Best Books and Authors of 2014

This past year has been a full year of reading. Over 100 books were read from cover to cover with many others tasted, dipped into, scanned, skimmed, gleaned from, started, stopped, bought, shelved, coveted, and delighted in.

I find it more difficult some years to simply name the best 10 books.  For that reason, I recently posted “50 Books Good and Great Read in 2014.”

Some books are really enjoyable. They are page turners, but they have little deeper impact. There is nothing wrong with a book that is merely enjoyable. There is no need to try to find some nutrition facts about coconut crème pie. The nutritional value is this: Eating it brings pleasure. So it is with some books. Some books are like painful exercise. It is good to have read them, but not all that enjoyable. Other books are like the ocean. One reads the book knowing that it is good and great and profound, while the immediate experience of reading it yields only a beginning knowledge of it.

So, that being said, the books are here. There is only some method in the ordering of the books. I have no explanation why one is # 7 instead of being #5. On the first 2 or 3, the ranking is deliberate, but the ordering becomes less clear to me as the numbers continue.

1. Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War and Winston’s War: Churchill 1940-1945 by Max Hastings.
Reading on World War I in 2014 was to be expected of a history teacher. Hastings’ book Catastrophe 1914 seemed as good as any to tackle, although there are several others I still hope to acquire. Hastings has written mostly on World War II, but his study of the First World War was incredible. The only unbelievable part of this book is the fact that it only covered the first year of the war. I hope Hastings does another book on that most depressing, but history changing war.

Several years ago, I noticed the book Winston’s War: Churchill 1940-1945 by Hastings. My thought at the time was “Why yet another book on Churchill?” But after reading Hastings’ book Catastrophe, I was drawn to buy and read this book.  There is much that is familiar in the story of Churchill, but Winston’s War, more than any book I have previously read, made me aware of Churchill’s personality, foibles, and failures. He was a flawed man. His influence in the war waned considerably as the years went by. His judgments were limited and some of his proposed actions would have been disastrous. Yet, the man was great. Thank God that he was where he was from 1939 on.
I have two more Hastings books on the shelf waiting for this next year.

2. The Discovery of God : The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief by Rodney Stark. Several years ago, I asked for and received The Discovery of God for Christmas. I had whipped through several of Stark’s previous volumes, so I started this book, but soon abandoned it. To the shelf it went, breaking the book’s heart, I’m sure. Then this year, I was teaching a course on World Civilization. I was slammed against the wall of my own ignorance. True love waits, and The Discovery of God waited until I needed this book for my own understanding of ancient religions, Greek and Roman religions, and Eastern religions.  I would not dare enter into a World Civilization course without having this book at my side. I now look forward to reading Stark’s other recent books on the Crusades (God’s Battalions) and How the West Won:  The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity.

3. Coolidge by Amity Shlaes. This book was started in 2013, then put aside for a long time, and then read through to the end. Shlaes is a wonderful historian who has shaken the conventional (liberal leaning) views of the Great Depression and the New Deal. This book thoroughly dismantles another myth–that of the lazy, un-intellectual, ineffective Calvin Coolidge. One thing is clear from this book: We need another Calvin Coolidge. The chapters on Coolidge’s budget cutting are incredible. He was an effective, forceful, clear thinking leader. I hope the next President of the United States has read, reread, taken notes on, and imbibed this book.

4. Another Sort of Learning and The Classical Moment: Selected Essays on Knowledge and Its Pleasures by James V. Schall. I first read Another Sort of Learning back in 1990 and thought it was interesting, but odd. I reread portions of it in 1997, being then in the transition years from public schooling to classical Christian education. This year I read it again and was amazed at how much better Schall is. Okay, I reckon I am the one who has grown. Later this year, I read The Classical Moment. This is a collection of 53 short essays. I tried to space them out, consuming one a day, but on many days I cheated and read two. James Schall is incredibly well read. He has thought deeply, profoundly, amusingly on a wide range of topics and from a wide hosts of writers. He is liable to reference Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and Charlie Brown in the same paragraph. He is also addicting.  I want all of James V. Schall’s books.

5. Calvinism: A History by D. G. Hart. I am now convinced that this was the year to finish books started the year before. This is a very scholarly, detailed history of Calvin, his peers, and his heirs. While many of the usual stories and accounts are found here, there are quite a few other interesting sidelights. For the sake of length, this is a good study. But Hart neglected to cover Calvinists of the Baptist and Anglican tradition.

6. Hard Times by Charles Dickens. A few years back, I landed the really nice multi-volume Oxford edition of Dickens’ works. Then I wondered why I got it. I have not been overly driven to read extensively from Dickens, preferring American and more recent authors. Hard Times has changed my mind. Dickens is not always smooth reading. And he is puzzling. At one moment, he is biting and rugged; at another, he is light-hearted or satirical; at another, he is wordy and elaborate, and then he is concise. This particular book is a powerful message to teachers. It is also a powerful reminder of the importance of art and poetry and imagination.

I will also add two other Dickens’ related books. I very much enjoyed reading and teaching A Tale of Two Cities again this year. It is not a typical Dickens’ story, but it is a good historical novel. The book God and Charles Dickens Gary Colledge was a great read and a convincing book. I hope to read a couple of Dickens’ novels each year now.

7. What is a Teacher? edited by Claudia Allums. This is the book that convinced me to read Hard Times. This book is about great literature, or more specifically, about teachers who appear in great literature.  The focus is largely on the stories themselves, but there is application to teachers in the classroom.  If literature is analogous to life, then the accounts of teachers (not all of whom work in classroom settings) are analogous to those of us who teach.  The essays are about works by Melville (Moby Dick), Dostoevsky (Father Zosima in Brothers Karamazov), Faulkner (Sam Fathers in Go Down, Moses), Dickens (Gradagrind in Hard Times) , and others. Dr. Larry Allums’ essay on Sam Fathers from Faulkner was the first essay I read, and that essay alone is worth the price of this nice hardback book. And not to be neglected, this book concludes with an essay on Shakespeare’s play The Tempest by Dr. Louise Cowan.  Anyone who know me knows how high I value Dr. Cowan’s writings.

8. The Kill Artist, The English Assassin, The Prince of Fire, The Confessor, and The Messenger by Daniel Silva. These books took me far away from the normal fare of my reading. These are a part of the Gabriel Allon spy thriller series by Silva. Prior to these books, I had hardly ever read such novels. They are fast paced, brutal at points, page turners. I have to blame George Grant for alluring me into the shady world of spies, foreign intelligence, counter-terrorism, and trained assassins. Had the books been about a teacher having to grade papers, I would have been truly horrified. But, the mere stories of a trained assassin stalking and killing bad guys was quite a stress reliever and actually fun to read.

9. Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev. I try to follow a modern easy-to-read page turner with a classic. Last fall, I read Fathers and Sons for the second time. The first time was many years ago. This was an emotionally moving story. It is a powerful critique of materialism and Nihilism. It is the clash of generations, the battle between tradition and modernity, the search for meaning amidst different philosophies of life. The spiritual values triumph. As opposed to some of the really long and complicated Russian novels, this work is relatively short, but unforgettable.

10. Necessary Endings: The Employees, Businesses, and Relationships That All of Us Have To Give Up In Order to Move Forward by Henry Cloud. This is yet another book that I normally would not have read or noticed. But it was pertinent for this past year. Life is full of transitions. Some are happy; some not. Sometimes, we are climbing the ladder of success; sometimes we are sinking in troubles. So, this was the year for this book.

Coming Soon:  Current Readings and Reviews.

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