Favorite Books of 2021

The Pandemic has certainly helped on the reading front! In 2020 I felt like I read so much my brain could hardly hold an original thought, so in 2021 I toned it down and set an upper limit on books + most of those were fiction.

The books read in 2021 books contained some gems though, here are five of the best. A warning upfront that I tend to read a lot of sci-fi, economics, and business books. Here they are in any case:

  • The Water Knife (Paolo Bacigalupi): this book is near-term Science Fiction and focuses on the near-collapsed society of the Western US after water dries up. It’s hard to read at times, violent and gut-wrenching, but the characters are vivid and the story is (sadly) not that far from a reality that could really come to pass. Well worth the read for its take on how humans make the best and worst of a crisis at home. It’ll have you digging wells in your back garden (or moving to Switzerland).
  • Ancillary Mercy (Ann Leckie): this is the third and final book in Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy and I read both books before this in 2020 (which I’d highly recommend doing – start with Ancillary Justice). The world Leckie creates is really immersive and different. The story is told mostly through the eyes of a body-possessed human (the “Ancilliary” of the title) who starts life as literally as a puppet of a warship. The stories are low on combat (though there is some) but really high on character EQ, creative consequences of choices made in society, and tension. The series is pretty different from most high-concept Sci-Fi, definitely worth a look!
  • Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It (Gary Taubes): there are a bazillion pseudo-scientific books on nutrients, metabolism, weight loss, and so on. In a few ways this book suffers from some of the problems they all do: some hyperbolic repetition, a fair bit of science, but still the feeling of some picking and choosing etc. I somewhat hesitate to recommend this but … it is quite refreshing and (to me) at least does contain a central core argument that almost all such books ignore: the fact that while eating too much (of the wrong stuff) does make us gain weight, the real driver to understand is why we end up having the appetite to do so in the first place. There are some pretty compelling passages that talk about how some of the vicious cycle between food and the need to eat occurs. The second half of the book is a really interesting deep dive into how the metabolism really works. Your mileage may vary on this one!
  • The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World (Audiobook edition) (The Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Carlton Abrams). I listened to this as an Audiobook and I think, in this case, it’s a must: the voices of the presenters add a tremendous amount to the material. I’m not sure a paper version would be anywhere near as powerful. This is another type of book I hesitate to recommend. It’s a big topic, and it’s hard to know what joy means to people, but there are some really inspiring passages and insights in the book. It is not religious, despite the two main protagonists being members of two of the world’s faiths (and the facilitator being Jewish). It is a long series of conversations between the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu (who recently passed away) talking about their experiences and philosophies. Much will not be new to you if you have read some modern philosophy, greek philosophy and Buddhist philosophy. However, there are many moments of clear explanation, examples, and insight that really do stand out. It’s also striking how similar positions from different faiths can be.
  • Antifragile: Things that gain from Disorder (Nassim Nicolas Taleb): This was a re-read, something I do with this book every couple of years. Taleb is pretty combative and deliberately offensive to his critics at times (I guess he’d say it represents his “skin in the game”) and the book is funnier for it. The real core of it though is the idea that systems that benefit from randomness exist, can be harnessed, and indeed are pretty fundamental to our existence. Furthermore, modern societies tend to spend their time trying to reduce randomness and as a consequence, inadvertently making things far more fragile than they need be. The book covers a wide range of important consequences of this point of view. It is really worth getting to grips with this concept (and indeed most of the rest of Taleb’s work).

There were so many great books in 2021 I have to do at least a few honorable mentions: I’m re-reading the Culture novels by Iain M. Banks, A Crown of Talons by Katherine and Elizabeth Corr, Qalea Drop by Joel Shepherd, plus a lot more.

The good-reads list of all the books I tracked in 2021 is online here.

Happy Reading!

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