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For the last two years, I kept track of each book I read throughout the year and reflected on them in December. Why did I choose to read them? What stood out about each book? It’s interesting to see some of the common threads through what I read and how one book led to reading another.
This list is in the order in which I read them this year.
As 2016 comes to a close and we head into 2017, if you’re looking for books to read, feel free to browse through this list. Happy reading!
The World Café: Shaping Our Futures Through Conversations That Matter | by Juanita Brown
Having led and facilitated discussions in the past, this book intrigued me because of the unique framework it provides for discussions. It offers a comprehensive answer to the question: How can we create more effective conversations in the public sphere? If you’re in education, business, or government, this is a book worth reading.
Learning to Walk in the Dark | by Barbara Brown Taylor
I was clamoring for this book, after living in NYC for just three months. From transitioning to a new job, to finding out I had a kidney stone, and wondering why the hell I moved to NYC, Brown’s words were a soothing balm. This book helped me to approach darkness and unknowing in a more grounded and mature way. While I often thought light was always “good” and dark is always “bad”, Brown draws on her life experiences as a pastor, as well as Scripture, to remind us of the lessons to be learned in the dark.
“…new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.” — Barbara Brown Taylor
The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness | by Karen Armstrong
The title was another one that jumped out to me during a rough time this year. I first saw Karen Armstrong, a former nun and religion scholar, on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday. Her life story, often filled with uncertainty and nagging doubts about faith, was a refreshing reminder that doubts are more than okay. They are often the path to transformation. And her own battle with what she eventually found out to be epilepsy, provided me strength as I had to face two surgeries, in April and May.
Making Peace with Your Parents: The Key to Enriching Your Life and All Your Relationships | by Harold Bloomfield, M.D.
Whether you believe you have amazing or terrible parents, or somewhere in between, all of us were wounded by our parents in one way or another. Parents are human and imperfect, just as their children are. This book provides some pretty powerful exercises and insights, in order to help a person come to terms with their parents. It’s also a useful guide for mending many types of relationships.
Immortal Diamond: The Search for our True Self | by Richard Rohr
Rohr is one of my favorites and a voice of faith that we so desperately need at this point in human history. Other people probably struggle with this, but I often find myself wondering “who am I”? As only Rohr can do, he makes discussions about the “true self” and “false self” digestible for the everyman. His blend of spirituality and psychology is useful for anyone looking for a holistic approach to faith.
“Metaphor is the only possible language available to religion because it alone is honest about Mystery.” — Richard Rohr
The Seven Storey Mountain | by Thomas Merton
Merton continues to be one of my models of faith and spirituality. But I honestly didn’t really know that much about him. Reading his autobiography gave me a much deeper understanding of his life and the different circumstances that shaped his view of the spiritual life. And who knew Thomas Merton was once in a fraternity at Columbia University?! The fact he spent time at Columbia and in Harlem was a fun connection, since I find myself there as well. This is a long read, but fascinating if you want to know the man that was Merton.
A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life | by Parker Palmer
Palmer was another person that I first heard about through Oprah — thanks, O! If I had to pick one book as my favorite for 2016, this would be it. The first half delves into the ins and outs of living a whole, undivided life. Palmer’s gentle and insightful words will challenge you to take a brutally honest look at the way you’re living your life. I don’t want to say much more, but if you are serious about living an integrated life, read this book in the coming year.
“Wholeness does not mean perfection; it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life. ” — Parker Palmer
Soulcraft: Crossing Into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche | by Bill Plotkin
I think I was drawn to this book earlier in the year because I felt a disconnect from nature and was interested in the connection Plotkin makes between psychology and nature. As a wilderness guide, Plotkins brings really interesting thoughts about the connection between nature and soul; inner and outer. From shadow work to wilderness vision fasts, I’ll admit some of it was a little “woo woo”, even for me. But compelling nonetheless.
The Way of the Heart: Connecting with God Through Prayer, Wisdom, and Silence | by Henri Nouwen
Henri Nouwen is another one of the Christian spiritual teachers I look to for wisdom and practice. Although this book is pretty small, it has a strong foundation, centered on three spiritual practices: solitude, silence, and prayer. Nouwen’s challenge to approach each of these disciplines is bold without seeming overwhelming. If you’re a person who lives the spiritual life primarily from your head, these three disciplines are an excellent avenue back into the body.
Conscious Uncoupling: 5 Steps to Living Happily Even After |
by Kathleen Woodward Thomas
This was one book I didn’t expect to read this year. The end of relationships are often a brutal time for the heart. When I realized my ex and I wouldn’t continue our relationship, I wanted to approach it in a thoughtful way — as best I could. It’s easy to poke fun at this idea of conscious uncoupling, but I truly believe having an ugly, throw down breakup is the easier path. Anger and blame can seem effortless. Conscious uncoupling, however, requires reaching into the depths of oneself that I wasn’t ready for and honestly feels unnatural to some degree. In the midst of a difficult breakup, I’m glad I reached for Thomas’ wisdom. I recommend this read, with caution. The approach Thomas advocates is not at all a cake-walk.
Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People | by Nadia Bolz-Weber
I chose this book because I’ve always been intrigued by Bolz-Weber — the tattooed, foul-mouthed, irreverent pastor, based in Denver. Her honesty about the messiness of loving others and self is refreshing. Her vulnerability about her own struggles challenges the reader to look at the complexities of life and that the “gray areas” are where life happens. Few things in life are black and white. I especially appreciated her honest approach to community: if you’re not wiling to be let down and stick around for the long haul, community is probably not for you.
“I have come to realize that all the saints I’ve known have been accidental ones — people who inadvertently stumbled into redemption like they were looking for something else at the time, people who have just a wee bit of a drinking problem and manage to get sober and help others to do the same, people who are as kind as they are hostile.” — Nadia Bolz-Weber
Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation | by Parker Palmer
What is my “calling”? That’s a question that often lingers in my head and one that can haunt me, if I let it run wild. Palmer shares many heartfelt stories about his life journey and how he got to where he is today. How he stumbled upon his life’s work. His tender and honest musings about depression are welcome for anyone who has or is struggling with depression. While this isn’t a five-step blueprint to discover your calling, it will help you to wrestle with and listen to those small voices in your self that are eager to be heard.
The Internet Is My Religion | by James Gilliam
This was one of two books I received when I started working at Meetup. If you’re hankering for an autobiographical thriller, here you go. I confess I was pretty stressed while reading this book. Gilliam faced what seemed like insurmountable odds (a terminal illness) and a whole lot of loss. This reminded me what a gift every single day is and to not take for granted health or life. A frank story of how we are all connected and we need to tackle the problems we face, together.
Little Victories: Little Victories: Perfect Rules for Imperfect Living |
by Jason Gay
I was gifted this book and while I thought the cover was cute, I was like, “How am I going to connect with a guy who writes about sports for a living?” Hint: I never watch sports. This book was so much fun to read. Gay is self-deprecating, witty, and someone I’d actually like to hang out with! If you’re a fan of advice-y books, but looking for a light-hearted read, this will be just the right fit.
Ten Day in a Mad-House | by Nellie Bly
Next time you’re in New York, be sure to take the tram and visit Roosevelt Island (formerly Blackwell’s Island). This true story is about a courageous woman who goes undercover to expose the abusive practices at a woman’s “insane asylum” in the late 1880’s. It’s a stark reminder of the crap women have had to put up since the beginning of time (from men) and the power of taking risks to blow the whistle on a corrupt system.
Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life | by Henri Nouwen
What, exactly, are the ingredients that make up the spiritual life? Nouwen introduces three fascinating movements: reaching out to our innermost self (loneliness to solitude), reaching out to others (hostility to hospitality), and reaching out to God (illusion to prayer). My favorite part was his powerful word about creating space for strangers and different forms of hospitality. In a nation where being inhospitable to strangers seems to be on the rise, this is a much needed reminder of the role people of faith have to welcome the stranger.
How to Be Here: A Guide to Creating a Life Worth Living | by Rob Bell
This was a particularly special read because I attended an 8-hour event in Brooklyn, where Bell talked about the ideas in this book. The most significant takeaway from this book is to take new projects, endeavors, and goals step by step. Take the very first, tiny step toward a goal, instead of dwelling how I will get all the way to Z from A. Just begin!
“We rob ourselves of immeasurable joy when we compare what we do know about ourselves with what we don’t know about someone else.” — Rob Bell
When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times | by Pema Chodron
Even though Parker Palmer’s “A Hidden Wholeness” was my most treasured book of the year, this one would be a very close second. This book really woke me up to all of the energy and effort I put into trying to keep everything “together”. The fear is that if I don’t perform good enough or lively “perfectly”, everything will turn to chaos. The real challenge is realizing the ups and down are all part of the journey. This is a must read if you had a rough 2016. Start 2017 with Pema Chodron!
Interfaith Leadership: A Primer | by Eboo Patel
I first heard Patel on an episode of my favorite podcast, On Being with Krista Tippett. I’m very interested in being involved in interfaith work and Patel, who is Muslim, gives an honest blueprint for how an interfaith leader can approach such work. My hope is to use some of his insights to get to know people of other faiths more deeply in 2017 and beyond.
The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of the Legendary Catholic Social Activist | by Dorothy Day
I love hearing directly from strong women. Dorothy Day was one of the final women I read in 2016. While I knew a bit about her, her autobiography gave so much more insight into how the Catholic Worker Movement started and how their philosophy and works spread across the nation and world. She was another person who spent a lot of time in New York City — on the Lower East Side. This book gave me hope and motivation to make a difference…especially in the midst of Donald Trump winning the presidency.
Go Tell It On the Mountain | by James Baldwin
This was one of the few pieces of fiction I read the entire year. I was drawn to this book because James Baldwin was born in Harlem (where I now live) in 1924. This was my first experience of his writing and I was touched by his poetic and powerful narrative. The characters were complex and the way we weaved together themes of race and religion was super interesting.
Giovanni’s Room | by James Baldwin
This is probably the most well known book written by Baldwin, who himself was gay. Reading this brought back memories of when I first fell in love with a guy and all of the emotions that came with it. I saw many of the guys I’ve loved in the character of Giovanni and saw myself in David, the main character. Love, shame, loss, connection, and heartache are all weaved together in this beautiful novel.
The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times | by Pema Chodron
When confronted with a fearful or tough situation, do you clench, tighten up, and retract or open up, soften, and relax? If your reaction is usually the former (which is the case for me), Chodron’s wisdom in this book will be a lifesaver. Connecting with ourselves and others leads to a more peaceful and gentle world. It ain’t easy, but it’s worth trying.
Preparing for Christmas: Daily Meditations for Advent | by Richard Rohr
What I love about Advent is that it creates space to intentionally slow down, even while the hectic rush and bustle is happening throughout society. This was the second year I read through this small book. Rohr presents the reader with really important and challenging questions about faith, self, and the season we find ourselves in.
White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide | by Carol Anderson
When it comes to race in America, how did we get to where we are today? Anderson’s thoroughly researched book is a must-read if, like me, your knowledge of systemic racism in America is not what it should be. From the deconstruction of Reconstruction to Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement, to today’s intense voter suppression efforts led by the Republican Party, this should be required for anyone who is interested in fighting for a racially just nation.
What did you read in 2016? Write in the comments, so I can start compiling a list for 2017!