My 5 Top Reads of 2018

Over the last two years, I’ve taken some time on the last day of the year to recommend/report on the 5 books from the previous year that have left an imprint on me. These books range across various genres including children’s literature, and I usually don’t have a particular rhyme or reason as to why I read a certain book (unless it’s for a sermon series or other work purpose). Most often, I will read a book just because it’s of interest to me at the time. This past year, I didn’t read as many books as I had intended. I think I fell about 8 books short of my reading goal. Part of the reason is that I was a bit more distracted in 2018, and I also took my time reading through one book in particular.

Before I share my top 5 for 2018, let me encourage you to take up and read in 2019. You don’t have to read these, just read something. A couple of principles have helped me enjoy my reading as well as read more.

  1. Don’t read a book just because you “have to” (unless you’re in school). Sometimes I will hear someone say, “I should read that book,” but the subject matter is of no interest to them. Read something that is of interest to you. Don’t worry about whatever pressure you feel for someone’s approval.
  2. If a book doesn’t grab you in the first 100 pages, say goodbye. I know for some, this will seem like cheating or failing. There are too many good books out there and too little time, so don’t spend it obligatorily punishing yourself to read a book you’re not enjoying (see #1 above).
  3. Read short books, in between long books. Or if you find yourself getting bogged down in the middle of a book you’ve enjoyed, try reading another shorter book and finishing it. The sense of completion may give you a little motivation to press on in the longer read.
  4. Read in community. There might be a book out there that you want to read, but you feel a bit intimidated. Gather a friend and read it together. There’s power in discussion as well as accountability.

I hope some of those tips help, I’d be glad to chat with you if have any other tactics or tips!

Without further delay, here’s my top 5 for 2018, and a bit of commentary about the books.

5 (tie). Drawn Together by Minh Le and Dan Santat  / Educated by Tara Westover

I know, it feels a bit like cheating to call a tie, but given that Drawn Together is an illustrated children’s book less than 20 pages, I’ll put it up here. The drawings are amazing, but the storyline is even better. Having grown up in a home where there was a cultural distance between me and the previous generation, this book really struck a nerve for me. There was something so validating about seeing a common love connect two generations that seemingly have nothing in common.

On a different note, Tara Westover’s memoir was both unsettling and gripping. She describes her childhood growing up under extreme abuse, in isolation from the educated world. Educated will make you upset at times and in disbelief at others. You’ll wonder how people could live like that and perhaps even reflect on the things you consider normal from your own upbringing.

4. The Power of Moments by Chip and Dan Heath

We read this one together as a ministry team, and I loved every “moment” in it. From the writers of Made To Stick, the Heath brothers unpack why it is that certain moments make a lasting impact on us, and how we can create moments from the mundane around  us. This book changed the way I think about discipleship, community life, and even personal goals. If you’ve ever thought to yourself, “one day, I’ll…” but never acted on it, the Heath brothers can help.

3. What’s So Amazing about Grace by Phillip Yancey

I read this book in college, and decided to re-read it for a sermon on the hymn, “Amazing Grace”. What started out as a cursory scan turned into a fully-engrossed read. I don’t know if it’s my life experience, but the book felt totally different to me. The topics and challenges about grace that Yancey raises back in the 90s were almost prophetic in nature and definitely need to be considered in this landscape. If this wasn’t a re-read for me, it could very well have been book of the year.

2. Desiring the Kingdom by James K. Smith

This is the more academic treatment of his popular book, “You Are What You Love.” I read Smith’s book in community with a group of guys on Saturday mornings, and the conversation was stimulating. Dr. Smith observes the ways in which our cultural practices form us – that is, how the liturgies of life have a way of shaping our hearts. His major premise is that before we are thinking creatures, we are creatures who act. Thus, the formation of a Christian worldview is not just by informing and teaching, but crafting liturgies that make us act. There are lots of nuances to his thesis that lie beyond the scope of this short plug, but I’ll warn you with this – you’ll never visit a shopping mall the same way after spending time with this book.

1. The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

Do you remember learning about the great American migration of African-Americans from the South to the cities of the North from 1915-1970? Neither do I. That’s because it’s unmentioned. I found myself fascinated and enraged by the conditions of the Jim Crow South and the urbanized North that awaited migrants who just wanted a better life. Strangely, as the son of Korean immigrants, I felt much in common with the hopes and plights of those who immigrated north, and yet I also felt an unjust dissonance in that these American citizens faced so much more opposition than many immigrants do today.

The book is a masterful job of story-telling, and at the end of it, I felt like I was saying goodbye to family. I’m not afraid to say that I definitely shed some tears, and at the end of it, developed a new and profound respect for the resilience, grit, and tenacity of the previous generation of African-Americans who left it all to make a new life.

This book occupied the bulk of my reading energy this year, but it was so worth it.

At the time of writing this post, I haven’t quite finished Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World, but I could see it being my #2 book. In fact, in reading one passage aloud to my bride, we both started weeping at the beauty and poignancy behind her observations. Taylor shared with me a vision of the world that is filled with the grandeur and presence of God, a world that I am mostly ignorant to just because I don’t pay attention. She has definitely impacted the trajectory of my 2019. Highly recommend!!!

What books stood out to you in 2018? Please leave a comment. Happy New Year!

6 thoughts on “My 5 Top Reads of 2018

  1. Mitchell, I am closing the year with a book I stumbled onto by way of a recommendation from Yancy. Wounded in Spirit, Advent Art and Meditation by David Bannon. As most authors writings are influenced by life experiences, Bannon’s work reflects his pain of a personal failure and the tragic loss of a son.

    Bannon takes the painting of some of the lesser classical painters and creates a meditation from each one. Each meditation includes a thought, a scripture and an explanation of the artist and a significant work of theirs. Often, Bannon drops in his own grief as a parent and may include a scholarly study on grief. I am a few pages from the end, but found the blending of art, scripture, insight and grief quite different than other reads.

  2. I too read “Educated” and found it thought provoking. I thought about what an impact being raised in an unhealthy belief system can have on a person, In the story the skewed beliefs were about religion and education but I wondered how this could also apply to beliefs about race, gender roles and even dieting. When Tara was older it was hard for her to act against the ingrained beliefs even though she knew they were wrong. This seems like an important thing to understand if we are going to influence people to change their oppressive beliefs. She had people who were committed to walk alongside her and tell the truth to her with love. It gave me a lot to think about. Thanks for sharing Mitchel. I appreciate your advice. Happy New Year!

  3. You know I can’t stop talking about Just Mercy. Definitely one of my top books of my life- not just the year.

    I seem to be on a injustice mode these days since I would also add Before We Were Yours (based on a a true story), The Hate You Give, & Killers of the Flower Moon as my top books of the year. Just read Educated- reminded me of the dysfunction of Hillbilly Elegy, which I would also recommend! With caution I would recommend Born a Crime as an audiobook. It is read by Trevor Noah which makes it very funny but quite a bit of language.

    Currently reading Its Not Supposed to Be this Way by Lysa TerKeurst. Excellent about where God is in the midst of suffering.

    Thanks for sharing your list! You should check out Jacob Lawrence’s Migration paintings at the Phillips. You would love them in light of your #1 above.

  4. Here’s 2 books from 2018, technically novels, however crafted from first hand accounts, about refugee’s that contunie to impact me deeply.
    What is the What by Dave Eggers
    Refugee by Alan Gratz.

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