By Paul-Gordon Chandler
At the beginning of every new year, I have a tradition of releasing a list of recommended books that have significantly influenced, inspired and/or entertained me over the prior year. Reading is one of my deepest pleasures. I resonate with the words of C.S. Lewis, that 20th century British author, when he wrote, “You can never get. . . a book long enough to suit me.” This is especially true during long winter months - perhaps the best season to release such a list. I have always loved that idyllic image of Russians reading their long novels in their snowed-in dachas during seemingly endless winters.
Below is my 2024 New Year Book List. It is a list of 12 books that have captured my heart, mind or soul over the last year in one way or another. As always, the list entails different genres – fiction, memoir, biography, poetry, history, mysticism, the arts, and spirituality. Most of these titles were published within the last year or two. However, not all of them were, as I have included several books that I have drawn me back into their pages over the years, which I believe deserve to be read at least once during one’s lifetime. I recall the words of Oscar Wilde, “If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.”
More than anything, I find good literature, regardless of the genre, transformational in nature. Virginia Woolf said it poignantly, “Books are the mirrors of the soul.” I hope you will be enticed to delve into some of these impactful books.
Please note that these books below are not listed in any particular order.
– Cliff Edwards
No artist has influenced my spiritual journey more than Vincent van Gogh - through his paintings, writings and spirituality. I have returned over and over again to this inspiring book. Cliff Edwards, a Van Gogh scholar who taught religious studies for many years at Virginia Commonwealth University, takes us on a spiritual journey with the artist. This personal and reflective book, which is very much a labor of love by the author, presents Van Gogh as a spiritual guide by giving us a clear picture of his spiritual path through his art and letters. As Edwards explores Van Gogh’s life and creativity, it is clear that he has been profoundly influenced by him. This is not really a biography, but more of an account of the author’s own pilgrimage into Van Gogh’s spirituality, guiding us on a journey with the artist toward seeing the Sacred in all things. I know of no book that so beautifully and powerfully opens up Van Gogh’s spirituality. Reading this book is a transformative experience!
This book recounts one of the epic explorations of the mid-19th century, a search for the headwaters of the Nile River. Set against the backdrop of the race to exploit Africa by the colonial powers, and written like a fast-paced novel, Candice Millard, one of my favorite writers, brings to life the dramatic account of how Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke, with the backing of the Royal Geographic Society, boldly traveled through East Africa’s uncharted territories, resulting in Europe’s discovery of the Nile’s source. Captivating and compelling, Millard tells this fascinating story brilliantly, highlighting the dangers and hardships these two ambitious and courageous explorers underwent. Millard draws on original sources and her own trips to Africa following the explorers’ journeys, which makes for a riveting read. An unexpected highlight is the attention she gives to their talented African guide, a Muslim named Sidi Mubarak Bombay, whose extensive knowledge of tribes and territory led to the exploration’s success. Just his story could be an epic Hollywood film. This is an enthralling adventure tale – that is true!
The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise – Pico Iyer
I never miss a new book by Pico Iyer, the best-selling British-born writer and novelist known primarily for his distinctively spiritual travel writing. A close friend of the Dalai Lama, in this his latest book, Iyer, takes us on both a geographical and spiritual journey, to some of the world’s “holiest” places. In this deeply soulful meditation, as Iyer journeys, he explores diverse perspectives on paradise, intent on learning how to best live in our world. With the goal of discovering the elusive concept of experiencing Paradise, Iyer takes us to Iran, India, Australia, Jerusalem, Sri Lanka, Ireland, California and Japan. Serving as our guide on a global tour of spiritual traditions, Iyer shares how each of us can experience paradise in the present, regardless of how troubled the world is. This mystical exotic journey of a global soul is a beautiful exploration of how to find peace in the midst of difficulty and suffering. A truly inspiring exquisite book!
This latest book by celebrated columnist and television commentator David Brooks is a continuation of his own personal life journey, following his two earlier books, The Second Mountain and The Road to Character. In his new book, Brooks shares his belief that a breakdown of foundational moral and social skills has led to what he terms “a massive civilizational failure.” A practical book full of personal reflection, this is an inspirational guide to making meaningful human connections and ultimately living a more compassionate life. Pulling from many different fields, such as neuroscience, the arts, psychology, philosophy, spirituality and history, Brooks presents a hopeful approach to human relationships. I love how he describes seeing others for who they really are, as being profoundly creative. Brooks calls us to see others deeply, in order to really understand and know them, which in turn leads to ourselves being understood at a much deeper level. This is a book that after finishing each chapter I wanted to marinate on what was written for a little while. If followed, the wisdom in this book would revolutionize our country.
Faith, Hope and Carnage – Nick Cave and Séan O’Hagan
This is one of the most stimulating and profound books I have ever read. It is assembled from 40 hours of conversations that the noted music journalist Séan O’Hagan had with Nick Cave, the iconic Australian rockstar and composer, the frontman for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. This inspiring book is a spiritual conversation about, in Cave’s words, “the notion of the divine which is at the heart of creativity.” The context of Cave’s reflections is the tragic death of his 15-year-old son in 2015. The book explores the interplay between Cave’s music, yearning for spiritual depth, grief and forgiveness. About it, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, says, “An absolutely wonderful book. I don’t think I have ever read so integrated and searching an engagement with how faith works, how creativity works, and how grief is bound up with both.” Speaking of his own story of loss, Cave writes, “Suffering is, by its nature, the primary mechanism of change.” Elsewhere, he poignantly says, “Hope is optimism with a broken heart.” A book of searching questions, unfiltered honesty, eloquence, grace and hope, it is quite simply profound and beautiful. A truly extraordinary meditation on the spiritual journey.
Napoleon: A Life – Andrew Roberts
The celebrated film director Ridley Scott’s epic new film about Napoleon Bonaparte was released in late 2023, starring Joaquin Phoenix, attracting much attention. So, it seemed the perfect year to read this definitive one-volume biography about the 18th/19th century French solder-statemen known for his military and political genius. This epically-sized book of 976 pages, does not disappoint. Andrew Roberts, an award-winning historian, is an exceptional storyteller. Based on newly discovered documents, and Roberts’ own travels to most of Napoleon's many battles sites and even by boat to the distant island of St. Helena, where Napoleon was exiled, this extraordinary portrait of a larger-than-life figure is an extravagant pleasure to read!
Zero at the Bone: Fifty Entries Against Despair – Christian Wiman
This is an extraordinary book, that I find defies categorization. Christian Wiman, the longtime editor of Poetry magazine, and now a professor at Yale Divinity School, is an award-winning poet, critic, memoirist, and theologian all in one. This book, which I found transcendent in so many ways, moves easily between different literary genres through fifty reflections that in essence address how to get through times of despair. With artistic eloquence and mystical profundity, Wiman speaks to life’s deepest questions – about faith, God, hopelessness, and mortality. It is clear that he has been deeply transformed from having looked into life’s abyss himself. Filled with wisdom from other poets and sages of old, he offers an honest, spiritual and contemporary way to embrace all that life presents us, both its pain and beauty. There is a certain mystical weightiness to the book, that is ultimately uplifting. As the Rev. Katherine Willis Pershey describes it, “. . . expect a voice crying out in the midst of that despair—screaming one moment, singing the next.” Zero at the Bone is a revelation about learning how to live, leading us to tap previously unplumbed spiritual sources.
– Lerita Coleman Brown
I personally came to know of Howard Thurman late in my own spiritual journey. Often seen as the “godfather of the civil rights movement,” I have since then been profoundly influenced by his contemplative spirituality. As one of the most important mystics and religious thinkers of the 20th century, he is often referred to as the person who inspired Martin Luther King Jr. This dynamic portrait of Thurman not only introduces us to his remarkable life and work, including learning about his encounters with Quakers and Mahatma Gandhi, but also magnetically draws us into a mystical spirituality that has practical implications in the way we live our lives. Reading this book is like taking a spiritual journey with Thurman, allowing us to soak in his sacred wisdom. Beautifully written, the book is an inspiring invitation to take an inward journey into a deeper dimension with the Divine.
Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times – Katherine May
This is a book that came along just at the right time for me, and is fittingly seasonal, as winter in the Western hemisphere gets underway. A gorgeously meditative book, May’s message is quite simply, “Embrace your winter.” By “winter,” May means not just this chilly dark season, but more profoundly "a fallow period in life when you're cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider." A perceptive witness of life’s emotional discouragements, May writes “However it arrives, wintering is usually involuntary, lonely and deeply painful.” This paradoxically melancholic and hopeful book, is deeply personal, as she shares about a dark time in her life. She writes, “We may never choose to winter, but we can choose how.” In her moving narrative, she finds lessons from literature and the natural world, and offers counsel on the transformative power of rest and retreat. She calls us to embrace the uncertainty and the possibilities for growth that exist in the liminal spaces of winter. The reflective quality of this book makes you want to read it slowly, re-reading parts and highlighting passages. I know I will return to Wintering again and again.
Every career-oriented person age 40 and above should read this book. Arthur C. Brooks, bestselling author, Harvard professor, and the Atlantic's happiness columnist, in a narrative that is both personal and professional, provides an inspiring road map of steering through new terrain with a spiritual approach to the second half of life. Offering reflection and practical wisdom on one’s focus at midlife and beyond, he encourages investing one’s self in deeper purposes, which opens up opportunities that more closely align with one’s authentic self. Throughout the book, Brooks shares life lessons from his personal experience. He also builds upon scientific research, social theory, sacred wisdom and many interviews, to demonstrate that the deepest times of happiness and purpose can occur during the last half of one’s life. An inspiring book on reimagining the rest of your life!
This is a fascinating book by Aaron Rosen, a noted scholar of religion and an art curator, who writes widely on the intersection of art and faith. He is also a friend. As someone in the arts, who is Jewish and married to an Episcopal priest, he offers a unique perspective on thinking about Jesus, asking the question, not “what would Jesus do?” but “what would Jesus see?” Rosen is someone who is trained to see. Throughout the book he draws from the arts, popular culture and contemporary events, to illustrate what Jesus might see if he were looking at our world today. Rosen finds that Jesus looks at the world the way artists see their subjects, and in so doing illustrates for us how radically compassionate Jesus was. His emphasis that Jesus’ example calls us to look at our world with transformative empathy. Rosen often shares from his own life and experiences. I found it interesting that he used to focus on looking at Jesus — but now he attempts to look with Jesus. He also highlights how Jesus would have trouble recognizing the movement that started in his name; “We are hypocrites in a way Jesus could scarcely have imagined.” This is an artistically reflective book that reminds us all of the universality of Jesus' example and teachings.
The Hunchback of Notre-Dame – Victor Hugo
It couldn’t be more timely to read (or re-read) this remarkable novel by Victor Hugo written in 1831, as 2024 is when the majestic Cathedral of Notre Dame is expected to re-open after its devasting fire in 2019. Set in 1482 and infused with gothic and romantic imagery, Hugo’s original title, Notre-Dame de Paris, suggests that the cathedral of Notre Dame, and the city of Paris itself, are really its main characters. Written at a time when the cathedral was falling into disrepair, the novel’s popular reception influenced its restoration. Glimpses of light emerge from its dark pages through the unlikely character of a bellringer who is hunchbacked, and the occasional comic relief of a playful goat. Despite modern romantic portrayals of the story in children’s movies, the original telling is tragic in nature, exploring the timeless themes of love and betrayal, the powerful vs. the powerless, the value of outer beauty vs. inner beauty, cruelty vs. kindness, and selfishness vs. selflessness. This is a moving novel that will always stay with you. Make this your winter novel!