In the summer of 2020 I published a book, Better Politics Please, yearning for a better way. Six months later January 6 happened and it felt like we were further than ever from coming together as Americans.
That book was written in hope, and I’ve felt awfully hopeless since.
Today I finished reading Barack Obama’s 2006 memoir, The Audacity of Hope. You have to read any political memoir, especially one released in the build up to a presidential run, with a grain of salt. There’s a lot of humble optimism and positive framing of life experience.
184 is certainly a ridiculous number. It’s my second highest ever.
Not bragging: But as much as I talk up the number (I even put it in the title of my own book), let’s be honest—that’s just clickbait. The number doesn’t matter. Don’t bother comparing. I know some people who love books but only manage a few a year. I know someone else who regularly tops 300 per year. So don’t get hung up on the numbers. Get hung up on the books.
I normally don’t read a lot of nonfiction (only 18% of my reading in 2022), so this is usually a shorter list. But I went on a memoir spree and found a ton of good ones—with nonfiction hitting 43% of my reading!
So this year we get a top 10 list:
This Here Flesh: Spirituality, Liberation, and the Stories That Make Us by Cole Arthur Riley – I listened to the audiobook and was initially put off by the author’s monotone, but once I got into the groove it was really compelling. Extremely well written, to the point that I want to read it again in print so I can underline the morsels.
Smart Brevity: The Power of Saying More With Less by Jim Vandehei, Mike Allen, Roy Schwartz – The best book on writing I’ve read in years. I keep buying copies for my contributors.
Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate by Justin Lee – The best book I’ve read on the gay debate in the church.
Rapture Practice: My One-Way Ticket to Salvation by Aaron Hartzler – This growing up in a Christian subculture memoir hit way too close to home.
Tomorrow Will Be Different: Love, Loss, and the Fight for Trans Equality by Sarah McBride – This one made me cry.
Love Thy Neighbor: A Muslim Doctor’s Struggle for Home in Rural America by Ayaz Virji with Alan Eisenstock – Really incredible story.
A Heart That Works by Rob Delaney – The story of his son dying, which is just awful, but it’s poignant and honest in that “well, fuck” kind of way.
I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times by Monica Guzmán – We need more of this if our democracy is going to survive.
Team of Vipers: My 500 Extraordinary Days in the Trump White House by Cliff Sims – As much as I dislike Trump, I’m not a fan of the tell-all books gushing with juicy details. But the Smart Brevity guys referenced this one, so I checked it out, and the style was super engaging.
When They Call You A Terrorist by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele – I put this one off for a while, but glad I finally got to it.
And a few more worth mentioning:
Birding While Indian by Thomas C. Gannon – Really enjoyed this mix of Indian politics and birding, which clued me into the gamification of birding, something I found intriguing (who knew I’d enjoy keeping lists?!).
Testimony: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Failed a Generation by Jon Ward – I read several deconstruction memoirs and this one was perhaps the most interesting.
Love Leadership: The New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World by John Hope Bryant – Business books are often awful, but this one really engaged.
Note on Trends
I noted last year that I read a couple LGBTQ+ memoirs and enjoyed them and would probably do more this year. I did. A lot. Three of those made it to my top 10, and I read a bunch more. The Christian ones were the most intriguing, which led to a related field of deconstruction memoirs. By the end of the year I stumbled into birding memoirs, and that pushed me to spend Christmas money on binoculars and start exploring birding.
I repeat this mantra often, and it’s especially true when I’ve been in a reading slump. I just saw it summarized nicely by Angela Whited, the community sales coordinator and storyteller at Red Balloon Bookshop:
Whited also revealed another secret about reading more books: If a book is boring, she’ll quit.
I’ve always struggled with that idea. Quitting a book feels like defeat. I started it. Why not finish it?
But those books are a grind and the process feels arduous and less enjoyable.
Whited said that’s OK.
“You can quit in the middle if you don’t like it,” she said. “You only will live so long. You would never read all the books you want to read. And so this is how we read so many books at the bookstore. We don’t finish the ones we’re not loving. You’ve got your to-be-read pile. Are you ever going to get through it? I’m not going to get through mine. It’s OK if you don’t love it. That book is for somebody else.”
-Myron Medcalf, “My quest to read more books led me to ‘reading therapist’ in St. Paul,” Sept. 9, 2023, Star Tribune
Even though I read a ton, this is only the eighth time I’ve read more than 100 books in a year.
And for the piles of books that evokes, my reading has slowed to a crawl. Back in April I was talking about how many books I’d read. I was kind of amazed myself at how I was getting through so many. But reality set in:
I share this for the sake of transparency and to remind myself that there’s always an ebb and flow. Sometimes it helps to recognize a wave and ride the momentum. It also helps to realize when you’re in a slump and be OK with it.
And sometimes it’s just the natural rhythm of life. What happened in May? The weather finally broken and I went bike riding all the time. I’m OK with that trade.
So a 100-book milestone in the middle of a slump. Sometimes that’s the way it is.
We finally installed our new Little Free Library. We commissioned Lori Greene of Mosaic on a Stick to create the mosaic and we’re really proud of it (Psst… you can support Lori through Patreon). So reminiscent of Alma Thomas. Love it.
We have a huge stack of books to keep it stocked (plus some stickers and other goodies). I’ve heard from other locals with Little Free Libraries, so I’m curious to see how this little adventure goes.