In 2021 I read 31 books. That’s 13 more than my record-low in 2020, so that’s nice.
Regardless, my prime directive as a librarian and reader remains to follow my own reading values. Don’t worry about the quantity. Read serendipitously and at whim. Don’t forget fiction. And heed the Pollanian reading maxim.
With that in mind, here are the books from 2021 that stuck with me.
10. The Great Glorious Goddamn of It All by Josh Ritter
Josh Ritter, creator of one of my favorite albums of all time, dropped his second novel this year and it was quite good. I read the audiobook, which was narrated by Ritter (and probably shouldn’t have been [professional musicians ≠ professional narrators]). But I still enjoyed the narrative voice of the main character, reminiscing about his time in the lumberjack era of early 20th century Idaho.
Memory comes in to fill the spaces of whatever isn’t there. … Memory has a way of growing things, of improving them. The hardships get harder, the good times get better, and the whole damn arc of a life takes on a mystic glow that only memory can give it.
9. Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature by Angus Fletcher
I can certainly understand the criticisms of this book, which examines literature through a utilitarian/scientific lens that can come across as reductive. But since books are technology (which Fletcher defines as “any human-made thing that helps to solve a problem”), then it’s perfectly legitimate and even necessary to explore them as such. Examples include the catharsis of Greek tragedies helping to purge fear (while mimicking the benefits of modern EMDR therapy) and riddles activating information-seeking neurons that trigger dopamine hits. The author’s appearance on Brené Brown’s podcast is a good introduction to what you can expect.
Literature was a narrative-emotional technology that helped our ancestors cope with the psychological challenges posed by human biology. It was an invention for overcoming the doubt and the pain of just being us.
8. The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz
This was a late-year read after Malcolm Gladwell raved about it in his newsletter. Figured it was worth a try as I rarely read mysteries or thrillers. Indeed it was fun to go on the ride of a novelist who comes upon another writer’s plot, harnesses it into mega-fame, then deals with the fallout. As with movies, I didn’t try to figure out the ending as I went, so when the twist arrived it felt earned and as if it were there the whole time.
Once you were in possession of an actual idea, you owed it a debt for having chosen you, and not some other writer, and you paid that debt by getting down to work, not just as a journeyman fabricator of sentences but as an unshrinking artist ready to make painful, time-consuming, even self-flagellating mistakes.
7. The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green
This collection of essays originated as a popular podcast by the author, which “reviews facets of the human-centered planet on a five-star scale.” Topics include “humanity’s temporal range”, Canada geese, Indianapolis, and many other things you didn’t realize could make for viable essays. Green’s earnest, wending style and keen observational approach makes for very pleasant reading.
All I can say is that sometimes when the world is between day and night, I’m stopped cold by its splendor, and I feel my absurd smallness. You’d think that would be sad, but it isn’t. It only makes me grateful.
6. Bewilderment by Richard Powers
After I gave up on Powers’ massive The Overstory, I was glad for a shorter story to glom onto. This one, set in my hometown of Madison, follows a recently widowed astrobiologist professor struggling to raise his perspicacious but troubled nine-year-old amidst increasing political, professional, and climatological turmoil. How do you look for life in the stars when it’s under threat on earth?
Life is something we need to stop correcting. My boy was a pocket universe I could never hope to fathom. Every one of us is an experiment, and we don’t even know what the experiment is testing.
5. In the Heights: Finding Home by Lin-Manuel Miranda
For me 2021 was already the Year of Lin-Manuel Miranda due to his music in In the Heights, Vivo, and Encanto, and direction of tick, tick… BOOM! And yet I still managed to sneak in this book documenting the journey of Miranda’s first musical to the stage and screen (now in my top 10 of 2021), complete with Miranda’s characteristically vivacious libretto annotations.
The rush of the final Usnavi section stays with me always, and my prevailing memory of performing it is the faces in the front row of the Rodgers Theatre: our $20 section, often filled with young people seeing their first musical on Broadway. I lock eyes with them, night after night, and as their eyes fill with tears, so do mine. I’m delivering these words, but I’m also trying to tell them: I’m home, and Usnavi’s home, and in this time you’ve chosen to spend with us, so are you. Welcome home.
4. Miracle and Wonder: Conversations with Paul Simon by Malcolm Gladwell
Available only as an audiobook, this “audio biography” centers around hours of conversations between Simon and Gladwell about the genius musician’s life and career. It’s less a book and more a limited podcast series, which now seems like the only right way to do a music biography. Made me appreciate Simon’s work anew. (Review)
Taste is the combination of memory and judgment.
3. Paper Trails: The US Post and the Making of the American West by Cameron Blevins
Learned a lot from this history, which is primarily for 19th century American history nerds but is still refreshingly accessible and peppered with illustrative graphs throughout. (Review)
Despite the popular ‘Wild West’ narrative of self-reliant cowboys and pioneers, the real history of the region is one of big government: public land and national parks, farming subsidies and grazing permits, military bases and defense contracts. Arguably no other part of the United States has been so profoundly shaped by ‘the state’.
2. Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman
An approachably philosophical exploration of the wily, incorrigible thing called time and humanity’s dysfunctional relationship with it. It’s like a self-help book that deconstructs the need for self-help books. (Review)
If you can hold your attention, however briefly or occasionally, on the sheer astonishingness of being, and on what a small amount of that being you get—you may experience a palpable shift in how it feels to be here, right now, alive in the flow of time.
1. The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven by Nathaniel Ian Miller
I’d never have heard of this one, let alone picked it up and read it, if it weren’t for a tip from my mother-in-law. This fictional cradle-to-grave memoir follows the misadventures of a caustic early-20th-century Swedish man who, disfigured in a mining accident, retreats to an Arctic archipelago for a self-imposed exile, only to almost accidentally collect a motley crew of friends (human and canine) and reconnect with family in surprising ways. Miller’s exceptionally crafted narrative voice and eye for harsh natural beauty made this a rewarding read.
For now, take stock of yourself. This is the chance you waxed about so long ago. Listen for the voice that speaks when all others go silent. Be alone—be entirely alone. I am not saying you will find anything of worth there—certainly no cosmic truth—but maybe you will begin to feel as pared down, efficient and clean as a freshly whittled stick.
Non-2021 books I read this year and loved:
- Down from Basswood by Lynn Maria Laitala
- Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic by Steven Johnson
- Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad by Austin Kleon
- The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
- The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
- The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
- How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill