72 Books: What I loved, what I didn’t, and how I made 2021 my biggest year of reading

Note: here’s the whole list of books I mention reading in this post.

In 2015, the year I turned 15, I set a goal to read 50 books. I read 9. In the years since, I can’t say I’ve done much better, or come much closer to the grand totals I’ve set out to reach. But at the end of 2020, I was moving to a new place, and would spend Christmas and New Year’s in quarantine, before moving into the dorm I lived in throughout this year. So I decided, after reading more than usual in the latter half of 2020, that 2021 would be the year I finally read 50 books. I had doubts in my ability, but I thought, given the change of pace and scenery, I could finally make it work. And, I did! So, now I’d like to share with you what I loved, what I didn’t, and maybe provide a few books you can add to your TBR for 2022. But first, a disclaimer.

Reading, as a pastime, has no inherent moral virtue. Most of the books I read this year, I listened to via audiobook. Some of them, I purchased through Libro.fm (I get a free audiobook if you use this referral link), and others, I was able to find on my library app. If you wish you could read more, but don’t have the time or the motivation, that’s okay. I read for enjoyment and to gain information that doesn’t always have a direct relation to my life. Maybe you get those things from conversations with coworkers or Netflix or podcasts. Or maybe you don’t have time for that in the current season of your life. That’s fair! Now, onto the books!

The book that made me cry the most

My favorite book this year, and the one that made me cry the most, was The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green. This one is a collection of often deeply personal essays pretending to be reviews about various things in our vast Universe, like Diet Dr Pepper and the painting, “Three Farmers on their Way to a Dance.” The chapter on “Humanity’s Temporal Range” will give you hope about impermanence, and the one on “Googling Strangers” will have you crying with John Green as he googles a stranger he met during his time as a hospital chaplain. This was one of the books I read in print, and I’m glad I did, but John Green does read the audiobook himself, and if you’d rather not buy the book, many of the essays, and more, are featured on the podcast, The Anthropocene Reviewed.

The books that taught me more about the history of Evangelicalism

Early in the year, a re-reading of Unfollow by Megan Phelps-Roper reminded me of the mixed history of Westboro Baptist Church, and the disastrous things that can happen when the doctrines of Calvinism are taken seriously.

Following this, I read Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Kobes Du Mez, which is a sweeping explanation of how a bunch of prudish, White, Evangelical Christians got Donald Trump, someone who couldn’t be more antithetical to Christian values, into the White House. This book traces the slow but steady perversion of the kindness and gentleness of Jesus into an image of patriarchal grit and pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps-ism. I’d love a second volume of this work.

Next, The Making of Biblical Womanhood by Beth Allison Barr provided me with a personal and historical exploration of what makes modern-day Evangelicals embrace patriarchal norms with such fervor. I didn’t see this one get a lot of attention, and it deserves it.

Later, I listened to Pastrix by Nadia Bolz-Weber, which is a memoir of a progressive pastor in the ELCA, and while I enjoyed it, there were parts that need some reitering since its publication in 2013.

Another memoir, As a Woman: What I Learned about Power, Sex, and the Patriarchy after I Transitioned, by Paula Stone Williams, was a moving story of an Evangelical pastor gradually getting to know themself as someone the church culture they’d fostered would not, and ultimately did not, embrace. There were parts in which I wish Stone Williams would have been more matter-of-fact about how much her relative wealth aided her transition, but on the whole, this book was pretty meaningful to me, and I definitely recommend listening to it. Also, one thing I’ll never forget is her usage of a concept that “the desert religions” tend to be “religions of scarcity.” This idea helped me understand the new way I see Christianity and universalism, and the backlash towards Christian universalism from within conservative Christianity.

Lastly, and with bittersweetness, I listened, twice, to Wholehearted Faith by Rachel Held Evans, an essay collection published posthumously with the help of author and friend of Held-Evans, Jeff Chu. Of all the books I read in this genre this year, this is the one I’d recommend. The audiobook was particularly meaningful, as it was read by many of the authors in progressive Christian circles. Two of the essays that have been particularly memorable to me tackled the issue of shame and worthiness within the context of the doctrine of original sin. In my opinion, those essays are worth the price of the book.

The books that were just a bunch of essays in a trenchcoat

This year, I read around six essay collections, and I loved them all. I’ve already mentioned The Anthropocene Reviewed and Wholehearted Faith, but I also loved Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing by Lauren Hough, Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino, and White Magic by Elissa Washuta.

The books that changed the way I see the world (or, books I think about almost every day)

This year, in memorable and life-changing books, I read How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell, which is basically an essay collection, but it doesn’t say so on the cover, and honestly, was the most Buddhist, non-Buddhist book I have ever read, and encouraged mindfulness as much as many books that are actually about mindfulness.

Speaking of Buddhism, earlier in the year, I finally finished a book I started in the summer of 2020, Living Buddha, Living Christ, by Thich Nhat Hanh, which helped me understand how my Christian faith stands to benefit from my Buddhist practice, and how, in turn, staying involved with my Christian roots can strengthen by Buddhism.

In the category of Nonfiction Horror, I read The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff, which is much too long, but incredibly interesting and well-written. If you’re not sure why we should be concerned about the data-mining that’s happening when we move about on the interwebs, read this book.

Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication by Oren Jay Sofer comes to my mind at least once a week, and as I write this, I am deciding to add it to my re-read list. If taken to heart, this book could change the way you interact with literally everyone, and make every relationship you have a little bit better.

In Laziness Does Not Exist by Devon Price, Ph. D., you will find your biases about others and yourself laid bare for the ignorance or lack of awareness that it often is. Here’s some of what I wrote about it on Goodreads: “What this book taught me about the world and others I interact with is immediately actionable, practical, and well-articulated. What this book taught me about myself and my interactions with myself will take a lot of time to sort through, to learn how to let it change the way I pursue self-improvement.”

Lastly, What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat by Aubrey Gordon and Anti-Diet by Christy Harrison unveiled the truth in the science of fat and the danger of anti-fat bias, and finally convinced me to go fully on-board with the concept of intuitive eating. If you’re a dieter, a keto-keeper, a wellness guru-follower, or just a person living in our culture, which is a diet-obsessed culture, you need to read these books.

The books the internet loves

The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz, one of the few works of fiction I read this year, was promised to “pull me out of a reading rut,” and it did just that. I listened to this one, and yet, it was still a page-turner. I kept coming back to it, excited to find out what would happen, and while it was a thriller, it wasn’t scary, it was just suspenseful. The main idea behind this book is that a writing professor steals an idea for a novel from a student after that student passes away. But then, somebody knows what he’s done, and notifies him anonymously… who could it be? Great storytelling from Hanff Korelitz on this one, and the many “best of 2021” spots on lists across the internet are well-deserved.

So, everyone is talking about this book called No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood. (I apologize, but it’s true.) It was one of the 10 best books of 2021 according to The New York Times, and Vulture’s 2nd best book of 2021. I sort of understand why people seemed to enjoy it, but I gave it a 3-star rating. I just felt it was a little short and disjointed, and most folks with more negative reviews felt the same way. I intend to read this one again in 2022, because I genuinely see the potential, and I’ve started to wonder if I missed something.

The books I FINALLY read

I listened to Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe a few years back, but I barely remembered the plotline. I decided to read it again, this time in print, and I loved it so much. I’m now making my way through the long-awaited sequel that was released this October.

Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is one I remember my mom speaking highly of, and it has been on my list for quite a while, so I’m glad I finally listened to it this year. It was everything I expected, and more, so if it’s not one you’ve gotten around to reading, maybe put it on your 2022 list.

The books I’m still reading

Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver has been a delight to read, of course, but it’s difficult for me to keep a steady pace with poetry collections, since I feel odd about reading more than a few poems in one sitting. I’ve decided to try and read one poem from this collection every day of 2022 until I’m completed, which should be about September.

The Ursula Franklin Reader: Pacifism as a Map has been particularly interesting, as the circumstances which had me stumble across it were especially odd, and yet, the thoughts Franklin expresses in the essays and speeches seem to be in tune with what I’ve been thinking and feeling without knowing this book existed. Ursula Franklin was a Jewish, German-Canadian scientist who survived the holocaust and held a strong commitment to Quaker beliefs and practice. She died in 2016.

People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present, which is a collection of essays by Dara Horn, was gifted to me this Christmas season, and despite only being 40% of the way through the book, I already know it will be one of the most memorable books I’ve read in my life. In the very first essay, “Everyone’s (Second) Favorite Dead Jew,” Horn muses about a life Anne Frank could have lived, and the books she could have written. Narrowing in on our twisted idealism, she writes, “The line most often quoted from Frank’s diary are her famous words, ‘I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.’ These words are ‘inspiring,’ by which we mean that they flatter us. They make us feel forgiven for those lapses of our civilization that allow for piles of murdered girls—and if those words came from a murdered girl, well, then, we must be absolved, because they must be true…It is far more gratifying to believe that an innocent dead girl has offered us grace than to recognize the obvious: Frank wrote about people being ‘truly good at heart’ before meeting people who weren’t. Three weeks after writing those words, she met people who weren’t.” Again, I’m only 40% of the way through this book, and yet, I’ve been recommending it to folks left and right and reading them portions when they’ll listen.

The books I didn’t love

On the whole, I’m good at choosing books I will enjoy and steering clear of those I probably won’t. This is a fair bit easier to do with nonfiction, of course. Despite this, there were just a few books I did not love.

Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund, a book my father highly recommended, was difficult to stomach. Here’s a bit of my review: “Pointing out the subtle, sweet details of a theology that genuinely posits that billions of G-d’s created beings will have an eternity of torture upon their death is like putting powdered sugar on gluten free brownies. It’s still crap. No thanks, DANE. Keep that to yourself. However, if thinking about the abounding gentleness and love that Jesus has for you, a Chosen Person, and not for any of those Unchosen People really gets you fired up in the morning, this book is for you! Jesus wants to give you a big hug! Just don’t think about your old neighbor, Leslie, who is burning in Hell because the only Christians in her life were always rude to her.” Disclaimer: since writing this review, I have had enjoyable gluten free brownies. As you can see, though, my issues with Ortlund’s theological perspective are much larger than my issues with the book on its own.

I understand the appeal of 1984 by George Orwell, and Orwell is a favorite of many folks whose opinions I trust, but boy, was this one a slog. Perhaps I am just not used to reading classics as of late, but I did not enjoy this. Don’t get me wrong, I can appreciate the metaphorical weight of the writing and what it all means without enjoying it. In fact, maybe he meant for me to be creeped out and bored the whole time.

The books I should probably get around to reading in 2022

Believe it or not, I have never read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. So, I feel like I should probably get around to that in 2022.

For years, I’ve been meaning to read Emily of New Moon, which is the beginning of a series by L. M. Montgomery, who wrote Anne of Green Gables, which is of course fantastic. Well, in 2022, I’m finally going to read it.

To check out the books I mentioned, head to Bookshop.

In conclusion

I’m glad I was able to read all of these books, and more, even though many were in the form of audiobooks, because I know my day to day life was benefited by my reading, and the landscape of my thoughtlife throughout this last year would have been vastly different without the books I read. My reading goals for 2022 are to read another 50 books, and to read 12 in print and 12 fictional books, since these are less common in my reading habits as they stand.

Here are some tips, if you want to read more in 2022:

  • Listen to audiobooks! I listen to audiobooks while I’m driving, and if you have a commute, audiobooks can keep you company and offer a bit more food for thought than music, if that’s something you want.
  • Read before you go to bed. This always helps me with the bit of insomnia I can experience on rare occasions, and if you read a chapter of a book every night before bed, or an essay from a collection, you’ll probably be through a book by the end of each month.
  • Start with a number that makes sense. If you don’t read much at all, start with a goal of 12 books for the whole year, and let many of those be audiobooks, if audiobooks are easier for you to be consistent with.
  • Accept whatever you are able to achieve, and don’t get frustrated with yourself if you don’t reach your goals. There are things outside your control, and laziness probably doesn’t even exist.

Thanks for reading, Merry Christmas, and may your New Year be full of thought-provoking books.

2 responses to “72 Books: What I loved, what I didn’t, and how I made 2021 my biggest year of reading”

  1. […] At the end of 2021 and into the beginning of this year, I read a book called People Love Dead Jews, which I mentioned in last year’s reading wrap-up. […]

  2. […] set them, every year, without fail. And somehow, this year was different. As I mentioned in my reading recap, this was probably best attributed to the major change of pace that came with this year: moving to […]