This year I’ve read a bunch of books. Not as many as when I was researching for my own book in 2014/15, or in previous years when I was enrolled as a student somewhere or other, but still a fair few. Some were older and others were brand new. Here are five of my favorites:
Best Fiction Book: The Plot Against America by Philip Roth (2005)
In a year when Western politics took an eerily 1930s turn into xenophobic and isolationist nationalism, Philip Roth’s book is even more relevant now than it was when first published. It tells the story of a Jewish family living in Newark during an alternate version of US history where Nazi-sympathizer Charles Lindbergh – rather than Franklin Roosevelt – wins the 1940 Presidential Election. Roth’s narrative never feels anything other than plausible and grabs you from the first page. The first few chapters are especially haunting as they feel like a foretelling of the rise of Donald Trump. A great choice if you want a book which pulls you into another world and also makes you think about current and historical events in a new light.
Best Book on Contemporary Issues: Flourishing by Miroslav Volf (2016)
Miroslav Volf is a Croatian intellectual who witnessed genocide and experienced persecution in his home nation. He has since become a globally-recognized voice on questions about religion, violence, the relevance of the Christian faith for today. Long-admired for his academic works of theology, Volf gained wider recognition after co-teaching a class with Tony Blair at Yale University (where Volf is a professor) and he has now assumed the role of a “public theologian” – someone who writes for a thinking popular audience of both skeptics and believers (and those in-between) and invites everyone to reconsider their presuppositions about the world. Flourishing is by far my favorite Volf book to date. It argues that religion is – contrary to popular assumptions – integral to the flourishing of humanity. I would suggest that all my friends – whatever their religious or non-religious convictions – take look at this one and see what thoughts it provokes.
Best Book on Communication: TED Talks by Chris Anderson (2016)
This is a book full of practical advice on preparing great public presentations. The author, Chris Anderson, founded the TED Talks and draws on his vast experience to offer tips on everything from structure and content through to visuals and wardrobe choices. I liked the book so much I was reading a chapter a day (so as to absorb it slowly) and then sending WhatsApp messages to younger communicators I am mentoring with screenshots of the best quotes and passages, along with my summaries and thoughts on that days reading. TED Talks can be a bit sterile and samey after you’ve seen a number of them. But – to quote a friend – if you want to think outside the box, then you first need a box, and this book is a pretty good box for communicators to slide into for inspiration and direction.
Best Theology Book: The Crucifixion by Fleming Rutledge
Just a brilliant book for those seeking a fresh understanding of Jesus’ death and its relevance for today. Escapes all the cliches and vividly brings home both the horror and shame of the crucifixion (early Christians were mocked for following a crucified man) and also explores contemporary issues like injustice and genocide – as well as more personal everyday realities – to give the reader a sense of why Jesus died and what might be the significance of his death for the realities of our world today. Rutledge, a parish priest as well as an academic, constantly asks “can it preach?” and wants the cross to grab people’s imaginations and reorient their lives. Best for those with a bit of theological reading under their belts already, but I wouldn’t necessarily dissuade others from giving it a go.
Best Comic Book: The Amazing Spider-Man Omnibus Volume 1 by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko (2007)
This is a masonry slab of a book. Over one-thousand pages of beautiful glossy color pages covering the first three years of Spider-Man’s comic book career. Most of the major villains are introduced and reintroduced. The stories are more linear and less overwhelmingly gritty than superhero comics later became. Peter Parker’s early adventures are just fun and it will take some time for you to get through the whole volume. If you can afford it (I received it as a gift; it can cost up to £75) then you’ll get your money’s worth from your investment.