“A person who won’t read has no advantage over the person who can’t read.” – Twain
1. Why Buddhism Is True by Robert Wright
This is an excellent book. Probably the best book I read this year (I’ll say tied with #39). The author doesn’t actually self identify as a Buddhist, but has found deep truths in the non-supernatural aspects of the religion. He wrote a previous book about evolutionary psychology (The Moral Animal) and in a way that book presents the problem, whereas this book presents the solution. The solution: meditation.
2. The Reason For God by Timothy Keller
This is a book of apologetics written by the pastor of a church in New York City. The first half is defensive apologetics and the second half is offensive apologetics. It’s written for the layperson which is a level I feel I’m past so I went into this book with an air of superiority. What I found, though, is that he comes at many classic apologetic ideas from different and insightful angles. I learned a lot from this book and really enjoyed the way he connects secular references to spiritual ideas throughout the book.
3. Foundation by Isaac Asimov
I’ve always wanted to like science fiction. I like the idea of science fiction. And I love the figure of Isaac Asimov and who he was. Unfortunately, I just don’t get it. Not with this book, anyway. This is classic sci-fi written seventy years ago that people still read and apparently love. I’m sorry Isaac, I just don’t get it.
4. The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr
This book was kind of a new experience for me. There’s no plot. The woman just writes kind of a string of different memories from her childhood in East Texas. It’s books like this that make me think maybe I can identify good writing after all. This is an example of how good writing can draw you in regardless of the subject. It’s written in a kind of dream-like flow, like how children see the world. There’s a nostalgic and melancholy feel to this book and it made me think a lot about my childhood and also my own children. This book is an excellent example of the writerly dictum: show, don’t tell.
5. Believer by David Axelrod
This is a good book. Listened to all nineteen hours of this audiobook over a four day period in my cubicle at work (just prior to being laid off…so there’s that…). Sitting there listening, I found myself sometimes laughing out loud and sometimes weeping. This is a great book about journalism and politics and Barack Obama, who I consider a personal role model. It’s a very inspiring book.
6. The Road To Character by David Brooks
I had been looking forward to this book, because I really like Brooks when I hear him lecture and in interviews. This book was a disappointment, though. The only character I found in reading it was the patience required to finish it. Imagine a 70 page chapter on the life of George Marshall. I roll my eyes just thinking about it. And I also found myself disagreeing with some of Brooks’ self righteous pronouncements at the beginning of the book. I’ll continue to listen to David, but I will not read him.
7. Going To Pieces Without Falling Apart by Mark Epstein
Another book on Buddhism. The author is a psychotherapist who is also a practicing Buddhist. This book was highly recommended by Dan Harris. I didn’t like it. It’s possible it is just beyond me. There’s a fair amount of mumbo jumbo in it. They say Buddhism isn’t something you believe, it’s something you do. I respect that.
8. The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? by F.F. Bruce
I couldn’t sleep one night so I started this book with the idea of reading a few pages to put me to sleep. An hour later I was fighting off sleep to continue reading this awesome book. I’d read books about Biblical foundation before (Blomberg’s Can We Believe The Bible is excellent) but this one goes a level deeper. I really liked the discussion about the earliest fragments of the Bible that we possess today (basic Biblical information that is surprisingly difficult to find). It makes a clear, reasonable and humble case for the authenticity of the Bible. Halfway through the book, I was shocked to discover it was written in 1943. A very good book.
9. Wherever You Go There You Are by Jon Kabat Zinn
I started this book a decade ago, didn’t get it and set it aside. I felt like I’d walked into a conversation midway through and was disoriented. Now I understand the context and loved this book. The context is: mindfulness. There are profound ideas about how we think in this book. I believe Mindfulness Meditation should be taught to every child as basic knowledge, right next to math and reading. P.S. I’ve meditated every day in 2019.
10. The Case Against Education by Bryan Caplan
Would you rather have a Princeton degree without the education, or a Princeton education without the degree? This book asks honest questions like this. Our society’s view of education is that if it doesn’t result in a four year degree it’s regarded as alternative. This is Orwellian and narrow minded, says Caplan. This was a thought provoking book which claims we’re doing it all wrong when it comes to higher education. Written by an economics professor, the argument he makes is extremely rigorous, at times tedious, but ultimately convincing. This book re enforced ideas I’ve smugly held about so called “higher” education for years (I view college like an ex – we no longer speak, but perhaps I’ll introduce my children some day). It’s like the king’s new clothes – the purpose is not to obtain an actual education, but rather to signal to future employers. The author argues that average students should not go to college. If you want the message, but not the tedium, just read the penultimate chapter in which he constructs a dialogue which serves a an overview.
11. Dune by Frank Herbert
I discovered one of my favorite filmmakers is making this into a movie to be released next year. I read it once before about ten years ago. In spite of all the other books I’m reading right now, I thought I’d pick it up and read the first few pages. It really drew me in and I ended up finishing it and loving it – far more than before (what does this say about me?) I’m really looking forward to the movie which comes out 11/20/20.
12. How To Be Yourself by Ellen Hendricksen
This is a rewarding book about social anxiety (which is different than introversion, the subject of Susan Cain’s book which I have not yet read). Social Anxiety received its own designation within psychiatry in the 1980’s. 13% of the population has it. It’s genetic. I have no doubt that I have social anxiety and I’m pretty sure Eleanor has it as well. Reading this book, I had the strange experience of reading about all my own private, obscure idiosyncrasies that I didn’t think anybody else had! There are a lot of interesting anecdotes about her patients (she’s a psychiatrist). It’s a very uplifting book (the author, herself, reads the audible version and part of the uplift might just be her tone – I think she must be an excellent therapist). Her website, ellenhendriksen.com, has a free questionnaire to evaluate yourself.
13. The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
I first read this book 28 years ago. I vaguely remember seeing the movie with my brother and a friend at the Arboretum just before I had finished reading it. I read recently that David Foster Wallace was such a fan of the book that he would assign it to his English classes. It is an excellent book and a quick read.
14. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
I read this over a 24 hour period when I had the stomach flu. The first half describes his becoming a neurosurgeon and that part is fascinating. The second half describes the process of dying at age 38 of cancer, leaving his wife and two year old child behind. It’s a good book. Worth reading. It’s vivid description of what it’s like to have cancer today and I was really dazzled by what an accomplished a human being Kalanithi was.
15. Turtles All The Way Down by John Green
A teenage romance/mystery written for teenagers. As a forty-four year old, what can I say? I like John Green and regularly watch his vlog, but this didn’t draw me in. Mostly it just made me think: I will write a better book.
16. Grit by Angela Duckworth
This was a great and inspiring book. An easy read – completed while on vacation in Dallas (added points for finishing a book while traveling with a 3 year old). Filled with information about scientific studies as well as entertaining anecdotes about the grit of famous people. The thesis of the book is that it is effort rather than talent that matters in the long run and the author makes a solid case. The last part of the book is on parenting for grit and this section was useful – I saw some things I think I’m doing right and some things I think I’m doing wrong.
17. Cari Mora by Thomas Harris
His first book in 13 years, I’m sorry to say it was a dud. Harris is a good writer, but ultimately, this book just doesn’t dazzle. Did you know he’s an alumni of Baylor?
18. The Code Book by Simon Singh
This is the second book I’ve read by this author and both books were excellent – he explains deep subjects at just the right level of detail and depth. This book is a history of codes from ancient times to today and it’s framed as an ongoing competition between code makers and code breakers – like an arms race. One side will pull ahead, then the other will catch up and pass. It explains the origin of codes and how they were used. It goes into deep technical detail about how the Enigma machine was decoded by the Allies in WWII, and it also delves into the quantum cryptography of today.
19. Bonk by Mary Roach
You may blush, but sex research is a legitimate and important field of research to understand what we, as human beings, are. It’s a particularly interesting because it’s a relatively young field since it’s growth was stunted due to the taboos associated with the subject. Mary Roach tackles the subject with the right blend of tasteful, down-to-Earth humor and erudite information.
20. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murikami
This is the first book I’ve read by Murikami that I didn’t like. I had read that it is about consciousness (my favorite subject) but it was a very abstract and kind of boring book I thought. Maybe I just didn’t quite get it. Sometimes I have trouble letting go and going along with a weird story.
21. The Body In Question by Jill Climent
This was an entertaining new book that Tiff and I read together. A quick read. It’s about two people serving on a jury for a murder trial and they have an affair. And so it’s a dual story: you follow the case itself as well as their romance and how that romance affects the case. I’ve been really interested in the dynamics of juries and so I found all that stuff interesting.
22. How Fiction Works by James Woods
I’ve always felt a step behind others in “understanding” fiction. This is like the English class I never had. The title accurately describes the book. A lot of high brow examples. Very clear writing and easy to follow and understand.
23. Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes
I read this book because John Searle referred to it in one of his lectures when he was discussing the philosophy of images. It’s about the philosophy of photography. It’s pretty abstract and almost stream-of-consciousness, but there were some good nuggets in there. I found some thoughts about photography that I didn’t think anyone else had thought before. Susan Sontag also wrote a book on photography that I own and may some day read. If you take a moment to consider it, the idea of photography is pretty amazing.
24. The Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox
I was really impressed by this book. Yet another book I came to from John Searle’s lectures. It’s about how in the early twentieth century, an ancient language, Linear B, was deciphered by an architect who had no formal training in the field. The decipherment is incredible because Linear B was an unknown script used to write in an unknown language and so the author describes it as a locked-room mystery. The book goes into the history of writing and the science of codebreaking, including a vivid description of the classic example of the Rosetta Stone. I think it would be difficult to write an entire book about this subject and keep it interesting, but she did it. She just published a book last year about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle which I would like to read.
25. Feynman by Jim Ottaviani
This is a graphic novel which I learned about from my favorite podcast, Conversations with Tyler. It’s a biography of the physicist, Richard Feynman, who worked on the Manhattan Project, won the Nobel Prize for work on Quantum Mechanics and was appointed by Ronald Reagan to be on the Rogers Commission which investigated the Challenger explosion. He died of cancer in 1988. This was worth the read (Gleick’s biography of Feynman is worthless and unreadable). I’ve always wanted to get into comics/graphic novels, but just never could. This was a fun read, though.
26. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
This is the first of a four series set by the anonymous Italian author, Elena Ferrante. It’s amazing the praise this series receives. There’s actually a documentary about the books in which authors are interviewed about the books, including Jonathan Franzen who – get this – cries on camera as he describes one scene in the book. I wasn’t so moved as Franzen, but I did like the book. And I gave it to my mother for her birthday. It’s about two girls growing up in 1950’s Naples and how they move through life – in their education and their relationships.
27. The Chameleon by Merrick Rosenberg
I had to read this book for work. I didn’t like it. The author has convinced himself that there are four personality types and he explores how they relate to one another. It’s nonsense, but I play along.
28. The Institute by Stephen King
I’m always a little lukewarm on Stephen King and turn my nose up at him, but I enjoyed this book. It gets a little long towards the end, but he weaves a good story and he’s excellent at the slow reveal. The premise: some children are born with telekinesis and they are abducted and used by the US Government to surreptitiously kill terrorists. This is all slowly revealed in greater and greater detail as the novel progresses. It’s a good book. And I’m not too good for King.
29. Talking To Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell
I’ve read most of his books and listen to his podcast regularly and I really like Gladwell – as a writer and as a human being (he lives my dream life: an intellectual Christian runner and writer who lives in a renovated brownstone in Brooklyn). He’s not always right, but he’s always interesting and is really good at finding new ways to look at things. This book is much darker than his others. It explores the question: why do we have so much trouble communicating? To examine this question, he goes into many different “current event” stories: Amanda Knox, Jerry Sandusky, police pullovers, the interrogation of KSM. Throughout the book, I bristled at Gladwell’s underlying assumption that we should be able to understand one another – I consider it a miracle that we can communicate at all. You take this miracle for granted, Malcolm.
30. The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power
I might have a mild crush on Samantha Power, former UN Ambassador for the United States. An intelligent, passionate, empathetic do-gooder (much like my own wife I suppose). An interesting life. Born in Ireland, her mother smuggled her and her brother to the U.S. against the wishes of her alcoholic father. The novel traces her path through Yale, journalism in Bosnia, a Pulitzer and finally the United Nations. It’s a fitting title, because it’s a great story of an anti-establishment journalist becoming part of the establishment.
31. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
This is my third time to read this book (that’s not as many times as my brother). Few books can draw me in like this where I’m reading for pleasure and get lost in the novel. Especially when there’s so little central plot. I’ve read that this book is about engaging in reckless excesses and drifting away from older values, only to crash and have to “correct” similar to the way a financial market undergoes a correction. The book was published right after the dot com bubble burst in the late 90’s. The theme, I suppose, is so much more relevant to today’s world: in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and in the age of Trump.
32. Philosophy of Mind by Ed Feser
Philosophy of Mind is the most important and enigmatic issue in Philosophy. There’s a miracle we all walk around with everyday, which science and philosophy have no idea how to deal with: our minds. How does the organ we call “brain” produce this rich world of thought that we persistently experience – that is immaterial and yet apparently real? The secular world has been unable to touch this. The nature of the subject makes it notoriously difficult to write about or even find the vocabulary to discuss, but Feser writes clearly and simply and provides an excellent overview of the subject.
33. Columbine by Dave Cullen
I read this book because I’d heard it referred to as “excellent journalism” in the vain of Capote’s In Cold Blood. I also wanted to understand what I perceive as the greatest sociological mystery in America: sometime in the late twentieth century, children began shooting up their schools with no discernable motive. This is a thorough book and it does go into causes very clearly. The cause of Columbine, in a word, was psychopathy. It’s a strange disorder and it does seem to have physical causes – just like one child may be born with a heart condition, a certain number are born without the emotional/moral component of their brains in tact. And they are very good at hiding this. Ask them what they feel when questioned about a hypothetical scenario and they respond with what they would do – they are confused by the question of what they would feel. A depressing, but eye opening book, that made me want to hug my children.
34. Introducing Noam Chomsky by John Mahar
This is another graphic novel. I sold this book years ago and then recently rebought it on ebay. (Is it my same copy?) Linguistics is a fascinating field and Chomsky is the godfather. Unfortunately, he’s usually speaking (and writing) over my head – he’s a very dense communicator. There’s a good documentary about him called, Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? I used to think that humans invented language as a mechanism to communicate. This is flat wrong. The linguistic ability is an inherent component of humankind, pre-built in. This is astounding to me. I can’t quite make the connection yet, but somehow this helps me to believe in God. Chomsky is a staunch atheist, of course, like most of his peers, because he has a commitment to the Naturalist worldview.
35. The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
I began reading this book to Eleanor. She kind of lost interest – I think this book doesn’t read aloud so well. So I finished it on my own. It’s an old fashioned, well written, stylized mystery with the feel of an Agatha Christie novel or maybe an Alfred Hitchcock film (such as Rope). The author was primarily a graphic artist in her career, illustrating many famous book covers including the classic edition of A Wrinkle In Time.
36. Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem
This book is a hard boiled mystery about a group of orphans who are adopted and made to work for a private detective. The narrator has Tourette’s syndrome. The private detective is mysteriously killed and the orphans work to solve the crime. It’s well written. There are Buddhist themes and some of it takes place at a Zendo. I’d say I like the first half better than the second half. I kind of want to read Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude – but mostly just because it’s such a great title.
37. Furious Hours by Casey Cep
This book is about a true crime and Harper Lee’s attempt to use it as the subject matter for her second book. The crime is an intriguing case about a pastor who keeps having people around him die mysteriously, but the best part of the book is about Lee and Capote (who don’t appear until the latter half). It’s fascinating to read about Lee’s writing life, the process of developing To Kill A Mockingbird and how publishing it changed her life. The book also describes her trips to Kansas with Capote, researching the Clutters’ murders for his book, In Cold Blood. This was a great book – so fascinating to enter the world of Harper Lee, living and writing in New York.
38. The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything by James Martin
I randomly picked this book up at the library one day and just began reading. And I loved it. I love the style of Christianity that Jesuits practice. It’s very inspiring, marked by discipline, stillness and mindfulness. Of course some of it’s crazy, though (Martin’s case for celibacy is particularly flimsy). There are many points of intersection between Buddhist meditation and Jesuit Christianity. I’ve found that communication with God really changes when you stop talking at him, and instead comport yourself in a disposition of listening. This book is about 100 pages too long (you can skip the third quarter and proceed directly to the fourth).
39. Range by David Epstein
This book is about me. It’s about people who have passionate, but diverse interests, are average students and have no clear direction in their careers. Reading this book, I felt like Harry Potter discovering he’s a wizard. It’s very much like a Malcolm Gladwell book, but better (Epstein has out-Gladwelled Gladwell). A theory is presented, followed by fascinating, real world anecdotes to demonstrate the theory. And although this book is similar in style to Gladwell’s books, it contradicts Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule from his book, Outliers. (Interestingly, Epstein and Gladwell held a public debate on these issues – available on YouTube) Epstein’s central theory is that there is much greater value in being a generalist than a specialist. His examples include Vincent Van Gogh, Haruki Murikami, Gunpei Yokoi (the chief designer at Nintendo), Rachel Whiteread, Steve Jobs, Claude Shannon, Louis Pasteur and Roger Federer. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed this book. Very inspiring. Redoubling my efforts at being Blake.
40. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Every once in a while I’ll hear this story mentioned in reference to some philosophical or theological point (I’m thinking of William Lane Craig illustrating a point about Middle Knowledge). I had been wanting to read it. And then I discovered my aunt was taking a deep…deep… dive into this little story (to the point of guided reading questions). In a world of Netflix and Twitter, I really appreciated this kind act of intellectualism. So I decided to take the plunge and read the hundred page story. I loved it. It’s fascinating to me that Dickens could create a gothic ghost story that is so deeply Christian. To me this story is about the profound “lost then found” change we sing about in “Amazing Grace.”
41. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson
I read this book to Alice and Eleanor. I thought this would be a cheesy fourth grader book, but as a parent trying to help my children understand the deep truths of Christianity and the significance of Jesus’ birth, I found it extremely effective and well written. It’s kind of a brilliant move to have this family, the Herdmans, portray the holy family – such an important message there. I also like the down to Earth tone of the book – too often Christian principles are treated as gooey, awkward subject matter to be discussed in the upper-pitched tones of a youth minister. If you really believe these things, then let’s talk about them like we talk about atoms.