My Favorite Books of 2019

My Favorite Books of 2019

I?m currently reading my 75th book of the year, which is my largest ever, and I hope that means that this book list is even more helpful to those out there looking for some great reads you might have missed this year. While my reading habits have mainly stayed the same this year, I have found some moderate changes in a couple of areas.

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First, I read more fiction this year (a whole 9 books!) but since I still prefer nonfiction by a pretty large margin, my top 10 of the year are all nonfiction. However, I do have a couple of terrific fiction books to which I should give honorable mention. Taylor Jenkins Reid?s Daisy Jones and the Six, a book about a fictional band that reads like an oral history and is so well-done I forgot I wasn?t reading an actual history sometimes. Then Nicola Yoon?s 2016 book The Sun Is Also a Star might be my favorite non-dystopian young adult novel ever (although, admittedly, most of my YA reads have been set in dystopias). It follows a boy and girl, both children of immigrants, who meet and fall in love in one day despite one of them not even believing in love to begin with.

This year I also read a much larger percentage of books written by women. I made a mental goal this year for less than 50 percent of the books I read to be written by white men. While I was a couple of books off of that goal, you may notice that half of my favorite books this year were written by women. This is a huge step that in my opinion does not reflect personal choices I?ve made, but instead the huge surge of women writers that have always had the talent but now also have the opportunity to break into the largely white-male nonfiction world.

But on to the books! As usual, this is a list of my favorites that I read this year, but it is very heavy on very recent books. Six of them were published in 2019, three more in either 2017 or 2018, and one in 2005. Where I have reviewed them before, I will link to the full review for those interested. (Two of them I read via audiobook and I rarely have the capacity to do full reviews of those for several reasons.)

10. Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do ? Jennifer L. Eberhardt, PhD

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When I read this book at the beginning of the year, I figured it would be in my top three at the end, which goes to show how many great books I ended up finding in 2019. And maybe it?s just recency bias that made me rank it here, because Eberhardt just does a tremendous job of grounding the word ?bias? in science so that it does not label specific people as being prejudiced as much as illuminate the prejudice in all of us. That includes, as she notes many times, same-group stereotypes and prejudice (e.g. people of color discriminating against other people of color). This goes from routine traffic stops and everyday interactions to those on NextDoor and Airbnb. Surprising, professional, and even at times uplifting, in my mind Eberhardt produced a future classic in social psychology.

9. Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams ? Matthew Walker, PhD

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A book I stayed away from for quite a while because the subtitle just seemed like someone on a Freudian fever-dream, I?m glad that I gave Why We Sleep a try. It is heavily based in science, yet Walker?s prose is easily followed and keeps you involved in the overall narrative. It may already be the book from which I have used the most knowledge bits in casual conversation? in my entire life. I even shared a tidbit with my family last night at the dinner table. If you?ve ever had trouble sleeping, currently sleep less than 7 hours in a typical night, don?t think number of hours slept is a very important factor in health, or would like tips to sleep better, this book will change your life. More than answering the implied titular question, ?Why do we sleep??, Walker provides a cohesive overview of sleeping and dreaming that honestly everyone can probably benefit immensely from reading.

8. Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World ? David Epstein

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Most trends in parenting and education in recent days are focused on early specialization, but David Epstein presents a countercultural manifesto in favor of a plethora of general experiences until one has to specialize in a career. I heard former ?Mythbusters? host Adam Savage say in a podcast recently that ?it is all cross-applicable ? You will eventually use everything you have ever learned in the pursuit of your career.? That is, in a nutshell, Epstein?s argument. That is why outsiders so often solve big problems in an insular organization: they have a larger range of experiences and thus more fitting analogies to make in the process of problem solving. Epstein builds his argument through the use of psychological and sociological studies, history, case studies, and an overwhelming number of anecdotes. It truly changed how I thought about the world, and I continue to think about its ideas pretty often.

7. American History, Vols. 1 & 2 ? Thomas S. Kidd

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Yes, this is an American History textbook. But it?s not just any American History textbook. It?s concise, readable, and focused. It provides a fascinating overview of American history while still having the bandwidth to zoom in to specific stories of normal people and not just be a ?great man? history like so many. And more than all that, it also focuses on the importance of religion, for both good and bad, in the history of the United States. Because it is from a Christian publisher and it is made for Christian audience, Kidd can make mention of God throughout the narrative to talk about what people thought at the time. However, there is no assumption of God?s providence, as no history book should make such assumptions. Religion is used in order to help people understand the larger narrative and understand more about the religious history of America.

It neither whitewashes the history of the American founding nor only focuses on the negatives of our story, thus not succumbing to a simple narrative. Instead, it is clear, succinct, and professional. It?s the best comprehensive American history I?ve read.

6. The Great Pretender: The Undercover Mission That Changed Our Understanding of Madness ? Susannah Cahalan

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I wrote a thorough review of this one just a week or so ago, so I?ll sum up here. The Great Pretender investigates the 1973 psychological study ?On Being Sane In Insane Places? by David Rosenhan. In the study, eight participants (including Rosenhan) checked themselves in to psychiatric wards with symptoms of schizophrenia (saying they heard voices that said nothing but ?thud?, ?empty?, and ?hollow?), but in actuality these were what Rosenhan called ?pseudopatients?, perfectly healthy individuals that were reporting back to Rosenhan on the procedures and conditions of the mental hospitals. The study found, on average, that participants stayed in the psychiatric wards for 19 days even when they acted perfectly normal and exhibited no signs of mental illness after being admitted. The study had a huge impact on how people viewed psychiatry and how we treated mental illness, as it placed doubt on institutions? ability to diagnose and treat mental illness when they could not accurately tell the difference between sick and healthy individuals.

Cahalan does a masterful job of both analyzing the study and doing her amazing journalistic investigation (the Rosenhan study is not as clean or even as real as it first seems). She also provides a terrific (and sometimes terrifying) history of psychiatry and mental illness in the United States. From historical solutions to modern incarceration of vast amounts of people with mental illness, our societal treatments have not worked, and Cahalan points to a possible way out. It?s thrilling and well worth your time.

5. 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You ? Tony Reinke

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A Christian look at smartphones and their effects on our psychology, social interactions, and relationship with God, Tony Reinke?s book is a classic of this decade that I?ll want to come back to again before long. It changed my smartphone habits, made me more able to realize when I am being changed negatively by it, and has made me think about how to shape my children as well, especially when they are old enough to have smartphones (which is not anytime soon). I was even able to lead a discipleship class this year that studied the book and discussed how to use or not use our smartphones in our daily life. More than just a list of all the bad things about smartphones, Reinke analyzes their effects and asks you to consider how you want to use your smartphone in light of that.

4. Alexander Hamilton ? Ron Chernow

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The hefty biography that inspired the hit Broadway musical. Given my love for Hamilton, I had been meaning to read Alexander Hamilton for a while. Then this spring I had the opportunity to see Hamilton live in Dallas, so in the months leading up to it I read several books tangentially related to the musical. The first of these was Alexander Hamilton, and it did not disappoint in any way. It expertly analyzes the man behind much of the founding of our nation, it is thrilling on almost all 800 pages, and you see why Lin-Manuel Miranda just had to make a musical of it. It?s one of my top three biographies of all time, along with David Blight?s Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom and John A. Farrell?s Richard Nixon: The Life.

3. The Gospel Comes with a House Key ? Rosaria Butterfield

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I?m sad that I never was able to do a full review of this one at the time, because it has come to redefine how I think about hospitality, evangelism, and much of the Christian life. It is the only book that I have ever listened to on audio and then bought a physical copy. Because I?m going to keep coming back to it for a while. ?Radically ordinary hospitality?, according to Butterfield, is in essence having your house open to any number of people that you have made a connection and shared the gospel with over time. For Butterfield the house key is literal. When she shares the gospel, she gives them a house key to show how welcome they are in her house. This is because, if you are going to tell someone about the truth of Jesus, they may need somewhere to feel safe if they are going to make a life-changing decision. They may be shunned by their family, kicked out of their apartment, dumped by their significant other, and they may need you. Even if not, sharing the gospel in addition to sharing your home and life is simply more effective. I feel like I haven?t done a great job of explaining the key ideas of this book, so I encourage you to check it out for yourself. My wife is already naturally coming to some of the same ideas presented in this book as she works through how to use our new house to reach others, so I can imagine this book may shape our lives even more in the years to come.

2. Maybe You Should Talk To Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed ? Lori Gottlieb

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A book about a therapist who goes to therapy herself, Maybe You Should Talk To Someone is a memoir of Gottlieb?s experiences both with her therapist and with her own clients. Whether they are composites of several people or as close to reality as she can legally write them, the stories of her clients are heart-wrenching and heartwarming, showing real human struggle and positive change as a result of talk therapy. The idea of therapy being for everyone has always been something I instinctually accepted, but Maybe You Should Talk To Someone made it abundantly clear. I have seen people say they decided to go to therapy because of reading this book, and that may be all you need to know. It?s simply amazing, and I couldn?t stop reading it. I?ll probably go back and read it again before too long.

1. What Is a Girl Worth? ? Rachael Denhollander

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Sexual abuse, assault, and harassment had a huge year in books this year, probably because of the after-effects of the #MeToo movement. I read quite a few of them, and this one was far and away the best. Rachael Denhollander was the first to come forward about the sexual abuse of Larry Nassar towards his underage patients, many of them gymnasts for USA Gymnastics. Denhollander eventually became the public face for the case as well. What Is a Girl Worth? is a memoir of her story, but it is also a look at why victims stay silent, how abusers are protected, and how this culture also works its way into Christian churches. Her faith journey through all these experiences is one of the most touching parts of the book, as she wrestles with questions that anyone would given her circumstances. I hope it helps others in their faith walk as well. No matter your level of interaction with stories of sexual abuse up to this point, whether you have kept up with every story of the movement or you feel lost and confused, I could not recommend this book more highly.

Join with me to #ReadMoreIn2020.

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