The best books I read in 2021
Every month, I recommend books I love that you might too. Every year, I go back and select my absolute favorites. Choosing between them was tough, so I hope you enjoy this list of the twelve best books I read in 2021 (here are my picks from 2020, 2019, and 2018):
An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green is an absolutely remarkable book—a singular science-fiction adventure that has so much to say about fame, art, friendship, and how the internet is shaping our culture. This is a story as fun as it is wise, related in prose bursting with life and personality. So. Darn. Good.
What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly has the highest idea/page ratio of any book I’ve read. Kelly offers keen, sweeping observations about why the world is the way it is and how it’s changing, effortlessly zipping from the concrete to the cosmological, from theory to praxis. This book will simultaneously ignite and satisfy your curiosity.
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin is a profound, humane coming-of-age adventure through an archipelago where knowing a thing’s true name gives one power over it, though “danger must surround power as shadow does light.” This is a story of magic and wonder that doesn’t flinch from pain, a story that itself wields a special kind of magic: it will lodge in your heart.
Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse probes the differences between games we play to win and games we play to keep playing. This surprisingly profound dichotomy sheds fresh light on geopolitics, sex, business, screenwriting, and so many other fields of human imagination and endeavor. Carse doesn’t just offer insight, but inspires you to seek out new insights of your own.
The Price You Pay by Aidan Truhen takes you on a breakneck ride through a criminal underworld populated by assassins, drug runners, money launderers, and other denizens of the dark net. Smart. Exciting. Subversive. Hilarious. Philosophical. Every sentence demands you read the next one. I haven’t had so much fun reading a thriller in a long time.
Caste by Isabel Wilkerson deconstructs the invisible systems that operate just beneath the surface of American life and, as the subtitle promises, reveals “the origins of our discontents.” Reading this book reframed my fundamental understanding of the country I call home, and gave me a new lens through which to make sense of why things are the way they are, and what it means to change them. Even more extraordinary, the story is as compelling as it is revelatory—this is a work of deep cultural analysis that reads like a page-turner.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke is a beautiful, haunting tale about how we strive to understand the worlds in which we find ourselves, and what it means to slip between them. The story is perfectly balanced, masterfully told, and brimming with melancholy and wonder—I adored it.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard is a memoir of a year spent exploring a remote valley in rural Virginia. By bringing exceptionally keen attention to bear, Annie’s luminous prose does more than bring the newts, butterflies, thunderstorms, and poplars she encounters to vivid, violent life, it offers you new lenses through which to see your own world and all the wild wonder it barely manages to contain.
The Quest for El Cid by Richard Fletcher is a rigorously researched history of the eleventh-century warrior-knight Rodrigo Diaz popularly known as El Cid. With extraordinary precision and concision, Fletcher illuminates the complex cultural, economic, technological, and political dynamics at work in Diaz’s homeland and peels back layer after layer of legend to reveal the man beneath.
The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker is a novel about a man going up an escalator. Yes, you read that correctly: this is a novel about a man going up an escalator. Baker unfurls that subversively arbitrary narrative architecture into a hilarious and endlessly fascinating exploration of human psychology, growth, and the beauty hidden in what we take for granted. Ultimately, this is a story about how investing care and attention imbues life with meaning.
The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd is a masterpiece of nature writing about the author’s inner and outer journey through a lifetime of exploring the Cairngorm mountains of Scotland. This is the perfect book to help you step back from the surging feed and find a new vantage. Remember: in an age of acceleration, contemplation is power.
The Actual Star by Monica Byrne is an epic tale of self-discovery that spans millennia and questions the very meaning of civilization. Born of extensive research into Mayan history and culture, this wildly ambitious speculative adventure will challenge you to reframe the past, present, and future.
Thanks for reading. If you love my writing and want to support it, invest in my creative process so I can do more of it. Oh, and tell your friends. We all find our next favorite book because someone we trust recommends it. Culture is a collective project in which we all have a stake and a voice.
Eliot Peper is the author of Veil, Breach, Borderless, Bandwidth, Neon Fever Dream, Cumulus, Exit Strategy, Power Play, and Version 1.0. He publishes a blog, tweets more than he probably should, and lives in Oakland, CA.
"Near-term science fiction at its absolute best. Peper consistently makes step function leaps in imagination. Veil is so crazy relevant and timely."
-Brad Feld on Veil
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