5 Favorite Books of 2016

I took a few seminary classes this year which explains some of what’s on my 2016 reading list. None of those made my top-5 list, but a few could have: Kelly Brown Douglas’ The Black Christ and Sexuality and the Church were great introductions to womanist theology, Frederick Douglass’ Narrative proved immensely relevant during the election, and The Reason Why the Colored American is not in the World’s Columbian Exposition, edited by Ida B. Wells in 1893, was a fascinating look at a specific Chicago moment. Some of my reading in the latter half of the year was directed at trying to understand the president-elect’s appeal – Carol Anderson’s White Rage and the fascinating Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance – and some was geared toward trying to form my imagination outside of this pressing political moment.  All in all, it’s been a great book year and there are some I’m gladly reading into 2017: Augustine’s City of God and Teju Cole’s collection of essays, Known and Strange Things among a few others on the night stand.

Here are five of my favorites from 2016 that I’d happily recommend to just about anyone.


The South Side by Natalie Moore (2016)

south side_MECH_01.inddNatalie Moore is a terrific Chicago reporter with the NPR station who has now written one of the definitive accounts of the city’s south side. I’d recently finished the massive and essential Black Metropolis when I picked up The South Side and it was great to read Moore as she interacted with Drake and Catyon’s work from the 1940’s while exploring more recent dynamics in our section of the city. While Black Metropolis is a bit of a slog – fascinating stuff but, still, pretty thick with detail – Moore’s narrative moves quickly and will engage even those barely familiar with Chicago and its complexities. She does this by telling her own story in the city as an entry into the wider forces which shape neighborhoods and communities.

Moore loves Chicago like so many of its long-time residents do: she isn’t blind to the massive inequities that plague many residents but neither does she overlook what makes the city so great, so inhabitable. She covers violence, education, housing, gentrification, and more with a gaze that is equal parts reporter’s objectivity and best-friend’s pride.

White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson (2016)

white-rageI might have read this book regardless of the political moment, but the presidential election sent me scrambling for it. Carol Anderson is a professor at Emory University and, although her subject isn’t Donald Trump explicitly, her look at previous moments in American history places the now president-elect in a particularly context. Anderson’s thesis is as simple as it is disturbing: “The trigger for white rage, inevitably, is black advancement.” Not that this rage is especially visible: “It’s not the Klan. White rage doesn’t have to wear sheets, burn crosses, or take to the streets. Working the halls of power, it can achieve its ends far more effectively.” This subtle racism was one of the more frustrating parts of my conversations with Trump supporters this fall. Barring smoking gun evidence, most of these folks simply couldn’t see how race played a role in Trump’s ascendancy or, for that matter, the anxiety he produced in so many people for whom America has never been so great.

But this is the great strength of White Rage. By reviewing previous moments of white backlash to black advancement, Anderson helps us see the predictable pattern we’re now experiencing. She takes us through reconstruction, the Great Migration, desegregation, Civil Rights legislation, and the nation’s first black president and shows that, in each of these instances of significant black achievement, there have always been systematic and racially-oppressive responses.

A quick personal addition: Anderson’s book helped me see more clearly than before the gigantic gap between those who can acknowledge this history and those for whom it is tantamount to treason. Time and again this year I’ve experienced blank stares and utter confusion from those whose love for country won’t allow the truth of it to change their minds. White Rage helped me understand this dynamic though no book, I’m afraid, exists to tell us how to transcend it.

James Baldwin’s  Collected Essays (1998).

baldwin-collected-essaysThis one is kind of a cheat since it’s a collection of all of Baldwin’s non-fiction and I could have picked dozens almost at random for this list. There’s just so much good, beautiful, prescient writing in these essays. I’m not sure Baldwin was ever forgotten, but he has seemed incredibly relevant during these past few years of protest and unrest; he’s ripe for rediscovery.

Baldwin is always eye-opening; he makes places visible and people knowable. He does this in his travel essays and in his reflections about childhood in Harlem. He’s great on religion, especially the Christianity of his youth but also on Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam as well as King and the other preachers of the Civil Rights Movement. But it’s his insight into race – there in most essays, but never excessively so – which regularly grabbed me by the throat. He shows the reader around the experiences of many black people, dignifying the struggles and victories without ever succumbing to hagiography. And then he writes about white people and whiteness and white supremacy and I find that he understands these things far better than most white people do, myself included. This isn’t especially surprising because my majority culture self doesn’t have to think about whiteness. Baldwin, however, does more than understand- he rips the veil off, exposing the rotten assumptions that pass for normal and neutral in this country. And he does this while showing incredibly sympathy and understanding for white people. I’ve already returned to these essays and expect to frequently in the coming years.

 

Leisure: The Basis of Culture by Josef Pieper (1952)

leisureI stumbled onto this book in a short Christianity Today review and I’m so glad I did. Our church has some sermons about sabbath coming up and now, in addition to Abraham Joshua Heschel’s classic Jewish mediation on Sabbath, I have a German/Christian/Philosophic perspective to draw from. Writing during the years following World War II, Pieper was concerned with the growing honor given to productivity and efficiency which he saw as undermining the kind of culture for which humans were created. Culture, he believed, requires capacity for leisure which in turn requires divine worship.

The tendency to reduce people to their work (“What do you do?” is a first question we ask new acquaintances) is at least as common now as it was when Pieper wrote. If anything the problem is more acute today when we describe people as resources, objects to be used. He acknowledges that leisure – or Sabbath – will seem to us “morally speaking, unseemly: another word for laziness, idleness and sloth.” Given the pride most Christians take in breaking the fourth commandment, I think he’s right about this. This little book shows how wrongheaded we are about this and why the good life God intends for us is one that includes and prioritizes leisure.

A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America by Ronald Takaki (2008)

a-different-mirrorI was first told about this book while helping with a workshop about racial injustice for cross-cultural missionaries this summer. We had been discussing the tendency to reduce conversations about race to a black and white binary when A Different Mirror was suggested as a kind of antidote.  Ronald Takaki, a professor of Ethnic Studies, tells America’s story through the experiences of a variety of different communities. Here we read how Native Americans, Irish immigrants, Chinese laborers, resident Mexicans, and enslaved Africans came to make their homes in this country.

There’s no way for a multi-cultural history to be comprehensive, but Takaki provides a good, engaging overview. He includes the individual stories and voices which make good history come alive. Importantly, there is a lot of significant American history in these chapters that many of are only kind of aware of, if at all. These tend to be the stories and communities that only got passing mention in most of our history classes and textbooks. Anyone who wants a fuller view of this country’s past will do well to add this history to the one we already know.

Author: David Swanson

Pastor of New Community Covenant Church in Bronzeville. Collecting signs of life.

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