2021 Reading List

Wow, 2022 already! I’ve got a pretty good list of resolutions this year.

3 days in and I’m holding strong.

One thing that’s not on the list: reading more. Why? Because I did plenty of that last year! It was a good year for books, and I’m excited to share what I’ve read. Hopefully you’ll enjoy them as much as I did.

Format is the same as last year’s list: 4 categories, from Read Right Now to Skip. If I think something was outstanding or peculiar I’ll give a little review, but I won’t spend too much time on things in the “it was fine” category.

So without further ado, here we go!

Read Right Now

These books have it all. Delightful prose, fascinating content, a meaningful message. Once you’ve picked it up you’re loathe to put it down, and once you’ve finished you feel a better person for it. There is no reason that one of these shouldn’t be your next read.

This is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

A recommendation from my sister, Time War is far and away my favorite book from this year. It might be my favorite book in the last decade. The conceit is, two superpowers at the end of time send agents back into the past to prevent each other from ever existing. The agents fall in love; the book is a collection of their letters to one another. The prose is beautiful, almost poetic, and it’s the most satisfying and accessible treatment of time travel I’ve seen in a while. If somehow you haven’t already heard of this one, do yourself a favor and go pick it up right now.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, translated by H. T. Willetts

I will admit, when I borrowed this novella from the library at the recommendation of my team’s PM intern, I did not expect it to make my top list. As the first realistic account of life inside a Soviet labor camp to be published in the USSR Ivan Denisovich is historically important, but it’s the overwhelming humanity of Solzhenitsyn’s characters that pulls it out of “ought to read”. Denisovich’s life is truly awful, but his soul shines through regardless in the satisfaction of a job well done, the dread of frostbite or a missed meal, the joy at finding an extra crust of bread. The story is at once a denouncement of the brutal excesses of Stalin’s regime and a monument to the tenacity of the human spirit. That juxtaposition makes it all the more powerful.

Entangled Life, by Merlin Sheldrake

A recommendation from a student, this delightful nonfiction is half introduction to the bizarre science of mycology, half rambling memoir of a very weird mycologist. Shelldrake writes well, his passion for the field is evident, and he has had some great adventures. And fungi are way more interesting than you might expect.

Ought To Read

These are the ones I enjoyed, and maybe thought were important, but for one reason or another I don’t feel like everyone I know should drop what they’re doing and read them immediately. Still highly recommended, especially if they seem like your cup of tea.

Fiction

  • A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine
    • A delightful little gem, wonderful science fiction world building, great characters, gripping plot. I think there’s a trilogy planned but I felt like this one stood on its own.
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr
    • A thousand years after a nuclear apocalypse, the church is the last bastion of knowledge in a dark age, carrying unintelligible scraps of wisdom forward into an uncertain future. The subject matter is dark, and yet Miller keeps it funny and light, in a way that doesn’t feel artificial or distracting. Canticle is a classic, and for good reason.
  • Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino
    • Marco Polo and Kublai Khan sit by the fire, talking of cities that are, cities that were, cities that might be. This is a collection of micro stories, almost poems, each about a different city. In classic Calvino style, it is both weird and delightfully written. It’s also great for reading out loud.

Nonfiction

  • The Box, by Marc Levinson
    • This short history of the shipping and container industry was surprisingly interesting. I also finished it just in time for the Ever Given incident.
  • Debt: The First 5,000 Years, by David Graeber
    • Last summer while hanging out with a couple of climbing buddies, one who is most of the way through a PhD in economics and the other with an undergrad in philosophy and a masters in neruo-psychology, I mentioned that I was on the lookout for a serious read. They looked at each other, then back to me, and together said one word in perfect unison: Debt. Written in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, Graeber turns an anthropologist’s critical eye to the study of economics. He ends up debunking many of the myths they teach you in econ 101, and asking some deep questions about whether we might do economics a little differently. The writing is good, and because he’s an anthropologist, it’s not about numbers, it’s about people and how they did or did not live. It is also very long and a little dense, which is what kept it out of the top tier.
  • Algorithms to Live By, by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths
    • This one was an unexpected hit. The title suggests this one will explain your life in terms of computer algorithms, but this one really explains important computer algorithms in terms of real life. As someone who has made a career out of this stuff, I learned a surprising amount about how computers work and why. It’s not number- or theory-heavy, and I suspect it would be just as accessible and entertaining to someone who hasn’t studied computer science or math.

Read if You’re Into It

These are the weird ones. They’re not bad (bad books go in Skip) but maybe they’re niche, or technical, or extra long. If it sounds like you’ll get something out of it you probably will, and if not then you probably won’t.

  • Wherever Seeds May Fall, by Peter Cawdron
    • Solid science-fiction, of the near-future first-contact variety. Delivers a “surprising yet inevitable” twist, but some of the social commentary felt a little on-the-nose during the pandemic.
  • Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan
    • Very dumb and very fun. I read this immediately before Debt, and goodness was that an about-face!
  • Notorious RBG, by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik
    • Well-written, but since it’s targeted at young adults it assumes the reader knows basically nothing about modern American history or the course of the Feminist movement. I would recommend it to any teenager in a heartbeat.
  • The Machines of Empire Trilogy, by Yoon Ha Lee
    • Excellent, weird, well-written science fiction. The conceit is great! I almost moved this to “ought to read”, but a thousand pages of grimdark math-rock space opera is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea.
  • The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
    • I enjoyed this one, but it was not an easy read, and I would probably not recommend it to most people. What has always stood out to me about Dostoevsky is his ability to depict human misery, particularly of the self-inflicted variety. That is a bit of a hard sell! I feel like if you’re in my audience and you’re going to like Dostoevsky, you’re probably already reading Dostoevsky. But if not, and you’re feeling like attempting some Dense Russian Literature, Brothers K is not a bad place to start.

Skip

As I get older, I feel I’ve gotten more aggressive about not finishing books. I used to take pride in completing everything I picked up. Maybe I’m more mature now and feel I have less to prove, or maybe at age 30 I now I feel the inexorable approach of death a little stronger, and am a little choosier about how I spend my time. Either way, these ones didn’t make the cut.

  • Superintelligence, by Nick Bostrom
    • Bostrom’s thesis, that we as a civilization are probably not far off from creating something smarter than us, and that’s probably an existential thread, is salient and well made. But this book was really depressing. I had to put it down. Sorry Nick.
  • The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley
    • Oof this book. Instead of writing something new here, I will copy/paste from a text conversation with my sister. Enjoy.
      • Hi! I’m like 20% of the way through Avalon (our boy Art just got his sword) and I’ve got some Thoughts and Opinions. You didn’t ask, and I’m going to share them anyway.
        1) This book is well written! The prose flows, and MZB has a wonderfully unique voice. I am enjoying myself.
        2) I don’t know much about the experience of being a slightly misanthropic teenage girl, but I can totally see how this story and character set would be exactly what they were looking for.
        3) MZB writes without a shred of irony. She is 100% invested in the story she’s telling. The fate of Britain hinges on every event, every emotion is the highest high, or the lowest low, or else it’s a character putting aside all emotion, all humanity, for the good of the realm. Even the meals are either a little slice of heaven or something that turns your stomach because of the great weight you carry on your shoulders. No one ever cracks a joke. I have not checked, but what I imagine is that if MZB were on Twitter she would spend a lot of time defending tiny details and getting salty at fans.
        4) Avalon (at least what I’ve read so far) is feminist, but it’s a feminism that doesn’t challenge existing power structures. MZB does not for a minute question the legitimacy of monarchy, or the right of one group of people to rule unconditionally over all the others. She doesn’t examine the Saxons, they are not humans with their own wants and needs and problems but merely a horde of unfeeling barbarians at the gates. Her standards of beauty are thoroughly American: women should be tall and thin, men tall and muscular, all with blonde hair and blue eyes. The Isle of Avalon is as blindly hierarchical as the world of priests and kings outside. Vivian and eventually Morgaine are the chosen ones, ruling by blood and divine right, and though their reign may be less overtly violent than that of the men it exacts no less a toll from those who are not at the top. MZB’s vision of feminism, at least in this book, seems to be not so much tearing down the patriarchy as it is throwing up a parallel one that happens to be run by women.
        5) This book is very long, there’s no way I make it through before I have to return it. Haven’t decided yet if I’m going to spend money on a copy to finish it out.
        Also, there’s a lot of book left, and it’s possible she’s setting up a baseline to contrast with later as she delivers a scathing literary criticism of patriarchal white supremecist capitalist power structures.
    • The first 300 pages of the book were at least entertaining; the second 300 were just boring. I ended up putting it down with another third left to go. It’s a bad book, and I’m not sorry.

That’s it for this year folks! Good luck in 2022, and stay tuned for next year’s edition in which I lament not being able to put Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth in my top list because it’s too rapey.

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