My 6 Favorite Reads of 2021

A lot has changed since 2016, but one reliable constant throughout these tumultuous times has been my end-of-the-year reading recap.

Those who have been around for awhile now may remember how this works. As I look back on the books I’ve spent time with since the start of the year, I set aside the six that I’ve enjoyed reading the most. It’s an unapologetically subjective selection criteria. (I don’t read nearly enough to propose any sort of definitive “best of” list.) But reading should add something to our lives, and these are the books that have added something to mine.

I’m neither an expert nor a literary critic. But I love reading, and I want others to love it as well. In sharing these books with you, my hope is that my interesting discoveries from this past year might provide you with one or two interesting discoveries of your own.

As always, there are plenty of great books that didn’t make the list. But since I arbitrarily chose the number “six” when I first started doing this thing, I can’t break with tradition now. (If you absolutely must know about other books I’m reading and enjoying throughout the year, follow me on Instagram or subscribe to my regular newsletter, both of which will give you insights into my reading habits.)

But enough of the small talk. It’s time to cue the dramatic music and pull back the curtain on the sixth annual list of my favorite reads, presented chronologically in the order that I read them. 

1. Midnight in Chernobyl (Adam Higginbotham). I’m a sucker for compelling narrative nonfiction books that draw me into stories too good not to be true. A few of these have made it onto my year-end lists in previous years, and this year is no different. The disaster at Chernobyl technically happened during my lifetime, but well before I was old or aware enough to know what was going on. To me, this has made it an event of irresistible mystery. I’ve wondered about what the rest of the world was talking about while I was busy filling diapers and taking naps, and Higginbotham’s book offered the perfect invitation for me to find out. It was delightfully accessible, providing a detailed account of the catastrophe that even a layperson like myself could understand. But beyond the science, the politics, and the explanation of what went wrong, the unexpected payoff of Midnight in Chernobyl was the fascinating insight it offered into the diverse cast of characters whose lives were enduringly affected by what happened. I found it to be a moving and worthwhile exploration of human nature, highlighting both our helplessness and our heroism.

2. Faith After Doubt (Brian McLaren). Subscribers to my newsletter might recognize this title from the list I shared as a part of December’s premium content. As I’ve tried to process and understand the ways my faith and spiritual identity are changing, I’ve kept an eye out for books that might help me. This new one from McLaren came along at the perfect time. It was released at the beginning of the year, and in reading it, I was given language and concepts that made sense of my evolving spirituality. Not only did it articulate my experiences in a refreshingly accurate way, but it also gave me comfort in the midst of the turmoil those experiences had caused. This book gave me hope. It helped me believe. And the fact that I enjoyed it as much as I did was its own small miracle. The only other Brian McLaren book I’ve ever read was during college when I filled the margins of A Generous Orthodoxy with angry rants about how stupid it was. I guess it’s only fitting that the man I had written off as a heretic would resurface in my life 15 years later to help me salvage my faith.

3. The Nix (Nathan Hill). For me, this book is a testament to the wonderful possibilities of aimlessly wandering the aisles of your local bookstore without an agenda or a plan. I came across Hill’s novel while doing just that (thanks, Second Flight Books!), and all I knew about it was that it had a kickass cover and a blurb on the back that drew comparisons to Jonathan Franzen. That was enough for me. As I waded into its pages, I discovered a captivating story that’s nearly impossible to summarize in any adequate way. It’s part family drama, part political mystery, part social critique. And yet despite the complexity of its literary identity, the whole thing somehow works. Really, really well. Hill takes his time piecing together the parts of his narrative (to the tune of 730 pages!), but it’s witty and intriguing enough to keep the pages turning. Books like this one remind us that good art can be serious and fun at the same time.

4. Godspeed (Nickolas Butler). I heard Nickolas Butler talking about this book on a podcast, and I immediately knew I needed to read it. The story is a classic race-against-the-clock situation, but there are several twists and turns along the way that give it a fresh, original feel. I don’t recall the amount of time it took me to read it, but I know it wasn’t very long. There’s an urgency in its style that reflects the urgency of its characters. It’s a wild ride in the best sort of way. But even though Godspeed is suspenseful and thrilling, it’s also a provocative piece of writing. I found myself reflecting on the abiding nature of friendship, the perilous allure of ambition, and the existential burden of living in a world that often fails to turn out like we planned. There’s plenty here to process. This book warmed my heart, and it also broke my heart. At the end of the day, what more could I ask for?

5. Damnation Spring (Ash Davidson). I’ve spent a decent amount of time thinking about this question: What makes a novel great? It’s easy to know what makes a novel good. But why do certain novels stand the test of time? Why do we read them decade after decade, long after their contemporaries have been forgotten? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but if anyone ever asks me to vote on which books should become classics generations from now, I’m nominating Damnation Spring. I was absolutely mesmerized by it. The way that its characters are so powerfully localized, rooted in their unique time and region, made me feel like I was reading something almost Steinbeck-esque, something adjacent to East of Eden. Maybe it’s a stretch to draw that sort of a comparison, but I’ll stand by it. Ash Davidson has given the world a colossus of literary excellence, even more towering and impressive than the giant redwoods that fill its pages.

6. In the Heart of the Sea (Nathaniel Philbrick). What does it say about me that two of the books I most enjoyed reading this year were historical accounts of real-life tragedies? Having started the year with a nuclear disaster, it’s only fitting that I would end it with a shipwreck. In the Heart of the Sea tells the harrowing tale of a whaleship out of Nantucket that was sunk in the middle of the Pacific Ocean by a really agitated and fearless sperm whale. It won the 2000 National Book Award for Nonfiction, and deservedly so. The story itself is captivating, and the historical background that Philbrick provides brings the whole thing to life. This book has it all: fascinating nautical information, stomach-churning cannibalism, impossible ethical dilemmas, and unexpected details about 19th-century sex toys. I read this one just recently while being stuck at home in a COVID quarantine situation, and although it’s not quite like being stranded in the middle of the ocean for 90 days, I certainly feel like it put me in the right frame of mind to sympathize with the crew.

If one of these books looks interesting to you, consider paying a visit to your local public library or a nearby independent bookseller. Supporting literature ensures that we all get to keep enjoying it. Read on, friends!

If you’d like to take a trip down memory lane and see what my past self enjoyed reading, check out my “6 Most Enjoyable Reads” lists from previous years:


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