My Favorite Reads of 2021
Doors, Plots, Plants, and... Hungarians.
In my Review of 2021, I wrote how the year felt in many ways like a re-do. It was another chance for us face the same obstacles we did in 2020 and see if we do a better job this time around. A lot of the reads that spoke to me this year were also opportunities to revisit. Some, like Barrack Obama’s, allowed me to revisit my own experience of events in the past. Others, like Antal Szerb’s, were opportunities to recounter books I’d previous read—and to get something fresh and delightful the second time around. The memoir by Tom Vitale gave me a view from behind the camera on a show I’ve seen many, many times on screen.
I also continued to find new depth in fiction. A few years ago, I would primarily have been a reader of non-fiction. But though I’ll always consider non-fiction my home base, I have begun to develop a new relationship with fiction. As I talked about in my notes on 2021, I find it harder and harder to find surprising and invigorating ideas in psychology. Looking to novels—whether mass-market fiction like Jean Hanff Korelitz or literary fiction like Magda Szabó—is currently a great source of the new and profound for me.
I’ve also developed a minor obsession with Hungarian literature. There were several of these titles among my favorite reads this year, and I have a few more lined up for 2022. My partner Haily and I have (slowly) been making our way through the Russians: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, etc. But while their literary gravitas is apparent, I can’t say they touch me emotionally. The Hungarians, though—they capture something really central in my own worldview. They are also, unlike the Russians, completely hilarious.
So here they are. My favorite reads of 2021:
12. Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey (2020)
I know what you’re thinking. Matthew McConaughey? The Rom-Com guy? Really? But that’s precisely why you should read this book. It’s a book about fulfilling your potential, then figuring out how to reinvent yourself once everyone (including you) has put you into a box. It is full of wisdom, verve, and, most of all, soul. It is a book about aligning one’s morality with one’s creativity. It’s really good. And I highly recommend the audiobook, since it’s read—performed—by McConaughey himself.
11. Sovietistan by Erika Fatland (2019)
My favorite travel book of the year. It is an exploration of that great blank spot on people’s mental map of the world: Central Asia. The author, God bless her, is Scandinavian, so the book isn’t funny; it has no pretense to wit or humor. But she is fluent in Russian (along with, like, forty-seven other languages, evidently) and she has a knack for stolid, matter-of-fact reporting. Which brings a certain believability to this most fantastical of milieux—from the marble-laden capital of Turkmenistan to the snowy peaks of Takijistan. Loved it.
10. The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz (2021)
I started reading this book on Christmas morning, and I finished it two days later, around midnight, on the 27th. So empirically, I really liked it. I picked it up because Malcolm Gladwell recommended it in his end-of-year newsletter as a “perfect book” though I probably wouldn’t reach for that superlative myself. At its core, it’s a mystery-thriller about a magic plot, one that is so astonishingly good that even the composer of the world’s limpest prose couldn’t screw it up. The plot is so compelling that, once rendered on the page, everyone from Obama to Oprah to your next door neighborhood will be powerless to resist it. Through a series of events, our protagonist—a down-on-his-luck writer—comes across this magical plot. But beware! The plot that made his career might also be his downfall…
9. The Alignment Problem by Brian Christian (2020)
This is a book about the history of artificial intelligence: the human process through which AI algorithms are designed, and how those algorithms interact with our society more generally. I discussed this book at length with the author for my podcast, in which we elaborate on what I consider to be the most important points made in the book. There are a few insights in there which I think are among the most important for understand how technology will impact society over the next several decades.
8. The Door by Magda Szabó (1987)
A classic of Hungarian literature. Reading Szabó is like reading a Hungarian Joan Didion. She’s witty, incisive, and oh man can she cut the world into words. This book is a love story. It is about the relationship between two women: a successful author and her housekeeper. The author (not unlike Didion) is uncannily cerebral, as if she exists only in the observation of others. The housekeeper, by contrast, has no use for ideas, for anything without practical utility. It isn’t a love story in the romantic sense, but in the development of their mutual dependence on one another. If you want a novel that is at once literary, highly readable, beautiful, and features two of the greatest character I’ve ever come across—and, really, I don’t know why you wouldn’t—I highly recommend it.
7. This is Your Mind on Plants by Michael Pollan (2021)
This book can be read as an expansion on the themes in Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind—which undoubtedly is one of the best books on mind and society I’ve read in the past few years. Mind on Plants isn’t quite at the same level, but it builds on the same premises while exploring a different set of psychoactive chemicals—ones which are less flamboyant than psychedelics (as is covered in Change Your Mind), but more readily integrated into society. For example, caffeine. If you’re a coffee drinker, you’ll want to read this. And even if this book isn’t quite at the level of his previous offering, Michael Pollan is still one of the best non-fiction writers currently in the game.
6. In the Weeds by Tom Vitale (2021)
This is a book by Anthony Bourdain’s main creativity counterpart, a man who worked with Tony for pretty much the entirety of his television career. If like me you are interested in Bourdain’s life and work (“interested” being a rather dramatic under-diagnosis of my feelings toward him), this is a must-read. It’s the closest thing you’re going to get to an insight into what he was like behind-the-scenes. It is an attempt to make sense of Bourdain’s death—unsuccessful, of course, as any understanding of a suicide must ultimately be—from the person who was in many ways most dependent on him. The documentary Roadrunner was fine. But this book is the real deal.
5. The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green (2021)
It’s humanly impossible not to love this book. It is the work of someone supremely in touch with the full breadth of living. This is one of those pieces that you read and are reminded: “Oh yeah, life is actually a really big thing; there’s a lot more to it than the narrow preoccupation I’ve been caught up in lately.” Especially home-bound as we are in times of plague, that’s something we can all use a bit more of.
4. All that Man Is by David Szalay (2016)
Great novel. Masculine novel. Feels like reading a 21st century Hemingway, but instead of characters involved in wars and shit, it’s just modern life. I loved the structure of the book: a series of interconnected short stories—not unlike David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten, which was one of my favorite books I read in 2020. The opening passage by Szalay—it’s pronounced “Soloy” by the way—is one of the best renderings of the feeling of travel I’ve ever come across (up there with one of my favorite movies, Lost in Translation). That hooked me instantly. By the way, Szalay? He’s Hungarian.
3. A Promised Land by Barry O (2020)
For me, this book was like reliving my teenage years again, but from the point of view of an adult. I experienced all of these events as news headlines, as fodder for punchlines on The Daily Show, or as talking points mentioned by adults in passing. They were events I experienced passively, from a distance and without any meaningful consequences in my own life. So having Obama comb through all of these events from his point of view, to give his account of what really happened behind closed door—it completely upended my cozy interpretations of an entire half-decade. I couldn’t help but feel that I’d been lied to, that the interpretation I’d been presented with at that age had been intentionally misleading. Or if not lied to, then at least nobody had bothered to give me a fuller picture of what was happening in the world. I’ll also say that Obama is someone I look up to a lot—both in his own personal approach to life (a rare admixture of intellectuality and practicality) and in his motivation belief that the key to making society is understanding one another. So I loved this book.
2. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (2010)
This is one of those books that makes you feel fractionally better as a person—more well-adjusted, better equipped to face life as it really is—for having read it. If you haven’t read a Franzen novel before, it’s kind of like a Russian novel (think Anna Karenina—which by the way I also read this year but didn’t make the list) but set in the American midwest. As New Yorker writer Kathryn Schulz wrote, Franzen likes to wear to his thematic content on his sleeve. So the book is about freedom: What are the consequences of being able to make choices to architect the kind of life we’d like to have? Are such choices even possible? If they are, is it a power we’re capable of effectively wielding? It might sound like a big chunk for a book to bite off. But fucking A... Franzen really does it.
1. Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb (1937)
The number one spot goes to another classic of 20th century Hungarian literature. As it currently stands, I’d probably rank this as my favorite novel of all time. What exactly stands out to me about it? I’m going to write at length about that later. I’ll let you know when I do.
P.S., This week I released the first installment of my new series: Cog Rev Redux. I revisit my back-catalogue of episodes from Cognitive Revolution, and see what’s stuck with from the conversation years letter. Each redux features thirty minutes of the highlights from the original conversation and my running commentary about how an idea impacted me, my own backstory with the guest, or how I’ve changed since the original recording. The first one features the inimitable Paul Bloom.
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