Books I liked in 2021

The Lido by Libby Page: A sweet and charming story about a very old woman and a very young woman who team up to save their local community pool. (“Lido” is an English word for swimming pool, I gather.)

The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd: A love letter to a Scottish mountain range called the Cairngorms. A masterpiece of nature writing and just writing in general. Lovely.

The King Must Die by Mary Renault: A retelling of Theseus and the Minotaur. Vivid and creative. Makes sense of some of the nonsense in that story, while still keeping that mythic resonance that has kept that story alive for so long.

Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff VanderMeer: Environmental noir, I guess. Sparse and occasionally surreal, it very much captures the alienation created by all the devices and gadgets we surround ourselves with.

The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South by Kenneth Stampp: Round and round we go. Slavery in this country was worse than you can imagine. But you don’t need to take my word for it. This exhaustive (and exhausting) historical work from the 1960s punctures and deflates all of the positive mythologizing about the Ante-Bellum South. To my mind, it’s better to stare unflinching into this historical mire than to pretend it wasn’t really as bad as it was.

Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson: I read a lot of serious books this year. Sometimes a book comes along that’s like a skeleton key for making sense of our current moment. This is one of those books. Extremely worthwhile. (And led to a really great conversation in my book club.)

The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson: A science fiction novel that dares to imagine what it would take to start restoring our planet instead of continuing to despoil it. There is some exceptionally clear and well-written science writing in here. Not an easy feat!

The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918 by Stephen Kern: The years from 1880-1918 were a baffling and confusing time when longstanding conceptions of things like time, space, speed, history, and many other things were flipped on their heads. I’ve got a feeling we’re living through a similarly conceptually disruptive time.

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard: There’s not much to admire about Ancient Rome, but there’s a lot to learn from, especially about how systems of power persist regardless of what personality is stuck at the top of the heap.

One for the Books by Joe Queenan: A book by a reader about reading. This guy’s a real kindred spirit.

The Silver Arrow by Lev Grossman: A kids book about a magical train. I cried. And then my kid cried. So sweet and sad.

Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism by Barry Prizant: Even now, autism is poorly understand. To my mind, autism is not something to be fixed. If there’s any problem, it’s in people’s unwillingness to tolerate difference. If you meet people where they are, the world opens up in a delightful way.

The Wild Birds by Emily Strelow (written by a college friend of mine): There’s a marvelous focus on nature in this novel that spans a hundred years or so. An exquisite eye for detail and sheer joy about nature come through so vividly in the writing here.

The Verge: Reformation, Renaissance, and Forty Years that Shook the World (1490-1530) by Patrick Wyman: A historical work about a period of time that marked a stark transition to a new way of thinking about the world. Also provides an answer to the question: how did the historical and geographical backwater that was Europe become the dominant force in the world for a few hundred years?

Hero of Two Worlds: the Marquis de Lafayette and the Age of Revolution by Mike Duncan: Read it for Lafayette’s strong moral clarity. Here’s a guy who knew what was right and wasn’t afraid to sacrifice everything for it. A real mensch.

Living in Data: A Citizen’s Guide to a Better Information Future by Jer Thorp: A lovely little book that breathes life and poetry into “data”. I found it useful for thinking about the systems of data we all swim within these days.

Everything Now: Lessons from the City-State of Los Angeles by Rosecrans Baldwin: A love letter to the city of LA. A beautiful and lovely piece of writing.