Thinking About...Favorite Books of 2017

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In this space over the last six months I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of our family’s summer sabbatical. Maybe you’re sick of hearing about someone else’s time of rest. I get it. But in sharing about my sabbatical, I intend to share how the summer of 2017 was a time of refreshment and renewal for me. 

During this time of year when ‘Best Of’ lists are appearing, I thought I’d add to the Internet noise by sharing my favorite books of 2017 (most of which I read during my sabbatical). These are not books that were published in 2017. Rather they’re books I read this year, specifically the ones I've been thinking about as my favorites.

All told this summer I read about 30 books from various genres (those interested can peruse the complete list below), with an intentional focus books I typically don’t read. I wanted to read broadly because of the encouragement of Cornelius Plantinga in his Reading for Preaching:

All kinds of writers are out there. As a preacher I want to know them. I want to learn from them. I want some of them in my sermons. Learning from nihilists and atheists is a bracing thing to do. And it may reveal whether I have actually acquired some of the combined confidence and humility that all of us have seen in good mentors. I want confidence that Christ is the Wisdom of God, with all that such trust entails. I also want humility in the face of intelligent writers who do not trust Christ in the least, but may still have much to teach me.

Abide with Me (Elizabeth Strout)
Strout is a contemporary novelist some of whose work I had read before. Her stories are often based in New England (especially Maine, where she’s from). I tried to read several books set in Maine because we spent several weeks there this summer. Abide with Me tells the story of a pastor in a small Maine town as he deals with crushing grief—his own and that borne by the various members of his congregation. Strout’s writing is vivid and lyrical. A book centered on a pastor and his relationship with his congregation was timely for me, supporting my reflection on the last nine years of my ministry at City Church. Plus, did I mention it’s about New England (the region I call home)?

"Understand--the inland reaches of northern New England, with its quick, hot summers, and long, dark winters had bred for generations a way of life that had at its center the need to endure.... And if their children were not allowed Novocain when having their cavities drilled, it was not cold-heartedness but a belief that life was a struggle, character honed every step of the way."

The Country of the Pointed Firs (Sarah Orne Jewett)
I have to give my wife, Sarah, credit for this one. After we decided to spend some of our summer on the coast of Maine she bought this book for me. We ended up reading this book aloud to each other. Published originally in 1896, Jewett’s book records—through a succession of character sketches—the rapidly disappearing way of life of fin de siecle coastal Maine. Set in the fictional town of Dunnet Landing, The Country of the Pointed Firs introduces various characters, each unique and each unforgettable. The town of Dunnet Landing itself becomes one of those characters—all the more memorable and more lovable to anyone who has spent time in downeast Maine. As Jewett writes: 

“When one really knows a village like this and its surroundings, it is like becoming acquainted with a single person. The process of falling in love at first sight is as final and as swift in such a case, but the growth of true friendship may be a lifelong affair.”

Watership Down (Richard Adams)
I’m cheating a little on this one because I haven’t finished it yet. But I will! Watership Down makes the list because it’s the book our family read aloud together this summer. Most evenings after dinner we gathered to read a chapter or two of this harrowing tale about a group of intrepid rabbits on a journey to find a new warren. It’s a great story in its own right, but it makes the list because it’s a book our family experienced together—hanging on every word, gasping at each plot twist, wishing for good to triumph. 

Liturgy of the Ordinary (Tish Warren)
Published just last year, Warren’s book is built around the clever correlation of the routines of our everyday lives with the routines of a typical worship service liturgy. The result is a splendid and down-to-earth reflection on the practical habits of faith. By connecting losing her keys to the habit of confession and arguing with her husband to passing the peace, Warren suggests that we must believe the gospel not only with our brains, but also with our bodies. 

Perhaps I liked Liturgy of the Ordinary so much because it made the case for my summer away from City Church. By emphasizing the finite-ness of embodied existence, Warren’s book insists on rest and waiting as fundamental habits of a truly human life. I have come to see my sabbatical as a time for the field of ministry to lie fallow. And as Warren writes: 

“A fallow field is never dormant. As dirts sits waiting for things to be planted and grown, there is work being done invisibly and silently.”

There were many other books, of course. Each a gift. Each my teacher. Each a further glimpse into the nature of this world and the God who made it. But that’s enough for now. 

Complete List of Erik’s Sabbatical Reading

  • Humble Roots (Hannah Anderson)
  • Tech Wise Family (Andy Crouch)
  • Liturgy of the Ordinary (Tish Warren)
  • Keeping Place (Jen Pollock Michel)
  • Kristin Lavransdatter Trilogy: The Wreath, The Wife, The Cross (Sigrid Unset)
  • Essays After Eighty (Donald Hall)
  • Paris to the Moon (Adam Gopnik)
  • All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr)
  • Hillbilly Elegy (JD Vance)
  • Godric (Frederick Beuchner)
  • Life Is a Miracle (Wendell Berry)
  • Sacramental Preaching (Hans Boersma)
  • Signposts in a Strange Land (Walker Percy)
  • Orphan Train (Christina Baker Kline)
  • Abide with Me (Elizabeth Strout)
  • Reading for Preaching (Cornelius Plantinga)
  • Speak What You Feel (Frederick Buechner)
  • Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (Karl Barth)
  • Preaching (Tim Keller)
  • Empire Falls (Richard Russo)
  • Olive Kitteridge (Elizabeth Strout)
  • The Underground Railroad (Colson Whitehead)
  • The Country of the Pointed Firs (Sarah Orne Jewett)
  • Habits of Grace (David Mathis)
  • Our Town (Thorton Wilder)
  • Silence (Shusaku Endo)
  • King Lear (William Shakespeare)
  • Collected Poems (T.S. Eliot)
  • Watership Down (Richard Adams)