Bill's Books of the Year for 2013

I’m a bit late posting my recommendations for books of the year for 2013. I’m finding the task more difficult this year, not because there are not a lot of great books out there but because I’m more aware of the number of terrific books I haven’t read. I work my way through about three hundred books a year, which is a tiny fraction of the number available through my local libraries and in electronic form through Kindle and Overdrive. This year I returned to teaching American Religious History for Hartford Seminary, this time online, so I’ve spent a lot of time with the likes of Thomas Hooker, Jonathan Edwards, Horace Bushnell, the Beecher family and Reinhold Niebuhr.

Back in September I reviewed several new books on “mainline” Protestantism by David Hollinger, Matthew Hedstrom and Elesha Coffman. I liked all three books very much but Coffman’s The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline gets my nod as the book of the year in non-fiction. I say this in part because in teaching religion in the Twentieth Century this fall I found myself in dialogue with her book more than the others. Some might think a history of a small journal read mainly by pastors of mainline Protestant churches would be narrow in scope, but they would be wrong. As George Marsden demonstrated several years ago in his history of Fuller Seminary and as the best work in Congregational Studies continues to show, sometimes the broader sweep of change in American religion is most clearly seen in detailed examination of a single institution.

Another wonderful book by another younger historian does for American evangelicalism what Coffman does for mainline Protestantism. Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism is an introduction to the various religious streams we lump together as the river of evangelicalism. This book is a must-read for those with the courage to go beyond the labels in understanding this important segment of the American religious scene. I’ve added Molly Worthen to the relatively short list of authors whose books I’ll not only read but buy!

I read a lot of fiction: mysteries, courtroom drama, and even good literature. I don’t pretend to be an expert, but I know what I like and what I don’t like (science fiction being high on the "don’t like" scale). Most of my fiction reading gets forgotten in a matter of weeks, which is probably why I keep borrowing some of the same titles from the Centerville Public Library and realize 20 pages into a book that I’ve already read it.

As I look back on my 2013 reading two titles come to mind that haven’t had a lot of attention from critics but that I enjoyed and recommend. One is Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings. It’s the story of several teenagers who meet in the 1970s as a summer arts camp known as Spirit-in-the-Woods. It’s a quirky place that attracts quirky campers who share a desire to be extraordinary, who covet “specialness.” Through her lead character, Jules Jacobsen, Wolitzer tells the story of their lives as they move on to college, family life and careers. For the most part the campers’ lives are successful and miserable, but some, including Jules, are capable of learning. This is a good book for people asking what it means to invent or reinvent lives.

A second novel also deals with middle class American misery. A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee tells the story of Ben and Helen Armstead and their daughter Sara. Ben is a successful lawyer, Helen a stay-at-home mom and they are close to divorcing. Ben crashes, gets involved in a scandal that costs him his job and career. Helen enters the workforce and a new public relations career specializing in scandal management, where she is wildly successful. Dee weaves themes of forgiveness and redemption in clever and subtle ways. This is a novel, not a philosophical treatise, with characters Dees and the reader come to understand if not to actually like. A Thousand Pardons would be an excellent choice for book discussion groups who are open to vaguely theological themes.