Each year, I give myself a reading goal and work hard to meet it. Not because I want to be legalistic and bind myself to some arbitrary bar of achievement. But because I find that a steady, disciplined commitment to spending time in the company of books can often lead to an unexpected array of soul-enriching joys.

Reading is hard work. In fact, sometimes it can be downright laborious. But so can most anything else in life. Like learning a musical instrument. Or playing a sport. Or perfecting a craft.

But as a general rule of thumb, the more hard work you put in to something, the more freedom you have to enjoy it. For example, if you’ve spent hours practicing the piano, you know how tedious the endless scales and exercises can be. But eventually it all pays off when you find yourself able to sit down and play your favorite song on a whim. In the same way, slogging through one dry page after another can feel like torture sometimes. But the perseverance turns into delight when you finally come across that one page that seems to leap out of the book and come to life before your very eyes.

I love to learn from others, discover new ideas, and stretch my brain. And books are indispensable assets in that journey. But ultimately, at the end of the day, what keeps me reading is the sheer joy of it. Not every book delivers that joy. But some do. And so in keeping with my annual tradition, I present once again my list of the most enjoyable books I read during this past year. This list is the result of highly subjective experience and profoundly unscientific reasoning. Nevertheless, I think there’s something objectively commendable about these books that makes them worthwhile to share. So here are my most enjoyable reads of 2107, presented in the chronological order that I happened to read them:

17 books - hillbilly

1. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (J.D. Vance). This book generated a ton of buzz when it was released, and in my estimation, it lived up to the hype. Vance is a compelling story-teller. His prose doesn’t just relate facts; it creates a landscape of personal anecdotes and cultural observations that make this a hard book to put down. You don’t have to agree with all the subtle political overtones that run through this memoir to appreciate the light it sheds on an overlooked sector of the American experience.

17 books - cash

2. Johnny Cash: The Life (Robert Hilburn). I’m slowly developing an appreciation for biographies of musicians. Although I’m still a novice to this genre, I can’t imagine many books being more enjoyable than Hilburn’s unhurried stroll through the life and times of Johnny Cash. Granted, it’s hard to write a bad biography when the life of your subject provides no shortage of fascinating material to work with. Nevertheless, I thought this was a beautifully written and thoughtfully engaging exploration of a true American music icon.

17 books - death

3. Death: An Oral History (Casey Jarman). I came across this book providentially as I was looking for something that would help me write an Easter sermon. I wanted to understand some of the different viewpoints out there about death and how various people try to make sense of it. I’m not sure how much this book helped with that sermon, but I’m certainly glad I discovered it. Jarman introduces us to a wide cast of characters, and their stories provide mesmerizing insights into our tentative relationship with the inevitable end awaiting us all.

17 books - evangelicals

4. The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America (Frances FitzGerald). I debated whether or not to include this book, because I’m not sure “enjoyable” is a very good description for it. Frankly, I think “depressing” might be more accurate. Even though it’s been a few months since I finished it, I still feel it hovering like a dark cloud over my soul. But in the end, The Evangelicals makes the cut because it was such a gripping, provocative, and well-written volume. Fitzgerald is forceful yet objective, unflinching yet fair.

17 books - mission

5. The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Christopher J.H. Wright). This has been on my to-read list for quite some time, and finally this year I got to it. My only question after completing it was: “Why did it take me so long?” It’s been around for a decade, but it’s the sort of book whose contribution to the church’s exploration of mission will continue for many more decades to come. (It’s hard to predict which contemporary books will become “classics,” but I’d gladly put money on this one.) Wright is thorough, thoughtful, and persuasive. One may well disagree with him here or there, but anyone who wants to understand the biblical idea of missions at least needs to reckon with what he has to say.

17 books - wonder

6. Recapturing the Wonder: Transcendent Faith in a Disenchanted World (Mike Cosper). How much you enjoy a book often has as much to do with when you read it as it has to do with the content of the book itself. As it turns out, I unknowingly picked up Cosper’s book at the ideal time for it to have a maximal impact on my soul. His discussion of disenchantment hit a bit too close to home, turning me into a captive audience for everything he had to say. His unique, refreshing take on spiritual disciplines had me nodding a hearty “Amen!” on just about every page.

Note: If you want more bookish fun, you can travel back in time and check out My 6 Favorite Reads of 2016.

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