Reading has been my life’s constant companion. No matter how busy—even when writing my master’s thesis, even when parenting an infant, even when life is at its hardest—I’ve always read books. I read for fun and to deepen my work in the ministry.
In those moments at the end of each day, I give myself permission to read whatever I want. The list of books I “should” read is always long: the list of books that will inform sermons or improve my church work. I enjoy many of them. But I find a serendipity in reading widely and following my nose to the next book. Sometimes connections are made that I never expected.
For instance, Ben and I listen to a podcast together about revolutions in the history of Europe and the Americas. That led me to read All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Remarque’s antiwar classic about a German infantryman in World War I. Later in 2019, because I loved Colson Whitehead’s earlier books, I picked up his new novel Nickel Boys, about a Black boy in the 1960s who loves Martin Luther King, Jr. but struggles to understand his teachings when he is unjustly imprisoned in a brutal reform school. This was the best book I read in 2019, and I count Whitehead among America’s best living authors.
The connection between a German boy in World War I and a Black American boy in the Jim Crow south might not be obvious. But they are both individuals struggling to assert their dignity in a world that does not care for them. They are both insisting, in the face of violence and the threat of death, that their lives matter. This will definitely make its way into my preaching in 2020.
The best spiritual books I read in 2019 were The Book of Forgiving, by Desmond Tutu and his daughter Mpho Tutu, and Spiritual Direction, a book assembled from Henri Nouwen’s writings and journals after his death. The Tutus draw on their life experiences fighting apartheid to show what is required to forgive. This is not a theoretical book; this is their lived experience with the work of forgiving acts of brutality and hatred. Nouwen outlines three aspects of the spiritual life: time alone, time with God, and time in community. Both books gave me tools I was able to take with me into my spiritual life.
Some of my reading is purely for fun. Bunny by Mona Awad is a laugh-out-loud funny horror novel about women in a prestigious MFA program. Cartoonist Randall Munroe’s new book How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems is a ridiculous delight. Hag-Seed is the newest novel by one of my favorite writers, Margaret Atwood (it’s a retelling of The Tempest). In the genre of dystopia, Feed by M. T. Anderson is a young adult novel that will make you swear off social media, and 84K by Claire North asks what it would really take to challenge the growing wealth inequality in our society.
When I can’t read I listen to podcasts, so I want to recommend some of my favorites. 1619 by Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times and In the Dark Season 2 by Madeleine Baran of American Public Media are excellent. They demonstrate the impact of slavery on the American story (1619) and explore racism in the criminal justice system (In the Dark). The team at In the Dark are heroes for the work they have done to expose prosecutorial bias in the case of Curtis Flowers. The one Ben and I enjoy about revolutions is Revolutions by Mike Duncan. I also enjoy several podcasts by Radiotopia, especially Passenger List.
My list of all the books I read in 2019 is below. I’d love to hear what you’re reading and listening to.
Rev. Sarah Stewart
Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood
Bunny by Mona Awad
Fatherland by Robert Harris
Shelter by David Hutchinson
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Elevation by Stephen King
Gwendy’s Button Box by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin (audiobook)
The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu
Ghostwritten by David Mitchell
84K by Claire North
Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
The Need by Helen Phillips
The Guermantes Way by Marcel Proust
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
Tombland by C. J. Sansom
Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
Young Adult Novels
Feed by M. T. Anderson
Waterless Mountain by Laura Adams Armer
Hitty: Her First Hundred Years by Rachel Field
Un Lun Dun by China Miéville
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling (audiobook) (reread)
The Beauty of the Word: The Challenge and Wonder of Preaching by James C. Howell
Stride Toward Freedom by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Leaders Who Last: Sustaining Yourself and Your Ministry by Margaret J. Marcuson
Healing Our Spiritual Wounds by Carol Howard Merritt
Spiritual Direction by Henri Nouwen (reread)
On Reading Well by Karen Swallow Prior
Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism by Kathryn Tanner
The Book of Forgiving by Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu
Revolution: The History of England from the Battle of the Boyne to the Battle of Waterloo by Peter Ackroyd
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond
The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction by William Doyle
The Gadfly Papers by Todd Eklof (criticism)
Reign of Winter: The Frozen Stars by Matthew Goodall (role-playing games)
Berlin v. 1-3 by Jason Lutes (graphic non-fiction)
Embrace the Suck by Stephen Madden (sports memoir)
How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems by Randall Munroe (humor)
Rowan: 40 Years (knitting)
Conflict Is Not Abuse by Sarah Schulman (criticism)
Shrill by Lindy West (memoir)