A few years ago I started writing a late-December (or, in this case, early January) recap of my reading from the previous year. Here are the links to the entries from 2017, 2018, 2019, the first half of 2020, the second half of 2020, and 2021.
Let me start with my normal disclaimer about numbers: tracking and reporting on the number of books we read in a year is somewhat useful, but only “somewhat”. It can give us an idea of our reading progress over the previous year, but becoming overly focused on the number of books we read can lead us away from big books. With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s dive in.
In 2021, I read 36 books, down from 44 the previous year. There were some standouts, which I highlight below. A few of these will make it into my “Great Books” list which you can see here.
|The Orphan Master’s Son — I’ve long been fascinated with the tragic reality that is North Korea. This novel seems to pierce the permanent wall surrounding the hermit kingdom in the form of an engaging story. This book won a slew of awards when it was published, including the Pulitzer Prize. Due to the topic, this is not always a pleasant read, but I’m glad I read it and recommend it highly.
|Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro — I’ve been reading Ishiguro’s novels since – belatedly! – reading his wonderful book “Remains of the Day”. This novel slowly unwraps the mysterious, horrifying reality of the protagonist and her young peers. There are all sorts of themes going on here about how people might treat each other in the future, how we treat children, and what it means to be fully human. I remember reading an essay written by Neil Gaiman about the nature of what science fiction is and how stories are created. One of the examples he cited of an author’s jumping off point to create a story is to seek an answer to the question “what could happen if (this thing) continues…?”. That question has led to many great science fiction stories, and this is an example.
|From Strength to Strength by Arthur C. Brooks— If you want to read a short distillation of this book in an essay form, go here. If once you read it, you feel the topic – and Brooks’ approach to it – speaks to you, then I couldn’t recommend this book more highly. I will be adding this to my Great Books list.
|Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr— A terrific book from the author of “All The Light We Cannot See” (another great one). This book switches between stories and timelines and can seem a bit confusing at the beginning. Stick with it – it will be worth it.
|The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs — This was a re-read for me in 2022, and I fell in love again with this book because it helped me slow down and re-kindled my love for reading. I’m a big fan of Jacobs’ – I have read most of his books and subscribe to his newsletter Snakes & Ladders, which is a potpourri of stuff you’re unlikely to read anywhere else.
|The Adventure of English: A Biography of a Language by Melvyn Bragg — This is a rollicking great read if you’re a language nerd like me. English, as we know it today, evolved over many centuries, and very nearly became extinct. The most common words you and I use today trace their lineage back to their Germanic roots, but after those 100 or so words a huge portion of our vocabulary has Latin roots which came to England by way of the French language (if you look at that last word – “language” – you begin to appreciate the impact of French in our current vocabulary). It’s hard to imagine that for 300 years, the rulers of England spoke only French. English was kept alive by the rabble who were scratching out a middle-ages existence, and it lived on to become what it is today – an ever changing, chaotic language that bedevils both the students who try to learn it as well as the lexicographers who try to document it.
|Imagine a City: A Pilot’s Journey Across the Urban World by Mark Vanhoenacker — This is work follows Vanhoenacker’s astounding (to me) book Skyfaring. As I was reading “Skyfaring” I found myself wanting to know more about the author. Who is this guy who pilots passengers around the world yet also is an incredibly gifted writer? This book answers those questions as it is more auto-biographical than his earlier book. It intersperses his interesting personal story amidst chapters about the geography, history, culture and experiences he has enjoyed in various world cities. Jeddah, Sapporo, Cape Town, and Kuwait City are just a few examples. Like Vanhoenacker’s earlier book, to place this book in any single category is a disservice to the writing, which ranges widely and makes you all the smarter for it.
|The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World by Lincoln Paine — One of the books cited by Vanhoenacker (see “Imagine a City”, above) is this astounding book of history that tackles what the title says – the history of the world told from the perspective of the seas that encompass most of our planet, and the civilizations that traversed these seas to form new tribes, cultures, and societies. I have to say reading this book made me feel exceedingly dumb. “How can one person know all of this?” I often thought as I read it. But I don’t mind feeling dumb – I’ve had a lot of practice over the years so it comes naturally to me – but by plowing through this book I am, quite possibly, a little less dumb than I was before setting sail with this book.
|The Psychology of Money: Timeless Lessons on Wealth, Greed, and Happiness by Morgan Housel — I highly recommend this entertaining and thought-provoking book, which captures something I think is often overlooked when it comes to personal finances – the role of normal human quirks and emotions that do more to govern how we think of money than all of the advice and technical stock valuation charts ever can. As the author points out, two things will impact the quality of your life whether you’re interested in them or not: healthcare and money.
Below are some other recommended books I read in 2022 that I didn’t highlight above. I’m not building hyperlinks to save time, but these are all easy to search/find using your awesome technical prowess….
The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris
Reading the OED by Ammon Shea
Pancakes in Paris by Craig Carlson
30 Lessons for Living by Karl Pillemer
Courage is Calling by Ryan Holiday
What Happened at Vatican II by John O’Malley
Freezing Order by Bill Browder
The Power of Regret by Daniel Pink
The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson
Making Numbers Count by Chip Heath & Karla Starr
Hard Times by Charles Dickens
Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
Lost in the Meritocracy by Walter Kirk
The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz
I have never dumped on a book in my book recaps before, but I would be remiss if I didn’t describe how much I hated Cormac McCarthy’s new novel “The Passenger”. I was excited to read it, and it was only the author’s great works in the past that kept me slogging through it. I’ve read some reviews that basically agree with my take, and others that say it is a work of genius. I’m willing to allow that there may, in fact, be some degree of genius lurking in the book, but for me a book has to be coherent to be profound – a test this book utterly fails. In case you’re reading it right now and wondering if a plot will materialize, let me assure you it will not.
Also published on Medium.