It’s that time again––time to share with you my favorite books from 2019. This may sound like an obvious prerequisite for book selection, but this year I only chose books I wanted to read, rather than ones I felt I should read. And I enjoyed reading more because of this.
The titles I’m sharing with you below follow the criteria I first used in 2015’s Reading Favorites article:
If one of the main purposes of books is to make the reader think, then these are the ones I’d say made me think most deeply, curiously, and enthusiastically this year. (I’ve chosen a first prize and a runner-up for each genre.) I hope these thoughts might sway you to read a few of these titles, yourself!
First Prize: The Cross of Christ (John Stott)
John Stott’s excellent book won first prize last year, but will remain the winner since I technically finished it in 2019––and it is still my favorite. He’s a master of accessible theology, drawing out the atonement with confident clarity, biblical richness, and a humble sensitivity to its mysteries. Many people put this book on their must-read-in-this-lifetime list, and I fully agree. Read it as soon as you can!
Runner-Up: Chosen By God (R. C. Sproul)
In his short book, beloved theologian and pastor R. C. Sproul takes on the difficult, common topics of predestination, election, man’s free will, and assurance. He handles hard questions with humility and clarity, seeking to reason with the reader, but to do so only biblically. This is the second Sproul book I’ve read, and I love how he writes with clarity; what might be complex and confusing he makes simple and understandable. And he writes with a pastoral, compassionate heart, which makes his books all the more endearing and helpful.
Biography, Memoir, & Historical Fiction
First Prize #1: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin (Erik Larson)
A gifted writer of narrative history, Erik Larson once again brings the past to life, telling the story of the American ambassador to Germany, William E. Dodd, and his encounters with Hitler during the rise of Nazism. Larson’s vivid account, so clearly the result of careful research and thoughtful conclusions, throws light on how such obvious evil can go unchecked––even by the most influential and intelligent of world leaders.
First Prize #2: Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Bryan Stevenson)
I couldn’t choose one winner for this category; I finished Bryan Stevenson’s riveting memoir last night and had to include it here. I’m still processing it, but the story of the Equal Justice Initiative, the issue of mass incarceration, and the involvement of racial history and bias is worth reading about and discussing with others. An important book for our time.
Runner-Up: Susie: The Life and Legacy of Susannah Spurgeon, wife of Charles H. Spurgeon (Ray Rhodes Jr.)
I read this book as a secondary source for my own biographical writing on Susannah and found my soul nourished in the process. Susie was certainly famous for her role as wife of the “Prince of Preachers,” but her legacy lives on because of her magnetic, steadfast faith in Christ. Her earthly days were filled with suffering and loss, yet she held fast to her Savior. I appreciate Ray Rhodes Jr.’s meticulous searching into Susie and his straightforward and insightful writing; it spurred me on to depict her with care and precision, and to imitate her faithfulness in the Christian race.
First Prize: When I Don’t Desire God: How to Fight for Joy (John Piper)
To be honest, I always thought this book was for people struggling with depression––but in reading it, I discovered how joylessness, or at least a struggle to be joyful, describes more of us than we know. What encouraged me most was the reminder that the whole of the Christian life is a fight to finish the race; it’s not a stroll in the park, like many of us believe it should be (even without realizing this). We need to fight––we must––if we are to know and love and delight in Christ, who purchased for us the freedom to fight and to enjoy him all our days and into eternity. If you’re feeling defeated by the joy you lack, or if you yearn to be more satisfied in Christ, read this book.
Runner-Up: With All Your Heart: Living Joyfully Through Allegiance to King Jesus (Christine Hoover)
Christine is a friend and one of my favorite modern writers, so the biblical content and compelling writing in her newest book were no surprise to me. I had the privilege of reading to endorse it, and did so emphatically since I could not avoid taking her message––Jesus’s message––to heart. Engaging with Christine’s book during a time of personal struggle, I needed it, and God used it, to help me confess my misplaced worship and realign my desires and pursuits with his. If you struggle with image, escape, influence, self-sufficiency or other lesser kings, you’ll be helped by this book.
Vocation & Learning
First Prize: Preaching the Whole Counsel of God: Design and Deliver Gospel-Centered Sermons (Julius J. Kim)
No, I’m not a pastor, so I’m not regularly preaching in that sense. But God has entrusted writing and speaking opportunities to me, and my desire is to clearly and compellingly proclaim the gospel, keeping Christ at the center of every message. Julius Kim does thorough, engaging work to equip his readers with tools to faithfully study Scripture and impart it to listeners. I’ve implemented several of them, and they’ve changed the way I teach.
Runner-Up: Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World (Cal Newport)
Vacation was the perfect time to read this helpful book, as I had chosen to take a break from email and social media; the lessening of the noise created space to appreciate and absorb Cal Newport’s insights. Digital tools have altered our brains, distracting, addicting, and controlling us, when we should be in control of them, leveraging them as such: tools. I came away from this book resolved to form better phone habits and engage primarily in the relationships right in front of me.
First Prize: Emma (Jane Austen)
Emma Woodhouse is a well-loved, high-society single woman who takes pride in matchmaking––until her skills begin to fail her, as does her resolve to remain single. Emma is the only Jane Austen novel I have read, but it won’t be the last. I love her comedic undertones and her way of subtly endearing her characters to the reader.
Runner-Up: Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold (C. S. Lewis)
This is the first C. S. Lewis novel I’ve read and, once again, it won’t be the last. Lewis brilliantly retells the myth of Cupid and Psyche from the perspective of Psyche’s devoted sister, Orual, whose attempts to rescue Psyche from her deity-husband stir up questions about eternity, power, purpose, and love. Thought-provoking, enjoyable, and moving.