Best Books of 2019

Well friends, here we are at the beginning of a new decade. In the past ten years my reading habits have gone through transformations, the material has changed dramatically from season to season, but one thing has remained the same: books always have and always will be an important part of my life. Some books have profoundly changed the way I see the world; others have simply kept me up too late at night. Some have met me in a deep and personal place; others have given me eyes outward, in new skills, ideas, and priorities. And some books are simply beautiful or simply fun, and there is a wonderful place for them as well.

So, with no further ado, here is a list of my top books of 2019!

Best Fiction


Searching for Caleb- Anne Tyler

I read a few Anne Tyler books at the beginning of 2019, and I hate to admit it, but I really didn’t enjoy them very much. However, I heard a lot of good things about Searching for Caleb, so I decided to give her one more try. Then I couldn’t put it down!

Anne Tyler’s gift is characters – they are full of so many quirky characteristics and often leap off the page in all of their interesting, funny, and sometimes dysfunctional lives. In Searching for Caleb I connected with characters that I still can’t stop thinking about, even nine or ten months later. And to me, that’s a mark of a great book. 


Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neal Hurston

This one has been on my list for a long time, but I put it off because I heard it was sad. I’m here to say that it is sad, but it is also beautiful, funny, poignant, and much more powerful than I expected it to be. There is a depth to this book that you miss when trying to explain the plot to someone. There is something about the ending that leaves you wanting to be a better person. And to me, that’s the second mark of a really great book.

Best Spirituality


No Man Is An Island – Thomas Merton

Have you ever picked up a book that suddenly answers the questions you’ve been trying to ask for years, but could never quite find the right words? 

I started with Merton’s autobiography this year, then moved on to Seeds of Contemplation. No Man is an Island is, in theory, a “prequel” to Seeds, and after finally finishing it this month it is certainly my favorite of the three. The benefit of reading several of Merton’s books is that I’m also beginning to pick up on his own definition of terms like freedom, charity, and silence. I’ll definitely be re-reading this one.


Best Airplane Reads


Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary

Yet another book that’s been on my list for years! I finally got Mayfield’s book for my trip to Tanzania this past spring, and it was the perfect way to prepare my heart to step into cross-cultural situations. In some ways, Mayfield’s journey has mirrored my own – except in reality she is many steps ahead of me. I’m eagerly looking forward to her next book coming out in 2020!


Liturgy of the Ordinary – Tish Harrison Warren

I’d heard recommendations for this book from several friends, so I made sure to bring it along on my trip last spring as well. From the very beginning, she captured me with her simple yet profound weaving of one ordinary day with the ancient rhythms of Christian liturgy. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could always live our lives with this narrative in mind? 


Best Book I Re-Read


Til We Have Faces – CS Lewis

I can never sing the praises of this book enough. After re-reading it again with my book club this year, I was reminded of how surprising this book is – a book full of very real and raw suffering, violent sacrifices, strange mythology – and yet there is something so haunting and piercing about this book that every time, I’m left in tears by the end. Often we have such an anemic idea of love, and this book shatters it over and over again. 


Best Biography


The World Will Be Saved By Beauty – Kate Hennessy

Several years ago, I read The Long Loneliness with very little context for who Dorothy Day was, and the world in which her movement sprang up as the Catholic Worker. I enjoyed the book but often felt confused by all that was left untold, the background which I felt was somehow missing. 

Reading her granddaughter’s loving and honest portrayal of Dorothy’s life, as well as her daughter Tamar, filled in a lot of those gaps for me and gave me a much richer, broader picture of Dorothy’s life. Henessy did a beautiful and tender job at retelling a very complicated story of her family’s past, and I’m so grateful for her courage in doing so.


Best Nonfiction


The Moment of Lift – Melinda Gates

I’ve been following Bill and Melinda Gates’ humanitarian work for a while now, but I have to say that I enjoyed and appreciated Melinda’s recent book much more than I anticipated. She hit some very key issues right on the head, and while there are always questions and tensions when cultural differences merge with the power dynamics of money, I really appreciated Melinda’s honest discussion of their mistakes and what they’ve learned along the way. Also, as this quote will show, she really address the heart of issues as well as the surface. 

“Every society says its outsiders are the problem. But the outsiders are not the problem; the urge to create outsiders is the problem. Overcoming that urge is our greatest challenge and our greatest promise. It will take courage and insight, because the people we push to the margins are the ones who trigger in us the feelings we’re afraid of.”


Life as Jamie Knows It, by Michael Bérubé

This books was delightful, thought-provoking, and a beautifully honoring book from a father about navigating adulthood with his son with Down Syndrome.  By honestly showing his son’s struggles growing up in a world that does not always make space for disability, and giving us a glimpse into the funny and intelligent man that his son is becoming, the author questions many of the narratives around disability and their impact on our communities. “With a combination of stirring memoir and sharp intellectual inquiry, Bérubé tangles with bioethicists, politicians, philosophers, and anyone else who sees disability as an impediment to a life worth living.”


Best Poetry


The Book of Hours – Ranier Maria Rilke

I’ve loved certain poems of Rilke for many years, but never sat down and read his entire masterpiece as a whole. It’s really hard to write about poetry, and it’s even harder to write about spiritual poetry. But I carried some of his words with me this year and they were an enormous and beautiful gift. 


Best Overall


Anam Cara – John O’Donohue

I stumbled upon John O’Donohue’s On Being podcast at the beginning of the year, and immediately I felt a flash of kinship with this incredible soul. Since then I’ve read almost every book he’s written and it has been such a rich part of this year. Although he and I may not see eye to eye in everything, I so appreciate his insistence that there is so much more to us, and to our world, than the simply functional and production-oriented value often given to people and our world. He has a deep and multi-faced understanding of what it means to be truly human, and I am a much better person for encountering him. 


Placemaker – Christie Purifoy

I read Christie’s first book Roots and Sky early this year, then was thrilled to discover that her second book was coming out in only a few months. The timing was perfect – I picked up Placemaker just as I had returned home from a trip and was seriously questioning so many things about my life. How could I put down roots and risk my heart while at the same time live a life that has begun to feel slightly nomadic? What does it mean to live in a place well, no matter how long you live there? Was any of it – getting to know neighbors, making spaces of beauty, planting flowers – worth it in the end? I’ve now made it a practice to re-read Placemaker when I return from a trip and need to recalibrate my heart and mind into what it means to live well here and now. 


Runners up: Becoming (Michelle Obama), Middlemarch (George Elliot) , Autumn Light (Pico Iyer)


And, as always, my ever-increasing list for 2020. You’ll notice I’ve made a big effort to include lots of fiction this year, as I always end up reading much more nonfiction as the year progresses:


Evelyn Underhill

Madeleine L’Engle

Virgina Woolf

Richard Twiss 

Soong-Chan Rah


The Myth of the American Dream by D L Mayfield

Try Softer by Aundi Kolber

Dare to Lead by Brene Brown

Another Wendell Berry Novel (any suggestions?)

The Ungrateful Refugee by Dina Nayeri

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

The City and the City by China Miéville

The House of the Spirits by Isabelle Allende

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Brave Souls by Belinda Bauman


I also want to make it my goal to re-read some of my favorite books of years past. Here are a few books I think I would benefit from re-reading this year: 

Nonviolent Communication

For the Life of the World

Anam Cara 

Embracing the Body

Becoming Human


How about you? What are you planning to read this year?


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