The best books I’ve read this year (2021 edition)

2021 has been a banner year on the reading front, but maybe not exactly what I expected. My grandson’s entry into the world sent me to probe the depths of the Dr. Seuss and PD Eastman cannons, release the classics Berenstain Bears, and see how well I can nail the tongue twisters of Fox in socks. I can’t wait until he’s old enough for The Chronicles of Narnia, Beverly Cleary, Harry Potter and so many more.

That being said, I’ve also managed to do a fair amount of personal reading – I haven’t quite hit the 200-pound mark this year, but I’m looking to record around 180 volumes or so. Having less time for my own studies forced me to prioritize things that I really wanted to read, which ended up being a good thing.

I have already praised here the incredible novel by Sigrid Undset Kristin lavransdatter, so let’s consider this one as a gift. Here are ten of the other books that I bought this year that really made an impact.

The decline of the West (Oswald Spengler)

Spengler’s opus is a massive and fuzzy interpretation of world history on the largest scale possible. Simply put, his project boils down to a theory of the defining characteristics and life cycles of the great cultures of the world, ranging from Mesoamerican to Babylonian to Russian. In Spengler’s account, the great cultures are unified by the metaphysical representations of the world in their respective hearts – from the “Way” of the Egyptians to the “garden” of the Chinese. As a culture ages, the response of its inhabitants to this image of the world inevitably shifts from religious awe to rationalism, scientism and decadence. Of course, any work like this is inherently daring and extravagant, and there are plenty of places one can poke holes in Spengler’s thesis, but I could hardly let go of this book. This is what genius looks like.

Aspects of Truth: A New Religious Metaphysics (Catherine Pickstock)

Aspects of truth, the latest volume from the great dean of the Radical Orthodoxy movement, is a resounding articulation and defense of the Christian philosophical tradition against virtually all assailants – from the two the analytical and continental traditions of philosophy. In its depth and breadth, Aspects of truth is to metaphysics what Alasdair MacIntyre Ethics in the conflicts of modernity is to moral philosophy. It is decidedly not an entry-level job and probably requires a university education in philosophical theology to really enjoy, but those with a taste for intellectual brilliance will find a lot to like here.

The ecclesiastical text: criticism, biblical authority and popular spirit (Théodore P. Letis)

In this collection of essays, the late scholar (and Lutheran theologian) Theodore Letis makes a provocative argument that the Protestant quest for the “original autographs” of Scripture is wrong, giving way too much to modernist methods. Instead, Letis argues that what matters is the ecclesiastical text handed down by the church through time (perhaps even including supposedly “later” texts like the Johannine comma and the long ending of Mark. ) – a position that brought him into the strange company of KJV-onlyists. In doing so, Letis defends an understanding of sola scripturawhich fully recognizes the fact that the Bible exists in, with and for the church. Whatever your denominational allegiance, the unconventional and surprisingly brilliant case of Letis deserves your attention.

Between two fires (Christophe Buehlman)

The only way I can describe this historical horror-thriller novel is something like “Cormac McCarthy’s The road mixed with that of Frank Peretti This darkness presents, which takes place during the Black Death. It’s a high-testosterone roller coaster of a book that manages to be both spectacularly gruesome, theologically sophisticated, and deeply moving.

Old Path White Clouds: Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha (Thích Nhất Hạnh)

If, like me, your exposure to the Buddhist tradition has been mostly limited to fragments of pop culture, the intellectual biography of Siddhartha Gautama by Thích Nhất Hạnh is the perfect entry point for further study. In easy and accessible prose, Old path of white clouds describes the early history and fundamentals of Theravada Buddhism, explaining complex ideas that might otherwise seem foreign to those of us with a completely Western worldview. Yes, it’s 600 pages, but they go by fast.

Halakhah: the rabbinical idea of ​​the law (Chaim N. Saiman)

I will freely admit that over the years I haven’t read much about Jewish “Tradition”! this violin on the roof‘s Tevye so famously defended – let alone the complex legal web of Torah reflections that have developed within Jewish scholarship for millennia. Saiman’s study on halacha, or Jewish law, is an accessible scholarly introduction to how these laws emerged over time and how they actually work in practice. Saiman makes the compelling argument that debates over the most obscure points of law – covering impossible situations that would never happen in reality – are, in a sense, religious devotions, discussions through which all things of the world can be seen as ordained to God. . A perfect read for the curious and legal-minded soul.

The invention of religion in Japan (Jason Ananda Josephson Storm)

Josephson Storm offers an interdisciplinary exploration of how the notoriously controversial concept of ‘religion’ – as a central category encompassing traditions as different as Christianity and Buddhism – became rooted in a Japanese civilization that had no native word for this concept. Most notable is this book’s exploration of the deliberate construction of a “Shinto state” ideology as a uniquely Japanese tool for navigating westernized modernity. This required the development of a new theology drawing on Japanese folk traditions and combining them with a new appreciation of Western science and industrialization, to the point of even re-designing the afterlife as a mechanized fantasia rather than as a the traditional grassy fields. In short, Josephson Storm’s argument points to the uncomfortable suggestion that attempts to revive cultural traditions in the face of hostile cross-pressures are inevitably transformations of these traditions. If you liked Charles Taylor A secular age and want to take it to the next level, this volume is for you.

Klara and the sun (Kazuo Ishiguro)

Like everything Ishiguro writes, Klara and the sun is a treasure. This latest novel tells, in the first person, the story of Klara, an “artificial friend” (semi-sensitive robot) responsible for serving as a companion to the sick human girl Josie. As a solar powered automaton, Klara depends on the sun for all things and comes to worship it as a god. And as Josie’s illness progresses, it quickly becomes clear that Klara’s role may not be what she initially envisioned, forcing Klara to trust powers beyond her. -same. Culminating in one of the best endings Ishiguro has ever written, this book is a powerful journey through memory, identity, and every rational creature’s compelling orientation to the divine.

The structure of scientific revolutions (Thomas S. Kuhn)

Kuhn’s groundbreaking volume is the kind of text that steadily makes its way into college curricula, but no one actually reads it. At its core, it is a thoughtful examination of the historical contingencies underlying what counts as “science.” Instead of reflecting a smooth progression from ignorance to knowledge, Kuhn argues, the history of science must portray a tradition torn apart by fundamental, game-changing paradigm shifts, after which scientists use different methods to answer different questions. The implications of Kuhn’s thesis are far-reaching, especially once they really sink in; internalize Kuhn, and you will inevitably be uncomfortable with occasional public calls to “what the science tells us.” (A reading worthy of follow-up is that of Bruno Latour We were never modern.)

Before Auschwitz: What Christian Theology Should Learn from the Rise of Nazism (Paul R. Hinlicky)

In this hard-to-categorize volume, Lutheran theologian Paul Hinlicky examines historical research on German Lutheran complicity with Hitler’s Reich from an overtly theological perspective, asking tough questions about political quietude, the metaphysics of theology. Nazi and the relationship of the Christian Church to anti-Semitism history. While Hinlicky’s own constructive theological propositions are more suggestive than systematic, this is not a drawback; Before Auschwitz is a unique work of meta-history that is keenly aware of the inevitable ways in which theological commitments (of whatever sort) shape historical analysis, and the book even points to a decidedly “postliberal” Lutheran critique of liberal society. -modern capitalist. I will come back to this one several times in the years to come.


Some honorable mentions should be Albion’s Seed: Four British Folk Traditions in America (David Hackett Fischer), Hail Mary project (Andy Weir), and The flamboyant world (Siri Hustvedt).

What are your favorite books from 2021? Feel free to share in the comments!

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