Soviet Russia during wartime; climbing Mount Everest in canvas puttees and hobnailed boots; Hasidic teenagers in Brooklyn: these were just a few of the subjects I read about in 2014. Sure, I didn’t make my reading goal, but it was a great year for reading all the same.
“The Artist in His Room at the Villa Medici, Rome,” by Léon Cogniet, 1817 [Wikipedia].
My 2014 Reading Goal
I set a goal to read 50 books in 2014. My actual total: 34. (Just like last year, I fell short.) But can I get a little credit for reading several huge novels?
I mentioned last year that I wanted to read more fiction and literature in 2014, and as you’ll see below, I accomplished that goal. (I think I’d like to add more books on theology and pastoral ministry in 2015.)
Here Are My Rules
I only counted books that I read all the way through. In my weekly sermon prep, I often end up reading parts of different books, but they don’t count. Also, I read lots of periodicals and online journals, but I don’t count them toward my total. Why not? I find that the concentration required to read a book all the way through is different (and more valuable) than reading a blog post or online article. Also, reading blog posts and articles isn’t life-giving to me the way reading a book is.
A book that I’ll remember in the future, 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
★★★ 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
The Best Books I Read in 2014 (in chronological order)
The Abominable: A Novel, by Dan Simmons. The first book I read in 2014, and one of the best I read all year. It’s a long novel (688 pages) about a team trying to climb Mount Everest in 1924, against a background of mystery and international espionage. Author Dan Simmons takes the gaps in our historical knowledge (What really happened to George Mallory and Sandy Irvine? Why didn’t Hitler put Operation Sea Lion into motion and invade England in 1940?) and connects them and fills them in in creative and satisfying ways.
From Booklist, via Amazon:
It’s 1924, and a trio of rogue climbers—mysterious WWI vet Deacon; emotional Frenchman Jean-Claude; and our narrator, brash young American Jacob—are hired to find the corpse of a dignitary lost on Everest. While they’re there, they go for the legendary summit. Right away, there’s a complication: a fourth team member, the dead man’s cousin—and a woman, no less! But it’s the subsequent complications that make this required reading for anyone inspired or terrified by high-altitude acrobatics: sudden avalanches, hidden crevasses, murderous temperatures, mountainside betrayals, and maybe—just maybe—a pack of bloodthirsty yeti. Though the first 200 pages of climbing background might have readers pining for the big climb, it is nearly always interesting, and, later, Simmons excels at those small but full-throated moments of terror when, for example, a single bent screw might mean death for everyone.”
The Abominable had me constantly reaching for my atlas and looking things up on Wikipedia. Highly recommended. ★★★★
The Christ of the Indian Road, by E. Stanley Jones. I’d like to understand the culture in which I minister as well as Jones, a Methodist missionary to India 100 years ago (and a friend of Gandhi’s) understood his. Recommended. ★★★
Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand. The story of Louie Zamperini’s life is one of the more remarkable I’ve ever read. Highly recommended (and I also recommend the movie, by the way). ★★★★
The Last Hero, by Peter Forbath. This fictionalized retelling of Henry Morton Stanley’s final trip through the Congo is terrifying and compelling. Another long novel (729 pages) that had me constantly reaching for the atlas and encyclopedia, it re-introduced me to the remarkable life of Henry Morton Stanley. Stanley was one of the most famous and lionized me in the world in the last 3rd of the 19th century, and though I’d read about him when I was a teenager, I’d forgotten how improbable, exciting, and impressive were his accomplishments. Like Louie Zamperini–although actually much more so–Stanley’s life story is one of those that if you made it up, no one would believe it. Highly recommended. ★★★★
The Chosen, by Chaim Potok. Why read fiction? Fiction enables you to experience the life of another in a way that is impossible otherwise. The Chosen is about the friendship between two boys in the Hasidic community in Brooklyn during the Second World War. Highly recommended. ★★★★
Essentialism, by Greg McKeown. I wrote about this book here. Like most of these sorts of business and leadership books, it’s too long, but still worth the read. Recommended. ★★★
What Radical Husbands Do, by Regi Campbell. I’d like all the men I know to read this book. Recommended. ★★★
The Advantage, by Patrick Lencioni. A great book on organizational leadership. Recommended. ★★★
Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry. The only novel of Berry’s I’ve ever read, it’s a slow accounting of the life of a small hamlet in Kentucky, and its bachelor barber. Highly recommended. ★★★
The Best Book I Read in 2014
Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman (translated by Robert Chandler). A novel by a Red Army journalist who lived through the Battle of Stalingrad, Life and Fate is a masterpiece and an experience that I will never ever forget.
Urban warfare, Stalingrad, 1942.
German POWs, Stalingrad, 1943.
I first heard about Life and Fate as a college history student, and have had it on my someday/maybe list for 15 years or so. It’s a massive novel (896 pages), and was the last book I read in 2014. Here’s a good summary from Publisher’s Weekly:
Obviously modeled on War and Peace, this sweeping account of the siege of Stalingrad aims to give as panoramic a view of Soviet society during World War II as Tolstoy did of Russian life in the epoch of the Napoleonic Wars. Completed in 1960 and then confiscated by the KGB, it remained unpublished at the author’s death in 1964; it was smuggled into the West in 1980. Grossman offers a bitter, compelling vision of a totalitarian regime where the spirit of freedom that arose among those under fire was feared by the state at least as much as were the Nazis. His huge cast of characters includes an old Bolshevik now under arrest, a physicist pressured to make his scientific discoveries conform to “socialist reality” and a Jewish doctor en route to the gas chambers in occupied Russia. Ironically, just as Stalingrad is liberated from the Germans, many of the characters find themselves bound in new slavery to the Soviet government. Yet Grossman suggests that the spirit of freedom can never be completely crushed. His lengthy, absorbing novel–which rejected the compromises of a lifetime and earned its author denunciation and disgrace–testifies eloquently to that spirit.”
Highly, highly recommended. (I’ll need to write more about this separately.) ★★★★★
The Rest of 2014 (in chronological order)
Some of the books below are quite good, but for whatever reason, they didn’t grab me in such as way to make my “best of” list above. Still, some of these books might be worth your time.
Others most definitely aren’t. Caveat lector.
That Used to be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented And How We Can Come Back, by Thomas Friedman & Michael Mandelbaum. The title pretty much says it all…. ★★
Stanley: the Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer,” by Tim Jeal. After reading The Last Hero (see above), I wanted to learn more about Stanley. ★★
The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, by Rod Dreher. A memoir about returning home after the death of an only sibling. I first read about the book on Dreher’s blog, which is one of my favorites. A nice book about the importance of family and community. ★★
Death by Meeting, by Patrick Lencioni. Helpful. ★★
Finally Free: Fighting for Purity with the Power of Grace, by Heath Lambert. A book about men and pornography. ★★
Foundation and Empire
Second Foundation, all by Isaac Asimov. I’d heard that these were ground-breaking books in science fiction, so I think I was expecting more. Good, but not great. ★★
The Tale of Three Kings, by Gene Edwards. A lot of evangelical pastor types love this book about Saul, David, and Absolom. Not totally sure why. ★★
The Anglican Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism, by John Stott & J. Alec Motyer. Not helpful to me. ★
The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, by John Maxwell. I don’t get much out of Maxwell’s stuff. ★
All In, by Mark Batterson. ★
Developing the Leader Within You, by John Maxwell. Maxwell’s first book, and definitely one of the worst books I’ve ever read. More clichés than a box of chocolates. ★
The 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork, by John Maxwell. ★
Podcast Launch, by John Lee Dumas. ★
Come Home: A Call Back to Faith, by James MacDonald. My mom told me about this book, and as soon as I heard the title, I thought, “I want to do a sermon series on that theme.” I ended up doing the series–one of my favorites we’ve ever done–but I didn’t find the book very helpful to me, and all I ended up using was the title (which is a great title, by the way). ★
An Approach to Extended Memorization of Scripture, by Andrew Davis. Can’t beat the price. ★★
Eat This Book, by Eugene Peterson. Like Come Home mentioned above, I got a sermon series out of this title (which I’d heard elsewhere), but didn’t get much content for the actual series from the book. ★★
7 Men and The Secret of Their Greatness, by Eric Metaxas. I want to like Eric Metaxas’s books because I believe in what he’s trying to do and agree with his general worldview, but as with his Bonhoeffer book, I found the writing in this book to be really annoying and juvenile. Unfortunately, I just don’t think Metaxas is a very good writer. Not recommended. ★
Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World, by Michael Hyatt. Good practical stuff for bloggers. ★★
In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, by Henri Nouwen. I love the epilogue about Nouwen and his friend with special needs, speaking at a conference together. Beautiful. ★★
Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, by Peter Thiel. I really disliked this book; this Vox post is a good summary of my own feelings. (For another funny article on Silicon Valley arrogance and foolishness, see this New York magazine piece about the men behind the laundry app “Washio.”) Not recommended. ★
Not Yet Christmas, by J.D. Walt. Some nice reflections on Advent. ★★
Into the Silent Land: a Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation, by Martin Laird. A reference on Rod Dreher’s blog pointed me towards this book. Good stuff on contemplative prayer. ★★
I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of the above. Anything I need to be sure and read in 2015?
If you’ve read this far, you’re committed, so why not subscribe to future updates from my blog? Click here to subscribe.