Best Reads of 2017


Reader extraordinaire Peri Zahnd shares her favorite books from 2017. -BZ

By Peri Zahnd

I can’t imagine a life without books — I was banned from reading for a week this year following eye surgery, which was just long enough to show me how awful it could be. As I’ve looked over the list of what I’ve read this year, there are three standouts in three different genres.


In February I was driving back into town one afternoon listening to one of my favorite podcasts, On Being with Krista Tippett. She was interviewing Isabel Wilkerson, the author of The Warmth of Other Suns, and I was so riveted I drove straight to the library and checked out the book before going home.

The Warmth of Other Suns is the story of the great migration of six million African Americans from the South to the North in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, looking for new opportunities to live and thrive. The enforced segregation of the migration created the inner cities of America and the problems inherent there today. The book is beautifully written, following closely the lives of three families who are representative of so many others. You cannot read it and not deeply grieve the injustices that these people suffered. I have talked and talked and talked about this book. If you aren’t convinced you need to read it, listen to the podcast and you will be.


Fiction of the year? All the Beggars Riding by Lucy Caldwell was a big surprise. It’s out of print in the US, but was a “One Book One City” selection a few years ago in Belfast, Northern Ireland, which is why I bought it and then finally pulled it off my shelf and read. It’s fiction within fiction — a story of a woman struggling to understand her past who is encouraged to imagine what might have happened, to make up a story about it. Part Two is the story she writes for a creative writing class, and it’s so long and engaging and imaginative you lose yourself in it, until suddenly you are jerked back into the present and realize that the made-up story has the potential to change everything.

I told my friend who is a nursing instructor at a Canadian university about it, and she said, “Oh yeah, that’s a thing!” She told me about the emerging field of narrative medicine and the importance of storytelling in developing compassion as health care professionals. It made the novel I’d read even more meaningful, because caring for people is MY thing, earlier as a registered nurse working in maternity and home health and now as a pastor. I’ve always known how important it is to listen to people’s stories, and my more recent training in Spiritual Direction only underscores that. If you can’t do anything else, you can always listen, which may be the very thing that someone really needs the most.


My third choice is not a book, but an author. My author of the year had to be Henri Nouwen, because I have devoured his work this year. Henri was a Catholic priest, a brilliant man who taught at Harvard, Yale, and Notre Dame, but gave that up to spend his life caring for and living with mentally handicapped people. He also wrote prolifically, writing about profound things in a simple and gentle way. No doubt his work with the handicapped gifted him with that ability.

A new book of Henri’s letters, aptly named Love, Henri, was released, and I read it a little at a time over the course of the year. I was surprised to see Brene Brown wrote the foreword; she said it was from Henri that she learned the importance of vulnerability — the very thing she has become famous for teaching others. (If you think you can’t read the whole book, read the foreword, and then you’ll find yourself reading the whole book.)

Henri’s letters gave me a glimpse into the everyday life of this great man, and I read them concurrently with several of his books, some of which I’d read before, but were so worth returning to. I read Life of the Beloved very slowly and prayerfully, soaking in the truth that my foundational identity must be that I am God’s beloved. I know I became more convinced of that truth in the very marrow of my bones as I read this small book over the course of several days.

Can You Drink This Cup
is a challenge to accept the life you’ve been given and not to covet the life of another. That truth burns in me through Henri’s words. And finally, The Return of the Prodigal. This parable of Jesus presents three characters, all of whom we find in ourselves. The two brothers, the prodigal and the older brother who stayed at home, aren’t really that different. They are both stuck in a paradigm of believing that love must be earned, unable to accept and enjoy the unconditional love of the father. But Henri reveals the deepest truth in the last chapters of the book as he shows we are all called to become like the father himself, unconditionally loving others and living joyously in the moment.


I read so many good books this year, there could be honorable mentions, but that’s enough for now. I’m ready to stop and go read.


Bonus: My favorite books from 2017. -BZ

The Patient Ferment of the Early Church by Alan Kreider

Lincoln in the Bardo
by George Saunders

Life by Keith Richards

Salvation By Allegiance Alone by Matthew B. Bates

Every Scene By Heart by Peri Zahnd

Ask the Beasts by Elizabeth A. Johnson

The New Testament: A Translation by David Bentley Hart