At the beginning of 2013, I got out a brand new journal and began to record the books I finished throughout the year. I didn’t intend to read a book a week, but at 11:30 pm on New Year’s Eve, through bleary eyes, I finished and recorded the last one. And it wasn’t a “book a week”—some took a LONG time to read, and some were quick, but over the course of a year, I finished 52.
I enjoyed keeping the list, and it helped me to be more disciplined in my reading. I always start a lot more books than I finish, but I finished more this year because of the list.
I’ve had numerous people tell me that I inspired them to get back to reading. Reading books does take some inspiration, some desire, some motivation. Spending an hour skimming the internet is easier than concentrating on a book. There are important and worthwhile things to read on the internet, but I am a richer person for reading books.
Many people have asked me to share my list. I personally love hearing what other people are reading and a good deal of what I do read online is book reviews! I won’t list all 52, but I went through and picked ten—not necessarily the “best”, but ones I did very much enjoy and would recommend widely, some of which are pretty obscure and not likely to be discovered or read without a recommendation. And of course, the “ten” turned out to be “eleven”—because I never did like being put in a box.
1.To the Field of Stars by Kevin Codd We watched the film “The Way” with Martin Sheen a couple of years ago, and I have become fascinated by the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. The Camino is a 500-mile ancient pilgrimage route through the northern part of Spain, and I so want to do it! I have researched and read several books on the Camino, but Kevin’s memoir is by far my favorite. Probably my most enjoyable book of 2013, and also the very first one. You will feel like you’ve been on the Camino with Kevin when you’re finished, and that’s a very satisfying feeling.
2. The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz How about a little Egyptian existentialism? No, it’s not what it sounds like! Mahfouz, the 1988 winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, wrote this series of three novels about a multi-generational Muslim family living in Cairo in the first half of the 20th century. The series was 1300 pages long, but I read the first two books the summer before, and then went back and finished the third. I always say the mark of truly good literature is whether is stays with you, and I’ll truly never forget this story. Mahfouz created such real characters—reminiscent of Tolstoy, and I do put this book right up there with Anna Karenina.
3. Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin I knew this book was a classic, and that I’d have to read it sometime. I first read it two years ago, and had to reread it again. It’s a book about religion during the Harlem Renaissance, and shows how sometimes the people who claim to know God the most are the farthest from him. Both Modern Library and Time Magazine rate this book in the top 100 20th century English language novels. I absolutely agree!
4. Sister Wendy on Prayer by Wendy Beckett This book was a gift to me, and I would never have read it on my own. I loved it and shared it with friends. I’ll probably read it again in 2014. Sister Wendy is a cloistered Catholic nun who has devoted her life to prayer, and also to the study of art. Twenty years ago she came out of seclusion to record several television series for the BBC on art. Her thoughts on prayer are profound. Her interview with Bill Moyers (available in parts on youtube) is priceless. I want to be just like Sister Wendy when I grow up! (except for the celibacy—I really want to keep my husband!!)
5. Escape from Camp 14 by Blake Hardin I saw the story on “60 Minutes” of a young man born in a North Korean prison camp who escaped at age 23, and immediately got the book. This young man grew up thinking the entire world was like the camp—devoid of adequate food, devoid of freedom, devoid of family life, devoid of love. The interview was fascinating, and the book even more so. When asked on television if he had indeed grown up not knowing what love was, he answered that he still wasn’t sure he knew. It is hard to imagine an entire country under this oppression, but we need to imagine it. We need to be aware, not to close our eyes to suffering.
6. Telling Secrets–Frederick Buechner I love memoirs, and I love Frederick Buechner. This is the second of four memoirs Buechner has, and I’ve read them all more than once. I read two of them in 2013, and I will read them again. They are that good. But you MUST start with The Sacred Journey!
7. When the Heart Waits by Sue Monk Kidd I found this 20 year old book just this year, and it is a jewel—a reflective memoir of the journey toward spiritual wholeness. I am going through it again right now, slowly. Incidentally, I am also reading Sue Monk Kidd’s brand new fiction book, The Invention of Wings, which is, as I type, selling at #12 in the nation on Amazon. It was tough to put that book down to work on this list, but I did it.
8. Half-Life: Reflections from Jerusalem on a Broken Neck by Joshua Prager I don’t remember how I stumbled on Joshua Prager’s TED talk, but it moved me incredibly. Watch it. You might be inspired afterwards to get his book. It’ll make you think about forgiveness, and the cost of living in a broken world. This book was, surprisingly to me, available only on Kindle. As far as I know, it wasn’t a best seller, but it should have been. It made me think of Bauby’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” also an unforgettable book.
9. Two-Part Invention by Madeleine l’Engle I first met Madeleine L’Engle when I was in the fourth grade, and the librarian on the bookmobile that came to my school had put the new book “A Wrinkle in Time” back just for me. I’m so glad. That book is a favorite, and so is Madeleine L’Engle. Two-Part Invention is the fourth volume of her Crosswick Series, and yes, you should start with the first one, A Circle of Quiet, or maybe even A Wrinkle in Time! I know Madeleine intimately, she is a dear friend. Of course, she doesn’t know me, we’ve only met in her books, but that’s enough.
10. Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry 2013 was a year for re-reading books. I don’t generally do that, but there are some books I cannot imagine only reading once. I first read Hannah about seven years ago. Don’t tell me Hannah’s not ‘”real”—she’s my dear friend and mentor who has taught me much about life. Good literature is not mere entertainment, but can help us to see the world from the perspective of other people. Wendell Berry, her “creator,” is an accomplished writer and wordsmith who has created an entire world in a fictional county in Kentucky. I am astounded that this old man, a tobacco farmer, can know the thoughts of a woman as well as he evidently does. I have read and loved most of his novels. And I also love his poetry—my favorite poetry book is “Given” which I incidentally gave as a birthday present a couple of months ago!
11. (BONUS!) Preparing for Christmas; Devotions for Advent by Richard Rohr Yes, it was this book of Advent devotions that I got behind on and finished on New Year’s Eve, but they would be so good anytime. Rohr is a Franciscan priest who teaches on the contemplative life, on moving beyond flat, us vs them thinking. He challenges me, and it’s good to be challenged! I best like reading Richard Rohr in bite-size pieces, so a daily devotional is perfect. And Lent is coming!
I’d love to hear from any of my friends who “take and read” one of my recommendations. Happy New Year!!!