I'm continuing my "best of 2013" series today with my picks for the best 2013-released books (see also my music, movies, and movie moments lists). I wish I had more time to read new books (especially fiction); as it is, most of the new books I find time to read are nonfiction. If I read fiction in a given year it is usually a classic I haven't read, or a critically acclaimed/highly recommended work from years past (this year I read Old School by Tobias Wolff, The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, Atticus by Ron Hansen and A Room With a View by E.M. Forster). I also wish I had more time to read volumes of poetry (I did enjoy reading Dana Gioia's Interrogations at Noon and Chris Baron's Under the Broom Tree this year). In any case, below are my picks (in alphabetical order) of the ten 2013-released nonfiction books I enjoyed the most:
1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War by Charles Emmerson: I love a good, thick history book focused on a narrow or interesting concept. Emmerson's book is exactly that. It seeks to describe the world as it was on the eve of World War I, not in light of what was to come (as most histories of the period inevitably skew) but on its own terms, as if we don't have the hindsight now of the world-changing events that would come in 1914. Criss-crossing the globe, with chapters on all the greatest cities of the early twentieth century globalizing world, 1913 is a fascinating and helpful summary of the ways of the world a century ago.
A Prayer Journal by Flannery O’Connor: This collection of journal entries/prayers to God from a period of time when O'Connor was a student at the University of Iowa's Writer's Workshop is a fascinating and moving look inside the rich faith of the famous writer. Transcribed and also reproduced in facsimile (what a pleasure to read her passionate, conflicted thoughts in her own handwriting!), this slim collection is a must-read for any fan of O'Connor or anyone seeking to reconcile the pursuits of art and faith.
Death by Living: Life is Meant to be Spent by N.D. Wilson: Like Wilson's well-received Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl (2009), Death by Living is a hybrid of memoir, apologetics, theology, philosophy, and lyrical prose, at once irreverent and worshipful, comical and elegiac. But where Tilt-A-Whirl focused on a way of seeing, Death by Living focuses on "a way of living, a way of receiving life." Fragmentary, nonlinear, and vignette-driven, Death by Living is a messy montage of sensuous sights, sounds, smells, prayers, eulogies, inner monologues, jokes, and even script-style dialogue. Wilson's style reinforces his point that the infinite dramas unfolding across the universe at any given moment all point in one direction and share one big theme—that death gives way to life, and dying is the only way to live. (from my review for Christianity Today)
The End of Our Exploring by Matthew Lee Anderson: In a world where “dialogue” and “conversation” are buzzwords but rarely well practiced, and where doubt and questioning seem to be more about a scene than a search for truth, Anderson's latest, The End of Our Exploring, comes as a breath of fresh air. Clearheaded, personal, witty and wise, the book presents a sensible framework for epistemology that is sorely needed today. How do we doubt, question, probe, debate, discuss and know in a more purposeful and productive manner? Matt’s book–a short, concise, engaging read–reminds us that actually being thoughtful is far greater (and more nuanced) than just looking the part.
God’s Forever Family by Larry Eskridge: One of the most thoroughly researched and well-written histories I've read in a long time, Eskridge's comprehensive chronicle of the Jesus People movement of the late 1960s and 70s is an utterly fascinating book. Eskridge makes a compelling case not only that the Jesus movement was one of the twentieth century's most important evangelical movements, but that it had importance in youth culture beyond evangelicalism. Eskridge maps the movement's myriad of characters, locales and sub-groups with both a command of the minute details and the bigger picture themes.
Holy is the Day: Living in the Gift of the Present by Carolyn Weber: I was a big fan of Weber's conversion memoir, Surprised by Oxford, and though her new memoir doesn't quite have the drama of that book it certainly has its moments of poetry and spiritual insight. Similar to Death by Living, Holy is the Day is about the beauty of embracing the moment and celebrating the electricity of God's presence in everyday life. Instead of carpe diem, Weber's mantra is carpe Deum: seizing God every day, in every triumph, tragedy and episode of one's narrative.
Imagining the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith: Smith's follow-up to Desiring the Kingdom continues a provocative and immensely helpful exploration of the meaning of worship and the shaping influence of "cultural liturgies" in the Christian life. The book offers an important corrective for an evangelicalism that has seen worldview and thinking Christianly as the most important elements of Christian formation; Smith argues that the embodied practices of life (he skillfully interacts with Bourdieu's notion of habitus) are at least as important (or more) in shaping our desires for Christ and his kingdom.
My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer by Christian Wiman: This beautiful, honest, poetic reflection on Christian belief is one of the best attempts I've read of someone putting to words the mysteries of God and the honest struggles of faith. Fragmented philosophical and theological observations mingle with personal narrative vignettes and a wide range of poetry, Wiman's included, to render an appropriately messy portrait of modern belief. This is not feel-good fluff or quaintly offbeat spiritual memoir; it's urgent, forceful, heartbreaking and profound.
Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now by Douglas Rushkoff: Rushkoff–the media theorist guru behind Frontline documentaries Merchants of Cool and The Persuaders–more or less attempts to connect every zeitgeist-defining thing in our world today (Instagram! Zombies! Tea Partiers!) to shape a unifying theory about how we are both more and less “present” than ever. Obvious at times but mostly quite insightful, Present Shock is the sort of “magnifying glass on your world” book that is important to read every so often because it thinks deeply and critically about contemporary life and, in turn, helps the reader to do the same.
Recovering Classic Evangelicalism by Greg Thornbury: At a time when evangelical culture seems more fragmented and divisive then ever, with ever less confidence not only in our witness but also the foundations of our belief, Thornbury--newly appointed president of The King's College--calls for a recovery of the winsome, intellectually robust and confident evangelicalism characterized by Carl F.H. Henry. Both a theological biography of sorts (of Henry) and a call for reform (or rather, recovery) within the evangelical movement, Recovering Classic Evangelicalism is a wonderful and important book for those of us who believe the way forward for evangelicals is less about reinventing the wheel as much as recovering the best wisdom from our past.