Finding the hidden gems among the stacks

Literature creates opportunities for readers to discover commonalities with people who might seem quite different. Here’s how the Monitor selects what to recommend to readers.

Petros Giannakouris/AP
A bookshop owner works amid a sea of books in Herat, Afghanistan, Nov. 22, 2021.

Monitor readers are book lovers. From the time I became the books editor in 2019, I’ve been eager to seek out thought-provoking books that inform and inspire our readers. Each December, a daunting task awaits: determining the best books of the year. The list is the product of nearly 12 months of reviews, author Q&As, and insights, which involved 36 reviewers assessing almost 250 books; we published reviews of about 150 of those titles. 

Editing the section is a dream come true for a book lover like me, but it’s also a challenge. Each month, as I sift through early reviews in trade magazines such as Kirkus or Library Journal, I look for books that embody Monitor values such as thoughtfulness, courage, tenacity, authenticity, and deep humanity. Once I’ve narrowed my list to 20 or so candidates, I assign reviewers to assess the books based on an understanding of those same values. 

Fiction is the most difficult, because it often features characters facing traumatic events and grappling with emotional conflict. Nonfiction can also challenge a reader’s sensibilities. So how does the Monitor bring light to the dark corners of human experience? 

Literature can be a great driver of empathy and understanding. So I look for three-dimensional characters that demonstrate agency in their lives and a willingness to seek growth. I hope to identify authors who possess what Monitor Editor Mark Sappenfield calls “an unshakeable conviction that love and grace are accessible and active in every human condition.”  

Overall, I try to choose a balance of books on a variety of subjects, written by a diverse group of authors. Because of the Monitor’s global perspective, I also look for books that bring readers into corners of the world and into lives they would otherwise be unlikely to encounter. Such literature helps us understand where people are coming from. But more than that, it creates opportunities for readers to discover commonalities with people who might seem quite different. Their exact circumstances may be distant, but their humanity is universal. 

I certainly wouldn’t claim that our best books of 2021 list is exhaustive, but I do think that when you read our reviews, sign up for the free weekly books newsletter, or join the Books Beat Facebook group, you’re part of a community of Monitor readers. All of us are seeking books that have the power to enlarge and enrich our lives.  

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Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

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