Reflections on My Year of Reading

In 2015, I set a goal of reading one hundred books.  I got to only 85, but I pushed myself to read a certain number every month, and I picked up lots of books that were new and buzzy and perhaps not things I would normally enjoy.  This experience was good, but exhausting.  I got to the end of the year, and while my list of read books on Goodreads had grown, there weren't any clear favorites, or books that had thrilled me in that particular way that marks a good read.  That disappointed me, and made me think about how reading lots of books does not necessarily ensure they will all be notable.

Therefore, in 2016, I decided I would only read books I really wanted to read, I would read books of substance, books that could teach me, move me, change me, touch me from my intellect to my heart.  At the end now, I can say with confidence that my reading this year fulfilled those goals.  The books I read this year did change me, and I am infinitely grateful that a goal based on numbers didn't force me to read meaningless fiction all the time to stay on track.  I read what I loved this year, and I loved what I read.

That said, I read 29 books this year (maybe it will be 30 by the end), a far cry from the number I read last year, and fewer than I would have liked, if I'm being honest.  I did, however, enjoy every book I read, and I only read books I wanted to read.  Most of that number was made up of nonfiction, which is different for me, but ultimately what I wanted to happen.  And I never really felt like reading fiction this year at all, except during the summer, which always happens with me anyway.  Otherwise, I read a ton of history, some Tim Keller, a few works of poetry, and some Christian living type books.  But mostly, I read history this year, which was simply the sort of stuff I wanted to read most of the time.  I love military history, so the two main time periods I read were The Revolutionary War and WWII, with a healthy dose of Cold War era history.  It was great.  I did not get to as many classics this year as I wanted to, and apart from finishing War & Peace in the beginning of the year, I don't think I read any, which is sad.  Obviously, and not unexpectedly, college had a lot to do with both my smaller number this year, and the fact that probably about 50% of what I did read this year was through Audible.  I have no qualms about reading that way, and I expected college to disrupt my reading.  I didn't, however, appreciate how much it disrupted things.

So what are my hopes for reading in 2017?  Well, I've decided I need to read more.  More fiction, more classics, more nonfiction, too.  I didn't like not reading books for pleasure for a whole semester. I think if I had, my stress levels would have been less, and I would have had a better time, basically.  So that's goal number one.  Intentionally carve out time to read and make it a priority.  Rather than finishing up homework at night and then watching a show, as much as I love that, I want to choose to read.  Reading is important to me, not only because of how much I learn, but because it is such a part of me at this point, it feels utterly strange not to read.  Here's to having a book with me at all times and reading in between classes and before class starts rather than staring at my phone.

I've done my best not to set any lofty reading goals, but I have a couple small ones.  First, I want to get into another big classic.  I loved loved loved reading War & Peace and stretching that baby over a good few months, and I want to do that again.  I'm thinking Crime & Punishment by Dostoyevsky, because I've heard so many good things about it recently, but we'll see.  Secondly, I want to get back into fiction.  Taking a year off was good, and I love historical nonfiction to the moon and back, but I did miss a good old novel.  Any recommendations for substantive novels would be appreciated.  And that's pretty much all I've got.  Read more, read better.  Those will always be my goals when it comes to books.

My reading this year has touched me and stretched me and molded me, and I am forever grateful to all the books and authors who change me each year.  Reading will always be my favorite thing, and in 2017, I will make it a high priority again and keep it there where it belongs.

Things I Loved in 2016

Call me sappy, excessively-sentimental, or whatever, but this year has gone by in a flash.  I've been busy in a mostly good kind of way the whole year it seems like, but I've been able to enjoy some things that I really loved in the meantime.  I like making these types of lists and remembering things I enjoyed during the hustle that almost act as signposts when looking back.  In the next week or so, I hope to share my personal goals for the coming year as well as consider my reading in 2016, so keep an eye out for that.  For now, though, I want to share the books, films, podcasts, and music that stood out to me this year.

This should come as a surprise to no one with how much I raved about this book both here and in my real life, but my favorite book I read this year, without a doubt, is Surprised by Oxford by Carolyn Weber.  This book struck a chord with me and everything about it was my favorite.  I honestly could not think of a book premise more up my street.  I loved it, I loved it, I loved it.  In one of my few posts of substance in 2016, I reviewed/went on about Surprised by Oxford here.

I put two other books down as favorites, and not incidentally, they are rather representative of the majority of the nonfiction I read this year.  The first is Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, one of the largest books I read this year, er, listened to, as I spent the summer listening to this one on audiobook while mowing the yard (#goals, obviously).  It was fantastic, and the inspiration for another favorite thing this year, Hamilton: The Musical, by the inimitable Lin-Manuel Miranda.  While I read the book first, the music quickly followed.  While biographies about the Founding Fathers are rarely described as riveting reading material, this one was fantastic and utterly readable.

Finally, in the book department, I also read and loved Rogue Heroes by Ben Macintyre, maven of all secret agent-y, sabotage-related WWII to Cold War history.  I loved this book for all of its colorful characters and the author's unmistakable voice.  As these two suggest, most of what I read and loved this year was historical nonfiction set around the Revolutionary War and WWII.  Not mad about it.

I'm going to speed this whole thing up, or we'll be here awhile.  If you couldn't tell from my last post/rave, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was my favorite movie of the year (counting only movies released in 2016).  In reality, I didn't go and see too many movies, or even watch many new movies – at least not movies meant for audiences above the age of 10.  Lots of re-watching Lord of the Rings, mostly.  I detailed all my ramble-y thoughts on the new Star Wars film in a previous post, so I won't go into it again.  I won't admit it didn't have flaws, but I loved it despite them.

This year has truly been the year of podcasts for me, and I have discovered a few that have become firm favorites.  I've spoken about Overdue here before, but that remains one of my most-listened-to podcasts, as well as the one I laugh the hardest at.  Their backlog of episodes is a gold mine, people.  Also, a firm favorite, The New York Times Book Review podcast has been something I look forward to every Friday afternoon for a couple years now, and I thoroughly enjoy it.  There's something about it that makes me feel sophisticated, and I appreciate the variety of books they discuss on there.  And finally, my favorite podcast discovery of the year has to be Hardcore History by Dan Carlin.  This podcast is literally a guy sitting down and talking about history for HOURS.  Like, every episode is 3-4 hours long.  I freaked out when I discovered it.  My favorite series so far is called Blueprint for Armageddon, and it is all about World War I.  It is absolutely fantastic, and deeply moving/inspiring/awesome.  I don't care if you don't like history.  It's the bomb.

Finally, the music album/artist that defined my year the most has to be All Sons & Daughters and their newest album, Poets & Saints.  As a music artist, their music has touched me in all kinds of ways and so many songs, both on this record and earlier ones have put words to feelings and events this year.  They are incredible.  If there is one song that has moved me or left the biggest impression this year, it would be Even Unto Death by Audrey Assad.  It is just the greatest, and I want it to be my anthem forever.

And that wraps up this year and the books, films, podcasts, and music I loved the most.  Hopefully you found some new favorites, and I'll hopefully be churning out a few more posts before school starts up again (hold me!).


Thoughts on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

As I am now on Christmas break, I thought it was high time to write a good old fashioned blog post talking about something of substance for a change.  Blessedly, I have more time on my hands at the moment, and therefore was able to see a movie I was very excited about – the next installment in the Star Wars universe (pun intended).  Whether this ramble turns out to be of substance or not, however, is yet to be seen.

I saw Rogue One yesterday afternoon with my siblings, and while I still have this film and all my consequential thoughts and feelings fresh in my mind, I thought I'd bang out a post about it.  This won't be a review per se – I have no intention of giving all the pros and cons, though some of that will happen anyway, or giving specifics or plot details – these are my thoughts only, to be laid out in a sprawling way I'm sure.  But here we go.

I have this uncanny ability? habit? quirk? of thinking a lot when I watch films.  Okay, so maybe that depends on the film – any Bond film may be an exception to this rule.  Most of the time, however, I watch a movie and think the whole time – about the worldview, the message, the little shafts of truth that shine through the plot (sometimes more brightly than others) and form that magical quality of good fiction C.S. Lewis constantly talked about and that eventually led him to faith in God.  I'm usually on high alert to these pieces of truth that allude, as Tim Keller calls it, to the truest, greatest story of all – the Gospel (I'm paraphrasing).  That is what I noticed/looked for in this movie and what I want to talk about today.

The first thing that struck me while watching the movie was the theme of hope woven through the whole story.  In fact, at times it seemed to be quite a main plot point (here's a plot overview, if you care).  There's this line the main character, Jyn Urso, says early on in the movie: "We have hope.  Rebellions are built on hope."  Normally, this line wouldn't have struck me so hard, but it just so happens I've been listening to Mere Christianity by the one and only C.S. Lewis on my commute, and I had just listened to the chapter wherein Lewis compares Christianity on earth and Christ's incarnation to a rebel force landing and fighting back against the evil kingdom currently occupying Earth.  Christians, the Church, are united in fighting back until the true King returns to make everything right again.  I love that parallel, so when I heard that line in the film, I immediately made the connection.  We are in the middle of a rebellion against evil, and we have that hope of everything coming right, being made new, and good winning in the end.  That's why, when we're smack dab in the center of something really terrible and apparently hopeless, we have hope and expectancy rooted in something that's sure. Moments like these happen throughout the film, and that thread of hope runs deep.  To me, that was the strongest theme of the film, and the thing that held everything together and made all the sacrifice (spoiler?) ultimately worth it.  I'd recommend this film for that point alone – the hope that never gives up.

Another really moving (at least for me) aspect of the film was regarding one character in the squad of sorts that assembles alongside Jyn as the story progresses.  His name is Chirrut Imwe, and he is a blind ninja/Jedi/superhero, whom everyone else calls a dreamer because he still believes in the force and lets it guide him, which is especially poignant because he cannot see.  He was perhaps the most moving character in the film for me, and there's this moment in the film that made me lose it.  At a really critical moment, when it's not looking good for Jyn's friends on the ground, Imwe walks from their hiding place alongside a bunker and tries to cross a portion of the very active battlefield in a move that seems suicidal.  As he walks – he doesn't run – he holds his weapon in front of him and chants the whole way, "I am one with the force, the force is with me" over and over again until he finds the master switch and flips it (it's literally called the master switch).  His story ends tragically, but I was, needless to say, a little teary after that episode.  Now, sure, go on, the force is not an allegory for God, or the Holy Spirit, or whatever, but that scene was heavily spiritual if you ask me.  I mean, here's this blind guy who crosses a battlefield where lasers are just totally missing him the whole time and he's saying over and over that the force is with him.  We might not ever have to cross a live battle zone blind to flip a master switch, or ever be in a physical battle at all, but there is something deeply profound and downright Biblical about that scene at least in the context of the life of a Christian that I just can't stop thinking about.

Finally, this squad I've been talking about is pretty great.  It's made up of misfits – most great squads are – and it is the greatest.  Every person in the group trusts each other by the end of it, and they have realized that none of them can do anything by themselves as well, or accomplish as much alone as they can as a group.  And that's the final little parallel I want to talk about.  Relevant Magazine does these posts about the Gospel of Star Wars as each movie comes out, and in the one about Rogue One, the writer refers to the Scripture that talks about the Church of Christ as a body, how each limb is essential and the body cannot act without every part, just as every part fails without the whole.  The individuals of the group in Rogue One are each essential to the mission in unique ways, and as they do their part of the job, complete their own bit of the mission, the whole beautiful thing comes together and changes the course of history.

This installment of the Star Wars story seems to zero in on individuals fighting battles as a group.  From this perspective, the importance of single people doing the right thing – the job right in front of them – takes center stage.  And that's something you miss in the other Star Wars films – as much as I adore them – the characters in those are the tip of the spear, the big names, and you miss out on the ordinary people being brave in the details, in the smaller picture.  Rogue One is a smaller picture, it's the details, it's the little characters with names no one really knows, being heroes right where they area and choosing to do the right thing even if they are never able to see their sacrifice pay off.  It's incredible.  This film is desperate and sad and gritty, but it's real, and far more relatable than a story about a princess, a dashing scoundrel, and a desert-boy with the force.  And for that reason, it'll stick around in my head for a while.  I loved this movie and I think everyone should see it.

May the force be with you.

Note: I am not dissing the original Star Wars trilogy at all.  Those three movies are in my film canon, if you will, and I love them to the Death Star and beyond (too much?).  Rogue One was simply a totally different perspective that I found more deeply relatable and human experience-y than those movies, and I appreciated that a lot.  But gosh, Han Solo and Leia buns forevaaaaa.



Eeeek!  It's winter and we put up our tree today while it snowed and Christmas is in less than three weeks and I have break in two weeks and everything is all right with the world.

In the midst of all the Christmas shopping, I managed to snag a book for myself which I hope to read over the month between studying and finals.  The book is called Hidden Christmas and it's by Tim Keller, who I rave about on the regular, so this choice was no surprise.  I started it tonight and it is very good.  Shocker.

Also, here's a quick run down of everything I plan to do on break, simply because I cannot shut up about it.

Read – Poldark series by Winston Graham, (finish) Miracles by C.S. Lewis, (finish) Holy is the Day by Carolyn Weber, (continue) The Fellowship by Phillip and Carol Zaleski, and also begin my annual re-read of The Lord of the Rings.
Watch – Lord of the Rings (always), all the Christmas movies, and season 2 of Poldark
Bake – real, spicy gingerbread
Write – blog posts (so many), goals for 2017, etc.
Other things I hope to do include working on my personal photo book for 2016, picking up my lonely guitar, and applying to staff at Summit in the summer (!!!).

Finally, I'm following along with the She Reads Truth advent study again this year, because it never fails to help me see the amazing story of Christmas with new eyes all over again every year.  We're only a week in, and I love it already.

And because I simply cannot help myself, here's a snowy picture.

Alright, that's it for now.  I'm looking forward to a week of studying for finals and getting ready for Christmas!