The 10 Best Books I Read in 2020


For the second year in a row, I kept a list of all the books I read in 2020.  Just like last year, this affords me the opportunity here at the end of the year to look back and recognize my ten favorites.  

1. A Grace Disguised by Jerry Sittser
This was actually the first book I read in 2020.  It was recommended by a guy at MTI in 2018 as an incredible book on suffering, and it is indeed that.  Jerry Sittser lost his mother, wife, and daughter in the same accident with a drunk driver.  His reflections on suffering are profound.  I keep coming back to this quote I've already used multiple times in 2020 (here and here): "Sorrow is noble and gracious.  It enlarges the soul until the soul is capable of mourning and rejoicing simultaneously, of feeling the world's pain and hoping for the world's healing at the same time."  I can't think of many ideas more important for the world of 2020.

2. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Like everyone else, I read (and enjoyed) this in high school, but that was a long time ago.  Harper Lee nailed it.  Beautiful story, characters, and style.

3. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
There is a bit of irony with me placing this one after Harper Lee, but for me, it's just a chronological coincidence.  Stevenson's story about getting an innocent man off death row, along with his general overview of the injustices (racial and otherwise) of the American legal system, is incredibly compelling.  The stories and his descriptions of the issues are engaging.  Stevenson's voice is distinctively and richly Christian.  It's a voice that the church and the world both need, and I'm so glad he's out there testifying.

4. The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt
This book was the 2008 Newbery runner-up to Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village, which was actually also a great book.  So, I'm not debating the difficult choice there, but The Wednesday Wars was certainly Newbery Medal-worthy.  The book moves from one vignette to another, any of which would have been worthy of a climax.

5. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
Ever since falling in love with the darkly-redemptive The Power and the Glory about twenty years ago, I've been searching for another Greene novel that captures the same beauty.  This is a very close second.  Greene's psychological dissection of how a modern heart AND mind encounters Christianity from the outside as well as the inside often plays a peripheral role in his story, but it comes into center focus here.

6. Plaidoyer Pour La Vie by Denis Mukwege
Dommage that this book doesn't yet have an English translation.  Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dr. Denis Mukwege has been working tirelessly for women who are victims of sexual violence in nearby Bukavu, DR Congo.  He is also a graduate of the University of Burundi.  His heroic efforts have put his life under constant threat.  As an autobiography, Plaidoyer Pour la Vie gives Dr. Mukwege a chance to talk openly about his faith and his life growing up among medical missionaries.  Incredible story.

7. Silence by Shusaku Endo
This book was surprisingly hard for me to find (there appears to be no Kindle version?), and I haven't seen the Scorsese film with Liam Neeson.  It is a story of deep struggle and seemingly lost faith in the era of Catholic missionaries to Japan.  The characterization is made in the intro that Shusaku Endo is a kind of Graham Greene for Japan, and I can see that.  The story is as beautiful and deep as it is heartbreaking.  I will be reading more by Endo.  "Sin, he reflected, is not what it is usually thought to be... Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind.  And then for the first time a real prayer rose up in his heart."

8. The Contemplative Pastor by Eugene Peterson
This is simply a practical gem.  Peterson talks about how contemplative living is necessary for good living, but we treat is as peripheral.  Which is true for pastors and everyone.  Thus, this is a book about getting life and work right.  His image of the pastor as the Melville "man with the harpoon" while everyone else in the boat is rowing, so that he can strike well in the opportune moment, is a durable metaphor.  "...the faithful endurance that is respectful of the complexities of living a moral, spiritual, and liturgical life before the mysteries of God in the mess of history."  I know that's a sentence fragment, but what a fragment.

9. Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Rabbit
I'm surprised I never read this as a kid.  The story of the immortal Tucks and all its implications is married perfectly with Babbit's style.

10. Virgil Wander by Leif Enger
Enger's prior novel made my list last year, so that tells you something of my evolving opinion of him as a novelist.  Virgil Wander is the wonderfully quirky story of a small town on the north shore of Lake Superior, MN.  It feels magical, but it's really not.  It feels redemptive, but also ordinary.  Which is great.

BONUS: Newbery 2020 Reflection:  We continue to read and rank the Newbery Medal winners every year.  Now our kids are getting into it, which is fun.  Next year will be the 100th year, so we're looking forward to that.

2020 Newbery Medal: New Kid by Jerry Craft.
This is a great graphic novel about a black kid who starts at a new elite school where he struggles with being a person of color in a very white world.  The story and the illustrations both work really well, and all our kids enjoyed the book.  It's funny and nuanced.  The odd thing is that it's a graphic novel.  Our impression is that the Newbery Medal went to a story that could stand alone without its illustrations (thus having excluded past greats from Brian Selznick like Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck).  Apparently not.