The Year I Finally Hit My Reading Goal

After failing to read 20 books the previous two years, I achieved my goal in 2019.

This book was very nearly the 20th book I read in 2018. But I finished it at 12:19 am on January 1, so it just snuck into the first spot on this year’s post.

One general reading goal of mine is to read more biographies and memoirs. It’s so fascinating to learn about the decisions and moments that helped shape the great figures in history and modern society. Michelle Obama certainly falls into that category, and her memoir was a fantastic read.

I found it especially illuminating to have a window into her decision-making process. As you might imagine with this being the memoir of a former First Lady, decisions like the ones that came with the lead up to Barack Obama’s history-making presidential run in 2008 are incredibly fascinating. But then there are other decisions — like when to make a job or career change — that I found just as fascinating. She is a powerful, ambitious woman who has achieved so much in her life. All of us can learn from the decisions she has made.

I love how her family history is so informative on her story. And, if you really think about it, can’t we all affirm that? Our family and our upbringing have so much impact on the type of people we become. It’s fascinating to see the threads of the Michelle Obama we all came to know in the public arena begin to form even at an early age.

More than anything, this book reaffirmed for me the importance of my personal story. As the title suggests, this book is very much about how we are all constantly “becoming.” Our stories are constantly being written, and our stories matter.

This was a fascinating way to begin my year of reading in 2019.

This is a story about a specific kind of grief and the process that follows it. I can’t say that I fully empathize with the experience, because I’ve never had someone that close to me die unexpectedly.

Joan Didion shares her story of when her husband died of a heart attack and her daughter was hospitalized all in the same time period.

She writes with brutal honesty and searing insight. What moved me most about this book was Didion’s courage. She turns her inquistive writer’s eye inward — to herself. She wrestles with the ways she processed these difficult experiences and she lays it all out there for us to read.

The mark of her greatness as a writer is that she finds moments of light within it all, too. I’d freely recommend this book to anyone without hesitation. For those going through a tragedy, there may be a companion in these pages. I can surely say that for me, I found companionship in these words though I haven’t experienced such a tragedy. It was in the honesty and the truth that I found friendship here.

Early on, I felt this book was too schmaltzy. While I applauded the emphasis on love that emanated from my car radio (I listened to the audiobook version), I couldn’t shake the feeling that the author was too positive, if there is such a thing.

It’s interesting, because I consider myself a bona fide optimist. I usually look for the good in most situations. But even I felt like some of the writing in this book was too warm and fuzzy.

But before anyone starts to think I wouldn’t recommend this book, let me tell you how I felt after finishing the book.

I was overwhelmed by the love — not the schmaltz.

This book is imbued with true love by its author. Bob Goff has done incredible good in this world, and his stories of how that good was birthed within him through the love of Jesus Christ are so powerful.

The story I will remember most is that of a witch doctor that Goff brought to trial. After the man had been convicted of his horrible crimes, Goff took the extra step of visiting him in jail. He even started a school for these witch doctors and began affecting real change.

I was moved by this story, because that type of situation is where my mind went when I first read the title of the book. If we’re supposed to love “everybody always” that means we’re going to have to love people who have done bad things to us or those we love. Goff unpacks this difficult idea and shows how that is exactly what Jesus meant when He commanded his disciples to love their enemies.

I think we all need someone like Bob Goff in our lives. Someone who reminds us of the power of love. That God is with us even when things seem dark. Hope is not lost. We can love even when it doesn’t seem possible.

We can love everybody, always.

I had been meaning to read this book for a while. I feel that way about many books. It seems that, as soon as I read one, the list of books to read grows by degrees. But that’s one of the joys of reading — it’s never done. There is always a new journey to take.

That notion of new journeys is the lifeblood of Jack Kerouac’s classic novel, On the Road. It astounded me as I read it, how storylines that seem to have the utmost importance will be quickly left in the rearview mirror as our heroes embark on another trip.

The book covers a great deal of physical ground, and many faces come and go along the way. Even if we haven’t traveled as much as Sal Paradise or Dean Moriarty (And who among us has?), I think we will all find a fact of life in their story. That’s the fact that life goes on; it moves at an uncompassionate pace. Storylines come and go, we live and learn, we laugh and cry.

I’m glad I read this book, and for the many that will come after it. It’s all a part of the road I’m on.

I watched the feature film adaptation of this book by Barry Jenkins before I read the book. There have been times where a book has led me to the film version, and there have been times like this when it’s been the reverse. Sometimes I enjoy the book better, sometimes I enjoy the film better. In any case, I love when a work of art invites me to engage more art.

This is the first book of James Baldwin’s that I’ve read. I look forward to reading more. His voice is singular. There’s beauty and pain mixed together. He’s so insightful about the ways people move and interact. And his words invite you to see the people on the page as more than just characters. Taking that even further, his words invite you to see the people around you as more than just mere people that you pass by.

This is a book about injustice. It’s characters — most notably Tish and Fonny — are incredible. To describe literary characters as “fully-realized” borders on cliche, but the term actually fits here. It is clear that Mr. Baldwin had a deep love for these characters, and he invites the reader to share in that love. It is the love of this story that will stay with me as much as anything else. The love between Tish and Fonny rises above the horrible situation in which they’ve been placed — Tish being pregnant with their child while Fonny sits in jail for a crime he didn’t commit.

When I watched the film, one character that perplexed me was that of Mrs. Rogers — the Puerto Rican woman who accuses Fonny of raping her. The story makes it clear that Fonny did not commit the crime, though he is jailed for it nonetheless. However, someone did commit this crime, and Mrs. Rogers must live with the aftermath. I never felt that the film really wrestled with the fact that a horrible injustice had been committed against her too.

The book provides a little more in that regard, but not much. That’s not a slight against Mr. Jenkins, Mr. Baldwin, or any of the characters in the story. It’s simply a truth that the story unearths — injustice is everywhere. As we get focused in on the injustices that have been levied against us, we must realize that there are other injustices outside that purview that feel just as vital to the people who have experienced them.

So what are we to do? That’s an answer that each one of us must find on our own. We must come to an answer for ourselves, but the searching does not have to be a lonely endeavor. It happens within the community we’ve built for ourselves, just as Tish is supported by her family. It is a testament to Mr. Baldwin’s skill as a writer that such a difficult and painful story can be presented in such a beautiful and loving way.

This is my fourth year in a row reading this book for Lent. I think having a book or even a few that you read every year is a fascinating practice. I used to do this with the Lord of the Rings books, but now I’ve started doing this with Jon’s writing. He is someone I consider a friend and mentor, and his writing is wonderful.

One thing you notice as you re-read books is that new things come out even though you feel like you know every nook and cranny of the words on the page.

This year, I was struck by the notion of adding during Lent.

If you practice Lent, chances are you are well-accustomed with the subtracting part of the equation. That’s what most people think of when they think about Lent, and for good reason. The “giving up” is a picture of Jesus’ death, and it helps us live out his word that to follow Him means that you must “die to self.”

But that is only part of the equation.

As you are denying yourself during Lent, the idea is then to find something new to fill that with. There’s death, but then a resurrection. When you consider the meaning behind Easter, the parallels become apparent.

There’s a tension here, certainly, and it’s that tension that will be my major takeaway from the experience this year. The tension between adding and subtracting, losing and finding…

…the tension between death and resurrection.

But Jon has such a great way of communicating peace and comfort through his words. As I navigate the tension, this book was a comforting reminder to me that God is with me in that tension. He is guiding me. He is with me. Even when I can’t fully see the path ahead, that’s a comforting notion to sit with and consider. I’m thankful, once again, for how Jon’s words led me through this season.

When Roth recently passed away, I read a few tributes to him and his incredible writing career. I made it a point to dive into his works, and this is the first book of his that I’ve read. I now understand the reason for all the accolades and tributes.

This is a book about the illusion of the American Dream. We’ve been given the idea that, as long as we are good citizens and don’t make waves, we can achieve the dream of a house, a family, and a beautiful green yard. But chaos can still break into that pristine notion, and it often does.

Roth’s insight and intelligence are on full display. I was wowed on every page. I definitely look forward to revisiting this one, as well as reading more of Roth’s work.

Swede Levov has to be one of the most memorable characters in any book I’ve ever read. Roth sets him up so well in the film’s early stages. In most stories, we would suspect such a setup to be the basis for a heroic tale, but Roth has other ideas. This setup is even more artful for the way Roth deconstructs it through the remainder of the novel. And with it, we witness the shattering of the paper-thin veil surrounding our American Dream.

We want to believe that hard work is all that matters. That being good is all that matters. We want to believe that doing all the “right” things will be rewarded in time. And yet, some of the hardest workers we know toil in obscurity. Good people face horrible loss and tragedy. And lives of middle class perfectionism can come toppling down alongside lives of wrongdoers.

That leaves a pretty bleak picture, doesn’t it?

My belief is that we need a higher goal than the American Dream. If that is our only prize, we will find it to be utterly lacking. I put my hope and trust in God. He is my ultimate goal. Thus, good deeds are reframed — not as treasures being laid up for personal gain, but as an outpouring of gratitude for the grace that has been shown to me.

Even there, though, the story of Job shows us that the righteous do not always prosper. Hard times fall on the just and the unjust. But God remains with those who run to him in those times. For those who don’t, I read Roth’s masterpiece and see the futility and the ultimate despair that is the only endpoint of that road.

This is such a sad and searing story, but it achieves the highest goal to which any work of art can aspire.

It conveys truth.

That may be the saddest notion of all in this book. Though this is in the genre of fiction, it is firmly rooted in real occurrences. Cora may be a character and not a historical figure, but her story is mirrored by the atrocities that real slaves endured.

Colson Whitehead is another incredibly perceptive author. What wowed me most about this book as I came to its moving final pages was how he was able to so artfully showcase how racism and systems that support it carry on the dark prejudice of times we thought were behind us. Slavery may have been abolished, but oppression remains. When the slaves of this story reach what they believe to be their idyllic home of freedom, we know the story is not yet over. It struck me that this fictional farm is located in Indiana, my home state. It is easy for us to think that the hard work of defeating slavery and segregation won the war against racism. But that is naive. Systems of oppression remain today, and it is through prophetic writing like Whitehead’s that we can open our eyes to the ways in which racism has worked its way into the world around us.

We must fight against it. I’m thankful for writers like Whitehead who help drive us in that endeavor.

Anyone who knows me knows that I love movies. I think they are more than entertainment. I find them to be experiences with the potential to move and inspire. Sometimes, I find them to be spiritual experiences, even.

When Sarah and I were in Nashville, I found a local bookstore. As I was perusing the shelves, I came upon this book. The title caught my eye, as did the fact that the foreward was written by my favorite film critic — Matthew Zoller Seitz. That was enough to intrigue me, and I bought it. There have been very few times that I’ve been so pleased by a purchase.

Larsen does an incredible job of showing how certain movies act as particular kinds of prayers. Some movies are easy to envision this way — Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life comes to mind. Others — like the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers classic Top Hat — take some explaining. But all the movies that Larsen discusses fit into this paradigm of prayer, and it is an absolutely fascinating way to look at cinema.

I am someone whose faith is a vital aspect of life. But even for those who do not find faith to be a stimulating topic of discussion, Larsen’s writing is captivating. I flew through this book, and it even introduced it me to a few films — like Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. This book has become an instant favorite of mine, and I look forward to revisiting it many times over the years.

I was given this book as a birthday present by a friend of mine, and it has become one of my favorite gifts I’ve ever received.

My mother instilled in me a love for nature. We would work in the garden together and admire the beauty of God’s creation. It is because of her that I love to look out for hawks and other birds in the northern Indiana countryside. Nature is one of my main connection points with the world around me and with my Creator.

That is why I found such a comforting presence in the words of Annie Dillard. She luxuriates in the small happenings of the natural world around her, and her prose takes those small happenings and infuses them with the majesty that they are legitimately due. In her writing, the daily activities of a praying mantis take on the importance of geopolitical machinations.

I appreciate that attention to detail, and I appreciate that Dillard connects those details to the world around her and how it impacts her life. I also appreciate that she connects it to the spiritual realm.

It took me a while to read this book. I take a long time to read books in general, but this one I particularly wanted to sit with as I read it. It’s an instant favorite of mine, and I look forward to the next time I can make this pilgrimage with Dillard.

I have this thing that often happens to me where I’ll read a book and feel like it is speaking perfectly into the stage of life in which I currently find myself. That’s probably more a product of that fact that we all inherently read ourselves into every story, but this time it felt even deeper than that.

I saw Kindra Hall speak a few years back at a local marketing group event, and she handed out books after her session. I was able to get one, and it’s been sitting on the shelf in my office ever since. Finally, I picked it up on a November day where I was feeling disillusioned and crippled by self-doubt. I read half of the book in the first day. I had finished it by the fourth day.

First off, that may not seem like a big deal to you, but — again — I’m not a fast reader. I’ve been known to read books over an entire month or longer before. But I flew through this one. The next thing to note is that my flying through it does not mean I was itching to get to the end. On the contrary, with each story that she told, Kindra had me transfixed. It was like she was speaking right to me.

The subtitle for this book is A Collection of Stories Most People Would Keep to Themselves. It is that frank openness that Kindra uses so well. It came at a time where I needed some creative encouragement, and this book was just the thing for me. I know that I will be coming back to this book over the years, and I m looking forward to reading her newly-released book Stories that Stick.

Yes, I went back to my favorite author once again this year. Here is another example of a book that I took a long time to read. McCarthy’s prose takes savoring, and then there’s the practical fact that his pages have lots of words. It’s almost as if his writing lulls you a bit before letting his prose explode upon your psyche.

As I’ve said before, there are times where a line from his writing absolutely transports me. His writing gets to truths about the world. He unearths transcendence in ways I’ve never seen before from an author.

This book wasn’t quite gripping me like some of his books in the past, but then I got to about the last quarter and I was reminded again of my deep love for McCarthy’s writing. Writing like this demands a deep submersion from the reader. There’s so much packed into his prose.

Overall, this was a reminder to me with novels to try to block out longer periods of time for reading. Sometimes I would only read a page or two at a time, and that doesn’t really allow you to soak up what the author is doing. With a writer of McCarthy’s caliber, you need to soak it all up. Novels like this help remind me of the importance of cultivating a deep attention span. It’s something that is constantly being assaulted in our world today through bite-sized distractions. But important work needs deep focus. I’m thankful for the impact the McCarthy’s writing has had on my life.

Here is another book that had been loaned to me by my friend, Michael. He has been such an encouragement in my reading over the past few years, and the books he’s given me have been some of my favorites. Here is no exception.

Nouwen looks back at the fifth century Egyptian Desert Fathers and Mothers to see what we can learn today. Contrary to what you might expect from a book published in 1981 that looks at people who lived over 1500 years ago, what results is incredibly relevant.

How many of us have dreamed of pulling away from the fast pace and the constant connection that forces us to always be putting on a performance?

In those dreams, we may not automatically gravitate to the ascetic life, but we might imagine going out into nature alone for a time of peace and solitude. There are certainly comparisons to draw.

What I found most impactful about this book, however, was its notion that silence is what breeds communication. The Desert Fathers and Mothers were able to enter into deep communication with God by being silent and learning about the communication that can happen within that silence.

So, am I saying that we should never talk to anyone again? No, of course not. But what I am saying is that silence must play an important part in our communication — whether that’s physical silence or the digital kind. We must have times where we pull back and stay silent so that we can learn the kind of deep communication that the world seeks.

This was the second of three books loaned to me by my friend, Michael, and I was overjoyed to be able to dive into Thomas Merton’s writing for the first time.

Meditation is something I already try to incorporate into my life, but it often comes in the form of little spurts throughout my day. Small, quiet moments. I think that’s great, but I also think there’s value in re-introducing oneself to another kind of meditation — more of a deep focus on spiritual connection.

One example that Merton gives is going to the Gospels and starting with a particular verse from Jesus’ time on earth. Then, take time to picture yourself there. What was Jesus thinking or doing? How were the disciples reacting? How would you have reacted?

I’m not sure if Merton would agree with me on this, but I view movies as a training in this way. They’re like a visual meditation. It made me think of Movies are Prayers again. Merton mentions the distractions of his day, and I wonder if he would lump movies into that group. If you’re going to label movies *as a distraction*, then maybe watching one isn’t a meditative act. I find nothing wrong with escapist movies, but what I’m talking about are movies that bring us into the experience of someone else. That, to me, is a movie’s highest calling. Roger Ebert referred to movies as “empathy machines” and I’m inclined to agree. When you go to a movie in search of empathy, I think it becomes a meditative act.

But, I cannot depend wholly on movies or other similar devices. This book was a call for me to recommit to regular meditation. Deep thinking and deep focus coupled with relationship. And the biggest reminder that Merton gave me was that all of this should bring us to a particular point where something wells up within us. What is that something?

Thankfulness.

Like many others around the world, I gained a new fascination with the life of Alexander Hamilton thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s iconic Broadway show. My wife and I have seen it twice now in Chicago, and I wanted to engage with the book that was Miranda’s spark for the idea.

So I got Alexander Hamilton by the great historian Ron Chernow on Audible and began listening to it from time to time. It took me until December to finally finish it, but it was a striking look into the life of one of the most compelling Founding Fathers.

The life of Alexander Hamilton is an absolutely incredible story. It makes sense that Miranda found so much dramatic opportunity there. From humble beginnings to being the sculptor of American government, Hamilton lived the life of an American original. He also lived a life of moral failings and moments of deep pain.

I was amazed at the parallels between the time just after the American Revolution and our current day. We talk a lot about the technological advancements that have made our current culture unique, but we share a lot (especially in the political arena) with the time just after the Consitutional Convention.

For one, we live in a time of deep divisions. I assumed that the time during and after deliberations over the Consitution, the country was largely united after having come out as the victor during the American Revolution. Not so, and Hamilton was in the middle of it all. Some thought that he wanted to make America into a monarchy since he was the proponent of a strong central government, particularly the executive branch. The country was deeply divided over the policies he recommended, which brings me to the second similarity…

…the media environment. Now, you might scoff at me when I say that our current media environment shares similarities to the media environment during Hamilton’s day — but hear me out. The differences are largely in the technology used. But in Hamilton’s day, there were newspapers popping up left and right. Some were clearly partisan, and their aim was to spread misinformation about politicians with whom they disagreed. Does that sound familiar?

Overall, I found great hope in our democracy through listening to this audiobook. Our democracy has come through difficult times before. It has made it through misinformation and division. It has remained. I do think that some of the issues we face are, in fact, new. But I believe our democracy is strong enough to face these challenges, because we as Americans are strong enough.

After I finished this book, my father-in-law and I went to a wonderful independent bookstore in Three Rivers, Michigan. There, I found a copy of The Federalist (mostly written by Hamilton) from 1901. Having just listened to his life’s story, I couldn’t help but buy it. His life is one of the most compelling in American history, and I think we can all learn a lot from considering his work and his legacy.

Of the three books loaned to me by my friend, Michael, this was my favorite. I found treasures on every page. I actually finished the book after watching Terrence Malick’s new film A Hidden Life, and this mixture had me thinking about silent faithfulness in the spiritual aspects of life.

Our life is not our own but a constant communication with our Creator. The person who never realizes this will live a frustrated life. Here, Merton lays out the ways to go even deeper into that communication.

One major takeaway I had from this was that I shouldn’t try to form God unto what I want Him to be. I shouldn’t expect Him to rubber stamp my work. I need to listen and seek what His will is. I need to go out and find His work. I need to have “eyes to see and ears to hear” where there are needs around me. I need to look for where I can be used by God.

Listen. Put myself under His will. Give all hopes and dreams to Him, because “all these things will be added unto you.” Often that phrase — which comes from Matthew 6:33 — is twisted to support a mangled prosperity gospel where God gives us everything we want.

In reality, that verse is calling us to shift our wants away from our own earthly desires. Once we bring ourselves under God’s calling we realize that all we need has been added. God wants good for us, but it can’t come in the form of us chasing our dreams for their own merit. It must come in us giving our dreams to God and watching in wonder as he animates them.

This was my second year in a row reading this fantastic book by my friend, Jon Swanson. It really helps me consider the anticipatory nature of Advent.

This year, I really focused on the wonder that Christ came in human form. It helps to picture people from the Bible as real people we can talk to. Obviously, they were real people, but I’ve often found that when I read the Bible I simply look at them as names on a page. But this year’s reading really pushed me to picture Jesus in human form — coming to Earth.

Advent is a time of anticipation. It’s a time of sitting in the tension and pain of a world waiting for a Savior. We can’t rush through the anticipation to the end of the story. Advent is about letting that anticipation sink in. After reading the book again, a question lingered in my mind.

How can I live in light of that anticipation all year?

I’m from South Bend, Indiana. Growing up, everyone knew us for Notre Dame. Maybe some from older generations knew about Studebaker, but that is rare nowadays. Notre Dame was our calling card. Now, many people know about South Bend because of a name that’s hard to pronounce but seems to be on almost every tongue when politics comes up in discussion.

Pete Buttigieg.

No matter your political leanings, it’s hard to deny that Mayor Pete’s rise to political prominence has been anything but astounding. I had been wanting to read his book that was published in the early stages of that rise, and I finally got around to listening to the audiobook version as 2019 came to close.

I grew up in a staunchly Republican setting, even though the city of South Bend is largely Democrat. We lived on the outskirts of the city limits, with farmland all around us. Even so, my parents instilled in me the notion to consider all points of view. And so, when it came time for me to vote in my first election after I turned 18, I remember reading the newspaper the week before Election Day to research the candidates. In the race for State Treasurer, I found Pete’s odd name. When I got past that, I saw his resume. He became one of the first candidates I ever voted for — even though he was a Democrat. He ended up losing that race, but then I was able to watch as he became mayor of South Bend and turned our city completely around.

Don’t take this blurb as electioneering or in any way trying to convince you who to vote for. All I’m saying is that the story of how Pete helped turn around his hometown is a fascinating one, and I was able to see it firsthand. In the book, Pete gives some great behind-the scenes stories. It made me proud to call South Bend my hometown.

This was another book that was loaned to me by my boss, Jeannine. I had heard of the film adaptation, but I’ve never seen it. I didn’t really have much of a frame of reference for what would follow when I began reading the book.

Ackerman does a fantastic job of finding the compelling stories within this real-life historical tale from World War II-era Warsaw. The story — told amid the atrocities of the Nazi-occupied Warsaw Ghetto — is harrowing. Yet the people of the story, especially Jan and Antonina, bring endurance and even joy on every page.

This is a fantastic book, and it is a testament to the many heroes and heroines of that time who went unnoticed. Many acts of humanity and kindness saved lives in Warsaw and across Europe in the face of Nazism. We need writers like Ackerman who will continue to seek out and tell those stories.

This is one of the best books I’ve ever read — full stop.

As I have grown into adult life, the few verses before Jeremiah 29:11 have been incredibly important to me. That famous verse is my Dad’s favorite verse, and it’s always been a special one to me and many others. But it is often taken out of context. It is not a verse about prosperity and how God wants to always give us good things. In reality, the verse comes amid a time when Israel was in exile, and they felt at the end of their rope. Into that despair, God says that he has a plan, and a good one at that.

Brooks uses this backdrop to tell his own story, and it is a fascinating one. He grew up in the Englewood neighborhood of South Chicago. He wanted to leave, but God had a way of pulling him back. He ended up becoming a pastor there, and the book tells his story of learning how to live in his community and help it thrive.

There are needs all around us. We often look outside our own communities for ways that we can have impact. But there are people with voices around us that we need to listen to. There are people that can impact us. We need to join in and be active members of our community and make sure that there are no church-forsaken places.

Well, that’s it! For the first time since 2016, I actually hit my reading goal this year. I fell just short in 2018, but this year I read exactly 20 books and reached my goal.

I’ll be honest — it feels really good. I fell short of my 20-book goal in both 2017 and 2018. On top of that, I’m someone who is used to working on a deadline, so to set a longterm goal and actually hit it is a big deal. And I read so many fantastic books this year — it was really an unforgettable experience.

So, what will my reading goal be in 2020?

Well, I think it’s a good idea to set goals that will stretch us a little bit. They should be achievable, but they shouldn’t necessarily be easy. For me, it’d be pretty simple to just add one book to the goal considering it took me three tries to actually get to 20. But I know how much better I feel when I block out time to read, so I’d like to try to do that more throughout the year. Setting a bigger goal will force me to do that.

So, for 2020, my goal will be to read 24 books. That’s two books a month. I’m excited to see where that goal takes me, and I look forward to meeting you back here again for a reading recap.

Until then, Happy New Year! Wishing you the best in all your endeavors.

Christ-follower. Husband to @SarahLCharles. Simple moments hold great power. Connect with me at my website: www.aarondcharles.com

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