Books of the Year 2020 image

Books of the Year 2020

What better way to celebrate the end of lockdown than with a list of the year's best books? After all, this has been a year defined by being locked down and then allowed out again, furloughed and then sent back to work, and reading has been one of the few activities possible in each situation. The result has been that I've read more books this year than I normally would, especially across the early summer. So I've allowed myself a top twenty-five, rather than the usual top twenty: ten old books, five new Christian books, five new novels, and five recent nonfiction titles. (Asterisks indicate a re-read.)

Christian Books

1. Dane Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers. My book of the year. For about a month in the summer, I took this book with me in the morning and read a chapter each day, as slowly and meditatively as I know how. It is a stunning book, packed with beautiful truths expressed poignantly and applied wisely, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

2. James K. A. Smith, On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts. A wonderful fusion of Augustine’s life story, the parable of the prodigal son, a road trip, and Augustinian insights that put our restless desires into context. A delight to read.

3. Carl Trueman, The Rise And Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism and the Road to Sexual Revolution. A genealogy of the modern self, from the Romantics to the present, with all kinds of fascinating historical narrative, and plenty of application to the major debates and kerfuffles of the century so far. Superbly written as well.

4. Hannah Anderson, Turning of Days: Lessons from Nature, Season and Spirit. Hannah’s book is not out yet (sorry about that), but it will be in February, and when it is, you should take a look. It’s a searching, reflective, devotionally rich book on the seasons, the natural order and Scripture, with an abundance of spiritual and theological connections made between them.

5. Michael Morales, Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? A Biblical Theology of the Book of Leviticus. Morales deserves credit for writing a book about Leviticus in the first place, let alone doing it in a way that brings the book to life, joins the dots between the major themes, fuels worship, and fosters a desire for the presence of God. Rich biblical theology.

Nonfiction Books

1. Peter Moore, Endeavour: The Ship and the Attitude that Changed the World. My favourite nonfiction title of the year, this book focuses on the first ship in which Captain Cook sailed around the world. It began life as a Whitby collier, circumnavigated the globe, got stuck on the Great Barrier Reef, joined the war against America, and ended up (or did it?) on the moon. An astonishing story with one of the great final paragraphs of any book I have read.

2. Jenny Uglow, The Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made the Future. Erasmus Darwin, James Watt, Matthew Boulton, Joseph Priestly, Josiah Wedgewood and a bunch of other luminaries (or lunaries) were all members of the Lunar Society in Birmingham in the late eighteenth century. This marvellous book tells the story of what they did, discovered and invented, and how it changed the modern world.

3. Joseph Henrich, The Weirdest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous. You are WEIRD—Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic—and the reason for that is the Western Church, and specifically their prohibition on marrying your cousins. A surprising thesis, with more supporting arguments and charts than you can shake a stick at. (Here’s my review it for The Gospel Coalition.)

4. Tara Westover, Educated. I am a little late to the party on this one, but Tara Westover’s memoir, of being raised in a Mormon, survivalist junkyard and ending up in Cambridge and Harvard, is the sort of book you never forget reading, and in places is quite literally unbelievable.

5. Alec Ryrie, Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt. Religious scepticism has been around for much longer than you think. Ryrie’s argument stops where we might expect it to start (with the high Enlightenment), and starts with Pope Gregory IX in 1239. “The crucial juncture in the history of atheism,” he argues, “is the period before the philosophers made it intellectually respectable.” Again, here’s my TGC review.


1. Hilary Mantel, The Mirror and the Light. Oh, to be able to write like this. A magnificent ending to the trilogy.

2. Jeanine Cummins, American Dirt. The tale of two girls trying to reach America was the most exciting story I read this year.

3. Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing. An evocative, rich, absorbing and charming novel, which I’m guessing book-lovers have already read.

4. Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies. The shortest, paciest and most gripping of the three books in the Wolf Hall series.

5. Lionel Shriver, The Mandibles: A Family History, 2029-2047. I read this just as the Covid lockdown started, and the parallels freaked me out. Disorientingly plausible.

Top Ten Old Books

Irenaeus, A Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching
Augustine, Letter to Proba
Gregory the Great, Book of Pastoral Rule
Anselm, Proslogion
Thomas Paine, Common Sense
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism
Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, Out of Revolution: Autobiography of Western Man
Leszek Kołakowski, Is God Happy? Selected Essays

The Rest

John Betz, After Enlightenment: The Post-Secular Vision of J. G. Hamann
Walter Kaiser, Walking the Ancient Paths: A Commentary on Jeremiah
Philip Jenkins, Fertility and Faith: The Demographic Revolution and the Transformation of World Religions
Tim Keller, How to Reach the West Again: Six Essential Elements of a Missionary Encounter
Alan Jacobs, Breaking Bread with the Dead: Reading the Past in Search of a Tranquil Mind
Nijay Gupta, The New Testament Commentary Guide
David Abulafia, The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans
Rudyard Kipling, The Gardener
Peter Leithart, The Gospel of Matthew Through New Eyes, Vol. II
Jen Wilkin, Ten Words To Live By
Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
Esau McCaulley, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope
Thomas Chatterton Williams, Unlearning Race: Self-Portrait in Black and White
Deirdre McCloskey, Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the Modern World
Mike Betts, The Prayers of Many
Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter
Isaac Adams, Training: How Do I Grow as a Christian?
Sharon Dickens, Character: How Do I Change?
Garrett Kell, Church: Do I Have to Go?
Charlie Mackesy, The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse
Roy Hattersley, John Wesley: A Brand from the Burning
Peter Mead, The Little Him Book
Jack Deere, Why I Am Still Surprised by the Power of the Spirit
Jeremy Bentham, Short Review of the Declaration
Justin Bass, The Bedrock of Christianity: The Unalterable Historical Facts of Jesus’ Death and Resurrection
Mark Greengrass, Christendom Destroyed: Europe 1517-1648
Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Roads to Modernity: The British, French and American Enlightenments
Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees
Graham Greene, Monsignor Quixote
Mez McConnell, The Creaking on the Stairs: Finding Faith in God Through Childhood Abuse
Jesse Norman, Adam Smith: What He Thought, and Why it Matters
Rachel Jankovic, You Who: Why You Matter and How to Deal With It
*C. S. Lewis, The Silver Chair
Peter Leithart, The Ten Commandments: A Guide to the Practical Law of Liberty
Patrick Schreiner, The Ascension of Christ: Recovering a Neglected Doctrine
James Chelsum, Remarks on the Two Last Chapters of Mr Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Richard Watson, An Apology for Christianity in a Series of Letters Addressed to Edward Gibbon Esq
Martin Charlesworth and Natalie Williams, A Call to Act
A. J. Culp, Invited to Know God: The Book of Deuteronomy
The Declaration of Independence, With Short Biographers of its Signers
Rick Atkinson, The British Are Coming: The War for America, 1775-1777
Jennie Pollock, If Only: Finding Joyful Contentment in the Face of Lack and Longing
John Lennox, Where Is God in a Coronavirus World?
Thomas Paine, American Crisis No 1
Nicholas Thomas, Discoveries: The Voyages of Captain Cook
J. D. Greear, Searching for Christmas
Peter Ackroyd, Revolution: The History of England, Volume IV
John Piper, Coronavirus and Christ
Steven D. Smith, Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac
David McCullough, 1776: America and Britain at War
Robert Bellah et al, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life
PJ Smyth, Elders: Developing Potential Elders and Revitalising Existing Elders
*George Orwell, Animal Farm
Philipp Blom, Wicked Company: Freethinkers and Friendships in Pre-Revolutionary Paris
*Jeffrey Archer, A Matter of Honour
Roger Osborne, Iron, Steam and Money: The Making of the Industrial Revolution
Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Chronicle of a Death Foretold
F. Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary
Amanda Ripley, The Smartest Kids in the World (And How They Got That Way)
Bruno Maçães, History Has Begun: The Birth of a New America
Jesse Norman, Edmund Burke: The Visionary Who Invented Modern Politics
*Niall Ferguson, Civilization: The Six Killer Apps of Western Power
*C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle
*D. A. Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and his Prayers
Ross Douthat, The Decadent Society: How We Became Victims of Our Own Success
Vic Gatrell, The First Bohemians: Life and Art in London’s Golden Age
David Hempton, Methodism: Empire of the Spirit
Madison Smartt Bell, Toussaint Louverture: A Biography
Roger Osborne, Of the People, By the People: A New History of Democracy
1776: A London Chronicle
*C. S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew
*Peter Leithart, Solomon Among the Postmoderns
Joseph Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation
Lucy Atkins, Magpie Lane
Tim Blanning, The Romantic Revolution
Gerald Bray, Preaching the Word with John Chrysostom
Peter Leithart, The Gospel of Matthew Through New Eyes, Vol. I
Simon Sebag Montefiore, Catherine the Great and Potemkin: The Imperial Love Affair
Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe and the Making of the Modern World Economy
Rico Tice, Faithful Leaders and the Things That Matter Most
Thomas Kidd, God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution
Carl Laferton and Catalina Echeverri, The God Contest
William Rowe, China’s Last Empire: The Great Qing
*Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace?
Margaret Jacob, The Secular Enlightenment
Tayari Jones, Silver Sparrow
Gene Veith, Post-Christian: A Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture
*Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years
*John Houghton, Hagbane’s Doom
David Scott, Leviathan: The Rise of Britain as a World Power
C. S. Lewis, Spirits in Bondage
Jerry White, London in the Eighteenth Century: A Great and Monstrous Thing
Ed Shaw, Purposeful Sexuality
Matthew Barrett, None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God

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