In what has become an annual tradition, every December I review the books I read in the past year and pick out my favorites to share with other avid readers.
This is not a comprehensive list of all the books I read, nor is this a ranking of these books as the “best” of anything. Instead, I prefer to share the books I enjoyed reading in hopes that someone will find and enjoy something they otherwise might not have encountered. Enjoyment does not imply agreement with or an endorsement of their arguments, only that I found their content stimulating and engaging.
According to Goodreads, I’ve read 52 books this past year, which is about my average, though parenthood understandably puts a crimp in my “spare time.”
And now, on with the list!
Laugh Lines: My Life Helping Funny People Be Funnier – Alan Zweibel
One of my favorite cultural shifts from when I grew up has been an increasing public recognition of the people “behind the scenes.” We all know the public faces of comedy and sitcoms, but the writers behind our favorite shows tended to remain in obscurity from the general public.1 I’m old enough to have remembered most of Alan Zeibel’s contributions2 but I had no idea who he really was until reading this book. Highly recommended if you’re a fan of comedy and/or grew up in the 70s and 80s.
Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions: 1983 and 1984 – Duane Tudahl
Another book that brought up feelings of nostalgia, this book dives deep into the creative process of one of popular music’s most enigmatic figures. The book does get redundant at times but there are more than enough anecdotes to make this book worthwhile not only for fans of Prince but for the dozens of adjacent artists.
Winners (Listed in order read)
The Graveyard Book Graphic Novel – Neil Gaiman, P. Craig Russell
Look, I’m going to like just about anything written by Neil Gaiman. In this case, it was the graphic novel version of The Graveyard Book,3 which was one of the many books my wife brought into our marriage. I’m not going to sing Gaiman’s praises any more than anyone else does, other than to say this is a fun fantasy/horror story.
A Fortress in Brooklyn: Race, Real Estate, and the Making of Hasidic Williamsburg – Nathaniel Deutsch, Michael Casper
The subjects of sociology, religion, urban planning, and New York City politics are each difficult to get right on their own, but A Fortress in Brooklyn weaves everything together to tell a captivating story.
The Birth of Conservative Judaism: Solomon Schechter’s Disciples and the Creation of an American Religious Movement – Michael Cohen
Speaking of sociology, Michael Cohen employs Max Weber’s theory of charismatic leadership to tell the story of Conservative Judaism. While other narratives focus on institutions or the laity, Cohen points to Solomon Shechter as the key ideological figure of Conservative Judaism and outlines how and why his influence spread as it did.
Bonus: Cohen’s theories apply to other movements driven by charismatic leaders e.g., Open Orthodoxy.
How to Think like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education – Scott Newstok
Shifting gears, this fun little book reconsiders what education ought to be. I’ll defer to historians to determine the historical accuracy, but the pedagogic insights are valuable on their own.
Spiritual Socialists: Religion and the American Left – Vanessa Cook
The Liturgy of Politics: Spiritual Formation for the Sake of Our Neighbor – Kaitlyn Schiess
Religiously motivated political rhetoric and activism are typically associated with the political right, a perception with implications for both politics and religion. Spiritual Socialists documents a history of religiously motivated political activism from the political left, demonstrating important strategic similarities and differences from their counterparts.
Schiess’ Liturgy of Politics provides a corrective from the perspective of the religion. Just as the religious left in Judaism often co-opts religious rhetoric for political activism, Schiess objects to the same being done by the Evangelical right, while wrestling with not falling into the same ideological traps she criticizes.
Hebrew Law in Biblical Times: An Introduction – Zeev W. Falk
Introductory books have a tricky balance between accuracy and simplicity. I’m always going to read books about Jewish law with a more critical eye, and this one provides a worthwhile overview of Biblical law.
The Creative Act: A Way of Being – Rick Rubin
Rick Rubin’s book is on many people’s “Best Of” lists and for good reason. I’m adding this to the list of books I would have loved to have read years ago when I could have done more with Rubin’s ideas.
Social Justice Fallacies – Thomas Sowell
Social Justice Fallacies is typical Sowell with his eloquence and evidence, though I did notice he still relies on decades-old social science that may no longer be relevant. At any rate, fans of Sowell will appreciate this latest entry.