Top Reads of 2016

I always write a Top Music list at the end of each year. This year, not a few of you have been asking if I'd do the same for books I've read. So, I did. Perhaps one of these changed the way I thought of a thing, or processed those thoughts. Perhaps it encouraged me, or challenged me, or – even – upset me. The mark of a good book is not that it left you warm and fuzzy at its conclusion – the mark of a good book is that no matter what sort of response it elicits, the nerve is thoroughly pinched. 

I have included links to each book as physical, eBook, or Audible. My personal favorite medium is Audible, and if you decide you'd like to experience one of these in that way, whether you have an Audible account or not, you can click that option below and get it as your first book, free, on me. Enjoy. 

 

Daring Greatly: How The Courage To Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
Author: Brené Brown
Physical | eBook | Audible

I've never read a book where, at more times throughout, I've had the thought that this can literally change my life... if I let it. The caveat is key. I have so many books lined up that I often become too worried with the checklist, and getting onto the the next one, that I fail to be changed by what I've read. I fail to absorb the content – to sit in it - which is the true joy of the whole ordeal, for the sake of a hurried mind by which I strip myself of the very experience which is reading and learning and growth. 

I will sit with this book. My friend Jamie Tworkowski says that there are some words which find us like friends, and Brene Brown's are such that wrap arms around my body, and warm me, and speak as though they've known me since birth. It is the type of book that read me more than I read it. I learned more about who I am through this powerful vision on what it means to practice vulnerability, to allow oneself the freedom of emotional exposure, to be courageous and generous in a world of fear and scarcity, and to Dare Greatly. 

As an oft-anxious/depressed/fearful man, this book made me realize that I care the most about encouraging others in the things that I am the worst at, and that in all of my longings to extend grace to others for whom I truly believe grace exists, I find it next to impossible to be gentle with myself. I wish that I could make this book mandatory reading in our education system, business markets, and religious settings. At the very least, maybe my writing this will be enough to spike an interest in you. 

 

Bandersnatch: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings
Author: Diana Pavlac Glyer
Physical | eBook | Audible

This is sort-of cheating, as I'm in the middle of Glyer's excellent look at the creative processes of some of the greatest writers to have ever lived. The Inklings were a group of brilliant minds at Oxford University, which included authors C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, who regularly met to read and critique one another's work for nearly two decades. Bandersnatch is written by the leading expert on Tolkien and Lewis, who has spent over 40 years studying the both of them, and details the ways in which encouragement and criticism contributed to their creative process. At the end of each chapter, Glyer includes a short series of questions and encouragement for the reader to reflect on based upon the examples set by the Inklings. For those familiar with my work, you know that both of these authors have – whether through their work or through the values that drove it – greatly inspired my own writing and the ways in which I approach art and creativity. Reading Bandersnatch has only fueled my love of and appreciation for their influence. 

 
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The Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower
Author: Stephen King
Physical | eBook | Audible

I can't write much about King's seventh and "final book" (there are rumors of another along with the big-screen adaptations coming this year) in The Dark Tower series, because to do so would be to give away the culmination of an adventure that deserves to be experienced, personally. I have never experienced a story like The Dark Tower and, after a year's worth of listening through the narrative, I could not have been happier with the ending. I loved seeing the way that King processed some of his ideas from On Writing in a fictitious way here, although you'd have read both to understand the resonance (which I strongly encourage you to do). 


 

 

The Screwtape Letters
Author: C.S. Lewis
Physical | eBook | Audible

I don't know quite how to describe the feeling of reading through Screwtape's letters to his nephew, Wormwood, save the words eerie and convicting. Relatable, too, perhaps. Each way the demon prescribes distraction seems to align just so with the ways in which I find myself distracted. I appreciate writers who do well to sink into the characters they play, and have done so myself on many occasions, but the places that Lewis must have had to go to speak as though possessed must have been very dark, indeed. 

 

The 4-Hour Workweek
Author: Tim Ferris
Physical | eBook | Audible

Tim Ferris would likely be the first guy to say he's not a superhuman, but that doesn't mean that I have to believe him. Unfortunately, envy does not produce replicas of those who are the objects of it, so I have yet to develop a mind like his. My family and I were having a discussion about The 4-Hour Workweek last week, and what work is, and how highly different generations have valued various aspects of it. For example, my brother-in-law was talking about how Henry Ford created the 9-to-5 workday (or, at least, he popularized it – whether or not he was the first employer to do this is besides the point), and how the 9-to-5 is largely the measure by which one can judge the success of one's day. He went on to contrast the 8-hour workday with our generation, which is increasingly entrepreneurial, to say that millennials are more reticent to just go along with what always has been... simply because it always has been. My sister was annoyed by the idea of a 4-hour occupation because she didn't understand why it is okay that a person should be so lazy as to only work for 4 hours of the 168 that comprise a full week. But the point of books like Ferris's is not that we should cease to contribute to society or the care of our planet. Rather, it is that there are ways of (and here is the cliche) working smarter for the sake of being able to contribute and care more and better. God, that last sentence is horrible. The 4-Hour Workweek is, essentially, a highly practical treatise on automating your occupation and reorganizing this thing that has been sold to us as "The American Dream." I've listened through it a few times on Audible this year (you can too, here), and the ideas presented have given me a new perspective on what work is (or can be), and helped me come out from underneath a bit of what has been the crushing law of western workaholism that has dominated my life for years. 

 

Invisible Ink
Author: Brian McDonald
Physical | eBook Unavailable | Audible

In short - "the essential elements of the best storytelling." For some reason, this book is only available on Audible, unless you want to pay a lot of money for an out-of-print version of this classic from Brian McDonald. My friend Dustin told me about this book the last time his band was in Albuquerque, and I bought it and listened to it the very next day. I think that Dustin is one of the best lyrical storytellers out there, and knew his word counted for something when it came to recommendations on tools for the craft. This book contrasts "visible ink" with "invisible ink" – that is, what is readily accessible to an audience according to their senses versus the storytelling structure that is invisible beneath what one hears or sees in the movie, play, or narrative. 

 

Essentialism
Author: Greg McKeown
Physical | eBook | Audible

Months ago, I wrote about the ways Greg Mckeown's Essentialism impacted my wife and me. You can read my review and reasoning for it by signing up for the LTP Family and gaining access to the archives, here

 

Finding God In The Waves
Author: Mike McHargue
Physical | eBook | Audible

I discovered "Science Mike" the way that many have throughout the past couple of years, via The Liturgists Podcast. In many ways, what he and Michael Gungor have done through that platform has been healing and beautiful to me. The production value is beautiful, and the conversations are intentional. It feels genuine and vulnerable, and it appeals to all of my artistic sensibilities. In other ways, it has been confusing. I feel as though 2016 was a year of realizing (again) that freedom is more frightening than constraint, and the minute we get what we long for is also often the same time we realize we're in over our heads. There's a whole wide world out there and it's full of people who think a lot of things, and if you've been a part of world that has claimed the monopoly on thinking, then any resonance with the thoughts beyond it – or contradictory to it – can feel like vertigo. That said, McHargue will be first person to admit (and he does in his book), that he is not the person to turn to if you're looking for evangelical orthodoxy, but I am fascinated by this man's story of belief, and unbelief, and his return to faith in Jesus as God. Finding God In The Waves is Mike's story of the simultaneously scientific and rational and miraculous and unexplainable ways that God has called his name. If nothing else, it is worth the discussion that will arise from the clash of self-proclaimed heresies combined with a Jesus mission that - to me - feels more evangelical than Mike might like to admit. Finding God In The Waves challenges, resonates, provokes, threatens, encourages and empathizes, and it is – like every other book – worth bringing a discerning mind to. 

 

The Seed: A True Myth
Author: Erik Guzman
Physical | eBook | Audible Unavailable

I discovered Erik Guzman last year when he wrote what is, hands down, my favorite article that I have ever read on the internet: "I Love God For Letting Me Hate Him." I have posted it a few times, and I'm sure I'll share it again, but eventually, we got connected, and he asked me if I'd be willing to read his first foray into fiction, The Seed: A True Myth. It took me so much longer than it should have, but I suppose that isn't entirely true, if timing is perfect. Conceptually, one soon discovers that The Seed is a retelling of a story that we have heard before – one of creation and fall and redemption. The theological depth of this narrative is evident, and bloody. I will admit that – like Tolkien, who never cared much for Lewis' religious allegory (or any allegory, for that matter) – there were moments when I struggled to set aside my own distaste for the same. However, unlike Tolkien, I grew to love The Seed for its parallel clarity. There is no other way to say it than: this book reminded me that I am loved. I have paragraphs circled and pages underlined and notes in the margins throughout as though I were studying a biblical theology or, better yet, simply needed to keep hold of the love written in a note from a friend. Allegory or no, there is subversion that I appreciate here, as well, and in the end, with pages tear-stained, I thought: this is poetry, and I found myself in it, and I was found in it. 

 

Damaged Disciples: Casualties of Authoritarian Churches and the Shepherding Movement
Authors: Ron & Vicki Burks
Physical | eBook & Audible Unavailable

There is so much baggage related to this book's inclusion here, but I will do my best to keep it short for the sake of the both of us and the time that we have here today. Perhaps a year ago, I was telling my mom about what I can only now describe as a sort of post traumatic stress disorder following the collapse of our church – Mars Hill. Fear so deep it was indescribable. Anger so fierce it was making me into a person I hated. Anxiety so overwhelming it completely paralyzed me. Distrust so whole it left me directionless. A sense of manipulation so despised it pushed me back to the beginning of the circle, bereft of peace. Bereft of God? I would be a liar to say that all of that despair has moved on. At the time, my mom responded by saying that I sounded like many people who have described their lives after having come out of what she called "The Shepherding Movement," which I had never heard of. She was right - as, for better or worse, I've discovered she usually is, and the similarities are disheartening, but helpful. This autobiographical account of the Burks' involvement in and rebuilding after that movement was painful to read, largely because it addressed specific pain in me. To be fair, neither of us wish to discount everything that has manifested from either movement – and our experiences are not synonymous – but it'd be a lie to discount similarities between what the authors went through and some of the authoritarianism I and so many others have felt our identities stripped by. For those who can relate, this was a painfully healing read. In the end, it challenged me with the question: "Will I choose to forgive, or will I choose to hold on to my hatred?" 

 

Counting It Joy: The Macallister Story
Author: Jody Macallister-Humbles
Physical | eBook | Audible Unavailable

It'd be foolishness not to include my own mother's very first published work as an author. Counting It Joy is our family's story. My sister and I each contributed a chapter, but above and beyond any involvement I have in this book, I am, simply, a proud son. Just yesterday, I listened to my mom discuss this book on her first podcast, and between tears and memories and agony and all of the "what-ifs" that so quickly plague my mind, there was a deep and abiding sense of gratefulness, and graciousness, and mercy that has seemed never to have let go of our lives. I don't know a woman who has so consistently relied on and given praise to God, regardless of circumstance, in joy and in the deepest despair a person can imagine, than my mom. I am so thankful for you who have already supported her endeavor in bringing the topic of depression, mental illness and suicide into the light through her brave sharing of our family's story, and I hope that it has been and will continue to be the blessing and encouragement that she desires to many for a long time to come – perhaps even an eternity. 

 

When Breath Becomes Air
Author: Paul Kalanithi
Physical | eBook | Audible

"What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away?" Such are the questions that you will find in the jacket of this incredible autobiography of the man who wrote it until – quite literally – his death. Paul Kalanithi was a writer and a neurosurgeon, and his love for / study of literature is evident in the way that he turns medicine into poetry, and merges metaphysical unanswerables with the calculated decisions that his life demanded of him. There's no other way to say it: Paul's writing is superb. His worldview is full of hope even in the face of death, and his compassion and integrity as a doctor are above reproach. I've had good friends move away to study medicine and become doctors this year, and have an incalculably greater respect for their passion, and their profession, and their art because of this book. Read it and weep. 
 

 

Levi

P.S. – What about you? I am ALWAYS looking for good books to read - fiction or no - and would love your suggestions, as well. Feel free to give them to me here, or – even better – send a little bird to tweet them at me from the sky

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