Saturday, January 4, 2014

Top Books of 2013

Here are my top 10 books of 2013, in no particular order of preference, just as they came to mind. This was probably a more diverse reading year in terms of literature, but as you can see, not as many deep theological works were completed (though many were started and nibbled upon).

The Heart of Darkness: I was blown away by the literary quality of Conrad's work. I listened to this in the car to/from the office and on numerous occasions needed to stop and capture a phrase I heard to share it with others that would appreciate it. Here's one of my favorites: "The servant came running.'Look at those flies, brother;' and he pointed to the horrible mass that hung from the ceiling. The nucleus was a wire which had been inserted as a homage to electricity. Electricity had paid no attention, and a colony of eye-flies had come instead and blackened the coils with their bodies." I've since learned that the classic Martin Sheen movie, Apocalypse Now, is a modernization/retelling of the story line of this book.

127 Hours: Almost didn't pick this one up, as it seemed too obvious. Guy gets trapped by a boulder while hiking in the wilderness, cuts off his own arm, survives. Amazing, but how do you string that one out into a book? But then my son blazed through it, necessitating a thorough review on my part. Though skeptical, I was surprised by what I found. This guy was well read and thoughtful. And he wasn't some careless hiker who strayed from the trail to get a photo of an albino mouse. No, he was a seasoned high caliber mountain climber (he has since become the first person to solo-winter climb all 14K+ mountains in Colorado). How he ended up stranded was quite a bit of a fluke, but his personal drive and character that allowed him to survive is astonishing and inspiring.

My Reading Life: Great little book on the influence of good books in the life of a well known writer (Pat Conroy). His account of the influence of his English teacher on his life as a writer was humbling and inspiring. And his passion for reading and its affect on his life as a writer was equally contagious. He also shares some details about his life and habits as a writer (i.e. the daily discipline) as well as his reading goals (tries to read 200 pgs/day) and other interesting stories from experiences like his time spent writing in Paris, or from his neighborhood bookstore in Atlanta.

The Great Santini: After reading My Reading Life, I wanted to read some of Conroy's fiction. This story is based on his experiences growing up with a hard driving marine corps pilot as a father ('Santini' was his nickname for his father). Fascinating read. There's a section in here I've quoted a few times on identity to co-workers and friends where his dad lectures at length about what it means to be a descendent of his. Powerful stuff (though a bit over the top at the same time - which was Conroy's point). I've since seen that Conroy has written a follow up, just released (which I've not read) called The Death of Santini

The Long Ships: This is the most fun I've had reading a book in a long time. It's the story of one Viking's journeys and adventures in his homeland, the middle east, and pushing westward. The combination of the adventure and the authors clever wit makes for loads of fun. There is a fair amount of plunder, pillaging, and feminine conquest (nothing graphic) in the book, so not for the young. Overall I think this was my favorite read of the year.

The Meaning of Marriage: Keller at his best on an important topic (one that I carry a bit of a bias toward). A Christ centered teaching on marriage. Very, very helpful. A must read this year. He puts marriage in its proper biblical and historical context (though in a way that is 100 times more interesting than I just made it sound). Without that, I'm not sure you can really understand what your own marriage is about.

Journal of a Novel: Last year I read East of Eden, by Steinbeck, and thoroughly enjoyed it (a modern take on the Cain/Abel story with some very interesting discussions of human nature and the meaning of a Hebrew word). This book, also by Steinbeck, is the daily journal he kept while writing East of Eden. So I don't think the average person would care much about this work, as it is everything you imagine a daily writing journal would be (an accumulation of the mundane details of life, such as an internal debate about the superiorty of certain types of pencils). But I found it fascinating for this very reason. I'm not a 'writer' in the sense that I sit down and hammer out novels or articles every day, but writing is a key part of my daily work, and it is often the hardest part. So reading some of these similiar sentiments from one of the greatest writers of the 20th century was wonderfully encouraging.

All the Pretty Horses: I'm ashamed to say that I've never read Cormac McCarthy before this year. And I was blown away by the quality of his writing. His style was like the perfect nexus of Hemingway and Stegner. Sparse, intense, and out in the old west.

Amusing Ourselves to Death: This is a must read for every person that ever looks at a screen of any kind for any reason. Though written in 1985, it is scary relevant to today's world. He tracks the progression of communication from oral to text to image based and the affect these mediums have on the way the information is interacted with and consumed. In an age where technology overwhelms the conversation, his frank insight is a good reminder of the basics of communication and brings some sanity to the conversation.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: This book was first recommended to me by a Southern Baptist pastor in rural Kentucky. Even the title struck me as odd - not your normal "must read" from that stereotype. I'm still not sure why he recommended it but I did find it to be an interesting read. The author (Robert Prisig) weaves together a story of a motorcycle trip with his son and his own philosophical ramblings on the topic of "Quality." There's a subplot to the story that gives it an extra edge of interest. Any one of these literary structures in and of itself would not make for much of a read, but the way he weaves them together makes it quite engaging. The book has inspired many to follow his journey on their own bikes. One disciple, who made the journey 30 years after Prisig, wrote about his experience in the book Zen and Now. This account also provides more biographical information on Prisig and reflects on the importance of the book in his own life and the importance of making the journey as a middle age man. I know that sounds thrilling to those 28 and under. I apologize. Yes, I turned 40 last year. No matter your age, Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance is worth reading, though not everyone will be able to endure the philosophical ramblings. I found myself skimming some segments at times to get back to the story of the journey and his interactions with his son.

Others to finish in 2014
I started the following books in 2013 and hope to finish them this year.

The Meaning of the Pentateuch: Picked this up because of John Piper. He responded to a tweet by Mark Driscoll, who was raving about a Piper book by saying "Sell all your Piper books and buy The Meaning of the Pentateuch." Bold statement. I can already say that I think every Christian should read the Introduction. That alone is worth the price of the book. But you can read all 50 pages of the intro, for free, right here.

Here I Stand: Classic bio on Luther. Pretty good. Helped to watch the recent movie, Luther, in the middle of it (in honor of Reformation Day).

Penses: by Blaise Pascal. Nibbling on this a few pages at a time (and posting excerpts on it occassionally). So rich. So rich. And loving this classy folio society version.

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