In May, I challenged myself to read 30 books by the end of the year. Maybe a little foolhardy and ambitious, given that I don’t often buy books less than 500 pages long (that’s not a brag—books are expensive and I like stretching my dollar). And I’m not a particularly fast reader. Right now, I’m at 25 books with 1 day to go, with 5 thin and easy-to-devour books at my side.

All the same, I read some great stuff this year, and I’d like to share some of it with you!

#5. Making Things Right by Ole Thorstensen

Combine Mike Rowe’s passion for trade careers and the meditative observations of Stephen King in On Writing, and you’ll have an approximation of Making Things Right. Thorstensen is a master carpenter in Norway who recounts six months of his year where he remodels a family’s attic into a living space.

However, what might be a dry ply-by-ply account of a construction job becomes a tribute to the singular beauty of working with your hands. He describes, with genuine affection, the process of planning a job, gathering materials, and executing work. For people who don’t understand the craft and art of construction, this book is a great way to develop a healthy appreciation for carpentry and other trades.

One of my favorite things I learned from Ole are Norwegian folk sayings. Here’s one about how mistakes tend to compound on one another during a job:

“When the mistake from the valley meets the mistake from the village at the dance, there will be trouble.”

Norwegian proverb

I imagine that’s a little snappier in Norwegian, but I like it in English all the same.

#4. Simple Rules by Donald Sull & Kathleen Eisenhardt

Historians believe that, in Roman times, it took hundreds of years for the cumulative information recorded by humans to double. Today, the information recorded by humans doubles every few hours. There is an insane amount of data flying around at all times, making it harder for us to make decisions based on relevant data. We mistakenly think that dealing with increasingly complex factors means we need increasingly complex ways of thinking about the data.

Simple Rules offers an alternative theory—that the only way to deal with complex data is to create simple models to filter the endless information down to the most relevant pieces. Since I’ve read this, I’ve focused on making my own decisions based on simple rules, helping me become more decisive and clear-minded. Definitely worth a read.

#3. Misreading Scripture Through Western Eyes by E. Randolph Richards & Brandon J. O’Brien

One of my prevailing passions over the last few years has been developing what I call a “decolonized faith.” Christianity in America has been warped by its marriage to capitalism, individualism, and Western focus on self-satisfaction. While all Christians are informed by the culture they’re raised in, I think Western Christianity has been molded with imperial goals for so long that we’ve forgotten the truth of how Christianity began.

Christianity began as a faith that undercut and subverted the goals of the Empire—what happens when Christianity becomes the religion of the Empire?

Misreading Scripture Through Western Eyes is the tool that helped me understand the biases and prejudices I bring to my reading of my own faith. The book has shaped the way I read the gospels, helping me understand my place and refocus my gaze toward what Christ was concerned with.

#2. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth Bailey

If the previous entry on this list was what helped tear down my biases, then Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes was what helped me rebuild in their place. Bailey was a student and teacher in the Middle East for 40 years, reading Arabic, East Asian, and African theologians alongside the Western canon. His understanding of the gospels was more global, generous, and deeply humble than any Christian writer I’ve ever read.

One of my favorite lessons from Bailey is this: our understanding of scripture must always be open to refinement—tentatively final. Obedience is immediate, but learning is ongoing.

My blog “The Generosity of Needing Someone Else’s Help” was largely based on his essays about Jesus. His ability to strip away Western assumptions about what Jesus meant and fill the gospels with rich descriptions of ancient Palestinian life, tradition, and cultural understanding made the gospels come alive in a way that was both deeply fresh and strangely familiar.

I cannot recommend this book enough. Here’s one of my favorite passages:

“Christians are called to be faithful, not successful—and obedience is more important than production.”

Kenneth Bailey

#1. Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace

I had a fairly narrow idea of what an essay could be until I read Wallace. His ability to bring tenderness and humanity to a medium for scathing take-downs changed how I saw criticism. Whatever his flaws (and he has plenty of valid critics), his essays are moving, even when they don’t need to be.

In a review of a usage dictionary—a *dictionary—*Wallace talks about the necessity and difficulty of nurturing a “democratic spirit,” and it’s been in my head ever since:

“A Democratic Spirit is one that combines rigor and humility, i.e., passionate conviction plus a sedulous respect for the convictions of others…You have to be willing to look honestly at yourself and at your motives for believing what you believe, and to do it more or less continually…it is indisputably easier to be Dogmatic than Democratic.”

David Foster Wallace, “Authority and American Usage”

He doesn’t offer a solution for today’s deeply polarized climate, but he foresaw it in a lot of ways. When I enter any discussion, I temper myself with his words and examine myself as closely as I can. My convictions are no cooler, but at the very least I am a gentler person for having read his work. That alone is worth the price of admission.

And what’s the point of reading but to fatten our souls, to make our spirits more whole and generous, and to ennoble the best in us?

Happy New Year to you all!

5 books that made 2018 better