Late last year, I saw some professors and students posting on social media about the number of books they had read in 2020. I had never tried to track the number of books I had read in a year, so I decided for the year of 2021 to list the number of books I read. I had only two ground rules:
Only books I read for the first time count. No repeat reads.
Only whole books count. No selections, chapters, journal articles, etc.
With those ground rules, I read 17 books last year. Tracking the number of books I read last year was helpful for three reasons. First, it gave me a convenient way to track books that I enjoyed reading and to reflect on their impact on my thinking. Second, it gave me a good benchmark to start from in improving my reading habits. Third, it helped me keep up with regular reading throughout the year and, in that sense, likely improved me reading just in tracking the books I read.
But why read books in the first place? Whether or not you strive to academia, the regular reading of books is important for several reasons. Chief among them is the fact that we are formed by the reading of books, both old and new. Reading old books helps us to gain a perspective outside our own limited, contemporary perspective. It helps to see a world and context outside of our world and context. In fact, so important was reading old books to C.S. Lewis that he remarks in his preface to an edition of Athanasius' On the Incarnation (one of the books I read this year):
"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."
So, good books form us, and good old books are especially important. I decided, then, to do something with this list of books and simply share the five from the list that I found most impactful. For each book in this list, I'll share a short summary and description of why I found the book impactful. The books are not listed in any particular order.
Last semester, I took a class called "History of Western Philosophy." As the name of the course suggests, the class was an overview of Western philosophy from pre-Socratic philosophy, going as far back as the 6th century B.C., to contemporary analytic and continental philosophy. I was excited for this class because I had felt that one of the biggest gaps in my philosophical education until that point had been in history of philosophy, and this course didn't disappoint. Neither did its main textbook.
For many years, the definitive history of Western philosophy was Frederick Copleston's History of Philosophy, a massive 16-volume history that is now hard to find, given the fact that it has been out of print for many years. Anthony Kenny's newer A New History of Western Philosophy (pun intended) is a 4-volume history that many consider to be the best work of its kind since Copleston's. An Illustrated Brief History of Western Philosophy is the shortened version of that larger work.
Aside from the great satisfaction I gained from getting an overview of western philosophy, I was impressed by Kenny's ability to succinctly explain complex philosophical ideas in accessible language. When I came across an idea that I was unfamiliar with, his succinct explanations helped me to quickly get to the gist of what he was discussing. Sometimes, we respect an author not just for his ideas but for the virtues exemplified in his work. Kenny's virtues as a writer include his ability to write in a way that displayed both erudition and a sensitivity to the expertise (or lack thereof) of the reader. The ideas he discussed were never dumbed down, but they weren't lost in useless jargon.
I couldn't believe that I had gotten through college without reading one of Plato's most important philosophical works. I decided to rectify this during the summer of 2021 and didn't regret it. Though Plato's seminal work in political philosophy is sometimes hard to get through, it is a fascinating and enriching read, if not a somewhat disturbing one at times.
In The Republic, Plato has Socrates interacting with several interlocutors concerning a variety of questions under the umbrella of a more fundamental question: what is justice? His answer is one that anyone today would agree is unfamiliar: justice is the state of a polis or society in which all of the various members of the society have the role that fits the innate abilities of their souls. These innate abilities must be identified, categorized, and cultivated, and what forms is a kind of caste system at the top of which are the "guardians," the citizens who govern the polis. Their education is a strict regiment involving athletic training, mathematics and philosophy. Plato's ideal polis is one in which harmony is found when every individual is in his or her rightful place.
Perhaps the most brilliant section of The Republic, however, is Plato's explanation of the five types of government: the aristocracy, timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny. His explanations of these governments and how one deteriorates into another (leading eventually to tyranny) dovetails neatly with an early psychology whose insights we can still see today reflected in, for instance, the work of Sigmund Freud. His account of how an oligarchy (a form of government in which the polis is ruled by a small group of the super-rich) deteriorates into a democracy (a form of government characterized by equality and mob rule) is eerily close reminiscent of the work of Marx millennia later. It's astounding how timeless this book is. It is brilliant, insightful, and disturbing.
Robert Louis Stevenson
Given that this was one of the only pieces of fiction I read the entire year, I thought it inappropriate not to mention The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But I didn't add this book out of pity. Stevenson's morality tale is a classic for a reason. It is a gripping mystery whose revelation - that the honorable Dr, Jekyll is the vile Mr. Hyde - will send shivers up your spine. It is disturbing to consider that Dr. Jekyll, whose physical form was rendered unrecognizable because of a potion, would occasionally use this anonymity to engage in some hedonistic pursuits. It's more chilling to consider how his repeated participation had made his twisted countenance permanent, forever distorting his figure and forcing him into a life of isolation. It ought to cause us to tremble and cry out to God when we realize that we are all susceptible to the same twisted fate.
What makes Stevenson's short novella so compelling is its connection with human experience. As we're all aware, something within us compels us to act in heinous ways, ways that throw to the side the personal dignity of others for our own selfish gratification. The Apostle Paul describes this "thing" within us the flesh, and it is defeated at the cross of Christ along with sin and death. Yet it still exists in us as Christians, threatening to lead us to gratify the flesh instead of serving the living God. We all have our Mr. Hyde, and that makes the story timeless.
Though it's only been less than a hundred years since C.S. Lewis died in 1963, his many works have already proven to be timeless in their wit, insight and profundity. The Four Loves is one of his lesser-known nonfiction works. Like many of his nonfiction works, it isn't strictly a philosophical treatise, but it includes philosophy, theology, and literature. This short book is a sustained work of reflection on the four Greek words for love: agape (God's love), philia (love between friends), storge (familial love) and eros (erotic or romantic love). In the first chapter of the book, Lewis makes a more original distinction between Need love, Gift love, and Appreciative love. This distinction was one I had not been exposed to before, and I found it so insightful that I still think about it today. That chapter alone is worth reading the whole book.
All Christians should devote time to reflect on love, since love is not only central to Christian ethics but the character of God Himself. Love is what motivates God to send His Son to the earth to die for us (Romans 5:8). In Lewis's taxonomy, this is Gift love, which is the only category appropriate to God's love. God has no need for us, yet we express Need love for Him when we are on our knees, weeping and praying for comfort, peace, and grace. What is Appreciative love? As Lewis writes, when directed to the Lord, Appreciative love is simply worship. Loss in the object of worship in whom all of our needs are met and desires ultimately satisfied. All Christians would benefit from this phenomenology of love.
You'd be forgiven for thinking that the subtitle of this book is alarmist. Published in 2021, Baucham's book on social justice quickly became a bestseller. As someone who's covered this topic in detail on my blog, I was obviously interested in reading the book and seeing what Baucham had to write about the topic. Baucham defines "social justice" in opposition to "biblical justice" and shows how contemporary support for social justice (along with related concepts in critical theory, critical race theory, and cultural Marxism) is undermining biblical orthodoxy in American evangelicalism, namely, in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Baucham has developed a reputation for speaking truth in areas other Christians are too afraid to address, and it's for this reason that I greatly respect him.
What makes this book important is that it has likely exposed lay Christians, especially lay Southern Baptists, to these concepts for the first time. Not only that, but it's exposed them to the need to keep the SBC and its leaders accountable (as well as other traditionally conservative institutions like the PCA). The SBC in particular is characterized by voluntary cooperation of local churches for the gospel. If the institution begins to embody values inconsistent with the gospel, then correction is needed from the local churches. Baucham's book has equipped thousands of lay Christians to hold their leaders accountable, and it's because of this that the book will continue to be important.
Great books influence us by widening the scope of our understanding of the world and what's possible in it. I've enjoyed reflecting back on the books I read and considering how to better that habit of reading for the future. This will be the first post in a series in which I cover my favorite five books of every year. Hopefully, you've found in this post five more great books to read!
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