The Year in Reading 2020

It’s that time of the year again where I reflect on my reading over the course of the year. For a more wide-ranging review of the year in books, check out the coverage at The Millions here. My previous attempts are linked here.

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Coming out here dominated my thoughts at the turn of the year, which was how it found me digging into Richard Templar’s The Rules of Work. True the overwhelming sense at the time was of anticipation but there was enough uncertainty around how well I would navigate bridging a credibility deficit that looking for help came to mind most readily. In my notes from that first reading, I detect a sense of holding back against what seemed like rules promoting blatant self promotion. With the benefit of hindsight, and a big dollop of reality to boot, my view of the book is a lot more considered. There are certainly gems in there, which is why I intend to return to the book in the new year.

If there is a lesson in 2020 it is that the best laid plans are more likely to be ripped to shreds than come to fruition. I learned that in a deeply person way as a two week holiday between jobs turned into a three month hiatus. Steven Strogatz’ Infinite Powers was a fun and fascinating way to kick off that period, the ease with which it chronicled the history of calculus serving to draw me in. Much later, as there seemed no end to lockdown and the dystopian scenes of toilet paper hoarding and lengthy queues became the norm, I turned to a slew of spiritual books – and Alpha – for comfort. Brendan Manning‘s The Ragamuffin Gospel, Max Lucado‘s Come Thirsty (a re-read), Gemma SimmondsThe Way of Ignatius, John Starke‘s The Possibility of Prayer and a modern re-print of the Brother Lawrence classic The Practice of the Presence of God being the main ones in that regard. Esau McCaulley‘s Reading While Black took a slightly different tack, that of looking to engage scripture from the perspective of being black in America (and speaking truth to power/ protest amongst other themes)

This year I finally caved and went seeking to find out what the Jordan B Peterson fuss was all about. 12 Rules For Life was intriguing, not least for how overly reliant on the bible (in my view it was). True there were sections in which he seemed keener to rile the so-called radical left and right, and a few over-simplifications (lobster brains dissolving) but overall I didn’t see much there that a middle of the road Nigerian pastor might not preach on a Sunday if all the supernatural stuff and literal interpretations were toned down. The Enneagram was another thing I explored this year, the Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile book, The Road Back To You being the vehicle through which I did that this year. The Heart is the Bottleneck, The School of Life, Removing Your Shame Label and The Circadian Code are other reads which perhaps fall into this ‘self improvement’ category.

Dan JonesCrusaders, Richard Holloway‘s A Little History of Religion and Nigel Warburton‘s A Little History of Philosophy scratched the history itch this year as did Aida Edelmariam‘s The Wife’s Tale. Adam Kucharski’s The Rules of Contagion, was as well timed a book as could be given its subject and the year 2020 was, both from the perspective of the pandemic but also the contagious conspiracy theories which bloomed this year around the world. Fareed Zakaria‘s Ten Lessons For A Post Pandemic World was more reflective, in that now distant time when the world breathed a little easier between the first and third waves. It is from this that one of the more compelling lines I’ve read this year comes. To paraphrase, What matters more is the quality of government not its quantity.

Liverpool won the Premiership for the first time in 30 years which I suspect inspired one of my summer reads, Jonathan Wilson and Scott Murray‘s The Anatomy of Liverpool which highlighted ten definitive matches that defined the club. A few – the UEFA Cup win over Alaves in 2000/2001, The Champions League win in 2005 – are etched in my memories but with no live football I did seek out Liverpool v Nottingham Forest on YouTube.

I found poetry a calming influence this year, writing, reading and listening to a lot of it, almost like therapy or prayer. To quote from the Poetry Unbound podcast, poetry helps us to: cast your eye on small moments that can give you some fortitude [and] that can help you through. In William Sieghart‘s anthology, The Poetry Pharmacy, with its stated purpose of pairing a poem to a spiritual or emotional ailment and Padraig O’ Tuama‘s In The Shelter I found that this year.

2020 Reading: #1 – The Practice of The Presence of God

The Practice of The Presence of God (In Modern English) by Brother Lawrence (Author) and Marshall Davis (Translator)

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A classic which dates back to the late 1600s, this is a book that regularly makes it on to lists of great devotional books. This (newish) translation is by Marshall Davis, who has form for this sort of reimagining. Between this year being my year of delving deeper and plenty of time thanks to COVID-19, I finally got round to reading this!  to read has ended up on my pile for years. The central characters are a French lay brother, born Nicholas Herman but better known as Brother Lawrence, and Father Joseph de Beaufort, the vicar general to the Archbishop of Paris. A perhaps unlikely friendship given their different stations in life, we have it to thank for the letters and conversations recorded here.

A key theme is developing a practice for the presence of God in one’s life, through the mundane and the spiritual, particularly apt given Brother Lawrence served in the kitchen of the Order of Discalced Carmelites. The difficulties of going from normal life to a state of authentic union are not shirked. Rather, several times in the book Brother Lawrence refers to the need for ‘faithfulness in the dry seasons of the spiritual life’, ‘make[ing] a special effort’ and using the will to constrain wandering thoughts.

The path described here is not merely hard, disciplined work though, a love for God, instigated by Him, must be the reason why we go through the process and practice so that ‘after a little care we should find His love inwardly excite us to it without any difficulty’. Elsewhere, ‘All kinds of spiritual disciplines, if they are void of God cannot remove a single sin from our lives.’

My favourite quote:

The spiritual life is neither an art nor a science. To arrive at union with God all one needs is a heart resolutely determined to apply itself to nothing but Him, do nothing but for His sake, and to love Him only

Certainly one to come back to again and again.
Rating 5/5