The Best Books I Read in 2015

I set a goal to read 50 books in 2015. In September, I revised my goal down to 40…and I hit it! What follows is my list of the best 6 books I read in 2015, in chronological order.  (Update: My entire 2015 reading list is here.)

My Rules

I only count books I read all the way through, cover to cover.  I read lots of journals and periodicals, and in my weekly sermon prep read parts of different books and commentaries, but for my reading goal, none of those count.

A book that I keep thinking about, a book that adds enduring value to my life, that’s a book I’ll define as good.  I use a 5 star system in my ratings to signify the following:

★★★★★ life-changing and unforgettable
★★★★     excellent
★★★         worth reading

Books getting less than 3 stars aren’t on my “Best” list, which doesn’t mean they were necessarily bad, but just not books that I’d excitedly recommend to you.

★★             read other things first
                 not recommended

Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell

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I read all of Malcolm Gladwell’s books in 2015; Outliers is my favorite.  No man is an island; any amount of success we achieve is due to hard work, of course, but it’s also all about right place, right time; success is about our circumstances, our family, and our environment. ★★★★

The Radetsky March, by Joseph Roth

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I read because I want to experience life; the books I like best are the ones that evoke other times and other places so acutely that, to paraphrase Robert Frost, they make me remember things I’ve never known.  And, there is something about the vanished places that only exist in memory that are the sweetest and saddest.  Since I first read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s great memoirs (A Time of Gifts and Between the Wood and Water) I’ve loved reading works of nostos for Mittereuropa, that now-vanished world of the Austro-Hungarian empire, dismantled in World War I and disappeared with murder and concrete by World War Two and the Iron Curtain.

After watching The Grand Budapest Hotel, I read about Stephan Zweig, whose work was the inspiration for the Wes Anderson movie. Then, in Zweig’s autobiography, I stumbled across a reference to The Radetsky March.  I’d never heard it mentioned anywhere else, but it was one of the best books I read in 2015 and the sense of it will stay with me a long time after.

So, what is The Radetsky March about?  I like Simon Schama’s remark:

‘Read this and your life will change,’ we say, pressing it relentlessly on strangers encountered in Daunt Books who might confuse him with Henry or Philip of the same moniker. ‘So what’s it about?’ they reasonably inquire. ‘Ah, well,’ you say, ‘it follows an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army before the first world war, stuck in a provincial border garrison doing nothing in particular except getting drunk on 180 per cent schnapps and haplessly wandering from calamity to disaster … ‘ ‘Oh, right, thanks,’ they say, looking around for an escape route before you can add: ‘Oh and, of course, all of human life – sex, class, food, music, land, power, and Jews – there’s this scene where Kaiser Franz Joseph runs into an old Hasidic rabbi … ‘ But you’ve already lost them to the Man Booker shortlist table.”

Franz Joseph, Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, 1848-1916.

Franz Joseph, Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, 1848-1916.

The novel is an “elegiac evocation of the slow decay of a way of life that disappeared with the collapse of the multinational Habsburg Empire” and about the soft but irresistible pull of that empire towards destruction, and about one family’s own petty paralysis in the face of that slow pull.

For me, The Radetsky March is all atmosphere, elegy for a world that will never come again. (For a contemporary review of the novel that even then was looking back on a lost world, see this 1933 New York Times piece.)  ★★★★

 

An Unhurried Life: Following Jesus’ Rhythms of Work and Rest, by Alan Fadling

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“If you had one word to describe Jesus, what would it be?”  In An Unhurried Life, Alan Fadling recounts how, when philosopher and theologian Dallas Willard answered that question, he chose relaxed.  Fadling writes, “What took root in my own heart [after hearing Willard’s one word description] was the desire to know Jesus as an unhurried savior.” When I read that sentence last summer, I thought “YES.  Me too.”

I read this book at exactly the right time.  I had been feeling harried and shallow for months, feeling as if I could never find quiet, and feeling that God was calling me to prayer and silence.  Alan Fadling’s book was a blessing to me, and I recommend it to you.  ★★★

Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Unset

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Imagine living in a world in which all of reality–everything you could see and touch and taste and smell–was enchanted with the power of God.  This is the world of Kristin Lavransdatter.

Rod Dreher explains:

The late medievals were heirs to a belief system that regarded the world as enchanted. God was everywhere, and ordered all things to Himself. All of Creation — and it was “Creation,” not yet “Nature” — was a sign pointing to its Creator. It is an anachronistic mistake to think that our late medieval ancestors regarded the world as we do, except with a belief in God added to it. They did not. God and things divine were far more present in the imaginations of the people, who looked around them and saw Him. They lived in a cosmos — a universe ordered by God, pregnant with meaning and divine purpose [emphasis in the original].”

Kristin Lavransdatter is an 1,100 page historical novel (actually a trilogy of novels, published in the early 1920s), written by Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset about 14th century Norway.  The novel follows the life of the title character (Kristin, daughter of her father Lavrans)

first as a young girl enjoying bread, butter, dried reindeer, and mead in sunny alpine meadows with her father; then through her thrilling first encounters with the love of her life, the beguiling Erlend Nikulausson, during which Undset precisely renders the romantic heart of a teenage girl; and finally through Kristin’s adulthood as a brooding but hardworking mistress of a household and mother of many sons.”

Carrie Frederick Frost has an insightful essay at First Things (from which I took the above quotation) about Kristin and motherhood and faith.  I will never be a mother, but I am a son and a father, and I appreciate Frost’s summary of the insight that Kristin gains from motherhood:

It is through reflection on her own experience of motherhood that Kristin is able to understand her parents’ love for her. After a decade of motherhood she considers the character of her parents’ love: “That love had been strong and wide and unfathomably deep; while the love she gave them in return was weak and thoughtless and selfish, even back in childhood when her parents were her whole world.” Kristin realizes that even though she loved her parents, her love for them did not approach the love they had for her, and that she now feels this same “strong and wide” love for her own children. Through her maternal meditation, Kristin understands that she belongs to a lineage of love linking her children, herself, her parents, and all of humanity back to God’s “unfathomably deep” parental love.”

Kristin Lavransdatter is not just about motherhood, though: like other great epic novels (e.g. War and Peace or Island of the World) it is about all of life: marriage, adultery, hatred, war, forgiveness, and the grace of God.  I love this novel.  ★★★★★

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspirationby Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace

buzz

I had an insight last year: my job (or at least the most public aspect of it) is essentially creative.  Every single Sunday, 47 weeks a year, I am personally and alone responsible for a 30 minute presentation that is supposed to faithfully convey Christian doctrine, bring the Bible to life, appeal to outsiders and skeptics, nourish the faithful, and, if possible, be both humorous and poignant.  And then do it again in 7 days.

How is it possible to make that kind of creativity and excellence routine?

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Ed Catmull is a computer genius in his own right, but he is also a business genius, and as a co-founder and president of Pixar he has been obsessed with creating a culture of creativity since 1986.  Creativity Inc. is Mr. Catmull’s attempt to put what he has learned down on paper.  The result is a business book unlike most business books, and I found myself underlining sentence after sentence as I read.  ★★★★

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

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The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins’s dystopian young adult novel, surprised me: it was much better than I expected it to be, and I still find myself thinking about it frequently, months later.  The basic story line–how a ruthless elite amuses themselves to death while exploiting the general population in order to maintain their wealth and comfort–strikes me as chillingly similar to life in modern America: we live in The Capital.  I think Katniss Everdeen is a totally believable heroine, and I am impressed with Ms. Collins’s creativity and vision.  ★★★

My 2016 Reading Goal

Once again, I’ve set myself a goal of reading 50 books this year.  What about you–do you have a reading goal for the year?

 

[Here are my 2013 and 2014 reading lists, respectively.]

 

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