My criteria for a superb book is twofold: 1. It seizes my imagination, and 2. It changes how I live my life for the better. (If this idea of a book profoundly influencing your life forever sounds perfectly reasonable to you, then you are a bibliophile as well. Wear it proudly, my friend.)
A great book can open up new worlds of thought and shift our perspectives forever. It gives us empathy for our fellow humans and presents questions we never dreamed of asking. We read, think, and live afresh, all because of a few hundred pages.
I read a lot (like 5-10 books at a time), but this year I gave myself the freedom to stop reading books I didn’t enjoy. So I started many and completed less. Here are the best books in 2016, the reads which truly turned me inside out:
1. Pilgrim’s Inn by Elizabeth Goudge
Set in England, this is book 2 of a trilogy. The Eliot family takes over a rustic inn for travelers and rediscovers who they are and where they truly belong. The characters and imagery in this book are deep, complicated, and painted with the attention of a masterpiece. I reread many lines over and over because they were so beautiful. This book motivated me to keep pressing into discovering who I am and finding where I belong.
2. It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War by Lynsey Addario
Lynsey Addario has lived through hell and back, through war and being held hostage, and she recorded her experience in pictures the whole way. This stunning memoir offers a raw, real look at the personal sacrifice and extreme dedication professional photojournalists must have. I can safely say this book helped to nip my dream in the bud to be a career National Geographic photographer (at least in war zones), and helped me rethink the cost of doing hard things for the sake of family.
3. The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel
This book was a gift from a dear friend who has become my Sabbath coach of sorts. I differ on some of the theology, but the poetry and potential peace and beauty it illustrates for those who observe Sabbath inspired me to pursue rest with a vengeance this year.
4. Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living by Shauna Niequist
Essays set on the shores of Lake Michigan? Yes, please. I love everything Shauna Niequist writes. I read this after a frantic summer of writing, and it very well saved me from an impractical, killer pace of life.
5. Preemptive Love by Jeremy Courtney
This is the true prologue of a couples’ journey to make a difference in one of the most conflicted areas of the world. Their story of fixing holes in children’s hearts while navigating the complicated, dangerous tribal and war-torn world of Iraq redefined courage and love for me. Today the Courtney family helps refugees fighting and fleeing from ISIS. I dare you to read this book and not be changed.
6. The Joy of Poetry: How to Keep, Save & Make Your Life with Poems by Megan Willome
This book convinced me I can write both memoir and poetry, maybe within the very same binding one day. It helped me rediscover the power of poetry in my personal creativity and spiritual life. I read it with the Tweetspeak Poetry book club and even got a poetry buddy out of the deal.
7. Beyond Loneliness: The Gift of God’s Friendship by Trevor Hudson
Yes, this book changed my life, and I have to meet Trevor Hudson in person some day to thank him. When I saw that the Renovare book club was reading this, I promptly sent in my $50 and waited by the mailbox. After some very lonely experiences, the reflective exercises and simple stories started a process of deep healing between God and me.
8. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
A Christmas gift from a writerly friend, this classic was such a pleasure to read in its entirety. I once played the Ghost of Christmas Future (gravestone, creepy pointy finger, black hood, and all), and always pictured myself as that character. But reading the last ghostly scene in full, I was struck by Scrooge’s thankful repentance at being shown the fate he might have had as well as the quivering joy that overtook him throughout the book. He kind of reminded me of Bob Goff at the end. I’d like to be more like that when I grow up.
9. Our House Was On Fire by Laura Van Prooyen
I read this little but powerful book of poetry very slowly. Van Prooyen is a master at taking normal experiences and turning them into weighty beauties. Some of the poems left my mouth wide open in astonishment at the sheer artistry of Van Prooyen’s ability to draw profound meaning in the seemingly normal. My favorite poems in this collection are “Our House Was on Fire” and “Blue Nude.” If my house was on fire, I’d snatch this book up before I ran out the door.
10. The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald
George MacDonald’s works of fiction are like spiritually-loaded cannons wrapped in mystical story. This is the sequel to The Princess and the Goblin, which I actually liked even more. We definitely need more stories like this one of brave boys and princesses who possess the awareness and chutzpah to save a kingdom. A timeless tale of resurrection and light that inspired me to live with more courage and kindness and teach my kids how to do it too.
I stopped at ten books so as not to go overboard with my recommendations, but I would be remiss not to mention two more:
Roots & Sky by Christie Purifoy
A poetic journey of growing into a home and a life full of beauty and belonging.
Come, Lord Jesus by Kris Camealy
An Advent devotional that cracked my heart wide open and the centerpiece of the recent book club here on the blog.
New Friends to Read in 2017
The Road Back to You by Crone + Stabile
The Happiness Dare by Jennifer Dukes Lee
All the Pretty Things by Edie Wadsworth
And two I need to finish:
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Essays of E.B. White by E.B. White
You are today who you’ll be in five years except for the people you meet and the books you read. –Charlie “Tremendous” Jones
What books have turned your life upside down?