By Norris Burkes,  Sep 6 2020

Has the pandemic made you a bookworm? 

Me, not so much. 

A good chaplain should revere books, but this reverend has fallen short this year. I’ve checked out dozens of library books but read only eight.

Still, that number seems enough to fulfil my annual Labor Day promise to recommend the following books. But, first, my usual disclaimer: Being a chaplain doesn’t chain me to religious books. 

Spirituality shouldn’t be relegated to religious writing. For instance, humor can offer wonderful spiritual insights. 

That’s why you shouldn’t read “The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared” – you should listen to the audiobook.  

This 2009 book by Swedish author Jonas Jonasson will have you in stitches as you hear the British narrator describe Allan Karlsson’s escape from a retirement home on his 100th birthday. 

The adventure begins at a bus station where a gang leader asks Allan to guard a suitcase. When the centenarian peeks into the suitcase to find millions of dollars, he decides to steal it. Where he goes, as well as where he’s been, makes up the story.

The other audiobook I’d recommend is “Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know” by Malcomb Gladwell. This 2019 production represents a new innovation in audiobooks that includes newscast soundtracks, interviews and police audio.

Gladwell poses the question, “Why can’t we tell when the stranger in front of us is lying?” His case in point is Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old African American who, in 2015, was arrested in a pretextual traffic stop by a Texas State trooper. Unfortunately, Bland’s response lands her in jail where she commits suicide three days later.

Gladwell suggests that neither Bland nor the officer should have trusted what they saw in each other. He says they should have listened better.

He illustrates his point by recounting judges and recruiters who have shown they can make better choices based on what they hear or read – not on who they are looking at. 

Gladwell concludes his book by encouraging the reader to default to the natural trust we were born with. That’s good news to this chaplain who’s often told he’s too gullible. 

But according to Ron Chernow, author of “Grant,” there may be no better example of a trusting soul than our 18th U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant.  

If the 2020 San Francisco protesters had read Chernow’s 1000-page 2017 book, they’d not likely have toppled Grant’s statue. They’d have known that Grant wasn’t a slave owner. 

He was born into an anti-slavery home but married into a slave-owning family. He was given a slave by his father-in-law, and he forfeited a small fortune when he freed that slave.

Chernow’s greatest contribution is to topple the long-taught Confederate teaching that the Civil War was about states’ rights. Grant knew that the South was fighting to keep slavery and thus their economic survival. 

In his presidency, Grant orchestrated a reconstruction that saw black men elected to congress. Yet, this Civil War hero has been denigrated by historians who label him a drunkard and a butcher. 

The progressive Grant signed the Civil Rights Act of 1875 that promised to “protect all citizens in their civil and legal rights. The U.S. Supreme Court shut it down in 1883 and it wouldn’t be restored until 1963 when Lyndon Johnson signed nearly the same act. 

Chernow argues that if Mount Rushmore were rebuilt today, it might only include Grant, Washington, and Lincoln. 

While Chernow’s lengthy book slowed my reading, my first attempt to read “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville nearly ground it to a halt. 

“Why read Moby Dick?” Funny you should ask. That’s the title of Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2013 book. Philbrick matches the rising popularity of “Moby Dick” with uncertain times like world wars, the 1918 pandemic, and the Great Depression of the 30s.  

Given the ambiguity of our times, I found Moby a relevant read for modern issues such as gay marriage, racism and imperialism. Melville even seems to predict the current climate crisis.

If Moby feels too weighty, you might at least read the harbor chaplain’s sermon on Jonah in the eighth chapter. I think you’ll find Melville’s poetry to be of biblical inspiration and proportion.

Send me an email at and share with me what and how many books you have read this year. 

Finally, I hope you’ll consider reading one of the books I’ve written: “Thriving Beyond Surviving,” “Hero’s Highway” and “No Small Miracles.”


Visit or me at 10566 Combie Rd. Suite 6643 Auburn, CA 95602 or via voicemail (843) 608-9715. Twitter @chaplain.