Well, it was a great year of reading and it's almost impossible to choose between the contenders for best books of the year. If you read the list backward, 2011 started with Radical by David Platt, which was a terrific, attention-grabbing book about everything I care about and yet it didn't even make the list of the top ten. Here are a few that did:
Best fiction: I read fiction for fun and relaxation and so I don't often choose the kind of literary fiction that real readers do. Having said that, this year we have a tie between Room by Emma Donaghue and The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted by Elizabeth Berg. Room is everything a novel should be--suspenseful, creative and engaging, with characters you wish you could meet in person. Elizabeth Berg is one of the best in the world at describing the ordinary experience of mostly ordinary people, so that when you read this collection of short stories, you wonder how she got inside your head as you realize, "That's exactly how I think," even though just one second before, you didn't know that's how you thought. We'll distinguish these two by noting that Room is a novel and The Day is a collection of short stories.
Best Biography or Memoir: This is a tough category this year. You already know how I feel about Real Live Preacher but I've decided not to consider it for an award because this year was about the fifth time I read it. Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas told the story of the man and the Church during the Nazi years. It is surprisingly suspenseful, considering that we all know how it ends, and deeply challenging as the reader can't help wondering, "What would I do if faced with that situation?" Bossypants is hilarious, especially on audiobook, read by the author, Tina Fey. That book helped me get started on the C25K program; back when I thought I was surely going to die, I gasped and sweated through Fey's memories and observations about life. The Liar's Club by Mary Karr is hands-down the best written memoir I've ever read, as interesting as great fiction, with amazing characters and just the right amount of drama. But the award goes to Evolving in Monkeytown by Rachel Held Evans because she perfectly described my own internal struggle with the evangelical faith I was raised in as well as many of the same uneasy conclusions I have come to (although not all). Let me be clear: I don't recommend that anyone else read it and if you are comfortable in your evangelical worldview, I strongly recommend that you don't. But if you want to understand your heretical friends or if you yourself have had an unorthodox thought or two (and if you were raised in the hyper-evangelical world of the 80s and 90s), you might feel like you're reading your own story.
Best Professional Book: I'm going to give the award to The Science of Trust, which is yet another stellar book by John Gottman. This one has lots of actual conversations between couples and illustrations of the basic premise, which is that the key to marital success is the strength of the bond between a couple and how to keep that invisible connection strong. It is really about the science of the art of love. However, the runners up are also very strong: Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero and A Door Set Open by Peter Steinke, both excellent books about family systems theory and spirituality.
Best Nonfiction: Clearly, most of the books in the other categories are nonfiction so this category is reserved for nonfiction that is powerful enough that it changed something deep in me. A Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp helped me to look at gratitude in a completely different way and challenged me to take it on as a way of life. Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott provided an amazing follow-up to last year's book Crucial Conversations and laid out a blueprint for the kinds of conversations that allow us to "come out from behind ourselves" and have the kinds of conversations that really say what needs to be said and hear what needs to be heard. I became immediately more courageous and authentic after reading this book. The award, though, (drum roll, please) goes to the book Younger Next Year for Women for one reason: A Thousand Gifts and Fierce Conversations helped me to experience change in areas that I was already at work in. Even though it's not particularly well-written, Younger Next Year got me started on a path that I had never even thought existed for me and helped me sustain it for 7 months in a way that felt almost miraculous.
So what about you? What books did you read this year that you would give an award to? What books do you want to warn us about? What are you going to read in 2012? I just downloaded Terrorists in Love to my Kindle and I can already tell that it's going to be on the list for 2012. I'll keep you posted on what comes after that.