This is the week that various outlets publish lists of the “best books of the year,” the “books most likely to shape life, thought, and culture.” I always feel for the authors whose books didn’t even make the shortlist, as well for those who have to choose! I know the energy and attention that goes into writing a book, and something of the weight of picking just a handful of them to highlight to others (on the In All Things Podcast and elsewhere).
In any case, a few years ago I started making my own list, a report of the books that I read this year (not necessarily published this year) and which ones were the most enjoyable, formative, and impactful.
I set goals for the sorts of books I want to read (old books, poetry, books by women authors, etc.) I usually have half the titles I want to read picked out on January 1st. The other half of the list is wide open, and it’s fun to reflect the composite list at the end of the year. I rarely hit the goals (somehow I always fail in my intention to read 10 books of poetry) but that’s not really the point. The aim is more about stretching my imagination through different genres, learning from and listening to a range of wise voices. I’m looking for books to feature on the podcast, books that resonate with my research projects, and books to help me be more fully human.
So, without further delay, here are the books I read in 2023, with special consideration of the ones most likely to shape my life, thought, and culture.
Books in the fiction, poetry, or memoir category
Favorite book in this category: Tinkers by Paul Harding – a friend saw me walking by with the dog and came running out of the house to put this book in my hands, and it did not disappoint. It’s a book about our experience of time and memory, about what is said and unsaid. It won the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 2010 and reminded me of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping (the highest praise I can give)!
Runner up: David’s Crown by Malcolm Guite – a collection of poetry written during Covidtide, 150 poems corresponding to the 150 psalms. I used it this year for morning prayer. I’d love to read everything Guite has written.
Bonus: last month I decided to finished the year with the four Jane Austen books I hadn’t read. Having completed that side quest, here is my ranking of Austen’s six novels:
- Pride and Prejudice – the gold standard. I worry that I’m judging the other five books by this one. Six stars out of five.
- Sense and Sensibility – not quite up to the level of P&P but moving in that direction. Great contrast between the sisters and interesting characters throughout. I made the mistake of watching the movie first, and wished that I had not (though I love both the book and the movie). Five stars.
- Persuasion – I think it is the second best love story in Austen’s books. Maybe the most idealized love story of the books. Four stars.
- Mansfield Park – a complicated story, an unorthodox heroine in Fanny Price, and a strange love story. I wondered if my liking the Crawford was meant to be an indictment of me as a reader. Also, Mrs. Norris has got to be one of the worst characters in all of her books. Four stars.
- Northanger Abbey – It had some signature twists at the end, but I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the place of this gothic satire in Austen’s body of work. Maybe it will grow on me. Three stars.
- Emma – The beginning of this book was boring to me, and though it picked up towards the end, I found Mr. Knightley and Emma difficult to root for. But one thing – Austen can write characters that you love to hate and the Eltons definitely are some of her best ones. Three stars.
Books for the In All Things podcast, to write review, or a blurb
Favorite book in this category: Bezalel’s Body by Katie Kresser – one of the first books I read this year turned out to be one of the best. It is a stunning and provocative book about the way that Christianity made art possible, and how one of the most important questions that art teaches us is “where will I look?” I took pages of notes and it has stayed with me all year. (You can find my interview with the author here).
Runner Up: On Getting Out of Bed by Alan Noble – a short but stirring book about mental suffering and the courage and hope that is required to live in this world. It’s a book I’d love to give to all my students, and my favorite book written this year. (My interview with the author here).
Side note: I wrote book jacket blurbs for two excellent books – The Augustine Way by Joshua Chatraw and Mark Allen (which has started to win end of year awards!) and Sense of the Possible by Callid Keefe-Perry. Appropriately, the first one is about apologetics; the second one about the imagination. Here are those blurbs:
The Augustine Way: “In contemporary times, it is easy to associate apologetics with winning rather than witnessing, where apologetic training becomes an exercise in controlling the conversation. Chatraw and Allen show us a more excellent way: a nonanxious posture of persuasion that is critical and constructive, intellectual and imaginative, humble and hopeful. This accessible retrieval of an Augustinian apologetic calls us to recenter the local congregation and to renew the polluted cultural ecosystems where we live.”
Sense of the Possible: “Amidst the wonderful resurgence of interest in theology and the arts, we may be tempted to think that the imagination is the province of poets, painters, and other professional ‘creatives.’ But Callid-Keefe Perry shows how all of us are called to nurture imagination: interpreting the world, inhabiting possibility, even encountering the divine. Accessibly distilling the wisdom of many voices with analytic clarity and pastoral skill, he offers a discerning account of how our hearts can be captivated and liberated.”
Books for research, personal interest, or just for the heaven of it
Favorite book in this category: The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist – it’s hard to know what to say about this book. It argues that we are meant to live in such a way that the right hemisphere of the brain is the “master” and the left hemisphere is the “emissary”. But recent history has reversed the hierarchy, prioritizing problem-solving and efficiency but leaving us disconnected from the world and from ourselves. It’s been on my shelf for several years, but this year I finally picked it up. When I finished it, I was sure I had read something as important as A Secular Age by Charles Taylor. Definitely one of the best I read this year, and another book just beat it for the top spot. McGilchrist has since published two even longer volumes extending his argument, which I plan to read as soon as I can.
Runner up: Unspoken Sermons by George MacDonald – I had read many of these sermons before, but never straight through (its about 600 pages). I’m writing an essay on the Theology of MacDonald for a project next year and this collection represents MacDonald (who disliked theologians in general) at his most theological and most provocative. And yet, it is also the book that most spurred me towards holiness and wholeness.
My top ten reads in 2023
Four honorable mentions:
10. The Apostle’s Creed by Ben Myers – an elegant (short & readable!) and profound book about what Christians believe. A book that filled me with (godly?) envy to be able to write theology as well as Myers does.
9. The Soul of Desire by Curt Thompson – a book that filled me with a bit of despair because it some ways it approximates the book I’m trying to write at the moment (and does so with greater depth and skill). But mostly it filled me with desire to know and be known; a powerful book.
8. An Immense World by Ed Yong – science writer Yong offers a mesmerizing exploration of how various animals sense the world, writing so well that we can almost imagine how it might feel to sense the world as they do. A book that nurtured my awe of both creation and the Creator.
7. Inciting Joy by Ross Gay – lovely, joy-filled collection of essays. The essay “How Big the Boat” is worth the price of the book, introducing me to a clip of Luther Vandross and Dionne Warwick I’m sure I’ve watched fifty times – Vandross sings Warwick’s song as she watches in tears and great laughter.
Here is the rest of the top ten (I’ve written about these above):
6. David’s Crown – favorite book of poetry/prayer/spiritual life
5. On Getting Out of Bed – favorite book published this year
4. Unspoken Sermons – favorite old book
3. Tinkers – favorite fiction book
2. The Master and His Emissary – favorite academic/research book
1. Bezalel’s Body – my favorite book I read this year!
Congrats to all the winners! Here’s to another year of reading!
Feel free to share what books you enjoyed!