It’s the time of the year when numerous publications post their best books of the year. That has been a tradition at Bob on Books as well. A friend I was meeting with the other day described my reading tastes as “eclectic” and I suspect you will find that true of this list. It spans quite a number of categories, and probably leaves out categories you might find on other lists. Many but not all of these works were published in 2018. What qualifies them for this list is that I read and reviewed them in 2018. You will find that I have divided my list into two broad categories: books for general audiences and books primarily for Christian audiences. As always, I’ve included a link to the publisher’s website in the title of the book, and a link to the full review.
First of all, though, my Best Book of the Year:
Grant, Ron Chernow. New York: Penguin Press, 2017. This was also the longest book I read this year. I wrote: “It is rare to come to the end of 960 pages and wish there were more.” Grant was a bundle of contradictions, who could identify battlefield opportunities and frame grand strategy, yet who made poor choices in his closest associates and struggled with depression and alcoholism. Chernow captures all of this in flowing prose. Review
Best Books: General Audiences
Best Novel: Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng. New York: Penguin Press, 2017. I wrote, “I was drawn into this book with its interesting portrayal of people trying to do good, to keep the rules, to find and make homes and do good work, to make their way in life, and the catalytic moments when it all goes awry.” A bonus for me was that this was written by an Ohio author! Review
Best Biography: Leonardo da Vinci, Walter Isaacson. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018. I loved everything about this book from the quality of the paper to the generous quantity of images of Leonardo’s work to Isaacson’s portrayal of da Vinci’s insatiable curiosity. Review
Best Leadership Book: Leadership in Turbulent Times, Doris Kearns Goodwin. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018. Doris Kearns Goodwin went back to all her work on four presidents (Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, and Lyndon Johnson), and drew out what we might learn from how they led in pivotal moments of American history. This is not a rehash of earlier work but a different lens on these four men. Review
Best Book on Books: On Reading Well, Karen Swallow Prior. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2018. As a bibliophile, I love books on books and reading and Karen Swallow Prior gives us a great one that not only explores great books, but how reading them can be transformative in our lives. Review
Best Higher Education Book: Race on Campus, Julie J. Park. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2018. Because I work in collegiate ministry, I read books related to higher education studies. This one uses data to dispel a number of myths about race on campus. Review
Best Translation: The Cloud of Unknowing, Anonymous (translated by Carmen Acevedo Butcher). Boulder: Shambala Publications, 2018. I commented that “Butcher’s translation strives for a simplicity and informality of conversation between a spiritual director and a directee, and this is one of the most winsome aspects of this work.” Review
I still have Tara Westover’s Educated on my “to read” pile. I had the chance to read some preview passages and from these and other reviews, this would probably have been my choice of “Best Memoir.” I’ll let you know when I read it.
Best Books: Christian Audiences
Best Christian Fiction: Love Big, Be Well, Winn Collier. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2017. A fictional dialogue in letters between a pastor and congregation, ending with “Love Big, Be Well.” I found myself again and again catching my breath at the beauty Collier sees in “ordinary” church life freed of “flaming visions.” Review
Best Theology Books: There are two works that are a “tie” in my mind, so good I have to include both.
Delivered From the Elements of the World, Peter J. Leithart. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016. This was actually written a couple years back and is a refreshing exploration of why Christians claim the death and resurrection of Jesus is the decisive event in human history. Review
Dying and the Virtues, Matthew Levering. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2018. Levering explores nine virtues in scripture and contemporary scholarship, and their relevance to living and dying well. Review. Interview with Matthew Levering: Part One; Part Two
Best Biblical Theology Book: The Lord is Good: Seeking the God of the Psalter (Studies in Christian Doctrine and Scripture), Christopher R. J. Holmes. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018. This is a study of what we mean when we say that the Lord is “good” focused in the Psalms. I noted that “Holmes is a pastor-theologian and brings to his readers both the carefulness of a scholar and the passion to lead us to more deeply love the good and beautiful God.” Review
Best Biblical Studies Book: Darkness Visible (Princeton Theological Monograph Series), Karlo V. Bordjadze (Foreword by R. W. L. Moberly). Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2017. A study of Isaiah 14:3-23 considering the history of interpretation of this passage as portraying the fall of Satan, or a Babylonian king. I summarized this work “as a delightful model of rigorous biblical and theological scholarship in service of God’s people.” Review
Best Christian History: The Kingdom of God Has No Borders, Melani McAlister. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. A study of the American evangelical missions movement over the past fifty years and the important questions that international missions raised for evangelicalism in the United States. Review
Best Spiritual Formation Book: Invitation to Retreat, Ruth Haley Barton. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press/Formatio, 2018. This is perhaps the most helpful book I’ve ever read on the why and how of taking retreats, full of practical wisdom. Review
Best Spiritual Biography Books: Two books, both published by Plough Publishing rose to the top, for their subjects, the judicious choice of writings, and artistic excellence characteristic of the graphical work in each book.
Water at the Roots, Philip Britts (edited by Jennifer Harries, foreword by David Kline). Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2018. Brits was a kind of British Wendell Berry, who helped lead the Bruderhof community in Paraguay. The work narrates his life, incorporating verse and essays. Review
The Scandal of Redemption, Oscar Romero (edited by Carolyn Kurtz, Foreword by Michael Lapsley). Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2018. We glimpse the courageous life and death of El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero through nine homilies, and the prayer spoken at a funeral mass, moments before his assassination. Review
Best Book on Justice or Social Issues: The Myth of Equality, Ken Wytsma. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017. A white pastor addresses the need for an honest conversation about white privilege in America. Review
If you’ve made it this far, I commend you for perusing a long list. One of the things about reviewing is that it has given me an appreciation for the magnificent writing, thoughtful commentary, and careful scholarship that I encounter in so many of the books I read. Hopefully, there is something you can put on your own wishlist, or give to someone you care about this holiday season.