Writing an article on the 10 best books I’ve ever read is a fun exercise—and a little terrifying. It’s fun because, with summer upon us, everyone needs a good book … or 10, and I like remembering and sharing a bit of what I’ve learned over the years. It’s terrifying because you’re bound to disagree with what’s on (and off) the list, and my admittedly subjective presentation of the “10 best” may reveal the weaknesses and holes in my own reading education.
After much mental wrestling, I’ve chosen these 10 because, while each has flaws, they have brought me deep satisfaction and enjoyment, made a powerful impact on my life, and still have something important to say to us and to future generations. Many outstanding works necessarily ended up on the cutting room floor because of the sheer brevity of this undertaking. I resisted the urge, to the best of my ability, to choose any titles simply because they might make me look good.
I confess that I have missed a lot of books that I should have read and promise to do better in the days I have remaining. Among others, one book that can help us get on track is Besides the Bible: 100 Books that Have, Should, or Will Create Christian Culture, by Dan Gibson, Jordan Green, and John Pattison.
To keep myself honest, I include only volumes that I’ve read all the way through. So, this eliminates a whole raft of great titles that I’m still reading (Institutes of the Christian Religion, The Hiding Place, etc.), started but never finished (The Existence and Attributes of God), or somehow missed altogether (The Reason for God, The Next Christendom). Most, but not all, are Christian, at least in outlook. You will not find The Brothers Karamazov here because I didn’t take that course at the University of Florida.
Some outstanding books didn’t make the list for idiosyncratic reasons (many illuminating encyclopedias and reference books, The Elements of Style). Champagne for the Soul, which revitalized my understanding of the joyous Christian life, didn’t make the cut because I had far too many choices in Christian spirituality. What’s So Great About Christianity and Evidence That Demands a Verdict are great books, but no one can beat C.S. Lewis when it comes to apologetics. Modesty (or is it vanity?) prevents me from revealing why a particular book didn’t make the list.
And now, without further ado (and without commercial interruption), here is the list (in no particular order):
The meticulously researched and told Modern Times, by Paul Johnson, opened my eyes to the intellectual and historical reasons for the cultural decline of the West. This fascinating tome made me, for better or worse, a staunch conservative, while fortifying my Christian worldview. Quote: “In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the Western elites were confident that men and progress were governed by reason. A prime discovery of modern times is that reason plays little part in our affairs.”
Considered as one work, The Hobbit and the sprawling Lord of the Rings trilogy (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King) opened my unredeemed eyes to beauty, courage, and almost painful human longing (my own). In its meandering verisimilitude, J. R. R. Tolkien’s modern myth invented a rich fantasy world while pointing me to God—without ever mentioning Him. Quote: “Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”
Though the prolific C. S. Lewis wrote many classics in both apologetics and in fiction, nothing, in my mind, stands as tall as Mere Christianity. This plainspoken, winsome, and logical volume made the case for Christ before the modern apologetics movement was a gleam in the evangelical church’s eye. The Oxford don’s discussions of the inescapable moral law and the utter incongruity of believing Christ to be a great moral teacher but rejecting His claim to be God remain convincing to any open-minded searcher. This book is the gold standard in Christian apologetics, making it possible for me to be an intellectually fulfilled theist. Quote: “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”
Orthodoxy is G. K. Chesterton’s sparkling response to a critic who demanded he explain his beliefs. Rather than present Christianity as the answer to a series of philosophical questions, the great journalist pointed out how it, unlike materialism, brings together a sense of wonder and welcome amid the paradoxes of human existence. Quote: “The test of all happiness is gratitude; and I felt grateful, though I hardly knew to whom. Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets. Could I not be grateful to Santa Claus when he put in my stockings the gift of two miraculous legs?”
Superb literature is not confined to that which is written for adults. Children too have the capacity to enjoy and be ennobled by great books. Charlotte’s Web, by E. B. White, is such a book. This touching tale of friendship, between a pig and a spider, handles issues of life and death in a way that will prompt tears of gratitude and loss in readers of all ages. Quote: “`Do you understand how there could be any writing in a spider’s web?’ ‘Oh, no,’ said Dr. Dorian. ‘I don’t understand it. But for that matter I don’t understand how a spider learned to spin a web in the first place. When the words appeared, everyone said they were a miracle. But nobody pointed out that the web itself is a miracle.’”
Before there was Mission: Impossible, there was God’s Smuggler, the riveting account of Brother Andrew, a Dutch Christian who believed that nothing—not even the Iron Curtain—should stand between believers and the Bible. Quote: “When You were on earth, You made blind eyes see. Now, I pray, make seeing eyes blind. Do not let the guards see those things You do not want them to see.”
Is it really possible to know God? Yes, but first we must be known by Him. In Knowing God, J. I. Packer points to Scripture as the Christian’s roadmap in cultivating a deep relationship with the Almighty. Quote: “There is tremendous relief in knowing his love to me is utterly realistic, based at every point on prior knowledge of the worst about me, so that no discovery now can disillusion him about me, in the way I am so often disillusioned about myself, and quench his determination to bless me.”
Shadow of the Almighty, Elisabeth Elliot’s uncompromising spiritual memoir of her late husband, Jim, inspired a generation of missionaries, and me. Quote: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”
Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind remains a prophetic indictment of the relativism infecting the nation’s universities and impoverishing the souls of our young people. Bloom, in advocating a return to the seemingly old-fashioned notions of wisdom and truth, remains as relevant as ever. Quote: “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.”
Another work ostensibly for children, The Once and Future King, T.H. White’s funny and anachronistic retelling of the Arthurian legend, packs a poignant punch while subtly advancing the author’s prescriptions about politics and power. Quote: “‘The best thing for being sad,’ replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, ‘is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails.’”
Stan Guthrie, a licensed minister, is an editor at large for Christianity Today and for the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. Stan is the author of A Concise Guide to Bible Prophecy: 60 Predictions Everyone Should Know.