200 books in a year, part 2 (my top 10)

They say that variety is the spice of life. For those who only read one or two books a year, it might be hard to imagine reading more. I think part of what limits our imagination is the books we HAVE read. If they were stale or slow, we tend to think all books will be like that. I can not read leadership books all the time. I get bored with history or biography. Sometimes I just don’t have the stomach for Christian books, and sometimes I just need to read some kind of science fiction.

This year for example, I read everything from Rob Sheffield’s quirky look at the dynamics of growing up in the 80’s called, Talking to Girls about Duran Duran, to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ deeply vulnerable and unsettling memoir, Between the World of You and Me. I read books from the breadth of human experience, finding wonder in the empirical and the mystical, from science, like The Clockwork Universe, and The Perfect Theory, to the deeply mystical, like The Cloud of Unknowing.

44 of the books I read were fiction,

34 were Christian,

41 were related to business,

30 books were either history, biography or memoir,

37 delved into the mind and psychology,

and then there are a few that are hard to categorize.

I have attached the full list at the bottom, but perhaps the most pressing question I am asked, is which ones were the best.

Of course, that is somewhat subjective. Some books like the little book on the leadership style of Billy Graham, called Leading With Love, caught me at a time when I was feeling more than a little cynical about leaders in the church and their lack of longevity. Because of that timing, the book really moved me.

Or a book like Winston Groom’s The Aviators which I really loved perhaps because of my ongoing fascination with my grandfather and therefore all World War II era pilots.

Or reading again C.S. Lewis’ Surprised By Joy, which is simply a masterpiece and if it were not already common knowledge, would certainly make my list.

Other books like The Blooding by Joseph Wambaugh, which was undeniably unique and riveting, if a little disturbing, didn’t make the list because of my own prudishness. In other words, I don’t recommend it for equally subjective reasons against.

All to say, the following list reflect my very personal, subjective and contextualized top 10 recommendations from the 200 books I read this year. (These are only listed in the order I read them and not by quality).

So here you go.

There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz. Decades after it was written, this immersion into the lives of the families and children growing up in government housing projects, is still one of the most poignant and truthful looks at the realities of urban poverty. I would make it required reading for anyone wanting to understand those realities.

The Furious Longing of God by Brennan Manning. A blunt force trauma to our insecurities and the voice of inferiority in all of us, I found this to be Brennan Manning’s most potent work. This little book is inordinately powerful, taking on some of our deepest struggles, asserting the fantastical theological idea of the love of God in a way that won’t take no for an answer.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson. I am a real Jon Ronson fan. I think his curiosity, open hearted, is contagious. Using those investigative tools, he takes a painful and truthful look at the punitive nature of social media, the new arena of public shame and the problems it is creating. It is a cautionary tale and I really believe anyone who is on social media should read this book.

Where Good Ideas Come From, by Steven Johnson. For those of us curious and captivated by the creative process, this vast and enthralling history of innovation is one of a kind. I am personally always fascinated by how ideas come to life and how things change. For me, the applications for social change are astronomically important.

Holacracy: The New Management System for a Rapidly Changing World by Brian Robertson. This book deserves to be recommended strictly on its novelty. I don’t know of anyone who is offering such a wholesale alternative to our entrenched leadership and management systems. Robertson, give words to the angst and intuition hundreds of us feel interacting with typical org charts. In a surprising twist, he actually offers, not just critique or micro change, but a comprehensive alternative. I wasn’t convinced that it would completely work, but I absolutely loved considering it.

You and Me Forever: Marriage in Light of Eternity by Francis and Lisa Chan. I loved this book so much. It is supposed to be a book on marriage but was really a book about God. It is really the first book I have read on marriage which makes marriage less important not more. The Chan’s make such a sincere and prophetic call be disciples first, and that living for Jesus is actually the best thing a couple can do for their marriage. It is, to date, the only book on marriage I would recommend.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. Devastating reading. There are those books or experiences that open up a world to you, particularly an underworld of injustice or bias. This book does that for the criminal justice system. The perspective of Stevenson is both fair and fierce as he speaks about what he knows and what he has seen first hand. There is blood, sweat and tears in these pages, and it is not only the struggle for justice that moved me, but the man who has done the struggling.

The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help by Amanda Palmer. Of course I am a Christian, but reading books written by people who do not share my perspective is not just important, it is holy. I often disagree, but occasionally I find someone who is telling their story so honestly and with such an open heart, that I have to honor that. Brash and bold, and perhaps a little too comfortable with public nudity, Amanda Palmer is nevertheless full of a kind of truthfulness and vulnerability that is beautiful to read. I learned a lot from listening, not just to her insights about asking for help, but in how to tell our stories.

Exponential Organizations: Why new organizations are ten times better, faster, and cheaper than yours (and what to do about it) by Salim Ismail. Should be required reading for anyone who wants to grow an organization in this century. There are forces and realities at work that simply defy the thinking of the industrial complex. We know this intuitively but, as is usually the case, it takes us years to catch up to those changes, often as they are themselves waning. I found this really helpful in my thinking about the kingdom and my own non-profit organization. Instructive and inspiring.

A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix by Edwin Friedman. The best book I read this year and maybe even the last 5 years. These are Friedman’s insights into the dynamics of empathy, anxiety and decisiveness. We made it the subject of one of our podcasts. You can hear more of my thoughts on the book here.


Remember what it was like to be 6? The way you saw the world? The way you saw learning? Knowledge? Other people? First grade is a world of wonder, hope, expectation, innocence, humility and the love of knowledge. We are never stronger as learners. In the first grade, every day you learn something you did not previously know that will be essential to making the rest of your life in this world livable. It is in the first grade that we learn to read and write and do basic math, the essential pieces of human society. Literacy and computation.

In the end, this is why I read and why I encourage others to read, to hold on to that moment and cultivate it again and again in me.

First graders for life.

Here is the full list.

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