best books

The Books I Read This Year (2020)

I read 52 books in 2020, covering genres including theology, history, economics, political philosophy, science fiction, literature, leadership, personal development, and more. This list does not include the roughly 100 reference books I read in large portions while preparing for the theology class I teach at church and my discipleship program. Among the books NOT listed here are systematic theologies and dozens of commentaries for the lessons I taught on Matthew, Acts, and Christology. I have listed each book below in alphabetical order (ignoring “The” if it is the first word). I give a rating of 1-5 (with five being outstanding) plus a brief comment. If the title is in BOLD and Underlined font with an asterisk at the end, I consider it a “Must Read.

3 Words for Getting Unstuck: Live Yes, And!

 

It’s hard to be critical of content that is 95% correct. This book captures 10 essential lessons in personal development. Thomas tries to use the principles of improv comedy as the foundation for success in life, and for the most part, the formula works. The reason I didn’t rate it higher is that there is not really any new material here. If you want a really easy read that covers 10 principles of success, this book is fine. It’s just not groundbreaking in any way. (If you want a shorter list of success principles, here’s one I wrote 6 years ago that would serve anyone.)

99 Reasons Why No One Knows When Christ Will Return

Author: B. J. Oropeza
 

With the pandemic, the election, and the battle over chicken sandwiches, lots of people were claiming or wanting to know if 2020 represented a sign that the end is near. This book was written in the late 90’s when discussion of “end times” was at a fever pitch. I re-read it to help address the questions I was getting from members of my discipleship group.

Accountable Leaders

 

This book covers well-trodden ground with not much new to offer. The idea of the “Leadership Contract,” which has been introduced in other books in different forms, is probably the best contribution this book makes. Molinaro is building his consulting brand around that concept. If you want a better book on the idea of accountability and leadership read Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink.

The American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence

 

This is a very readable and unique history of the American revolution. Eschewing the extremes of unbridled reverence and hysterical revisionism, Smith approaches the topic from a libertarian angle creating room for both admiration and critique of the founding generation.

The Big Stretch: 90 Days to Expand Your Dreams, Crush Your Goals, and Create Your Own Success

 

This is a terrific roadmap to turn your dream into an actionable plan. Warner shows you how far you can get in just 90 days. A great book to read to start a year.

Busting Myths about the State and the Libertarian Alternative

Author: Zack Rofer
 

Outstanding primer on Libertarianism that is very easy to read and understand. He addresses many of the most common misconceptions and even answers the quintessential “what about the roads?”

Capitalism Alone

 

This book portends to be an economics book, and on that front, it is a train wreck. It starts off strong giving a mostly correct history of how capitalism has become the only viable economic system in the world. But from there it devolves quickly based on flawed understandings of economic principles. Milanovic sees that the future will be a battle between state-controlled capitalism (read China) and political capitalism (read the USA). The only problem is that neither is actually capitalism. Instead of arguing that we move toward one of those two distortions of capitalism, the obvious answer to the threats he perceives is a truly free market.

The Captive Mind

 

Milosz was a Polish American poet who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. He survived the German occupation of Poland during World War II, only to be re-imprisoned by the Soviet Union’s conquest of Poland after the war. He ultimately defected to France and then to the United States. In The Captive Mind, the only prose work Milosz ever wrote, he explains the psychological impact of communist totalitarianism. We are in an era when we face many of the same threats Milosz and his colleagues faced in the lead-up to the Soviet occupation. This is not an easy read, but it is a must-read. Like Solzhenitsyn, Milosz is a prophet crying out for us to learn the lessons of history and not repeat them. As he says, “A true opium of the people is a belief in nothingness after death – the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged.” And in another place, he says, “In a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence, one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot.” 

The Church History

Author: Eusebius with commentary by Paul L. Maier
 

★★

Eusebius is the father of church history, and this work is the first history of the church ever written. It covers the first 3 centuries and is priceless for capturing large sections of writings from church fathers that would be completely lost if not for Eusebius. Maier’s commentary is excellent at giving context and modern insights without ever being obtrusive.

Church History in Plain Language (4th Edition)

 

As many of you know, I tend to grab hold of a subject and exhaust it. For the past few years, that subject has been church history. For decades the go-to church history text has been Justo L. Gonzalez’s 2-volume The Story of ChristianityI read Gonzalez for the first time nearly 20 years ago. Recently, this work by Shelley has started to replace Gonzalez in many classroom settings. I still think Gonzalez is superior but it is also longer. I have quibbles with Shelley not fully fleshing out the schism between the Orthodox Church and Roman Catholicism. This history is very much written with a typical protestant view where all that preceded Protestantism was Roman Catholic. Shelley also all but ignores Arminianism. However, as a single volume history that has to cover 2000 years, it does a very good job.

Conceived in Liberty, Vol 1-4

 

★★★★★

Rothbard is one of the most important thinkers America has ever produced and his output was staggering. In this 1616 page tome, Rothbard gives a detailed account of American colonial history with a clear focus on the libertarian antecedents of the American Revolution. In typical Rothbard fashion, he challenges mainstream opinion on almost everything. This is not the American History you learned in school (regardless of where and when you attended). You’ll find yourself saying things like, “I never knew that,” and “why didn’t we learn this,” repeatedly.

Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity―and Why This Harms Everybody*

 

★★★★★

Pluckrose and Lindsay are anything but conservatives and neither are Christians. Pluckrose describes herself as a “liberal humanist.” She is squarely within the academic world she addresses in this book. Which is what makes this book all the more important. Because she’s terrified by what she sees and the impact on our culture. If you aren’t aware of “Critical Theory,” who can blame you? It was an obscure, nonsensical child of french postmodernism. But it has grown and begun to consume entire institutions and is now spilling out into the marketplace with huge implications. “Theory” purports to advance the causes of “oppressed” groups including non-white “races,” women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and more. But as Pluckrose & Lindsay make clear, Critical Theory is going to set back the causes of equality for all these groups and wreak many disasters in the process. Feminism, LGBTQ rights, and more are already being damaged by “theory.” Science, language, logic, mathematics, economics, and more are all on the chopping block in the pursuit of theory’s agenda. This is the fight of our generation. If you care about equality for all, read this book.

Designing Experiences

 

★★★★★

Leaders of every kind of organization should read this book. Companies, churches, restaurants, retailers, and online businesses will all benefit from it. I took a ton of notes on ways to improve my company Xpirient from this book. 

The Divine Conspiracy*

 

I cannot recommend this book enough! I’ve read it 4 times, and I’m blown away every time. Dallas Willard is one of my favorite Christian thinkers of all time and hugely influential in my discipleship process. I have read every book he’s written. They are all amazing. This may be the best book in his vast portfolio. Maybe.

Don Quixote*

★★★

It is the first novel ever written and it is still the best novel ever written. You have not lived if you have not read Don Quixote. The Grossman translation is now the definitive translation. I wouldn’t read another. 

The Everlasting Man

 

Most people have never heard of Chesterton. It’s a shame. He’s one of the greatest writers and thinkers of the 20th century. The Everlasting Man is the second of his two great apologetic works. (The other is Orthodoxy.) It is said that The Everlasting Man was the book that convinced C.S. Lewis to become a Christian. Wow! Written as a response to famous atheist H.G. Wells’ popular book, The Outline of History, Chesterton gives his own view of history and makes the case that evolutionary theory doesn’t explain anything and that Jesus Christ was not simply a human. While this book is excellent it is not for the faint at heart. The middle sections of the book are especially difficult for the modern reader who is unfamiliar with ancient history, mythology, and other religions. If you’re willing to bring a fork and a knife, this is meaty material indeed.

The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians

 

Clement of Rome lived in the last half of the first century and penned this letter to the church in Corinth (the same one that Paul planted and wrote 1st and 2nd Corinthians to) around 95 AD. To put that in perspective, that’s about the time the book of Revelation was written. Clement may have been the fellow worker mentioned by the apostle Paul in Philippians 4:3. It is fascinating to read the teaching of someone mentored directly by the apostles, as he carries the baton in leading the ministry in the church. There is much to be edified by in this letter.

Frederick Douglass

 

★★

Frederick Douglass has been a hero of mine since childhood. I read his autobiography The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass as a teenager. Blight’s biography is the richest and most engaging ever written about Douglass. Blight was able to draw from a private collection of manuscripts and letters that were previously unavailable. It is obvious why this book won the Pulitzer Prize. 

The Future Leader

Author: Jacob Morgan
 

This book is getting rave reviews and I’m not sure why. Morgan spends whole chapters saying that “future leaders” will be curious and ready to adapt to changing circumstances. The “future leader” is a servant and embraces multiple cultures. Wow! Who knew??? The future leader must prioritize emotional intelligence, which Morgan calls being a “Yoda.” If you took the most well-trod leadership tropes from best sellers a decade old and put them into one book this is the book you’d get. If you’ve never heard that the world is changing and that technology has to serve people then definitely read this book. If you at least have familiarity with such obvious concepts and are looking to be better in one of those areas, I’d pick up a book that focuses on that issue. The biggest takeaway might be how many Fortune 500 CEO’s are lining up to praise this book. Does that mean this is new material for them? Yikes!

God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ

 

Excellent single-volume overview of Christology. One of the best books I’ve read on the topic. It seems that every other paragraph has a noteworthy quote.

Gospel Allegiance

 

Another book in the “King Jesus Gospel” theme. This is the second book by Bates on the subject. The first was Salvation By Allegiance Alone. Gospel Allegiance fleshes out the answers to common questions and objections raised by the first. However, you don’t need to have read Salvation By Allegiance Alone to benefit from this volume.

Growth IQ

Author: Tiffani Bova
 

This is one of the most recommended management/business strategy books in the last 2 years. It’s easy to see why. It’s extremely readable with 30 case studies connected to every recommendation. Bova warns of possible pitfalls associated with each growth strategy along with key metrics to track results.

The Gospel Comes with a House Key*

 

★★★

Rosaria Butterfield’s story is remarkable. Her full testimony is found in another book on this list (Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert). In “The Gospel Comes with a Housekey,” Rosaria lays out the power of “radical hospitality” by sharing dozens of anecdotes from her own practices. This book is convicting, inspiring, and enlightening. This is the Gospel with meat on the bone. Must read!

How God Became King

Author: N.T. Wright

It seems like I read at least one N.T. Wright book a year. Like him or not, Wright, the former Bishop of Durham and current Oxford professor, is one of the most influential scholars alive today. This year I was doing a lot of study of what might be called the “King Jesus Gospel.” This book is one of the most prominent in that discussion. It is excellent.

How Not To Diet

 

Super long and not what you may be expecting. There’s not a lot of “how to” in this book. If you’re looking for the silver bullet of weight loss, this isn’t it. But if you want to understand how weight loss actually works and the connection to nutrition, this book eliminates all the hype and the fluff. This book breaks down the science around every popular “diet” you’ve ever heard of including Keto, Atkins, Paleo, South Beach, and dozens more. No agenda. Unflinching. 

The Intelligence Trap

Author: David Robson
 

This book dispels the myth that intelligence, by itself, is an advantage. Intelligence doesn’t mean that you think rationally and intelligence is not the opposite of ignorance. This book helps intelligent people see their blind spots and put in place strategies to avoid the common pitfalls that accompany high “IQ.” 

Is God a Moral Monster

Author: Paul Copan
 

This book addresses the most difficult and thorny issues regarding the God of the Old Testament and modern ethics. Responding to sophomoric critiques by the “New Atheists,” Copan tackles questions about genocide, Levitical law, slavery, misogyny, and more. If you’ve ever wanted to reconcile your understanding of morals and justice with some of what may have troubled you about the Old Testament, this is your book.

Is God Anti-Gay?

Author: Sam Allberry
 

Sam is a same-sex attracted pastor, speaker, and author. In this very readable volume he addresses most of the most prevalent questions facing the church with love, grace, and faithfulness to Scripture.

The King Jesus Gospel

Author: Scot McKnight
 

McKnight is another author that I have quibbles with theologically, but who is engaged in very valuable work for the church right now. Our understanding and expression of “Gospel” is anemic and the byproduct is evident all around us. I highly recommend that all Christians read this book and the others on this theme and begin dialoging with Bibles in hand.

The Leader’s Greatest Return

 

★★

In a lot of ways, this book is the culmination of all the books Maxwell has written before. It is outstanding and filled with value. However, it is not the book for a brand new leader or someone looking to develop their leadership ability. For young leaders, I’d start here or hereThe Leader’s Greatest Return is the book for the mature leader ready to multiply your leadership, influence, and impact. 

Live Not By Lies*

Author: Rod Dreher
 

★★

The greatest threat to the world is the re-emergence of communism. For those of us who lived through the fall of the Soviet Union, we rejoiced that the Marxist manifestation of evil had once and for all been conquered. Alas, the beast is rearing its ugly head again. Like a virus, totalitarianism has morphed and evolved to become more difficult to kill. Many who fled the oppression of Eastern Europe in the 70s and 80s have noticed that all the signs of pre-soviet Russia are present today and that the west is ripe to be shackled in much the same way that Poland, Russia, and East Germany were in the 1940s. Dreher identifies the signs and lays out a distinctly Christian response. If you care about freedom, this is must-read.

The Old Testament, Matthew, Acts*

Author: God
 

★★

I try to read the whole Bible every year but this year I got off my pace and only completed the Old Testament, plus Matthew and Acts. It should go without saying that I spent lots of time in the New Testament this year. But in terms of reading books straight through, these 41 were what I got done. 

The Machinery of Freedom

 

★★

This book explains how a society without government would work by laying out the “machinery of freedom.” Friedman explains how all the functions people assume must be provided by “government” would naturally be provided by the free market, and why in all cases the product would be vastly improved. Schools, roads, law enforcement, courts, national defense, Friedman addresses them all. I read this book in the early ’90s. This is the 3rd edition with more than 100 pages of new material. I warn you. This book might change your life.

On the Incarnation

 

Athansius, Bishop of Alexandria, has been nicknamed Defender of the Faith. He spent his life battling the dangerous heresy of Arianism.  This apologetic makes the case that Jesus was both fully God and fully man. It was written around 319 AD. There still isn’t one better.

Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration

Author: Bryan Caplan
 

★★

Caplan is a professor of economics in arguably the top economics program in the country: George Mason University. This book makes an affirmative case for an idea that many people consider absurd; namely open borders. This book is written and illustrated as a graphic novel, making it very easy to read. Caplan’s arguments are clear, simple, and compelling. I urge all my neo-con friends to have an open mind and read it. At a minimum, you will have a lot to think about as all the prevailing myths are exposed to the harsh light of hard numbers. 

Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

 

★★

Ericsson was the preeminent scientist in the area of personal performance. His research revolutionized our understanding of achievement. He is well known for coining the phrase “deliberate practice,” and he completely destroyed the myth of the prodigy or “giftedness.” This book is perhaps his most enjoyable and practical. It is outstanding. If you want to perform at a high level in anything Peak gives you the roadmap (with the science to back it up) of how to achieve your goal. It is all the more poignant that Dr. Ericsson passed away this year, meaning this is the last book we will get from him.

The Practice of the Presence of God

This little book, a compilation of the teachings of 17th-century Carmelite friar Brother Lawrence, sets out to explain how Lawrence was able to achieve a legendary intimacy with God. I read this book every few years.

Raise Your Game

 

This is a good book on performance from someone who coaches elite athletes. It’s a great compliment to another book on the list: PeakPeak is very practical but focuses on the science of achievement. Raise Your Game is rubber meets the road with lots of real-world anecdotes from the worlds of business and sports. 

The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith

 

Butterfield shares the story of how she went from being an out-lesbian literature professor playing a leading role in the advancement of feminist and queer theory, and writing an anti-Christian book to being a radical follower of Jesus Christ. It is a powerful story with lessons for everyone in our culture. You may ask why I don’t have it as “must read” like I do her second book above. While the book is very good and highly recommended, many of the most important lessons can be gleaned from the second book. Also, this book bogs down at times in her discussion of her chosen denomination, the Reformed Presbyterian church, and its doctrine.

The Sermon on the Mount: An Expositional Commentary

 

The first commentary I ever read cover to cover was Dr. Boice’s 4-Volume Commentary on Romans. Although I disagree with Dr. Boice on some major theological concepts, his scholarship and insights are always excellent and I consult his writing any time I’m working through a text. 

The Sermon on the Mount: The Message of the Kingdom

 

I love Kent Hughes’ ability to make Biblical texts accessible. He definitely writes with a pastor’s heart.

Servant Leadership in Action

 

Ken Blanchard is one of the most influential leadership and management gurus of all time. He’s written 60 books and I’ve read most of them. At this point, I can confidently say, if Blanchard writes it, read it. 

In this book, he’s not the “writer,” but the “editor.” This book is a collection of essays by 44 experts on leadership, each with case studies on putting servant leadership into action. Any leader that reads this book will come away teaming with ideas of how to put proven leadership principles into practice inside their organization. 

Seveneves

 

Stephenson is one of the best sci-fi writers alive and this is book is a monumental achievement (the story covers more than 5000 years, as an example). The level of technical detail that he accurately incorporates in this “what if” scenario makes the head swim. Premise of the book: What if the moon suddenly broke into smaller pieces? I’ll leave it at that. At 880 pages it’s no light read, but if you like sci-fi, it’s a must.

Simple Habits for Complex Times

 

“Habits” books have abounded in the last few years, but this isn’t one of them. The title is a bit misleading. This book is really a methodology for leading in light of VUCA. If you aren’t familiar with VUCA a massive amount of leadership literature is being produced to address the acronym. VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. Management gurus suggest that we are in an age of VUCA and have to lead differently in light of the current reality. I’m not going to comment here on whether things are actually more volatile or uncertain than they have been in the past. I think our forebearers who endured the Revolution, the Civil War, WWI, the great depression, etc might have something to say about that. But VUCA and its implications is the flavor of the month in academic leadership circles so here we are. That said, Simple Habits contains solid advice for an approach to leadership that allows for agility and success in a rapidly changing business and social climate. Leaders in any context (business, non-profit, government) would do well to digest and apply the material. 

Talking to Strangers*

 

Everything you think you know about reading people, understanding them, and responding appropriately is wrong. There may not be a more important book for our current climate than this one.

Thinking Fast and Slow

 

★★★

Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman reveals how we have two different cognitive systems and how our mind consistently contradicts itself, distorts data, and misleads us. By gaining awareness we are equipped to avoid pitfalls in our own thinking and take advantage of the way people think to achieve more effective results in communication, marketing, selling, etc. This book is a great compliment to The Intelligence Trap which is also on this list. 

Tools and Weapons

Author: Brad Smith
 

Brad Smith is the President of Microsoft and the premise of this book is to reveal all the opportunities and the threats that “big data” presents the world. Who better to give us insights we don’t have on this topic than the President of the largest software company in the world? Instead, this book is a very thinly veiled propaganda piece for Microsoft as a business and its strategy to use cronyism and big government to achieve their view of the world. 

Ultralearning

Author: Scott Young
 

★★

The traditional classroom is all but dead. It is no longer the best nor fastest way to learn a complex subject. In this short, easily read book Scott Young lays out the tools, technologies, and strategies that let you learn complex subjects, and lots of them, at a record pace. 

Unstoppable Teams

Author: Alden Mills
 

★★

Alden Mills is a former Navy Seal, and like his contemporary Jocko Willink, Alden has parlayed that experience into a career as a speaker and author. Alden’s first book is the basis of his brand as a speaker: Be Unstoppable. This book is the follow-up focused on applying the “unstoppable” principles to teams. If you’ve read any of Patrick Lencioni‘s terrific work on teams, this book will not be new ground for you. However, I love this topic, and Mills clearly has credibility when it comes to what creates high-performing teams. 

Virtual Selling

Author: Jeb Blount
 

This is another book that has lots of 5 Star reviews but didn’t do much for me. Here’s the message: sales organizations can’t have as many face-to-face meetings, so they’re going to have to embrace technology. Believe it or not, it’s possible to sell over platforms like zoom. That’s the book. If this hasn’t occurred to you or your organization, I recommend you read this book. 

When the Church Was Young: Voices of the Early Fathers

 

★★

I’m a huge advocate for studying church history. I believe it’s one of the more profitable endeavors anyone can undertake. In this very well researched and written volume, D’Ambrosio makes the most important church fathers accessible to laypeople today. He tells their stories with the panache of a fiction writer while capturing their essential teachings and role in church history. 

You Are A Badass at Making Money

Author: Jen Sincero
 

I’m sure lots of people need to hear the messages in this book, but for me, it was heavy on platitudes and light on “how to.” If you have lots of negative self-talk, this could be a good read. If you’re looking for deeper dive into wealth creation, move along.

That’s the list. Thanks for checking it out. In the comments below let me know your favorite reads of the year and which book(s) on this list you plan to tackle.

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