“Let pleasure be your guide.”
My thesis advisor said that to me about the next phase of my doctoral research. She was encouraging me to trust my instincts and intuitions as I read and as I write. It is a wonderfully freeing statement, and it is a statement that has far reaching effects, at least for me.
I have spent a lot of my reading life reading things I was “supposed to read”. The standard works. The must reads. The best books. And there is something important about building a foundation. When you begin reading, there is something to be said about guides, about people advising you about what is good and what is bad and how to tell the difference.
But once you’ve developed some reading sense and have fostered your own personal taste, obsession with best can also paralyze because even while you are reading you might have the niggling thought, “Is this really the best book?” And then you plough on through never feeling the freedom to abandon what you’ve started, since if this is a “best” book clearly the problem is with you and not the book.
So in the spirt of pleasure being my guide, I’ve compiled a list of favorites, rather than a list of “Best” books. These may not be the “best” books I read this year, but they are the ones I most enjoyed. They were my favorites, and maybe you might like them too. Maybe you won’t. But again, I’d say to anyone reading this, “Let pleasure be your guide.”
Before I get to the list of favorites, I want to mention a couple of reading habits that I picked up this year.
First, I started scanning books quickly to decide if they were worth my time. Mortimer Adler called this kind of reading inspectional reading. I call it “Spend an hour with a book” in order to glean what I can. On the basis of pleasure and in the hope of better trusting my intuition, I have abandoned more books this year than any previous year. I will not be looking back.
The other habit that I picked up from The Intellectual Life was writing through my reading, which is one reason this blog exists.
A few of my favorite books from this year:
My favorite book this the year was The Intellectual Life by A.G Sertillanges (I have a series of post about that book here). Reading that book along with Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work inspired me to start blogging with some regularity. From Sertillanges I picked up the idea of getting more out of what I read by writing through it. From Kleon I picked up the idea of owning my own turf, which is why I started my own website and started blogging.
Here is a choice quote from Kleon that pushed me to start my own website:
“Don’t think of your website as a self-promotion machine, think of it as a self-invention machine.”
Some other favorites:
Favorite biography: Strange Glory, Charles Marsh – A masterful biography about an important and beguiling figure, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I learned much about him, of course, but it also gave me a lot to think about in regards to the vocation of theology.
Favorite novel: Glittering Images, Susan Howatch – A novel narrated by a 37 year-old Anglican priest who teaches theology at Cambridge who is asked by the Archbishop of Canterbury to investigate the personal life of a troublesome bishop? What’s not to love for someone like me? But more than a mystery novel set in the upper echelons of the Church of England, the book is about a spiritual journey that takes Christian faith very seriously and has much to say about personal disintegration and the gracious ways God can put people back together through the faithful ministries of others.
Favorite memoir: Let’s Go, Jeff Tweedy – This memoir by Wilco’s frontman was such a delight to read and shed a lot of light on some of my favorite music made in the last 20 years.
Favorite Commentaries I used this Year: Peter Leithart, 1 & 2 Kings; Scot McKnight Colossians , Luke David Lyle Jeffrey
Favorite Work of Theology (other than something by von Balthasar, who is the writer I spent the most time with this year):The Priority of Christ: Toward a Post-Liberal Catholicism, Robert Barron – I’ve gleaned so much from Robert Barron over the past couple of years, especially his teaching ministry, like this talk he gave at Google headquarters. This book does such a good job of situating Barron’s own thought in contrast to modernism and in conversation with people like von Balthasar.
Favorite Work by von Balthasar: A Theology of History ( I wrote about this book here.)
Favorite book of poems: 99 Poems, Dana Gioia
Favorite audio book: St. Thomas Aquinas, G.K. Chesterton