What I Read in 2021

In the past, I’ve used the turn of the year as an opportunity to share my favorite books read in the past year, but I only read 18 books in 2021 — just 17 short of your 35-book GoodReads Challenge goal! the GoodReads robot taunts me. There are still 1 days left! You can do it!

Rather than highlighting a handful, I’m sharing every book that held my attention long enough to finish it this year, broken into categories that I find reveal a little bit about where my head’s been.

The categories are, in order: Research, Christian Nonfiction, Fiction, Other Nonfiction.

Research

Definition: Books I read for personal research.

Unwell Women: Misdiagnosis and Myth in a Manmade World by Elinor Cleghorn

How has Western medicine failed women? How have longstanding (though now perhaps more concealed) ideas about women being “malformed men” or weaker or more emotional impacted how women’s health has been treated, mistreated, or ignored? Cleghorn’s history of medical sexism addresses these questions. If you haven’t been angry about hysteria or asylums or lobotomies or women only getting decent medical care when they’re pregnant (and even then it’s questionable), well, gear up.

The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women by Naomi Wolf

Originally published in 1990, The Beauty Myth is a feminist classic that examines beauty standards of the 80s through the lens of backlash. Wolf’s thesis: Now that women had more equal economic and political rights with men thanks to the women’s liberation movement, the patriarchy reacted by weaponizing beauty and creating an impossible ideal for women to embody in order to be considered “true” women. “The contemporary ravages of the beauty backlash are destroying women physically and depleting us psychologically,” Wolf writes.

I found parts of Wolf’s argument compelling, but other parts leaned too far into what I can only describe as political conspiracy theories. For Wolf, it seems, patriarchy is all about political power, whereas I would say that the ongoing conflict between men and women at large — in politics and elsewhere — is more cosmic. My Christian perspective points me back to Genesis 3, where strife between men and women, indeed a gendered power struggle, is a clear outcome of the Fall and part of sin’s curse.

Christian Nonfiction

I read more Christian nonfiction this year than I ever have before in a calendar year. Part of this was feeling disconnected and dry for a good part of the year, less able to feed myself from Scripture than I normally can. These books provided some wisdom and comfort in a tough season.

When Everything’s On Fire: Faith Forged from the Ashes by Brian Zahnd

This year, a poet and artist I’ve followed online for probably a decade publicly denounced Christianity. This was someone I’d learned a lot from and related to as a Christian creative who enjoys digging into the Bible but also struggles with doubt from time to time. His departure from the faith affected me way more than I expected. At the same time, I’ve seen friends from college lambast Christianity (specifically American evangelicalism) and say truly awful things about Christians. Even though I know where they stand, every time I see another post I wince and at times I’m brought to tears.

The “why” of all this is complicated. My faith has been through a ringer of its own, but somehow, it’s held together. I can point to specific moments where I’ve felt God’s presence and direction and closeness. I see the beauty of the story laid out in the Bible — the ultimate promise of God coming to dwell with his people — and I believe it. I also see a lot of so-called Christians living in opposition to the Prince of Peace, rallying themselves around narrow political ideals, giving loyalty to violence, living out of a story that’s so far from what the Bible actually describes, and as a result, driving others away from the truth of the gospel. If that’s what Christians are like, I want nothing to do with them. Same, honestly.

So with all of this as a backdrop, I picked up Zahnd’s book. When Everything’s on Fire focuses more on deconstruction and doubt than on church hurt, and as usual, I don’t agree with everything Zahnd writes, but the book provides helpful perspectives for wrestling through doubt — especially when you’re exiting a strain of fundamentalist Christianity that tends to demonize doubt and defend a literalist interpretation of the Bible at all costs.

Despite some of our differing views or ways of explaining our views, I found this book to be a beautiful comfort and probably the best-written book in this category. Zahnd has a literary mind that comes through immediately on the first page, and he also did this writer proud with a nice twist toward the end of what it means for everything to be on fire.

Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers by Dane Ortlund

How does God actually think of me? Is he just angry all the time?

A lot of Christians (and as a result, the people around them) view God as an angry, bearded Zeus-like character who we’re just lucky isn’t striking everyone dead all the time. But is that what God is actually like? In his book, Ortlund introduces us to the “gentle and lowly” heart of Jesus. Drawing from scripture and the reflections of Puritans, he shows us how kindness and humility are central to who God is.

This book is dense in the best way. I integrated it into my morning devotions, reading a chapter of the book after my Bible reading for the day. Just one chapter at a time. Again, there were places I’d disagree or word things differently (for example, when Ortlund goes off on grace being a Roman Catholic teaching, as if that on its own is a reason to discard the idea), but overall this book was a lovely reminder of God’s heart for his children.

With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God by Skye Jethani

Ever since Jethani spoke in chapel my freshman year of college, this book has been on my list. With is all about changing the paradigm of how we relate to God. Most people, Jethani says, relate to God through these prepositions: above, under, for, from. But God doesn’t want us to live for, from, above, or under him — he wants us to live, or walk, with him. Thanks to that freshman year chapel message, I was already familiar with the concepts of this book, but I appreciated how Jethani fleshed out his ideas. It’s so easy to fall into one of the other prepositional postures, when God’s desire truly is to be with us.

The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited by Scot McKnight

When Jesus preached “the gospel”, what exactly did he preach? This is a question I’d asked internally for a long time. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — the New Testament books collectively referred to as “the gospels” — are some of the hardest biblical books for me to understand. And the quick gospel definition I was taught as a kid didn’t make it any easier.

This book puts into words much of what I’ve learned over the last several years as I’ve dug into scripture on my own in an attempt to answer that question.

The answer: the gospel includes, but is so much more than, a plan of salvation. It’s a declaration of Jesus as king, here and now and forever. I highly recommend this book if you’re no longer satisfied by the reductive “ticket to heaven” gospel. There’s so much more.

The Deeply Formed Life: Five Transformational Values to Root Us in the Way of Jesus by Rich Villodas

Is your Christian faith just a set of theological ideas, or does it influence the way you live your everyday life?

Villodas challenges his readers to match their inner and outer lives to their vocal confession. This book couples well with Jon Tyson’s Beautiful Resistance, which I read last year. Both are concerned with the spiritual formation of Christians, or in other words, who we’re becoming.

The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God by Timothy Keller with Kathy Keller

Marriage in scripture is set forth as a picture of how Christ relates to his church. His commitment to her is profound; he gives himself for her; he places her wellbeing before his own. But human marriage more often than not fails to adequately reflect Christ’s “gentle and lowly” posture toward his bride. I read this toward the beginning of the year, so I don’t remember it too well, but I remember appreciating how the Kellers’ fleshed out the, well, meaning of marriage. I hold a more egalitarian ideal than I’ve seen Tim Keller describe in other contexts, but I was pleased to see that my ideals really aren’t that different from what’s set forth in this book.

The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth by Beth Allison Barr

Where to start with this one? Barr is a medieval historian and baptist pastor’s wife whose historical research led her to reconsider the hyper-complementarian views of her former church where not only were women not allowed to teach men, but they weren’t allowed to teach 14-year-old boys. In this book, Barr traces the historical origins of so-called biblical womanhood — that narrow ideal of a “meek and quiet” woman who doesn’t speak in church or hold authority over men — to show that it’s not actually biblical, but a cultural ideal that’s been projected onto scripture and used to harm women.

I was expecting this book to be longer, say, 300 pages, and more in-depth, so I was disappointed when it arrived and was only 218 pages (not including the endnotes). Barr’s case felt underdeveloped and, unfortunately, I don’t think it would convince anyone who doesn’t already agree with her. Most people who hold to these ideas get them from a literal reading of select verses from Paul’s New Testament letters, and Barr shows that there’s longstanding debate among biblical scholars about how to properly understand those texts (they’re highly contested). A generous reader who doesn’t agree with Barr may leave with more questions and things to dig into; an ungenerous reader who doesn’t agree with her will just write her off, as has been happening since her book came out earlier this year.

If I’d been editing Barr, I would have encouraged her to save her personal story for a chapter near the end (similar to how Cleghorn works in her personal health/misdiagnosis story in Unwell Women), so it wouldn’t be such an easy way for her detractors to write her off. However, unlike related books like Half the Church by Carolyn Custis James, The Making of Biblical Womanhood is well-structured and flows cohesively. I’ll be reading this one again.

The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity with Racism by Jemar Tisby

This had been on my list for a while when I bought it last summer. The book is a good introduction to the history of the American church’s complicity with racism — introduction being the key word. It’s brief and covers broad swaths of history in just a couple hundred pages, so if you’re serious about learning more of this vein of history, The Color of Compromise provides a good foundational layer for you to build on. I would pair this with Ronald Takaki’s A Different Mirror, one of my top reads from last year.

Fiction

The Shell Collector by Anthony Doerr

A short story collection from the author of All the Light We Cannot See, The Shell Collector provided a much-needed dose of lyrical language. I found this book in a Little Free Library and read it over the month of November. Doerr is a fantastic writer.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I read this after watching a documentary about Atwood. I have no interest in watching the TV series because the concept is disturbing, but I appreciate Atwood’s motivations in writing it. Every awful thing that happens to women in the society Atwood created has happened in our real world somewhere at some point in history, much of it not too long ago. This isn’t really an enjoyable read, but it’s masterfully written.

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

This book has been living with me for at least six years now, maybe longer, so I thought it was time for a reread. You follow a few different perspectives, each written in their own unique voice, some stream-of-consciousness, and everything comes together eventually. I love this approach to storytelling (also seen in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer).

Other Nonfiction

Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 1: 1884-1933 by Blanche Wiesen Cook

This tome is a treasure. 587 pages, and it’s only the first of a three-volume set. I found the first two volumes at Tattered Cover in Denver last year and purchased the third online. I spent most of the spring and early summer reading this one. ER’s early life is not what I expected. Her father was an alcoholic whose habit destroyed his life. Her mother disregarded her and died when ER was 8. ER’s childhood was fraught by instability with the one bright spot being her education in London.

But when she returned to New York, college was not an option. She entered society and married FDR (from a different branch of the Roosevelt family), and then had to compete with FDR’s mother for his attention and loyalty.

I started reading Volume 2 in July but got distracted by other books and things, so it’s on my list to finish in 2022.

Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting, edited by Ann Hood

This collection of essays about knitting was a super cozy read and the partial inspiration for my second handmade sweater. It also inspired me to write more about crafts, because I love crafts and we need more to read that doesn’t carry the whole weight of the world.

Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul by Barbara Reynolds

I got curious about Dorothy L. Sayers after my pastor quoted her a few times on Sunday mornings, so I found this biography and promptly started reading. I relate to her on a number of levels and would like to find a more deeply researched biography that doesn’t just quote her novels as if they’re directly referencing her life. Something that was unexpected: Sayers had a son out of wedlock who may have never known she was more than his “aunt”.

The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich

A text from a college class that I kept because I enjoyed it so much, The Solace of Open Spaces is about the author’s life on the range in Wyoming. Beautiful language. Another reread.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

One of the first books I read this year, this true story was a ride. It’s the rare nonfiction book that reads like a novel while communicating a wealth of information. Featuring: scandals of science, reporting escapades, and everyday, down-to-earth characters that feel like they could live next door.

And there you go: every book I read from cover to cover in 2021. My rule for reading is don’t waste time on books you don’t like. Life is too short to read bad books — and there are too many good books out there to waste time on what you don’t enjoy.

Published by meredithsell

Freelance writer and editor. Helping nonprofits, educational institutions, and businesses tell their stories. Interests: fitness, historical women, and untold, complicated stories. My site: meredithsellwrites.com

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