I’m a plodding reader. I know people who read books like I eat potato chips. They can’t stop. They don’t bother to count. Not me. I read 37 books this year plus six more that I gave up on without quite finishing. I am no speed reader. I will not count a book as read until I read every word. (I allow myself to skip the acknowledgements, though I usually read those too.)
My interests tend toward history and political biography, though this year I notice that not a single political bio made my top ten. I did read Jonathan Alter’s life of Jimmy Carter, His Very Best, but that came in at number 16 on my list. (And, yes, I rank all the books I read every year. I know. I’m seeking treatment.)
Aside from those interests, I just meander through the year. Sometimes I pick up on a recommendation from a friend and sometimes I just browse the “Libby” public library app to see what’s available. Very occasionally I’ll take a recommendation from the New York Times book review or from the Wall Street Journal’s reviews, but I don’t read a lot of new books.
Anyway, here are the 10 books I enjoyed most in ’21:
10. Old School by Tobias Wolff (2003). This was a recommendation from my constantly-reading friend and former neighbor Denny Burke. Old School reminded me of Catcher in the Rye or A Separate Peace. An outsider at an elite eastern prep school struggles to fit in — and to decide if he really wants to. I enjoyed this so much that I read two more Wolff books, In Pharaoh’s Army, an account of his time in Vietnam, and In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, a collection of short stories. Okay, since you asked, Army came in at #11 and Martyrs at #21.
9. Pirate Hunters by Robert Kurson (2015). I stumbled on Kurson in 2020 in a late night Libby search, desperate to find something to read. That unexpected find, Rocket Men, (it was my #2 book last year) was an edge-of-your-seat account of Apollo 8, the first manned trip to the moon (they orbited it without landing). I followed that up with Shadow Divers (#11 in 2020), the story of deep sea divers obsessed with identifying a U-Boat sunk off the coast of New England. Pirate Hunters returns to the same set of real-life divers as they set out to find a lost pirate ship. There’s plenty of interesting stuff about diving here, but all three of Kurson’s books are the stories of men at their best.
8. Guns, Germs & Steel by Jared Diamond (1997). Ever wonder why Europe became, you know, Europe? Diamond’s book sets out to understand why one continent came to dominate the others. As you might guess, there are three answers.
7. The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles Mann (2019). This was a recommendation from my friend Joel Rogers. Ostensibly the intertwined biographies of rival scientists Norman Borlaug (the Wizard) and William Vogt (the Prophet), this is really a long reflection on the tension between technology and naturalism. Both men were at the height of their influence in the mid-twentieth century. Borlaug is a father of the Green Revolution of plant seed hybrids, irrigation and fertilizers while Vogt, a contemporary of Aldo Leopold, warned about limits to the earth’s natural carrying capacity. Mann does a good job of keeping his thumb off the scales, but I came away less of a prophet and more a wizard than I used to be. Truth is that most of the dire warnings of late twentieth century environmentalists (remember “The Population Bomb”?) just haven’t happened… which isn’t to say they won’t. I like Mann’s writing so much that I’m ending 2021, and probably starting 2022, with another of his books, 1493.
6. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain (2012). Another late night Libby find, this is an historically accurate novel told from the point of view of Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemmingway’s first wife. You end up learning a lot about Hemmingway, how he wrote, what he did when he didn’t write (which he did a lot) and all the insecurities of a man who had to pretend he had none in order to fit the public persona he nurtured. Spoiler alert: you’re pretty happy for Hadley when their marriage ends.
5. Countdown 1945 by Chris Wallace (2020.) I listened to the audio version of the book, which as you’d expect, is narrated by Wallace himself. It’s an almost day-by-day account of the four months between FDR’s death and the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Harry Truman had been kept completely in the dark about the development of the bomb. At Truman’s grim swearing in ceremony, FDR’s secretary of war tells him he needs to meet with him soon to bring him up to speed on something. And it sure was something. Wallace does a nice job of weaving together the politics, the science, the military strategy and the morality of using the bomb. And as the reader, he pays you the respect of leaving it up to you to decide if Truman did the right thing. Captain Harry never doubted it, but you will be surprised who did.
4. The Age of Acrimony by Jon Grinspan (2021). This is an oddly reassuring book. That’s because Grinspan reminds us of what American politics was like after the Civil War until the Progressive Era, which is to say it was rather contentious. If you think our country is divided today, we’ve got nothing on the late nineteenth century, when political violence and shady election tactics were almost the norm. If we came out of that alright, maybe our current troubles aren’t fatal either.
3. Suicide of the West by Jonah Goldberg (2018). I’m a big fan of the editor of the centrist online journal The Dispatch and of his weekly columns. If Goldberg has a fault it’s his verbosity. He often says in 1,200 words what he could have said in 600, and that’s a problem that extends to (and just extends) this book. But it’s worth the 400 page march (and Goldberg says that his editor cut even this down by half). There may be a lot of writing but all of it is clear and entertaining. Goldberg does a great job of summing up why the modern world has been so successful at advancing freedom and pushing back hunger, disease and war. It’s all about “the secret”: liberal enlightenment and the dawn of the individual. He laments the tribalism that Trump and the woke left represent. This book fits nicely with The Wizard and the Prophet, but also with Steven Pinker’s wonderful Enlightenment Now, which was published the same year.
2. American Nations by Colin Woodard (2011). We often talk of the United States as “one nation.” Well, we are one state, but Woodard would tell you that we are no less than 11 nations. Recommended to me by my friend the journalist Marc Eisen, this book helps me make sense of both American history and current events. It even helps explain how Donald Trump happened. And, like The Age of Acrimony and Suicide of the West, it gives me hope (probably unintended by the author or by Marc) for our country’s future.
Which brings me to my favorite book of the year…
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (2016). I stumbled on this novel while in my workshop. I needed some background noise and turned on public radio, where Jim Flemming was starting a new book on Chapter a Day. I was riveted from the start and let down, not by the ending, but that it had to end. I came to like fictional Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov and his daughter and most of the other characters that swirl around him while he spends decades under house arrest in Moscow’s Hotel Metropol. The Count knows how to enjoy life, even a circumscribed one like his, which is more than you can say for the grim, humorless Bolsheviks who threaten that he’ll be shot if he so much as takes a step outside of the hotel. Maybe I have an over-active imagination, but I could relate to Rostov and I sometimes feel surrounded by humorless Bolsheviks around here myself. Towles published a new novel this year, The Lincoln Highway. It made #13 on my list, but it’s not quite as good as this one.
That’s what I’ve got for 2021. My reading list is already developing for next year. Let me know what you recommend.
Welcome to the 313th day of consecutive posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!