, I commend this method to you.

This Top 10 list comes with caveats. Obviously it is limited to the books I finished in 2019, of which there were only 41. Second, I'm only allowing each author one Top 10 appearance. Third, I'm not counting in any of the books my wife reads to our family at night. Finally, if you're wondering why so few of my more biblical/theological reads crack the top ten: it's because so few are well written.


1. When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi

I finished this book last night, and what a way to finish 2019. While some folks were watching the ball drop on TV, or out drinking, I sat in a rocking chair crying. Kalanithi was adept with the English language, very well read, and deeply thoughtful. These traits would have made for an interesting and enjoyable memoir, but the brutal turn his life takes, and the honesty with which he walks the reader through his experience makes for an emotional ride. His last paragraph deserves numerous re-readings.

2. The Whole Christ, Sinclair Ferguson

In this book, Ferguson picks up what seems at first to be a dry subject: a dispute between Scottish Presbyterians in the early 18th Century. What he does with that, though, is weave a masterpiece of historical analysis, exegetical encouragement and exhortation, and pastoral guidance into one volume. I'm still not sure how he did it; but I'm very glad I pulled this volume off the shelf. The emphasis he places on preaching Christ and everything else in relationship to him rather than in abstraction from him was eye-opening for me. It made me re-evaluate the way I preach, the way I speak, the way I think, and even the way I feel as I meditate on Christ and his Word.

3. The Road, Cormac McCarthy

I've never read a bleaker novel. And yet the persistence of hope and the ferocity of love made this novel more than the black cover portends. It is dark, but not joyless. Fierce, but not unfeeling. Bleak, yes. But beautifully bleak.

4. The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway

Perhaps Hemingway's best known novel. Or novella, I suppose. I grabbed it at the library because I needed a short piece of fiction to read and give my brain a break from Bible commentaries and systematic theology. My brain got a break, but not my heart. It broke with every bite the sharks took. And Hemingway's prose is so punchy. I love it.

5. On All Sides Nowhere, William Gruber

Gruber is an English professor at Emory University in Atlanta, who spent 7 years living up Alder Creek, in North Idaho. This is spitting distance from my roots, which is how I wound up reading this book. It was beautiful. Because of his place as an outsider, Gruber is able to see things that those of us raised in the area may or may not perceive as quirky or unusual. But rather than coming off haughty or aloof as most outsiders would in pointing these things out, he writes from the perspective of one who deeply loves the place and the people involved. 

6. The Gospel Comes With a Housekey, Rosaria Butterfield

The most uncomfortable book you will ever read. If you take the time to really consider her arguments, at least. Butterfield argues for a radically ordinary hospitality, a type of lifestyle which throws its arms wide open to those around us, spreading the love of Christ through gospel words, yes, but also through red beans and rice. Through hearts and homes that are open to loved ones, neighbors, and strangers. Through lives that don't fear the cost of love, because we love and worship a Christ who laid down his life in love for us. This is a clarion call to reorient how most American Christians live. But it isn't just prophetic, it's also practical, and Butterfield gives plenty of helpful tips and wise advice to accompany her manifesto.

7. 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northup

The narrative of an African American man born free in upstate New York, kidnapped later in life and sold into slavery in the American antebellum south. So profoundly heartbreaking on the individual level, thinking about what this man and his family had to go through. But also societally. It is sobering to think that we were (not so long ago) a nation where people could be bought and sold like cattle. The amazing story of Northup's eventual rescue brings a happy ending to this otherwise grim piece of American history.

8. Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck

While we're focused on the grim, let's talk of Mice and Men. Wowza. I had somehow made it to 29 years old and never read this book, and was only familiar with pieces of the story. It had my stomach churning, even knowing how the end had to come. 

9. Biblical Preaching, Haddon Robinson

I don't read a lot of "ministry skills" type books (which might explain some things), but this classic is apparently a classic for a reason. I found Robinson's little text a very helpful refresher not just on the mechanics of sermon prep and delivery, but as a reminder that the preacher stands before the people weekly as a messenger of the Most High. He'd better have something to say, and say it clearly. 


I read, or rather listened, to several Twain books this year. This, as most, was of very uneven quality. Moments of brilliance. Moments of not so great. An awful lot that isn't really extreme in either direction, but makes you chuckle. However, what made this book stand out were some of his reflections on his daughter Susy. It revealed a side of Twain that you aren't going to acquire from Tom Sawyer or A Connecticut Yankee. 


Honorable Mention:

Peace Like a River, Leif Enger
Persuasion, Jane Austen
Enjoy Your Prayer Life, Michael Reeves
Unreached, Tim Chester 
Speaking of Jesus, Mack Stiles
The Superstition of Divorce, G.K. Chesterton
The Meateater Fish and Game Cookbook, Steven Rinella
Roughing It, Mark Twain
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Frederick Douglass
Whose Names are Unknown, Sanora Babb
Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller
Hondo, Louis L'Amour
Everyday Church, Tim Chester & Steve Timmis
With a Shotgun Behind the Door, Carl Hoisington
Connecting, Larry Crabb


Other Books I Finished in 2019:

Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain
The Wisdom of Father Brown, G.K. Chesterton
Long Story Short, Marty Machowski
A Light in the Attic, Shel Silverstein
The Navigator, Reuben Foster
A Peculiar Glory, John Piper
Losing Your Zip, Michael Eckers
The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier
The Call of the Wild, Jack London
What I Saw in America, G.K. Chesterton
Sackett, Louis L'Amour
Where the Sidewalk Ends, Shel Silverstein
Discipling, Mark Dever
The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Mark Twain
The Grand Design, Owen Strachan and Gavin Peacock

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About Me

Follower of Jesus. Husband of one. Father of four. Pastor at Remsen Bible Fellowship (remsenbible.com).