2021: My Year In Books

2021, what a mess, right? We had our good days and our bad days, and somehow or other we got through.  I was luckier than many, having the privilege to spend alot of time outside, and (occasionally) lounge with a book. 

As always, books were where I found solace. As I’ve said before, my reading is a buckshot affair – I follow my interests wherever they go, just trying to make sure I average a book a week. This year, you’ll notice significantly more books about the natural world and noticeably less fiction than last year. No clue what next year will hold, but I suspect there will be a bunch more books about trees and shit and a large percentage of old books to new.

I’m doing this round up differently this year. I’m listing my top books of the year (in no particular order) first and then a complete rundown of everything I read this year below. Every book gets a very short “review” and a tag if I recommend it, recommend it for the enthusiast, or don’t recommend it.

Ok, on to the books.



My Favorite Books Of the Year

(in no particular order) 

The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twentieth Century, Amia Srinivasan

Believe the hype. An incredible work of feminist thought that challenged and educated me on nearly every page. I’m not a fan of hectoring political rhetoric. I am a fan of writers able to put a mirror up to the world and explain to you how fucked it is and how we can make things a bit better. This book is an example of the later. Really, really good.

Recommended. 

Amia Srinivasan

The Ministry of the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson

One of two books (the other being Overstory) that had a profound impact on how I look at the world and think about the future. A near science fiction book wrestling with how to deal with climate change. Though it opens with a horrific climate event, this is, in the end, a hopeful book full of proposed ways to address climate change. How extensive these changes are, however, should give us all pause. 

Recommended. 

Overstory, Richard Powers

Not kidding when I say this book changed the way I looked at the world. On its surface this is a novel about people and trees and a fictionalized account of the timber wars of the Pacific Northwest. But for me, it was much, much more. It made me pay attention to the trees around me in an entirely new way. Frankly, it has made my life deeper and richer. Rarely can you say a book did that. 

Recommended. 

Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History, Dan Flores

A remarkable book about a remarkable animal which, despite the U.S. spending tens of millions of dollars trying to exterminate, has thrived. Absolutely loved this one, as you know if you’ve seen me in person this year. I can’t stop talking about it.

Recommended. 

Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future, Elizabeth Kolbert

Kolbert on climate change is, no surprise, excellent. The reporting here is of course top notch but what I really appreciate is the clear eyed way she shows that there’s no going back to a prelapsarian world, the only way out of this technological mess is… more technology. 

Recommended. 

Better to Have Gone: Love, Death, and the Quest for Utopia in Auroville, Akash Kapur

This was a sleeper surprise. I was expecting a sort of cult memoir, but what I got instead was an examination of extremisms and how to grow past it, wrapped up in a dual love story and a crash course in utopias. An absolutely engrossing read – I couldn’t put it down– and remarkably hopeful.

Recommended

Akash Kapur and Auralice Graft

The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing and the Future of the Human Race, Walter Issacson

My first Issacson book, which seems like an absolute crime after reading this. Is there another writer who can explain the complex science of something like CRISPR while also telling a very complex story full of fascinating deeply human characters? I can’t imagine there is. This made a lot of best of lists, and for good reason. A work of genius about genius reshaping the very nature of life.

Recommended. 

A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance, Hanif Abdurraqib

A masterful collection of essays merging memoir and cultural criticisms in ways that occasionally left me breathless with how on point the writing is. Abdurraqib and I are near contemporaries in age (he’s a bit younger) but from different worlds. I learned so much from this while also seeing glimpses of my own life.

Recommended. 

In the Eyes of the Wild, Nastassja Martin

An absolutely remarkable, strange, inspiring, haunting book. A memoir of surviving a bear attack and how the aftermath both changes and strengthens the author. Perhaps the strangest book I read this year. I absolutely loved it. 

Recommended.

Young Men and Fire, Norman McClean

The classic book about the mann gulch fire. The first half is about how we make decisions under pressure, the fragility of life and the role of luck and the unknown in survival. The second is a painstaking investigation into the nature of forest fires and what really happened to the group of young smoke jumpers who died at Mann Gulch. At times a thriller and at others a lyrical scientist who- done-it, this was one of those books I couldn’t stop talking about. Absolutely worth your time.

Recommended.

Every Single Book I Read in 2021

  1. The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War, Ben Macintyre

Dad lit. The story of perhaps the most important double agent the West developed during the Cold War – Oleg Gordievsky. Engrossing from start to finish – loved it. Recommended.

2. Hunting the Unabomber: The FBI, Ted Kaczynski and the Capture of America’s Most Notorious Domestic Terrorist, Lis Wiehl

Terrible. I think the story of Kaczynski and his domestic terror campaign is an important and interesting one and it is a true shame that it is unlikely to get a serious treatment now that this awful book was published. A hagiography of one of the primary investigators as much as a book about the Unabomber. I was angry at the writer from start to finish.

Not recommended.

3. The Impossible Climb: Alex Honnold, El Capitan and the Climbing Life, Mark Synnott

Wonderful biography of Alex Honnold of Free Solo fame and also a history of sorts of modern rock climbing. Informative and fun for those of us who love this kind of outdoor book.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

4. The Ministry of the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson

One of two books (the other being Overstory) that had a profound impact on how I look at the world and think about the future. A near science fiction book wrestling with how to deal with climate change. Though it opens with a horrific climate event, this is, in the end, a hopeful book full of proposed ways to address climate change. How extensive these changes are, however, should give us all pause.

Recommended.

5. The Myth of Experience: Why We Learn the Wrong Lessons and Ways to Correct Them, Emre Sayer and Robin Hogarth

Behavioral economists look at how our overreliance on personal experience skews our thinking on both personal and political levels. Good as far as it goes, but perhaps one of those books where common sense and the latest in behavioral econ are basically the same thing.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

6. Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History, Dan Flores

A remarkable book about a remarkable animal which, despite the U.S. spending tens of millions of dollars to try to exterminate, has thrived. Absolutely loved this one, as you know if you’ve seen me in person this year. I can’t stop talking about it.

Recommended.

7. Veritas: A Harvard Professor, A Con Man, and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife

The wild story of how hubris, and office politics, led a prominent New Testament scholar to fall for a con from the oddest of con men. If you’re interested in the history of New Testament scholarship or Ivy League drama, you’ll enjoy this. If not, not.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

8. Future Proof: 9 Rules for Humans in the Age of Automation, Kevin Roose

Good as far as it goes. I’d say if you’re going to read one book on how AI will change the workplace, this is the one. Roose here is talking to the average worker – he doesn’t get into the technical side of AI – but it’s a good reality check on how AI is changing the workplace and how to make sure you can change with it.

Recommended.

9. AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order, Kai-Fu Lee

Fascinating look into the war between the US and China over dominance of the AI race from an author who has held high level positions in both countries. Excellent explanation of why the U.S. has done well so far, but also why it is likely to fall behind as we reach the next stage of massive AI implementation.

Recommended.

10. Genius Makers: The Mavericks Who Brought AI to Google, Facebook and the World, Cade Metz

Interesting history of the folks who brought Machine Learning to the place it is today. If, like me, you’re someone who needs some narrative to hold together your exposition of machine learning / AI then this is a good place to start.

Recommended.

11. Amazon Unbound: Jeff Bezos and the Invention of a Global Empire, Brad Stone

I believe Stone had the cooperation of Bezos in writing this book, so no surprise, it isn’t as critical as I would want. Still, an interesting look at what it takes (obsession, workaholism, cutthroat instincts) to build something as massive as Amazon.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

12. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Elizabeth Kolbert

Kolbert’s well known and terrifying book on the current mass extinction event we’re living through. Ultra clear prose, excellent reporting, a perfect blend of science and narrative. Terrifying, but also deeply compelling.

Recommended.

13. Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future, Elizabeth Kolbert

Kolbert on climate change is, no surprise, excellent. The reporting here is of course top notch but what I really appreciate is the clear eyed way she shows that there’s no going back to a prelapsarian world, the only way out of this technological mess is… more technology.

Recommended.

14. The Premonition, Michael Lewis

I’ve never met a Michael Lewis book I didn’t like. Great writing, and great reporting on those who got the early days of the pandemic right. “Redneck epidemiology” is now something I reference on the regular and has helped me in explaining my own use of data in my professional life.

Recommended.

15. American Serengeti: The Last Big Animals of the Great Plains, Dan Flores

Fascinating book by the author of the incredible “Coyote America” and what the U.S. looked like before we fucked it all up. If you’re at all interested in natural history some of this may be ground you’ve already covered but a great introduction for the new reader on this topic.

Recommended

16. The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Foul Obsession, Mark Obmascik

A kind of whimsical book on so-called “big year” birders – people who try to see as many birds as possible in a single year. It was fun, but I didn’t learn much. Life is short so,

Not recommended. 

17. Better to Have Gone: Love, Death, and the Quest for Utopia in Auroville, Akash Kapur

This was a sleeper surprise. I was expecting a sort of cult memoir, but what I got instead was an examination of extremisms and how to grow past it, wrapped up in a dual love story and a crash course in utopias. An absolutely engrossing read – I couldn’t put it down– and remarkably hopeful.

Recommended

18. Overstory, Richard Powers

Not kidding when I say this book changed the way I looked at the world. On its surface this is a novel about people and trees and a fictionalized account of the timber wars of the Pacific Northwest. But for me, it was much, much more. It made me pay attention to the trees around me in an entirely new way. Frankly, it has made my life is deeper and richer. Rarely can you say a book did that.

Recommended.

19. Hummingbird Salamander, Jeff Vandermeer

Near future “cli-fi” book that to me, never really came together. I know many people who love Vandermeer but I thought this book was a bit of a mess.

Not recommended.

20. Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty, Patrick Radden Keefe

An absolute assasination of the Sackler family, the people behind Purdue Pharma and oxycontin. Not that destroying these people is underserved – the rot was deep there. I thought I knew this story, but I really didn’t. Learned a lot, all of which made me angry.  A stunning work of journalism.

Recommended.

21. Partition: How and Why Ireland Was Divided, Ivan Gibbons

A look at the politics behind the partition of Ireland. Many normal people, not raised in Irish Catholic households where knowing the names of the Easter martyrs was required for a seat at the dinner table, seem to say this is a great book. I say it gives the IRA about a page and a half in favor of the machinations of a bunch of people in England with soft hands and fancy educations, so it can kiss my royal Irish ass.

Not recommended.

22. The Order of Time, Carlo Rovelli

A mindblowing little book about, well, time. This one deserves a re-read for while I was fascinated along the way, I was also barely holding on in many parts. Always good to occasionally read at the edge of your intelligence. This one was one of those books for me. 

Recommended.

23. The Cult of We: Adam Neuman, WeWork, and the Great Start Up Delusion, Eliot Braun and Maureen Farell

The book on the madness that was the collective hysteria of WeWork. Another case where I thought I knew the story but I didn’t know half. More insane than you can believe. Fun, in an infuriating way.

Recommended.

24. The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, John Vaillant

The story of a community being stalked by a tiger during the fall of communist Russia. So, so, good. Deeply researched look into the world of Bengal tigers and the communities in which they live coupled with incredible reporting on the search for the tiger in question, Couldn’t put this one down.

Recommended.

25. The Contrarian: Peter Theil and Silicon Valley’s Pursuit of Power, Max Chatkin

Well researched, and I think at least, fair biography of Theil. I went into this book thinking Theil was a more interesting thinker than I do now.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

26. The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twentieth Century, Amia Srinivasan

Believe the hype. An incredible work of feminist thought that challenged and educated me on nearly every page. I’m not a fan of hectoring political rhetoric. I am a fan of writers able to put a mirror up to the world and explain to you how fucked it is and how we can make things a bit better. This book is an example of the later. Really, really good.

Recommended.

27. Believers: Making A Life At the End of the World, Lisa Wells

Odd little book about the more fringe elements of the environmental movement with a special focus on rewilding weirdo. I’m deeply sympathetic to the rewilding movement, even if I think it’s vision is limited, and enjoyed these portraits of folks living that life. Your mileage may vary depending on your tolerance for the hippie. 

Recommended for the enthusiast.

28. Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squids: The Fraught and Fascinating Biology of Climate Change, Thor Hanson

Fascinating look at how climate change is changing the natural world. All in all, the news is not great, but not all awful. Many many species are suffering terribly, but some are finding ways to adapt in interesting ways. Good stuff, learned a ton.

Recommended. 

29. Nature Next Door: Cities and Trees in the American Northeast, Ellen Stroud

Stumbled across this one almost accidentally and so glad I did. A clear and fascinating history of how at the turn of the century, we began reforesting the Northeast. I knew embarrassing little about the natural history of the area where I grew up and now live and learned tons from this little book. Much to gain from reading about the coalition of rich city folks, farmers, and loggers, that saved the Northeast from ecological collapse.

Recommended. 

30. Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones, James Clear

For some reason we no longer call these books self help books, but that’s what they are. This one is more actionable than most. If you have habits and routines in your life you want to change, this is the place to start.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

31. The Ratline: The Exalted Life and Mysterious Death of a Nazi Fugitive, Philip Sands

Because of remarkable access granted by the family, Sands is able to trace the life of Nazi war criminal Otto von Wachter from young anti-Semite to senior Nazi to man on the run. Most confusing of all is that the access is granted by von Wachter’s son who somehow believes his father was a “good Nazi” despite overwhelming evidence of the opposite. Not always an easy book to read but fascinating throughout.

Recommended.

32. Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night, Morgan Parker

There are a handful of contemporary poets whose every new work I devour. Parker is one of them. I’m enough of a fanboy that reviewing this is almost beside the point. I think she’s one of the best poets out there today.To be informed on contemporary American poetry is to read Parker.

Recommended. 

33. All the Marvels: A Journey to the Ends of the Biggest Story Ever Told, Douglas Wolk

Man this was fun. Nerd reads EVERY SINGLE MARVEL COMIC and tells the story. Say what you want but the Marvel Comic Universe is one of the most important mythologies we have right now. Looking into its complex, at times progressive, at times regressive, history is illuminating. I had a blast.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

34. Growing Up in Occupied America, Finisia Medrano

Medrano was one of America’s more extreme “rewilding” activists wandering the west planting wile vegetables and traveling, literally, by covered wagon. This is her book of memoir and poetry. It’s an odd, at times unhinged, book. I think of interest only to those very deep into trying to understand folks living way out on the fringe.

Not recommended.

35. Massacre at Duffy’s Cut:Tragedy and Conspiracy on the Pennsylvania Railroad, William E. Watson and J. Francis Watson

The story of the death of a group of Irish immigrants on the railroad. As an Irishman myself, whose family worked the railroads around the same time, I’m embarrassed I didn’t know this story. Perhaps not the most elegantly written work, but I learned a lot.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

36. The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing and the Future of the Human Race, Walter Issacson

My first Issacson book, which seems like an absolute crime after reading this. Is there another writer who can explain the complex science of something like CRISPR while also telling a very complex story full of fascinating deeply human characters? I can’t imagine there is. This made a lot of best of lists, and for good reason. A work of genius about genius reshaping the very nature of life.

Recommended.

37. A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance, Hanif Abdurraqib

A masterful collection of essays merging memoir and cultural criticisms in ways that occasionally left me breathless with how on point the writing is. Abdurraqib and I are near contemporaries in age (he’s a bit younger) but from different worlds. I learned so much from this while also seeing glimpses of my own life.

Recommended.

38. All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake, Tiyan Miles

Taking as it’s central theme the story of a humble sack a mother packed for her daughter in the waning days of slavery, Miles traces the history of slavery in America and it’s aftermath. While the center of this book is “Ashley’s sack” the book is about much more.

Recommended.

39. Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence, Anna Lembke

Another book I think about ALOT. Lembke uses the language of addiction to address the dopamine riddled world in which we all live in. While the stories of her patients, which center this book, are extreme, I see myself in their desire for the next blast of dopamine.

Recommended.

40. A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit

This was the year I finally read Solnit and fell in love. Brilliantly understated essays on exploration both internally and in the world. This book reads like you’re hanging out by the fire with a new remarkable friend, telling you how they have made it through the world. I loved it.

Recommended.

41. Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to a Tribe Called Quest, Hanif Abdurraqib

There were parts of this book, towards the end, where I damn near cried. Friendship, rivalry, youth, death, loss, you have it all here in a book about my all time favorite hip hop group.

Recommended.

42. Termination Shock, Neal Stephenson

Stephenson, so you know I loved it. Feral pigs, a fractured America and ascendant China, a billionaire shooting sulfur guns into the air to cool the planet. A remarkable ride. If Ministry of the Future is the climate crisis addressed through international collective action, Termination Shock is the climate crisis as rogue billionaires and warring nation states. Not as rosy a picture, but perhaps as likely.

Recommended.

43. Leavings: Poems, Wendell Berry

First Berry book and surprise surprise I loved it. The descent into middle aged cliché continues. Beautiful, quiet reflections on a life lived close to the land and people who work it. I thought it was gorgeous.

Recommended.

44. Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail, Ben Montgomery

I thought I knew the story of Grandma Gatewood, one of the first people to walk the entire Appalachian Trail, and a bit of a celebrity in her time, but I had no idea that her story is a story of surviving horrific domestic violence and carving out an incredible life for oneself. Lots to learn here about the AT, but also about inner strength, and the kindness of strangers.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

45. A Fortune for Your Disaster, Hanif Abdurraqib

I absolutely adore Abdurraqib’s prose, both Little Devil In America and Go Ahead in the Rain are incredible, but this one just didn’t hit right for me. His prose has a flow and a lyrical quality that I just didn’t see here. Your mileage may vary.

Not recommended.

46. Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, Peter Godfrey-Smith

As with much of the EK listening, Netflix watching world I became pretty damn interested in octopus this year. A great introduction to these incredible, inscrutable, creatures.

Recommended. 

47. Blood on the Fog, Tango Eisen-Martin

Tapped by many as one of the best poetry books of the year. There were sections that took my breath away with their brilliance and anger and others that left me cold. Reviewing poetry of writers whose experience is so divergent from my own always feels a bit bullshitty, but I try to call it as I see it. My failure to love this could very much be my own fault.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

48. Little Elegies for Sister Satan, Michael Palmer

Another supposedly best poetry book of the year that also didn’t land with me. The experimentation here felt formal in ways I found cold.

Not recommended.

49. Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t, Julia Galef

Probably in the “could have been an article” genre, but in this case I liked the padded out nature. Galef is a strong writer and the way she drew out examples and counterexamples of the way the so-called “scout” and “soldier” mindsets operate was illuminating. Got me thinking about some of my own behaviors and thought patterns.

Recommended.

50. All Gall is Divided, E.M Cioran

The opposite of a self help book. A bleak view of humanity and its potential for anything other than suffering manipulation and loss. I said this year I wanted to dig into nihilism more to understand it and it’s enduring appeal. This one did the trick. So many memorable lines, but not sure if it deepened my life in any way.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

51. Lunch Poems, Frank O’Hara

My first Frank O’Hara, so I figured I’d start with a (short) classic. It’s easy to see why his influence is so vast. Casually brilliant and accessible. A lot more of this hamburger eating poet in my future.

Recommended.

52. In the Eyes of the Wild, Nastassja Martin

An absolutely remarkable, strange, inspiring, haunting book. A memoir of surviving a bear attack and how the aftermath both changes and strengthens the author. Perhaps the strangest book I read this year. I absolutely loved it.

Recommended.

53. Orwell’s Roses, Rebecca Solnit

The always brilliant Solnit uses Owell’s home garden as a jumping off point for ruminations on his life and work and on Solnits, and all of our relationship with nature, both cultivated and wild.

Recommended. 

54. Young Men and Fire, Norman McClean

The classic book about the mann gulch fire. The first half is about how we make decisions under pressure, the fragility of life and the role of luck and the unknown in survival. The second is a painstaking investigation into the nature of forest fires and what really happened to the group of young smoke jumpers who died at Mann Gulch. At times a thriller and at others a lyrical scientist who- done-it, this was one of those books I couldn’t stop talking about. Absolutely worth your time.

Recommended.

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  1. Erin

    Thank you for introducing me to the word “hagiography”

    1. seanv2

      Ha! Happy to help!

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