2018 Books in Review

I set goals every year, and I always include a reading goal. This year was a little different for goal-setting, but I still set a reading goal to finish 30 books. I read 40. Over drinks a couple nights ago, a friend asked me to name the top five, and after some thought, here they are.

Spirit of the Rainforest: a Yanomamo Shaman’s Story by Mark Andrew Ritchie

This was the hardest book I read this year. Replete with rape, murder, torture, sickness, and death, it is also a stunning tale of beauty and redemption. We in the modern West like to keep spiritual and physical as separate categories; in these pages, you’ll see spiritual and physical as a single, complex world–the way they really are.

Here, through the eyes of a shaman who calls himself Jungleman, you will find the unvarnished truth of Yanomamo life before they ever made contact with modern culture, and how things changed across the decades as they made (often traumatic) contact with traders, missionaries, anthropologists, soldiers, and other outsiders. The author chose to tell the story as Jungleman told it to him, in Jungleman’s words (as nearly as translation allows), but he also worked hard to verify the events described from multiple sources where possible. For this, he has been excoriated by missionaries, anthropologists, and other modern folk for telling the unvarnished truth about them all. Some folks apparently want the freedom to opine about all things Yanomamo, but don’t want the Yanomamo to have the same freedom to comment on them back–and especially don’t want the folks at home to hear how they behave in the field. Colonialism dies hard, I guess.

Despite not being a “theology book” as such, this is the best theological book I read this year, by far.

How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of my Life by Scott Adams

Books about success are largely written by successful people, about their big successes. That approach delivers what people want to read (and the story a successful person wants to tell), Adams says, but it leaves out crucial parts of the story. In this book, Adams–himself an indisputable success–takes us on a guided tour of his lifelong string of failures, and shows how they contributed, over time, to his success. (And in concrete, imitable ways, not just “building character.”) More importantly, he shows you how you can do the same: choose projects and partners and set processes in motion so that even when you fail, you get something out of it, and increase the odds of future success.

Adams’ conversational style and self-effacing manner make this an easy, fun read, and it is brimming with clear, immediately actionable advice.

The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle

Healthy cultures have certain elements in common, whether you’re talking about a military unit, a sports team, or a restaurant staff. In Culture Code, Daniel Coyle profiles successful cultures: the physical practices, beliefs, and emotional landscape that separate stimulating, rewarding, effective cultures from the rest of the pack. Liberally illustrated with examples both good and bad, Culture Code is not just illuminating, it’s applicable. Coyle concludes with an epilogue describing how he put his insights to work in his own life, coaching a team of young writers, with excellent results.

This one is a must-read for church leaders. If your organizational culture does not reflect the profile Coyle is describing–which tracks pretty tightly with how the Body of Christ is supposed to work–it would be worth your while to ask why. And fix it.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss

Slow Regard is an odd little book, and it might not be for you. It’s a week in the life of a singular character named Auri, who lives a life of self-imposed exile in, and under, the world of Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicle. You need to read book 1, The Name of the Wind, before this one to get necessary context, but that’s not going to be a chore. (This one’s labeled #2.5 in the series, but you can read it after #1; there’s no spoilers.) TNOTW is a stunning achievement in fantasy fiction, and if Rothfuss can deliver the finish that the first two main volumes promise, he will be deservedly mentioned in the same breath with the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien and Frank Herbert. I wouldn’t take anything away from the achievement of the series as a whole…but Slow Regard is important.

In Slow Regard, Rothfuss takes us inside Auri’s head. She’s beautiful, whimsical, deeply intelligent, powerful, and absolutely broken. She sees the world in a unique way, a way that might be totally delusional. Then again, it might be uncommonly perceptive. Or maybe a bit of both; you’ll have to decide for yourself.

And then you’ll have to decide how that maps from her world into ours. It might be one of the more important decisions of your life, because, you see, there are real people like Auri. You can write them off and be the poorer for it. Or you can learn to love them, to dance with the oddness, to profit from the things they see that you cannot. There is so little space in the world for such people; if some corner of your life can hold space for an Auri, that’ll be a kindness well worth doing in itself, and both of you will be richer for it.

If you can stand to, read this book. Whatever you do, don’t skip the author’s foreword.

Internal Body Mechanics for Tai Chi, Bagua, and Xingyi: The Key to High-Quality Internal Structure and Movement by Ken Gullette

Despite the title, this one is not just for martial artists. If you’re a massage therapist, an athlete, or you just want to learn to use your body in an attentive, aware way, there’s a lot here for you.

The standard disclaimer applies: there’s no substitute for personal instruction from a qualified teacher, etc. But you learn martial arts by practicing, and there’s a lot here to inform your practice and make it more fruitful.

When it comes to “chi,” Ken Gullette is an uncompromising materialist: for him, there is no non-physical energy, just a very sound–if uncommon–set of body mechanics. Being a Christian, I don’t think the world is quite that simple, but Gullette’s line of inquiry here is undeniably productive. Whatever the truth about chi, there are physical mechanics at work.

Selecting a series of six key mechanics–groundpath, peng jing (which I’m not going to try to explain here), whole-body involvement, silk-reeling (spiral) movement, dantien (pelvic, kinda) rotation, and proper use of the kua (hip hinge)–Gullette walks us through key exercises and practices to develop each one. Start practicing even a couple of these together, and you’ll instantly understand why so much of Tai Chi practice is done slowly.

Gullette has been teaching for many years, and I’ve benefited from some of his and Mike Sigman’s earlier efforts. (Thanks, guys!) This book shows the results of a lot of trial and error to find the best words and exercises to convey these key concepts. The explanations are crystal clear and the photos are shot from useful angles (which is a lot harder than it sounds, y’all.) I’ll be spending a lot of time with these practices as I work to refine my own movement–as a martial artist, as a massage therapist, and as a structurally healthy human being.

***

So that’s my top five of a lot of good stuff–a total of 40 books and 8,389 pages, according to Goodreads, which is kind enough to track all this for me (and sell my data to the highest bidder, no doubt, but who isn’t, these days?)

As with any goal-setting exercise, I review my reading list periodically to make course corrections. A few things stand out to me about this year’s reading list:

  • It’s low on classics and poetry.  Be good to re-read some Shakespeare, Bacon, and Frost, just for the joy of the language.
  • I have some quality theological work on my shelf that I want to read, and didn’t quite get to. I want to do more of that this year.
  • I set the goal low on purpose, knowing that this was going to be a demanding year in other ways, and I might not have time for a lot of reading. And then I way overshot the goal without really trying. I expect this year to be equally demanding, but I should probably raise the goal a bit.

Also with any goal-setting exercise, it’s important to celebrate what went well. My standout items are…

  • I read 40/30 books!
  • I had fun! By setting a number goal, with just a few must-read items, it didn’t ever feel like something I had to do. I was just having a good time reading about whatever interested me. That’s ideal; I retain a lot less if it becomes a chore.
  • I finished The Unshakeable Kingdom and the Unchanging Person. That doesn’t sound impressive, but I’ve been chewing slowly away on that book for three years. (It’s not that long, but it was meaty. I’d read a few pages, and then have to go think about it for a week. So it took a while. I got most of the considerable benefit from it in the first year, but this year I finally finished, which feels like a significant accomplishment.
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