Best Books of 2021

5 minute read

I read about 30 books in 2021. Here were the ones that stood out the most; I highly recommend all of these.

Classic fiction: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955).

Nabokov is one of the geniuses of English literature, and this is arguably his best work. Not many people can get away with writing a novel about child sexual abuse from the pedophile’s perspective – and have it be both educational and beautiful – but Nabokov did. Lolita is a study in contrasts and cognitive dissonance: romantic tropes are subverted, you can almost feel sympathy for Humbert, and despite the nastiness and gravity of the subject, the novel is both beautifully written and laugh-out-loud funny. And there’s lots of room for interpretation since Humbert himself is telling the story; you could reread it ten times and still be not quite sure exactly what really happened.

Maybe hold off on reading this until you’re ready if you have past trauma connected to the subject matter, but otherwise, I think reading it is good for you (though not always easy). I came away with both an appreciation of how difficult it must be to be sexually attracted to children through no fault of your own, and a visceral sense of disgust and evil that reinforces our knowledge that acting on that is really, really bad for everyone.

New fiction: Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro (2021).

A timely story of growing automation making many humans irrelevant and a race to the bottom among the remaining relevant ones, with some vaguely dystopian elements of social disconnection and friendships with machines. I imagine it as happening a few years from now. The story is told by a robot, who isn’t exactly stupid but has almost no background information, which makes for a pleasantly disorienting reading experience where you have to figure out what’s going on in the world on your own (just like her, I’ll add).

Read more in my Zettelkasten (warning: spoilers – if you want to read the book, do it first, this book has such a unique narrative structure that you really will ruin the experience if you read spoilers or my thoughts on it first).

By the way: people are making AI friends now, this isn’t in the far future by any means. Check out Replika. No hardware yet, but they do have augmented reality! I played with this for a couple of hours last year and thought it was actually pretty impressive.

Classic nonfiction: The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs (1961).

The New York Times Book Review called this “perhaps the most influential single work in the history of town planning… a work of literature.” Both parts of that seem right to me, too.

Jacobs investigates the forces that cause cities and parts of cities to thrive or decay, as well as how our interventions often make things worse. This is not to say that we should just let cities do their own thing; it’s merely to say that acting to influence development is almost guaranteed to produce worse results than natural evolution when we don’t understand the forces involved.

Among the questions she takes up:

  • Why are some areas of most cities safer (both statistically and in terms of occupants’ feelings) than others?
  • Why do some seemingly identical parks get heavily used and others almost ignored?
  • Why are some parts of cities easier to navigate than others?
  • How do old, worn-out buildings contribute to the life of an area?
  • Why are districts with a mix of uses preferable?
  • How can we subsidize housing for low-income people without ruining an area?
  • What causes previously lively areas to fall apart on occasion?

Some of the specifics of some of Jacobs’ discussions aren’t particularly relevant in 2022 (for instance, some of the lending discrimination she discusses is now illegal) but the vast majority of them still are, and city planners clearly still don’t understand large portions of her work.

If you’re at all interested in urban design or planning, you should read this book. When I started studying the topic, I found that almost everyone referenced this book on occasion, so it’s one of those fundamental works.

New nonfiction: Less is More by Jason Hickel (2020).

The idea of “degrowth” has started to gain popular traction again after spending about 50 years in the shadows. Degrowth suggests that while renewable energy and other green technologies have seen amazing growth in the last couple of years and will definitely be an important part of the future, they’re unlikely to be enough to solve all our environmental problems. In addition, we should stop pursuing broad-spectrum economic growth and instead consider what sectors of the economy, as a matter of policy, should grow and which should stay where they are or maybe even shrink. This idea is anathema to most economists, but Hickel does a great job at explaining why it doesn’t have to worsen people’s lives if done correctly and might even make them better (thus, less is more).

In addition to the environmental problems, Hickel makes a compelling case that our focus on growth at all costs also causes many abuses of technology, losses of individual agency, global inequality, mental health problems, and more. The everything-comes-down-to-this-one-problem attitude does make me a little bit suspicious, but even if it’s only a contributor to all of these things, those things are many of the worst problems we have as a society today, so anything that might help them seems welcome.

At any rate, whatever your opinion on degrowth ideas, they ought to be part of our shared cultural knowledge in 2022, so I would highly recommend reading this book, which was well-written and went fast (I actually read the whole thing in a single day because it captured my attention so well).

Read more in my Zettelkasten.