Mockingbird’s Favorite Books (2010-2019)

When I set out to assemble a Mockingbird-themed end-of-decade books list, some guiding measures came […]

CJ Green / 12.17.19

When I set out to assemble a Mockingbird-themed end-of-decade books list, some guiding measures came into focus. We decided to stay away from books that came from our own imprint — of which many made a good splash this decade. Notably, ten years is a long time — so this is a long list! But it is by no means exhaustive. Feel free to add your picks in the comments. This is also intended as a companion, not a replacement, to the list of recommended reading on our “I’m New Here” page.

What we’ve collected here is far less about “the best,” whatever that would mean, and far more about what our contributors most enjoyed/were moved by these last ten years. Below you will find novels, social science, poetry, theology. Many of these books will respond to that deeper level thirsting for good news. Many may be familiar; many new. Many are just plain interesting — and although published in the last decade, all contain timeless content. May they carry you into the future…!

In no particular order:

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt (2012)

The erstwhile Mbird conference speaker’s opus has proven eerily prophetic, far and away the most helpful tool for understanding — and summoning compassion for — today’s furious and fractured public square. The first half is particularly brilliant. See also: Alan Jacobs’ wonderful How to Think. – David Zahl

My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, by Christian Wiman (2013)

This was the decade I fell in love with poetry. And it’s the decade I realized poets are my favorite writers of any genre. In My Bright Abyss, Wiman explores ideas connected to faith, doubt, life, and death with humility and an ability to hold space for mystery and truth. I probably need to frame this sentence: “Part of the mystery of grace is the way it operates not only as present joy and future hope, but also retroactively, in a way: the past is suffused with a presence that, at the time, you could only feel as the most implacable absence.” – Charlotte Donlon

The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, by Fleming Rutledge (2015)

The Crucifixion is the work of a lifetime. Writing over a twenty-year period, Fleming Rutledge has wrestled with seemingly every imaginable implication of the Cross. And if, as Luther put it, “The Cross alone is our theology,” what better gift for the preacher in your life? That said, this book wasn’t written for clergy. The author’s clarity, verve, and pastor’s heart make the center of the Christian faith accessible for the everyday churchgoer. For those whose faith has gone dry, this is required reading. Ben DeHart

What I Stand On: Collected Essays, by Wendell Berry (2019)

I love essays, so you can imagine how happy I was when I discovered that The Library of America would be collecting over 70 from my favorite Kentucky farmer, Mr. Wendell Berry. Spanning work from 1969-2017, this is a collection filled with Berry’s thoughts on science, the economy, nature, society, and religion, and how they all interact with each other — and us. Here is a little taste from his essay, “The Burden of the Gospels”: “…there are many Christians who are exceedingly confident in their understanding of the Gospels, and who are exceedingly self-confident in their understanding of themselves in their faith. Having been invited to speak to a convocation of Christian seminarians, I at first felt that I should say nothing until I confessed that I do not have any such confidence. And then I understood that this would have to be my subject. I would have to speak of the meaning, as I understand it, of my lack of confidence, which I think is not at all the same as a lack of faith.” Berry’s writings have influenced, and still influences, generations of people in profoundly positive ways, and despite being in his mid-80s he hasn’t shown any sign of quitting. I’m holding out for his next boxset… – Joshua Retterer

The Best Cook in the World: Tales From My Mama’s Southern Table, by Rick Bragg (2018)

If I could have only one book for the rest of my life it would be this one. It has everything you could ever need. Incredible family stories, sad, funny, and the best kinds of both, and recipes to nourish you through the reading. You will learn about a mountain-man-living long-neglectful father who only came down from his hobbit hole to help his son’s new bride learn to cook. Because being there for his childhood was not nearly as important as making sure his wife could feed him. Storm survival, ancient superstitions, and an abiding belief that the Lord is in charge haunt Bragg’s narrative. But alongside this wash of words are recipes. Armadillo that healed a beloved aunt, cracklings (fried pork skins) cooked outside during a tornado, and the remarkable country women who managed to make meals out of almost nothing. But even if you are not Southern and wholly against eating roadkill, I would still want to send you a copy. Because Bragg handles his family history with such bravery, honesty, and knocks-the-breath-right-out-of-you grace. – Sarah Condon

The Rabbit Listened, by Cori Doerrfeld (2018)

My first child was born in 2010, and so the past decade for me has been seen through the lens of children. Plus, who has time to actually read books with no pictures? One of my favorite children’s books, which was published in 2018, is called “The Rabbit Listened,” by Cori Doerrfeld. In the story, animals offer different solutions to a child who is sad about a destroyed block creation. The chicken wants to talk about it, the bear wants to get angry, the hyena wants to laugh about it, the ostrich wants to pretend it didn’t happen, etc. None of these help, but when all of the animals have left, the rabbit shows up and doesn’t say a word. The rabbit is present and when the child is ready, it listens. What a powerful reminder to both child and adult, especially to a mom like me who wants to immediately fix things when someone is sad rather than sit quietly and listen. Another one of my favorites is called Monkey and Duck Quack Up! by Jennifer Hamburg and illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham. I could make something up about how Duck doesn’t bend to the demand of performance in this high-pressure world, but really I just think this book is funny! – Juliette Alvey

The Art of Memoir, by Mary Karr (2015)

The former Mbird NYC conference speaker claims that “no one elected me the boss of memoir,” but the text makes a convincing case that she should be. What sounds like a technical handbook is far more, and not just because Karr writes about faith more colorfully than almost anyone out there at the moment. At the core of the book lies a Gospel question if ever there was one, namely, “What would you write [do/say/be] if you weren’t afraid?– David Zahl

Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel (2013)

A shoe-in for the admittedly niche category of Best Reformation Novel of the decade, Bring Up the Bodies is the second entry in a historical fiction trilogy charting the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell. A blacksmith’s son, Cromwell was an outsider in the rigidly stratified world of 16th-century England who rose high in Henry VIII’s court to become an architect of the English Reformation. Mantel’s work refreshingly elides the one-dimensional view of Cromwell as a ruthless opportunist (perpetrated by a Man for All Seasons, where Cromwell’s cynical ambition gets Thomas More martyred) to depict him as sympathetic and genuinely Lutheran. And the side characters are fantastic: the impetuous Henry VIII, the wry, bookish Cranmer, and a peevish and canny Anne Boleyn are well worth the price of admission. The critics liked it, too. Both BUtB and its predecessor, Wolf Hall, won Man Booker prizes. The third novel is due this Spring. – Will McDavid

The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, by David Brooks (2011)

This book was one of my first introductions to the genre of pop psychology/sociology, and the first time I read Mockingbird themes about human behavior and willpower described in mass-market, secular terms. Brooks talks about how our society is adamant that reason, cold hard facts, and good choices are the sources of achievement, but that in reality, it is our emotions and our relationships that form the bedrock of it all. Much akin to Alain de Botton’s The Course of Love, Brooks solicits a fictional couple, Harold and Erica, to walk us through the inner longings—and, hopefully, limerence!—that make up every human story. – Ethan Richardson

Paul and the Gift, by John Barclay (2017)

Hands-down the most significant book on Paul in the last 40 years, Barclay examines a broad array of texts and their understandings of the grace of God. While Paul and his Jewish contemporaries agreed that God was gracious, what grace actually meant for them was very different. Barclay presents a genuinely post-New Perspective Paul who preaches the unmerited grace of God, given to unworthy sinners. While it’s a bit dense  at times, it’s certainly a rewarding read for anyone who wants a fresh framework for understanding God’s grace and Pauline thought. – Todd Brewer

Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Lifeby Makoto Fujimura (2017)

Well-known for his beautiful paintings as well as Silence & Beauty, a book that explores the work of Shusaku Endo’s Silence, Makoto Fujimura writes with hopes of cultivating the garden of our common world. Culture Care seeks to nourish and encourage the artist by helping them see how indispensable the beautiful really is. – Bryant Trinh

The Empathy Exams: Essays, by Leslie Jamison (2014)

In the same camp as nonfiction virtuoso John Jeremiah Sullivan, Jamison’s collection of essays take the theme to its furthest reaches. The title comes from her short-lived work experience as a “medical actor,” hired to train soon-to-be doctors in the art of empathizing with suffering patients. Her questions in these essays are unbelievably pertinent to the Christian understanding of love: why does caring for someone mean suffering? And why do we avoid it at all costs?  – Ethan Richardson

Lazarus Is Dead, by Richard Beard (2012)

This unusual novel is about Lazarus, an early-thirties entrepreneur who, while preparing for his economically advantageous marriage, falls deathly ill. His childhood friend Jesus is nearby and supposedly doing miracles. But Jesus is not coming to heal Lazarus; and Lazarus, with a deeply entrenched grudge against Jesus, will not seek him out. This roller coaster of a story is about friendship, second chances, ambition, failure, life, and death—all in about 200 pages. I’m a fairly distractible person and still read most of this in one day, weeping from about page 70 to the end. It is a lively, faith-enriching take on a familiar biblical narrative. A small masterpiece. I recommend it. – CJ Green

For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts, by W. David O. Taylor (2010)

Bringing together a cast of pastors, theologians, and artists from across the theological and denominational spectrum, David O. Taylor’s book encourages anyone interested in the arts. Every chapter shines light on different faces of the same diamond of the arts and shows us how art is vitally important to the flourishing of the church. – Bryant Trinh

Feel Free: Essays, by Zadie Smith (2018)

As wonderful as Smith’s fiction is, her nonfiction, with its tone of intimacy “between you and me,” often resonates most powerfully. Feel Free is a wide-ranging collection of her work, from book reviews, to meditations on dance, to an elegy to public libraries. Feel free to flip through this one; you’re sure to encounter something worthwhile. – CJ Green

Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, by Adam Phillips (2012)

The British psychoanalyst argues in this book that FOMO defines us as a species, and that “our unlived lives — the lives we live in fantasy, the wished-for lives — are often more important to us than our so-called lived lives.” Phillips mashes King Lear and Sigmund Freud to describe how the lowercase-D deaths in our lives — the people we no longer are, the opportunities we no longer have, the roads we left untaken — can, in fact, educate us on the lives that are truly before us, and the gifts we’ve been given. – Ethan Richardson

Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography, by Richard Rodriguez (2013)

This 2013 book was billed as a “spiritual autobiography”—a rumination in a post-9/11 context on his enduring faith in the “desert God” of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—but perhaps only 2/3rds of its essays are primarily concerned with spiritual or religious matters, and none are arranged in any sort of narrative or chronological order. If you’re looking for concrete life-lessons or some encouraging bits of theological or political dogma, you won’t find a lot here. But you will learn and feel something. Rodriguez doesn’t believe in making it too easy for his readers. He writes into life’s paradoxes, and seems to relish it that way. And yet, I love how he meanders, how he weaves, how he unfurls his ideas slowly and ever in a roundabout way, but with great care and attention to his art. His sentences shimmer with beauty, his writing being not so much an entree but a full course meal designed to be savored. There are many things this book gave me cause to think about. I won’t try to summarize it. But if I had to pick just one line that ties many of these autobiographical essays together, it might be this: “flesh is a complicated medium for grace.” – Ben Self

Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, by Francis Spufford (2012)

Francis Spufford is not C.S. Lewis — he told us so himself at our 2014 New York Conference. If Lewis is the great apologist for the reasonableness of Christianity, the gift of Spufford’s Unapologetic is that it provides a deeply effective apologetic for the existential necessity of the faith, an immensely helpful tool for talking about faith in a time when the emotional seems to hold more sway than the rational. We are given the great euphemism for sin, the “HPtFtU”, and we are given one of history’s great retellings of Jesus’s life in his Yeshua chapter. Those who have read the book’s gracious humor and thoughtful prose know why we added it to our recommended reading list in the Faith & Doubt edition of the Mockingbird Magazine. You won’t be disappointed if you add this book to your reading list for the 2020s. – Bryan Jarrell

Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, by Gregory Boyle (2010)

Besides maybe Brennan Manning’s Ragamuffin Gospel, this is the one-stop shop for stories about grace, especially as it surfaces into the small, forgotten, voiceless reaches of life. This is the illustration reference sine qua non for any ministry, as it distills the most essential traits of Jesus’ love and brings it home, whether you consider yourself a homeboy or not. – Ethan Richardson

A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman (2012, trans. 2013)

Ove is the definition of a curmudgeon. Of course, he’s brokenhearted, like most curmudgeons are. The beauty in this Swedish tale is that Ove is saved by other people’s problems and neediness, as he saves these people from themselves. His needy neighbors annoy him, but rather than annoying him to death, they end up annoying him into a life he didn’t know he had left to live. The story is simultaneously dark and funny, and charming in a way that you might not expect. Fans of Ove may also enjoy My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by the same author, about a grandmother’s love for her granddaughter, which survives beyond the grandmother’s lifetime. Backman, age 38, has a voice beyond his years, and writes old men like he’s spent some time eavesdropping in a urologist’s waiting room. Since this debut, Backman has been prolific, and we can hope to look forward to more from him in the next decades. – Carrie Willard

Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine (2014)

A brilliant and heartbreaking portrayal of the types of common, racial aggressions people of color experience in the United States far too often. Rankine gathered her own interactions, as well as the interactions of others, to compile the vignettes. The ambiguity of who was involved in the situations described, along with the use of the second-person point of view, creates a sense of intimacy that might not be as effective if the book were written in the first or third person. Because readers can’t assign what they’ve read to a specific individual and because Rankine’s words hook her readers, they have more room and permission to imagine themselves as her main characters. For this reason, the structure of Citizen is a gracious gift. When we see ourselves as the main characters, we may grow in empathy, we may be changed. – Charlotte Donlon

A Born Again Episcopalian: The Evangelical Witness of Charles Pettit McIlvaine, by Thom Garret Isham (2011)

Sadly very is little is known about the life of The Right Reverend Charles McIlvaine. However, this man had a profound influence upon the spiritual life of the United States in 18th century. He served as chaplain to the Senate, was instrumental in a great revival at West Point, and whose preaching led to conversion of many at St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in Brooklyn. In 1832, he became the second Episcopal Bishop of Ohio, where, facing pressures from deism on the left and revivalism on right, he faithfully preached Christ in all the sweetness of the Gospel. This is a wonderful biography and should be on everyone’s shelf, especially if you identify in anyway with the Protestant Face of Anglicanism. – Jacob Smith

We Learn Nothing: Essays, by Tim Kreider (2013)

A collection of essays on everything from busyness and friendship to Identity and politics and family to death that I personally spent nearly two years siphoning from on this site. I can’t think of another writer with a more uncanny knack for gazing behind the curtain of 21st century life to the “secret history of the world” that transcends every decade. But just as inspiring as the content is the tone, which is personable without being ingratiating, wry but not detached, smart yet never cerebral, incredibly observant and funny but not the least bit showy–which is so much harder than it looks. A godsend of a book from a (so-called) godless cartoonist. – David Zahl

In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy Vol. I, by Eugene Thacker (2011)

As someone who writes about horror a majority of the time, there has not been a book so central to my thinking about God, horror, existence, and the limitations of man as the first installment of this trilogy of philosophy texts. Thacker traverses time and space to bring us the obscure theologians and mystics and philosophers who pondered the dark, anti-matter, the void, the absence of God: dread. How he threads these thinkers together into such a cohesive and powerful exploration of all that goes bump in the night is stunning. Nothing about a text like this screams “Read me!”, but I have, and I continually use it for reference in my own writing because sometimes the best way to come unto the Father is through the ripping veil. – Blake I. Collier

Sin Boldly!: Justifying Faith for Fragile and Broken Souls, by Ted Peters (2015)

An approachable yet meaty treatise on the everyday value of justification by faith, what the author calls, “the key that unlocks the prison door, the hand that rips off the blindfold, the aloe that cools the burning gash, and the elixir that tastes of Eden.” To say that it’s shot through with our favorite themes would be a supreme understatement. That it’s written with such personality and compassion feels like a bonus. – David Zahl

The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo (2014)

Bet you didn’t expect a self-help book on this list, hmm? We can’t have a decade reading list and not mention the book that took the domestic world by storm. Hear me out. I am a clean freak, so of course I loved this book. But there is more to it than just learning what papers we can throw away and how to fold our socks. Kondo details the Japanese culture of things, as in household items, which in itself is fascinating and quite different from a general the-cheaper-the-better plastic junk culture of America. But what resonated with me the most in this quick read was the underlying process of being honest with ourselves about what we want and what we don’t want in our homes. It’s akin to a spiritual practice of (literally) getting those skeletons out of the closet. Kondo walks the reader through five different categories of items in the home and asks the now [in]famous question: “does this spark joy?” This process encourages the reader to face what they don’t want to face and be honest about what they hold onto. Kondo tells stories of how this can be painful and jarring for some of her clients, as they’ve happily lived in denial their whole lives. – Amanda McMillen

The New Asceticism: Sexuality, Gender, and the Quest for God, by Sarah Coakley (2015)

I don’t know what to do with desire. Sarah Coakley does. There’s libido, of course, with its own moral ambivalences, but more fundamentally, there’s the restless ache of wanting God-knows-what. At least, that’s how she puts it. Paired with God, Sexuality, and the Self (the first volume in her eccentric, magisterial systematics), The New Asceticism presents an oblique but practical approach to the contemporary controversies over gender in the churches: sex abuse, women’s ordination, and homosexuality, mainly. Using scripture, patristics, postmodern theory, and contemplative prayer, Coakley steers us “beyond libertinism and repression” toward a lifelong endeavor of sorting desire in God. If the anthropology sounds too high, Coakley frequently reminds us: all the prayer we fumble is the first the Spirit’s, for and in us, and the “ascetical long haul” of “personal, erotic transformation” happens entirely as a gift. After my fundamentalist childhood and secularist college years, Coakley is finally someone I can trust. – Kendall Gunter

When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi (2016)

Before he died of lung cancer in 2015 (at age 36), the late Stanford neurosurgeon produced this brief rumination on mortality, which bursts with grace and feeling. The closing message to his infant daughter will leave you in a puddle on the ground. – David Zahl

Lila, by Marilynne Robinson (2014)

The third in a trilogy that began with GileadLila is named for the young wife of an older pastor named John Ames. She had lived a drifter’s life virtually from birth and met the elder Ames when she slipped into his church to escape the rain. What the reader gains from the Pulitzer-Prize winning author is an unsparing look at Lila’s feral soul. Of particular interest to Mockingbird readers is how someone who grows up completely outside the church interfaces with our prized possessions — grace, Scripture, worship, prayer, and baptism (which she tries at one point to “wash off” in a river). She calls baptism “a prayer.” Her husband corrects her: “Baptism is what I’d call a fact.” To which our Mockingbird tribe would likely exclaim, “Amen.” – Larry Parsley

Your God Is Too Glorious: Finding God in the Most Unexpected Places, by Chad Bird (2018)

This wonderful book reads as devotional material and reminds and comforts us with the profound truth: that God can be found in the most peculiar of places, assuring us of the truth that he will never leave us or forsake us. – Jacob Smith

The Year of Our Lord, 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis, by Alan Jacobs (2018)

Alan Jacobs‘ extraordinary book explores the efforts to encourage and reshape pedagogy in the modern west in light of the double catastrophe of World Wars I and II. What sort of social and political organization would lead the frightened survivors out of the nihilism the previous age had unwittingly ushered in? Many answers took the form of totalitarianism, whether overtly political or insidiously ideological. Jacobs’ book weaves together the sympathetically resonant strands of five persons who dared to ask the unpopular question, “Are the Allies morally worthy of the victory over the Axis that is now all but certain?” To them, there was little question of whether or not the Axis powers had to be resisted with force. But if the Allies ultimately achieved victory through sheer military and technological superiority and little more, what guarantee is there that Right shall have won the day? Jacobs offers a cinematic account of one momentous year in the lives of Jacques Maritain, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, W. H. Auden, and Simone Weil but situates their reflections and proposals in the midst of the swirling high confusion of the years surrounding the Second World War. It feels, at times, like sitting in on the Council of Elrond had it met to discuss what action to take in continental Europe in the twentieth century. Jacobs’ prose surveys with an Orson Wellesian eye the half-decade or so leading up to the eponymous year, as Christian heirs of Enlightenment — literary and imaginative heroes to many of us — began to concentrate on the consequences of bracketing off the question, “What is it that makes a human ‘human’?” And though it was written before any of our current political woes befell us in the United States, it can still speak prophetically to a dormant Christian public caught in the crucible of powers and principalities shaping our contemporary political landscape by holding up a not-that-distant mirror to our present. – Ian Olson

Writing Poems in the Shadow of Death, by Aaron Everingham (2018)

The sirens of depression and despair took away a friend of mine a couple of years back. I did not know him in person, but Aaron Everingham had a spark of life that was transmitted through the telephone lines and the encrypted tombs of the internet. One felt like you knew him. He did not suffer fools, even though he would have been the first among us to name himself a fool. He brought a small community of people together over miles and his loss has bonded us forever. While words do not replace a beating heart, they go a long way in engaging our memories. This collection of Aaron’s poetry put together by two of his friends is what I reach for when I need an immediate friend to speak to me. Not in platitudes, but with a hard-fought, embodied hope that lingered through his writing even when it ceased to linger in his being. – Blake I. Collier

My Year of Rest and Relaxation, by Ottessa Moshfegh (2018)

Hailed by one critic as “the finest existentialist novel not written by a French author,” this book makes the list for many reasons. It is about a nameless young woman who commits to hibernation for a year, in hopes that she will emerge reborn/changed for the better. In the age of orthosomnia — an obsession with perfect rest — this novel tackles prescient themes (“the inner laws of spirit”) with stinging clarity. Plus, the longing for transformation will be familiar to all of you, probably. – CJ Green

Christian Flesh, by Paul Griffiths (2018)

Everybody’s talking about bodies now: academics, activists, therapists, bloggers… Enter Paul Griffiths, with a rigorous theological account of bodies that’s authoritative, succinct, and pleasing to read. And it doesn’t hold back from any fleshly activity. With Augustinian vigor, he dissolves inert moral conventions to see God’s unilateral gift everywhere. Everything is essentially good in creation but damaged by sin; everything is allowed in Christ but not all things are helpful or freeing, since the same LORD who animates and liberates us is our gracious master. Griffiths displays a faithful and creative moral imagination framed entirely by what Jesus does for me in his body. – Kendall Gunter

America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks, by Ruth Whippman (2016)

The title of this social psychology travelogue pretty much says it all. An English ex-pat who’s spent the past half-decade living in the States and marveling at our near-pathological aversion to negativity, Ms. Whippman’s book has been a mainstay on the Mockingbird website since its auspicious debut in October of 2016. Sub out the word “happiness” for “personal holiness”, and the insights stick–to an alarming extent. – David Zahl

The Unmade Bed: The Messy Truth about Men and Women in the 21st Century, by Stephen Marche (2017)

Stay-at-home dads get no respect, women are still almost never in the boardroom, and feminism has failed us. Why, Marche ponders, have we come so far and are still inundated with the same bizarre problems? Because women are still women and men are still men, and no one wants to make the damned bed. If you are in ministry, your premarital counseling couples should read this brilliant book alongside Capon’s Bed and Board. – Sarah Condon

Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do about It, by David Zahl (2019)

In the last year this mash-up of “secular” and “religiosity” has become vernacular shorthand for the religions cropping up in everyday life; safe to say it will be no less pertinent in the decade to come. Received positively from both religious and nonreligious audiences, this book offers a watershed framework for understanding the nuances of our modern world. Not only sharp, this book is self-aware and funny, too. – CJ Green