Reading List from 2020

Past reading lists: 2017 2018 2019

Total: 40

Non-fiction

  • The Household and the War for the Cosmos by C. R. Wiley – A follow-up to his other book on households, this one is also eyeopening. It introduces some passages from Xenophon’s Household Manager dialogue, which are relevant for a whole bunch of things.
  • Clean Code by Robert C. Martin – A must-read for every professional programmer, and probably a must-own. Several things clicked into place for me while reading this book and working through its examples.
  • Field Marshal: The Life and Death of Erwin Rommel by Daniel Allen Butler – An even-handed treatment of the Desert Fox, and a fun read. Men of principle are never perfect, and can still get swept up in the spell of someone like Hitler.
  • John for Everyone, Part 1 by N.T. Wright- I like commentaries that include the text itself, and this one is a quick read with some good insights.
  • Skin in the Game by Nassim Nicholas Taleb – Not sure why it took me so long to read this one, as Anti-fragile is one of my favorite books. This one is also excellent and thought-provoking while being entertaining at the same time.
  • Phaedo by Plato – An account of the last day in the life of Socrates, before he acquiesced gracefully to his own execution. The dialogue focuses on Socrates attempt to persuade these companions (and himself) of the immortality of the soul. One I will need to revisit from time to time.
  • Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield – A decent “kick in the pants” of good advice, but mostly a rehash from The War of Art. It also doubles down on the mystic Neo-platonism, which was a bit of a turn-off.
  • The Grace of Shame – An overview of how the church has failed homosexuals, usually as a result of cowardice in the face of cultural pressure. Some of the issues with modern translations around effeminacy were eye-opening.
  • Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug – a good primer or refresher on basic UX.
  • Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein – An enlightening book that doesn’t really have any hard lessons. The author presents you with examples and research and wants you to decide for yourself. I personally thought it was helpful, in terms of how people learn and how we harness creativity.
  • Content Strategy at Work by Margot Bloomstein – A good, rubber-meets-the-road intro to content strategy and the value it can bring to a project.
  • Impossible to Ignore by Carmen Simon – This should be required reading for anyone writing and presenting content. A dive into how memory works and how it persuades.
  • Churchill: Walking with Destiny by Andrew Roberts – The first biography of Churchill I’ve read, and this was a good portrait. Focused more on WW2 than any other time.
  • Traffic Secrets by Russell Brunson – The title sounds spammy, but this book is a great overview of how to get attention online. Most of the tips are evergreen, though he does dive into some specifics on a few platforms. I would recommend this book to any beginner on the topic, with minor quibbles.
  • A Failure of Nerve by Edwin Friedman – A summation of Friedman’s experience and work, this book is like looking at the code of the Matrix. Leadership is not about tools, but about navigating emotional processes and maintaining your own presence.
  • The Content Fuel Framework by Melanie Deziel – Better to skim. More of a lead generation for the author’s workshops, but some good prompts for brainstorming.
  • Tending the Heart of Virtue by Vigen Guroian – You will never look at fairy tales and fantasy the same way again. And you will look at the Disneyfication of them with disgust. Recommended for any parent or teacher.
  • Expert Secrets by Russell Brunson – All about storytelling and persuasion in selling. If you follow this, you will most certainly make money online. This is a resource to refer to often.

Fiction

  • Starsight by Brandon Sanderson – The sequel to Skyward, and much better. Now that’s he gotten a lot of the clunky world-building out of the way, he can start having more fun expanding the universe. And it is a lot of fun.
  • Emma by Jane Austen – This book had me chuckling from start to finish. Full of funny fools and great lessons.
  • All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque – A powerful, fictionalized account of the trenches in World War 1. Depressing to read, and it doesn’t offer much hope, and in that way, it felt a bit too self-important and indulgent. Still, I would recommend everyone read it at least once.
  • A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab – A fun read, but nothing groundbreaking. It didn’t make me want to rush out and read the sequel. Lilah Bard is grating at times, and she never seems to learn her lesson. Also, all of the really interesting minor characters are killed off way too quickly.
  • The Punch Escrow by Tal M. Klein – Not bad for a first novel. It has a good voice and is pretty fun to read. However, the world-building is hit or miss, anemic in some places, and it gets some blatant facts wrong about some popular Bible stories. For a book labeled “hard sci-fi,” it didn’t really live up to the label.
  • The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis – I can’t believe it has taken be this long to read this book, but of course I enjoyed it. Still relevant and insightful.
  • Persuasion by Jane Austen – This was in the running for being my favorite Austen book…until the last third. Still very, very good. It felt more modern than the others I have read.
  • Peace Talks by Jim Butcher – A fun read, as all Dresden Files books are, though this was one of the weaker installments. Some great scenes, but clearly a part 1, which is what we were told going in.
  • Battle Ground by Jim Butcher – Non-stop action with some great character moments. Butcher knows how to earn his really big scenes, and there are several in this book that took my breath away. Looking forward to seeing where the series goes from here.
  • Night Watch by Terry Pratchett – I’ve been wanting to read this one for a long time. It lived up to the hype. Some good metaphors to put in my commonplace book.

What I Read to the Kids

  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling – The kids loved the dragons. The climax, where Voldemort returns to power, contains some of Rowling’s best scenes, but the rest of the book shows some weakness. So…many…adverbs.
  • The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall – Delightful. It captures the days of summer while young, and why those days always loom so large. Fun characters.
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling – We did this one on audiobook because I remember it being long and a slog. And my memories served me well. The movie is much better than the book because the screenplay did what a good editor should have done to the book. Still fun, but much more of a grind than it needed to be.
  • The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis – This was my favorite of the Narnia books the first time I read them, and it remains my favorite.
  • The Reluctant Dragon by Kenneth Grahame – A short, fun book that plays with expected stereotypes.
  • Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper – I had always heard good things about The Dark is Rising series, and we finally started it. Lots of promise, though this one does suffer from some extra padding. This was the author’s first novel, however, so it can be forgiven.
  • The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper – This one fell a bit flat. The writing is evocative and beautiful, but it’s just a series of things that happens to Will, for no apparent rhyme or reason. He doesn’t seem to have any real agency and I almost never felt any tension.
  • The Apple and the Arrow by Mary and Conrad Buff – This one is clunky and inelegant, but it gets the job done. How many other children’s books out there are about the founding of Switzerland?
  • The Story of the Treasure Seekers by E. Nesbit – Delightful, and very British. Some laugh out loud moments, good lessons, and a happy ending.
  • On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness by Andrew Peterson – Decent for a first novel, but not tightly plotted. And it plays with the old conceit of the grown-ups hiding a secret from the kids, and that’s what everything else swirls around, which I found a bit lazy. We’ll see if it gets better because the kids enjoyed it. It can trigger some good conversations.
  • Give Me Liberty by L. M. Elliott – This book is a great conversation starter. It takes place on the cusp of the American Revolution with the viewpoint character being a 13-year old indentured servant. Thoroughly researched, tt raises good questions without demonizing the founders. A lot of the big names of the revolution make a cameo at some point.
  • North! Or Be Eaten by Andrew Peterson – The second book in The Wingfeather Saga, and it was much better than the first book. Still some rough edges but the plotting was tighter, the author didn’t overwhelm with irrelevant footnotes, and the lore of the world has started to round out.

Book Review: The Four: A Survey of the Gospels

I can say, without any exaggeration, that Peter Leithart’s A House for My Name is a book that helped change my life. Its a whirlwind tour of the Old Testement, and such a good introduction to looking at the Bible with new eyes, that it will make you want to sit down at a table and do something strange: just read Scripture for the pure enjoyment of it.

And if you are one of the Christians who think the majority of the Bible is just a collection of moralistic stories (some cool, some boring), genealogies, and archaic building instructions with nothing beyond the immediate surface, that book will string you up by your ankles…and swing you around until you don’t know up from left from north. I would say it encourages you to go further down the rabbit whole, but that would clearly be going in the wrong direction. Rather, it encourages you to take another step up the mountain, beyond the tame foothills.

The Four: A Survey of the Gospels is (sort-of) the direct follow-up. He gives the gospels a similar, though more varied, treatment. Each Gospel gets its own chapter, which seems absurd. Any one of the Gospels can, and has, inspired books upon books upon books. But Leithart’s book is exactly what it claims to be: a survey. While not meant to be exhaustive, each chapter offers a clear invitation to dig deeper, to study and meditate more. Leithart also identifies a theme or thread that runs underneath each Gospel.

The Meat of the Book

Matthew: Righteousness That Surpasses the Scribes. Jesus is the fulfillment and the true interpreter of the Law. He is the new lawgiver, the new Moses, the living embodiment of Israel.

Mark: The Way of the Son of Man. Jesus is a man of action, always on the move. Jesus is the strong man, taking the battle to Satan and his demons.

Luke: A Table for the Poor. Jesus came to bring good news to the poor. He eats with sinners, moving from one meal to another. Jesus proclaims a true Sabbath.

John: Seeing the Father. Jesus is the Son. Jesus is the one born of the Spirit. Jesus does only what he sees his Father doing. The Father is revealed by his Word.

While each portrait has something interesting to say, my favorite to read were the chapters on Mark and Luke. In Mark, Leithart points to some examples of subtle irony that make the Pharisees look even worse than they did before, and even in some cases has the disciples looking even more confused than they had before. But the chapter ends with two questions: “Are we not as blind as the disciples about Jesus, the stronger man? Would we recognize Jesus as Son of God as He’s dying in anguish?”

With Luke, Leithart treats both the Gospel and Acts as a single volume, and that perspective offers some thought-provoking questions. Luke spends much time on the journey to Jerusalem, while Acts moves outward from Jerusalem.Some themes are left hanging, only to be completed in the second book, and there are many other parallels. It also suggests that the Jews not only have Jesus as a witness against them, but the apostles. The hardening of the Jews and their rejection of Jesus doesn’t come to completion until they also reject the apostles of Jesus. The structure of Acts also has both Peter and Paul repeating the pattern of the life of Jesus.

This will make it very hard in the future for me to study Acts as a self-contained book without making it also a study of Luke.

Each section is appended with a series of questions, which is the same format Leithart took advantage of in A House for My Name. The first sets of questions are “review questions,” which ask basic questions about the section you just read. To find the answer to these questions, you simply need to pay attention while reading. The second sets of questions are “thought questions,” and this is where you try and workout your own Biblical thought processes. Be sure and stretch first, however, because many of these have the potential to cause a sprain.

These thought questions force you down some helpful paths, offering tantalizing hints. Many would be great to kick-start a discussion in a group setting or other Bible study. Many could also be used as the premise of an entire essay. Don’t skip them. They are worth thinking about.

My only issue with them is that some of them seem so obtuse to those of us who are not as learned as Leithart. They feel like they are pointing you to a raging river with no bridge. Or maybe pointing at some tower in the distance, hidden with fog, with no obvious path on which to proceed. The way looks insurmountable.  I wish the author had answered some of these harder questions himself, or at least offered some more hints. Undoubtedly, some of them are answered in some of his other books, but it would be nice to know which ones.

Here are examples of some of the more accessible thought questions:

  • Why is it important that Jesus turns water to wine at a wedding? See John 4:27-29.
  • Compare the early chapters of Acts to the early chapters of Joshua. How are they similar? Why?
  • Mark mentions that there are wild beasts in the wilderness where Jesus is tempted. Why?

Going Meta with the Gospels

Before Leithart even gets to the main event of the book, however, he opens with a series of introductory chapters, which help prepare for what is to come, and gives some much-need history lessons and context. The second chapter is essentially a summary of the NT Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God, and Leithart readily admits this in the footnotes. This was helpful, as it has been over six years since I’ve read any of Wright’s tomes, and things have gotten jumbled and layered with other books and experiences. It was a welcome review.

However, I can see it being jarring for those who have not at least dipped their toe in Wright’s views. While Wright builds his case bit by heavily-footnoted bit, gradually drawing you into the world of the first century, Leithart races through at a speed that could cause some awkward tripping. The pace is unavoidable in a book like this, but it is a slight negative.

To resolve it, just go and read Jesus and the Victory of God already. What’s taken you so long?

Another preliminary chapter has to do with the “synoptic problem” and dating the Gospels (and by good and necessary consequence, the rest of the New Testament). Regardless of what Leithart himself says about the chapter (that it is more technical and can be safely skipped or skimmed), you should read it. It summarizes some recent scholarship and offers some ammo in accepting an early date for the entire canon. How early? At least four years before 70 AD, the destruction of Jerusalem.

Overall, this is a great book. It makes you want to read the Gospels again, and with more attention than you have before. It also offers the teacher many springboards from which to jump from, both for general direction of the class or sermon itself, but also in discussion questions to engage participants.

Verdict: Buy.

This is on a simple scale of three: don’t read, borrow, or buy.