Best Books of 2018 - non-fiction

My non-fiction reading tends to involve visits to just a few sections of the library, with the occasional purchase of books I know I’ll want to mark up. Here are the stand-outs from 2018 (and here’s my best of 2018 fiction list in case you missed it):


Without doubt, the book that provoked most thought and which continues to do so months later was The Patient Ferment of the Early Church by Alan Kreider. For those of us who spend a lot of time thinking about the church’s future, some time thinking about its origins in the company of an outstanding scholar is well worth the investment. Kreider explores some often-overlooked writings from the first three centuries to paint a vivid picture of the daily life of the early Christians and the lengthy process by which they were formed into counter-cultural communities within the Roman empire. I found his account both inspiring and disheartening, knowing the cultural pressure of busyness, individualism and materialism that must be overcome in order to experience the kind of shared life of which he paints such a compelling portrait. Highly recommended.

I just finished reading fellow Red Letter Christian and Parish Collective member Jonathan Brook’s first book, Church Forsaken. Part memoir, part call to action, Jonathan invites us to take a stroll through his neighborhood in the company of the prophet Jeremiah, and discover the kinds of commitments necessary if we are to experience the Beloved Community in which everyone has a chance to flourish. Honest and hopeful, another invitation to take the importance of place seriously.

Widening the lens a little, Healing Our Broken Humanity by Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Graham Hill is an introduction to many of the practices necessary if the church is to be a reconciled and reconciling presence in the world. Refusing to deny the presence within the church of the many -isms that haunt our world, Kim and Hill provide tangible and challenging practices that small groups and congregations can adopt to address our own failings to be a healing presence in the world. Not a book to be read and shelved: a timely and necessary manual for embodied repentance.

Moving to the memoir section of the library, the most delightful autobiography I read this year – or, rather, listened to the author read – was As You Wish by Cary Elwes. If you love the movie The Princess Bride as much as our family does, this behind-the-scenes account of its filming will have you laughing out loud, tearing up at times, and pulling out the movie one more time to look for all the great stories he tells about certain scenes. Delightful!

God’s Biker is the autobiography of an old friend from my days riding in the U.K. thirty years ago. Sean Stillman is a compelling storyteller whose writing you feel in your chest as if you were riding pillion on his Harley and feeling the rumble of the V-Twin. His life is a tale of the oil of grace to be found amidst the grit and grime of the outlaw bike scene and of his friends who live outside. The community he founded – Zac’s place – has become a refuge for many who struggle to find a home anywhere else. As I said in my endorsement, Sean is the kind of Christian and human being I aspire to be.

I find myself picking up an alcoholic’s memoirs every other year or so, and this go around it was Blackout by Sarah Hepola. Another well-told account of the kind of story you might hear in an open meeting of A.A., distinct from other, similar autobiographies by focusing on the experience that gives the book its title. I would have liked to hear more about her journey into sobriety, but maybe she’s saving that for a sequel.

Finally, Have Dog Will Travel by Steven Kuusisto is the fascinating account of a man who grew up learning to pretend not to be (legally) blind, managed to become a university professor, surviving by memorizing routes and classroom layouts, whose life was then thrown into chaos when he was unexpectedly laid off. Now needing help to get around and look for work, he meets Corky, the Labrador who will guide him into his new life. A beautiful and moving account of their relationship, as well as providing insight into both the challenges and gifts of those living with visual disability.

I continue to learn how to grow food, in our backyard and in the various community gardens and orchards in our neighborhood. To that end, I found these two books helpful this year. The Vegetable Gardener’s Guide to Permaculture is an excellent and delightfully illustrated introduction to the ethos that will be increasingly necessary if we are to reclaim our food system. Packed with practical advice, I already have plans for introducing some of these practices this spring. I know very little about growing fruit and nut trees, even though we’ve planted many over the years. The Fruitful City by Helena Moncrieff is an inspiring yet clear-eyed account of urban orchards in Toronto, as well as several non-profits across Canada who are seeking to educate people about the food growing all around them. She introduced me to the importance of equity as well as access: many people living in the city do not have the ability to visit rural orchards and experience the delight of eating a ripe apple or pear right off the tree. She also taught me that before planting a tree, it’s important to have a plan for who is going to care for it in ten years’ time.

Finally, as I spend so much time writing about the Bible, here are two books I found very helpful this year. Inspired by Rachel Held Evans is a whimsical, literate and often challenging re-engagement with the sacred text offered by an author continuing to come to terms with some of the unhelpful if not wounding ways she encountered the bible in her evangelical upbringing. Surprisingly moving in places.

Last, but not least is The Magnificent Story by James Bryan Smith. His thesis is that any story we allow to shape our life must be beautiful, good and true if we are to live a life filled with joy and meaning. He provides an engaging walk through the metanarrative of the bible with these three elements as our guide. Very good.

Well, that’s it for another year. I’d love to hear what books you found helpful in 2018, so please do share a title or two in the comments!

(I link to Amazon as a convenience and as a participant in their Associates Program. I encourage you to buy books where you want to see them sold. Or check them out of your local library, which is what we typically do.)