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.

2020: My Year In Books

What a year, friends, what a year. At the start of the year I had big plans both intellectually and physically, but in the end, I ended up holding on and finishing, even if just barely, 52 books. Here they are, with some of the best highlighted.

Best Fiction Book

Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison Over the last two years I’ve been working my way through Morrison’s work and for the second year in a row, she was, surprise, surprise, the author of the best book I read. Song of Solomon has to be as close to perfect as any work of fiction I have ever read. You’ve probably already read it, but if not, do.

Toni Morrison
The Master Herself

Best Nonfiction Book

I am again going to go with two very different, but brilliant, books here. First, The Power Broker, by Robert Caro. A work of stunning brilliance that I am ashamed I took so long to read. I’ll admit, I was intimidated. I thought I’d be bored, but I tore through this. Yes this is history, but it is also literature.

And speaking of books that are history and literature, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments by Saidiya Hartman is a beautiful, haunting, work of genius that we’ll be talking about for years to come. This is not always an easy book to read, but it is an incredibly important one showing us in vivid detail the lives of Black women at the cusp of the 20th century. Incredibly good.

Saidya Hartman

Book That Had the Biggest Influence on My Life

I held off on reading How to do Nothing by Jenny Odell because I figured it could not live up to the hype. I was wrong. As a general rule, listen to Obama. My overriding goal in 2021 is to slow down, go deeper, respond rather than react, and this book went a long way in helping me think about that.

Best Poetry

I am a huge admirer of Danez Smith and it was one of the highlights of my year when they followed me on Instagram for my project this summer highlighting Black authors. I read Smith’s latest, Homie, right before everything went to total shit and it’s brilliant. Many people I know are intimidated by contemporary poetry. Don’t be. Start with Smith.    

Smith

 EVERY BOOK I READ IN 2020

Here they are along with a note of whether I recommend it for general readers, recommend it for enthusiasts in the subject matter, or don’t recommend it all. Click through for capsule reviews. One final note before the list, this will be the last year I do these little capsule review posts for each book. As short as they are, they’re still a fair amount of work, yet very few people read them. The list and recommendations will continue forever, but the individual reviews part of this project is over.

  1. Anti-Social: Online Extremists Techo-Utopians and the High jacking of the American Conversation, Andrew Marantz — Recommended

  2. Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life, Dianne Tavenner — Recommended for the enthusiast

  3. Homie, Denez Smith — Recommended

  4. Tightrope: American’s Reaching for Hope, Nicolas Kristof and Sheryl DuDunn — Recommended

  5. The Optimists Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age, Bina Venkataraman — Recommended for the enthusiast

  6. Drink? The New Science of Alcohol and Your Health, David Nutt — Recommended

AND… COVID HITS

7. The Splendid and the Vile: A saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, Erik Larson — Recommended for the enthusiast

8. The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity, Tony Ord — Recommended for the enthusiast

9. The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, Robert Caro — Recommended

10. Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts, Grafton Tanner — Recommended for the enthusiast

11. In the Garden of the Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, Erik Larson — Recommended for the Enthusiast

12. The Wedge, Scott Carney — Not recommended

13. The Great Influenza, John M Barry — Recommended

14. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami — Recommended for the enthusiast

15. Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel — Recommended

The killing of George Floyd…

16. Sula, Toni Morrison — Recommended

17. Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin — Recommended

18. The Marshmallow Test: Mastering the Art of Self Control, Walter Michel — Recommended for the enthusiast – Recommended for the enthusiast

19. The Spook Who Sat By The Door, Sam Greenlee Recommended — Recommended

20. Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, Martin Luther King, Jr. — Recommended

21. Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison — Recommended

22. Surviving the Future: Culture, Carnival and Capital in the Aftermath of the Market Economy, David Fleming — Recommended for the enthusiast

23. To See Every Bird on Earth: A Father, A Son and a Lifelong Obsession, Dan Koeppel — recommended for the enthusiast

24. Beloved, Toni Morrison — Recommended

25. Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw, Mark Bowden — not recommended

26. I Want to Believe: Posadism, UFOs and Apocalypse Communism, A.M Gittlitz — recommended for the enthusiast

27. The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception, Emmanuel Carrere — recommended

28. Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA and the Secret History of the Sixties, Tom O’Neil — recommended for the enthusiast

29. Eiger Dreams: Adventures Among Men and Mountains, John Krakuer — Recommended for the enthusiast

30. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, Lawrence Wright — Recommended

31. Pale Horse Rider: William Cooper, the Rise of Conspiracy and the Fall of Trust in America, Mark Jacobson — Recommended for the enthusiast

32. The Bullet Journal Method: Track the Past, Order the Present, Design the Future, Ryder Carroll — Recommended for the enthusiast

33. Dawn of the New Everything: Encounters with Reality and Virtual Reality, Jaron Lanier — Recommended

34. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, Saidya Hartman – Recommended

35. Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, Jack Weatherford — Recommended

36. A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe — Recommended

37. Dancing in Odessa, Ilya Kaminsky — Recommended for the enthusiast

38. Aphrodite Made Me Do It, Trista Mateer — Not recommended

39. The Silence, Don Delillo — Recommended

40. Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, Alex Ross — Recommended

41. Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, James Nestor — Recommended

42. This is How You Loose the Time War, Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone — Recommended

43. The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win, Maria Konnikova — Recommended

44. Bone Games: Extreme Sports, Shamanism, Zen and the Search for Transcendence, Rob Schultheis — Not recommended

45. Sibley’s Birding Basics, David Allen Sibley — Recommended for the enthusiast

46. In Search of Lost Books: The Forgotten Stories of Eight Mythical Volumes, Giorgio van Straten — Recommended

47. How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, Jenny Odell — Recommended

48. True Stories, Sophie Calle — Recommended for the enthusiast

49. We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence, Becky Cooper — Recommended

50. Death in Mudlick: A Coal Country Fight Against the Drug Companies That Delivered the Opiod Epidemic, Eric Eyre — not recommended

51. Skiing with Henry Knox: A Personal Journey Along Vermont’s Catamount Trail, Sam Brakeley — Recommended for the enthusiast

52. Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control, Stephen Kinzer — Recommended

Kinzer’s Poisoner in Chief

Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control
Stephen Kinzer

Undoubtably the strangest, most disturbing, book I read this year.

The story of Sydney Gottlieb and the early years of the CIA is almost too cruel, to horrible to really comprehend. Yes, I knew about MK Ultra (where the CIA drugged unsuspecting people with LSD) and I knew about the CIAs involvement in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, and the attempted assassination of Fidel Castro. Sure I’d heard stories of the CIA using a fake hippie crash pad to drug unsuspecting people and monitor their reactions, but I didn’t know it was all traceable back to the same guy. Nor did I know this dude when not ruining the minds of other people, was interested in meditation, made his own yogurt and was a serious student of folk dances around the world.

It’s a surreal read, but also a chilling one. When the crimes fo the early CIA are laid out, one after the other, it shocking, even when none of it is new.

Recommended.      

Brakeley’s Skiing with Henry Knox

Skiing with Henry Knox: A Personal Journey Along Vermont’s Catamount Trail
Sam Brakeley 

I have a real soft spot for books like this.

Young dude decided to take on doing the Catamount Trail, (a cross country ski route that runs the length of Vermont) in a single push. Ostensibly he’s doing this to give himself time to make a major life decision, but it’s also just a cool adventure. He weaves the tale of this quite challenging, and very cold, adventure with a retelling of an expedition by Revolutionary War officer Henry Knox engaging in a winter campaign through New England.

A fun read, and is inspiring me to think bigger about my own adventures.

Recommended for the enthusiast

Eyre’s Death in Mud Lick

Death in Mud Lick: A Coal Country Fight Against the Drug Companies that Delivered the Opioid Epidemic 
Eric Eyre

The worst book I read this year. A full of himself reporter takes the destruction wrought on West Virginia by big pharma and attempts to turn it into a hero story about himself. In almost every case it’s a bad idea for a reporter to put himself in the middle of a story, which is exactly what Eyre does here. There’s a good story lurking in here, about communities destroyed, and battles for justice, but its buried under so much ego it never really sees the light of day.

That this made best of lists absolutely blows my mind.

Not Recommended.

Cooper’s We Keep the Dead Close

We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence
Becky Cooper

True crime for fancy folks. An investigation into the murder of a student at Harvard in the 1960s that turns into an investigation into the way power works. The way Harvard, men, and the state all use power against those who would attack it. Very well crafted and written. I flew through it. It’s rare a book is both this readable and thought provoking.

Recommended.

Calle’s True Stories

True Stories
Sophie Calle

Been sitting on my shelves for years and years. So happy I finally took down this little book of aphorisms and photos (both original and found) by the wonderfully bizarre performance artist / writer Sophie Calle.

I have followed Calle’s work for decades. It has often focused on the contradictions of desire, obsession and misogyny, all of which hits different, and more profoundly, in a post-me too world. A worthy addition to her long career.   

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Odell’s How To Do Nothing

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy
Jenny Odell

I may be the last dad in brownstone Brooklyn to read this book, but I’m glad I did. It lives up to the hype. The central premise you probably already know – there is power in slowing down, in paying attention, in resisting the never ending demands on our attention. This is a theme cropping up all over in recent years from the Shallows to Deep Work.

But Odell takes things a bit further. This isn’t just a book about resisting twitter, it’s a book about resisting capitalism and its obsession with speed and growth. It’s about rooting yourself locally and taking the time to know, really know, the world around you. In today’s world, that’s a radical notion, and one I am very interested in continuing to explore.

On a personal, how do I want to live my life, level, this may be the most important book I read this year.

Recommended.

von Straten’s In Search of Lost Books

In Search of Lost Books: The forgotten stories of eight mythical volumes
Giorgio von Straten, Simon Carnell (Translator)

A wonderful little book chronicling the stories of books lost to time. By “lost books” von Straten isn’t referring to rare books, or even books we know were published, but no longer have. Here’s he’s talking about the even more mysterious, the books written, but never published, and in many cases, never read. He’s talking about Byron’s memoirs, destroyed to protect a reputation, or Benjamin’s possible final work, dragged with him across Europe only to disappear at his death. An engrossing look into the missing corners of literature and total fun for the bibliomaniac such as myself.

Recommended for the enthusiast.  

Sibley’s Birding Basics

Sibley’s Birding Basics: How to Identify Birds, Using the Clues in Feathers, Habitats, Behaviors, and Sounds
David Allen Sibley

David Sibley, is the author of perhaps the most popular guide to birding in the U.S. Sibley’s Guides. Gorgeously illustrated with his own renderings and written in a wonderfully dense, descriptive way, my Sibley is one of my favorite books.

This is his complementary guide for getting into birding. Calling this a book about the “basics” of birding is a bit of a stretch. This includes detailed information on plumage, changes in appearance based on age, determining size and color and more. Absolutely fascinating for a beginner birder like myself and written in the most wonderful, hyper clear, prose.

Recommended for the enthusiast.