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.
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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.
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.
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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