And how I categorise my reading
So in 2017 I finished 57 books across 3 broad categories of reading.
(I say finished because there was another 20 plus I left unfinished either out of disinterest or something else catching my attention — more on that in a bit.)
I didn’t feel like that was a whole lot (I’d hoped to read more) I still often get friends asking how I manage to read as much as I do, so I’ll share a bit about that as well.
The thing to note, though, is I didn’t go into 2017 with a reading goal, except you count my decision to record what I was reading. (That was inspired by a number of articles like this, but most especially Mark Amaza’s—catch his 2017 summary here.) The 3 categories of reading were an idea I got from How to Read a Book. (The irony wasn’t lost on me that it was one of my last reads!)
So I’ll briefly explain the 3 categories and what they represent, list my top 3 reads (and an honourable mention) in each category and end with how I do my reading.
My Reading Categories
So like I said, I got the idea from How to Read a Book, by Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren (a book that’s totally in my top reads). In it the authors discuss the importance when reading of knowing what kind of book is before you, and they defined a few broad categories:
The fiction category is self-explanatory, but here’s how they explain the theoretical and practical categories:
Theoretical books teach you that something is the case. Practical books teach you how to do something you want to do or think you should do.
Another way to think of it is that theoretical books are about ideas—how things are or should be, while practical books are about tactics—what to do to get certain results (which would include most self-help). I like this model very much, so I not only decided to adopt it for how I’ll be thinking about my reading going forward, I also found it helpful for thinking about my 2017 reading.
In my simplified version, my reading is in 3 basic categories: fiction, practical and thought (which I prefer to “theoretical”). I was pleasantly surprised, when I tallied it up, to find that I had a roughly balanced literary diet by category.
- Fiction: 22 books
- Practical 18 books
- Thought: 17 books
And with that, let’s launch into my top 3 books (and the honourable mentions) in each category.
Top fiction reads
Worm is a rich and rewarding ride into a world that you never knew existed, but which is instantly recognisable. The main character is a girl who can control bugs—a power that seems pretty weak, as powers go. Think again. Because things (powers as well as situations) get complicated real fast. And that’s one of the beautiful things about Worm: the level of thought Wildbow (real name, John Charles McCrae) puts into it is insane. It’s the kind of book that rewards multiple reads (this year was my second time).
But Worm is more than about powers. It’s more than about superheroes. It’s about right and wrong and the gray areas where they bleed into each other. It’s about trauma, physical and emotional, and how it shapes us, and how we in turn shape one another. Ultimately, it’s about being human, with all that entails, including a lot of language and violence (and some truly gruesome scenes), which could be a problem for some people.
You can start reading Worm here: parahumans.wordpress.com. Be warned though: it runs for over 1,600,000 words. (That’s over 25 typical novels’ worth—or 10 very thick novels). It’s a web serial, published weekly for over two years: think a TV series, only in writing. I’m currently enjoying following the twice-weekly sequel, Ward, but I don’t recommend jumping into that until you’ve read this.
I read nine Stephen King novels this year, including his latest, written in collaboration with his son, Sleeping Beauties. Nine. Don’t ask me why. I enjoyed most of them, though. I really like King, anyway.
Anyway, I read It because of the upcoming movie, and because I realised that for some reason I hadn’t read the book all this time. So I did, and I realised why it’s a King classic. It was a rollicking read. It’s a story about the power of friendship and how that power stands up against bullies, both physical and metaphysical. And while it gets very dark (especially with a particular scene any reader will recognise), it means beauty gets to shine even more brightly. Get the book here.
(Also, it’s clear at this point that my taste in fiction runs toward the dark. Whatever. Not keen on grimdark, though.)
Ready Player One—Ernest Cline
Like with It, I read Ready Player One because I saw the trailer for the upcoming Spielberg-directed movie and loved the concept. Apparently it was a big hit that I somehow hadn’t heard of. But a futuristic story about an online virtual world and avatars and Easter eggs and a gaming challenge that brings real world fortune? Count me in.
I totally enjoyed Ready Player One. Some of that is the appeal to my childhood with all the references, but a lot of it was just the story itself. It’s a simple enough story, but the worldbuilding was solid, and the characters lovable. That said, when I was done, I wasn’t sure I wanted to read more from the author: it felt like the kind of book I want to read just one of, if that makes sense. Get the book here.
The Lord of the Rings—JRR Tolkien. I’ve read The Lord of the Rings every year for 8 years now. It’s yet to lose its charm and its hold on me, and I’m not even a true LotR geek. It’s just my favourite story ever, period.
Top practical reads
What Did You Expect? Redeeming the Realities of Marriage—Paul Tripp
This is possibly the best book on marriage that I’ve ever read. It’s honest, it’s raw, it’s real. Right from the start, Paul Tripp goes for the jugular: marriage is two flawed, broken people trying to become one whole unit. Of course that is not going to be intuitive, never mind what the movies tell us.
This book begins with that reality of brokenness, and goes on from there to talk about not just why a commitment to forgiveness and reconciliation and intimacy are vital, but also how that commitment can be built in practice. It got repetitive in places, but it’s good enough that I gave it a five stars even so. Get it here.
How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading—Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren
The “classic” in this book’s title is no joke. This book, written in 1940, does not fail to be referenced in any book about reading. It’s one of those books that, because it teaches you new stuff about stuff you thought you knew well is humbling in the best way—humbling in the way one should never outgrow.
And I learned a lot. And not just about reading. In the first chapter alone, there’s a discussion on the art of reading that offers brilliant insights into communication, teaching and education as well. Here’s one:
It may be seriously questioned whether the advent of modern communications media has much enhanced our understanding of the world in which we live… We do not have to know everything about something in order to understand it; too many facts are often as much of an obstacle to understanding as too few. There is a sense in which we moderns are inundated with facts to the detriment of understanding.
Keep in mind, this was written in 1940—when social media wasn’t even a thing. It’s almost prophetic. Get the book here.
(Side note: I found people’s reactions to my mentioning this book amusingly ironic. I was reminded of the Dunning-Kruger effect: the more you know, the more aware you are of what you don’t know. And vice versa.)
The 12 Week Year: How to Get More Done in 12 Weeks Than Others Do in 12 Months—Brian Moran and Michael Lennington
This was, for obvious reasons, my year-end electronic read (I’m usually reading at least one physical and one electronic book). I think the best practical books change what you do by changing how you think—that is, they are in a sense also “thought” books. This is not one of those books. It’s practical through and through, a manual, almost. But it’s a darn good manual, once you accept its basic premises, which it sets out really early and so it can get that out of the way.
The main premise: a year makes no sense for planning. It’s too long and gives the illusion of abundant time. So the authors advocate 12-weekly blocks instead with focused goals, then rinse and repeat. The book is 21 chapters and the first four are about convincing you that this makes sense. The rest is about making it happen. I intend to apply it going into the new year, obviously. Get it here.
- Building a StoryBrand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen—Donald Miller. I’ve followed Don Miller’s StoryBrand for awhile, and known about his scripting method for copywriting. But reading the book was still very helpful in terms of thinking things through, and it was responsible for a key moment of clarity I had towards the end of the year.
- A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracted World — Paul Miller. Perhaps the best book on prayer I’ve read — and I’ve read a lot. I struggle with prayer — always have — but this book not only acknowledged that struggle and showed me (very practically) how to lean into it instead of simply feeling guilty.
Top thought reads
Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow—Yuval Noah Harari
Homo Deus was one of my first reads this year, and it’s one of those books that really changes how you see things, which for me is what defines the best books. Harari is a good writer, and although I feel he overplays the implications of his insights, the insights themselves are stunning.
The biggest insight for me: humanity’s biggest strength is also its greatest potential weakness: our ability to weave narratives (which he calls “fictions”—a term I consider problematic, but that’s a subject for another post). It’s a theme he developed in Homo Sapiens, his first—and immensely popular—book, but here he develops it in an attempt to predict the future. His success is debatable but the insights are worth it nonetheless. Get it here.
The Whole Christ—Sinclair Ferguson
This was a groundbreaking book. I’ve always had some theology as part of my reading diet but I was deliberate about trying to do more this year. This was an accidental find. I stumbled upon it via ChristianAudio.com’s free monthly audiobook, but it was so good that by the second chapter, I decided I needed to read it so I could think it through more carefully. I consider that decision one of my best this year.
I know quite a bit of theology, but this book helped me come to terms with things I was taking for granted about my faith. Faith-wise, no other book has affected my thinking as much, not only this year, but in a while. I’d known of Ferguson (he’s quite well-known as a theologian), but hadn’t read him, and now he’s someone I’m certainly looking out for. Find the book here.
You Are What You Love—James K A Smith
This book made me rethink one of the biggest questions I think about: why we do what we do. Smith’s key insight is that we are driven, not merely by emotion or reason, but by desire: or as he calls it, telos. We are driven by what we long for.
He develops this idea, not from science or psychology but from the Bible and an appeal to ancient thinkers, who he argues were on to something. He makes his case well, however, and I found his insights helpful for thinking about what we’ve learned from the last century about the limitations of human reason, without settling for the (it seems to me) rather too simplistic fallback that we are simply irrational. Buy here.
The Three Languages of Politics: Talking Across the Political Divides—Arnold Kling. This came recommended via an article I read on engaging with people different from you, a skill I’ve been working on for a couple years and which has became perhaps more critical than ever in 2017. It’s a very short book (about an hour’s read) with a very big idea.
How I read
This article is already long so I’ll make this quick (and maybe save a more detailed how for another post). But here’s five of the basics.
- I read what catches my interest. I come across new books almost everyday, not to mention the ton I already have on my Kindle that I’ve yet to read. How do I decide what to read next? What catches my interest, whether it’s about a question I’m asking or just a topic I find intriguing.
- I keep reading what holds my interest. I don’t have qualms about not finishing books. I used to, but I’ve come to learn life is too short to waste time reading books you’re honestly not feeling.
- I read electronically. I know without a doubt I’d have read much less this year without my Kindle. Paper books are great but there’s nothing like a Kindle for whipping out in the random moments when a paper book would be too obtrusive. (Yes, I’ve been known to read at parties. Sue me, but parties sometimes bore me to near tears.) Before my Kindle, by the way, I used the mobile app in flight mode. It’s magic.
- I read multiple books at once. See, my wife likes to sleep with the lights out. And I like to read myself to sleep. So I usually am reading one paper book and one electronic book. I read the paper until lights out and switch to electronic until I’m ready to sleep. I’m also often reading a difficult book alongside an easier read. Say a thought book with a practical one. It lets me switch up books if my mood isn’t working for one kind.
- I read different books differently, a method reinforced by How to Read a Book. This sounds obvious but I’ve come to realise some people (or many?) don’t get it—perhaps a hangover from school comprehension. I generally sprint through fiction and autobiographies, stride through practical stuff and stroll through thought books, and especially when they’re really good or really difficult — plus they’re the ones I tend to take notes on.
And…that’s me. What am I reading this year? Well. I’m already reading Walter Isaacson’s very engaging Steve Jobs. Because, interest. And two Nassim Nicholas Taleb books are lined up (Antifragile and Skin in the Game), as well as Daniel Kahnemann’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.
I keep saying I’ll read more African stuff but I don’t really have a plan for that so I don’t know what’ll happen on that front this year. I do intend to keep up my balance of fiction, practical and thought books: fiction engages my imagination, thought engages my intellect and practical books help me be a better person (when I apply them). I need all three.