My Year With Books

I wish I could remember what I was reading when the stay-at-home orders reached Chicago in March. It may have been Ghosts in the Schoolyard, Eve Ewing’s devastating look at the closures of public schools in our city – mostly in Black neighborhoods – a few years back. I might have been deep into the new Dorothy Day biography. I don’t remember, but what I won’t forget anytime soon was how faithfully the stacks of books on my desk and beside our bed played their conversational role during these months of distance and isolation.

Aside from immediate family, almost all of my conversations since last winter have been mitigated by screens and WiFi signals. Which isn’t to say they were bad: I got to talk with some of the people I most respect in the days following my book’s publication and Maggie and I have had a few Zoom date nights with friends. But it’s different, isn’t it? Different than sharing a meal together or leaning over a table in a noisy coffee shop to hear what your friend is saying. Earlier this fall I sat in a friend’s backyard until we were both shivering but, man, it was good to share space and conversation together.

Books have always been conversation partners to me, a fact that can be more than a little frustrating to the person vying for my attention when my nose is buried between some pages. But more so than previously, this year I reached for books that could satisfy the hunger for conversation. Eddie Glaude’s Begin Again exemplifies the way certain books can provoke good discussion. Glaude’s previous book, Democracy in Black, provided some of the important scaffolding for my understanding of racial discipleship. In this new one, Glaude walks alongside James Baldwin and leans on the imminent author and critic for help understanding these strange days. “We should tell the truth about ourselves,” Glaude writes about Baldwin’s persistent demand of his country, “and that would release us into a new possibility.”

Ida B. Wells, as some of you will know, has assumed an authoritative presence in my imagination. I sometimes think I hear her asking, Really? You’re discouraged because of that? This year I finally got around to her unfinished autobiography which is endearing for the quotidian details she chose to include, and for what she left out. (I wanted a lot more about her friendship with Frederick Douglass.) Reading her account of her life left me with the impression that, while aware of the significance of her anti-lynching work, Wells was the sort of person who simply couldn’t help doing the righteous thing she found in her path, no matter how small or how impossible.

I read Howard Thurman’s classic Jesus and the Disinherited and My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem around the same time. Thurman’s famous question toward the beginning of his little book is one that demands a response: “What was the word that the religion of Jesus says to the man with his back against the wall?” It’s the question Thurman wrestles with while inviting his readers to do the same. Menakem is concerned with the trauma inflicted upon those whose backs have been forced against the wall, as well as the kind experienced by those of us who’ve done the forcing. The author is interested in trauma- its origins, impact, as well as what healing can look like for all of us. In a year with so many moments of racial violence and protest, these books helped me grapple with questions I wouldn’t otherwise have thought to ask.

This summer our family drove about five hours north to camp for a week in the Manistee National Forest in Michigan. On the way we stopped into a bookstore and I picked up Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. This was required reading in college, probably for one of my environmental studies classes. It was the first nature writing I read and I was curious how it held up. Reading Leopold’s careful observations about his Wisconsin farm twenty years later, this time from the proximity of our own years in the Midwest, was a treat. Like other great nature writes, Leopold equips the reader to see what they might otherwise miss.

(A few years ago we visited the Chicago Botanic Gardens and found they were having a used book sale. I picked an illustrated edition of A Sand County Almanac; sections from the original are interspersed with photos from Leopold’s land. As with the original, this version proceeds through each month of the year and a non-Midwesterner might start to get an idea of why the naturalist found so much beauty on his sand farm and the bits of prairie that remained along roadsides and in ditches.)

I gravitate to the kind of writing that reckons tenderly and honestly with the natural world; Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass (a gift from some knowing friends) fit the bill as did English Pastoral by James Rebanks and David Allen Sibley’s delightful What It’s Like to Be a Bird (another thoughtful gift). Much of my reading tends toward the messy intersection of race and theology, but I’ve come to believe that these books about creation are in some ways related. Listen, for example to Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, as she wonders about our collective future. “For the sake of the peoples and the land, the urgent work of the Second Man may be to set aside the ways of the colonist and become Indigenous to place. But can Americans, as a nation of immigrants, learn to live here as if we were staying? With both feet on the shore?”

The question about a future in which the dehumanizing power of race is diminished by the generative power of creation is one that won’t leave me alone, and books like these help me imagine what might – might – be possible.

We kept pace through this strange year with short drives over to the Indiana National Lakeshore for hikes through forests and over sand dunes along with many afternoon walks through our beloved Jackson Park. In a way I couldn’t have anticipated at the beginning of the year, we have spent more time outdoors this year, beginning in early spring when the pandemic reached our city. We’ve watched the seasons change, felt the temperature of Lake Michigan rise and then drop again, and noticed when the little snakes and frogs appeared along the trails. We saw our first Sandhill Cranes this year. I think that, when we remember 2020 years from now, these regular walks and how they kept time for us will be one of the things we recall gratefully.

A drizzly hike through the Manistee National Forest this summer.

Back to the books. This summer I took a seminary class about reading the Bible interculturally. It’s a question of interpreting from a particular cultural foundation and noticing what we’d have likely missed. Becoming Like Creoles, Might From the Margins, Brown Church, and Native and Christian each opened those sorts of interpretive possibilities.

Since the publication of Rediscipling the White Church in May, I’ve had the chance to speak with many white pastors and ministry leaders around the country. Most of these women and men are interested in the role they and their churches can play in the ministry of racial reconciliation. The killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd among with too many others seem to have pushed them to the brink; no longer is the racial homogeneity of their settings a reason to keep quiet. Often these sorts of leaders are told to diversify their reading. They are asked to notice how many of the authors on their shelves are white (men). And this is good advice; there’s a world of literature that has existed beyond their awareness. But more than simply reading authors of color, the real possibility lies in how books like the four in the preceding paragraph can open up the scriptures imaginatively. For example, it will be hard for me to preach any of the narratives about the exodus or the conquest without taking into account the perspective of the Canaanites after reading a couple of the essays in Native and Christian. This, I think, is where the real hopeful possibility lies when we diversify our bookshelves.

Aside from a few outdoor worship services that our church was able to organize safely this summer, the only times I’ve been with groups of people of any size has been at protests against racial injustice. For a period of a few months this summer, these protests were taking place nightly in our city. One evening I walked a few blocks from our apartment to observe a tense standoff between protesters and Chicago Police; it was gratifying to watch the young organizers defuse the tension and lead the crowd away from the threat of tear gas and God-knows-what else.

The protests I participated in were all, as best I can remember, led by local clergy here on the South Side. On New Years Eve I again joined a march; this time we were downtown, on the Magnificent Mile, passing shoppers looking for post-Christmas deals. We remembered the almost-800 people who lost their lives to homicide in our city this year, a fact made less visible by the pandemic and the handful of spectacularly brutal instances of racial terror that broke into our collective consciousness. Mothers held portraits of the children who’ve been snatched from them. We heard their testimonies and their rage at so many unsolved murders. According to our local NPR station, homicides involving Black victims are solved 25% of the time compared to 47% when the victim is white.

In Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, Isabel Wilkerson argues that we need to understand disparities like these, and the protests that regularly erupt in response to them, by recognizing this country’s caste system. “Race, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste. Caste is the bones, race the skin.” Wilkerson is a beautiful writer – if you’ve not read it, drop everything and pick up The Warmth of Other Suns immediately – and she makes a compelling case for adopting the language and assumptions of caste to better interpret our American circumstances. People have been marching and protesting for racial justice in my city and yours for a very long time. Perhaps, as Wilkerson suggests, there is something deeper and uglier that we’ve yet to account for.

Here’s to the strange and grievous year that was and to the many different books which helped us make our way through it. And here’s to a new year. It will certainly be just as unpredictable as the one we left behind save, I hope, for the the presence of the books we will reach for, the books we will think about, and the books we will – Lord hasten the day! – talk about in one another’s company.

Here’s the full list of the books I read in 2020.

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