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My 10 favorite books of 2021

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Read, read, and read some more. One of my favorite things to do most nights is to sit down on my sofa and sink deep into a book. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t read enough but I do make the effort to knock back a few dozen books each year.

My problem is that I am a binge reader. I will be consumed by books for weeks on end, and then not pick another one up for a month. Regardless, I can say that I finished 2021 with 14 new titles on my bookshelf.

I’m no Barack Obama, sure. None of these authors will be particularly honored to be included in my annual literary round-up. But I would like to end this year by highlighting some of them since they had a profound impact on my thinking. You’ll notice that the titles I read are typically non-fiction and tackle some sort of social, political, or cultural issue. I am listing my top 10 here in no particular order. Speaking of order…

“Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life” by Jordan Peterson

I woke up on the morning of Tuesday, March 2nd, and jumped straight to my Amazon Kindle. Opening day of Peterson’s new title and it was already downloaded onto my device ready to be consumed. I found its predecessor, “12 Rules for Life” immensely powerful and was excited to learn 12 more rules. 

The sequel is a little different from the 2018 bestseller, and yet still teaches us the importance of a noble life to live among our friends and family. “Abandon ideology” (rule 6) challenges us to think differently, and the very first rule tells us not to undermine our institutions or the creatives among us. Importantly, the balance between conservatives and liberals must be carefully aligned if we have a hope to prosper in the future.

Favorite Quote:

“Conservatives are necessary for maintaining things the way they are when everything is working and change what might be dangerous. Liberals, by contrast, are necessary for changing things when they are no longer working. It is no easy task, however, to determine when something needs to be preserved or when it needs to be transformed. That is why we have politics, if we are fortunate, and the dialogue that accompanies it, instead of war, tyranny, or submission.”

“Wake Up: Why the World Has Gone Nuts” by Piers Morgan 

This was a fun one. Using his classic charm, Morgan outlines in an epistolary fashion the craziness the world appeared to be going through between January and July of 2020. And boy, was there a lot for him to say. Is there ever not?

The book outlines the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of cancel culture and calls for its cancellation, and a turbulent election in the United States. Never one to shy away from controversy, Morgan takes absolute delight in destroying ‘Illiberal liberalism’.

Favorite Quote:

“When you win, it feels so good you rarely stop to really think about why or how you won. Yet when you lose, you agonize over why you lost, and if you’re smart, you learn the bitter yet vital lessons from defeat that stop you losing next time.”

“The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos” by Sohrab Ahmari

As someone who describes himself as ‘spiritual but not religious’, I found this to be a fascinating read. Here, Ahmari argues that the current ‘freedoms’ we enjoy – to do whatever we want subject to consent – are against the freedom that comes from the pursuit of the collective good. In this case, the collective good here is examined through a variety of religious examples throughout the years.

The book is divided into two parts – The Things of God and The Things of Humankind – which are then broken down into questions. Can you be spiritual without being religious? Is God reasonable? What do you owe your body? By addressing the problems of contemporary liberalism, Ahmari makes the case that our futures should continue to be bound by our pasts and traditions. 

Favorite Quote:

“The supreme goal is to be free, and the less restricted and disciplined, the freer we are. The political right prioritizes autonomy in the economic sphere. The left is equally zealous for autonomy in the sexual and cultural sphere. The two partisan camps oppose each other furiously, and the end result is the expansion of autonomy in both spheres, the boardroom and the bedroom.”

“Free Speech: Why It Matters” by Andrew Doyle

Before returning to the UK after 18 months away, I decided to download Doyle’s book that outlines our current culture war about what can be said, to whom, and why. Free speech is worth fighting for, he argues, and it is currently under attack by those who seek to silence or ‘cancel’ voices they disagree with.

While a short and concise read, I found it to be an intelligent takedown of our current climate. 

Favorite Quote:

“We should be wary of short-term remedies which may provide the ready-made tools for state-imposed censorship.”

“Failures of State: The Inside Story of Britain’s Battle with Coronavirus” by Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott

This title was the first comprehensive guide I had read on Britain’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Researched by two journalists from the Sunday Times, it tells the horrifyingly true story of how Prime Minister Boris Johnson was so engulfed in Brexit and forming his legacy that he ignored the rising threat of the COVID-19. He missed five COBR (popularly referred to as COBRA) meetings, more than his predecessors, and his libertarian response to the pandemic cost tens of thousands of lives due to his initial inaction.

In March 2020, I called Boris the ‘Hamlet of Leaders’. It turns out his follies far exceeded indecision. The book accuses his government of spreading misinformation, not caring for the struggling NHS, and too easily catering to China’s needs in order to secure a trade deal following the departure from the European Union at a time its virus was reaching the UK shores. 

Favorite Quote:

“It turned out that many of the out-of-date respirators had been purchased in 2009 with stickers showing that the expiry date was 2012. The solution had been simple. All the stickers were covered with a new expiry label of 2016 to give them four years’ extra shelf life. But once those dates had expired, more stickers had been placed on top to pretend that the respirators were fit for use until 2019 or 2020.” 

“Dracula” by Bram Stoker 

You might notice that this is one of the only fiction titles on my list this year. It’s also the only title that I consumed via an audiobook and I didn’t technically ‘read’. It was available on Spotify and I wanted something to listen to while I walked my dog, Tom, in my mornings.

I have consumed a fair amount of Dracula content, but this was my first go at actually hearing the story from the original source material. Stoker’s gothic tale of the Count and his journey to London is told through a variety of characters telling their accounts through letters. It was a scary tale that bears little similarity to modern-day vampires like Edward Cullen! 

Since my primary form of learning is through reading and writing, I don’t remember most of the quotes I heard on those winter mornings from the start of the year.  I do remember, however, that those mornings were very enjoyable. 

Favorite Quote:

“…the world seems full of good men–even if there are monsters in it.” 

“1984” by George Orwell

This was the second fiction book I read this year, although some wise-cracking readers might tell me that today it is a non-fiction tale! I wanted to revisit the book that so many people seem to be attracted to these days – and it’s no surprise why. 

The book shows us a world that has been taken over by an authoritarian party determined to keep its people scared, ignorant, and obedient. We follow Winston, a free-thinker who is determined to find the truth behind the government keeping him and his thoughts hostage.

Honestly, it is pretty terrifying. Even without the modern-day comparisons to ‘liberal authoritarianism’, the way Winston is kidnapped and held hostage to the totalitarian state and told to believe that 2+2=5 is examined in a truly scary way. In a world that has been overwhelmed with lockdowns, curbing of freedoms, and the spread of government misinformation, it is recommended we all revisit this classic.

Favorite Quote: 

“We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it.”

“The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure” by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff

Are you beginning to see a trend in my interests this year? The Coddling of the American Mind, based on an article first appearing in The Atlantic, explores the current climate on US college campuses surrounding the issue of free speech and what it means for the education system and democracy at large.

Haidt and Lukianoff address three ‘Great Untruths’: students’ feelings are always right, they should avoid pain and discomfort, and they should look for faults in others and not themselves. The book explorers how, exactly, American culture has become a place where students believe that disagreeing opinions is a form of physical violence, or how it is affecting our wider institutions once these frail students graduate university.

Favorite Quote:

“A culture that allows the concept of ‘safety’ to creep so far that it equates emotional discomfort with physical danger is a culture that encourages people to systematically protect one another from the very experience embedded in daily life that they need in order to become strong and healthy.”

“Guilt by Accusation: The Challenge of Proving Innocence in the Age of #MeToo” by Alan Dershowitz

This title was written and published by Dershowitz free to the public in order to exonerate himself from claims made against him relating to sexual assault charges. He lays out, with convincing evidence, that he was not involved in any sexual misconduct with women when he was connected to Jeffery Epstein. Having had his reputation damaged by what he is calling false claims, the book sets out to demonstrate his innocence and shine a light on the current #MeToo climate. 

The book exists in order to try to clear his name, and it is pretty convincing. Dershowitz produces emails, letters, and receipts that prove that he was not where his accuser said he was, and other compelling pieces of information. In this day and age, reputations are settled not in the courtroom but on social media and through gossip.

Favorite Quote:

“Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”

“Outliers: The Story of Success” by Malcolm Gladwell

I have only read two Gladwell titles, but I am glad I have had that much exposure to his work and there is still so much left to enjoy. Outliers tells us the stories of the ‘outliers’ in society who overcame challenges to find success. He also explores how generational, cultural, or family experiences can help form the next great generation of success stories. 

Why would the month you were born determine your success at sport? Why are Asians better at maths? What made the Beatles such a success? Gladwell outlines all this, and more, in narrative-driven tales that explore some of the most interesting trends in the business and art world.

Favorite Quote:

“We overlook just how large a role we all play – and by ‘we’ I mean society – in determining who makes it and who doesn’t.”

About the Author
James Spiro is a journalist and editor at CTech by Calcalist. With degrees from the UK and USA, he has a background in journalism, public relations, and political analysis. He has a weekly newsletter that goes out on Fridays (www.JamesSpiro.com/subscribe) and is active on Twitter: @JamesSpiro
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