At the start of 2016 I set myself a goal: I wanted to read 25 books in that year.
The funny thing about this goal is its either easy or impossible, depending on your starting point. I’ve friends who’ve admitted reading three books would be a challenge for them. Others have read 100 books this year and think nothing of it.
For me, 25 books was a real challenge – not easy, but not impossible. Ultimately the number is irrelevant. For me the important thing is that we’re all reading something!
I had four main reasons for taking on this challenge:
1. To learn
There comes a point in most people’s lives where learning goes from being boring and something forced upon you (think: school) to something interesting and exciting (think: meeting someone new and asking them questions). Unfortunately books remained in this former category a little longer than I would have liked them too. I have some catching up to do.
2. To make me a better writer
The best writers are readers. It’s an indisputable fact.
3.To force my attention span to widen
I’m one of many who is concerned about the downsides of the web and what the online world is doing to us, especially when it comes to attention spans. Millennials like me find it hard to read a book without wanting to check their phone after every few pages. I wanted to force myself to concentrate on one thing at a time. Reading a book is a good way to do that.
4. To expand my horizons
I wanted to read widely. I’ve partially succeeded in this and GoodReads has been an excellent tool in helping me to track what I’ve read. Also, as someone else has remarked, the social network has been a real haven away from the nastiness of other sites this year.
This year I’ve managed to read 40 books.
Here they are, in the order I read them (beginning in January and ending in December).
1. All Is Grace – Brennan Manning
Why did I read it? Because I’ve heard so much about this man but never read anything by him.
What did I learn? That God’s grace is scandalous.
2. Martyn Lloyd-Jones – Christopher Catherwood
Why did I read it? Because some of my friends love this preacher, and I was intrigued to hear more about his life.
What did I learn? That if I can’t back up my theological claims with relevant verses from the Bible, I’m wasting your time (There’s a great anecdote about Lloyd Jones allowing various opinions in Bible Study sessions – but insisting each one must be backed up by Scripture. I’m amazed at how so many of us state ideas as if they’re the whole truth without really considering how the Bible informs that part of our theology).
3. On Writing – Stephen King
Why did I read it? Because everyone who wants to be a better writer reads this book
What did I learn? This book is amazing, and should be read by every writer regardless of genre
4. The Heaven Promise – Scot McKnight
Why did I read it? Because I was hoping for fresh insights about what heaven will be like.
What did I learn? Very little. If you’ve been a Christian and been around church for any period of time, you’ve probably heard most of this before.
5. How to be here – Rob Bell
Why did I read it? Because despite having some deep disagreements with Bell, he’s still one of the most interesting thinkers around, and I can’t help but like the guy.
What did I learn? Nothing immediately life changing. But plenty of good principles and things to mull over. A great self help book for people who don’t like self help books.
6. The News – Alain De Botton
Why did I read it? Because it seemed like a good idea to think deeply about a topic that effects all of our lives on a day-to-day basis. Oh, and I’m a journalist.
What did I learn? That De Botton has some wild ideas, some silly ideas and some fascinating ideas. None of which I can really remember. Like a lot of philosophy – its interesting to mull over. But it won’t change your life.
7. People to be loved – Preston Sprinkle
Why did I read it? Because I’d been enjoying Theology in the Raw (Preston’s podcast which I discovered this year) and love his approach to theology in general. I also thought this was the best title for a book on homosexuality and Christianity that I’d seen.
What did I learn? That this isn’t a simple subject or issue. There aren’t easy answers. And building bridges, reaching out and loving the gay community should be a high priority for any Christian.
8. An astronaut’s guide to life on earth – Chris Hadfield
Why did I read it? My brother bought it for me for Christmas.
What did I learn? What it’s like to live in space, and why everyone says Hadfield would be a great guy to go for a drink with (fascinating, likable, knowledgeable, friendly, humble, HE’S AN ASTRONAUT etc)
9. Where I’m reading from – Tim Parks
Why did I read it? The blurb posed some really interesting questions about the future of reading and books.
What did I learn? That blurbs can be misleading and writers can be both pretentious and dull.
10. Reasons to stay alive – Matt Haig
Why did I read it? Because everyone was talking about how amazing it was and I loved the title.
What did I learn? There are many reasons to stay alive. Also how to understand (and perhaps how to help) those battling depression / mental health problems.
11. The Road – Cormac McCarthy
Why did I read it? I enjoyed the film and was told the book was better.
What did I learn? Sometimes the films are better than the books.
12. Habits of Grace – David Mathis
Why did I read it? Because – to my horror – I realised I’d never read a book on spiritual disciplines before.
What did I learn? That the spiritual disciplines were worth engaging with and would bring me joy. This is an intensely practical but also uplifting book.
13. What I talk about when I talk about running – Haruki Murakami
Why did I read it? Because it was short, on a subject I’m interested in and I’d been told to read the author. So it ticked all the boxes!
What did I learn? That if you read this book, it will inspire you to run. (Seriously, it fueled my training in a really remarkable way)
Rating? 5/5 – Ever feel like a book was written just for you?
14. The gift of the Jews – Thomas Cahill
Why did I read it? The aforementioned Rob Bell recommended it, and I wanted to read something on the historical/cultural background to the Bible
What did I learn? So so much about the context of the Old Testament. I will definitely be re-visiting this title.
15. Be Equipped – Warren W. Wiersbe
Why did I read it? It was a free download on Kindle and I figured I could work it into my morning devotionals
What did I learn? That there’s a reason Wiersbe has sold so many commentaries! His books are certainly practical and helpful.
16. Notes from a small island – Bill Bryson
Why did I read it? Because it’s one of those books everyone bangs on about. Plus I realised I hadn’t read anything even vaguely funny all year and it was now June!
What did I learn? Sometimes books do live up to the hype. It aged better than I expected.
17. And the lamb wins – Simon Ponsonby
Why did I read it? Because I’m a big fan of Simon Ponsonby and wanted to understand how Israel fits into his view of the end times
What did I learn? That I really need to do some more reading on the subject of eschatology and figure out what I think for myself (this is no criticism of Simon. This is a very good book, but for me it can only really be a starting point)
18. Waking Up: How I found my faith by losing it
Why did I read it? Because I’ve devoured Dekker’s fiction, so was intrigued to read some of his non fiction.
What did I learn? There’s a reason this book was free. It serves as a lengthy advertisement for another product. But it was good.
19. My Trade: A short history of British journalism – Andrew Marr
Why did I read it? It’s been 5 years since I was studying journalism and I hadn’t read anything about its history since then. So I figured it was time for a refresher. Plus I wanted to find out more about Andrew Marr.
What did I learn? Andrew Marr’s personal story and thoughts on the industry are much more interesting than the history he writes about. Nevertheless I’ve a new found respect for the British industry and Andrew himself.
20. Unapologetic – Francis Spufford
Why did I read it? The world and his dog had recommended it to me in 2012. So I thought it was about time…
What did I learn? That “the human propensity to f*** things up” is an excellent definition of sin, Spufford is an excellent writer, and the emotional case for Christianity is probably even more compelling than the rational one. I’d recommend this to anyone who wants to understand why intelligent people can be Christians!
21. Letting love win – Mohammed Fyaz
Why did I read it? I was due to interview the author. So this was for research purposes.
What did I learn? Sometimes authors cancel interviews. If you didn’t enjoy the book, you feel cheated out of your time. If you did enjoy the book (and in this case I did) it’s not so bad…For what its worth I’m told this book will be released in early 2017.
22. Living in the light: Money, sex & power – John Piper
Why did I read this? I’m not sure
What did I learn? I’m not sure
23. The woman next door – Cass Green
Why did I read this? It was August and this looked like the ideal summer novel
What did I learn? Nothing. It was great!
24. Falling Upward – Richard Rohr
Why did I read this? It’s by Richard Rohr, need I say more?
What did I learn? There are two halves to the spiritual life and you really need to be in the second half. Unfortunately I’m not there. But this book made me want to be.
25. Desire of the everlasting Hills – Thomas Cahill
Why did I read this? Was hoping for more of the same after reading no. 14.
What did I learn? Far more than I could write here. Like Cahill’s other book, I’ll be revisiting this.
26. The sister – Louise Jensen
Why did I read this? I’m a sucker for a good psychological thriller
What did I learn? I’m still a sucker for a good psychological thriller
27. Tony & Susan – Austin Wright
Why did I read this? It had good reviews, plus the film version “Nocturnal Animals” was coming out and I wanted to read the book before.
What did I learn? The story within the story was excellent. But the main thrust of the book did little for me. The film was better!
28. Making sense of God: An invitation to the skeptical – Tim Keller
Why did I read this? It was billed as the prequel to The Reason for God and I’ve nothing but respect for Tim Keller, so was eager to read this.
What did I learn? Keller is remarkably persuasive and gifted. If I could retain even 1% of this book’s arguments and use them in general conversation, I’d be happy.
29. Before I go to sleep – SJ Watson
Why did I read this? Liked the look of it.
What did I learn? It’s a great story with gripped writing. Lived up to my high expectations.
30. How to like Paul again – Conrad Gempf
Why did I read this? A lot of people had recommended it since the book was first published in 2013. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about…
What did I learn? How to read Paul in context. Sounds pretty standard. It’s not. This book blew me away – probably one of the most helpful books I’ve read all year. And plenty of humour along the way to keep you going.
31. Never Go Back – Lee Child
Why did I read this? I liked the last Jack Reacher book I read (One Shot) and wanted to read this before the film came out
What did I learn? The books are better than the films. But the films are getting better…
32. Keep You Close – Lucie Whitehouse
Why did I read this? Wanted a psychological thriller to devour while on holiday
What did I learn? Never believe anyone who tells you a book is ‘the next Gone Girl’. It isn’t.
33. Eat This Book – Eugene Peterson
What did I learn? Most of the book was a struggle, but the latter chapters were interesting. It made me change my mind about thought-for-thought translations (I’m now far more in favour of them than I was previously).
34. The Confession – John Grisham
Why did I read this? It was recommended to me as a ‘must read’
What did I learn? That a work of fiction can dramatically change your opinion on a real-world issue, even thought the plot and characters are made up. (In this case, the death penalty)
35. The Divine Dance – Richard Rohr
Why did I read this? It’s written by Richard Rohr…
What did I learn? That Rohr continues to be a totally mixed bag of heresy and error, and beautiful, challenging theology. I’ve read a few books by him. He always makes me think, but that’s about it if I’m honest.
36. Fup – Jim Dodge
Why did I read this? It was billed as a modern fable, and was short. With good reviews, I was intrigued
What did I learn? That no matter how hard you try, sometimes you just don’t ‘get’ a book. This felt like a colossal waste of my time.
37. Spectacles – Sue Perkins
Why did I read this? It was 99p on Kindle…
What did I learn? That Sue Perkins is hilarious, and a really good writer. Also – that there’s no way her life was this funny. Huge parts must be embellished or made up!
38. Missing, Presumed – Susie Steiner
Why did I read this? It looked like a great new novel
What did I learn? It’s refreshing to read a decidedly British novel. But this wasn’t as great as I’d hoped it would be. It’s a 400 page novel that should and could have been easily condensed to 250 pages.
39. The New Christian Zionism – Various (edited by Gerald R. McDermott)
Why did I read this? Because I was fed up with weak theological arguments from Christian Zionists and wanted something stronger, from an academic background that stood up to scrutiny, and importantly, that didn’t over-reach politically.
What did I learn? So far (nearly finished!) it’s exactly what I’d hoped: There is a strong theological case to be made for a (non dispensationalist) form of Christian Zionism. But this must be properly understood and nuanced. This book is a very helpful introduction to doing this.
40. My Rock My Refuge – Tim Keller
Why did I read this? I’ve tended to struggle with devotional plans which require you to read something every day without fail. But this grabbed my attention as it only requires 1 page per day (even I can manage that!). My knowledge of the Psalms aren’t great – so that was another reason. Finally – these plans integrate scripture, meditation and prayer.
What did I learn? The Psalms are repetitive (and they need to be). Keller is less so – to his amazing credit. I found myself being regularly encouraged and envisioned by this material.
Looking back I’m delighted I smashed the target. But I am challenged by one of my favourite CS Lewis quotes: “It is a good rule after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between…If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.”
Why did Lewis prescribe this? Not because older books are inherently better. But because if you can still get hold of the old book and if people are still talking about it, it is much more likely to be good. I think there’s real truth in thinking about books in this way. So in 2017 I will try and read more old books. (As you can see, I struggled to read a lot of old material in 2016)
The other major change is that in 2017 I will be aiming to read 50 books. I want to read more widely than I did this year. I’ve been inspired by Tim Challies’ reading challenge so I’m tempted to adapt his plan of reading books in certain categories in 2017. Watch this space…