The news cycle is loud, but we need to hear those who can’t shout
Before becoming WORLD’s chief editor, I sat on the board of directors of a Christian publishing house. When the editorial team spoke of upcoming books, it emphasized the intellectual worth of the book for readers and (since every enterprise needs to make at least a small profit) the material worth to the company. The job of authors was to write good books and do media interviews to promote them, but the marketing department did most of the selling.
Two developments during the past 25 years have changed those expectations. First, most Christian publishers now look for authors who have their own “platforms,” which means either the lecture circuit hustle or a megachurch pulpit. Second, social media and email have conditioned us to expect instant gratification via snappy patter and lists of items, nothing that makes us wait too long or expend too much mental energy.
I’ve just opened the Baker Publishing Group’s Spring Nonfiction catalog. Note how it advertises its January-April 2019 new releases: “Significant speaking platform—audiences topped 73,000 people in 2017 … speaks regularly to women across the country … spoken to over 500,000 people to date … speaks more than 100 times per year … highly sought-after brand strategist and speaker … has a multimedia ministry that reaches more than 1 million listeners a week … pastor of the fifth largest church in America … speaks internationally to over 60,000 annually.”
The problem with that: Few people are both good speakers and good writers. (Os Guinness and Tim Keller are two exceptions, and their books are among the Top 30 on the pages that follow.) Publisher emphasis on “platforms,” with the assumption that most sales will be at book tables following a speech, leads to the publication of many poor books by speakers who stand tall only in platform shoes, and the non-publication of good ones by platform-less writers.
Combine that with our desire for speed and ease, and titles like these in the Baker catalog become inevitable: Christian Theology for People in a Hurry; 40 Verses to Ignite Your Faith ; 10 Choices Successful Couples Make; A Shift a Day for Your Best Year Yet. Descriptions of contents include: “Easy and enjoyable … Streamlined format covers each topic in a page or two for maximum return on a minimal time commitment.”
Just about every publisher’s catalog has titles and come-ons like Baker’s (and Baker is one of the better publishing houses, with Baker Academic offerings that are meatier). But it’s sad that the choice is between simple and “academic,” with serious but accessible books often frozen out.
Nevertheless, in 2018 we’ve been able to recommend about 500 books on our three regular review pages and our quarterly special sections: Children’s Books (Feb. 17), Summer Reading/Mostly Novels (June 30), History Books (Oct. 13), and Books of the Year (see below). Here are authors, titles, and publishers of our five nonfiction books of the year, 25 short list honorees, and four theological honorable mentions:
Science Book of the Year
Charles C. Mann, The Wizard and the Prophet (Knopf)
Short list: Matti Leisola & Jonathan Witt, Heretic (Discovery); J.P. Moreland, Scientism and Secularism (Crossway); Christian Smith, Atheist Overreach (Oxford); Jeremy J. Baumberg, The Secret Life of Science (Princeton); Hugh Ross, The Creator and the Cosmos (Reasons to Believe)
Understanding America Book of the Year
Oren Cass, The Once and Future Worker (Encounter)
Short list: Os Guinness, Last Call for Liberty (IVP); Abdi Nor Iftin, Call Me American (Knopf); Lauren Hilgers, Patriot Number One: American Dreams in Chinatown (Crown); Ben Sasse, Them (St. Martin’s); Bruce K. Chapman, Politicians (Discovery)
Understanding the World Book of the Year
Rania Abouzeid, No Turning Back (W.W. Norton)
Short list: Lian Xi, Blood Letters (Basic); Michael Scott Moore, The Desert and the Sea (Harper Wave); Jonathan D. Quick, The End of Epidemics (St. Martin’s); Ken Bensinger, Red Card (Simon & Schuster); Dambisa Moyo, Edge of Chaos (Basic); Robert Kagan, The Jungle Grows Back (Knopf)
History Book of the Year
Jay Sexton, A Nation Forged by Crisis (Basic)
Short list: Daniel T. Rodgers, As a City on a Hill (Princeton); John Sedgwick, Blood Moon (Simon & Schuster); Éric Vuillard, The Order of the Day (Other Press); Omer Bartov, Anatomy of a Genocide (Simon & Schuster); Jason Phillips, Looming Civil War (Oxford)
Accessible Theology Book of the Year
Cameron Cole, Therefore I Have Hope (Crossway)
Short list: Tim Keller, The Prodigal Prophet (Viking); Christina Fox, Idols of a Mother’s Heart (Christian Focus); Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness (IVP); Kelly M. Kapic, Embodied Hope (IVP Academic)
Owen Strachan & Douglas Allen Sweeney, The Essential Jonathan Edwards (Moody); Matthew McCullough, Remember Death (Crossway); Jonathan Leeman, The Rule of Love (Crossway); John C. Peckham, Theodicy of Love (Baker Academic)