A Rundown of Books from a Rundown Year: 2021

I read quite a lot this* year. Mostly tweets and emails, blogs and articles. I also enjoyed some books.

After the withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan and the swift fall of the government to the Taliban, Sarah Chayes’ 2016 book Thieves of State received renewed attention. This prescient book should be required reading for anyone working in fragile, conflict, or post-conflict settings, and I don’t mean just those working on governance. (I enjoyed it so much I invited the author to speak on the topic, together with other distinguished guests, on International Anticorruption Day in December.) I also enjoyed On Corruption in America, in which Chayes takes the US to task for its own networks of corruption and cronyism and lack of accountability.

Also on the subject of corruption, I enjoyed Kleptopia: How Dirty Money is Changing the World, by Tom Burgis. There have been many good books in recent years on the subject, focusing on lively narratives of true stories rather than dry academic findings, and this one continues in that tradition.

An unexpected joy was to be found in The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur, by Scott S. Greenberger. Subtitled “a gilded age tale of corruption and courage”, the book shed light on one president most Americans would not be able to name. From being a willing participant in the patronage-driven political machines of the gilded age to, unexpectedly, becoming president, to, unexpectedly, ushering through some landmark civil service reforms, Arthur’s story is a fascinating one. And the narrative and scene-setting by Greenberger kept it interesting throughout.

The Curse of Bigness, by Tim Wu, was an enjoyable short book on history of antitrust and the dangers of the concentration of economic and political power. The latter, the political dimension, was especially interesting to me. And I tend to agree that the demise of meaningful antitrust enforcement in the past decades has been costly for the US.

A former colleague suggested The Upswing, by Robert Putnam. With so much attention to the degradation of the collective spirit of “we” in the past 50 years or so, Putnam focused on the previous 50 years when the “I” spirit of the gilded age gave way to a more collectivist spirit. I was skeptical, but some of the arguments were convincing, especially with respect to legislative changes, although the skepticism returned when Putnam argued that such a shift can be found in Beatles’ lyrics. (Another favorite book, Duncan Watts’s Everything is Obvious Once You Know the Answer, came to mind.)

Our instincts drive our reason, rather than the other way around, according to The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt. The book was eye-opening and convincing on this central point. Haidt breaks the instincts down into five moral “foundations”—as a presentational device this is helpful, even if it felt overplayed at times.  Still, a thought-provoking book that explains a lot.

Stubborn Attachments is Tyler Cowen’s melding of philosophy and economics. Every economist should do what Cowen did: work through philosophical foundations to arrive at his own concept of how to judge policies and how to have a better society. Most economists just skip this and go straight to efficiency arguments, and the discipline suffers for this lack of discipline. I recall being not entirely convinced on all of Cowen’s arguments, but even so, it is only because he spelled out how he arrived at those conclusions that they can be examined. And the way he brought the benefits of economic growth into his philosophy was, in the end, compelling.

I finally finished The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, by Francis Fukuyama. For much of the book I could only wonder “how in world does one research and write something like this?” The deep history, going back to what is known about the earliest human societies, was fascinating, with story after story to fascinate and illustrate points. There were a few places where the narrative was cheapened by declarations, not uncommon by political scientists, that economists, as a group, are wrong in some way or another. (Of course, economists may often get things wrong, but it seems that the economist’s approach of modeling is not well understood.)

I can’t recall why I decided to get the audible version of Enemy of all Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History’s First Global Manhunt by Steven Johnson, but I was glad I did. The history of piracy in general, and Henry Every in particular, was all new to me. And, of course, the corruption angle—frequent references to the bribing of port officials, for instance—caught my attention.

Having enjoyed TV series such as Vikings and The Last Kingdom, I thought I should educate myself, not on history, but on mythology.  The audible version of Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman, in which the author reads some of the myths did the trick. It was an enjoyable way to learn about the characters and their relationships, and Gaiman seems a natural storyteller.

Some fiction this year: I caught up on some classics, including Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Loved them both, especially Frankenstein. Interestingly, although I’d seem various movie adaptations over the years, the ones that seem truest to the book plots were the Mel Brooks versions.

I learned about The Good Soldier Svejk, by Jaroslav Hasek, from a friend and colleague on a trip to Slovakia some 20 years ago. Humbly report that I thoroughly enjoyed this audio version, read by David Horovitch.  

For more modern fiction, I enjoyed Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir, also in audio. I often find that audio works less well for fiction, since it is hard to keep characters straight. But it works great for books like this with relatively few characters.

I loved Wilde Lake, by Laura Lippman. The setting is the place where I grew up, the Wilde Lake area of Columbia, Maryland. The story was gripping, of course, but it was also novel to read so many local references. I’m curious whether it was intentional to misname a small number of places, including my old neighborhood, given that so many others are spot on accurate. I’m looking forward to more of her books. (She is also a great follow on Twitter if, like me, you appreciate morning pictures of Baltimore and some sense of humor.)

And a couple books on my homebrewing hobby: The Comic Book Story of Beer, by Jonathan Hennessey and Mike Smith, with art by Aaron McConnell and lettering by Tom Orzechowski, gives the graphic novel feel to the history and science of beer.

Charlie Papazian’s classic The Complete Joy of Homebrewing was a complete joy to read. Lots of recipes and good instruction for beginners, naturally, but more that that the book conveyed the proper attitude. Every photo shows a smiling couple, both doing whatever the task may be, helping each other as they must since in every photo they each have a mug of beer in one hand. The philosophy Relax, Don’t Worry, Have a Home Brew! comes through as clear as a pilsner on a winter’s day.


*Okay, it is not exactly “this year” as I am finally getting around to posting way after the end of 2021; like six months after. Settling the books takes more time for some.

One comment

  1. […] Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear brings some valuable nuggets about how to keep moving forward, but I didn’t find it as compelling as the more philosophical 4,000 Weeks. (I am trying, though, to keep up—establish, actually—the habit of writing this “year in books” blog by the end of the year, unlike last year.) […]

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