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The 2021 year-end reading list

Following a sabbatical in 2016 I made it a priority to regularly read books from a wide variety of authors, a practice which has continued into my third stage of life. With 2021 drawing to a close, it is time to share my annual reading list here on More to Come. * As is true each year, I’ve been challenged and enlightened by the writing of some very smart people.

Few readers will be fascinated by every one of my areas of interest, so I’ve grouped these 26 books into broad categories. Scroll down to discover:

  • The top five (I’ll return to these works again and again)
  • History and biography (learning from the past)
  • The times we live in (politics, civic life, and more)
  • Memoir and story (tell me about yourself)
  • The third stage (thinking about purpose and mindfulness)
  • Sports (really just baseball)
  • Outbursts of radical common sense (and whatever else tickled my fancy…otherwise known as the miscellaneous section)

I hope you enjoy learning about the treasures I pulled from my shelf in 2021. Clicking on the link under the book title will take you to my original review on More to Come.


THE TOP FIVE (I’ll return to these works again and again)

Let’s begin with a look at five works, three of which were published this year and two others that are often quoted and have developed devoted followings among their readers in the years since they were first released. Each touched and taught me in special ways.

Photomontage by Gerd Altman from Pixabay

We Need New Stories: The Myths that Subvert Freedom (2021), the powerful first book of award-winning journalist Nesrine Malik, addresses the fact that while we are living in confusing times, there are ways to sort through the fog. She suggests that clarity will come if we look deeply at the stories and myths we tell ourselves. As Malik writes in the prologue to the U.S. edition, a malignant thread — made of myths that divide us — has been running through Anglo-American history. These are stories where “history, race, gender, and classical liberal values are being leveraged to halt any disruption of a centuries-old hierarchy that is paying dividends for fewer and fewer people.” The strength of the myths is not in facts, but in the narratives, so it is impossible to fight fake facts with other facts. What is needed, Malik asserts, are new stories that are not just the correction of old stories but are visions that assert that “for societies to evolve, an old order must change.” For me, We Need New Stories was challenging, thought-provoking, expansive, and, ultimately, affirming and instructive.


Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause (2021) was a reminder that we all have myths in our personal past that should be faced. Ty Seidule, Emeritus Professor of History at West Point, has written a fearless and direct book that is part memoir, part history, and part call-to-action. Seidule walks the reader through each step of his youthful indoctrination of the myth of the greatness and perfection of Robert E. Lee. He hears this while growing up and attending school in Virginia and Georgia and as an army officer stationed at bases named for Confederate traitors. It is at West Point, however, where Seidule had his “a-ha” moment and recognized that what he learned his entire life was a lie. Southerners and all Americans can benefit from the lessons taken from Seidule’s journey


The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together (2021) is a vital and hopeful book by Heather McGhee. She begins by addressing the argument that whites today have not benefited from historical inequalities.  “The advantages white people had accumulated were free and usually invisible and so conferred an elevated status that seemed natural and almost innate.” Programs from the Homestead Act to insured mortgages to the G.I. Bill had worked — spectacularly well in many cases — to build a strong white middle class. But when faced with sharing those benefits and the same treatment from the government with people of color, white Americans — to use an old adage — decided to cut off their nose to spite their face. By advancing a zero-sum economic model — where if you win, then I lose — those with power and wealth have hollowed out public goods and denigrated government programs that were once supported by wide majorities of Americans.


On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017) begins with the thought, “History does not repeat, but it does instruct.” Timothy Snyder — a historian of the Holocaust who teaches at Yale — has written a slim yet indispensable guide to resisting tyranny that provides present-day advice. For guidance, he turns to the work of the Founding Fathers when they sought to build a governmental system of checks and balances that would be resistant to the tyranny that overcame ancient democracy. Snyder’s lessons and writings are very accessible, but that doesn’t make them less compelling. He notes that history, “Gives us the company of those who have done and suffered more than we have. …To make history, young Americans will have to know some.” This book is a good place to start.


Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home (2018) is Natalie Goldberg‘s short but gripping memoir of her battle with cancer. The Stoics suggest that we meditate on our mortality every day, and Goldberg’s Zen training helped, in a similar fashion, because it “harped on death.” Goldberg shows us how she and her partner — who along the way is diagnosed with breast cancer — grapple with their battles (with the cancers, with their bodies, with the cancer-industrial complex, with their emotions) separately and together. The cancer twins, she calls them. They both have to face the unknown, the void. Cancer forces that type of focus. This is a beautiful meditation on finding a path, finding a place, “to set one foot after another. To come inside out; to show your guts, everything that you are made of.” 


HISTORY AND BIOGRAPHY (learning from the past)

Norris Dam from TVA Design for the Public Good

Why the New Deal Matters (2021) is an engaging new work by historian Eric Rauchway in the Yale University Press Why X Matters series. Rauchway has not sugar-coated the failings of Franklin Roosevelt’s effort to pull the country out of the Great Depression. But he understands why it meant so much to America at the time and why it still has resonance today. “The New Deal mattered then, at the cusp of spring in 1933, because it gave Americans permission to believe in a common purpose that was not war.”


Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union (2020), Richard Kreitner’s fascinating book, begins by reminding us that the passengers on the Mayflower were not the Pilgrims of myth, but Separatists who wanted to break off from the Church of England. Once they landed in the New World they began doing what they did best, separating into multiple sects and small, isolated communities. Americans have been fighting the urge to break apart ever since. Kreitner’s thesis — supported with in-depth accounts of the backstory to this history — is that the compromise we have accepted to keep the country unified in name if not in spirit, predicated on marginalization of and often violence against people of color, is a compromise too far.


The Outlier (2021) argues that Jimmy Carter attempted to take on our vexing national issues in a highly consequential — and unfinished — presidency. Kai Bird, in this important new presidential biography, states upfront that Carter’s “distinctive southern sensibilities and his Southern Baptist religiosity” made possible the “revelation that America was hobbled by its myths.” He saw an America that was in need of serious healing. But Americans like to portray themselves as “drenched” with a sense of destiny and exceptionalism. We hang on to the myths to avoid the truth. Carter’s presidency, writes Bird, was ahead of its time with its hopes for reconciliation and healing. 


THE TIMES WE LIVE IN (politics, civic life, and more)

Definition of covidiot. Credit: Philadelphia Inquirer.

Trust (2020), by former South Bend mayor and current Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, suggests that this value is foundational to the success of American democracy. It is important to remember in this time of political discord and paranoid thinking how much we lose when we give up on trust. “Trust is indispensable for a healthy, functioning society,” Buttigieg writes, and in its absence, nothing that works can work well.


Long Time Coming (2020), written after the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, is a series of letters from author Michael Eric Dyson to other black martyrs murdered at the hands of white Americans: Elijah McClain, Emmett Till, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, Hadiya Pendleton, Sandra Bland, and the Rev. Clementa Pinckney. In each chapter, Dyson looks at the genealogy of anti-Blackness and its impact on America today. He ends — in his letter to the Rev. Clementa Pinckney — with hope joined by their shared heritage as ministers.


White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America (2021), by historian, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and commentator Anthea Butler, is a valuable and timely book full of powerful truths we need to hear today. This is part history, part personal reflection, part call to action all wrapped together in a vital sermon that pulls no punches. Butler provides a concise history of the evangelical movement, but more importantly she focuses on “the racist and racial elements that imbue its beliefs, practices, and social and political activism.” Butler writes to trouble us and sear our souls, but finally she asks us to be hopeful, understanding that there is time. That time is now.


Uncharted: How to Navigate the Future (2020) could have easily been limited to issues of business management and leadership, given the background and widely popular You Tube videos of author Margaret Heffernan. But as I read Heffernan, I was struck by how much her thoughts on what we need to do — and what we need to be — to navigate the future were focused on the personal. She calls for us to recognize that we all inhabit complex systems, only parts of which we can see or influence, so we need to think like an artist, with a mind that is “febrile, alert, receptive.” She points to “cathedral projects” as those containing experimentation to navigate uncertainty, but also a clear vision of what one wants to achieve. If we are to navigate the future, we must be able to live with paradox and “reconcile opposites — efficiency and robustness, adaptability and long-term focus, just-in-time and just-in-case.”


MEMOIR AND STORY (tell me about yourself)

Pauli Murray House
Pauli Murray House before restoration (2015) and after exterior work (2016) (Photo credit: Pauli Murray Project)

Song in a Weary Throat (1987) by Pauli Murray — one of the most consequential and hopeful of 20th century Americans — is a powerful memoir, told with wit and energy. Murray’s memories of her parents are thin because her beloved mother died when she was four, and she went to segregated Durham, North Carolina, to live with her Aunt Pauline. It moves through her life as a self-described “rebel, instigator, and survivor, at times a nettle in the body politic, an opener-of-doors, and always a devout child of God and friend of mankind.” Murray notes that moments of despair were offset with the sustaining knowledge “that the quest for human dignity is part of a continuous movement through time and history linked to a higher force.” As The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., expressed it, in the struggle for justice one has “cosmic companionship.”


Three Simple Lines: A Writer’s Pilgrimage into the Heart and Homeland of Haiku (2020) is the second of three Natalie Goldberg books on this list. Part poetry, part history lesson, part travelogue, Three Simple Lines is mostly memoir of a writer’s pilgrimage to explore this shortest of all creative writing forms. Goldberg is a masterful storyteller, and she has produced a thoughtful and illuminating book.


THE THIRD STAGE (thinking about purpose and mindfulness)

Watercolor by Layers from Pixabay

Purposeful Retirement: How to Bring Happiness and Meaning to Your Retirement (2017) by Hyrum W. Smith is the first book selected when a small group of friends gathered during the pandemic to discuss various paths into the next stage of life. I’m afraid to report that it will not be mistaken for one of the great works of literature. There are, however, bits and pieces that are insightful, and Smith’s stories are usually humorous and illustrative in their own way.


Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World (2019) by Cal Newport was recommended by a friend and former colleague, and it immediately resonated with work I’d been doing during 2020 to address the love/hate relationship with my smartphone. It was time to make permanent the digital declutter I’d struggled to adopt throughout the year. Today’s technology mixes harm with benefits in a way that sucks one into overuse and manipulated addiction unless you step back and consider “what tools you should use and how you should use them.” Equally important, says Newport, such an approach “enables you to confidently ignore everything else.”


Listening: How to Increase Awareness of Your Inner Guide (1989) is a small book that was gifted to me this year at a time when I was having trouble because I was “thinking while male.” The book’s author, Lee Coit, presents ways to train yourself to listen to what he describes as the divine voice that is inside us all.


The Four Agreements (1997), published more than twenty years ago but still relevant today, is author Don Miguel Ruiz‘s treatise that everything we do is based on thousands of agreements we have made — agreements “with other people, with God, with life” and, most importantly, with ourselves. But to live into who we really are, we have to stop living our lives trying to satisfy the dictates of other people.


Broken Signposts (2020) by Anglican theologian N.T. Wright, looks at seven signposts integral to every worldview, including justice, beauty, freedom, and truth. When we do not live up to our ideals in those areas, Wright suggests, our societies and our individual lives become unbalanced. The contrast between destructive and uplifting uses of power came to mind while reading this work. Many of Wright’s observations from the Gospel of John bring to mind parallels of life today, especially Wright’s telling of the well-known New Testament story of Jesus before Pilate, in a different political arena in a different time.


The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living (2016) is a year’s worth of wisdom centered on the Stoic virtues of justice, prudence, self-control, and courage; virtues which have been described as the “perennial desires of the wise.” Through the regular practice of reading and reflection, The Daily Stoic and author Ryan Holiday asks us to think more deeply about how we live, how we navigate the challenges of life, and how we change our actions in response to those challenges. “Acceptance isn’t passive,” Holiday asserts. “It’s the first step in an active process toward self-improvement.”


SPORTS (really just baseball)

The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg (1994) is Nicholas Dawidoff‘s page turner, where I learned that only one man has his professional baseball cards in the CIA museum in Langley, Virginia. Following his 15-year career with five different major league teams, the Princeton-educated Berg served as a highly successful Office of Strategic Services (OSS) operative during World War II. Moe Berg was seen as different from any other baseball player even during his playing career. Legendary manager Casey Stengel described Berg as “the strangest man ever to play baseball”. Following his baseball years, Berg — like many bright young men of the day — entered the war to fight the Nazis. Dawidoff’s delightful book was a great introduction to someone who was among the few who found a way to live an original life.


Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball’s Greatest Forgotten Player (2019) is a recent and fascinating biography by Jeremy Beer. According to the stats that Bill James (the father of baseball analytics) uses to rank player value from different eras, only Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, and Willie Mays were greater than Charleston, who was slotted just above Ty Cobb. Oscar Charleston — to put it bluntly — is the best baseball player you’ve never heard of. He was an outstanding athlete and fascinating individual. Charleston put together an other-worldly career in the Negro and Cuban leagues decades before white major league baseball decided to integrate. A centerfielder with the range and smarts of Willie Mays, a hitter with as fearsome a stroke as Babe Ruth, and a baserunner built like a linebacker with the fast fearlessness of Ty Cobb, Charleston was the whole package. Beer has brought forward the forgotten history of a man who, although he was the best-known player of the Negro Leagues, was identified by the occupation “baggage handler” on his death certificate.


OUTBURSTS OF RADICAL COMMON SENSE (and whatever else tickled my fancy)

The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design (2020) includes the motto to “always read the plaque” — a mantra for Roman Mars and the folks who produce the podcast 99% Invisible, and one that infuses this 2020 book by Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt. According to this informative and entertaining book, we should be “constantly on the lookout for stories embedded in our built environments,” as they do here, with a focus on problem-solving, historical constraints, and human drama. 


How to Apologize (2021), by David LaRochelle and illustrated by Mike Wohnoutka, is a simple children’s book that I read after reading an interview with Wohnoutka by a blogger from my hometown. “Wouldn’t the world be a better place if everyone knew how to apologize? Luckily, this humorous guidebook is full of practical tips about when, why, and how to say you’re sorry. From a porcupine who accidentally popped his friend’s balloon to a snail who was running so fast he stepped on a sloth’s toes, hilarious examples and sweet illustrations abound.”


Rites of Our Passage: Reflections Through a Christian Year (2002) is a collection of the sermons of The Rev. Dr. Francis H. Wade. In all the sermons I’ve heard through the years from a number of exceptional priests, pastors, and mentors, I never heard a more consistent preacher week-in-and-week-out than Frank Wade. Other priests have been known to say, “All his sermons are, at least, very good, and many of them are astonishingly good.” In returning to re-read the entire collection, I learned anew that Frank’s timeless and clear-headed observations — about the dangers that occur when isolated minds create dead hearts, about the need to give forgiveness a chance in a world riven by violence, and how hope and joy require the action of belief if we want to live as if something good were true — are building blocks for personal growth.


Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (1986), the classic writing manual by Natalie Goldberg, suggests that writing is 90% listening. “If you want to become a good writer, you need to do three things,” she advises. “Read a lot, listen well and deeply, and write a lot.” And, she adds, don’t think too much. Goldberg speaks of how to uneducate yourself from what you’ve been taught and immerse yourself in writing what’s in front of your nose.


I hope you find one or more books here to pique your interest. In pulling this year’s list together, I realized that I slipped and did not read any fiction in 2021. That will be corrected in the coming year, as I have already identified a couple of novels on my “to be read” shelves that have moved up in priority. Let me know what you’ve discovered and enjoyed in your books this year and happy — and productive — reading in 2022!

More to come…

DJB

*To check out previous lists, click here for the posts from 2020, 2019, and 2018.

Image of library by wal_172619 from Pixabay.

3 Comments

  1. A friend and former colleague noted on LinkedIn that she was pleased with the timing of this year’s post, writing,

    “Fabulous – perfect timing for some holiday gifts for family and friends. I need something in addition to Digital Minimalism to give everyone! ;)”

    Yes, she was the colleague who recommended that I read Digital Minimalism this year!

  2. Another friend dropped me an email with the following note about this post:

    “I was checking your reading list to get ideas for my own reading and was pleasantly honored to see one of my books on your list with a nice endorsement.

    That was a fun discovery. Thanks”

    I’m always glad to promote the work of authors I know and like!

  3. Pingback: Time for a winter break | More to Come...

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