The 16 Best Books I Read in 2021

(Reading Time: 7 minutes)

Welcome to my annual list of the books I read and loved in these last 52 weeks.

This is (mostly) a branding blog, but there’s not a single book on this year’s list that pertains to that field.

(Side note: I find myself increasingly disappointed with business books; lately, most read like blog posts that have been stretched and padded, or thinly-veiled pitches for the author’s products and services, or both. Am I being too harsh?  Was there a branding or business book you read and loved this year?  Please drop me a note and let me know.  I’m always looking for the good stuff.)

I completed 36 books in 2021, 16 of which I recommend to you here.  Instead of ranking them, I’ve listed them alphabetically by author, a cop-out if there ever was one.

I’ve provided links to Amazon for each (just click the book title).  But if it’s an option for you, I do recommend that you support your local independent bookseller.

With that, here are the books that improved my 2021. 

Welcome to Dunder Mifflin: The Ultimate Oral History of the Office, Brian Baumgartner and Ben Silverman.  There’s at least one other oral history of The Office, but this one benefits from much broader participation.  (Baumgartner played dim-witted accountant Kevin Malone, and Silverman was a producer.)  Two big takeaways: First, it’s remarkable that this show, which streamed 57 billion viewing minutes in 2020 alone, almost didn’t happen at all; and second, it’s refreshing that the key players have so much respect for each other to this day.

Labyrinths, Jorge Luis Borges.  I’m kicking myself that I didn’t get to this 1962 collection sooner.  Borges is rooted in philosophy, and in these essays, short stories and parables, he plays with ideas of overlapping time and alternative worlds.  His premises are as imaginative as his writing is intelligent.  It’s not breezy reading – you’ll want to pay attention to every word – but Borges will reward you for that.

Let Me Tell You What I Mean, Joan Didion.  This is a collection of essays spanning Didion’s career, and it’s a quick read.  If you’ve not read Didion, I wouldn’t start here – try Slouching Towards Bethlehem – but with her sharp eye and distinct point of view, even a lesser collection of Didion is worth your time.  It includes this very Didionesque quote: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.”  I was very saddened by Didion’s passing on Dec. 23 at age 87.

Awake in the Dark, Roger Ebert.  This is not an anthology of Ebert’s favorite movies as much as a collection of his best writing, including reviews, essays and interviews.  One reasonable takeaway, even if you think you know a lot about film, is “I have a lot more to learn about film.”  Ebert’s writing, as always, is insightful and compassionate.

A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway.  This memoir, based on notebooks from the 1920’s that Hemingway rediscovered in the ‘50s, describes his time as a young man in Europe (mostly Paris).  Among other things, you’ll learn that Hemingway really had it in for F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda.  (Look for the original 1964 version, not the 2009 version that was further shuffled and reworked by Hemingway’s grandson.)

Say Nothing: A True Story of Memory and Murder in Northern Ireland, Patrick Radden Keefe.  I knew very little about the conflict in Northern Ireland – often given the understated euphemism “the Troubles” – when I opened Say Nothing, and I was shocked by much of what I read.  Keefe structures his book well, opening with the 1972 kidnapping of Jean McConville (taken from her apartment, in front of her children) and subsequently shifting the spotlight as all parties commit a range of atrocities.  Perhaps the biggest lesson: One’s take on history largely depends on where one sits.

The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underground and the American Dream, Patrick Radden Keefe.  Having been impressed by Say Nothing, I hopped over to The Snakehead.  This is a story of human smuggling (as distinct from trafficking), those who profit from it, and the system that creates and enables it.  As with Say Nothing, much of it will leave you wondering how things like this continue to happen in a modern age.

Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator, Oleg Khlevniuk.  This book benefits from the opening and examination of certain Russian archives since the ‘90s; it’s well-researched but easy to read, and illuminating but without an agenda (except, perhaps, to help prevent “alternative” takes on Stalin from taking root).  And Khlevniuk’s choice to frame the chronological narrative with a recounting of Stalin’s last hours – in which Stalin lays dying of a stroke while those close to him discuss the most expedient way to handle it – is particularly effective at demonstrating (some of) the consequences of ruling by fear.

Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World, Michael Lewis.  Here, the ever-readable Lewis – he also wrote Moneyball and The Big Short – takes on economic bubbles, and the psychology and systems that create them.  Originally published in 2011, it includes some timeless wisdom, like: “One of the hidden causes of the current global financial crisis is that the people who saw it coming had more to gain from it by taking short positions than they did by trying to publicize the problem.”

The Premonition: A Pandemic Story, Michael Lewis.  First, my quibbles: The Premonition leans a bit too heavily on cult of personality (even the title is reflective of this).  But Lewis’ ability to create a readable story from the ugly facts has few peers, and you’ll learn a ton about how the system works, or doesn’t.  Certain Amazon reviewers who gave this book one star because of its treatment of Trump seem to have missed the parts where the CDC and the state of California also get dragged.  In the end, it’s one of the better understandings of the pandemic and its (mis)handling that you’ll find.

So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal Newport.  This is it, folks: The book that plunged a stake into the heart of the “follow your passion and the money will come” nonsense.  Newport makes a more compelling and sensible argument: Focus not on what the world can offer you, but on what you can offer the world.  Recommended for those about to graduate college, those who have chosen self-employment, and those who just need to give their sense of entitlement a kick in the ass.

A Promised Land, Barack Obama.  For the record, I’m a registered independent who believes our president should possess intelligence, decency, leadership skills, respect for the office, and a sense of responsibility to both humans and the idea of democracy.  Obama was by no means perfect, but I never questioned his intentions.  In this first volume of Obama’s memoirs, we get to see the experiences that shaped Obama’s worldview and contributed to his rapid rise.  He’s an excellent writer, too – it’s a long read, but it’s never boring.  I’m looking forward to volume two.

Naked, David Sedaris.  In this early (1998) collection of his work, Sedaris was already adept at balancing belly-laughs with gentle lessons.  And he’s unafraid to make himself the butt of the joke.  The facts are no doubt stretched in some instances, but I don’t care; Sedaris is one of my comfort-food authors, a safe harbor in a crazy world.

Hell Yeah or No: What’s Worth Doing, Derek Sivers.  This is a collection of brief essays by a business philosopher (my term, not his) who takes the long view and questions everything.  “I write succinctly because I’m only introducing ideas,” Sivers writes in the intro.  “You can apply them to your life better than I can.”  There’s much to be said for a book like this – one that avoids pat answers in favor of raising questions and offering alternate points of view.

Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut.  Vonnegut is another of my comfort-food authors.  In Cat’s Cradle, he takes a not-so-absurd premise – a deadly chemical, people making irresponsible decisions – and spins it into a tale of the dangers of blind faith in religion and technology.  As with most Vonnegut, it’s bleak but darkly funny.

The Sirens of Titan, Kurt Vonnegut.  This is an imaginative sci-fi satire with more “plot” than the typical Vonnegut novel.  Sirens deals with free will (he’d later approach this head-on in Timequake, which I seem to like better than most), religion (he presaged the hoax of the “prosperity gospel” way back in 1959) and class structure.  This book gave the world at least three classic Vonnegut one-liners:

“The big trouble with dumb bastards is that they are too dumb to believe there is such a thing as being smart.”

“I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.”

“A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”

In the mood for a rabbit-hole? Here are my lists from prior years:

The 13 Best Books I Read in 2020

The 26 Best Books I Read in 2019

The 20 Best Books I Read in 2018

The 16 Best Books I Read in 2017

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About Matthew Fenton: Matthew is a former CMO who helps brands to focus, stand out and grow.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He’s based in Chicago.

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