What a year! From pandemics and insurrections to further evidence that climate change is knocking on our doors, 2021 made checking the news challenging to say the least.
Thankfully, on a personal level, the year wasn’t too bad. I moved from Columbus (where I had been for the past year) to Atlanta, Georgia, landed a few new writing clients I enjoy writing for, and grew closer to the many amazing people surrounding me. I also adopted a Manx cat named Banksy!
However, despite those positives, I also found myself getting more burnt out than ever before. I found myself procrastinating, which I never used to do; growing (even) more irritable than in the past and getting frustrated when I realized it; and discovered that, now more than ever, I need my me-time.
For me, me-time can involve anything from skincare or a movie to video games or a walk through the park. In 2021, however, I’m happy to say that a lot of my me-time was spent reading. Because of that, I thought it’d be worthwhile to summarize some of the books I read.
So put on your reading glasses, and let’s get started!
Most of the books I gravitate towards are non-fiction. Fun fact: Besides helping you learn more about the world, non-fiction books are also the best way to lull yourself to sleep when you’re ready for bed.
Bear with me as I try and group my non-fiction reads into different categories!
Okay, one biography, but an enjoyable read regardless.
Becoming by Michelle Obama
Becoming was the first book I read in 2021, and I don’t have too much to say about it — if you’re a fan of the Obamas, you’ll like it. The former First Lady certainly has a great story, and she touches on some heavy topics and experiences that I enjoyed reading.
“Capitalism/Socialism” may sound scary, but I don’t have a high tolerance for exceptionally dry books. All of the ones mentioned below relate to economics, but I promise they’re enjoyable!
Why You Should Be a Socialist by Nathan Robinson
Written by the editor-in-chief of the magazine Current Affairs, Why You Should Be a Socialist takes an in-depth look at democratic socialism. It highlights all the inequalities and absurdities in our current economic system, provides answers to some of the most common critiques thrown at socialism, and concludes by highlighting the fact that the United States is currently witnessing a labor and political revolution unlike anything seen in decades.
Unlike many leftists, Robinson manages to maintain a tone that’s lighthearted and enjoyable, making Why You Should Be a Socialist one of my favorite reads of the year.
Give Them an Argument: Logic for the Left by Ben Burgis
After finishing Why You Should Be a Socialist, I felt the need to get better at defending my newly acquired ideas. In hindsight, this was the wrong move – I should have internalized what I learned and allowed the ideas to simmer in my mind. Instead of doing that, I picked up this book.
If you’re looking for a light read, Give Them an Argument: Logic for the Left ain’t it. It hammers home the logic portion of rhetoric, and if you’re like me, that can be hard to grasp at times. However, I still found the book valuable, especially the parts where Burgis highlights the logical fallacies that conservative arguments often make. Likewise, I also appreciated how he emphasizes that the Left needs to get its collective shit together if it ever wants to make change happen. No more sitting around on Twitter hating on liberals and waiting for the Revolution to happen.
Talking to My Daughter About the Economy: A Brief History of Capitalism by Yanis Varoufakis
This was another one of my favorite books from 2021, maybe because the author, Yanis Varoufakis, breaks down economics in a way simple enough for his teenage daughter to understand (perfect for me!). The former Minister of Finance in Greece, Varoufakis is an excellent writer; he’s direct and informative but also lighthearted and never dry.
Talking to My Daughter About the Economy offers a fantastic critique of capitalism. It deconstructs many ideas that we just accept as “how things are”, examining the origins of economic inequality, debt, and many other fascinating subjects.
The Socialist Manifesto by Bhaskar Sunkara
Through reading Why You Should be a Socialist, I learned about Current Affairs, and through Current Affairs, I learned about a magazine I arguably like even more: Jacobin. With beautifully-designed cover art, amazing takes on different topics, and a podcast that I listen to whenever I work out, Jacobin has become one of my favorite pieces of media to consume.
Bhaskar Sunkara is the founding editor and publisher of Jacobin, and he’s a fantastic writer in his own right. His book, The Socialist Manifesto, was a worthwhile read that talks about how a more egalitarian society could look in the United States, as well as examines the history of socialist thought across the world.
One of my favorite parts of the book was when Sunkara discussed the Russian and Chinese revolutions. Being the bloody episodes of history that they are, they’ve pushed people on the Right to now use the word “socialism” to describe everything from mask-mandates to corporations not paying $0 in taxes. At the same time, some well-meaning leftists end up romanticizing the revolutions, downplaying the atrocities that occurred. Sunkara helped provide some nuance, emphasizing that while many of the ideas born in the revolutions were positive, the way they were executed yielded disastrous results.
History and sociology are some of my favorite topics. The books below definitely share some overlap with those from the Capitalism/Socialism section, but isn’t that how intersectionality works, in general?
Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi
In 2019 in a town hall meeting, presidential candidate Marianne Williamson said, “I don’t believe the average American is racist. But I do believe the average American is vastly undereducated about the history of race in the United States.” I genuinely agree with that statement, and I also think that matters are often made worse by many people’s outright refusal to acknowledge the role that race has played in the country’s history.
Stamped From the Beginning is a provocative book that seeks to examine the insidious role of race in American history. It’s not for everyone, and I even found myself questioning some of Kendi’s arguments at times. However, if you’re looking for a “definitive history” of racist thought, this book is worth adding to your literary arsenal.
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
Okay, Sapiens was technically a reread; I read most of it in 2017 on my phone while in China. But I’m not a fan of ebooks as they make it difficult for me to get the full experience out of a book. Because of that (and because I had a copy of it on my bookshelf), I decided to revisit Sapiens in 2021.
Unsurprisingly, the book ended up being just as fantastic as I remember. Harari takes an in-depth look at how human civilization got to where we are today, covering the Agricultural Revolution, the origins of religion, and myriad other interesting topics. While the subject matter may be heavy, Harari writes in a way that’s digestible and never dull.
After you finish reading Sapiens, I also recommend two of Harari’s other famous books, Homo Deus and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.
While again, there’s a degree of overlap between this category and previous ones, the following books helped me better understand the social, economic, and political realities that surround us.
Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber
In 1930, renowned economist John Maynard Keynes looked at the growth rate of technology and productivity and concluded that by the 21st century, we’d all be working 15-hour workweeks. Unfortunately, as any worker can attest to, that’s nowhere near the reality today. That’s not because Keynes’ thesis was unrealistic, but rather because capitalism managed to evolve in a way that Keynes couldn’t have predicted.
Bullshit Jobs takes a hard look at work for work’s sake — how large groups of workers are stuck in jobs that contribute nothing to society and exist purely to support the economic institutions surrounding us. Far from being condescending about the issue, Graeber is empathetic, explaining how many people who work bullshit jobs end up feeling disenfranchised with their careers and life in general.
If you don’t feel like churning through the dozens of anecdotes in Bullshit Jobs, you can also get the thesis from Graeber’s article that inspired him to write the book.
We’re Still Here: Pain and Politics in the Heart of America by Jennifer M. Silva
Jacobin has introduced me to far too many books this past year, with We’re Still Here being one of them. A podcast episode featured the author, Jennifer M. Silva, and after hearing her speak, I knew that this book was one I needed to read.
We’re Still Here examines how both political parties have abandoned the working class, showing firsthand that when institutions let people down, it can serve as a breeding ground for conspiracy theories, hatred, and other forms of ugliness.
One of the reasons I loved this book is because it disproves the absurd notion that impoverished, economically-desperate voters vote Republican because they’re irredeemably racist. It highlights the reality that desperate people gravitate towards anyone who promises change — something that right-wing populist politicians know all too well. It was also fascinating to read that many of the Trump supporters interviewed preferred Bernie Sanders over other Democratic candidates, further demonstrating just how badly the Left needs to rethink the way forward.
The System: Who Rigged It, and How We Fix It by Robert Reich
Robert Reich is a gem, and there’s not too much else to say. His ability to break down heavy political and economic topics into simple and digestible ones is unmatched, making this book a must-read for anyone seeking to better understand the institutions around us.
That said, The System doesn’t touch on anything groundbreaking; if you think critically and don’t just watch CNN or Fox, nothing presented will surprise you. However, learning the specifics about how far gone “the system” truly is was fascinating nonetheless.
The Precipice: Neoliberalism, the Pandemic, and the Urgent Need for Radical Change by C. J. Polychroniou and Noam Chomsky
Noam Chomsky has influenced how I view the world more than anyone else. He’s a modern renaissance man: someone who’s changed the world through his study of politics, history, linguistics, philosophy, and other subjects.
The Precipice is a collection of interviews with Chomsky, starting right after Trump was elected and concluding with when Biden became the president-elect in 2020. It’s eye-opening and, at times, frightening to hear Chomsky explain the dire situation of democracy, the climate, and many other topics. But if I were to make any book required reading for high schoolers or college students across the country, it would be this one.
Even if you try to live a sustainable, eco-friendly life, climate change is easy to tune out. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what makes it so dangerous — the world’s collective refusal to tackle the issue is exactly what’s allowed it to get so bad.
The following books are sobering and don’t downplay the climate realities that the world now faces.
This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate by Noami Klein
I’d heard great things about Naomi Klein, so I suspected that her books would be right up my alley. Although she has some more recent works, 2013’s This Changes Everything is considered one of her best. Because of that, I decided to read it last year.
What I enjoyed most about the book was that Klein doesn’t just complain about how capitalism and a healthy planet are incompatible: she explains why that is. Likewise, she also provides numerous policy suggestions that could help put the world on a more sustainable track. Those suggestions make her book a worthwhile read, especially since many people complain that the Left will angrily tweet about how screwed up the world is without doing anything to change it (a criticism that’s exaggerated but can, unfortunately, be true).
The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells
While it’s a misconception that climate activists are all doom and gloom, it is difficult to go to sleep with a smile on your face after reading a chapter of The Uninhabitable Earth. However, while reading it might not have given me the therapeutic me-time that I needed in 2021, climate change is something we all need to get comfortable with talking about, especially since news story after news story reveals just severe the cost of inaction truly is.
As the book’s title implies, we’re currently on a crash course to environmental catastrophe. That doesn’t mean sea levels will rise a few feet or that parts of the world will experience more natural disasters — it means that sustained life as we know it will soon be in jeopardy. The Uninhabitable Earth highlights just how badly the world needs radical change, as the coming storm won’t be one that we can weather. Modest transitions away from fossil fuels and phony political promises won’t save us, nor will technocrats who make bold claims but continue to destroy the planet.
I’m not why, but fiction books are something that you have to force me to read. It’s not that I don’t enjoy them; often after I start one, I end up loving it. But, as mentioned, I usually gravitate towards boring non-fiction books.
I only read two fiction books last year, but I loved both of them — albeit in entirely different ways.
Circe by Madeline Miller
If you’ve visited my website before, you’ll know that I loved Circe — to the point that I wrote a book review about it a few months ago. Check out that review if you haven’t, but otherwise, just know that it’s a fantastic book that aptly retells a classic tale.
Dracula by Bram Stoker
I picked Dracula up on sale from The Book Loft in Columbus when I visited in November, hoping for something that would scare me. And to say that I wasn’t disappointed would be an understatement — it was one of the best horror novels I’ve read, even though it’s now over 100 years old. I can’t recommend it enough.
I’m not sure if there’s a good time to read a terrifying novel, but I read Dracula over the holidays, not realizing just how horrifying it was. While it certainly didn’t make Christmas any merrier, it did keep me up late at night, eager to find out what would happen to the cast of characters.
Onwards to 2022
I’ve already started working my way through some fascinating books in 2022, but I’m always on the lookout for more things to read. What are some of your top book recommendations?
In the meantime, if you’re looking for a more diverse (and lengthier) collection of book recs, my avid reader friend Alyssa Cokinis recently published a similar post on her blog. Check it out!
Until next time, it’s time for me to go read!