There are more books out there than anyone can responsibly get a feel for. But in the spirit of the best awards ceremonies, I give you the utterly partial but mostly unbiased CGBA (Chris Green book Awards) for 2017.
As will become clear, these are not books written or published in 2017 – but they are books I have read in 2017. And that’s all that matters. Because I say so.
Best cultural analysis
These are fast-moving times (though I suspect all times feel like that) and we need sure footed guides to take us through gender fluidity and trans-humanism as well as more ‘normal’ issues like Trump and Brexit. So honourable mentions to To Be a Machine by Mark McConnell, and The Road to Somewhere, by David Goodhart Both are worth splashing cash at, and I’m going to do a full review of Somewhere shortly. But the gold medal goes to Larry Seidentop for the dazzling Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism. See my review here.
Best description of another world
Shiraz Maher, Salafi-Jihadism: The History of an Idea. If you live where I live, where murderously radicalised young men live in houses I can see from my kitchen, you’d want to understand radical Islam too. This is a fine book – tough to read because this kind of religion has no grace, kindness, love or mercy in it. This is a hard worldview. But we must understand it. I reviewed it here.
Two books have pulled at my heartstrings more than any other this year, and it’s not because I’m a softie, or because they are tear-jerkers. Both are remarkable books by remarkable people, and both are too big to be given even a jokey medal. They will stop you in your tracks.
Stefan Zweig was a best-selling writer – no the best-selling writer – in German in the 1920s-30s, and one of the best-selling in English. He was a novelist, a critic, a polymath. He was the centre of the golden intellectual life of Vienna. And he was Jewish. This description of his slow loss of everything under the Nazi tread, up to the moment of his suicide, is truly awful, because Zweig never knew the Nazis would lose. His novels are gradually reappearing in English now (look out for any of them, and always look when he was writing ) but do not miss The World of Yesterday: Memoirs of a European.
Right up to date, though, is When Breath Becomes Air, the memoir of Paul Kalanithi. It is almost obscene to review a book like this: a young neurosurgeon developed the very cancer he specialised in, and wrote a deeply affecting reflection on life, death, meaning and family. There are hints, occasionally, of a Christian faith, and it is unclear how much remained for him, or he wished to go public with. But you will not forget reading this one.
Best heavyweight theologian
I’m sorry but there’s no contest. This was the year I read the big three by Augustine: The Confessions, City of God, and The Trinity. Gold, silver, and bronze, and you can choose the order. I’d give out three golds if I could, but I don’t up make the rules.
Best pastoral theology
I still can’t work out why this book hasn’t made more of a splash in the UK, because it is stunningly relevant. Kyle Strobel and Jamie Goggins, The Way of the Dragon or The Way of the Lamb, reviewed here. Isn’t every pastor tempted by power? Silver gong to Glynn Harrison for A Better Story.
I read some good’uns this year, old and new. But nothing matched John le Carrė’s brilliance in Legacy of Spies. It’s not just that every sentence dances and every character rings true – it’s that this time he’s revisited a novel he wrote over fifty years ago, which is itself a classic, and turned it on its head. Do yourself a favour: (re)read The Spy Who Came In From The Cold first, and let it sink in, Then read Legacy. No-one is in his league. I wrote a head-to-head review in Commentary for Oak Hill College, comparing it to Munich, by Robert Harris. Harris is very good, but le Carré is the master.
This is a cheat – a double-header. Michael Lewis’ The Undoing Project: A friendship that changed the World traces the friendship of two Israeli psychologists: Daniel Kahnemann (whom you may know from Thinking: Fast and Slow) and the Nobel laureate Amos Tversky. This is an intellectual love story with massive implications for the way businesses, the military, economists and politicians make decisions. And you, too. Fizzing.
Best non-Christian leadership book
Grit, by Angela Duckworth. With lessons from business, sport, education and the arts, why do some people persist and others drift? What goes into that characteristic of hard persistence? This powerfully applied to individual and family life, but you can apply it to ministry for yourself.
The Awkward Prize
And finally I really can’t avoid mentioning The Goldilocks Zone. I’ve spent the year editing these articles by Mike Ovey, and I can honestly say it is the intellectual equal of almost all the others on this list (only Augustine tops it out). You can read Mike’s theology of ideas alongside any of the others I’ve raved about and watch the sparks fly. Yes, I’m biased. Yes, I’d love to see a ton of them sell (full disclosure: I didn’t get an advance and I won’t get royalties for this project. It’s been a work of love and an honour). But I really think it’s that good.