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I’ve only lived 24 years, but in those 24 years, I have done my fair share of reading. I relish in all types of books: tons of theology, a bit of fantasy, a few historical reads here and there, plenty of realistic and historical fiction, lots of poetry, heaps of prose and creative essays, and more recently the occasional academic textbook.
I am going to share those that keep coming back to me. These pages contain sentences forever etched into the crevices of my heart. These books keep piecing me together in ways I didn’t know I was broken, begging me to pull them off the shelf for the thousandth time.
I didn’t pick a specific number, because I wanted all the books here to be (basically) equal quality. When you start saying like “10” or “5” books, there is usually one book that is lagging behind the others. However, that’s not the case here. I decided to choose those books which have changed by life, and here they are. I remember reading these books like I remember the most pivotal moments in my life. They have truly changed me forever.
I have arranged them in a semi-random order, since no book is necessarily better than another.
Off we go, into my library of the top 7 books ever!
Letters to a Young Poet – rainer maria rilke
“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.”
“For the creative artist there is no poverty – nothing is insignificant or unimportant.”
This collection of letters from a German poet Rainer Maria Rilke in the early 1900s observes the human condition, spelling it out beautifully to a younger poet, Mr. Kappus. Kappus had written for advice on poetry, but Rilke’s responses are so beautiful they reads like poetry themselves. This definitely isn’t written from a Christian perspective, but the truths of the human condition nonetheless attest to the truth of Scripture and stir creatives like myself to believe that art is really, truly important and vital to the human life.
Surprised by Oxford – carolyn weber
One’s degree at Oxford becomes for most not a matter of a prerequisite for a job, or to please one’s parents, or to make a minimum income bracket. Rather, the opportunity to study here seals an experience marked by intense personal growth resulting from a genuine desire to learn. A heady, hearty experience that changes you forever because it cracks you open ultimately to the humility of learning, which is where all of this wanted to take you in the first place.”
I read this book Christmas of 2018, and I haven’t recovered. It’s just so incredibly beautiful. Per the usual for me—it’s written by a poet. I think the Goodreads description describes the book the best, so I will simply quote it.
“A ‘girl-meets-God’ style memoir of an agnostic who, through her surprising opportunity to study at Oxford, comes to a dynamic personal faith in God.
Carolyn Weber arrives for graduate study at Oxford University as a feminist from a loving but broken family, suspicious of men and intellectually hostile to all things religious. As she grapples with her God-shaped void alongside the friends, classmates, and professors she meets, she tackles big questions in search of love and a life that matters.
This savvy, beautifully written, credible account of Christian conversion follows the calendar and events of the school year as it entertains, informs, and promises to engage even the most skeptical and unlikely reader.”
Bittersweet – shauna neiquest
Bittersweet is the idea that in all things there is both something broken and something beautiful, that there is a sliver of lightness on even the darkest of nights, a shadow of hope in every heartbreak, and that rejoicing is no less rich when it contains a splinter of sadness. Bittersweet is the practice of believing that we really do need both the bitter and the sweet, and that a life of nothing but sweetness rots both your teeth and your soul. Bitter is what makes us strong, what forces us to push through, what helps us earn the lines on our faces and the calluses on our hands. Sweet is nice enough, but bittersweet is beautiful, nuanced, full of depth and complexity. Bittersweet is courageous, gutsy, audacious, earthy. This is what I’ve come to believe about change: it’s good, in the way that childbirth is good, and heartbreak is good, and failure is good. By that I mean that it’s incredibly painful, exponentially more so if you fight it, and also that it has the potential to open you up, to open life up, to deliver you right into the palm of God’s hand, which is where you wanted to be all long, except that you were too busy pushing and pulling your life into exactly what you thought it should be. ”
Shauna’s collection of essays about life—the good, bad, and the ugly—and absolutely incredible. Shauna is truly one of the most talented authors I have read. She has a way of describing life that is vibrant and nuanced, but you don’t have to read a sentence five times to understand what she is saying. An easy, makes-you-want-more read. Usually, I warn against her theology (it’s iffy), but I can’t remember any red flags in this book. It was just over-all a great read, one that I will be purchasing it again soon because I can’t find my copy anywhere.
a Severe Mercy – sheldon vanauken
“That death, so full of suffering for us both, suffering that still overwhelmed my life, was yet a severe mercy. A mercy as severe as death, a severity as merciful as love.”
This book is one for the skeptic of Christianity, for poets, for English nerds, for anyone that loves a good memior of transformation, and for the C.S. Lewis lovers, as it contains letters from Lewis. It is also the one story that is better if you know the ending before reading, in most everyone’s opinion that I’ve talked to. Otherwise, the first few chapters will feel like they are going no where.
Vanauken himself describes the story as “the spiritual autobiography of a love rather than of the lovers.” Sheldon and his young love, Davy, live a “pagan life” of adventure and are in love with love itself, but deny the root of true, big-L Love. After moving to Oxford University for Sheldon’s graduate degree, they come face-to-face with the question of one true diety. After meeting many Christians (including C.S. Lewis) who don’t fit the stereotypical bill for Christians, they come to belief in Christ. Soon after, a tragic event unfolds, which acts a a stimulus for great spiritual growth in Sheldon’s life. This event is where the title “A Severe Mercy derives its name.
Little Women – lousia may alcott
I want my daughters to be beautiful, accomplished, and good. To be admired, loved, and respected. To have a happy youth, to be well and wisely married, and to lead useful, pleasant lives, with as little care and sorrow to try them as God sees fit to send. To be loved and chosen by a good man is the best and sweetest thing which can happen to a woman, and I sincerely hope my girls may know this beautiful experience. It is natural to think of it, Meg, right to hope and wait for it, and wise to prepare for it, so that when the happy time comes, you may feel ready for the duties and worthy of the joy. My dear girls, I am ambitious for you, but not to have you make a dash in the world, marry rich men merely because they are rich, or have splendid houses, which are not homes because love is wanting. Money is a needful and precious thing, and when well used, a noble thing, but I never want you to think it is the first or only prize to strive for. I’d rather see you poor men’s wives, if you were happy, beloved, contented, than queens on thrones, without self-respect and peace.”
I’ve never one to read—much less enjoy— classics. That is, until I read Little Women. After falling deeply in love with Greta Girwin’s film rendition of the book (it’s the only movie I own), I decided I had to at least try to enjoy the book. Oh, and did I enjoy it! The first 1/3 of the book way difficult for me just because I think I had to get used to Alcott’s style of writing, as well as just some 20th-century phrases and etiquette that I didn’t quite understand, but by the end of the book I was swooned. Wholesome, witty, and hysterical, I just couldn’t get enough of it. It’s one of those books you have to re-read to get the fullness of it, and I began re-reading the moment I finished the book the first time! As for any religious factors, the March family seems to have a good idea of the values of God. The only thing you might want to be wary of is that sometimes there is an emphasis on “good behavior” vs. true heart-transformation. But overall, not a huge problem. Just an incredible read.
GENTLE AND LOWLY – DANE ORTLUND
“[Jesus] doesn’t handle us roughly. He doesn’t scowl and scold. He doesn’t lash out, the way many of our parents did. And all this restraint on his part is not because he has a diluted view of our sinfulness. He knows our sinfulness far more deeply than we do. Indeed, we are aware of just the tip of the iceberg of our depravity, even in our most searching moments of self-knowledge. His restraint simply flows from his tender heart for his people.
This book has been, truly, the most life-changing book for me. I was actually able to get off of my anxiety medication because of how Ortlund used Scripture to re-frame my view of God, specifically the person of the Father (within the trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.) Ortlund ignited my desire to read Scripture; I started consuming the Word like none other after reading this book! I can’t recommend this read enough.
The hiding place – Corrie ten boon
“Mama’s love had always been the kind that acted itself out with soup pot and sewing basket. But now that these things were taken away, the love seemed as whole as before. She sat in her chair at the window and loved us. She loved the people she saw in the street– and beyond: her love took in the city, the land of Holland, the world. And so I learned that love is larger than the walls which shut it in. ”
“There is no pit so deep, that God’s love is not deeper still.”
A classic Christian read, and for good reason. Corrie’s story stirred my heart to love my neighbors with abandon. I am pretty sure my heart grew ten thousand times from the recounting of such a woman of God! You can’t make up this kind of story.
That’s my top 7 reads of a lifetime. Reach out with any questions, and follow me on social media for more book recommendations: