A Year of Full Reading
The books I read in 2023
Longtime readers of this newsletter may have caught the drift that I love books. A book, a cup of tea, a fire in the fireplace, and life becomes pretty darn nice.
This year, several readers reached out asking if I would share the list of books I read across the year. I am nothing if not accommodating to the yearnings of my adoring public. And so, forthwith, here is the list of books I read this year, or should I say, felt called to read.
Enjoy! And please share ideas for my reading in 2024!
Heart of the Country by Greg Matthews
Whitefoot: A Story from the Center of the World by Wendell Berry
My friend Alice Smith suggested this book. I love Berry’s books and this was no different. The story of a small mouse will leave you feeling …. well, read it and see how you feel.
Lovely snippets of spiritual beauty to enhance your reflections on, and enjoyment of, this profoundly unique time of year.
The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau
I first read this in 2014, a couple years after its publication. Re-reading it, I came away a touch less impressed with his example and thesis.
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
Like Guillebeau’s book, I read this years ago and have re-read it several times. And like Guillebeau’s book, this reading underwhelmed me a touch. Maybe because Pressfield went on to write the same book about five more times.
The Comfort Crisis by Michael Easter
The GORUCK rucking circles had talked about this book for a while, but I didn’t read it until my friend Matt Bonelli gave me a copy. I enjoyed the exploration of the approach to death in Bhutan.
Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh
The Zen Buddhist master, who founded Plum Village in France, died in January 2022. Sometimes I need a reminder that in this moment, right here, right now, all is well.
The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
My friend JG suggested this book. I enjoyed it thoroughly. Although the idea of a worldwide conspiracy through the postal service did make me snicker.
Escape at 10,000 Feet by Tom Sullivan
My daughter Beatrice got into this series of unsolved crimes by Tom Sullivan. She and I read all three in about a week in February. This one tells the story of “D.B. Cooper,” who hijacked a plane in the West, parachuted out with stolen money, and disappeared. Nary a word and barely a clue has appeared in more than 52 years since the escapade.
The 500 Million Dollar Heist by Tom Sullivan
Even though this occurred during my lifetime and was one of the largest thefts of artwork ever, I’d never heard of it. I love things like that. The thieves, whoever they were, got away with The Concert, by Johannes Vermeer, and The Storm in the Sea of Galilee, by Rembrandt. To this day, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, in Boston, keeps their frames hung, but empty, in the hope of their eventual return.
Jailbreak at Alcatraz by Tom Sullivan
On June 12, 1962, three men escaped from Alcatraz. They used head-shaped paper mache figures to fool the guards into believing they were still sleeping in their cells. Did the three men perish in San Francisco Bay on their way to land? Did they make it and silently slip back into society? No one knows…or no one has told. Beatrice and I really loved this series. These graphic novels made the stories come alive far more than a Wikipedia entry.
The Once and Future King by T.H. White
White’s rendering of the legend of King Arthur, Merlin, Guinevere and Lancelot. I noted that to educate Arthur about the world and the wild, Merlin did not have him read a book or even take a walk in the woods. No, Merlin turned Arthur into an ant in order to learn the world of the ants, and he made Arthur a goose to teach him about birds and flight.
A Philosopher Looks at the Religious Life by Zena Hitz
Hitz is a Tutor (professor) at St. John’s College, which bases its pedagogy on the “Great Books.” I really loved Hitz’s Lost in Thought. In 2022, I read the book twice and listened to the audiobook. I was watching Philip Gröning’s Into Great Silence, about the Carthusian monks in France, at the same time I read A Philosopher Looks at the Religious Life. That was a good pairing.
Your Life is Your Message by Eknath Easwaran
Easwaran titled this book after Mahatma Gandhi’s reply to a request for a quote about his leadership: “My life is my message.” Easwaran furthers Gandhi’s point: for each of us, our life is our message, and we communicate that message in every moment, decision, and utterance. This notion struck me as not only true, but dangerously true. As I asked in a speech in November, “Is my life the message I would want my son – my children – to learn from me? Is my life the message I want to leave the world?” I had a difficult time asking myself those questions. And an even harder time telling myself the truth about the answers.
The Bible: A Biography by Karen Armstrong
I don’t know how religious leaders and scholars view Armstrong, but for accessible first steps into complicated spiritual issues, she writes excellent books. I read this as I began my own reading of the Bible. I found it a useful introduction.
Gandhi the Man by Eknath Easwaran
Easwaran masterfully tells the story of Gandhi living a life, in the words of my friend Rob Hardy, “in increasing integrity with itself.” Shouldn’t we all hope for and aspire to such a life?
The Way of Aikido by George Leonard
Speaking of Rob Hardy, at his suggestion, I read this book and the next one. Aikido, a martial art emphasizing balance, harmony and softness, has concern for the attacked and the attacker. I tried to wrap my head around that notion – if someone were attacking me, defend myself and still care for the person attacking me. I’ve mused on that one since reading this book.
Mastery by George Leonard
Leonard felt concerned about America’s declining desire for mastery, its refusal to listen to elders, and even its wholesale abandonment of the notion of elder wisdom. “Mastery” has enjoyed a renewal in America in the last decade; scroll down LinkedIn and you’ll read plenty of posts about “the craftsman’s mindset” or “pound the stone” in the journey to excellence. I have trod that path, and spoken those words, too. Leonard has something slightly different in mind, though. He primarily worries about mastery as a way of life, less as a mindset for work success. He shares a message we in the modern West do not want to listen to:
“The achievement of goals is important. The achievement of goals is important. But the real juice of life, whether it be sweet or bitter, is to be found not nearly so much in the products of our efforts as in the process of living itself, in how it feels to be alive. We are taught in countless ways to value the product, the prize, the climactic moment. But even after we’ve just caught the winning pass in the Superbowl, there’s always tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. If our life is a good one, a life of mastery, most of it will be spent on the plateau. If not, a large part of it may well be spent in restless, distracted, ultimately self-destructive attempts to escape the plateau. The question remains: Where in our upbringing, our schooling, our career are we explicitly taught to value, to enjoy, even to love the plateau, the long stretch of diligent effort with no seeming progress?”
Hardcore Zen by Brad Warner
My friend Sara Campbell suggested this book. Warner was a punk rocker and came to Zen Buddhism. I appreciated him going through many of his struggles and his non-linear path to Zen.
Why Buddhism Is True by Robert Wright
Sara Campbell also suggested this book to me. I have long suspected that the great traditions of the East possessed a deeper appreciation of human psychology and emotional life than some traditions of the West. This book reinforced that suspicion.
Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
This has been a year of revisiting and re-appreciating myth, as you’ll see from many of the books on this list. I knew almost nothing about Norse myths, so I found Gaiman’s re-telling of some of the foundational myths of the Norse tradition a nice introduction. If I came away with one lesson, it is: Loki, the trickster, will always be with us.
Smoke Hole by Martin Shaw
I had never heard of Martin Shaw until I interviewed Sherry Shenoda. If Sherry liked him, I figured I better check him out. I listened to this book on Audible and that proved a rich entry path to Shaw’s storytelling. The image of the maiden with the silver hands will stay with me a long time.
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
So many of my writer friends suggested Murakami to me. I had read one or two of his books of nonfiction, but never one of his books of fiction. The book made me reflect on the infinite possibilities in life; the grass might have been red or blue, as G.K. Chesterton muses, and yet we might wonder that it is green, and that – one, single path – might fill us with wonder and awe too.
The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura
Written in 1906 to a friend in America, he beautifully depicts the ritual, tradition and ethos of the Japanese tea ceremony. In my reading, he also fiercely defends the spirit and legacy of the East against Western condescension. You can read this book in an hour and it’s well worth it.
The Complete Poems by Walt Whitman
In my suggestions for summer reading, I included Whitman’s poems. And I read many during my own summer jaunts. Here’s what I wrote:
“In May, I came to the sad realization that no matter how many years I have left on this green jewel in space, I will get to the end of my days and know barely anything about poetry. Often, I don’t even know what I like. At the same time, I read Stephen Cope’s The Great Work of Your Life. In it, he tells the story of Whitman finding his calling – a new calling – supporting injured Union troops during the Civil War. Prompted by Cope, I picked up a volume of Whitman’s poems to read on vacation. I read "Song of the Open Road" and "Song of Myself." I liked them a lot. I mentioned it to my great friend JG, who writes the superb Inventory newsletter. He replied, “I have often thought that if I could be any other man, I would be Walt Whitman.” That’s enough to spur me to dig deeper into Whitman – much deeper.”
The Great Work of Your Life by Stephen Cope
Cope offers career advice based on insights from the Hindu text, The Bhagavad Gita. I read Cope in 2021, 2022 and this year. His examples from the lives of Whitman, Harriet Tubman, Ludwig von Beethoven and others continue to resonate. As does the Gita’s suggestion that we must do our work, our dharma, but we do not have the right to guaranteed results from that labor.
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
OK, I started reading The Way of Kings, the first volume in Brandon Sanderson’s enormous Starlight Archive series. Look, it was fine. I got about 450 pages into it. Then I thought, I don’t read much fantasy. If I am gonna read a little fantasy, why not read the very best? So I returned to Tolkien. I have read Lord of the Rings several times, but none since 2013. This was my favorite reading. I noticed something I had never before, although clearly it was there for my appreciation: poetry.
Love’s Labor's Lost by William Shakespeare
A friend and I read this play in preparation for seeing Kentucky Shakespeare perform it this summer. The production got rained out – weirdly, we saw blue skies all around, except it poured right over the stage. I found the play strange. It contained virtually no motion – not forward or backyard or even energy expressed in place. It was a play and an exercise in frustration.
The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin
My friend Dennis Lewis suggested this book, a part-travelogue, part-nonfiction, part-fiction rendering of Chatwin’s exploration of the lives of the Aborigines in Australia. (You should check out Dennis’s examination of Werner Herzog’s movie, Nomad, about Bruce Chatwin. His two-part essay was one of my very favorite reads in 2023.) Chatwin was an intriguing fellow, as Dennis recounts in his essay. Chatwin believed humans are built and meant to roam over wide ranges. He himself seemed to embody that thesis in his own life – to wander, to get lost, in the sense of Rebecca Solnit’s books. Yes, he has a purpose. That purpose seemed diffused. I haven’t decided whether I believe Chatwin felt at home everywhere…or nowhere.
The Back Country by Gary Snyder
My friend JG also suggested this volume of poems. Not exactly my cup of tea, but I appreciated encountering things I would not have discovered myself.
Hamilton by Ron Chernow
My wife and I listened to it on two summers’s driving to and from the Carolinas. I read the book years ago and loved it. But until I listened to it, the majesty of Chernow’s language didn’t hit me. Dense, weighty language to be sure, but so vivid and evocative, not only in recounting details of Hamilton’s life, but also in weaving together threads and themes. We felt so entranced that upon finishing Hamilton, we began listening to Chernow’s biography of Grant.
Walking a Sacred Path by Lauren Artress
My friend Rob Hardy sent me this book, knowing my love of walking and some re-kindled spiritual longings. I’d never heard of a labyrinth outside of fables, but from the first page, I felt drawn to Artress’s message. So I checked out her site and found a labyrinth near me. It was a walk worth taking.
Henry at Work by John Kaag and Jonathan Van Belle
I listened to this book too. Kaag and Van Belle debunk the myth of Henry David Thoreau as an idler; he worked very hard throughout his life. He also thought very hard, which really tends to be the missing piece of our life’s puzzle. He thought carefully about work and its place in life. We should remember that the first and longest chapter of Walden is called “Economics.”
The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes
Craig Mod described it as “a book I still consider perhaps the most compelling, page-turning thing I’ve ever set my eyes upon. What I found so thoroughly gripping: the science, the collaboration, the coördination.” That prompted me to read it and I hope it prompts you too.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
My wife loves this book and the movies. I have patiently and dutifully sat through many viewings over the years. But I’d never read the book. A neighborhood friend suggested we read it at the same time and discuss it later. I was game. The story has a happy ending, yes, but my reflections turned dim. The characters looked down and dismissed one another, and yet they were so similar. What hope is there for us to not treat others dismissively or wretchedly when they are profoundly different from us?
Works and Days by Hesiod (translated by A.E. Stallings)
Kaag and Van Belle mentioned Hesiod in a podcast interview about Henry at Work. It’s a short, delightful poem, a paean to rural joys and a life of deep work.
The Georgics by Virgil (translated by David Ferry)
Kaag and Van Belle also mentioned The Georgics. Ferry gives an accessible translation and I read this as I started my “30 Walks in Nature.”
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (translated by Robin Buss)
“Beware the fury of a patient man.” – John Dryden
Dracula by Bram Stoker
I re-read this novel every October. Every October, my heart races with fear, anxiety and hope. Will the good Dr. Van Helsing and his friends save Mina Harker and the world from the abomination of Dracula? Can the natural defeat the supernatural?
The Iliad by Homer (translated by Emily Wilson)
I bought the book and began reading it. Then I realized that The Iliad and The Odyssey would have been spoken, repeated, vocalized. So I switched to the Audible version. Yes, the voice – the human voice, guided by the Muses – makes this story soar!
Spiritual Care by Wendy Cadge
Cadge, founder of the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab and a professor at Brandeis University, examines the role, background and work of chaplains in the Boston area.
Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals by Herbert Anderson and Edward Foley
A textbook for pastoral care providers, they examine the power and peril of story and ritual in human encounter with the divine. I especially enjoyed their exploration of important moments in modern life that do not currently have especially potent or useful rituals in order to situate them within the context of our life or spiritual understanding.
Many Many Many Gods of Hinduism by Swami Achuthananda
Q&A on aspects of Hinduism. Quick read but interesting.
The Power of Unwavering Focus by Dandapani
We’re all so all over the place. I don’t need to give you any gory details; we all talk about it; we all know it. Dandapani teaches us how to reclaim our focus in the midst of a world – and human wiring – bound and determined to steal it from us. This is the book that finally gave me the mindset and awareness disciplines to stay focused, with one-minded concentration, throughout my day.
Passage Meditation by Eknath Easwaran
Easwaran came to the United States from India in the late 1950s. He taught meditation at Berkeley and founded the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation. His great project was to reveal the beautiful and common longings of all the world’s great spiritual traditions. In this book, he outlines his Eight Points of Passage Meditation: 1. Meditation on a Passage; 2. Repetition of a Mantram; 3. Slowing Down; 4. One-Pointed Attention; 5. Training the Senses; 6. Putting Others First; 7. Spiritual Fellowship; 8. Spiritual Reading. It would be hard to overstate this book’s and Easwaran’s influence on me across the past two years.
The Bhagavad Gita for Daily Living by Eknath Easwaran
For every verse in the Gita (or sometimes for a combination of two or three), Easwaran offers commentary, exploring the verse and applying it to modern life. Every evening since August 2022, I have read one verse and Easwaran’s remarks on it. I’m now in Chapter 14 of 18 in the Gita. This reading has become one of my cornerstone rituals. I look forward to it every day, and I relish every reading.
Fr. Mike Schmitz uses this version in his wonderful “Bible In A Year” podcast. I’d never read much of the Bible before – a couple of Gospels, Revelation (still my favorite book in the Bible), Genesis…and that’s about it. I’ll write more about this experience, and reading the Bhagavad Gita, later. For now, you can read some of my early thoughts.
The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse
Years ago, I read Hesse’s The Journey to the East. It instantly became, and remains, my favorite book by him. My friend JG suggested I check out The Glass Bead Game, which won Hesse the Nobel Prize. It was the culmination of the work Hesse started in The Journey to the East. Indeed, Hesse dedicated The Glass Bead Game to “The Journeyers to the East.” Both books ask hard questions: will we remain faithful to the journey, even when it appears the journey has failed? When should we give up the path?
A Branch from the Lightning Tree by Martin Shaw
I continued my dive back into mythology with my second book by Shaw this year. He recounts several old myths and I must say, I saw myself in most of them. That seeing kindled a feeling deep inside me. What does it feel like to be the white bear, holding lightly the gold wreath? My body continues to answer that question.
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
I re-read this book every year between Thanksgiving and Christmas. You can read my reflections from last year here. You can read this book in a couple of hours, maybe even faster than you can watch one of the movie versions. But tell me, my friend, which character stays with you afterwards? In whom do you see yourself? And how do you feel about that answer?
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