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    The 2021 Afterthoughts Book Awards

    January 1, 2021 by Brandy Vencel

    I love to kick off the new year with awards for my favorite books read in the previous year. My reading went way better than last year (I had reached an all-time low). I read almost 60 books total, but for this post I will only focus on the 31 books I read by myself. (I’ll follow up with a post covering our read alouds from 2020.) This year’s reading felt extra rich, and I think one reason for that was being more deliberate than usual thanks to the Scholé Sisters 5×5 Challenge.

    This post contains affiliate links.

    Please note: every book on this list is recommended by me unless I explicitly say otherwise. They will be, in my opinion, worth your time and money if you choose to read them.

    On with the awards! (Scroll down for my 2021 Book of the Year — I always put it last.)

    Best in Fiction

    To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

    I hadn’t read this book since high school. Back then, I appreciated the book for its simple artistry. I found the story interesting, and of course the elements of racism were a struggle to fathom and very sad. But I completely missed the other issues and commentary running through the book, most especially that on the state of education. I understood that Scout didn’t like school (and I sympathized!) but I didn’t understand all the talk about the change the school was making to the “Dewey decimal system” and why that made Scout’s education so different from her father’s. This made it an especially fascinating read for me this time around.

    To Kill a Mockingbird is a beautiful little book that packs and punch on so many issues. Highly recommended.

    Other contenders: The Chosen by Chaim Potok, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, The Pension Plan by Josiah Vencel (my husband ahem), Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry, The Hogfather by Terry Pratchett

    Best in Government and Economics

    John Hopkins’s Notions on Political Economy by Jane Haldimand Marcet

    This was my second time reading this book and I found it just as delightful as the first time I read it. This book is old and written for children, so it can be a bit simplistic (or overly optimistic), but it is such a wonderful introduction to basic economic principles. While Jane Marcet believed in free trade, I wouldn’t call her exactly Austrian school, and this is likely because she died before the Austrian school was a thing (she died in 1858 and Carl Menger didn’t publish his new theory of value until 1871). I think she and Menger would have had some good conversations.

    This book is a great one for young high schoolers to read. Many of the stories are told in a fairy tale and/or conversational style. They hold the attention well while artfully teaching basic concepts like supply and demand, inflation, value, and more.

    Other contenders: Becoming Whole by Brian Fikkert and Kelly Kapik, The End of Economic Man by Peter Drucker, The Fatal Conceit by F.A. Hayek

    Best in Health

    Healing ADD by Dr. Daniel Amen

    My post There’s Dew on the Grass in the Morning detailed some of my concerns about this book. Here, where I need to be brief, I will just say that while I had concerns, I found the book valuable, helpful, and also interesting to read. The word “healing” in the title is a bit of a misnomer, but still I think if you have someone with ADD in your life, thinking through Dr. Amen’s seven types can be helpful.

    I recommend the book, yes, but only to those who might need it. I don’t think it’s so valuable that it’s worth reading if you have only non-ADD persons around you.

    Other contenders: Superhuman by Dave Asprey, Homeopathic Treatment of Sports Injuries by Lyle Morgan, Gasp! by Dr. Michael Gelb, Quench by Dr. Dana Cohen and Gina Bria

    Note on Quench: I had high hopes that this book would be more about the science of water, but it only had a bit of that (not very well explained in my opinion) and then talked much about the authors’ preferred hydration techniques. I really think if you want to know more about water, you are better off reading a real science book. I recommend Gerald Pollock’s The Fourth Phase of Water.

    Best in Education and Philosophy

    The Intellectual Life by A.G. Sertillanges

    I feel very, very guilty that this is not my book of the year. I adore this book. It is in my top five favorite books of all time. (It actually displaced a book on that list!) But here the deal: over the years, I’ve read most of The Intellectual Life over and over without ever finishing the final two chapters. I don’t put any book in my annual post without having finished the book entirely. The Book of the Year award goes to the book that most captured my animation in the year. But from this book I read a few of my favorite parts and then those last two chapters I had put off. In many ways, it’s the best book on this list … but it doesn’t meet my criteria for Book of the Year.

    All of that to say, this is a not-to-be-missed title!

    Other contenders: In Vital Harmony by Karen Glass, Gorgias by Plato, The Philosophy of Tolkien by Peter Kreeft, Simple and Direct by Jacques Barzun, Ourselves by Charlotte Mason, The Liberal Arts Tradition (revised edition) by Kevin Clark and Ravi Jain, A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz

    Best in Religion

    The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrates by Matthew Trewhella

    This book gets the title “best in” mainly because of its timeliness. It is possible, had 2020 happened differently, some other book here would have gotten the title — especially since the other books were better written. But the book was appropriate to the year, and that’s the truth. (Plus some of the history he shares is fascinating.)

    I recommend it with a caveat. There are places where the author makes unsubstantiated assertions. At times, he states his opinion as if it is fact needing no further evidence. (It’s possible he was preaching to the choir.) While Calvin and others who fleshed out this doctrine used much Scripture, Trewhella doesn’t use as much as he might. With that said, you can think of this book as a starting place. If you haven’t thought about these issues before, this book will be super helpful. Just follow the bibilographic trail and also remember to check it all against Scripture.

    Other contenders: Reforming Apologetics by J.V. Fesko, Confessions and Letter to Coroticus by St. Patrick, On Hope by Josef Pieper, On Love by Josef Pieper, Strangers in a Strange Land by Charles Chaput

    Honorable Mention in History

    Modern Times by Paul Johnson

    I can’t call this “Best” because it’s the only history book I read cover to cover this year. With nothing to compare it to, it’s in a category all its own.

    It was super helpful to read. At over 900 pages of tiny print, it took me eleven months to read. I’d always felt like my knowledge of the time between the end of World War II and the 1980s (which I can remember) was almost nonexistent. I loved reading this because it filled in a lot of my gaps.

    Highly recommended. Paul Johnson is excellent.

    2021 Afterthoughts Book of the Year

    Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

    If you’ve followed this blog all year, you likely expected this. I’ve mentioned it a number of times on the show. I’ve written about it here, here, here, and also the book inspired a whole reading list. The main criteria for winning my Book of the Year award (besides being well-written and interesting, of course) is that the book has to animate my thought life. I know this is subjective, because often this is the author’s good writing and potent ideas interacting with my own thoughts — a book has to strongly resonate with me to win. This usually manifests through blog posts — if I’m driven to keep writing about a book, likely it’s brimming with ideas worth pondering.

    A couple years ago, I bought everything Taleb had published for lay persons. This was my final book in that set, but while I was reading what I’d purchased, Taleb wrote a new book. To reward myself for a year well read, I purchased his book Skin in the Game to read in 2021. Taleb is definitely an author worth familiarizing yourself with.

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    15 Comments

  • Reply Heather January 9, 2021 at 10:33 am

    I have not read any of Taleb’s books yet but keep hearing him recommended so I think I should put one of his books in my to read stack for this year. Which of his books would you recommend to start with?

    • Reply Brandy Vencel January 9, 2021 at 2:42 pm

      I really think Black Swan is the best starting place (and it’s also his most famous book), but really you could even start with Skin the Game (his latest) if you wanted — the introductory chapter is very good, and doesn’t make it feel like you have to read all the others to read it).

  • Reply Amy Tyson January 3, 2021 at 5:40 pm

    Great list! On To Kill A Mockingbird (one of my very favorite books), or rather, Harper Lee…I recently finished Go Set A Watchman and I’m desperate to talk about it with people. Has anyone else read it??

  • Reply Betsy January 2, 2021 at 9:27 am

    Love that To Kill a Mockingbird made the list! One of my all-time favorites, and one of the few modern novels I’ve read MULTIPLE times (maybe 5?). I recommend the audio narrated by Sissy Spacek, too!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel January 2, 2021 at 2:21 pm

      I can see why you would keep reading it over and over — so much to think about.

  • Reply Julie Zilkie January 1, 2021 at 12:26 pm

    And also, did you use the Ecomonics book in a Circle Time context? Wondering if it could fit there, or did you read and discuss with an individual child?

    • Reply Brandy Vencel January 1, 2021 at 3:02 pm

      I think Johns’S Hopkins could totally be used in a Circle Time setting. For us, my daughter and I each read on our own and then I collected her narration and then we discussed.

  • Reply Julie Zilkie January 1, 2021 at 12:20 pm

    Brandy,
    Every year you don’t disappoint with these lists! Thank you for your sharing; it is always a treat to read these posts!! And I have four in my Amazon cart–now to determine which is the ONE that I can buy for now. 🙂
    Oh, have you assigned Taleb to any of your high school aged students? And if so, what were there thoughts?

    • Reply Brandy Vencel January 1, 2021 at 12:24 pm

      I have never assigned Taleb to my students, but my college freshman claims he will read Taleb when he’s home over the summer. I think he’d like him. I haven’t read Skin in the Game yet, bet my guess is that IF I did a high school assignment, it’d be that one, just because it’s more compact.

  • Reply Anna January 1, 2021 at 11:37 am

    You’ve probably answered this question somewhere before, but can the Taleb books be read in any order? I’m thinking I may add a bonus category of Economics to my Scholé Sisters 5×5 Challenge and put Antifragile, the Marcet book and Economics in One Lesson in there…
    I just posted my 2020 booklist and favorites on my blog yesterday. 🙂

    • Reply Brandy Vencel January 1, 2021 at 12:25 pm

      Technically, they can stand alone, but I think reading them in order can also be of benefit because he is definitely developing ideas across books as he goes.

    • Reply Julie Z January 1, 2021 at 12:25 pm

      Anna,
      I always love a good book list…do you have a link to your blog?

      • Reply Anna January 1, 2021 at 12:33 pm

        Just click on my name 🙂

  • Reply Leah F January 1, 2021 at 4:34 am

    Thanks for this! I am looking forward to reading Taleb soon, based upon your recommendations. I feel it’s so appropriate for our day and age. I read (or listened to) 47 books this year, a new personal record. Just started “For the Family’s Sake”, but Susan Schaeffer Macaulay, which is also timely, as we are continue to spend more time at home these days 🙂 A lovely blend of CM and how to flesh out her ideas in our homes, beyond education. Thanks for all you do, Brandy! Happy New Year!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel January 1, 2021 at 10:27 am

      You know, I have never read that Macauley title. I’ve heard of it, but don’t own it. Maybe I should remedy that!

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