My Best Reads of 2017

Well, I did it. I read 75 books this year. Despite the gremlins in Goodreads’ algorithms that kept placing me way ahead of schedule when I was nowhere close to done and then artificially inflating my count by one crucial book – I met my goal. Next year I’m going to set a much more modest goal of 52 books. That’s what lies ahead, but as Janus also looks backwards, let’s recap the best of the best of 2017 – in my opinion, at least. 

Now, two caveats:

  1. These are books I read in 2017, not necessarily books published this year (though some are).
  2. While some of my friends write their “best of” lists by category, I’m just going to give you the top ten regardless of genre.

And now, on with the show!

Honorable Mention: The Saxon House of Eldred

Saxon House of Eldred

Author: Neslon B. Eldred III

Categories: History, Family History, European History

Why I Liked the Book:

No list I could write for 2017 would be complete without mentioning this book. But, given its limited audience, I doubt it would make anyone else’s Top Ten.

I enjoyed this book for helping flesh out the genealogy my sister has been working on for decades, in particular for a few fun facts:

• My distant ancestor, John Eldred, first imported nutmeg to England.

• The same John Eldred held a trade monopoly in Aleppo, sailing there on the Tiger. It is his diary, written of in a larger work at the end of the 1500s, that inspired Shakespeare to pen those immortal lines in Macbeth

Her husband’s to Aleppo gone, master o’ the Tiger:

• A daughter of John Eldred married a Sir Samuel Tryon, a minor English baronet. However, a grandson of this gentleman, on William Tryon, would be appointed colonial governor of North Carolina. As governor, he moved the capital to New Bern and built the gubernatorial mansion known as Tryon Palace. I now live in New Bern, my wife works at Tryon Palace, and this past Christmas season I was able to portray Governor Tryon – my 3rd cousin 9 times removed (I think) – as he might have welcomed guests to the Palace’s inaugural Yuletide celebration.

Me as Governor William Tryon December 2017

No. 10: The Gulf

winning-the-gulfAuthor: Jack E. Davis

Categories: History, American History, Maritime History

Why I Liked the Book:

I won this book through Goodreads and then promptly let it sit on my shelf. That was a mistake. This turned out to be a thoroughly engrossing history about the Gulf of Mexico. Books of this type might tend toward dullness, yet Davis has a way of storytelling that pulls the reader in – much like the Gulf Stream itself – and refuses to let go until the tale has played out.

From the early Native settlers to the needlessly doomed Spanish expeditions to the creation of a modern, decidedly American sea, this book should be a must-read for any student of American history.

No. 9: The Revenge of Analog

Revenge of AnalogAuthor: David Sax

Categories: Nonfiction, Technology

Why I Liked the Book:

I enjoyed this book because it echoes one of my soapboxes: in terms of quality, computer-driven technology is inferior to previous methods. Give me a notebook over a laptop, paper books over e-readers, vinyl records over CDs or mp3/mp4, 35mm over digital photography.

The irony that this is appearing online isn’t lost on me, but I take solace in the fact that I first outlined this post on paper.

Sax not only examines analog from a quality perspective, he also describes how those technologies survived – or came back from the dead, in some cases.

In fact, as I type this, I’m spinning some records on one of my Christmas presents: a suitcase-style Victrola record player. Nothing compares to vinyl.

No. 8: The Book Thieves

book thieves coverAuthor: Anders Rydell

Categories: Nonfiction, World War II

Why I Liked the Book:

I found this book by accident at my local library. I say by accident, but in reality it was on the New Arrivals shelf on Library Day. I had recently read When Books Went to War, and this seemed like a good companion piece. It was better.

Thanks to Schindler’s List and The Monuments Men, nearly everyone has mental images of Nazis physically separating Jews from their jewelry, their art, even the gold in their teeth. But the idea of a team of Nazi librarians carefully removing bookplates, snipping out initials, excising inscriptions – those images show the true banality of evil.

What happened to the great personal libraries of Western Europe? What has been done to reunite books with their rightful owners? Has there ever been any kind of restitution? These are the hard questions Rydell seeks to answer, and the answers aren’t always pleasant.

This book is one of the few I’ve borrowed from the library that I’ve wanted to purchase for my own.

No. 7: Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians

medieval-wisdom-for-modern-christians-coverAuthor: Chris R. Armstrong

Categories: Religion, Christianity

Why I Liked the Book:

This book combines three things I love: Christianity, medieval theology/philosophy, and C.S. Lewis. Using Lewis, the same of Narnia fame, as a springboard, Armstrong examines what the medieval period might offer modern Christians. Well, for a start, there’s critical thinking, meditation, and personal reflection.

I discovered this book thanks to the Christian Humanist Profiles podcast, and I can heartily recommend every show in the Christian Humanist network. This won’t be the last shameless plug I give in this list.

No. 6: The Collapsing Empire

Scalzi Trip 2017 3Author: John Scalzi

Categories: Fiction, Science Fiction

Why I Liked the Book:

I’ve followed John Scalzi’s blog for years, but never read any of his fiction – until this year, when I found out he’d be doing a book release tour event close enough to my house to justify going.

I enjoy his work, particularly his recent work Lock In, but since I read that in 2016, it can’t count for 2017. So, of his books I read in 2017, I liked The Collapsing Empire best. It reflects my distrust of both democracies and large governments and feeds my distrust on technology in general.

I may have been slightly influenced in my enjoyment for the book by my enjoyment for the signing event, but I’ll cross that bridge when the next installment in the series comes out.


No. 5: Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?

Was America Founded as a Christian Nation Revised Edition John FeaAuthor: John Fea

Categories: Religion, Christianity, American History

Why I Liked the Book:

I was first introduced to John Fea and his blog by one of my former undergrad professors. Since then, I’ve had the privilege of interviewing Fea for another Christian Humanist podcast, Sectarian Review.

I received this book for supporting Fea’s podcast on Patreon. Fea did not disappoint. I find that many in America take the title question to extremes: either America was explicitly founded as a Christian nation or America was founded as an entirely secular nation with no inclusion of religion apart from the first amendment.

Fea’s answer is “it’s complicated” – and then guides us through relevant source material so that we may form an educated opinion of our own, with an emphasis on educated.

This book is a must-read for any Christian living in America.

No. 4: The Pietist Option 

Pietist Option coverAuthor: Chris Gehrz & Mark Pattie III

Categories: Religion, Christianity, Pietism

Why I Liked the Book:

I discovered Chris Gehrz, again, through the Christian Humanist podcast network, where Christ hosts his own show, The Pietist Schoolman and runs a blog of the same name. As of writing, the blog is more active than the podcast, though he did release some episodes around the end of October in regards to the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.

Apparently Chris found my contributions to his blog discussions worthwhile, because earlier this year I found myself invited to the launch team of his new book, The Pietist Option (originally titled, I believe, “Hope for Better Times”).

Some of you might be familiar with pundit Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option. Though this book was not written in direct opposition to Dreher (despite the title change during editing), it does offer an alternative. Whereas Dreher advocates for a resurgence of Christian communities similar to those of the Benedictines (which, in reality, would simply mean Christian gated communities), Gerhz and Pattie seek to understand what it means for a Christian to be in the world and to love those in the world as Christ loved them. They offer, in my opinion, a better way, while still acknowledging their faults and failings.

No. 3: A Gentleman in Moscow

Gentleman in Moscow goodreads coverAuthor: Amor Towles

Categories: Fiction

Why I Liked the Book:

It seemed like everyone was talking about this book at one point, and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. When my library held only one copy with over 40 holds in the queue, I decided to buy my own. I’m glad I did.

This is historic fiction, emphasis on the fiction. It is not intended to be historic realism. Some reviewers apparently don’t understand the difference.

Towles has written an engrossing tale with themes of identity, individualism, and personal accountability set in Soviet Russia, where the State trumped all. The novel shows on a grand scale that prison, for some, is a matter of perspective.

No. 2: From Here to Eternity

from here to eternity coverAuthor: Caitlin Doughty

Categories: Nonfiction

Why I Liked the Book:

I am not a morbid person in that I am not obsessed with death. However, I recognize death as an inevitable fact and am determined to meet death with as much preparation and stoicism as possible. I find the current state of American funeral practices deplorable and extortionate, and Doughty – a crematorium operator from California – does, too. In this book, she travels the world looking at different funeral practices and their impact on society as a whole and the individuals involved, both the deceased and their mourners.

Doughty inspired me to determine and plan ahead of time not only my funeral service (which I’ve had written out for several years), but also the technical aspects of what I want done with my body. She has challenged me to think about why I want something done (or not done) and then to ensure others know the reasons, too.

Death comes for us all, so why not be prepared?

consolation-of-philosophy-friendsNo. 1: The Consolation of Philosophy

Author: Boethius

Categories: Philosophy

Why I Liked the Book:

First, a note about that picture. The only other picture I can find of that particular edition is a tiny thumbnail, so I’m reusing this screenshot of Facebook asking me to tag people.

I honestly do not know why I waited so long to read this book. It helped ground me in a way that no book since The Divine Comedy has achieved. I found it so inspiring that I’ve added it to my annual re-read shelf, and am at such a loss for words to describe the profound impact The Consolation of Philosophy had on me that I can only say, “Read it for yourself.”


What did you read in 2017?

8 thoughts on “My Best Reads of 2017

  1. Jay, I somehow got disconnected from you! I’m glad to find you again. I made my reading goal this year after falling short last year. This was quite a top ten list! I love the family history connection – that is fantastic! I believe I need to keep the television off more in 2018…. I have A Gentleman In Moscow on my to read list as well so I’m glad to hear that you liked it! Happy reading in 2018!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. A Gentleman in Moscow and The Book Thieves. Then I went back another post and added The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. I want to read more of his work, but I’m a little intimidated by Mr. Gaiman. I loved American Gods, but I felt like I was always on the sidelines until my I GOT IT moment.

        Liked by 1 person

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