For each day of Twelvetide, Christ and Pop Culture writers will point to some of the cultural goodness that gives hope in the midst of life’s messyness. It’s our version of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” song, filled with things our writers have found to be life-giving. Some entries are 2018 artifacts, some are from years past. All of them point us to hope.

Every year, I set a reading goal. Twenty-eighteen was no different. I find that by doing this, it is easier to make reading books a priority. While there is good worthwhile reading on the internet (I mean, you’re reading this right now), I find the sustained reading necessary to get through a book to be more formative. And, wrestling with certain authors through multiple published works is even more so.

I wanted to highlight authors I read this past year that helped me think more deeply about life, culture, and even my own faith. From some authors, I was confronted with ideas I deeply disagreed with, but was forced to articulate why. From others, the authors helped me break out of ruts in my thinking and understand current issues in a different way. And some helped me think through better approaches to life management and goal setting and how to make 2019 leave 2018 in the dust.

#1 Nassim Nicholas Taleb

I had first heard of Taleb through Malcolm Gladwell’s article in What the Dog Saw. Perhaps more than any other author in this list, Taleb challenges the conventional wisdom in many areas of life. Whether he is right or wrong, his writing forces readers to confront things they may have taken for granted and truly think critically about them. The fifth volume in Taleb’s Incerto series came out back in February, and after reading it, I was happy to get the box set of the first four volumes for my birthday. I made quick work of The Bed of Procrustes (which is a bunch of philosophical aphorisms) and gradually finished the other volumes (Fooled by Randomness, Black Swan, and Antifragile) by the end of vacation in October.

#2 Jordan Peterson

Part of me hesitated to include Peterson on this list. But, my contact with him is primarily through reading 12 Rules for Life. I think this is worth noting, because he comes across quite differently in his writing than in the plethora of interviews and YouTube videos. If you really want to engage his thinking and worldview, I think it’s best done through this book. Throughout this year, college guys who don’t normally read would ask me about this book, and I was glad I had read it early and could engage in dialogue about it. This is easily one of the best books I read this year. Not because I think everything Peterson says is gospel, but because much of his advice is worthwhile, and when I do disagree, my thinking is sharpened for having to explain why.

#3 Craig Childs

My favorite vacation read this year was Craig Childs’s Atlas of a Lost World: Travels in Ice Age America. If you’re like me, and you have perhaps wondered how people got to the Western Hemisphere, this book is a good entry point for explaining what we know and why. It’s also engagingly written as Childs attempted to recreate how people might have come across the Bering Land Strait several thousands years ago. I may have read it sitting on a beach, but I was transported to the wilderness and wondered how I would survive.

#4 James Clear

I was introduced to James Clear through a podcast called Muscle for Life. He was discussing habit building and what works and what doesn’t. I immediately subscribed to his newsletter and enjoyed his weekly articles through the fall. Then, his first book, Atomic Habits, came out and is now a New York Times Bestseller. Clear’s work is scientifically rigorous, but is well illustrated through stories and real life examples. While Peterson’s 12 Rules may set an abstract agenda for taking control of your life, a book like Atomic Habits actually gives the nuts and bolts necessary to rebuild.

#5 Adam Grant

Like Taleb, I was introduced to Adam Grant through Malcolm Gladwell, but this time via his podcast Revisionist History. I decided I should read him for myself so I picked up Give and Take and Originals. The former is about how generosity is actually the best strategy for success in the workplace and relationships. The latter is about creativity and what makes original thinkers and artists tick. Both are very refreshing long form reads for a culture that seems to be ruled my narcissism and copy cats.

#6 Karen Swallow Prior

I need to read more fiction. But, I also need to eat more vegetables. After reading Karen Swallow Prior’s On Reading Well, I feel both equipped and excited to read more fiction. (I’m still waiting on a book that will do similar things for my eating habits.) Until then, I’ll just reiterate what I’ve said elsewhere, that the introduction, which discusses reading virtuously, in the sense of looking for illustrated virtue and being a good reader, is worth the price of the book. Her work sets the agenda for the types of readers we should be, and I was challenged to grow into that ideal.

#7 Fleming Rutledge

In 2017, one of the best books I read was The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. So, when I saw that the author had an advent book coming out back in the fall, I decided it would be a good read for mid-December. Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ, is mostly a collection of Rutledge’s sermons throughout the years. In her Episcopal tradition, Advent is actually a dark season of waiting and longing, something I think many felt as 2018 was drawing to a close. Even though the season has passed, that heavy longing for Christ to come and make things right still lingers, and reading Rutledge on this will illumine your thinking.

#8 Shea Serrano

I’ve been familiar with Serrano’s work through The Ringer, but mainly through podcasts. Over the summer, I realized he had a book on basketball and quickly ordered and read it. Of the books I read last year, Basketball (and Other Things): A Collection of Questions Asked, Answered, Illustrated might be the only one where I a) laughed out loud reading and b) had to stop at several points to look up YouTube videos of Shawn Kemp dunking on people. If like me, you grew up in the glory days of 90s NBA, this book is an absolute must read.

#9 Carlo Rovelli

A couple of summers ago, I realized I didn’t understand the state of modern physics very well. Rovelli had a small book that had just been translated from Italian called 7 Brief Lessons on Physics. It was so brief in fact, I read it while standing around a Barnes & Nobles. For more substantial reading, I picked up Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity and, more recently, The Order of Time. Both of these I need to re-read, because the initial pass was so mind-blowing, I’m hoping a second look is just as good as the first.

#10 Yuval Noah Harari

Before I read Yuval Noah Harari’s work, I had not come across someone who understood what Nietzsche was up to well enough to rigorously apply it to the modern world. In essence, Harari’s two-part Sapiens and Homo Deus is a humanist view of where we came from and where we are going. If you are reading his work from a conservative Christian standpoint, it challenges virtually every part of your worldview. In his more recent 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, he applies many of the ideas from his narrative account of humanity to actionable items. I have never enjoyed being challenged in my thinking about pretty much everything quite so much.

#11 David Bennett

In A War of Loves, Bennett tells his story about coming out as gay, becoming an activist, and then being born again and following Christ. I have read a couple of other similar memoirs, but this was the first one that seemed to actually open up the struggle in real time. By that I mean Bennett’s story is not neat and tidy. He has come to a place where he is choosing celibacy as a gay Christian, but it was not an overnight decision. His story captures the tension that I think many of our gay brothers and sisters experience, and after reading his riveting account, I am able to enter into the affective part of that experience much better and engage in dialogue more easily than before.