Top five nonfiction reads of 2014

So, a preface. I don’t read a lot of nonfiction for entertainment. Most of the nonfiction I read is either faith-growing, professionally helpful, or travel books. Therefore it of course feels a bit strange really to choose a top five of those three diverse categories – do I have separate categories for each, or make sure one of each type is on my top five? Am I going by what was the most entertaining/enjoyable, or what taught me the most, or something else?

But then I remember that this is a blog, and the only person’s opinion I have to care about is mine. If my method of picking the top five is less than scientific (or consistent), I can live with that.

So in no particular order, here is my top five nonfiction books read in 2014:

1.  Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace, James B. Torrance

This is one of my favorite books of all time, probably. It’s short, maybe 100 pages, and written in an easy to follow style, which I’m always nervous about aware of when reading books about theology. This one hits my sweet spot of a conversational tone about a deeply intellectual approach to what  in the world is up with the Trinity and what that means for humanity’s relationships to each other and relationship to God. It also blows up my understanding of what worship means/looks like: once again, I need a near-constant reminder that faith is just like everything else in that it’s not primarily about me. Case in point: I’ve read this before, three years ago, and it was just as mind-blowing the second time around.

2. A Year in Provence, Peter Mayle

Travel books are an addiction for me: when travel isn’t an option, this gives me just the taste I need to get to my next adventure. This one is apparently one of the classics. (I say apparently because I’m a relative newbie to the genre and my threshold for enjoying a travel book is hilariously low, making me not the greatest critic.) The book is structured chronologically, each chapter spanning the month. We follow Mayle and his wife renovating an old farmhouse, meeting the locals, trying the local food and living the local culture. One of my favorite parts was the interactions of Mayle and the various characters involved in renovating the house; the way he ends up getting the work finished is a thing of beauty. This book felt like comfort food: a taste of life that runs simpler; something to be savored, not focused on adventure but a life lived well in small town Provence.

3. The Mother Tongue, Bill Bryson

In case we haven’t covered this yet, Bill Bryson is my favorite authors. I will read literally anything he writes. In fact, I’m purposefully only reading a couple of his books per year because I don’t want to read them all and then have none left to look forward to. In all his books, travel or otherwise, he manages to be simultaneously informational and entertaining; his writing draws together historical current events with whatever topic the book focuses on with humor and clarity. The Mother Tongue explores the weirdness of English, and it is hilarious. He ranges from the history of the language to distinctions between British and American words to accents to curse words. It’s a fun look at why we speak the way we do – and the fact that its fun and funny is what makes me love anything Bryson.

4. At Home, Bill Bryson

Giving another review of a Bryson book right after the previous feels almost redundant. Again: hilarious, informative, smart. At times strange to see the way his mind works, but good-strange, not ‘stop eating the glue’ strange. One of the things he referenced in this book and others is his files. Apparently he saves newspaper articles, facts, notes on historical events, or other assorted useful things on paper and has some kind of filing system for them. How I would love to see his system (I’m such an organizational nut), but also understand how his mind works. When he reads an article on turmeric, does he put it under food, India, colonization, spices, or some other category? And then, when he’s writing something, how does he think “maybe there’s an article I read 13 years ago about turmeric that would provide a useful anecdote on my story in ancient medicine?” Or moreover, how does he know where to find the aforementioned article when he recalls he may have such a story? It’s amazing. And he wrote some of them before the Internet was really a thing. Anyway, At Home is a sort of history of domestic life: he goes room to room in his home covering the history of events, customs, and oddities of everything under the roof.

5. Dogmatics in Outline, Karl Barth

I had to read Dogmatics in Outline for a systematic theology class I took this summer. (By the way, I’m in seminary. I’m slow-playing it, but it’s still happening.) I’ll be honest, when given the choice between a soul-feeding Christian book and a hardcore theology Christian book, I’m usually going to pick the soul-feeding. And I’ll almost always find the former more enjoyable and more applicable. So before this class, I’d barely delved into the world of BIG THEOLOGICAL TOMES. But this class’ required reading helped me dip my toes in the water, and guess what? I actually enjoyed several of them! I wasn’t surprised that I learned a ton – that seemed like a given. But one of the things that I really loved about Barth was that his love of Jesus was so abundantly clear in his writing. This book walks through the Lord’s Prayer – what each line, each phrase, really means theologically. Admittedly, this was no tome: this was the outline of Barth’s more intense Dogmatics. I don’t foresee an attempt on that anytime soon, but I really loved the outline. It’s incredibly refreshing to read books by people who connect to God intellectually with great love for Him – that their love for God is inseparable from their intellect!

Part two of a two part post – see the fiction list here.

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