2021 in Books

2021 was a long exhale. In retrospect, a tremendous amount of good came out of this year, with vaccines, weddings, a promotion, and wonderful adventures with friends, but it did so by using all of the pent-up energy of 2020 without a chance to recover. I was surprised at the end of the year by how much I had read, though unfortunately unsurprised by how little I remembered of each of the titles.

In lieu of defining my favorites, or the “best” reads of the year, instead I’m giving preference to the books that I find myself thinking about or recommending the most, flawed as some of them are. While reading and intellectual engagement needn't go hand-in-hand, I do think there’s a particular value in books that give you ideas to chew on, be it with subtlety or with force.

Top books of 2021

East of Eden — I never enjoyed Steinbeck in school and didn’t particularly care to read East of Eden, which in my head was nothing more than a stodgy piece of overhyped mid-century literature. While there are certainly pieces that haven’t aged particularly well, it’s an incredible portrait of life that’s filled with remarkable moments and insight. It’s place in the canon is well deserved.

Such a Fun Age — I went into Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age blind, without even reading the back cover, and was surprised by the content. Far from the easy breezy beach read I expected based on the cover design, I found a timely and engrossing plot that highlights so many of the flaws of our society. I winced and groaned my way throughout it and still find myself reminiscing on it months later.

The Cooking Gene — Michael Twitty’s magum opus tells the story of his Southern heritage through food. It took me several months of slow reading to make it all the way through, but I found it consistently excellent. As a proud North Carolinian I was transfixed at the backstories and histories surrounding so many of the dishes I grew up eating. The Cooking Gene helped deepen my appreciation for Southern cuisine even more than I knew my buttery heart was capable of.

Batavia’s Graveyard — Mike Dash’s recounting of a shipwreck and mutiny turned murderous is my least favorite of my recommendations this year, but it maintains a spot solely because of how cool the book is. Based nearly entirely from first-person accounts from 1629 and earlier, Batavia’s Graveyard is fascinating to read if only to appreciate the effort and luck that went into creating an accurate historical record of an event nearly 400 years old.

Complete 2021 Reading List:

After eight years of book tracking, I finally started to consistently write reviews on GoodReads. If you’re interested in my extended thoughts on any of the below books, friend me here.

Five Stars — I thoroughly enjoyed reading this
An American Marriage — Tayari Jones
Beartown — Fredrik Backman
East of Eden — John Steinbeck
Educated — Tara Westover
How the Word Is Passed — Clint Smith
Just Mercy — Bryan Stevenson
Know My Name — Chanel Miller
Me and White Supremacy — Layla F. Saad
Pappyland — Wright Thompson
Such a Fun Age — Kiley Reid
The Body Keeps the Score — Bessel van der Kolk
The City We Became — N.K. Jemisin
The Cooking Gene — Michael W. Twitty
The Cruelty Is the Point — Adam Serwer

Four Stars — This was an above average read, but not exceptional
A Darker Shade of Magic — V.E. Schwab
A Walk in the Woods — Bill Bryson
Batavia’s Graveyard — Mike Dash
Becoming — Michelle Obama
Begin Again — Eddie S. Glaude Jr.
Caste — Isabel Wilkerson
Circe — Madeline Miller
Destiny of the Republic — Candice Millard
Dopesick — Beth Macy
Empire of Pain — Patrick Radden Keefe
Everyone Dies Famous in a Small Town — Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark — Michelle McNamara
In the Woods — Tana French
Mexican Gothic — Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Midnight in Chernobyl — Adam Higginbotham
Parable of the Sower — Octavia E. Butler
Recursion — Blake Crouch
S Street Rising — Rubén Castañeda
Shoe Dog — Phil Knight
Taskmaster — Alex Horne
The Biggest Bluff — Maria Konnikova
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue — V.E. Schwab
The Left Hand of Darkness — Ursula K. Le Guin
The Midnight Library — Matt Haig
The Nickel Boys — Colson Whitehead
The Orchid Thief — Susan Orlean
The Song of Achilles — Madeline Miller
The Spy Who Came In from the Cold — John le Carré
The Underground Railroad — Colson Whitehead
Tribe — Sebastian Junger
Us Against You — Fredrik Backman
What Happened To You? — Bruce D. Perry
Women Who Run With the Wolves — Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Three Stars — Good for what it is
Atomic Habits — James Clear
Dead Wake — Erik Larson
Emma — Jane Austen
Exhalation — Ted Chiang
Housekeeping — Marilynne Robinson
In Five Years — Rebecca Serle
Interior Chinatown — Charles Yu
Is This Anything? — Jerry Seinfeld
Lovecraft Country — Matt Ruff
Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve — Ben Blatt
Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman — Lindy West
The Jack Tales — Richard Chase
The Last Good Kiss — James Crumley
The Mysterious Affair at Styles — Agatha Christie
The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs — Stephen Brusatte
The World of Lore: Monstrous Creatures — Aaron Mahnke
Wild — Cheryl Strayed

Two Stars — I do not recommend
Disappearing Moon Cafe — Sky Lee
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children — Ransom Riggs
Talking as Fast as I Can — Lauren Graham
The Only Good Indians — Stephen Graham Jones
The Tattooist of Auschwitz — Heather Morris
Weather — Jenny Offill

Previously: 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020

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Denton Baird

A North Carolinian interested in how communication and behavior influence complex systems.