Best Books I Read (2021 Edition), plus several books that disappointed

Best Books I Read (2021 Edition), plus several books that disappointed
Image Credit: Nuno Cardoso / Flickr / Creative Commons

This year, I read 52 books or so, including 14 novels with the balance non-fiction. This metric has gotten more complicated to compute over the years — I have deliberately attempted to re-read some books and ditch others faster, so a true census is infeasible.

There were two recurring intellectual themes across my reading. The first was around climate change and natural disasters, which I was heavily reporting on at TechCrunch before decamping to Lux Capital. The second theme centered around the future of truth and reason (and by extension, democracy). The two actually have a lot of overlap, and it was enjoyable to juxtapose them together.

While I was fortunate to read many amazing books, there were also several that didn’t meet my admittedly high expectations for them. I don’t generally highlight things I don’t like (why bring attention to them in the first place), but they were sufficiently interesting to ponder on their flaws that I felt it right to include them at the end.

First Place: A Savage War of Peace by Alistair Horne

This was a surprisingly staggering work from the late 1970s on the history of the French-Algerian War. Over the past two years, I have been reading most of Albert Camus’ bibliography, and I wanted to get a broader understanding of the milieu in which he lived. This is one of the canonical books on the conflict in English, and so I purchased it without much expectation. What I got was a masterpiece of historical writing, and a paragon of what great narrative history can offer.

Horne has a critical advantage compared to most historians in covering a contemporary war: access to nearly every player on all sides of the conflict who are remarkably open about their motivations and actions during the conflict. He weaves this extraordinary wealth of detailed insider knowledge into a compelling and panoramic portrayal of the war and its effects.

What made A Savage War of Peace so compelling to me is that its lessons flow far beyond the shores of the particular war under study. We see the incredible diversity of motivations of the war’s primary actors, and how factions rise and fall and recombine as events transpire. We see how the war influenced postwar French culture and politics, while also observing major world events like the seizure of the Suez Canal and how they reverberate far beyond their theaters. We see military and intelligence strategy, diplomacy, and economic development in action. And we get a full cultural anthropological account of the diversity of cultures in Algeria to boot.

It’s not a short book, clocking in at nearly 650 pages. But it’s depth, erudition, and level-headedness are mesmerizingly refreshing. The Algerian War of Independence might not be on the scopes for most of us these days, but this is a timeless book that could elucidate any conflict.

Second Place: The Great Derangement by Amitav Ghosh

This was one of the books that I re-read this year, and for good reason. Few books of only about 200 pages pack so much thought in such a lapidary style.

Ghosh, a long-time novelist, surveys the state of climate change and its effects on history, society, and politics, ultimately bringing to bear a honed set of eyes to critically observe the intricacies and contradictions of our thinking around the subject. He uncovers original connections and harnesses both his own memories and his humaneness in understanding one of the greatest challenges facing the planet today.

As just one example, he connects early developments in statistical probability with the rise of the novel: “Probability and the modern novel are in fact twins, born at about the same time, among the same people, under a shared star that destined them to work as vessels for the containment of the same kind of experience.” He finds that there is a tension between gradualism and catastrophism, finding Western societies in particular struggling to reconcile the sudden from the slow.

It’s such a short book that I recommend just reading it cover to cover — and then re-reading it again a few weeks later when the lessons become hazy. Like any concise work, it’s insights can often take time to imprint, but they’re worth every effort to imbue us with new understanding.

Also check out my full book review on TechCrunch.

Third Place: Nervous States by William Davies

The future of truth (or “truth” for you post-modernists out there) is perhaps one of the most fundamental questions for democratic societies this century. Objectivity is under attack, we live in a post-fact world, and basic conceits of living in a polity have been discredited. We habit a time of incredible ambiguity, change, and structurelessness — and that means quite a bit more stress heaped on citizens already reeling from the vagaries of economics and pandemics and globalization and technology development.

Davies has written a synthetic work connecting the stress and neuroticism of people with the states they ultimately construct, finding that our bodies and our body politic share a common set of challenges. Rationality is out, emotion is in. The structures of the past two centuries that kept man’s brutish intentions out have been demolished, lending to our worst impulses reanimating the public square.

Worse, he shows how the modern economy has “weaponized” knowledge, making it harder to secure correct and accurate information. The best datasets are private and are enormously expensive, while free but inaccurate data abounds on the internet. That’s in contrast to the basis of the Enlightenment era, when institutions like the Royal Society specifically demanded universal access to data and scientific results to create a boisterous culture of critique and debate.

It’s a remarkable book, and I found it to be one of the most illuminating about our present era.

Honorable mentions

  • Scoop by Evelyn Waugh — a classic, and one of the funniest novels I have read in sometime. Its depiction of the circus of media holds up almost perfectly a century later.
  • Empire and Righteous Nation by Odd Arne Westad — a synthetic, in-depth, and concise look at China-Korea relations from one of the best experts on the subject. Simply amazing. Also check out an interview with Westad that I co-hosted with Jordan Schneider on his ChinaTalk podcast.
  • Reader, Come Home by Maryanne Wolf — a short but fear-inducing work about how the diminishment of reading has harmed empathy and our ability to reason. Its descriptions of recent scientific results on lower reading and brain development deeply changed my perspective.
  • The Trial by Franz Kafka — a classic, but one that I found to be far more readable and electrifying than I was expecting. Fantastic themes that still resonate decades on.
  • The Fall by Albert Camus — just a tremendous work of fiction and philosophical development. I’ve now read the French and English versions multiple times, and each time I peel another slice of experience off of this onion of a novel.
  • On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King — a great storyteller and book, even though I have never read a King novel.
  • Comment Teut Peut S’effondrer by Pablo Servigne & Raphaël Stevens — this is the really negative book on the future of our planet, which was released in English as “How Everything Can Collapse: A Manual for Our Times.” I found it to be one of the best models for understanding the complexity of our planet and why humans are no match for the systems that maintain it.

Finally, the disappointments

The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

This book is widely considered to be one of the finest if not the finest work of non-fiction of the twentieth century. I’m not sure I disagree with that status, but the work definitely didn’t hold up for me in this regard.

Perhaps the challenge is that its success as well as the influence it has had in opening up despotic regimes to scrutiny have become more commonplace. When it was released, it was a sensation — a well-researched, panoramic perspective on the evils of communism and the Soviet Union and particularly Stalinism. In the 1970s, that sort of revelation was extraordinarily fresh, particularly after the space race, Cuban Missile Crisis and other episodes of fear regularly bulleted American life.

Yet, reading the book today, what’s eerie is how little has changed. Whole chapters of Solzhenitsyn’s book could be dumped into discussions of North Korea, or Xinjiang, or the myriad of other sites of horrific human rights abuses that plague our century. Nothing has really changed, and so the originality of the work now feels almost quotidian. That’s a statement of our present curses, and also just a reality that this book is long, a bit tedious, quite repetitive, and far less engrossing than I expected.

The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson

This book has been widely lauded by critics. I really can’t say why.

I wrote a review on the book for TechCrunch, but suffice it to say, the book is quite miserably terrible. The daring critic sometimes calls it “uneven,” which apparently has become the synonym for unreadable.

This book starts strong with a heat wave in India, one of the most vivid fictional scenes of ecological destruction that I have ever read. But then it descends into an extremely faint, meandering plot that is suffused with random ideas that barely work in tandem on the page or cohere into any form of narrative structure. It’s a policy paper with random wooden characters addled in, and worse, unlike a policy paper, its hundreds and hundreds of pages long.

I slogged through it to completion, but if ever a book could have used some serious editing with an emphasis on cutting, this is the one.

The Nutmeg’s Curse by Amitav Ghosh

Given that The Great Derangement was one of my best books of the year, I was raring to read Ghosh’s next book on climate change. To use the aforementioned circumlocution, let’s just say that it is “uneven.”

Where The Great Derangement was a spectacle of concise deep thinking, The Nutmeg’s Curse is a windy circumnavigation of the globe and random thoughts and ideas with a loose thread holding it all together around the plight of the nutmeg and the inhabitants of the Banda Islands. There are the familiar brilliant and original connections that I expect from Ghosh, but they are sparse, and interleaved with pages of prose that would have been better off set aside.

Like many follow-ons, it feels like this book was published a bit too quickly and could have used a much longer gestation. Large chunks were also written at the height of the pandemic, which could not have been easy from a writing perspective either. It’s a tough and competitive book market out there, and this one just missed the mark.