Society Magazine

The Ten Best Books I Read in 2021

Posted on the 30 December 2021 by Russellarbenfox

As always, these are my choices among all the books I read in 2021, not my choices among the books published in 2021.

The Ten Best Books I Read in 2021

While I'm no scholar of St. Augustine, I've read a fair amount of his writings before, including the entirety of The City of God in graduate school. But I had never read Augustine's Confessions before, not as a complete book, and after spending a year and a half reading the Apostolic Fathers, the Desert Mothers and Fathers, and early Church Fathers like Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria, I decided this would be an appropriate text to finish up the year with. I'm glad I did. It is every bit as powerfully introspective as everyone has said it is for the last two millennia; Augustine's masterful language conveys an honest sense of struggle and doubt that has become an obvious model to millions. On a personal theological note, I appreciated the challenge which Confessions confronted me with. For decades, the understanding of the Christian message which has seemed most intuitively true to me has been that of Paul's Letter to the Romans, with its focus on sin and grace. Augustine's expression of that understanding--complete with notions like original sin--has thus been one I have long subscribed to, theologically if not confessionally. Yet in reading the complete Confessions, I was confronted with the fact that Augustine's absolutist logic cannot avoid leading one to accept that Christians should have no love for the world whatsoever, and that's not something I think I can accept. So Confessions made me want to go back to the scriptural texts, after reading nothing but canonical commentaries upon them for so long, and for that I'm grateful.

 

The Ten Best Books I Read in 2021
I've been a fan of Wendell Berry for years, and The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture is in many ways an ur-text for all his subsequent writings. I assigned it in a political theory class this year for the first time in many years, and as I re-read it, it kept surprising me, making me wonder if I hadn't read the whole thing before, or if I'd just forgotten it entirely in the years since. In any case, while I would recommend any number of essays or poems or works of fiction by Berry before this book to those unfamiliar with his agrarian arguments, I would nonetheless point every fan of Berry back to it, at one point or another, as a summation that they must struggle with. And it is a struggle! This passionate condemnation of the whole network of economic, cultural, and educational systems which have transformed the work of farming and, really, all of humankind's relationship with our natural environment is a profoundly radical statement, but also the expression of a deeply particular and in many ways cranky worldview--his weaving together of ecological concerns with racial and sexual ones is provocative, but also pretty disconcerting to readers today. But that's Berry, I think; you have to take him whole, if you take him at all.

The Ten Best Books I Read in 2021
I'd never read any Octavia Butler before, and so this past summer I decided to rectify that with her "Parable" series. Parable of the Sower is a powerful, enveloping near-future story; really, it's barely science fiction at all, given how intuitively plausible the environmental breakdown, governmental collapse, religious authoritarianism, and economic dislocation it describes is to us today. That it's a deeply painful read goes without saying; the voice Butler gave to Lauren Oya Olamina, through whom we see the deaths of family, friends, and random others, not to mention the collapse of one plan after another, is tremendous. But I have to put Parable of the Talents even above that; in this book, Butler invented and brought together other voices, including ones from the more distant future, all representing figures from Lauren's grand project--several of whom pointedly despise everything about Lauren's "Earthseed" vision--and through whom we gain a deeply nuanced, sad, and yet still resolute vision of what it means for human beings to move forward, past our own worst tendencies. A great, great book.

The Ten Best Books I Read in 2021

I've read both of Matthew Crawford's previous books, and found them both to be provocative and insightful in equal measure. Why We Drive: Toward a Philosophy of the Open Road fits that description as well, with the added challenge of being the book which reveals (probably unintentionally, though Crawford is such a meandering and disorganized writer--something he cops to in the introduction to this book--it's hard to know sure) much about Crawford's own character, and I'm not sure how much of that character I actually like. Crawford, like Wendell Berry, a crank, though not an agrarian one. Instead, Crawford is a gear-head, a lover of speed and of making machines with his hands, and he has the philosophical chops to dig into what it means, as a matter of both economy and culture, to push against massification and homogenization in this age of late capitalism, and instead celebrate local communities and individual creator. This celebration, however, invariably involves Crawford praising of those who achieve mastery and pull themselves up by their bootstraps; while by no means a sophomoric libertarian thinker, Crawford, at least in this book, cannot help, I think, but discomfort his liberal readers by laying out, without condemnation, the emergence of hierarchical structures--including occasionally deeply sexist ones--within those worlds of work which are simultaneously sites of resistance to concentrated socio-economic power. This isn't a gaslighting book; multiple times in the book, Crawford takes the time to emphasize how the mentalities he is (rightly, as an independent creator) somewhat suspicious of are nonetheless unambiguous goods, pointing to the lives of mentally and physically handicapped friends which have been made much better by government regulation and the evolution of social norms. It's a tribute to Crawford's writing that he can walk that line as well as he does.

The Ten Best Books I Read in 2021
I picked up On Juneteenth, a short book of essays by this historian Annette Gordon-Reed, thinking it would be interesting to learn a little about the history of the holiday. I ended up learning a huge amount, with the title essay, "On Juneteenth," actually being one of the lesser contributions to the book, though quite brilliant on its own. Overall, though, what fascinated me so much about this book was Gordon-Reed's voice, speaking as one of America's foremost historians but also as an African-American woman, born in 1950s Texas, who has never lost her love for and her fascination with her own state. This was a book that I immediately recommended to Texan friends of mine, because it helped me see--through Gordon-Reed's thoughtful reflections on everything from the role of Native Americans in the slave trade to the integrative role played by the movie "Billy Jack" in the consciousness of her generation--just how it is that Texans can have such a passionate attachment to their own culture. This is a Harvard professor who adores Six Flags Over Texas, who has deeply complicated memories of how other Black families treated hers once her parents pushed her to attend an integrated elementary school, who can remember her favorite soda pop on hot Texas nights. Sometimes you read something that opens you up to a world you'd never thought about before; this book that for me.

The Ten Best Books I Read in 2021

I was aware of Gracy Olmstead's writing from various publications, but I didn't know what to expect from her memoir of the small southwest Idaho town she grew up in; to be honest, I was probably disposed to be critical of it, thinking that it might be re-hashed localist stuff without much wrestling with the deeper issues environmental and personal issues which a story like hers would have to involve. Suffice to say, I was wrong. Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We've Left Behind is a marvelous book, deserving of a place on the shelf with the best, most thoughtful and touching localist writing out there. I wrote at length about the book already, so just read this here if you want to know more; or better, just read the book.

The Ten Best Books I Read in 2021
I picked up a copy of Ira Katznelson's Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time at a conference this summer, where attendance was small and the pickings at the book fair even smaller. But I needed a book to read on the flight home (which ended up being a ridiculous mess all on its own), and when I saw this book I remembered hearing good things about it. Reflecting that I hadn't read a solid, stand-alone 20th-century history book in some time, I picked up. Really, that was the best decision I made that whole trip. Katznelson's thesis is straightforward: the modern bureaucratic and democratic welfare state which the combination of the New Deal and World War II built in America emerged the way it did entirely due to conflict with, negotiation with, and often acquiescence to, multiple totalitarian pressures: Germany and the Soviet Union, most obviously, but also Italy (I had no idea just how extensive and complicated were the connections between Italy's fascist government and different segments of America's society in the 1920s and early 1930s, but Katznelson has the receipts), and then, crucial, the white supremacist American South, whose determination to protect their racist culture had far reaching consequences not just for the construction of social policy in the United States, but even foreign policy as well. By looking closely at congressional hearings and committee votes, Katznelson built an argument that I found entirely persuasive, one with major implications for how one thinks about 20th-century American history.

The Ten Best Books I Read in 2021

I've been both informed and inspired by Charles Marohn's Strong Towns movement for years, and his most recent book, Confessions of a Recovering Engineer: Transportation for a Strong Town, only furthered that opinion. Early in 2020, I'd hoped to be able to bring Marohn back to Wichita to speak at Friends University; thanks to the pandemic, that was delayed by more than a year, finally taking place last October. Many conversations--and ideally, actual action, as opposed to just talk!--that I hope will progress further from that conference are still in development; in the meantime, you can read my thoughts on Marohn's deeply practical but also theoretically wise argument for reclaiming control of our roads from the "infrastructure cult" here.

The Ten Best Books I Read in 2021

I came late to the work of Terry Pratchett, whose writing never fails to make me smile. Sometimes the man took so much pleasure from setting plates a spinning in his books that he left aside anything like a compelling plot, in favor of just writing paragraph after paragraph of ridiculous stuff. I can't say that Raising Steam is entirely free of that tendency, but after having discovered his marvelous character Moist von Lipwig last year, I was determined to check off all his subsequent appearances in Pratchett's oeuvre, and I'm glad I did. Making Money was a charming book, a worthy successor to Going Postal, but I have to highlight Raising Steam because it actually put all those spinning plates to work. This predictably hilarious story of locomotives coming to Discworld manages to also incorporate all sorts of reflections of urbanism, capitalism, immigration, racial and religious diversity, community traditions, and all sorts of other things which technological change invariably upends. So yes, a fun Discworld novel, but also maybe something a little bit more.

The Ten Best Books I Read in 2021

I read Erik Olin Wright's Envisioning Real Utopias ten years ago, and I've never read since any work of socialist or radical theory that was equal to its detail, complicated, demanding, but deeply clarifying perspective on what it means to challenge the capitalist. How to Be an Anti-Capitalist in the 21st-Century is a comparatively much less detailed and demanding, but no less clarifying, restatement of Wright's ideas, completed shortly before his death in early 2019. Wright's ideas emerged from the analytical Marxist tradition, so the much more anarchist/localist character of my own socialist sympathies were definitely not his own. Yet Wright nonetheless provided me, both in this book and in his earlier writings, a rigorously sociological language by which I could articulate and thus feel that more confident in my own most fundamental egalitarian belief: that resistance to capitalist inequalities will be best realized, not through revolutionary parties and movements, but through the communities and neighborhoods and communes which arise "interstitially" within civil society. As the broader political systems around us become ever more dysfunctional, that's an important lesson to keep in mind.


Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog