In another difficult year, books once again brought me solace. Here’s a roundup of my best books of 2021 (these are the best books I read this year, not the best ones that were published this year).
I started last year’s reading review with a quote by Alice Walker about thinking of books as lifeboats. At the time, I thought we’d all be out of the lifeboats by now, but now it seems we’re just settling in for a long voyage.
So, in another difficult year, books once again brought me solace. Here’s a roundup of my best books of 2021 (to be clear, these are the best books I read this year, not the best ones that were published this year).
Kindred by Octavia E Butler
If I tell you it’s a time travel book, maybe you’ll get the wrong idea. The time travel here is involuntary, and the protagonist is a black woman who finds herself transported back from 1970s California to a Maryland plantation in the days of slavery. So there’s no adventure here, no fantasy: it’s just a very effective way of exploring the horrific brutality of slavery.
In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
Back in the early spring, when the days in Serbia were short, dark and cold, I spent many happy hours working my way slowly through the seven volumes of Marcel Proust’s monumental In Search of Lost Time. I tend to read quickly—perhaps too quickly sometimes—but Proust’s long, winding sentences seemed to lull me into a slower pace and a more contemplative mood. It was a wonderful experience that I’d recommend to anyone looking for a new reading challenge in 2022.
Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit
How do you hold on to hope when the world is hurtling towards climate catastrophe and millions of people are protesting furiously against life-saving public health measures? When sociopaths like Johnson and Trump not only get elected, but have mass support? When the things you care about just seem to get worse and worse and worse.
Rebecca Solnit provides a great argument for hope, showing that in facing the scale of our challenges, we tend to forget how much we have already achieved. She was writing from the darkness of the Bush years, but her arguments have a lot of resonance today. They helped me to move from slack-jawed despair to cautious optimism. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the seemingly relentless triumph of barbarity, give this one a try.
Island by Alistair MacLeod
Beautiful, lyrical stories of tradition and change in the small coastal communities of rugged Cape Breton. I loved this whole collection. To get an idea, read my review of one of the stories, The Vastness of the Dark, or follow the reading project going on at Buried in Print.
Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh
Last year some time, I wrote a post calling on novelists to write more about climate change, an issue that threatens our existence as a species. In the comments, Stefanie recommended Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh as a good example of a recent novel that includes climate change as an important theme. I’m so glad she did—it was a real pleasure to read this complex novel that spans continents and centuries, weaving in themes like climate change and colonisation while also telling a compelling story.
My 2021 Reading Habits
I read 50 books this year, down quite a bit from the 70 I read in 2020. I think that’s partly because I did a lot of lockdown reading in 2020, and partly because I spent a couple of months in 2021 working my way through Proust’s entire seven-volume, 3,000+ word masterpiece, which I counted as one book. Things also got very busy for me in the autumn, and my reading dropped off quite a bit.
I like to keep track of the books I read and the breakdown by gender, country, etc. I don’t plan my reading at all—I just pick up whatever book I feel like at any particular time—so it’s always interesting to see how things ended up.
I’d like a 50:50 split between men and women here, but I’ve ended up with 53% male authors instead. “Mixed” refers to books with multiple authors.
In 2020 I ended up with an even 50:50 split between fiction and non-fiction, but the balance tipped slightly towards fiction this time. Novels were the biggest category (I didn’t break them down into subgenres, but they’d mostly be literary fiction), and political books made up almost half of my non-fiction reading.
Again, ebooks dominated, even though I prefer real paper books. Moving around so much makes ebooks the ideal format, but I did manage to read more paperbacks and hardbacks too. I listen to audiobooks mostly on long car journeys, of which there were a few more this year than in 2020.
The US and UK have dominated in the past, but I got a better mix of authors from around the world this year. I’d like to diversify things even more in 2022.
There’s a bias towards contemporary literature here, with over half of the books published since 2000. I don’t tend to keep up with the very latest releases, but I usually get to them a few years down the line. Also a decent representation of 20th-century books, but not many classics this year.
What Was Your Favourite Book of 2021?
Well, that’s it for my list of the best books of 2021. I love getting reading recommendations, so please let me know your favourite reading experience of 2021 in the comments below. Or what are your plans for 2022?