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?
There are 24 comments
Yay Gun Island made the best of list! So happy you liked it! You had a very good reading year. Tell me, how did you manage to get through Guermantes Way? I have tired three times, have made it just a little further each time before I get so tired of the narrator and his attempts at social climbing. I feel like all his friends like him but I think he is such a bore and I put the book down at some point and then never pick it back up again. Happy New Year!
Haha, yep, that was my experience the first time I tried reading Proust, which was maybe ten years ago. I agree, he’s not a likeable character, and the prose style took some getting used to for me – the first time, I kept picking the book up late in the evening, getting lost somewhere in those long, winding sentences, and falling asleep before I could even mark my place!
One thing I did differently this time was to view the full seven volumes as a single novel, which I think they are. I think the seven volumes were only published separately because of the length of the whole thing, but they don’t actually make sense on their own. A decade ago I tried reading Swann’s Way, the first volume, but it’s really just a long prologue to the whole work. I can’t imagine any of the other volumes being satisfying reading experiences on their own.
So this time I decided just to read slowly, not to think about the time, and to pace myself to try to complete all seven volumes in one go. I also made an effort to start earlier in the evening or to read for whole days at the weekend, when sleep was less likely to interfere! The result, for me, was that I began to appreciate the beauty in those long, winding sentences, and I accepted the characters for who they are and began to feel a part of that lovingly, painstakingly described world.
Of course, your results may vary, and it is certainly a huge investment of time, but I’m glad I made it. Happy New Year to you too!!
Thanks for sharing your “Best Books of 2021” reading survey. First off, I’m impressed that you read through A la recherche du temps perdu. I did it as part of a Goodreads group read in 2013 but I’m not sure I would have made it through, were it not for the support of the group. Proust is definitely a challenge.
Second, I’m pleased that you have discovered Alistair MacLeod. I loved the stories in that collection, which I own in print. For me, he is second only to Alice Munro, and it’s a pretty close second. (By the way, Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature some years ago and I recommend just about any collection of her short stories if you have not discovered her yet. But it’s likely you have done so.)
It’s difficult for me to say what my favourite book of 2021 is, but I will recommend a few very interesting or unusual ones:
— The Minotaur’s Son and Other Wild Tales, by Kevin Ansbro
— Rusticles, by Rebecca L. Gransden
— As You Wish, by Cary Elwes
— Truck de India!: A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Hindustan, by Rajat Ubhaykar
Hi Richard, it’s good to hear from you! Alistair MacLeod was a bit of a surprise for me, to be honest—I’d never heard of him before and would probably never have tried the book if not for the reading project I mentioned above. I’m glad I did!
Thanks very much for the recommendations. Some very interesting selections there! I particularly like the sound of Truck de India! Might give that one a try in 2022.
Happy New Year!
I second the recommendation of Alice Munro; I reread/read through her stories before Alistair MacLeod’s and she is even more rereadable. So many layers and even some links between stories.
I started listening to an audiobook of Kindred about a year or so ago. Need to finish it! I may end up just reading the book though, as it might be quicker to do that. Like you said, it does feel like we’re on this lifeboat or whatever for the long haul at this point sadly. Hope you have a good January!
Lisa Loves Literature
Sorry for the late reply—your comment got snagged by the spam filter for some reason. I hope you enjoy Kindred, whether you end up reading the book or listening to the rest of the audiobook. Thanks for visiting, and I wish you a very happy reading month and year ahead!
Books helped me get through the rough spots this year as well and kept me going. It looks like you had a great reading year! Gun Island sounds amazing. I don’t think I’ve heard of that one. I have a copy of Kindred on my TBR where it has sat for way too long. I really should get to it. I hope you have a great 2022!
Hi Wendy, thanks for visiting! Hope you get to Kindred and enjoy it as much as I did. And wishing you lots of happy reading adventures in 2022!
Books have been a great help to me this year too.
As you know, I love Proust. 2022 is the centenary of his death, I expect a lot of celebration here. There’s already an exhibition at the Musée Carnavalet in Paris, which has his bed in their collection. Seeing Proust’s bed is as important as seeing Balzac’s coffee pot.
Reading Monsieur Proust’s Library by Anka Mulhstein may be a good fit for you.
I hope you’ll have a great reading year in 2022 too.
From my 2021 list, for you, I’d recommend Lantana Lane by Eleanor Dark, The Last Night at the Ritz by Elizabeth Savage and Betty by Tiffany McDaniel.
Happy New Year and happy reading!
Happy New Year to you too, Emma! Oh yes, I’d forgotten it was the centenary this year. I expect there will be lots of celebrations. I hope you’ll be able to take one or two Proust-themed literary escapades this year—I’d love to read about them. Of course, I guess it all depends on you-know-what.
I also really appreciate the personalised recommendations from your 2021 list. They all look interesting, and they’re books I don’t know and probably wouldn’t have found out about otherwise, so thank you! I just ordered The Last Night at the Ritz and look forward to reading it.
I love that you recommend Lantana Lane Emma! We Aussies thank you!
Hello Andrew: I have been working my way through Paris, 1919 by Margaret MacMillan. This is an outstanding work of scholarship about the time the entire world was “carved up” and representatives from many countries were doled out bits of or entire countries. WW1 had ended and Germany was being made to pay up for the horrendous destruction caused both literally and emotionally and the work recognizes the fact that Germany could never pay that debt. It also describes the public and private personas of the major players like France’s Clemenceau and America’s Wilson and his League of Nations idea. I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in modern history. It is readable, detailed, and even entertaining.
Thanks for the recommendation, Suzanna! It’s such a fascinating and important time in history. I remember learning about it in school, but this sounds much more comprehensive (and probably entertaining!), and it’s likely that new information and interpretations have come out since then. So it sounds like a good read. Hope you discover many more great books in 2022!
Although I have read some great books, overall I think I’ve been reading less over the last couple of years and listening to more podcasts instead. I’ve heard good things about Anitav Ghosh’s latest book – The Nutmeg’s Curse – and from my own reading this year I’d recommend Circe and Apple Tree Yard.
Hi Christopher, thanks for the recommendations! I’ve also heard good things about The Nutmeg’s Curse, as well as Circe. Apple Tree Yard is new to me, though, and I’ve never tried anything by Louise Doughty, so maybe I’ll give it a try this year. Thanks, and Happy New Year to you!
This came through while I was away for Christmas and I’ve only just caught up. Love your round up and though I haven’t read any of the books, I do know of all the authors (not surprisingly given their quality!) and love your list.
I also liked your opening allusion to Alice Walker. Good one.
I have too many favourite books to mention, but they include Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl woman other; Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This mournable body; and Nardi Simpson’s Song of the crocodile (which covers 3 continents).
Good to hear from you, WG! Thanks for the recommendations, which all look excellent. Song of the Crocodile might be tough to find because it’s only published in Australia, as far as I can see, but I’ve added it to my list in case I can find a copy in future.
You had very thoughtful reading choices this month–I have Kindred on my want to read list after reading the excerpt, but I haven’t been brave enough to start it–the horrors I know are inside are ones I’m not ready mentally or emotionally to deal with at this time in my life, especially with the pandemic still raging around me.
Good to hear from you! Sure, I can understand that. It’s been a tough time, and I think the pandemic is affecting everyone’s reading choices in one way or the other. Of course it’s important to take care of yourself mentally or emotionally, and I hope we’re in a better place with this pandemic at some stage, and you get to read Kindred in the end!
We’ve got a lot of shared favourites. and I’ve pencilled in Proust for 2024 and am really looking forward to that. Will definitely give some thought to the idea of reading all the volumes as one volume. Maybe it’ll happen before then! I appreciate your lifeboat comment leading to longer voyages. Better than a lifeboat than a cruise ship these days, eh?!
Last year I loved Ingrid Persaud’s debut novel and I think you’d enjoy it too, but it is very character-driven and maybe not the kind of fiction towards which you usually gravitate (there is quiet commentary on class and status and freedom throughout though). And you know the kind of stories I love, like MacLeod’s, so you know there will be pain with the joy in her narrative.
It’s hard to get an exact split, isn’t it! But you have come very close. For quite some time, I didn’t give a second thought to the women writers’ clear domination in my log because I deliberately sought to read them after graduating from school, when I’d come to understand how few women I’d been reading, but I think I’ve likely made up for that by now!
Thanks for the recommendation, Marcie! I have that Persaud novel on my TBR list, I think probably from seeing you talk about it on your blog before. It sounds wonderful.
Yes, it’s tough to get the split right, especially because I don’t really plan my reading. But I find it useful to have these things in mind as I’m choosing my reading. I probably need to go more than half and half to make up for years of bias in my early reading.
Nice list & stats. I’d like to read Kindred and Gun Island, both look particularly good. My favorite book in 2021 was likely Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Klara and the Sun, which moved me last year. Ishiguro writes so well too, certain scenes took me away.
And thanks for stopping by my blog recently … I am glad to find out about yours, and will continue to visit your posts in this new year. Cheers.
Oh, that’s good to hear, Susan! I love Ishiguro’s writing, and at one point a few years ago I’d read everything he’d ever written, but I think the last one I read was Nocturnes, so clearly I’ve got some catching up to do 🙂 I do like the sound of Klara and the Sun, so I hope to get to it this year. Thanks for the recommendation!