It’s that time of year – W2s and 1098s are filling folks’ mailboxes. I figure if employers have until the end of January to square their records for the previous year, it isn’t all bad if I am just now getting to my book reviews for 2022.
Inspired by my sister Emily, who makes annual Facebook posts of her top books of the year, I now present my thoughts on all the books I read (or listened to, in the case of audiobooks) for your literary pleasure. (And do note, I say all the books I read, because unlike Emily, who probably must go through a painstaking process of selecting her top 10 books out of the many more she reads each year, I may be stretching the truth to say I read all these this year. I couldn’t quite recall whether it was in 2021 or 2022 that I listened through The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, but I thought since I finished the Return of the King in late May or early June, I thought it was reasonable to include the first two books in the year).
So without further ado, here are a few brief thoughts on each of the books I finished last year. After my book of the year, they proceed in a roughly, though not strictly, chronological order.
Book of the Year: You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World by Alan Noble
I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Noble puts explanatory language to so much of what I have felt and suspected to be true subconsciously about the ways in which our society is deeply malformed, how our man-made human habitat is not good for us to live in. Based on the Heidelberg Catechism’s declaration that our only comfort in life and death is that “I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ,” this book explores the paradoxical comfort of not being the ultimate owner of oneself. Nearly every page has some deeply profound wisdom that explains something about how our society is ill with our attempts at self-ownership and self-determination, or the ways efficiency has become of higher value than humanity, or the ways yielding control and ownership of our lives to the God who made us is the most freeing thing we can do, and the list goes on. Read it, and read it now!
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (audiobook)
So much ink has been spilled over these books that I don’t know whether my opinion of them adds anything much of value to the Internet. Suffice it to say they are beautifully poetic books telling an epic tale that has been cherished by so many for good reason. As a big fan of the Peter Jackson movies, it was intriguing to hear lines spoken by one character in the book that were spoken by another in the film. I found myself speaking much more hoity-toity while listening to these – the prose and dialogue is so grand that, even though it can start to bore after a while, it easily rubbed off on me stylistically. I had previously attempted to read the books in the traditional fashion twice, giving up each time about 100 pages into The Fellowship of the Ring. I found the audiobook format allowed me to get through the boring bits much more easily, and would recommend this approach to anyone else similarly loath to read long stretches of descriptions that are not crucial to the plot.
Erasing Hell: What God Said About Eternity, and the Things We’ve Made Up by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle (audiobook)
This was a sobering read (or listen, rather). Chan and Sprinkle explore what the Bible says about hell, including looking at how hell was perceived in the time of Jesus when he was talking about Gehenna. I don’t want to be a Christian who is merely running away from a bad thing or making that my evangelism strategy – “you don’t want to go to hell, do you?” I want to be running after fullness of life in Jesus, living into what I was made for (for more on that, see my book of the year above). But regardless of if it should be a main focus or motivation of the Christian life, the reality of hell (despite all that is uncertain about it) is not something to be lightly dismissed (or dismissed at all). Though the audiobook I listened to had unnecessarily dramatic interlude music, the sobering message of the book is one to pay serious attention to.
The Good Guy’s Guide to Great Sex: Because Good Guys Make the Best Lovers by Sheila Wray Gregoire and Dr. Keith Gregoire
I thought about not including this one because, well, it feels a bit awkward to say “yep, I read a sex book last year.” But we say that Christians need to talk more about sex in a helpful way, so here I am attempting that. I definitely recommend this book to folks who are entering marriage and who, like me, only had a baseline understanding of what sex is and how it works. In fact, even if you think you know how it works and have been married a long time, I would still recommend this book, as it challenges unhealthy, unspoken assumptions that I believe creep into many marriages. The Gregoires help to shine a light on how sex is meant to play out in marriage in a healthy, mutual way. Spoiler: it doesn’t just happen. Gender stereotypes/generalities aside, there are a whole lot of differences between a husband and wife in any marriage emotionally and physically. Sex is deeply revelatory — it exposes issues in a relationship, and it has power to hurt and to harm, as well as to bring joy and healing. This book certainly has helped reshape the way I think about sex into a much healthier one, pushing me in a better direction as I learn to relate to my wife in all different areas, including sexually. Speaking of my wife, she wants me to point out that the book is better than its title.
Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport (audiobook, ironically)
This book…wow. Cal Newport does it again. I was a big fan of Deep Work, and this book brought all the incisive practicality of that one to bear on the distractedness of the social media age. If you have a smartphone, a TV, a streaming service subscription, or anything that tends towards distraction (or even addiction), you should read this book. Newport digs into the attention economy, which turns us into the product and works to make us ever more addicted, because the more screen time we have on a particular platform, the more ad revenue they are generating. He invokes Thoreau and the Amish to do an economic analysis of what really brings value, what is truly worthwhile. With these and many other historical examples interwoven, Newport guides the reader towards a re-evaluation of how their time is spent: the digital de-clutter, a process by which one can hold onto what is truly helpful, ditch the rest, and fill their time, and thus their life, with more meaningful activity. I sense that most everyone who sees and feels the effects of social media and our age of ubiquitous screens knows that something is amiss. Newport gives an incredibly practical look at how we can escape the vortex of endless mindless entertainment and reclaim a richer, more human life.
Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath & Dan Heath (re-read)
I read this book back in high school, but this time around was much richer. This is essentially a handbook on how to make ideas “stick” in the minds of others. No matter what your occupation, this is a valuable read, simply because in every field, communicating ideas in a way that others will remember them is important. As a teacher, I’m excited to do things in a way that will make my students remember them without seemingly (or perhaps literally) hundreds of repetitions. It is by no means a boring read — the authors take their own advice to heart, and tell fascinating stories to demonstrate exactly what the subtitle says. A fun, light read that can be enjoyed simply for the interesting ideas and stories or serve as a practical manual for everyone with a message they want to stick, from marketers to moms (and perhaps especially, marketers who are moms).
Embodied: Transgender Identities, the Church, and What the Bible Has to Say by Preston Sprinkle
The Church needs to know how we can best love transgender people. For many, including myself, the existence of trans people is something that only occasionally crosses our minds — we are generally unaware of how many people around us are living their lives somewhere on the spectrum of what transgender means, passing us on the sidewalk, ringing us up at the cash register, sitting in our church services. This is an immensely personal and complicated topic, and one I feel hesitant and vastly underqualified to write about, even in the context of a brief book review. But for that very reason, I’m grateful that Sprinkle wrote this book, taking very seriously the subject matter and the people, the image-of-God-bearers, who are the subject matter. I appreciate Sprinkle’s gracious approach which sees the utter humanity of the transgender conversation and which takes Scripture seriously. His words will likely be provocative in some way to any reader, regardless of their experience or views. It certainly pushed on my comfort zone. Sprinkle has received flak for including a section on Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria, which was posed as a hypothesis in 2018 and seems not to have received any positive scientific follow-up studies (based on some cursory Googling). I hesitate to either condemn or condone this inclusion, based on my own lack of knowledge in this area. So with that potential pitfall in mind, I recommend this book to others, especially Christians, who are unsure of how transgender identities intersect with the Church. We as Christians need to be seeking to understand and to love like Jesus, and this book is a helpful entry point for those who have not given much time to dig into these questions before.