Best and Worst Reads of 2023

18 December 2023 by Wes Bredenhof

books in black wooden book shelf
books in black wooden book shelf

With the end of the year in sight, it’s time for my annual run-down of literary heroes and zeroes.  Once again, there are plenty of titles from which to choose.

In the “theology” category, my top pick for the year was Biblical Critical Theory: How the Bible’s Unfolding Story Makes Sense of Modern Life and Culture by Christopher Watkin.  My review is still forthcoming in Clarion, but I can give you a preview of my concluding paragraph:

I found Biblical Critical Theory to be a highly stimulating and enjoyable read.  Watkin’s writing reflects the best of a Reformed approach to life and culture.  At the end of every year, I pick out my top reads and publish them on my blog.  I have a feeling that Biblical Critical Theory is going to be my top pick for 2023.  Certainly I haven’t read anything better yet this year.

And it turns out that I didn’t read anything better in 2023.  If you haven’t read it yet and you’re looking for a thick volume to sink your teeth into for 2024, make it this one.

In second place, though not entirely a theology book, is Rachael Denhollander’s What is a Girl Worth?  This is a powerful, heart-breaking read about Denhollander’s experience with sexual abuse and seeing her abuser brought to justice.  It’s mostly memoir, but it also contains some helpful reflections on how churches handle abuse.  While I didn’t write a review of it, I did share some highlights from it here.     

With regard to novels, I finally got around to my second attempt at the Lord of the Rings trilogy from Tolkien.  I read The Hobbit in Grade 6 and loved it.  So then the next logical step was LOTR.  But back in Grade 6 I found LOTR to have less action and far more description.  I got bogged down, bored, and gave up.  However, all these years later, I’ve come back to it and I really enjoyed it – it was especially fun reading it during my trip to New Zealand.  So that’s my top pick for novels.

For non-theological non-fiction, I’d always heard good things about historian David McCullough.  I’ve always kept my eyes open for him in used book stores.  Finally, last March, in a Goodwill store in Bellingham, Washington I found a copy of The Johnstown Flood.  McCullough is a great story-teller – even though this tragedy happened in 1889 and the book was written in 1968, he makes you feel like you’re reading something that happened far more recently.  I’m now on the lookout for more McCullough.

Finally, we get to the stinkers, both by Smiths (though unrelated, as far as I know).  I was unexpectedly disappointed by Esther Smith’s A Still and Quiet Mind: Twelve Strategies for Changing Unwanted ThoughtsYou can read my review here for the reasons why.  At least I was able to finish that one.  I can’t say that for James K.A. Smith’s book, How to Inhabit Time.  I gave it 100 pages, but the author just couldn’t get me into what he was trying to say.  I think he had some point to make, but he wasn’t communicating it clearly.  Maybe it’s like LOTR – maybe I’ll come back to it in 40+ years and have a different perspective.