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.


  • 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.


  • 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.


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.

2020 Reading List

2020 was a lot. You all know what happened, I don’t need to reiterate. In times like these, sometimes all you can do to keep yourself sane is escape between the pages of a good book.

The format of this one is the same as last year. There was less that landed in my top category this time around. There’s a few things that I could see leading to that:

  • A 5 month vacation made 2019 a big year for books.
  • I picked up a couple of long biographies (John D. Rockefeller and Ike Eisenhower), that together sucked up a lot of my reading time.
  • I picked up several novellas and collections of short stories this year. Many of these were great, but they were often more experimental and less balanced than a full novel, and that kept them out of the top ranking.
  • My 2019 strategy of “find books that made it onto both Obama’s and Bill Gates’ reading lists in the last 5 years” has started to run out.

That’s not to say that what I read in 2020 wasn’t good, it’s just not the sort of thing where I’m urgently excited to share it.

Anyway, here’s the books.

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.

So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo

It’s 2020, check out how woke I am with this best-seller at the top of my list!

Seriously though, if you haven’t done some reading and some self-reflection on the topic of racial justice this year, and especially if you’re white, you should probably get on that. This book is a good place to start.

Above all I was impressed by how accessible this book felt – you don’t need to be a social justice warrior or have read a bunch of theory to get something out of it. Taking a step to educate yourself can feel intimidating, but while this book was a lot, reading it didn’t feel like work. I honestly believe that any human would benefit from reading it.

If it still feels like too much, go check out Trevor Noah’s autobiography (see last year’s list), then come back to this.

Ought To Read

These are the ones I enjoyed, and maybe thought were important, but for one reason or another I couldn’t quite give them top honors. Still highly recommended, especially if the seem like your cup of tea.

  • To Be Taught, If Fortunate, by Becky Chambers
    • Becky Chambers is one of my favorite modern sci-fi authors, and this novella about a crew of explorers on a distant world is fantastic. If you’re into sci-fi at all, go check it out!
  • Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami
  • The Nonexistent Knight, by Italo Calvino
    • Italo Calvino is weird. The Nonexistent Knight is weird. It’s silly and absurd and almost begs to be read aloud. If that sounds good to you, you’ll probably enjoy it.
  • The Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang
  • The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway
    • Somehow I had never read this! I love Hemingway, and this delivered.
  • The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison
    • Serenity! This delightful little novel gets props because
      1. It’s an excellent bit of political drama with a side of unique world-building
      2. It’s the rare standalone fantasy novel (no trilogy required)
      3. I read it aloud on the Wonderland trail and we got a lot of mileage out of doing the voices
  • Liveship Traders Trilogy, by Robin Hobb
    • Fantasy pirates on sentient ships! What more could you ask for? I picked this up at the end of October as a distraction from election season, and it definitely did its job. It’s incredibly well-written, I blazed through the three books in about a month and a half, and the characters and events stayed with me long afterwards.
    • Fair warning: it does involve rape. It serves to advance all three of plot, character and setting, and it’s handled with what to me seems an appropriate amount of gravity. But if that’s going to trigger you, maybe skip this one.

Read If You’re Into It

  • Titan: The Life of John D Rockefeller, Sr., by Ron Chernow
  • Eisenhower in War and Peace, by Jean Edward Smith
  • The Orchardist, by Amanda Coplin
  • The First Law Trilogy, by Joe Ambercrombie


  • The Art of Possibility, by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander
    • Read this with a work book club. I didn’t get a lot out of it. Oh well.

Reading List

I did a lot of reading while I was on walkabout! Some of it was really good and I would highly recommend. Some of it came highly recommended and didn’t live up to the hype. I’ve divided the books into 4 categories: read-right-now, ought-to-read, read-if-you’re-into-it and skip. I’ll even do little summaries for the first category!

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.

Catfish and Mandala, by Andrew Pham

My sister recommended this one to me to get pumped for Vietnam, and she nailed it. Pham’s memoir about bicycling through the country he fled as a child is funny, moving, and strikes deep at the heart of what it means to be an American, an immigrant and an outsider.

Factfulness, by Hans Rosling

Rosling has identified a problem: most western readers, regardless of education or background, consistently overestimate how bad the world is. Whether it’s infant mortality, women’s education or AIDS infection rates, most places are doing much better than you think they are.

To address this problem Rosling presents a different framework for thinking about economic development (4 levels, each with a “dollars per day” level attached) to replace the tired “developing/developed” dichotomy, and presents 10 good habits to help you fight bad instincts and see through misleading data. Yes this book is about economics, but it’s also about you, dear Western reader, calling out your biases and misconceptions and identifying tools to overcome them.

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, by Trevor Noah (audiobook)

Noah’s autobiography is nothing short of brilliant. Noah is of course a comedian and the work is hilarious, but he’s also a storyteller. It’s the sort of book where you’re not sure whether the tears are from joy or sorrow. Plus he reads the audiobook, and does a tremendous job.

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

This one ended up on both Barack Obama’s and Bill Gates’ reading lists, but I was still surprised by how much I enjoyed it. The plot summary didn’t pull me in: a Russian nobleman is sentenced to house arrest in a Moscow hotel after the 1917 revolution. But this isn’t really a plot book. It’s a character study, and Towles uses that character as a lens on one of the most fascinating and fast-changing settings in modern history, all to brilliant effect. A Gentleman in Moscow is witty, charming and tugs at your heartstrings in just the right ways, exactly as a gentleman should.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari (audiobook)

Another B&B book. I’ve tried to summarize this book to a few people and ended up monologuing for half an hour, so we’ll see if I can do better here. Harari looks at humans from the ground up, starting with our basic biology and evolutionary history, and building that up piece by logical piece into how modern society developed. It’s interesting and insightful and quite well-written, and it doesn’t sugar-coat what we are or how we act. Plus the audiobook is read by this British fellow with an absolutely perfect accent for drawing you in and making you feel intellectual.

Ought To Read

These are the ones I enjoyed, and maybe thought were important, but for one reason or another I couldn’t quite give them top honors. Still highly recommended, especially if the seem like your cup of tea.

  • Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
    • I really wanted to put this one in the top category. Coates’ book about the realities of living as a black man in modern racist America is unquestionably something that every American should read, probably twice. It’s well-written, and insightful, and goodness is it relevant. You will definitely be a better person for reading this. The reason I didn’t bump it is because this is not a “read it any time” book. Coates’ book is a downer. It’s brutally honest and kind of bleak, and I believe that if you’re not in a place where you can handle that its impact will be lost. Maybe it will do more harm than good. My recommendation: listen to Trevor Noah’s autobiography first, that will kind of prime the pump, then tackle this.
  • Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, by William Finnegan
  • Arkwright, by Allen Steele
  • Record of a Spaceborn Few, by Becky Chambers
  • The Raven Tower, by Ann Leckie
  • Rolling Rocks Downhill, by Clarke Ching
  • The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb (yes all three of them)
  • Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when the Stakes are High, by Patterson et al
  • Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler

Read If You’re Into It

  • The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell
  • The Book of M, by Peng Shepherd
  • The Cuckoo’s Egg, by Cliff Stoll
  • The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie
  • Human Acts, by Han Kang


  • Monkey, by Wu Cheng-en, translated by Arthur Waley
  • Upheaval, by Jared Diamond
  • The Design of Everyday Things, by Don Norman