13 Books from 2022
By Dan Clendenin
It’s that time of year for the most subjective of exercises — my favorite books of 2022. Truly, there’s no accounting for personal taste. So, what are my criteria for a “book of the year?” First, it requires answering yes to the question, “would you read this book again?” Furthermore, most of the books below have received widespread critical acclaim. Finally, in my view, all the books below treat matters that are important for the church and the world. The hot-linked titles will take you to my full reviews. Please note that you can search JWJ’s Comprehensive Index of 968 book reviews alphabetically by 782 authors, or by fifteen different subject categories like history, art, economics, etc.
Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and happy reading!
Kate Bowler, No Cure for Being Human: And Other Truths I Need to Hear (New York: Random House, 2021), 202pp.
In 2015, the Duke historian Kate Bowler was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer. She was thirty-five. Her first best-selling book described that experience: Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved (2018). This followup book pivots from the “lies I’ve loved” to “truths I need to hear.” In short, “there is no cure for being human,” and as she writes in the last sentence of her book, “it’s better this way.”
Dave Eggers, The Every, or At Last a Sense of Order, or The Final Days of Free Will, or Limitless Choice is Killing the World (San Francisco: McSweeney’s Books, 2021), 577pp.
The Every begins with a flashback: “Five years earlier, the Circle had bought an ecommerce behemoth named after a South American jungle, and the acquisition created the richest company the world had ever known. The subsummation necessitated the Circle changing its name to the Every, which seemed to its founders definitive and inevitable, hinting as it did at ubiquity and equality.” So, imagine the merger of Google with Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, and any other company it wanted to devour. It’s too bad that Eggers’ brilliant satire could not have been called Meta.
Vince Granata, Everything is Fine: A Memoir (New York: Atria, 2021), 297pp.
Vince Granata begins with a traumatic memory: “I was twenty-seven when Tim killed our mother,” due to the raging demons of schizophrenia that had “flooded him with madness.” There are many types of mental illnesses and presentations of schizophrenia, and Granata is careful not to lump them all together with violent outcomes, but his memoir is a graphic deep dive into its terrifying range of symptoms, and a brutally honest effort to “make sense of the senseless.”
Robert M. Hazen, The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, From Stardust To Living Planet (New York: Viking, 2012), 306pp.
The universe contains about 200 billion galaxies. The smallish Milky Way Galaxy contains 100 to 400 billion stars, and at least that many planets. Our relatively young earth, formed 4.5 billion years ago, is thus barely a blink in the time and space of a 13.7 billion-year-old cosmic history. Our earth is “a drama that has been repeated countless trillions of times throughout the history of the universe.” And yet the earth is truly precious and special. There’s nothing else like it that we know of. This tiny blue dot suspended in the black void of space gave rise to human beings like Hazen who understand these marvelous mysteries.
Judith Heumann, Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist (Boston: Beacon Press, 2020), 218pp.
Judy Heumann (born 1947) might be one of the most important Americans that you’ve never heard of. This memoir tells her personal story of having been paralyzed from polio when she was eighteen months old, and her gradual awakening as a leading advocate in the civil rights movement for the 40 million Americans with disabilities. She eventually served in the Clinton and Obama administrations, and as the World Bank’s first adviser on disability issues.
David Reich, Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past (New York: Pantheon, 2018), 335pp.
The history of scientific advances has been driven by game-changing technologies — the invention of the microscope, how radiocarbon dating transformed archaeology, the discovery of penicillin, or gene-editing (CRISPR). The Harvard geneticist David Reich has helped to pioneer another scientific revolution, the mapping of the human genome. In particular, Reich explains how our newfound ability to extract and analyze DNA from ancient fossils has rewritten our study of humanity’s ancient past. The big takeaway from his book is that any claim of racial purity is “absurd.”
Julie Rodgers, Outlove: A Queer Christian Survival Story (Minneapolis: Broadleaf, 2021), 235pp.
Julie Rodgers was ten years old when she thought she was gay. It took another twenty years to make peace with her body, and to fully embrace her homosexuality. This memoir chronicles her long journey into the light. This isn’t an angry book like it might have been. Rodgers merely asks readers to consider her story: “Maybe [anti-gay Christians] just don’t understand. Maybe if someone like me told the truth about myself and stayed in the Evangelical church, they would see the humanity of queer people and be moved to embrace us. Maybe we could grow in love together.”
Rebecca Wragg Sykes, Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art (New York: Bloomsbury, 2020), 400pp.
Ever since scientists discovered the fossilized remains of Neanderthals in 1856 in a German cave, they have been the victims of popular stereotypes. There’s the cave man trope of a bearded brute “bent over, absent-mindedly hefting a wooden club, and with decidedly ape-ish pelt and feet.” No wonder they went extinct! A more contemporary distortion exclaims they were just like us: “not so dumb after all!” Rebecca Sykes’ magisterial volume rejects these caricatures in her complex and fascinating history of what we have learned about Neanderthals since 1856.
Nicholas Thomas, Voyagers: The Settlement of the Pacific (New York: Basic Books, 2021), 203pp.
When Magellan landed at Guam in 1521, he was shocked to find indigenous peoples with sophisticated histories and cultures. He also observed both similarities and differences among the various peoples on the dozens of islands of the greater area known today as Oceania. These people were master navigators across the vast expanse of ocean; they were “voyagers” who had populated the islands by intentional exploration and not mere accident, and they did so without the “advanced” technologies of the seventeenth century. Nicholas Thomas tells their 60,000-year history.
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, The Undocumented Americans (New York: One World, 2020), 185pp.
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio (born 1989) is an Ecuadorian-American writer who has channeled her own experiences as an undocumented immigrant into this bestseller that was shortlisted for the National Book Award for Nonfiction. She graduated from Harvard in 2011 as one of the first undocumented immigrants to do so. Today she is a PhD student at Yale. Villavicencio writes with an angry edge. She writes not to inspire, or even in the hopes that you will “like” her book. Rather, she writes “from a place of shared trauma, shared memories, shared pain.”
Scott Weidensaul, A World on the Wing; The Global Odyssey of Migratory Birds (New York: W.W. Norton, 2021), 385pp.
About 200 years ago John Audubon tied a silver wire to the legs of Eastern Phoebes on his estate in Pennsylvania to learn if those same birds returned to his property the next year to nest. Today, new technologies like nano-tags have revolutionized migration research. These geolocators provide a “stupefying” amount of Big Data and incredibly precise details, often in near-real time, about bird migrations. Weidensaul documents dozens of examples of the incomprehensible feats of birds, like the Arctic terns that migrate 50,000 miles a year. He reflects on his 50-years as “a serious bird geek” who developed a “curiosity bordering on mania” when he was a twelve-year old boy in rural Pennsylvania. Today he’s a leading expert on the world’s 10,300 bird species.
Frank Wilczek, Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality (New York: Penguin, 2021), 254pp.
About 13.8 billion years ago, an unimaginably large and violent explosion gave birth to our cosmos. Out of nothing came something. Thanks to the power of a particular way of thinking over the last three hundred years (science), we now know that our cosmos is comprehensible, which fact Einstein called a “miracle.” Pascal similarly confessed that although the cosmos “swallows me like a speck, through thought I grasp it.” The Nobel laureate Wilczek explains what we know about the nature of reality, how and why we know these things “very deeply,” and where humans fit into this cosmic story. He argues for a “complementary” approach that transcends both religious and scientific dogmatism.
Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (New York: Public Affairs, 2019), 691pp.
Shoshana Zuboff of Harvard Business School has pursued a “lifelong quest” to answer the question whether our contemporary digital culture can be a safe space for individuals and society to flourish, given that today digital culture has overtaken and redefined everything, including “nearly every form of social participation.” Her book is the crowning achievement of a distinguished career. It is intellectually ambitious, morally courageous, and refreshingly creative. She explores “the darkening of the digital dream, and its rapid mutation into a voracious and utterly novel commercial project that I call surveillance capitalism.” This new form of rogue capitalism is a “cruel perversion” of what it ought to be. In her view, it is a “profoundly anti-democratic force.”
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889)
Thee, God, I come from, to Thee I go
THEE, God, I come from, to thee go,
All day long I like fountain flow
From thy hand out, swayed about
Mote-like in thy mighty glow.
What I know of thee I bless,
As acknowledging thy stress
On my being and as seeing
Something of thy holiness.
Once I turned from thee and hid,
Bound on what thou hadst forbid;
Sow the wind I would; I sinned:
I repent of what I did.
Bad I am, but yet thy child.
Father, be thou reconciled.
Spare thou me, since I see
With thy might that thou art mild.
I have life before me still
And thy purpose to fulfil;
Yea a debt to pay thee yet:
Help me, sir, and so I will.
But thou bidst, and just thou art,
Me shew mercy from my heart
Towards my brother, every other
Man my mate and counterpart.
Dan Clendenin: firstname.lastname@example.org
Image credits: (1) Wikipedia.org; (2) New York Times; and (3) JulieRodgers.com.
See here for our Journey with Jesus weekly webzine for the global church. All free, all the time.