top of page
  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

Reading List

Updated: Feb 11

Below, find my reading list over the past months and years (updated regularly). My tastes are eclectic, including current affairs, sports, leadership, and faith. But I always enjoy reading history, especially as learning about the past helps me understand today. As you'll see, some books I loved, while others less so. My comments will help you figure out which is which.


Enjoyed John le Carre’s “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold." The double and triple crossing plot set during the height of the Cold War kept me wondering how it would end. It felt like an unconventional murder mystery.

Enjoyed “The Last Kings of Shanghai” by Jonathan Kaufman, telling the story of two Iraqi Jewish families who made fortunes in pre-WW2 China. A complicated tale of successful immigration and antisemitism, fortunes built through colonization that saved German Jews. Learned a lot about these two rival dynasties and conditions in pre-communism China.


Daniel Immerwahr covers under-studied aspects of American history in his readable "How to Hide an Empire: A Story of the Greater United States." Interesting and highlights times when the US fell well short of its values. Yet, despite his scholarship, he never proved his provocative title that we are (or were) an empire like European powers.

Enjoyed “Sentences from Seneca” with sayings selected by Dana Gioia. I only vaguely knew of Seneca, so Gioia’s introduction helpfully places this great Roman orator in a historical context.

Fascinating reconsideration of North American history by Pekka Hämäläinen in “The Comanche Empire.” He challenges the established narrative of unchecked European conquest by demonstrating the power of Comanches to bend Spanish, Mexican, Texan, and US policies to their advantage. They dominated the central plains for 150 years.

Learned much about Francis of Assisi’s peace mission during the Fifth Crusade in “The Saint and the Sultan” by Paul Moses. Francis disregarded church leaders to meet Egyptian Sultan Malek al-Kamil, who was an enlightened leader. Their dialogue provided a powerful example for future generations, which is especially relevant today.

"The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church's Complicity in Racism" by Dr. Jemar Tisby sheds important light on hard truths. While difficult to read, he challenges us to grapple with the past. Otherwise, it's hard to be salt and light if we fail to confess and change.

Inspiring to read “Divine Collision” by Jim Gash, a remarkable story of God providentially bringing a brave Ugandan boy wrongly convicted for murder into contact with Jim and their quest for justice. Because of the collision, Pepperdine's law school has since changed many lives for the better.

Somehow never read “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck. His “playable novel” creates rich characters in a small booklet, focusing on friendship between migrant workers in 1930s California (where Steinbeck grew up). Bleak like “The Pearl,” both heartwarming and wrenching.

Grea to read “Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West” by Tom Holland, which was entertaining and informative—a rare find! An incredible cast of historic characters: Cyrus, Darius, Xerxes, Leonidas, Themistocles, and others, all thanks to the world’s first historian Herodotus.

Many valuable insights in “Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard” by Chip and Dan Heath. Enjoyable to read, with practical advice on bringing lasting change by providing clear direction, ample motivation, and a supportive environment.

Finished Ron Chernow’s epic biography "Alexander Hamilton," the book that inspired the musical. Hamilton was a brilliant, turbulent, hard-working, self-made patriot who helped lay the foundation of our nation.

Enjoyed David McCullough's last book, “The Pioneers,” about the settling of Ohio in the 1780s. At the time, the area that would become Ohio and four other states was called the Northwest Territory. The US won the massive region after the Revolutionary War in the peace treaty with Britain, which doubled the size of the new nation. Working from a trove of letters and diaries, McCullough retells a forgotten part of American history. And he shows how difficult and dangerous life was for pioneers on the frontier. Notably, the first pioneers ensured by an act of Congress that the territory would protect religious freedom and prohibit slavery.

The Forge of Christendom: The End of Days and the Epic Rise of the West” by Tom Holland covers some of the most complicated history one can read but with beautifully constructed prose and many interesting insights. He’s an impressively gifted writer in tying history together.

To understand the depths of Russian repression and to read a firsthand account of when any hope faded of a rights-respecting nation, read “Red Notice” by Bill Browder. He engagingly tells his story of going from hedge fund manager to human rights activist. And he movingly tells of his work to remember Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer unjustly jailed for crimes he didn’t commit and murdered in prison. Browder’s efforts led the Magnisky Act, the most significant piece of human rights legislation in US history.

True Grit” by Charles Portis was a joy to read. A Western cowboy story told through the lens of a strong-willed 14-year-old girl seeking justice after her father’s murder. Great story with great characters. Better than the excellent movie that brought the book to the screen.

Learned a lot from Charles Whiting’s book “America’s Forgotten Army,” which covers the US Seventh Army in World War II. Despite successful amphibious invasions of Sicily and southern France (a few weeks after Normandy) and fighting a different Battle of the Bulge that was every bit as hard as the more famous one, their exploits were overshadowed by generals Patton and Montgomery. Yet their bravery and sacrifice were no less heroic.

Engaging writing by Jeff Pearlman as he tells the tale of “The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson.” I remember the “Bo Knows” days of his brief two-sports career. Perlman goes deeper about Bo’s supernova as an icon, the good and the bad. Even Alabama fans will enjoy.

Gripping graphic novel of George Takei's life (aka Sulu from Star Trek) during World War II in "They Called Us Enemy." Authorities took his family from their Los Angeles home at gunpoint and imprisoned them for four years in Japanese internment camps. Despite the gross injustice, reading Takei's optimism about America's founding ideals is inspiring.

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI” by David Grann tells the forgotten story of the victimization of Osage tribe members from 1910-30 after oil was found on their reservation in Oklahoma. A tragic chapter of US history, the new FBI brought some justice but questions remain.

Learned from “Metternich: The First European” by Desmond Seward. The great statesman of the Austrian Empire outmaneuvered Napoleon and kept a fractious empire together with a pan-European view of stability. While opposed to democracy, Seward sums up the statesman as someone who “believed in traditions contributing to joint heritage, as opposed to nationalism.”

Borrowed from my middle schooler’s reading list, “The Pearl” by John Steinbeck. Somehow missed this book growing up—an exceptionally well-written short story about avarice, poverty, and the song of a family.

You really couldn’t make up what happened in “The Greatest Beer Run Ever” by John “Chick” Donohue & J.T. Molly, which is now a motion picture. Enjoyed reading the crazy story of a New Yorker going to Vietnam in 1967 to deliver beer to his neighborhood buddies during the war.

Great start to reading in 2023. So enjoyed Trevor Noah’s autobiography “Born A Crime.” Touching stories about his life as a biracial child depicts the futility, absurdity, and incongruity of South African Apartheid. His mother’s faith and strength of character inspires, as does his ingenuity and inability to hate.


Interesting to read “Christians & Nation-Building in a Pluralistic Society,” where Malaysian Christians grapple with how to live out their faith in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society. Many insights for believers living in any context.

Learned a lot from reading “The Earth Is All That Lasts: Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and the Last Stand of the Great Sioux Nation” by Mark Lee Gardner. It covers the life and beliefs of the two great Lakota Sioux leaders and their fight to save their way of life.

The Insanity of God” by Nik Ripken tells his moving story of following God to help strangers and understand Christian persecution. He asks that we living in safety consider “what our faith costs and how much we’re willing to endure for Jesus’ sake.” Why? Because some give everything.

Really enjoyed “BOLIVAR: The South American Liberator” by Robert Harvey. I knew only the faintest outline of his life. His tremendous military achievements set him on par with Napoleon or Genghis Khan, but instead of conquering, he liberated a continent.

Enjoyed Lamin Sanneh's deeply thought provoking, yet very accessible, book "Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel beyond the West." Written in the form of a conversation between himself and a skeptical colleague, he covers many topics.

Just finished “Things Fall Apart” by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, considered the father of African literature. Portrays life in the southeastern part of Nigeria pre and post-European contact and the challenges of clashing cultures and power imbalances.

The African battles of World War I are a forgotten part of The Great War. Peter Shankland’s “The Phantom Flotilla” covers a forgotten chapter of that forgotten battlefield, telling the story of Britain’s ingenious and daring plan to surprise the German Navy in Lake Tanganyika.

Moving to read Steve Twomey's well written "Countdown to Pearl Harbor: The Twelve Days to the Attack." Flawed assumptions from DC and Navy brass led to missed opportunities resulting in the devastating attack. Having visited the Pearl Harbor memorial earlier this year, I found myself reluctant to read the last chapter, as if it might save 2000 sailors and service members from perishing.

Looking for a summer vacation read, I randomly pulled “Contact” by Carl Sagan out of a Little Free Library in our neighborhood. Not often do I think this, but the movie was better. The story meanders, digresses, and has too many negative portrayals of faith.

Interesting to read “The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage, and Fear in the Cyber Age” by David Sanger. My basic takeaway: despite the appearance of security when we log on, nothing is secure from major powers or big players if they want to find or destroy it.

Covering basketball, leadership, and faith, “The Road to Joy” by Baylor Coach Scott Drew chronicles how he raised the basketball program from the ashes to national champions. He shares how his Christian faith influences his work, which is more like a ministry than Xs and Os.

Captivating to read "The Nightmare Years, 1930-40" by William L. Shirer. His book "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" is the definitive account of Hitler and Nazism (and a must-read). "The Nightmare Years" is his personal story during those trying times as an American reporter.

Recommend Pastor Andy Stanley’s “Not In It To Win It.” Challenges Christians to set aside politics during these polarized times and recommit to Jesus’ example and command — that we love everyone. Stanley explains how it’s easy in America to believe in Jesus but also easy to forget how we are to live out those countercultural beliefs. He challenges Christ-followers to act like Jesus by loving friends, neighbors, and enemies. Why? It’s what we’re commanded to do.

Enjoyed another interesting Malcolm Gladwell book - "The Bomber Mafia." It tells how strategic bombing developed during World War II to lessen the loss of life and shorten wars by hitting key industrial nodes that would cripple an army. And how the mission changed over Japan.

I found it helpful and worthwhile to read “My Mercy Encompasses All: The Koran’s Teachings on Compassion, Peace & Love,” gathered by Reza Shah-Kazemi with an intro by Wendell Berry. For those wanting to understand Islamic precepts on these topics, the booklet is a must read.

You’d never know “The Red Badge of Courage” by Stephen Crane is almost 130 years old when you read it. The language flows and the description of combat is harrowing. Crane interviewed Union veterans of the Battle of Chancellorsville to get the nuances of army life plus the terror and thrill of combat. I picked it up again after touring the Chancellorsville battlefield earlier this month.

Stephen Sears’ detailed book “Chancellorsville,” has great insights and information about the Battle of Chancellorsville, which raged from April 30 – May 6, 1863, during the American Civil War.

"The Last Girl" by Nadia Murad should be required reading for everyone dealing with modern-day genocides. Inspiring to read of the courage of her and others. But survivors need help; more than 2700 Yazidis remain missing. The world also must hold ISIS criminals accountable.

A profoundly spiritual book, “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction” by the late Rev. Eugene Peterson, should be required reading for all wayfarers trying to imperfectly live out the teachings of Jesus Christ. Much wisdom here, even for those of different beliefs.

Thoroughly enjoyed “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus” by Charles C. Mann. Revolutionized how I view the histories of our hemisphere. Instilled a much greater appreciation for the kingdoms, cultures, and technologies of the first peoples of our continent.


Inspiring and fascinating to read “Across the Airless Wilds” by Earl Swift that tells how the moon rovers were created. Decades of ingenuity and commitment allowed astronauts to drive on the moon.

Continuing my David McCullough kick: enjoyed “1776” covering the highs and many lows of the first year of American independence. George Washington made mistakes but importantly learned from them, which led to his audacious attack on Trenton after Christmas in 1776 that surprised the British-hired Hessians.

Really enjoyed “Ghengis Khan and the Making of the Modern World” by Jack Weatherford. Didn’t realize how much I didn’t know about his life and empire. If you survived the Mongols’ brutally effective attack, you enjoyed religious freedom, equality, free commerce, and security.

Appreciated “Across That Bridge” by the late Rep. John Lewis. A moving account of his philosophy of non-violence and loving those who do you harm, told through his remarkable life. Deeply spiritual book. Should be required reading for all seeking to change regressive systems.

On its 75th anniversary, appreciated “The Nuremberg Trial” chronicling the creation of the unprecedented war crimes tribunal and the prosecutions of Nazi leaders. Arguably the key event in establishing international law after World War II. As Justice Jackson said as lead US prosecutor, the court wasn’t punishing the defendants for losing the war but for starting it. The court established peace as the outcome of war instead of vengeance. Jackson saw its purpose to “strengthen the bulwarks of peace and tolerance.”

Finished “The Great Bridge” by David McCullough about the construction of the Brooklyn bridge in New York City. A good read for those interested in 19th century engineering and turn off the century New York politics. Otherwise, I’d read one of McCullough’s other fine books.

Finished “The Path Between the Seas” by David McCullough about building the Panama Canal from 1870-1914. At 698 pages, it was a chore at times. But McCullough is a great writer. The story is about a stunning feat of determination and ingenuity connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans.

FIRST Principles: What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country” by Tom Ricks is a different kind of book focused on what the Founders studied, how it influenced their thinking, and what it means today. Interesting and insightful.

Enjoyed “Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action” by Simon Sinek. An entertaining read that convincingly shows it is not WHAT you do that motivates others but WHY. Valuable insights for organizations and personal leadership.

Enjoyed “Reclaiming Hope” by Michael Wear about his time on the Obama campaign and his work in the White House on faith engagement. Appreciated reading how his Christian faith helped him navigate the highs and lows of government service.

Enjoyed David McCullough’s “The Wright Brothers,” which chronicles Orville and Wilbur’s remarkable and self-taught achievements. They ignored initial ridicule and later fame, and they changed the world. “No bird soars in a calm.” -- Wilbur Wright

"The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes" by Zach Carter, covering Keynes' colorful personal life and groundbreaking thinking on economics. Ambitious in scope, I learned a lot about this seminal and iconoclastic figure.

Interesting insights from Lauren Turek in “To Bring the Good News to All Nations: Evangelical Influence on Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Relations” charting the early efforts of global evangelicals to engage internationally (both + & -) on human rights and religious freedom.

Flying Business Class: 12 Rules for Leaders From the U.S. Airlines” by Bill Murphy, Jr. Interesting leadership insights from a high profile industry. It’s a free e-book formatted as a .pdf so you can read it on any device.

Finished the first three books of the DUNE series by Frank Herbert. Wow. Industrial strength science fiction. So creative. Futuristic cities and space travel but also religion, ecology, and anthropology. Makes Star Wars like a child’s fairy tale and Star Trek ... well Star Trek.

Enjoyed “The Great Escape” about the largest POW prison break during World War 2. Using their bare hands and crudely made tools, they tunneled 300 feet underground to try to escape. Written by prisoner Paul Brickhill, it demonstrates how necessity is the mother of invention.

Last year at Easter, our pastor challenged us to read the BIBLE in a year. Just finished reading the entire Good Book on my iPhone (listening too). Highly recommend it. Inspired writing. Lots of Good News. Hope for redemption. Greatest story ever told.

Talking to Strangers” was not my favorite Malcolm Gladwell book. I did enjoy his insights on Chamberlain’s meetings with Hilter and Cuban spies hiding in plain sight at the CIA. But his typical bouncing through history and psychology made his meta point hard to follow.

Finished reading "Towards a Westphalia for the Middle East" from scholars at the Centre of Geopolitics and Grand Strategy of the University of Cambridge. Looks at lessons from the 1648 treaty that ended Europe's 30 Years War to solve the multiple crises in roiling the MENA region

Hunger Games trilogy recommended by my kids. Must admit they were better than I expected. I guess the odds were in their favor...

Enjoyed "Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom" by David W. Blight. Learned much about the his amazing, prophetic life.

Enjoying his book “Reading While Black” that highlights the African American tradition of Biblical interpretation coming out of their history and experiences of subjugation and discrimination.

Many timely insights and strategies in “How We Win” by Farah Pandith on countering violent extremism. Appreciated this quote: “Fighting extremism isn’t primarily a job for government–it’s a job for all of us in our capacity as activist, teachers, parents, neighbors and friends.”

Great insights from Asma Uddin in her book “When Islam Is Not A Religion” about the challenges facing American Muslims today. An experienced litigator, she covers a range of issues in an accessible and engaging way. Well written and comprehensive.

Enjoyed another Eric Larson book - The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz. Chronicles Winston Churchill's leadership and life during the Blitz, a fascinating picture of a courageous, unique and brave leader during existential crisis.


Good insights from my USIP colleague Keith Mines in his book “Why Nation-Building Matters.” No one likes nation building, but Keith makes the case for its importance, as unattended or ignored crises can produce bigger challenges: human rights abuses, migration, terrorism.

Enjoyed reading on Thanksgiving Day "The American Spirit," a collection of speeches by David McCullough, one of America’s greatest historians.

Enjoyed “American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company” by Bryce Hoffman. Good read about Mulally’s rescue of Ford, when the carmaker faced bankruptcy. He instilled a new vision on quality, and turned things around by emphasizing teamwork and transparency.

Highly recommend reading "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?" by Martin Luther King, Jr. Written months before his assassination, he prophetically highlights how America must improve, so that all Americans can prosper in our great country.

Finished “The Chronicles of Narnia.” Last read in grade school, so certain I missed the rich allegorical elements of Aslan. The theology of the last two books is particularly interesting, as CS Lewis re-envisions a creation story and paints a wonder-filled picture of heaven.

Enjoyed reading “Enemy of All Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History's First Global Manhunt” by Steven Johnson. Early notions of international law emerge from one key event—the attack on an Indian treasure ship by an English pirate—and the global repercussions.

Enjoyed Richard Stengel's "Information Wars: How We Lost the Global Battle Against Disinformation & What We Can Do About It," chronicling his fight against Russian and ISIS disinformation during the Obama admin as the State Department Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy.

Interesting insights into the Obama presidency from Ben Rhodes in "The World As It Is." Chronicles his time from joining the campaign of a unknown senator from Illinois through two terms in the White House as key speech writer and national security adviser.

Read "The Days of the French Revolution," covering from 1789-95 the fall of the Bastille and Louis XVI, the advent of The Terror and Days of Thermidor, and Napoleon’s coup. Revolutionaries ended one dictatorship, but their furor eventually consumed themselves, leading to another.

Leadership in adversity: Highly enjoyed reading “ENDURANCE: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage” by Alfred Lansing about the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition from 1914-17. Great story and great example of leadership.

Enjoyed “Lost Rights: The Misadventures of a Stolen American Relic.” Dave Howard entertainingly tells how an original copy of the Bill of Rights made its way home to North Carolina 140 years after being taken during the Civil War. It’s Antiques Roadshow meets the Pelican Brief.

Nice literary change of pace to read “The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game” by Michael Lewis. Inspiring story of a Memphis family taking in homeless teenager who becomes a football star and a technical discussion of changes in football. Not better than the movie, just different.

333 views0 comments
bottom of page