One year ago for the very first time, I planned my year’s reading instead of simply keeping a reading list as I went along. Inspired by How to Make a Yearly Reading List as a Grown-Up, my first step was to root through my shelves and scan my Audible and Kindle libraries for books I already owned but hadn’t read. Considering the categories I wanted to include for a well-balanced year of books, I studied blogger booklists and perused books on the classics and spiritual masters before writing a list of books I planned to read in 2017.
I dropped some and added others as the year progressed but I’m grateful I took the time to plan. And I have some standouts worth sharing with readers who, like me, are planning (with flexibility, of course) 2018’s reading year.
Best Book I Already Owned but Hadn’t Read: Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead
Over and over since its publication in 2005, I’ve seen Pulitzer Prize-winner Gilead on blogger booklists. If I hear a book is good from three respected sources, I’ll get to it eventually. Which is why I already owned a copy of Gilead but hadn’t cracked it open.
Gilead opens a special world to the soul, the mind of a truly humble man from a more genteel time. Pastor John Ames is so authentically rendered and his search for understanding so genuine that you love living in his mind, and as you do, he makes you more aware of the beauty of nature, the perplexities of forgiveness, the struggle between generations, the problem of racism and the wisdom hidden in the pages of the Scriptures. Gilead lifted me out of the contentious contemporary world we live in and reminded me what is possible when a soul pursues understanding and refuses to give up on those they don’t understand. More at Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead: A Merciful Mind for Our Contentious Time.
Best Memoir: Sally Read’s Night’s Bright Darkness: A Modern Conversion Story
It does the heart good to hear a scientifically-minded, award-winning poet and former atheist reveal the stages of Christ’s slow and tender opening of her soul. Read, the daughter of atheist parents, is a British nurse dealing with the death of a patient in the book’s riveting opening scene. She is an anti-Catholic feminist who will soon undertake research for a book on women’s sexuality.
Sally Read tells her story in the crystalline detail of an accomplished poet whose heart has now been conquered by the Lover of her soul. As a memoir, this book the real deal. Read is frank in her rendering of quests to find meaning through her sexuality, and her honesty is exactly what we need. She is a contemporary woman at the well. Read’s story turns upside down the mistaken notion that we must get our act together before Christ will care about us. In truth, He’s been calling us all along.
Best Cultural Commentary: Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age
As soon as I heard about this book, I knew I had to read it. We’re all struggling to figure out how to retain our humanity while adapting to the omnipresence of screens. But Reclaiming Conversation is no anti-technology rant. Turkle is a professor in MIT’s Program in techological advances. She’s hoping we’ll consider losses as well as gains and make more conscious choices about the way we use our tech.
This book is an engaging, first-person narrative, blending interviews and personal stories with hard data on how the omnipresence of screens is changing us. Turkle offers positive suggestions on reclaiming eye contact, creating “sacred spaces” for conversation with real people in real time and recovering our empathy.
Turkle asks appropriate cautionary questions about how easily we sign away our right to our data in order to receive services from Google, Amazon and so many others. She discusses the increasing levels of depression in young people who lack the maturity to handle the pressures of social media. Adults must take the lead and honestly confront the hazards of screen addiction by setting practical, relationship-building boundaries for its use. The most thought-provoking book about current culture I read.
The Classic (and Spiritual Masterpiece) I Finally Completed: Dante’s Divine Comedy
With so many classics to choose from each year, I wait for the moment when my heart seems to call a particular book’s name so strongly I know it’s time. I gradually arrived at commitment to the entire Divine Comedy by way of Dorothy Sayers (whose translation I purchased in my twenties), Bishop Robert Barron (whose Seven Deadly Sins; Seven Lively Virtues opened up the application of its spiritual beauty) and finally Rod Dreher (whose memoir How Dante Can Save Your Life: the Life-Changing Wisdom of History’s Greatest Poem was one of my favorite 2016 reads and got me to stop delaying this book’s soul-changing journey in its entirety).
Following Dreher’s recommendation, I prepared myself by listening to The Great Course’s lecture series on this great poem. Professors William R. Cook and Ronald B. Hertzman are engaging guides who’ve taught the Commedia not only in univeristy settings, but in prisons and monasteries as well. They explain the poem’s classical and medieval references and prepare you to savor the journey of spiritual transformation Dreher himself found life-saving. And now I understand why they say you have to read the poem before you can read the poem. I will be back, soul open for a deeper journey into self-knowledge and desire for the holy.
The Writer I’ll Keep on Reading: Sigrid Undset
I read the third and final volume of Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter this year. I followed Kristin with Return to the Future, Undset’s gripping account of her flight from Norway after the Nazis occupied her homeland (Undset was a zealous opponent of Nazism and was advised to leave her country when the Nazis took over). The woman behind the books as fascinating as the tales she’s given us.
Kristin Lavransdatter is a spellbinding Nobel prize-winning novel portraying medieval Norway as a beautiful and passionate world and revealing the human heart in all its mysterious complexity. Following Kristin from birth to death allows us to experience passion, resentment, stubbornness, redemption, grief, holiness, sin, regret, vanity and humility in a rich constellation of unforgettable characters. It’s a book to savor slowly, a book that can reflect your own heart and help you see your soul.
For more, see Three Reasons to Make Time for Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter and Fascinating Facts about Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter’s Creator (part one of three posts on this astounding woman’s life). Atheist upbringing, conversion to Catholicism, literary honors, opposition to Hitler, exile in America, friendship with Dorothy Day, return to a war-ravaged Norway. Everything about Undset fascinates. Her biography of St. Catherine of Siena is on my 2018 list. I want to keep her presence with me.
Reads and Other Seeds
Meet my Grandma Ted, one of my first inspirations for living a reading life in Links to Booklist Builders for a Still-Incomplete Education.
Owning more books than you’ll ever have time to read is good for you. Loved this post at Inc.
In a half hour a day you can read Shakespeare’s complete works this year, says First Things’ Matthew Franck (see the reading plan here). I won’t be going that far, but Shakespeare is on my 2018 reading plan. The Hamlet episode on the Good Story Is Hard to Find podcast is a great conversation about the 1990 Mel Gibson film. Watch it with subtitles on, Scott advises. Love that tip!
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