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The Best Books I Read in 2019

Everyone has things they enjoy doing. Mine include eating good food, watching football, and reading. Have you ever noticed that reading is one of the few things you can do as much of as you want and no one complains? I’m writing this over the Thanksgiving holiday so there have been a few times recently that people said to me with a judgmental tone of voice, “Are you going to have another piece of cake?” “Are you going to watch another football game?” But no matter how much I read, no one ever says, “Are you going to start another book?”

Reading is Judgment Free

People will tell you that exercise is good for you, but you shouldn’t overdo it. They preach moderation in all things, including eating or working in your job. But no one ever says that you read too many books. I’ve done my share of over-eating, but no one warns you of the dangers of over-reading. Over-reading isn’t even a thing. Ever felt guilty for reading too many books? I didn’t think so.

Why is that? Well, I’m sure you’re thinking because no one likes to read that much! And that’s probably true for most people. But I’d like to suggest that the real reason is because reading offers a lot of upside with very little downside.

A Few Reasons To Read

Here are a few of those “upsides” to reading.

  • Stress relief. Escape your daily stress by getting lost in a novel.
  • Self-improvement. How do you become a better cook, communicator, spouse, parent, Christian, citizen, or thinker without reading?
  • Life lessons. Biographies allow you to learn someone else’s life lessons while there’s still time to benefit from implementing them in your own life.
  • Leaders are readers. Have you ever met a really sharp leader who wasn’t reader? No one makes a big impact by watching TV.
  • Interesting guest. Am I the only one who gets tired of talking about the same things: Kids sports, busyness, Mizzou sports? By reading books and magazines, you can bring in new topics that spice up the conversation, making it more interesting and fun for everyone.
  • Escape the echo chamber. Reading allows you to learn what those who disagree with you on cultural or political issues are thinking. You learn not only what they believe, but why they believe it. Perhaps you’ll even change your mind on an issue or two.

Looking for a Christmas Gift? Or a Book for Your 2020 Must-Read List?

Maybe you’ll have some extra time to read over the holidays, maybe you’re looking for a Christmas gift for a reader on your shopping list, or maybe you want some book recommendations for yourself heading into 2020. Let me suggest some books I enjoyed reading in 2019. Just to be clear these aren’t my favorite books of all time, but my favorite of what I read this year.

Here are a few of my “Best Reads” lists from years past.

My Top Books on Culture

“Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse”
by Timothy Carney

There’s something wrong with our country. Everyone can feel it and yet there isn’t common agreement about the source of the problem. Or let’s ask a different question: When President Trump was a candidate for the Republican nomination, he declared the American dream is dead. Why did that resonate with so many people? With economic prosperity and technological convenience on the rise, why are depression, loneliness, opioid addiction, and suicide also rising in certain demographic categories? This book offers surprising answers.

“Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters Who Elected Donald Trump”
by Angela Denker

By now we’ve all heard the statistic that 81% of evangelicals voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. Angela Denker, a former journalist and now Lutheran pastor, goes on the road to try to understand why those who profess the same faith she does voted for a different candidate than she did. She finds that the answers were as diverse as Christians themselves.

“The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race, and Identity”
by Douglas Murray

The author doesn’t fit our expectation. He is an openly gay, British, conservative who is also an atheist, although he says he is friendly toward Christianity. Murray is unafraid of tackling difficult cultural issues and often does so in a provocative way. The title accurately describes what you can expect to find inside—a critique of identity politics.

My Top Books That Are Hard To Put In A Category

“Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing”
by Robert Caro

I’m a big fan of this author and would eagerly read anything he wrote. His multivolume biography of Lyndon Johnson is insanely good, as is his big book on Robert Moses and the building of NYC. If you’d like to get a taste of Caro’s approach to research and his writing style without committing to thousands of pages, “Working” serves as a great introduction. Here’s my guess: This won’t be the last Caro book you’ll read.

“The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York”
by Robert Caro

One could say that this book is about the transformation of NYC between the 1920s and 1960s and be both accurate and entirely wrong. This book is about power. It’s about how Robert Moses, an unelected idealist, accumulated and used power, allowing him to be the most influential New Yorker for four decades. It’s about how one man brought great progress and great problems to America’s biggest city.

“Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda And The Road To 9/11
by Lawrence Wright

This book traces the development of anti-American hatred among Islamic radicals and the development of Al-Qaeda through the prisons of Egypt, the countryside of Sudan, and the halls of power in Saudi Arabia. Follow John O’Neil, the FBI’s Counterterrorism Chief as he tries to convince the rest of the government to pay attention to an undetected threat.

“Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice”
by Bill Browder

Browder tells the story of how during the collapse of the Soviet Union, he saw an economic opportunity to make money in the newly formed Russian economic system. In the process, he encountered a corrupt government led by Vladimir Putin and the oligarchs. It’s when Browder challenged their power that the story turns into a page turner.

My Top Novels

“Anna Karenina”
by Leo Tolstoy

The first sentence ranks among the best opening lines in literature: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” What makes Tolstoy so insightful is that he knows the human heart, so he can show not only what a person did, but also why he or she did it. This is a book to take your time with, both because it’s long and because it’s worth pondering.

“The Other Woman: A Novel” and “The Kill Artist”
by Daniel Silva

Both intelligent, Israeli spy thrillers.

“The Gifted School: A Novel”
by Bruce Holsinger

This book is a delicious description of what happens to a group of friends when it’s announced a new gifted school is opening. Some have said this book predicted the college admissions scandal.

“East of Eden”
by John Steinbeck

Occasionally, I read a book that I should have read in high school or college (but didn’t for all the usual reasons) and I never regret it. There are reasons that books are called classics. Steinbeck doesn’t disappoint. This long meditation on life outside of Eden is full of rich characters and interesting plot twists.

My Top Books on Theology/Christianity/The Church

“Postcards from Babylon: The Church in American Exile” 
by Brian Zahnd

Throughout the centuries, the Church has always struggled to figure out how to be at home in a particular culture without becoming captive to that culture. Zahnd believes that the Church in America has become more like America than Jesus. His provocative style calls the Church to self-examination to see whether we are building a kingdom based politics, money, and violence or love, justice, and mercy.

“The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism
by Jemar Tisby

The Church has a mixed record on racial issues. Yes, the abolitionists were predominately Christian, as was much of the civil rights movement. But churches also helped institutionalize racism in the decades of Jim Crow and opposed the same civil rights movement. Christians would do well to learn about the checkered history of the Church so that they can better represent Christ’s love today.

“The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story”
by Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen

“The Kingdom of God And The Glory Of The Cross”
by Patrick Schreiner

“God Dwells Among Us: Expanding Eden to the Ends of the Earth”
by G.K. Beale and Mitchell Kim

“The Kingdom of God: A Biblical Theology”
by Nicholas Perrin

I grouped these together because they are all, broadly speaking, about the same subject: Understanding the biblical storyline. For me, the Bible comes alive the more I grasp the whole story of the Bible instead of just individual verses. Bartholomew lays out the big picture and if this topic is new to you, it’s probably the place to start. Schreiner and Beale each trace a particular theme (Kingdom and Eden respectively) and both are excellent. Perrin is a little more advanced than the others.

“Gospel Allegiance: What Faith in Jesus Misses for Salvation in Christ”
by Matthew Bates

“The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited”
by Scot McKnight

Many people think the Gospel is something you believe so you go to heaven when you die. These authors show the good news of the Gospel is more about Jesus returning as the King to reestablish his Kingdom on Earth than it is about getting us off of Earth and into heaven. If you are going to read only one book on this list, make it Gospel Allegiance.

“Confronting OT Controversies: Pressing Questions about Evolution, Sexuality, History, and Violence”
by Tremper Longman III

Sometimes, people avoid the Old Testament because they are intimidated by these difficult issues. This book upholds the truthfulness of Scripture while explaining how it fits with what we know from history and science.

“Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion And What To Do About It”
by David Zahl

Human beings are worshippers. We will either worship God or something else. Zahl shows how we’ve taken God’s good gifts and turned them into ultimate things. Insightful and practical. I promise you’ll see yourself in at least some of these chapters.

“Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion”
by Rebecca McLaughlin

This author spoke at The Crossing in October and her writing is as good as her speaking. She answers all of the tough questions thoughtfully and winsomely. This would be a good gift for the person who is open to Christianity but has serious questions.

“Jesus: A Very Short Introduction”
by Richard Bauckham

As an entry in this series of short introductions to a wide variety of topics, Bauckham, a world class scholar, looks at the original sources to examine the person of Jesus, as well as His teaching. Great book to give to an educated skeptic.

“Seven Revolutions: How Christianity Changed the World and Can Change It Again”
by Mike Aquilina and James Papandrea

First century Rome has a lot in common with 21st century America. There’s a lot we can learn from how the first Christians built the Church, shared God’s love with their world, and changed the Roman Empire.

Consider using some of the books listed above as inspiration for a holiday gift guide, or perhaps add some to your own must-read list for the New Year. And speaking of the New Year, are you focused on setting the right types of goals for 2020? What kinds of goals should those be?

Download your free copy of our eBook, “5 New Year’s Resolutions You Need To Set,” where you’ll be challenged by Keith Simon to consider five resolutions that are designed to change what really matters most: Your heart.