What I Read in 2021
Is it just me, or have 2020 and 2021 felt like one weird, long year? Perhaps it’s the working-from-home talking, but my perception of time has gone completely whacky. When most days feel the same, they bleed together. I know I’m fortunate I can work from home, but everything has its drawbacks. I do miss the regular social interactions of the pre-pandemic world.
Thank goodness for books! They help to break up the monotony a bit.
This year, I:
- Continued pursuing some of my favorite genres including memoirs, psychology, and self-improvement.
- Prepped for two new television series, Foundation and The Wheel of Time, by starting to read the book series from which they were adapted.
- Revisited one of my favorite subjects, linguistics, which I hadn’t done for a decade.
- Dove back into the Greek myths (which I hadn’t revisited for an equally long time).
Here are the books I read in 2021, in the order I read them. The titles link to each book’s respective Goodreads page.
Joe Abercrombie, 2015
The good guys won? The bad guys won? The truth is that it’s never been obvious who’s good and who’s bad in Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy. One thing is for certain, the end did surprise me; mostly because even after three long books, I still didn’t really know what to expect from it.
Last Argument of Kings is full of wild moments. Twists and turns. Game-changing revelations. Abercrombie keeps you on your toes. And he continues to develop his characters — who really are the strongest aspect of these books — in incredible ways. He isn’t exactly a plot writer; he’s a character writer the likes of which I’ve seldom seen better.
In some ways though, for me, at least, it begs the question — what happens next? The final third of the book takes its good time to wrap things up, but it feels like there should be more.
Perhaps at the end of all things, Abercrombie’s message is that, regardless of what happens, even when everything seems to have changed, very little actually has. Life goes on. Or it doesn’t. Rulers still rule and are ruled by those around them. Common folk still claw for some semblance of wealth and status to uplift the family name. Some resist, some concede.
“First it is done to us, then we do it to others, then we order it done. Such is the way of things.”
— Joe Abercrombie, Last Argument of Kings
Stephen Fry, 2019
Stephen Fry delivers a devilishly delectable dish with this humorous, vibrant retelling of Greek mythology. With it, he presents a chronological version of the myths from the beginning of everything — Chaos, the dark abyssal energy of creation — to Chaos’s progeny Gaea (Earth), Tartarus (Underworld), and Eros (Love). From them stemmed various other entities, such as the Titans (among them Prometheus, who eventually molded humankind from clay at Zeus’s request). And, of course, the Gods, the direct descendants of the Titans.
Intertwined within this long and winding creation story are the myriad fables passed down through oral tradition: Tales explaining how different animal species came to exist and how humankind was born. There’s no shortage of stories detailing the Gods’ mischievous acts against one another, their ancestors, and their descendants.
It had been a long time since I’d visited Greek mythology. It was fun to reacquaint with it. Fry’s coherent and whimsical writing served as the cherry on top.
“It is enough to say that the Greeks thought it was Chaos who, with a massive heave, or a great shrug, or hiccup, vomit or cough, began the long chain of creation that has ended with pelicans and penicillin and toadstools and toads, sea-lions, lions, human beings and daffodils and murder and art and love and confusion and death and madness and biscuits.”
— Stephen Fry, Mythos
Stephen Fry, 2020
Having loved Mythos, I continued my journey with Mr. Fry into the realm of heroes. The direct sequel to Mythos, Heroes picks up where its predecessor left off. Now we dive into the tales of Heracles, Perseus, Jason, and several others.
Fry’s accounts of the defeat of Medusa, the mighty labors of Heracles, the finding of the Golden Fleece, and the tragedy of Icarus and Daedalus are among the dozen or so memorable stories within Heroes.
I loved this book just as I loved Mythos, largely credited to Fry’s humor, brisk, bouncy writing, and profound knowledge of Greek lore.
“No labour was more Heraclean than the labour of being Heracles.”
— Stephen Fry, Heroes
Matthew McConaughey, 2020
Greenlights had been on my want-to-read list since I first saw it on a store bookshelf while doing my 2020 Christmas shopping at the local mall. It entered my Audible bookshelf during a particularly tough period of growth in my personal life.
There’s a lot of wisdom to glean from McConaughey’s life story, both from his failures and successes. He’s had quite a wild life, at least compared to mine. Within the pages of Greenlights he recounts tales and lessons learned in childhood, a bizarre study abroad trip in Australia, his acting career, finding love, wrestling with faith, following images in his dreams to South America and Africa, and many other memories. And it was all so vivid.
That’s because McConaughey has been journaling since he was fifteen. Recounting his days, taking the time to offload the memories and give his mind space to be free and present. Journaling is something I’ve always considered doing and have occasionally taken half-attempted stabs at, but had never given the proper dues.
But this memoir inspired me to give it a try again, for real this time. I purchased this beautiful blank-page journal from Alabaster and set to work each evening.
Thanks, Matthew, for inspiring me. Journaling has been supremely therapeutic.
“Catching greenlights is about skill: intent, context, consideration, endurance, anticipation, resilience, speed, and discipline. We can catch more greenlights by simply identifying where the red lights are in our life, and then change course to hit fewer of them.”
— Matthew McConaughey, Greenlights
Richard Plass & James Cofield, 2014
I was encouraged to read The Relational Soul when the emotional walls I’d built over the years had become an impediment. Written by two pastors, it’s deeply rooted in Christian theology (meaning to say it may not suit everyone’s tastes). Within its pages rest many healthy doses of wisdom.
The book contains two parts. The first is about the internal landscape, identifying our false self and uncovering our true self. The second half is about using this information to better understand ourselves, our relationships with others, and our relationship with God. Much of the book went over my head; some of it, however, I could grasp and hold on to.
I think part of the reason I felt unable to follow some lessons in this book is thatThe Relational Soul is designed for group discussion. Each chapter wraps with a set of questions to reflect on the material, which I didn’t care to do on my own.
“Curiosity is dangerous, but soulful relationships depend on it. If you are having difficulty in a relationship, practice a holy curiosity that explores the soul of another.… Climb out on a limb with curiosity and you just may be surprised at who sees you.”
— Richard Plass & James Cofield, The Relational Soul
Arthur Conan Doyle, 1887
It’s remarkable how so infamous a franchise could have begun with so strangely structured a book as this. A Study in Scarlet introduces Sherlock Holmes, Dr. John Watson, Detective Lestrade, Mrs. Hudson, among others. Doyle spins delightful character sketches through the eyes of Watson, the narrator, offering many moments which are reflected in the pilot episode of the BBC show Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.
The trouble with Doyle’s first outing with Holmes is that it drops the reader out of the intriguing world of detective work for an extended backstory on the convicted killer. This flashes the story back 37 years and takes it across the Atlantic to Utah. It includes drama between a few key characters and the Mormon church. I’m not sure what Doyle’s intentions were with this content; perhaps he’d read about the early Mormon church (which was still new at the time), was fascinated by it, and wanted to bring it to England through his fiction. According to the Wikipedia page about A Study in Scarlet, Doyle apparently apologized on several occasions regarding some inaccuracies in his depictions of the church and its followers.
At the end of the day, it was fun to finally read a Sherlock Holmes book, having never done so and only having watched television and movie adaptations. I’ll definitely be reading more of these, as they’re really fun and generally on the shorter side. And, after 130 years, they hold up well in terms of their accessibility and relatability.
“So all life is a great chain, the nature of which is known whenever we are shown a link of it.”
— Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet
Chris Beckett, 2016
My old high school buddies and I formed a book club in late 2017. It created another reason for us to hang out throughout the year and partake in charcuterie, beer (we normally meet at a brewery, sans pandemic), occasional board games, and good conversation. The first book we read was Dark Eden. In 2019, we read the second book in the trilogy, Mother of Eden. And now, with Daughter of Eden, we’ve completed the set.
Daughter of Eden took the trilogy to a place I hoped it would go when reading the first two books, but it doesn’t deliver its events quite how I expected (don’t get me wrong, I’m glad about that). While Beckett’s trilogy is expressed through sci-fi trappings, it is at its heart a work of literature, more concerned with the human condition than with spectacle. And that’s why I love it. Daughter of Eden surprised and delighted me. Bereft of a perfect ending for its characters, it leaves on a note that’s simultaneously hopeful yet heavy. But that’s the human condition, isn’t it? The wish to be ever hopeful for a better tomorrow while burdened with life’s present troubles.
The Dark Eden trilogy does many things well. Beckett explores the way language evolves, how oral tradition alters history and breeds religion, how money and industry rise to meet the demands of a growing populace, among other things. Daughter of Eden gives all the moments in the trilogy even more weight and meaning.
“That’s our story about them, I know, but I bet they have a story about us too, don’t you think? And their own story about themselves? How can we know for sure that our story’s true and not theirs? I mean, we can’t know what really happened all those years ago, can we? All we can know for certain is that everyone born where we come from believes one version of the story, and everyone born across the Pool believes another. In other words, people believe the story they’re brought up with. It’s stupid saying that people believe such-and-such story because they’re good or they’re bad.”
— Chris Beckett, Daughter of Eden
Arthur Conan Doyle, 1890
Not the most thrilling of stories, The Sign of Four, which marks Doyle’s second outing with Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, feels more like set dressing than a proper novel. Through it, Doyle further clarifies Holmes’ methods of deductive reasoning, sharpens each character’s personality (we learn of Holmes’ fondness for cocaine, for example), and introduces Watson’s love interest, Mary Morstan.
Not a lot can be said for the story itself. Not in my mind, at least. The plot wasn’t particularly engaging or memorable. Some bits of dialog possessed racist tones, though one must do one’s best to understand the context of the times and that, while inexcusable today, may simply have been the unfortunate norm.
That said, I walked away from this book with a better sense of Doyle’s world and his characters: a clarity from which its sequels must surely draw.
“The chief proof of man’s real greatness lies in his perception of his own smallness.”
— Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of Four
Martha Wells, 2017
Rarely have I come across a more human narrator. Ironically, this one isn’t human.
In All Systems Red, Wells introduces us to Murderbot: a genderless, otherwise nameless entity (it calls itself a “construct”) that is part machine, part organic material. For some reason or other, we have access to its thoughts and opinions as it narrates the events taking shape around it. Murderbot is socially anxious, much more comfortable alone than in the presence of people, and doesn’t like being looked at directly. Murderbot is incredibly snarky, at least in its thoughts. Murderbot managed to remove its governing controller, so it’s a free agent with (as far as can be gathered) free will.
All Systems Red is an excellent story. It’s full of action, fantastic dialog, and one of my favorite first-person narrators I’ve ever read. There’s so much humanity in its inhumanity — showing us, in a way, that no matter who you are or what you are, everyone has their own fears, insecurities, and needs. Because that’s the nature of existence. And existing isn’t for the faint of heart.
“It’s wrong to think of a construct as half bot, half human. It makes it sound like the halves are discrete, like the bot half should want to obey orders and do its job and the human half should want to protect itself and get the hell out of here. As opposed to the reality, which was that I was one whole confused entity, with no idea what I wanted to do. What I should do. What I needed to do.”
— Martha Wells, All Systems Red
Rich Karlgaard, 2019
Late Bloomers addresses a major — though largely unspoken — topic in our society today: Our work and education systems reward early achievement at the majority’s expense. This is evident in how much pressure social media has put on the younger generation to have hordes of followers (it’s the new gateway for social acceptance, apparently). Kids feel inadequate when they aren’t succeeding like their peers (often when all they want to do is explore their passions). This is also clear with the way businesses phase out older workers, despite these people often being the wisest and most capable candidates.
In a reality where, in the US, the retirement age is 66 but increasingly more 50-somethings are having a hard time keeping their jobs, we really must ask ourselves: Is the zeitgeist’s obsession with early success doing more harm than good? This is the question at the heart of Karlgaard’s thesis. It’s a powerful question. And while its answer has nuance, it ultimately is “yes.”
Karlgaard argues that achievement at any age should be celebrated. He spends a good deal of time explaining the unique skills and attributes of those who peak later in life. He pokes holes in the machinations of our education system and business world. And it’s all so relevant. I’ve felt the sting of inadequacy that’s come with not knowing what I wanted to do professionally right out of high school or college. I still don’t fully think I’ve “figured it out.” Many of us live in a reality of patient evolution. If we aren’t careful, we become overlooked and forgotten. It shouldn’t be that way. With every unique journey comes unique wisdom.
I highly recommend giving this book a read or listen.
“We get smarter and more creative as we age, research shows. Our brain’s anatomy, neural networks, and cognitive abilities can actually improve with age and increased life experiences. Contrary to the mythology of Silicon Valley, older employees may be even more productive, innovative, and collaborative than younger ones… Most people, in fact, have multiple cognitive peaks throughout their lives.”
— Rich Karlgaard, Late Boomers
C.S. Lewis, 1945
There are books that make you think about death, and then there are books that make you think about the afterlife. This is the latter.
The Great Divorce, a sort of allegorical story about life after life, feels dreamlike from page one. We first meet our unnamed narrator in a gray town, a seemingly endless place. On a whim, he decides to hop on a bus which takes him on a cosmic journey to a green place where the grass beneath his feet is sharp and difficult to walk on.
It’s here that he observes the people he met on the bus encounter their opportunities to stay in the green place. Some of them do, but some of them get back on the bus. Each conversation brings its own revelations about the differences between the two places and the internal struggle of each person (the passengers all represent different types of people with different types of pasts, regrets, and so on).
Eventually, the narrator meets his own guide, who encourages him to stay. Their dialog reveals mind-numbing things. The gray town (Lewis’ metaphor for hell), for example, may feel vast when you’re in it, but it’s absolutely minuscule.
C.S. Lewis was a Christian philosopher whose work has a habit of making you work to understand it. He states things simply, but every sentence and paragraph may contain myriad subsurface layers. With The Great Divorce, he challenges readers with the big “what ifs” — almost as if saying “If this is true, then what are you going to do differently today, tomorrow, and the rest of your life?”
“All Hell is smaller than one pebble of your earthly world: but it is smaller than one atom of this world, the Real World. Look at yon butterfly. If it swallowed all Hell, Hell would not be big enough to do it any harm or to have any taste.”
— C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
Alan W. Watts, 1951
The Wisdom of Insecurity is as applicable today as it was when it was written (if not more so). Combining both Christian and Zen Buddhist wisdom, Watts provides antidotes for anxiety by investigating how our desire for security may be an act of self-sabotage.
This is a timeless self-help book that I look forward to reading again one day.
“The paradox about waking up — I mean the ordinary kind of waking up that occurred to you and me this morning — is that you can’t make it happen, yet it’s inevitable. The same holds true spiritually. You can’t wish, pray, beg, force, or meditate yourself awake.”
Alan W. Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity
Isaac Asimov, 1951
I wanted to read this one preparing for the Apple TV+ show that aired in September. The book and the show share similarities, but also some major differences. Ardent fans of Asimov’s series seem to despise the show, whereas people like myself, who could appreciate the book but didn’t adore it, really enjoyed the show.
Foundation (the book) is the first of a series. It paints an incredibly rich universe and does most of this through dialog. As per most of the writing of the decade in which it was written, it’s dry but intelligent.
For me, it wasn’t the most entertaining read. I may or may not continue with the series. It’s hard to say. One thing is certain, though: I completely appreciate what Asimov did with this work, and respect the early and impactful contribution it made to the sci-fi genre.
“The fall of Empire, gentlemen, is a massive thing, however, and not easily fought. It is dictated by a rising bureaucracy, a receding initiative, a freezing of caste, a damming of curiosity — a hundred other factors. It has been going on, as I have said, for centuries, and it is too majestic and massive a movement to stop.”
Isaac Asimov, Foundation
V.E. Schwab, 2020
On the tragedy-comedy spectrum, this one leans toward tragedy. To Schwab’s benefit, this is evident early on. The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is a Faustian story like many before it, but with its own set of twists, turns, and conditions. We find our titular character Addie LaRue, in a turn of events, sell her soul to the Devil (actually, not quite the Devil, but a similar entity), and her life changes instantly and irrevocably.
It’s ultimately a story about a young woman who, after selling her soul, does not age and is instantly forgotten by everyone she meets as soon as she leaves the room. A tale with many themes, one primary one is that of legacy. What kind of legacy can you have if you can’t be remembered? It’s helpful to appreciate that here, in the real world, we all have a chance to be remembered.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is a beautifully written tragedy. It’s heartbreaking but has something of an uplifting nature because of it.
“What is a person, if not the marks they leave behind?”
V.E. Schwab, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue
Stephen Fry, 2020
Yes, I dove into the world of the ancient Greeks with Mr. Fry yet again with his take on Troy. Troy (the Homer version) is one I’ve had sitting on my shelf since I picked it up at a Borders Bookstore closing sale back in college. Lamentably, I’ve yet to read it. I still plan to, but in the meantime, I found Fry’s Troy to be a nice substitute. I quite enjoyed Fry’s character backstories and his take on Achilles, Agamemnon, and others. His signature wit remains a major part of the experience.
Having now read all his Greek Myths works to date, I eagerly await the next, The Odyssey, which is set to release in Fall 2022.
“For nine years the Trojan War was more plunder than thunder.”
Stephen Fry, Troy
Robert Jordan, 1990
Yes, I took the plunge. In case you haven’t heard of The Wheel of Time, it’s now a show on Amazon Prime. Several of my best friends have been telling me to read the series for years. I kept avoiding it because it’s quite the commitment — 14 books worth.
I’m glad I finally did, though. The Wheel of Time is a sprawling epic that I’m told takes three books to fully set up. While the scale of a story has no bearing on whether it’s worthwhile, it can give it an unmistakable grandeur. Fortunately, the characters are particularly interesting and complex, as are the plot events.
The Eye of the World has been criticized for its similarities to The Lord of the Rings due to its pleasant, Shire-like opening and its long journey story structure. But I’m not convinced that’s a fair comparison. It’s pretty obvious that Jordan is doing something else with The Wheel of Time, turning tropes on their heads and telling a much vaster story. Tolkien opened the gates for high fantasy to come into its own with The Lord of the Rings. But The Wheel of Time has its own voice, its own plot, its own cast of characters whom I’d argue have much more depth than any of Tolkien’s.
Despite the criticisms, The Wheel of Time is also critically acclaimed as one of the greatest fantasy works of all time. I can already see those seeds being planted in The Eye of the World, and I can’t wait to continue the journey.
“Take life as it comes. Run when you have to, fight when you must, rest when you can.”
― Robert Jordan, The Eye of the World
Jonathan Haidt, 2012
We live in a divisive world. We all know it, feel it. Haidt is upfront with his political affiliation (liberal) and explains how, over time, he’s come to respect and accept the other side of the aisle. There are smarter, more politically-minded people than me who have reviewed this book over on Goodreads, and you can see the amount of division the subject of this book stirs up; which is a shame because The Righteous Mind is, I think, Haidt’s attempt to sow seeds for healthier debates and conversations.
Mathematics and science aside, I’ve always observed that the solutions to problems tend to reside in the gray area between two absolutes, so it’s always been difficult for me to understand the vitriol between people with opposing viewpoints. Perhaps this is a symptom of my literary education or my time as a designer, but I understand Haidt’s mission with this book. His attempt to bridge the gap between political and religious sides is one of — if not the — most difficult things to do. Any attempt to add clarity to these topics will inevitably be messy, for there is no clean, clear-cut way to do it. The Righteous Mind certainly is messy in some ways, but Haidt needs to be commended for his effort. While he mistakenly uses a few metaphors that dilute rather than support his arguments, the empirical evidence he provides does offer credence.
We need more of this kind of discourse today. More people need to read this book, no matter if they’ll love it or hate it. The journey counts, and I think this book offers an important one to embark on, no matter your political or religious affiliation.
“If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you.”
Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind
Kevin Simler & Robin Hanson, 2017
In The Elephant in the Brain, Simler and Hanson posit that our natural human tendency is to participate in regular deception and self-deception. The lies we tell ourselves and others are an adaptive mechanism by which we get ahead. The more we believe our lies and the less we understand our intrinsic motivations, the better we are at selling them. This behavior is predominately unconscious, the authors say, and it’s not only embedded deep within each of us, but also within each of our institutions, from education to business to politics.
While I didn’t agree with everything in this book, I do feel like everyone could benefit from reading it. It’s one of the more interesting human psychology books I’ve read, and it does make one think a bit differently about people and conversations after having read it.
“The takeaway from all these observations is that our species seems, somehow, to derive more benefit from speaking than from listening.”
Kevin Simler & Robin Hanson, The Elephant in the Brain
Martha Wells, 2018
The second in the Murderbot series, Artificial Condition finds Murderbot alone on a vessel in space for much of the story, exchanging arguments and conversations with the ship’s AI. As Murderbot nears civilization again, it must make some decisions to protect itself. In a Bicentennial Man type move, Murderbot decides to make some key updates to its appearance and programmed passive behavior so that it appears more human.
While not explosive or entertaining as the first installment, Artificial Condition certainly has its moments. The slower pace provides space to get to know Murderbot more.
Now that I’m two books in, I see what Wells is doing with The Murderbot Diaries. They’re closer to novella length than novel length. They’re punchy and fun. It’s almost like a television show, with each book being a couple of episodes. There are many more in the series, and more still on the way.
Can’t wait for the next one.
“I felt this would be the point where a human would sigh, so I sighed.”
— Martha Wells, Artificial Condition
Phil Knight, 2016
The memoir has become one of my favorite genres, and I’ve made it a personal goal to read at least one each year. This year it was two (the first being Greenlights).
Shoe Dog is the story of Phil Knight’s life journey and how he came to found Nike. I didn’t anticipate how many twists and turns there would be; it just goes to show that the stories of most successful people are that way. Life has its plot twists, as does business. I find it quite encouraging.
There isn’t much I want to say about this book because the journey comes with reading it. For anyone running a business or looking to start one, I highly encourage you to give this a read. I loved it. It’s a good one.
“I’d tell men and women in their mid-twenties not to settle for a job or a profession or even a career. Seek a calling. Even if you don’t know what that means, seek it. If you’re following your calling, the fatigue will be easier to bear, the disappointments will be fuel, the highs will be like nothing you’ve ever felt.”
Phil Knight, Shoe Dog
John McWhorter, 2004
Linguistics was the most interesting class I took in college; looking back, one of my biggest college-age regrets is not having delved deeper into it. Finally, after all this time, I had an urge to read a linguistics book. After some searching,The Story of Human Language felt like a great pick. It was.
To be clear, I listened to the audiobook of this (it may be the only format it comes in). John McWhorter is a gifted teacher who articulates each lesson with supreme clarity. I also enjoyed his humor. McWhorter explains a great many things in The Story of Human Language, including how languages change over time, how they die and are born, and where they might’ve come from in the first place. He explains the difference between good writing and good speech and how writing has changed our speech standards, but not entirely for good. And this is all just the tip of the iceberg.
Language is a uniquely human gift, and likely the most powerful of all our species’ advantages. McWhorter’s The Story of Human Language is a great place to start to better understand the thing most able to unite and divide us.
Fumio Sasaki, 2017
Japanese design principles have piqued my interest this year, both in the aesthetics of my design work and from a desire to create a comforting place to live. Maybe it was the fact that I moved to a new apartment in May, which afforded the opportunity to sell, give away, and dispose of a lot of stuff. I’ve naturally started accumulating new things since then, but I’ve been pretty mindful about how many things I buy, the quality of those things, and how much value and joy they’ll bring me.
As such, I wanted to know what this whole minimalist movement was about from someone who was walking the walk and talking the talk. Fumio Sasaki went from maximalist to extreme minimalist over the course of about five years. He says that he now has so few possessions he can pack them in a suitcase.
Sasaki posits that human beings attach their identities to the things they own. To truly get to know ourselves and become the best version of ourselves, we must part ways with as many material possessions as possible. I can see the wisdom in that. He details the many ways his life has improved since purging his apartment of objects, but when he got to the part about how he can’t really host anyone anymore, he started losing me. I get where he’s coming from, but it’s extreme.
That said, Goodbye, Things is a quick read that can offer a different perspective, and there are many people out there who could use a different perspective on material possession. The benefit of minimalist living is real, but we must approach it to the extent that’s right for us.
“Why do we own so many things when we don’t need them? What is their purpose? I think the answer is clear: We’re desperate to convey our own worth, our own value to others. We use objects to tell people just how valuable we are.”
Fumio Sasaki, Goodbye, Things