For the past two years I’ve been keeping count with the Reading List app. Mostly these are books I read for “pleasure,” though many of these books are or may be important for future research and writing. (What is pleasure for a professor?) My techno-innovation of these pandemic years has been listening to audio books while tromping through New England woods; I’d guess that I “read” roughly half of these books via earbuds rather than pages.
Here are my five favs from 2021 (alphabetically by author)
David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything : A New History of Humanity (Nov 2021)
I gulped down this massive book over many long walks through the unseasonably (climate-changed) warm fall weather. It’s desire to unfold and re-imagine the political possibilities of human culture inspires — even if, as K. Anthony Appiah’s excellent review in the NYRB shows, the price of their utopian range may be fudging some facts. They lean heavily on what they call the “Indigenous Critique,” which in their reading comes back to Europe from Native American cultures between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries. In this case, especially, I felt they underestimated the overlap between Old World philosophical visions of the Golden Age and the news coming back from the Americas – the two are deeply entwined and probably not fully extricable, as I see it. But even if Graeber and Wengrow exaggerate, their vision opens up historical possibilities in inspiring ways. It’s a basic historical truth that we can be something other than what we are now, and this book helps cultivate that perspective.
Philip Hoare, Albert and the Whale: Albrecht Durer and How Art Imagines Our World (May 2021)
Philip Hoare’s twitter feed (@philipwhale) makes the best poetic case I know for the virtues of daily immersion in salt water, but his most recent book isn’t a swim memoir. Instead, it’s a gorgeous, speculative, multi-temporal engagement with the life and art of Albrecht Durer. The cetacean of the book’s title is a beached sperm whale whose body Durer failed to see in early modern Holland. The project of the book – to learn what art enables us to see, and to see the past and present through that art — is stunning. I won’t pick favorites among these five titles, but I’m pretty sure Hoare’s is the one I’ll re-read first.
Riva Lehrer, Golem Girl: A Memoir (Oct 2020)
I found this one via my daughter Olivia’s first-year writing class at Haverford. It’s a riveting and often painful autobiography of a disabled artist. I listened to the audio, read by the author, and but after looking through the hard copy Olivia brought home over break, I think the illustrations, mostly of Lehrer’s paintings and pictures of her family, are just amazing.
Stephen Pyne, The Pyrocene: How We Created an Age of Fire, and What Happens Next (Sept 2021)
I’ve read a few of Pyne’s earlier books and articles, but I was super-pleased to find this short & compelling summa-style book in 2021. In under 200 pages, he traces the long relationship between hominids and fire, which has been central to human evolution as it is crucial to today’s global climate change. It’s another book I’ll go back to!
Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain: A Celebration of the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland (orig. 1977)
I found this one via Margret Grebowicz’s Mountains and Desire, which I also loved. For the beauty of its prose and open-heartedness of its vision of humans in nature, it’s hard to match Nan Shepherd’s early 20th century memoir. The audio book contains ancillary material from both Robert McFarlane and Jeanette Winterson. A great book to hike with!
Here’s my month-by-month breakdown with numbers and mode:
Jan: 7 books, including Obama’s A Promised Land (audio) and Jeminsin’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (print)
Feb: 4 books, including Kolbert’s Under a White Sky and Douthat’s The Decadent Society (both audio)
March: 5 books, including Gooley’s How to Read Water and Scott’s Seeing Like a State (both audio)
April: 5 books, including Thompson’s Blackface (print) and Nestor’s Breath (audio)
May: 5 books, including Hoare’s Albert and the Whale (print) and D’Arcy Wood’s Tambora (audio)
June: 6 books, including Eisendrath’s Gallery of Clouds (print) and Beard’s SPQR (audio)
July: 7 books, including Grebowicz’s Mountains and Desire and Suzman’s Work: A Deep History (both audio)
August: 6 books, including Pyne’s Pyrocene (print) and Shepherd’s The Living Mountain (audio)
September: 11 books, including Rovelli’s The Order of Time (audio) and Nersessian’s Keat’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse (print)
October: 9 books, including Ghosh’s Nutmeg’s Curse (print) and Odell’s How to Do Nothing (audio)
November: 8 books, including Graeber and Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything and Boon’s What the Oceans Remember (both audio)
December: 10 books, including Gabrielle and Perry’s The Bright Ages and Lehrer’s Golem Girl (both audio)
That’s 88 total, or an average of a bit over 7 per month. Most per month was 11 in September, least four in Feb.