So I’m about 2/3 of the way through Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, and it has me thinking a great deal about family, about the ways we relate to one another, and about how we wound and rescue one another.

Thus, today, I bring you my top ten books – in no particular order – about family.

1. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen – Now, I’m not quite finished with this one yet, but I can tell you this – I both love and loathe everyone in this book. I love their beauty, their kindness, their strength – but Franzen writes their wounds and weaknesses so well that I don’t love them all the time . . . kind of like real people.

2.Gilead by Marilynne Robinson Robinson’s book is just one of my go-to books when I want to pick a text that is masterful – her protagonist is strong but flawed, and since he is writing a letter to his young son in the book, the structure of the book displays Robinson’s great talent for creating a voice so thoroughly. This book is one of my top ten of all time.

3. Nightmarriage by Chad Thomas Johnston – Chad – I can call him that because he’s my friend – is a talented and quirky writer. He plays with language with such skill that it’s both clear and also complex. And this book about how his young family came to be is both funny and charming. Definitely a great read.

4. On Beauty by Zadie Smith – I can still remember listening to this book as I drove around Baltimore. I would sit on my somewhat sketchy street – trying to watch for the approach of dealers – while I finished a scene. Smith’s study of interracial marriage, academic life, and teenage identity is funny and poignant.

5. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis – No book has shaped me as much as this one and its continuations in The Chronicles of Narnia has. (And yes, THIS IS THE FIRST BOOK IN THE SERIES.) I love to watch how the protagonists – brothers and sisters all – negotiate their entrance into a magical kingdom and the elements of their personalities it brings forth.

6. Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin – An unusual choice for a list of books on family, perhaps, but the title essay in this collection deals specifically with a son’s relationship to his father in the midst of a cultural shift – the Civil Rights movement. Powerful, insightful, and absolutely heart-rending.

7. From Our House: A Memoir by Lee Martin – Over 5 years later, I can still remember the animation on the faces of my students when we discussed Martin’s memoir. They were struck by the power of Martin’s words in light of the simplicity of the story – a farm family and the tragedies that befall them. One of my favorite memoirs.

8. Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year by Anne Lamott – It took me a while to read this part of Lamott’s ouevre (I love using the word ‘ouevre’) simply because I’m not a parent and didn’t know if I could relate. But I could and did. I laughed so hard at her comments about the way mothers compete, and I cried when I saw how hard this work is. A great book for any parent – or any person – in your life.

9. Slaves in the Family by Edward Ball – This work gave me the foundation for my book You Will Not Be Forgotten because it showed me how it might be possible to weave together the past and the present when talking about enslaved people. Here, Ball explores his family’s history as slave owners and how those enslaved people came – quite literally – to be his own kin.

10. Any Day a Beautiful Change: A Story of Faith and Family by Katherine Willis Pershey – I have struggled with reading about new motherhood at times – sometimes because of jealousy and sometimes because of the exclusivity that new mothers can lay on their experience. But Pershey’s work, which explores her marriage, the birth and young life of her first child, and her work as a minister helped me reach into that experience with openness. Plus, the writing is gorgeous.

There they are – my top ten. What would you add to the list?  Have you read any of these titles yourself? What did you think of them?
This post is part of the Super Summer Reading Program. I hope you’ll join us, and if you’re already reading away, feel free to share your list so far in the comments below.


This weekend, my book God’s Whisper Manifesto is free for you to download.  The book sets out the 10 principles that I want to employ here on the farm – principles that respect individuals, the land, and our beliefs while also helping us build intentional community.  If you’d like a copy, I’d love for you to have one.  So please, help yourself. And please, let me know what you think and when you’d like to come visit.