My 2021 in Books

Photo by Susan Q Yin on Unsplash

Every year it is my goal to read 50 books, about one every week. I managed to do so by the skin of my teeth while on winter break at school: finishing the last book on December 31st. While not as great as last year’s 95, I read a lot of great books this year, including 13 in Spanish. Below are my 5 favorites, as well as my least favorite book.

Collapse by Jared Diamond

Current common wisdom from both sides of the political spectrum suggests that the panacea to all our problems is economic growth. Growth lifts people and nations out of poverty, pays down debt, creates technology that saves lives and many more wonderful things. But what happens when a society outruns its resource base by depleting top soil, cutting down forests or running out of surface metal deposits? Or if climatic conditions that allowed large-scale agriculture change for the worse? Diamond explores the fate of historical societies that dealt with these problems. Some, like the Tokugawa of Japan, manage to change their ways of life to prevent collapse. Others however, like Easter Island, the highland Maya, or the Greenland Norse, failed to adapt and were wiped out or reduced greatly in population. Diamond ends the book with a discussion of the modern states most at risk, focusing on China and Australia in particular. This was an excellent ecological perspective on the rise and fall of states, and would recommend to anyone who’s interested in history and climate change.

Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson

Although this was written in the 1980s, this is one of the most comprehensive Civil War books ever written. McPherson starts in the aftermath of the Mexican-American War and ends with the assassination of Lincoln. Although filled with details about battles, leaders and the life of the average soldier and thousands of primary source quotes, what really set this history book apart for me was McPherson’s focus on the non-inevitability of the wars outcome. Indeed, most other powers thought it was impossible for the Confederacy, a state the size of European Russia, to be conquered by a hostile Union. However, a combination of Lincoln’s shrewd political leadership, the delusional romanticism of the southern planter class, and pure luck allowed the north to triumph. At least that’s James McPherson’s counter to the “lost cause” myth.

I also listened this on the bus to track meets, many of which were near or on Civil War battle fields. It felt like I was living through history a bit.

Four-Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkman

I would classify this book as being in the “anti-productivity genre”. Where Tim Ferris and James Clear will show you how to grind better, Burkman questions the whole purpose of grinding. Life is short. Why should we waste so much of it striving for long-off future. As a grad student that would struggle with work-life balance if I wasn’t careful, this book was a godsend.

Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien

I’ve already read these before, but this time I did so in Spanish. I was pleasantly surprised by how well the sentiments came across through the translation. In the past I had been a bit nervous about Tolkein’s stance against progress and his portrayal of Mordor and Isengard as bastions of science, technology and machinery. Haven’t those things improved people’s lives immensely? Maybe. This read-through helped me to see that those things are not without cost, and what I long for is something much more like the Shire than Star Trek.

The Machievellians by James Burnham

James Burnham describes the writings of a group of thinkers that he claims take a scientific approach to politics. Rather than the “from first principles” arguments of Dante,Plato and Artistotle, these so called “Machiavellians” take an approach to politics very similar to natural science. They describe patterns present in the history of past societies and use this to come up with general political principles such as a theory of the ruling class, the iron law of oligarchy and elite turnover.

To me a year ago, this book would have been a redpill on democracy. But I am already convinced that democracy cannot solve our problems: our lifestyles need to be massively downscaled, and no politician will be elected who will make people do so. However, this book did provide the illuminating argument that even in democracy only a small class, the ruling class, actuals rules, as it is in any other system. True democracy, as shown by the structure of labor unions and other small groups is too much work — there is always a hierarchy!

Worst Book: Bright-sided by Barbara Ehrenreich

I agreed with the premise of this book: that American culture is infantilizingly optimistic, upbeat and unable to acknowledge or deal with negative events appropriately. However, the smug, self-assured tone of the author, that made everyone who disagreed with this premise out to be some kind of idiot, made it quite difficult to get through this book. Ehrenreich’s missteps do not end there. She displays a distinct lack of professionalism towards some of those holding opposing views that she interviewed. She proposes her own questionable advice, suggesting that viewing negative news is our “civic duty” (for many reasons why you should not read the news see here). Finally, the book could have been the length of a journal article and still got its point across just as well. I would recommend giving Bright-sided a pass.

Happy 2022!

Deus ex Vita




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Deus ex Vita

Deus ex Vita

“To the contrary, that the very genes do not lose a miRNA that has not been brushed away by the finger of God.” Musings about biology, learning and literature

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