My Ten Best Books in 2012

In my profession as a humanities teacher, I get to read a lot of books. Looking over my reading list for last year, I selected the ten best books I read in 2012. Of all the books I read last year, these are the first ten I’d recommend that you read this year.


The titles are listed in the order I read them, not by the strength of my recommendation.  I’ve supplied links in the titles to Amazon; some of the links are for Kindle editions, since readers are leaning heavily in that direction.  All of the links are affiliate links, which means I get a half-penny of Amazon’s profit if you buy the book after clicking through.  If about 100 readers click through, I might get into some serious cash.  Maybe even enough to take to the coffee shop and order the plain drip.

1. G. K. Chesterton, The Ballad of the White Horse (poetry, history).  This is Chesterton’s book-length poem of King Alfred, the great Anglo-Saxon king who struggled to rid England of Viking invaders.  Everyone should read this poem, but especially young men who want to learn that good things are always worth fighting for, even if victory isn’t likely.

2. C. J. Mahaney, Humility:  True Greatness (practical theology).  Mahaney’s book is very well-known in Christian circles.  If you haven’t read it yet, you should do so immediately.  Humility is the overt theme of this book, but it is also a very concise and encouraging explanation of what the life of a Christian is really like.  You can easily read this book in a single sitting–but when you’re done, you’ll immediately start it over again from the beginning.

3. Peter Leithart, The Four:  A Survey of the Gospels (theology).  This book is classified as a commentary, but is really more of an introduction to the gospels.  Leithart brings much clarity to the confusing issues of authorship and chronology, and explains all of the major aspects of the gospels through a brief commentary-like chapter on each gospel.  The lengthy chapter on the historical context of the intertestamental period and of the first-century Jewish culture is alone worth the price of the book.

4. Keith McCafferty, The Royal Wulff Murders (fiction).  What would a Top Ten book list be without at least one murder mystery?  McCafferty, a local author, weaves a good tale of greed, murder, conspiracy, and flyfishing on the Madison.  The protagonist supports his fishing habit by doing some private investigating between caddis hatches.  All the stock characters are here:  the crusty fishing guide with a mouth almost as dirty as his truck, the female sheriff who wishes someone would see her as a lady, the psychotic mountain man who’d as soon shoot you as look at you, and–of course–the mysterious Southern beauty with sultry voice and spotty past.  A good read any time the fish aren’t biting.

5. Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings (biography).  This is a great biography of C. S. Lewis and the friends who formed the now-famous creative circle of writers and thinkers called the Inklings.  Having been an avid fan of Lewis and Tolkien since boyhood, I found this book fascinating.  Carpenter gives plenty of biographical detail on each of the major inklings (Lewis, Tolkien, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams), but also spends a lot of ink discussing how each man’s ideas was influenced by the others.  For any fan of the Inklings, this book is a must-read.

6. Douglas Wilson, Wordsmithy (writing).  This book is a delightfully quirky, incredibly lucid, and extremely helpful book of advice for writers.  Wilson gives a lot of very applicable advice, but also spends a lot of time discussing the spiritual and theological issues behind writing.  Anyone interested in words and books will benefit from this one:  Wilson talks at length about reading habits, commonplace books, and why you shouldn’t worry about not remembering what you’ve read.  What’s more, Wilson’s style is just plain, good fun.  My copy is well-penciled and dog-eared, and now has a permanent spot on my writing desk.

7. Alan Jacobs, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (essay).  Jacobs explores many different aspects of reading in a digital age.  He deliberately counters Adler’s How to Read a Book and argues that the best lifetime reading plan is based on one simple principle:  Read at Whim.  Read whatever catches your fancy, and read like you’re in love.  Jacobs also has insightful comments on rereading and a cogent argument that e-readers will save the art of reading, not destroy it.

8. Charles Goodrich, Going to Seed:  Dispatches from the Garden (poetry).  I first learned of his slim chapbook when Garrison Keillor read from it on The Writer’s Almanac.  It stayed on my wish list for a few years until my great poetry binge this summer.  Goodrich writes poetic prose–short, pithy paragraphs that contain all the density and imagery of verse.  And like every good writer of garden poetry, Goodrich includes all the necessary topics of pastoral verse:  finding hope in the spring’s vegetal possibilities, celebrating the rotund fecundity of summer fruit, lamenting the rapid decay of the first killing frost, mourning the never-ending battle against fungus and disease.

9. Trenton Lee Stewart, The Mysterious Benedict Society (fiction).  Though typically shelved in “juvenile fiction”, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel.  The Benedict Society consists of four quirky, talented children, who also happen to be lonely orphans (of some sort).  They are brought together by an equally quirky man named Mr. Benedict, who has a nose like a cauliflower and suffers from laughter-induced narcolepsy (and he happens to be a jovial man).  This novel has all the usual stuff of juvenile fiction:  a sinister villain, a plot to rule the world, an awful school full of awful people, and a last-minute triumph over the bad guy.  Surprisingly, however, the characters are very realistic (at times, more than Harry Potter & Co.) and the book dealt with significant themes and motifs:  loyalty, community, resurrection, temptation and obedience, etc.

10. Douglas Wilson, God Rest Ye Merry (theology, history).  Wilson made it on this list twice because he wrote two very unique books this year (he actually wrote more than two, but these are the only ones I read).  This book is a defense of why Christmas is “the foundation for everything.”  Wilson explains why Christmas is a quintessential Christian holiday, and why Christians must celebrate it with lots and lots of stuff.  Wilson makes many good points in this book, but the best one for me was this argument:  since Christmas is a celebration of the Incarnation, it should be celebrated with lots of good things–and not with a lot of gnostic hand-wringing about commercialism.  Sin comes from our hearts, not from the stuff.  So keep the good gifts of God and get rid of the sin.  Keep the fudge and lose the fussiness.

There you go:  the ten best books from my 2012 reading list.  Happy New Year, and happy reading in 2013!

Question:  What was the best book you read in 2012?  Why?