So it turns out that one of the side effects of lockdown was a sharp uptick in my reading as my social life evaporated overnight. Living in Paris is defined, in part, by coffees and meals with friends and with that option off the table for large portions of 2020, I threw myself even more into my stacks of books than I would have normally and in so doing managed to read 150 of them. The number staggers me a bit, but seems about right given all those languorous days that seem to run together in my mind as I think about the past year in the rear view mirror.
Of those 150 I’ve picked 35 that you might consider adding to your 2021 reads. Who knows? Given the ongoing worldwide incompetent response to Covid-19, you might have a lot more time to read this year as well.
1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West by Roger Crowley. The fall of Constantinople was not just a military event, but a cultural and religious one as well. Crowley’s book manages to competently and concisely explain the buildup to and the effects of this catastrophic disaster. (My review)
Bananas: How the United Fruit Company Shaped the World by Peter Chapman. People are most likely to know “banana republic” as a clothing company, not a type of government that was developed by the United Fruit Company, whose policies would later receive overt and covert assistance by the US government (before being tossed aside, like a banana peel, after its useful days had passed). It’s quite something to understand how bananas, like coffee, suddenly became something people couldn’t live without, and how that desire could be weaponized in a global economy, with the friendly assistance of the godfather of propaganda himself, Edward Bernays. (My review)
Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America’s Kings of Beer by William Knoedelseder. I was a student at Saint Louis a few years after the legendary acquisition of Budweiser by InBev and the repercussions of the sale were still being talked about by the denizens of that city by the Mississippi. For those interested in the history of beer in America, and how some breweries made it through Prohibition, including Anheuser-Busch, this story is quintessentially American. Essential reading if you’ve ever had any connection to Saint Louis. (My review)
The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition by Caroline Alexander. Caroline Alexander’s book is a wonderful collection of primary sources, including from Shackleton himself, accompanied by the astonishing photographs of Frank Hurley, who was on the expedition. The inspiring story of the Endurance evokes Robinson Crusoe, but has the added aura of being true. (My review)
How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis. While this account of turn-of-the-century NYC may shock you, it’s even more shameful to see that we continue on our reckless quest of consumption. The only reason we no longer see “how the other half lives” is because they are now sewing your clothes in Southeast Asia instead.(My review)
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer. This is the book for those who are interested in just how it was possible for Adolf Hitler to rise from unemployed artist to the most powerful man in Europe since Napoleon. Shirer was on the ground in Berlin as many of the events unfolded and was given unprecedented access to archives which gave the world a story that even the Germans would not accept as factual when the book was first published. (My review)
While I heartily disagree with Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s assertion that if a book is not worth re-reading, it’s not worth reading, I do think that the books that bear a re-read can only become more meaningful to you as years go on.
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner. This is traditionally recommended as a “starter” book for Faulkner and I tend to agree. That doesn’t make it a simple read, but the story and its perspectives will stay with you for some time, even on a second or third read. (My review)
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. A book which all of us had to trudge through as high school juniors in the US was not necessarily one I would excitedly return to years later, but perhaps that’s one of the reasons this novel is so worth reading. It captures the American experience not just within the time frame it is set, but in a way, for the country’s entire history. It is not without irony that Fitzgerald died thinking this was a great failure when it turned out to be his greatest work, and one of the best American novels of the last century. (My review)
Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton. I wasn’t even in high school when I first read this marvelous story and the fact that it stands up so well so many years later is a testament to what Crichton was able to foresee in our tinkering with the genetic codes of animals. (My review)
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. I appreciate this text every time I go back to it for many reasons, not least of which its authorship by the most powerful man in the world during his lifetime. If we had more leaders like him the world would not be in the place that it is, but alas we no longer value virtue in our leaders, and to be fair, we will always have precisely the leaders we deserve. (My review)
Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. While anyone who ever watched Peter Jackson’s films (Extended Edition, of course!) will bring their own images to a reading of this text, my revisiting of all three novels a quarter of a century (whoa!) after I first read them was such a pleasure. Don’t skip the appendices when you get there. I mean, you have already read 1000 pages, what’s another 100? :-) (My review)
Othello by William Shakespeare. Having recently started a Shakespeare book club in Paris I had the chance to read almost a dozen Shakespeare plays this year and the play that really hit home was one I’ve read several times over the years. Othello’s nobility, foolishness, and tragic flaws confound you no matter how many times you read his beautiful lines. (My review)
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. This is one of my favorite novels of all time and this time I took advantage of a free iBooks edition narrated by Kate Beckinsale, who if she wasn’t so beautiful and talented as an actress, could easily have had plenty of voice work for the rest of her life. (My review)
Star Wars: Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn. It was my freshman year of high school when I first read about Grand Admiral Thrawn and a well-crafted alternative continuation of Star Wars after the events of Episode 6. I came back to this text via a 20th anniversary edition audiobook, complete with special effects and really-not-bad imitations of Lando and Han (major kudos, Marc Thompson). This is the first of a trilogy that gives you a hint of what the Star Wars universe looked like before Disney got its grubby fingers on it and turned it into a sad vehicle for their social views. (My review)
Biography and Autobiography
Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson by S.C. Gwynne. I’ve been fortunate enough to have visited two battlefields in which General Jackson fought, at both Sharpsburg and 1st Manasses, the latter which (at least for the moment) features that famous equestrian statue of the General accompanied by the words of General Bee: “There stands Jackson like a stone wall.” General Jackson was a God-fearing and thoughtful man, though not without his flaws, and his story, like that of the War Between the States, defies simple and pat explanations. (My review)
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. I know many people have read this book in years past but this was the year I finally read it and while I didn’t come away with a higher opinion of Jobs (much of Jobs’ personal behavior covered in the book had dripped out in stories in the past decade) I did come away with a much better sense of his achievement across multiple categories (I don’t think most people realize he was a driving force at Pixar). But at what cost? I think the book does a great job of asking (and answering) that question. (My review)
Break Shot: My First 21 Years by James Taylor. This unique offering from the generally outstanding Audible Originals collection features James Taylor telling you about the earliest part of his life, playing music for you along the way. It’s a fascinating and interesting look at an artist’s journey, and will probably have you humming Carolina In My Mind when you finish it. (My review)
The Crucifixion of Jesus: A Forensic Inquiry by Frederick T. Zugibe. Dr. Zugibe has studied the Shroud of Turin for many decades and as a medical doctor had a keen interest into the precise medical condition of the body that is miraculously imprinted on the shroud. While the book can at times get very medically technical, anyone who wants to look at the forensic evidence behind the Passion of Christ would do well to read it. (My review)
Purgatory Explained by the Lives and Legends of the Saints by Fr. F.X. Schouppe. The title tells you most of what you need to know about this handy volume. The Church’s teaching on Purgatory and its various torments are described in this text. You’ll be inspired to pray for the poor souls in Purgatory as well seek to amend your life to avoid it yourself. (My review)
True Devotion to Mary by St. Louis de Montfort. St. Louis de Montfort was providentially raised to deal with the heresy of Jansenism and one of his weapons was his love for Mary. This text outlines a way of spirituality that draws the devotee into a closer relationship with Jesus Christ through devotion to his Blessed Mother. (My review)
Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church by John W. O’Malley. O’Malley is the opposite of an Ultramontanist, which for purposes of this text, was the name given to a group of Cardinals and theologians (as well as lay writers) who supported a formal definition of papal infallibility, despite the fact that Pope Pius IX had already deployed that infallibility in his solemn definition of the Immaculate Conception more than a decade before the Council. It’s a good and in most part unbiased look at this key Church council. (My review)
I plan to write an entirely separate piece pondering these books that are chronicles of the millennials who tried to channel Steve Jobs to disastrous effect.
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou. I have been fascinated with the Theranos story since it turned out the Inc. story which I (and many others) read announcing Elizabeth Holmes as the “next Steve Jobs” turned out to be a well-marketed thin tissue of lies. Carreyrou’s detailed description of how he got this story is exciting and revelatory. (My review)
Billion Dollar Loser: The Epic Rise and Spectacular Fall of Adam Neumann and WeWork by Reeves Wiedeman. Even if you’ve been following WeWork over the years, you had no idea it was as bad as this. (My review)
Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber by Mike Isaac. We’ve all taken an Uber and may have even read about some of the fallout as Kalanick spectacularly exited the company he helped found. This book will tell you why he should have been kicked out years before. (My review)
Thicker Than Water: The Untold Story of the Theranos Whistleblower by Tyler Schultz. Another Audible Original which would make an excellent complement if you’ve already read Bad Blood. If, like me, you couldn’t get enough of the fraud that was/is Elizabeth Holmes, check out the ABC-produced podcast which could shortcut you through reading Carreyrou’s book (in part because he prominently features in the podcasts). (My review)
I’ve perhaps never been less interested in this category than in 2020, but the year did kick off with one of my favorite reads of the year and in the category, all time.
Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As if Your Life Depended On It by Chris Voss. I actually got interested in this book by watching Voss’ Masterclass, which if you’re interested in that platform, is worth the price of admission alone. (My review)
Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle. While I’m one of those cult fans of the 1960s film series based on this book, I had never read the source material. It’s fascinating in its own way and Rod Serling is to be commended for his fidelity to the source material in his screenplay for the original film. (My review)
War with the Newts by Karel Capek. Recommended to me by one of my intellectual mentors, this book reminds us of just how destructive it is to base an entire world, with no care for humans (or animals, for that matter) on economic efficiency. The humans get precisely what they deserve. (My review)
Alone on the Wall by Alex Honnold with David Roberts. Like many who watched Free Solo, I got curious about Alex Honnold. This book takes you inside the mind of this amygdala-damaged man and the spectacular climbs he makes, apparently, just to make them. (My review)
Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. I actually first heard about this book via Tim Ferriss and jotted it down but only recently got to it. Lamott effortlessly gives aspiring writers helpful advice in between serious and funny anecdotes. (My review)
Caffeine: How Caffeine Created the Modern World by Michael Pollan. This is the third Audible Original to make this list and the first time I’ve heard Michael Pollan read one of his works. I don’t care about Pollan’s current psychedelics obsession, but I am still influenced by the Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food, and Food Rules more than a decade after I read all three. I’ll check out anything Pollan has to say about food anytime and his story about caffeine — mostly coffee — is well worth a listen. (My review)
The Writing Life by Annie Dillard. Anytime you read Annie Dillard you feel inadequate as a writer. In this thin tome she shares some reflections on why writing is hard and painful, not sometimes, but often. (My review)
If you’re interested in following my 2021 reading journey, or in seeing books I’ve read in previous years, you can follow me on Goodreads. I’d also love to see similar lists from you to help me pick out some great reads for next year.
If you’re interested in reading more in 2021 but perhaps just need some accountability to help you along, I’ve recently started a Patreon which features a monthly book discussion and at least one monthly video review from me.