These are some thoughts on the books that I’ve read so far in 2020. My wife and I moved our family of five across the country in the middle of a global pandemic, ongoing racial justice issues, and political polarization. We have new jobs, new neighbors, new schools, new grocery stores, a new climate, a new everything. With all of the upheaval this year, reading has been a grounding place for me to return to and spend time.

As you’ll see, I’ve been really interested in the topic of racial justice, and have a growing stack of titles in that topic I want to get through. I feel conviction over the lack of diversity in the authors I have allowed to influence me over the years. I’m set on changing that moving forward and hope to make up for lost time.

As always, science fiction seems to work its way onto my nightstand as well. Something about the genre keeps me coming back for more.

How Children Raise Parents

Dan Allender, Ph.D (2003)

Through this book, Dr. Allender invited me to adopt a humble approach towards parenting by choosing to see it as a learning experience and one of the unapologetically direct methods that God uses to cause me to grow me up.

This book teaches that failure is inevitable as a parent, and that closeness doesn’t stem from getting things right. I feel invited to step into the fearful places where messiness and vulnerability are part of our daily lives.

White Awake, An Honest Look at What it Means to Be White

Daniel Hill (2017)

What stood out to me in this book is the humility in Daniel’s writing. I saw him offer his experiences and share learnings from his own bouts of wrestling with the topic of racial identity. These pages helped me start to work through the discomfort I feel in phrases like white privilege and white supremacy and place them in a new context.

Daniel shared how he was challenged to discover how white his world was, and I felt challenged alongside him. I was invited to see how I surround myself with and am influenced by people who look and think like me. This includes my friends, coworkers, authors, pastors, and neighbors. Reading this book sparked a desire in me to be curious instead of defensive.

The Return of the Prodigal Son

Henri Nouwen (1992)

Henri Nouwen was a Dutch Catholic priest, professor, writer, and theologian. I’ve been drawn to his writings since I tore through his book The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom while trying to navigate a painful separation with my wife. It was a journal he kept during the most difficult period in his life, and I’m truly grateful for his vulnerability.

The Return of the Prodigal Son chronicles Nouwen’s impactful encounter with Rembrandt’s famous painting of the same name. He combines his study of the parable of the prodigal son with the visual composition of the painting to make profound meaning of the story. Henri pays careful attention to each character, humbly relates the story to his own experience, and ultimately finds hope and comfort. It’s easy to appreciate how captivated he is with both the parable and the painting.

As Henri applied the story of the prodigal son to his own life, he invited me to see that I see myself in the parable. I notice indulgence that is reminiscent of the younger son. These are places where I feel entitled or justified in taking what I want. I also resonated with the resentment in the older son. This impacts my life and choices and also played out in my marriage. I spend so much energy trying to position myself in a good light, making dutiful choices and asking for little or nothing along the way. But all that time resentment and frustration builds, and it always finds its way out.

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

Bessel van der Kolk, Ph.D (2014)

Dr. van der Kolk blew me away with this book. It represents a huge body of work affecting countless lives of people affected by trauma. Bessel has over thirty years of experience working with survivors of horrific trauma, and he shares innovative research, creative treatments, and stories of patients reclaiming their lives. His compassion and respect for his patients jump off the page, and it is clear that he considers them inherently valuable as well as his primary teachers.

This book completely reframed trauma for me and gave me new tools to understand myself, my relationships, and the world around me.

Black Like Me

John Howard Griffin (1961)

This classic book is created from John Howard Griffin’s journal entries when he temporarily darkened his skin and lived as a black man for six weeks in the racially segregated south. He recounted dangerous and hostile experiences and received a taste of the fearful and oppressive atmosphere people of color endured in their day-to-day lives. After publishing his work he experienced hostility and received threats, but also went on to write and lecture about racial justice issues. Immediately following the release of his story, he became a celebrity for a while.

I spent some time reading about the reaction to Griffin’s story after it went public and found myself interested in the aftermath. It struck me that Griffin was able to escape from his experiences at the end of it all. His brushes with racism were temporary but really couldn’t compare to the collective experience of people of color over the decades. In one part of his journey, he escapes a particularly scary situation by calling a privileged friend, who picked him up in his car. It also stood out to me that regardless of Griffin’s intentions and subsequent work, his celebrity status felt a bit like an ill-gotten gain. To benefit from the traumatization of entire generations was uncomfortable to read about.

It was clear that whatever collective conviction that was brought about by John Howard Griffin sharing his experience had a difficult time with the slog through the powerful systems of inequality in society. His experiences seemed to cement his career path of talking about racial issues and he discussed the difficulty with which his messages were received. He was often invited by the white leaders of racially troubled cities to help quell rising tensions. He would respond to their pleas by relaying exactly what local black community members were asking for. Unfortunately, white leaders could not tolerate hearing these things and his contributions were largely dismissed.

White Fragility: Why it’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism

Robin DiAngelo, Ph.D (2018)

I would have struggled with this book if I had not previously read White Awake (mentioned above). Dr. DiAngelo pulls from her decades of work as a diversity trainer to speak pointedly to patterns of defensiveness and fragility she noticed in her primarily white participants. She doesn’t beat around the bush and speaks bluntly to her reader.

By the time I read this book I was starting to rebuild my definitions for terms like racism and white privilege. Dr. DiAngelo’s teachings helped me in that process. She talks about racism as a system of advantage that is separate from instances of outright prejudice. Reading this has helped me to see that even though I believe I am a well-intentioned person that I still benefit from this system. She also invites me to take responsibility for my privilege and build a tolerance for racial discomfort. It’s easier to quiet my defensiveness, listen, and be curious.

Dune

Frank Herbert (1965)

With a mysterious and compelling setting and interesting characters, Dune kept my attention. I loved Herbert’s imagination regarding technology and the adaptiveness of interstellar cultures. There was a sense of feudal house rivalry and honor that created the sense that anything could happen at any time. His take on combat and strategy was nuanced and interesting, which made fighting between characters intense and gritty. I’m not sure yet when I’ll continue the series. There are too many things I want to read right now.

Because this list is more-or-less chronological, this “sci-fi break” was a little bit of a reprieve from some intense topics. The genre resonates with me and it was so refreshing to pick up this much-recommended title.

Atomic Habits

James Clear (2018)

Atomic Habits was a book that I picked up as we were just entering the transition into our fall schedule. With our move from North Dakota to Washington this summer and the ongoing pandemic, so much in my life is new or unknown. I could tell I was starting to feel isolated and I wanted to find some ways to attend to that.

The thoughts in this book helped me reframe some of my thinking. James breaks down habit formation into small, manageable changes. He also discusses the power of tiny, consistent changes over a sustained period of time. It’s beneficial to focus on the systems in my life and not on my goals. Also, even committing two minutes a day to a habit can lead to powerful results. This has led to a couple of additions that have added more satisfaction to my day-to-day routine.

  • Flossing my teeth daily
  • Doing ten pushups daily
  • Writing for two minutes daily
  • Walking the dog daily

Most of these things take so little time that it hasn’t been a problem to be consistent. Flossing, pushups, and walking the dog help me feel like I am caring for my body and being a responsible dog owner. And writing has helped me write this post. Sometimes I spent the two minutes of writing simply recording the title and author info of a book I read, and other times the two minutes grew into an hour or more of writing. Also, I plan to bump the number of pushups to twenty next week.

Night

Elie Wiesel (1960)

Night is honest, horrifying, and deeply moving. It is Elie Wiesel’s account of his and his father’s experience in Auschwitz and Buchenwald during World War II. From being expelled from their homes to facing extermination, Wiesel shared first-hand the sickening cruelties he survived. I was appalled by what I read and needed to process it with my wife. It was intensely sobering.

At the end of this book was Elie Wiesel’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech from 1986. In it, he attempts to answer a hypothetical question posed to him by his sixteen-year-old self who was amazed that the world could be silent about such crimes. “What have you done with my future”?

And I tell him that I have tried. That I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.

And then I explained to him how naive we were, that the world did know and remained silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must –at that moment– become the center of the universe.

Elie Wiesel (in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, 1986)

This snippet of the acceptance speech hit me especially hard. It is easy to remain silent and avoid taking sides, but Elie helped me see that remaining neutral is the same as choosing.

Harry Potter (Books 1-3)

J.K. Rowling (1997, 1998, 1999)

Our nightly ritual for us includes reading out of a Harry Potter book and quite often ends in me reading out loud to a sleeping audience. Our seven-year-old especially enjoys it and loves to cut in and offer her thoughts and predictions. It’s a blast for me to relive these books, too. I was a teenager when I last read them.

The thing we enjoy most about this ritual is that whenever we finish a book, we pop popcorn, buy some treats, and watch the corresponding movie. The excitement builds so that by the end of each book we are trying to find extra time to read it. We’re currently a good ways into the fourth book (The Goblet of Fire).

Final Thoughts

What have you been reading? I love recommendations if you have any! My reading list is long but I don’t mind making it longer. Also, how much diversity is there in your world and in the authors that are influencing you?

What habits bring you satisfaction in your routine? Can you find a two-minute version of a new habit you want to establish?