Comment & Analysis

Favourite books of 2016

So much of life, particularly today, constitutes an unconscious conspiracy against reading. Lack of time, the pressure of our jobs, and electronic technology, among other things, are more and more putting books out of reach and out of mind. There is never enough time to read. 

The upside of this is that when I do find time to pick up a book this becomes a precious, cherished time. And so I try to pick books that I read carefully: I read reviews, listen to colleagues, and keep track of my favourite authors. 

I also try to make sure that my reading diet, each year, includes some spiritual books (including at least one historical classic), some biographies, some novels, and some essays.

Among the books that I read this year, these are the ones that touched me. I cannot promise that they will touch you, but each of them left me with something.

Among books in spirituality:

Gil Bailie, God’s Gamble, The Gravitational Power of Crucified Love. Bailie again takes up Rene Girard’s anthropology to shed some new light on how the cross of Christ is the most monumental moral and religious event in history. The text is very dense and (truthfully) a tough read, but its insights are exceptional.

Heather King, Shirt of Flame, A Year with Saint Therese of Lisieux. This book will make for a very good, private retreat for anyone struggling with an addiction or obsession, or just with mediocrity in his or her spiritual life. 

Christophe Lebreton, Born From the Gaze of God, The Tibhirine Journal of A Martyr Monk, 1993-1996. This is the diary of one of the Trappist monks who was martyred in Algeria in 1996. It is the intimate journal of a young man which chronicles how he moves from paralysing fear to the strength for martyrdom. 

Kathleen Dowling Singh, two books: The Grace in Dying and The Grace in Aging. According to Singh, the process of aging and dying is exquisitely calibrated to bring us into the realm of spirit. In these two remarkable books, she traces this out with the depth that, outside of the great classical mystics, I have not seen.

Christine M. Bochen, Editor, The Way of Mercy. This is a series of remarkable essays on mercy, including some by Pope Francis and Walter Kasper.

The Cloud of Unknowing. I finally had the chance to study this classic in some depth and it is, no doubt, the signature book on contemplation and centering prayer.

Among biographies and essays:

Marilynne Robinson, The Givenness of Things, Essays. These essays are dense, deep, robustly sane, and are Marilynne Robinson, the gifted novelist, at her religious best. 

Michael N. McGregor, Pure Act, The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax. This is the biography of the man who was Thomas Merton’s closest soul-friend, lived out his life as a secular monk, and who carried his solitude at a very high and noble level. It will help re-awaken your idealism.

Fernando Cardenal, Faith and Joy, Memoirs of a Revolutionary Priest. This is a great read about an exceptional man, a priest and a Jesuit, who played a leading role in Daniel Ortega’s government in Nicaragua and was commanded by John Paul to step down. It is a private journal that tells the other side of what much of history has one-sidedly recorded about the struggles for justice in Latin America. 

Daniel Berrigan, Essential Writings, Edited by John Dear. Daniel Berrigan died in late April of this year. His writings set the compass for what it means to be a Christian prophet, and this is an excellent selection of his writings. 

Three books that deal with facing aging and dying:

Michael Paul Gallagher, Into Extra Time, Living Through the Final Stages of Cancer and Jottings along the Way. A man of faith and letters, Gallagher shares the journal he kept during the last nine months of his life, when he already knew he was dying.

Katie Roiphe, The Violet Hour, Great Writers at the End. How did a number of great writers, including Sigmund Freud, John Updike and Susan Sontag, face terminal illness? This book tells us how. 

Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air. This is a remarkable journal of a young doctor facing a terminal diagnosis that documents his courage, faith, and insight.

Three novels that I recommend:

Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train. This didn’t make for a great movie, but the book is a page-turner.

Ian McEwan, Nutshell and Edna O’Brien, The Little Red Chairs. The pedigree of these two authors alone is enough of a recommendation, but neither will disappoint you here.

A wildcard:

Kenneth Rolheiser, Dreamland and Soulscapes, A Prairie Love Story. Full disclosure, Kenneth is my brother and I lived through many of the stories he shares, so there is admittedly a huge bias here. But the book delivers on its title and will give you a more realistic sense of what it was like to grow up in a Little House on the Prairies. 

Happy reading!