We’re a month into 2021. I have a new reading goal set (the same as last year, because I didn’t meet it) and my stacks of books to read are starting to look dangerous thanks to the abundance of Little Free Libraries in my neighborhood. It takes some serious self-discipline to walk past one and not look inside—self-discipline I usually don’t have.
Somehow, despite the fact that Denver Public Library was completely shutdown for several months of last year (thank you, Rona), more than half of my top reads from 2020 were borrowed from DPL, not LFLs. But I continue to be pleasantly surprised by what turns up in those little boxes by the sidewalk.
So in the spirit of the New Year, 31 days late, here are my top reads from 2020 in no particular order. (And if you’re looking for reading recommendations specifically for Black History Month, I’ve got you covered.)
An Ordinary Man by Paul Rusesabagina with Tom Zoellner
If you’ve watched Hotel Rwanda, you have some familiarity with this man’s story. Rusesabagina is the hotel manager the movie is based on, and An Ordinary Man is his memoir about surviving the Rwandan genocide in the 90s and saving the lives of others by taking advantage of his position as a manager of a foreign-run hotel.
Every time I read about the genocide, I start to wonder who I would be in such a situation. Would I turn against my neighbors and friends? Or would I hold to the principles I profess, that all human life is sacred and the only acceptable way to treat an enemy is to love them?
I tweeted a few excerpts from the book when I was reading it in the fall, and through a series of interactions with random Rwandans who started engaging with the tweet, I found out that Rusesabagina had recently been kidnapped by the Rwandan government (he hasn’t lived in the country for years due to beefs with the political administration; President Kagame has been in power since the end of the genocide). He’s now facing a so-called terrorism trial.
The Day the Revolution Began by N.T. Wright
I don’t remember when I was first exposed to N.T. Wright, a New Testament scholar and Anglican bishop, but over the last year, I started listening to the “Ask N.T. Wright Anything” podcast on a fairly regular basis. He puts into words a lot of the thoughts and ideas I’ve come to on my own through studying Scripture in more depth over the last several years. On one episode of his podcast, he mentioned this particular title so I ordered it through the public library system (was shocked by how many N.T. Wright titles they actually have) and spent probably three months reading it from cover to cover.
It’s wild to me that this title is a “popular” theology book, meaning it’s written for the masses, not scholars, because it’s so deep, dense, and challenging. I had to make sure my brain was awake and energized in order to engage with it fully, and there were still plenty of things that went straight over my head.
The Day the Revolution Began is all about understanding the crucifixion the way the early Christians did. What actually happened when Jesus died? What work was “finished,” as he said on the cross? How did Paul and the other apostles understand the death of Jesus? (The context of the resurrection is a given.)
Something I particularly appreciated about this book is how Wright tackles the Platonization of Christianity, which is to say: The generally held concepts of Heaven and Hell that most of us assume to be biblical don’t really come from the Bible; they come from Plato. (If you’ve ever wondered why Jesus didn’t talk about heaven and hell that much, this is probably why.) The Day the Revolution Began puts the New Testament, particularly the crucifixion, in its Jewish context, drawing out deeper meanings from Jesus’s work on the cross. I’m planning on re-reading this book in a year or so.
The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan
In case anyone’s wondering whether or not I avoid controversial books, apparently I don’t. But to be honest, I don’t understand why The Feminine Mystique was ever controversial. The whole book is based on this notion that women have more to offer than their ability to be wives and mothers, and that if they’re restricted to only caring for the needs of other people without room to express their unique identities and use their specific gifts, they’ll be miserable. To me, that’s a duh.
When I signed this book out, I was bracing myself for something shocking and controversial, but instead (with the exception of a few things regarding mental health and homosexuality that place the book firmly in its era) I found myself nodding along and taking copious notes. I’ve read some critiques of the book—that it only speaks about the experience of mid- to upperclass white women and so on—but I think the book’s central idea still holds true. And I think more women (particularly of the Christian variety) would be well-served to read it.
Beautiful Resistance by Jon Tyson
I wrote a whole review of this book for Christianity Today, so I’m not going to rehash it here, but this book provides an important check for believers regarding the outworking of our faith. It’s specifically written to Christians in the U.S. in a polarized era.
A Different Mirror: A Multicultural History of America by Ronald Takaki
This was the best unexpected Little Free Library find of 2020. I think I picked it up in June, when protests in response to the murder of George Floyd were taking place across the country and the globe, and it was exactly what my brain needed at a time when I was looking for more information about the legacy of the United States. I did a lot of learning from 2013-2016 on these topics, but most of that was through reading reported articles, not books or histories.
A Different Mirror is exactly what its subtitle describes: a multicultural history of America. Starting in the colonial era, it follows the experiences of African-American, Native Americans, Mexican-Americans, Irish-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Jewish Americans—people groups we don’t typically learn about from their perspective. I marked this book up like crazy and decided to keep it as a reference. I highly recommend finding a copy and reading it for yourself. It would make a great text for high school students or anyone looking for a survey of American history that isn’t centered on the experiences of white folks.
Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nifisi
I read this book in March so I don’t remember too much specifically about it other than that it was deep and eye-opening, and it engaged me with a Middle Eastern culture I’m not familiar with at all. Nafisi was an English literature professor in Tehran, Iran, over a period of time when the country was seeing drastic change, going from a more liberal (some would say, Westernized) society to a much more conservative one, where women were policed on their attire and lost freedoms they’d formerly held. Reading Lolita in Tehran follows Nafisi as she leads a private class of young women in her home while their country exerts more control on their lives outside. Each section focuses on a different literary work that they read and uses that work to prod at and try to understand their own experiences.
Mighty Justice: My Life in Civil Rights by Dovey Johnson Roundtree and Katie McCabe
Dovey Johnson Roundtree was an attorney before Martin Luther King Jr. ever made a splash in terms of the fight for civil rights. She passed away in 2018 at 104 years old, before this book released. Mighty Justice tells her life story, from her growing up to when she served as one of the first African-American women in the military during WWII, to her career in law. She played a crucial role during the civil rights era, working on a lot of cases involving segregation in transportation (think: when trains passed the Mason-Dixon Line and suddenly black people couldn’t sit where they’d been sitting the whole trip). This was a Denver Public Library book so it’s now on my list to buy, because I need some Dovey Johnson Roundtree in my personal women’s history library.
Winterlust: Finding Beauty in the Fiercest Season by Bernd Brunner
Not so much literature and story as a tribute to the coldest, darkest time of the year, this was one of the first books I read last year, perhaps the snowiest winter since I moved to Colorado. It touches on all different aspects of winter and how it’s survived and enjoyed in different places. Winterlust was a random book I picked up in the library, and it was a delicious read for someone who loves the sparkle of snow, would rather be cold than warm, and likes layering up in scarves and hats and mittens.