Every year, I find December to be a month of tensions. The to-do list is lengthy but my energy level is rarely equal to the task. It’s a time ripe for reflection but also a call to future action. I find December to be a time when I must re-learn the art of sitting in those tensions. Sometimes waiting and listening are more important than moving and speaking.
But tension can easily begin to weigh on you. We all need a release when we feel the weight of tension besetting us. For me, that release comes in two similar forms — writing and reading. Writing is my ultimate pleasure. It’s how I’ve always processed the happenings of life. My love for reading has come and gone, but now that I am an adult, I see its impact more clearly. In 2016, I made it my goal to read 12 books — one for each month. I reached that goal on the last day of the year, and I wrote a recap of what I had learned from the experience.
What I Learned from Reading More in 2016
My first time keeping a New Year’s resolution was completely worth it…
This year, my goal was 20 books. Though I didn’t quite hit that mark, I did read more than I did in the previous year. I learned so much, and you can find many of those lessons in my recap below. But more than anything, I learned anew that it is so important to step back from the worries and doubts that stalk us. We must find oases in the desert. Books provided that necessary respite for me this year. Let me tell you how…
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling
In my post from 2016, I recounted how fascinating it had been to finally dive into the Harry Potter books for the first time. I had already seen all the movies, but I was experiencing the unique wonders of this classic book series completely anew.
Goblet of Fire was the first book I finished in 2017. I must admit, I paused for a second when I saw how much larger it was than the previous Harry Potter books. It took me a little longer to read. But once I reached the halfway point, I flew through the rest fairly quickly.
What I think will stick with me from this book is that, yes — bad things do happen. As Hagrid says near the end of the book…
“No good sittin’ worryin’ abou’ it…What’s comin’ will come, an’ we’ll meet it when it does.”
There’s no way to magically make bad things go away, even if you can magically make objects disappear with a flick of your wand. At some point, we have to decide to face the ugly parts of life.
Present Over Perfect by Shauna Niequist
I have come to love books. My wife chuckles when I tell her that I’ve bought a new book, because our bookshelf is already overflowing. I find that, most of the time when I finish a book, I have positive feelings about the experience. I think it’s because my brain works analytically, so I enjoy pondering someone else’s writing.
But then there are books that, while I’m reading them, reach another level of impact. This book — about drastic life change for the author — touched me so deeply and helped me unearth aspects of my life that I had shied away from. I didn’t read this book so much as I listened to it. Setting aside the writing itself (which is undeniably beautiful) I found so much of my own story within these pages.
For so long, I’ve let the thoughts of others sit too high on my priority list. Often, my sole motivation for doing something would be to please someone else. After a while, the weight of all that striving becomes too much.
I hold my dreams and goals for the future in such high regard. Often, that comes at the expense of the present.
I sometimes lose sight of just how awe-inspiring it is that the Creator of the universe loves me — even knowing all the bad things I’ve done and the many ways I’ve failed.
It’s okay to slow down. The hustle isn’t the ultimate ideal.
“The bad news is that there is no finish line here, no magical before and after….But there’s good news, too: if we just keep coming back to the silence, if we keep grounding ourselves, as often as we need to, in God’s wild love, if we keep showing up and choosing to be present in both the mess and in the delight, we will find our way home, even if the road is winding, and full of fits and starts.” — Shauna Niequist, Present Over Perfect
I have a sneaking suspicion that this is a book which I will revisit many times over. I can think of only a few books that have resonated so deeply within my soul. I’m forever grateful that Shauna decided to share her story. I pray that it is encouragement for others to do the same.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling
From the very first book of this legendary series, it is clear that Harry Potter has a dark past. It is always lurking. Certainly the first four books of the series had their fair share of moments where Harry was forced to face this darkness. The death of Cedric Diggory in The Goblet of Fire certainly comes to mind.
But this book, more than any of the others before it, is where Harry becomes tormented by the darkness of his past. He must face it. And therein lies what I found to be especially resonant in this story.
I’m sure there are very few of us whose parents were murdered by an evil wizard and about whom dark prophecies fortell even darker fortunes. But all of us have our pasts. All of us face darkness from time to time.
If Goblet of Fire was about deciding to face the bad things in life, then Order of the Phoenix was the resulting wake-up call. Facing bad things is never easy. There’s pain involved. Sometimes, we may even experience loss. But, a section near the end of the book rings true, I believe. Here, Harry is talking with Luna Lovegood about what happened in the Department of Mysteries.
“‘Have you…’ he began. ‘I mean, who…has anyone you’ve known ever died?
‘Yes,’ said Luna simply, ‘my mother. She was a quite extraordinary witch…I was nine.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Harry mumbled.
‘Yes, it was rather horrible,’ said Luna conversationally. ‘I still feel very sad about it sometimes. But I’ve still got Dad. And anyway, it’s not as though I’ll never see Mum again, is it?’
‘Er — isn’t it?’ said Harry uncertainly.
She shook her head in disbelief. ‘Oh, come on. You heard them, just behind the veil, didn’t you?’
‘In that room with the archway. They were just lurking out of sight, that’s all. You heard them.’
They looked at each other. Luna was smiling slightly. Harry did not know what to say, or to think. Luna believed so many extraordinary things…yet he had been sure he had heard voices behind the veil too…”
We aren’t the only ones who have experienced pain. It’s not about commiserating, it’s about encouraging one another. Lifting each other up when we’re going through something painful.
And, depending on your beliefs, there is a hope that’s on a higher plane. I believe that I will see my loved ones again. I believe that they are in the Presence and care of One far greater than me.
And that is a comforting thought, indeed.
Lent for Non-Lent People by Jon Swanson
I read this book for the first time in 2016. It holds so many golden thought nuggets of faith within its pages. But this year, I decided to use it as a daily reading for Lent. The book’s impact was magnified even more.
We often look at Lent as “giving something up.” That is certainly a key aspect. But this year, I saw it more for the opportunities created by that extra space. I decided to give up personal social media for Lent. I didn’t tweet, I stayed off Facebook and I took a rest from Instagram. It was very refreshing.
But it was also difficult. I love social media, and I think it has the opportunity to be very good. However, I often let it take up too much of my time. Lent was a powerful reminder of that for me.
Each morning, I would read an excerpt from Jon’s book. I’ve been blessed to be able to get to know Jon a little bit over the last two years. He is a very wise man and extremely thoughtful. He’s one of those people who’s words carry a great deal of weight. I treasure any word of advice from him.
If you’ve never tried Lent before and you are considering giving it a go, I’d go as far as saying this book is a must-read. It really does a good job of laying out the purpose and impact of Lent. I think it’s going to become a yearly reading tradition of mine.
I’d also encourage you to check out Jon’s blog, 300wordsaday, where he shares short bits of encouragement and spiritual formation each day.
The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien
If I had to choose a favorite work of fiction, this just might be it. It certainly holds a special place in my heart. I first read it in elementary school, and it has enthralled me ever since. In fact, for a few years between high school and most of the way through college, I started a tradition of reading through the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy each year. I’ve laxed on that since graduation, but I decided to jump back in this year.
I don’t remember how many times I’ve read this book, but it amazes me how I catch new things each time. I know everyone says that about their favorite book, movie or other work of art. But, truly, I notice new things. I think that’s a testament to high art. There’s enough in it that you just won’t notice it all on one, two or even three times over it.
Much has been said about these books. Obviously, the writing is spectacular. It’s vivid and descriptive. For some, I’ve been told they find Tolkien’s writing too descriptive. While I understand where those comments are coming from, I just simply don’t agree. For me, Tolkien’s writing opens worlds. To do that on the scale that Tolkien’s vision required, the plain fact is that there is so much to describe. Each sentence, each clause even, opens up new aspects of this world we’ve entered into. I’ll never stop being amazed at the genius of Tolkien. To create such a layered universe with full histories and languages is nothing short of remarkable.
This time, I wanted to come at this book in a new light. I decided to start a Twitter thread where I recorded some of my favorite quotes as I read.
I was struck at how many of my favorite quotes that made it into the movie trilogy were nearly verbatim from the book. It goes to show the respect that Peter Jackson had for Tolkien’s writing — and for good reason.
My personal favorite passage comes from what I consider the best chapter of the entire book and, possibly, of the series as a whole — “Fog on the Barrow-Downs.” This is the source material for what is certainly my favorite scene of the movie trilogy.
“That night they heard no noises. But either in his dreams or out of them, he could not tell which, Frodo heard a sweet singing running in his mind: a song that seemed to come like a pale light behind a grey rain-curtain, and growing stronger to turn the veil all to glass and silver, until at last it was rolled back, and a far green country opened before him under a swift sunrise.”
When we’re faced with adversity, what brings us comfort? What do we think of when life is dire? I find it so poignant that, throughout the book when the hobbits are faced with those types of situations, their minds often drift to the idyllic rolling hills of their home. The Shire — with its quaint hobbit holes and well-kept gardens tilled by a people with no knowledge of the “outside world.”
I think of the love my God has shown me through His many blessings. Chief among those blessings is my family. My dear wife has helped me through countless difficulties. Often, my mind drifts back to simpler days, too. Like when I would play baseball in the backyard with my older brother.
When we’re pushed to our limits — we think of home. Maybe not the physical structure, but the people, the feelings, the memories. In that way, this book will always be a “home” of sorts for me.
Walden by Henry David Thoreau
This was my first reading of Walden, though I had certainly heard of the greatness of Thoreau’s work. I found it on a bookshelf of a seller in a flea market for $1.50. After reading his book, I wonder what Thoreau would think of the comparatively low price of books across from a booth selling fidget spinners for five times that price.
This is a fantastic work, and it has specific wisdom for our current age of inattention. I’m speaking to myself here as much as anyone. My attention span is often so short. I’ve trained myself to expect frequent spurts of information dumps from the rectangular vice in my pocket. And we call them smart-phones. Our technology affords us so much, but do we stop and consider what it takes from us?
Walden is famous as an environmental work and a call to simple living. You can certainly find that within its pages. The earlier chapters challenged me about areas of extravagance. Please hear me when I say, it’s not wrong to have nice clothes or nice things. You can certainly go overboard when reading Walden. But shortly before I started reading it, I had purchased some khaki shorts. They were identical to other shorts that had been in my drawer for over a year due to a stain that they had incurred shortly after I purchased them. We couldn’t get the stain out, so I never wore them. Then, I read a section of Walden where Thoreau talks about patched pants. I decided to wear the stained shorts out to see if anyone would notice. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. But no one said anything to me.
As I read Walden, I see it as a call to the present moment. There are many sections — such as a lengthy one where he describes a battle between ants — where Thoreau focuses solely on the moment at hand. The present moment. Push out all else, and focus on what is around you. Because, as Thoreau rightly points out, Nature is constantly around us and is never drained of its beauty and wealth.
I hear that some find contradictions in Walden. I guess I could see where you might come to that conclusion. The only one I could find is how Thoreau views the companionship of other people. At some points, he makes us believe that he enjoys entertaining. At others, he seems a hermit. However, I look at my own life and can find examples of both personalities as well. Maybe to be human is to be full of contradictions. Or, in the words of Walt Whitman, we “contain multitudes.”
I loved Walden, and I would recommend it to anyone. It makes you think. There is so much food for thought within its pages. Let me give you a few snippets as a quick snack. But I encourage you to read the book for the meal. This first quote is the one I would pick if I were to describe Walden by a snapshot of one of its pages.
“A single gentle rain makes the grass many shades greener. So our prospects brighten on the influx of better thoughts. We should be blessed if we lived in the present always, and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it; and did not spend our time in atoning for the neglect of past opportunities, which we call doing our duty. We loiter in winter while it is already spring.”
“The universe is wider than our views of it.”
Wow. That second quote is a powerful one. I think our cultures would be much more hospitable if we could all learn that lesson. The problem, and I fall into it as well, is that we all stand outside saying that others should learn it. We neglect to teach it to ourselves.
“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”
“I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”
Walden is a delightful and enduring work of art. It is challenging at times, at others it is uplifting and ethereal. At points it is full of humor. At other points (I’ll be bluntly honest) Thoreau’s sharp focus on his budget and daily goings-on was a bit boring. But those parts were very few and very far between. I am still fascinated by this book, and I will certainly be revisiting it at some point. If you’ve never read it or if it’s been a while since you have, I strongly recommend it.
The Self-Aware Leader by Terry Linhart
Terry is someone I have the fantastic honor of being able to call a friend. He is a professor at my alma mater, Bethel College, and he co-hosts one of my favorite podcasts, 37 the Podcast. So when I heard that he was coming out with a new book, I was just a little bit excited!
Terry is a national leader when it comes to youth ministry, and he has had great success in many different fields. He’s one of those guys that is just fantastic at a lot of different things, and he is a great thinker. This book puts those talents on full display.
When I began reading this book, I actually had the pleasure of going over to Terry’s house for dinner. I ended up reading his book in his living room, which was a pretty cool experience. I thought about all the hard work that went into it and reflected on the fact that it was now an actual book being read by actual people — one of them on the author’s very own couch!
This book isn’t just a youth ministry book. It is a leadership book, but it’s more than that too. Even if you don’t see yourself as a leader, there are so many nuggets of truth here. Terry talks about blind spots — things in our personality or things from our past that have effects on us today that we can’t even see.
Reading this book had an almost therapeutic effect on me. All of us have leadership opportunities of some kind. But, at this stage of my life, I’m not necessarily in positions of leadership very often. However, I think this is precisely the time to work through my “blind spots” so that when I am in those positions, I will hopefully be able to be more self-aware.
This book shows how that helps us lead more effectively, and I think it will be a major value-add for anyone who reads it.
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
I’m not sure I’ve ever read, listened to or watched anyone who commands the English language quite like Cormac McCarthy. If I were forced to choose a favorite author at the moment (a nearly impossible task) I think I’d choose him. This is now the third book of his that I’ve read, and I simply can’t get enough.
Blood Meridian is a harsh book in many ways. It depicts a bleak picture of the Texas/Mexico border in the 1850s. It follows the journeys of The Kid through violence and the bleak desert landscape. Along the way, we meet The Judge, who is certainly one of the most memorable characters I’ve ever read. He is unsettling to say the least.
Despite a pretty ambigious ending, I found Blood Meridian to be a thought-provoking picture of the American Western taken to its logical conclusion. This is what happens when violence is fetishized. By the time I got to the end of the book, I wasn’t sure what to think or feel. That is, other than the fact that McCarthy’s writing is unequivocally beautiful. He is a master of the written word. Sentences form in ways I’d have never dreamed. There are treasures in his prose. If you want to experience great writing, go to Cormac.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
I’m not quite sure how I got to 25 having not read this book, but somehow I did. To go from Blood Meridian to this Pulitzer Prize-winning classic certainly made for some fascinating reading. I flew through this book faster than any in my recent memory. I can certainly see why it is so beloved.
Much has already been written about how fantastic the characters are. They are some of the most well-known characters in literature. But it was the story itself at which I found myself marvelling. It is so relatable — we all know what it’s like to be a child filled with fear, awe, wonder, excitement and questions.
I got up early each morning to read this before going to work, then I’d read more each night before going to bed. It’s one of those rare times where the hype really didn’t do the experience justice. This book is completely deserving of all the praise that has been heaped upon it over the years.
My favorite idea from this book is that of trying to put yourself in the perspective of another.
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.” — Atticus Finch
That’s such an important truth, one that I need to continue to learn to put into practice. It isn’t easy, but I think we all need much more of it.
Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann
This is a fascinating but heartbreaking story. Grann handles it masterfully, and I was enthralled by his talents as a writer. Ultimately this is a story of how greed corrupts the human soul into a mangled and twisted shell.
Grann breaks the story up into three different sections — the murders of Osage Indians and the initial investigations, the beginning of the FBI with its subsequent investigations into the crimes and the changing perceptions of what happened based upon the passage of time and insufficient reporting of what actually happened.
If, like me, you are not familiar with the Osage Indian murders prior to reading this book, the initial chapters will be shocking. Though, with our country’s checkered past, maybe I shouldn’t have been so shocked. But it was that initial shock that kept coming back to my mind as I read the final chapters. The fact that I didn’t know about these murders meant that somehow the stories hadn’t been carried down through the years.
The section on the FBI is undeniably fascinating. Parts of this book read like a mystery thriller. But Grann’s powerful skill for narrative storytelling coupled with the heartbreaking stories of the families left behind after the brutal killings make this a loftier book. It gets to the core issues of how people can treat each other with such hate. It begins by seeing them as less than human. This also shows how greed and racism can certainly begin with a few bad eggs. But it takes systems to allow them to fester. This heartbreaking story would never have happened if the system in those days was not set up to negatively affect the Osage tribe.
I will forever be grateful to my boss for lending me this book to read, and I certainly look forward to reading more of Grann’s work in the future.
The Deeper Path by Kary Oberbrunner
This is another book that I am sure to revisit multiple times. It was an incredibly life-giving read. Kary pulls no punches in this book of hard but necessary truths. It’s about leaning into past pains to learn more about yourself and, ultimately, to ignite you to your passions.
Kary is extremely open about his own past in this book. He shows how the pain he has experienced in his own life helped shape who he is today. He recounts his process of learning how to investigate the hurts in his life and, ultimately, to overcome them.
I read this book over the Thanksgiving weekend. I shared how thankful I was for this book, and Kary was kind enough to engage me on Twitter.
As I read through these pages, I literally felt peace wash over me. There’s so much truth packed in here. Even if you feel that you haven’t had any kind of traumatic experience, I think this book would be powerful for anyone to read. We all have to wrestle with our past and with hurts that have either been inflicted on us or that we have inflicted on others.
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Marilynne Robinson vaulted right near the top of my list of favorite authors after I read Home last year. I had been meaning to read the first book of her trilogy on the inhabitants of this small Iowa town, and I finally was able to do it.
Gilead is a fantastic book, one that is worth savoring. Robinson’s writing style may be off-putting to some at first since she doesn’t use conventional chapter breaks but opts for frequent page breaks instead. Personally, I think that style helps here, because it forces the reader to dive in and simply stroll through the pages. This book is like a warm cup of hot chocolate on a cold day — just sip it leisurely and let the experience sink in.
Themes of family (especially father/son relationships), home, age and even the meaning of existence pop up within the pages of this book. I’d be reading along and all of a sudden there would be a line that would stop me in my tracks. It is certainly thought-provoking.
For me, it was also a call to slow down and experience something. This is not a book to be rushed through, all though it is so well-written that you will inevitably find yourself flying through its pages. But this book resonated with me most when I slowed down and really focused on the story it contained. I guess all books are like that in some fashion. It’s one of the many reasons I adore reading — for its call to slow down amid our fast-paced world. Not all books are like Gilead, however, because there are so few writers like Marilynne Robinson. I encourage anyone to read her writing with an open heart, ready to receive the many treasures it has to offer.
Wintering by Peter Geye
This was the second book loaned to me by my boss, and I am so grateful that she shared it with me. Geye is another fantastic writer, and with Wintering, he offers a story that is riveting and moving. It is a story about history — our pasts that both haunt and encourage us.
The history of this Minnesota town and the families who inhabit it are all intertwined. As the story progresses, we see the various elements begin to unravel. It all centers around one man telling the story of a wilderness trip with his father.
The past can be a very difficult thing. It can also be something from which we draw great pride — especially in the case of family history. We must wrestle with the past if we are to go boldly into the future. I thought this book did a fascinating job of navigating the nuances present there.
God and Churchill by Jonathan Sandys and Wallace Henley
For the second year in a row, I finished a book on December 31. This one took me right up until 11pm — but don’t take that to mean that I was in a rush to finish it. I learned so much — not only about one of the greatest individuals of the 20th century — but also about the spiritual, scientific and social influences that came together to bring about the Nazi party in Germany in the time between World War I and World War II.
This book showcases how, though Winston Churchill was not an overtly religious man, he was well-versed in the teachings of the Bible. More than that, he was a man whose divine purpose was to be in command of Britain at the specific time when the world hung in the balance. A quote from near the end of the book describes this perfectly.
“We began our research into the life and times of Winston Churchill with an eye towards discovering the ‘hidden something’ behind his singular role in world history. What we found, ultimately, was a testimony not as much to Churchill’s spirituality as it was to God’s sovereignty. What we’ve endeavored to show in these pages is not that Churchill had particular beliefs about God but that God, in his wisdom, was able to use this ordinary human being for extraordinary purposes.”
This book was written by Winston Churchill’s great-grandson (Sandys) and a former journalist at the Christian Post (Henley). The do an amazing job of packing a great deal of history about Churchill into these pages. Not only that, but they also outline the historical accounts of the major world events that shaped this monumental figure.
Once again, our world is faced with many fears and dangers. This book gave me hope that God can once again raise up individuals who will stand in the gap. When Churchill was 16, he perfectly prophesied his future as a world leader in wartime. He had many near brushes with death. It is hard to deny that his life was one of destiny — that he was meant for a specific time and place. As a follower of Christ, I believe that God is active in our world. I believe that He is watching over us. And should we ever be faced with another worldwide menace threatening to bring an end to all that we hold dear, I believe God will have someone in place for that specific moment.
Onward to 2018
We are now in a New Year. Who knows what awaits us in the coming 365 days? But I know that I will once again be ramping up my reading efforts. Because the things I learn through reading are worth far more than the time and effort I put into it. More than that, I find that books are a call to step back from the hectic pace of our modern world. I truly find that reading is an oasis. It is an investment in my own personal growth, and I encourage you to make some more deposits this year. I read more in 2017 than I did in 2016, but I didn’t quite hit the goal I had at the beginning of the year. So, I’ll try again this year — read 15 new books and 5 that I have previously read for 20 total. I’ll meet you back here next year to see what I’ve learned. Until then, I wish you all the best and happy reading!