-> Reviews -> Favorite books I read in 2021

Posted 2021-12-23.

Skip ahead to nonfiction, honorable mentions, or books that underwhelmed if you are so inclined.


The Culture novels have been my favorite sci-fi series for a while now, but there were a few I didn't get around to reading until this year, including Excession. It's one of the best, and a good exemplar of the series: space opera that's both melancholy and inspiring, serious and whimsical; conniving AIs, interesting aliens, and compelling drama.

The author of the excellent psychomyth The Midnight Library raves about the works of Graham Greene, so I decided to pick up the latter's The Power and the Glory. I don't agree at all with the core message of this book: that the meaning of life must be found in religion, and that suffering has great spiritual value. But I love the vivid, memorable scenes Greene creates. There's a part where the priest loses a bottle of wine that just perfectly captures the imbalance characteristic of much human tragedy: an offense that seems minor to the perpetrator, easily forgotten by morning, can be devastating for the victim.

Project Hail Mary follows the same basic pattern as Weir's earlier novel The Martian: present an impossible-seeming problem, reveal a technically-scientifically-possible solution, repeat. I found it just as addictive here as I did there. But this book improves on the formula with a really adorable, heartwarming subplot that made it a hit with pretty much everyone in the book club I read it with.

Hannu Rajaniemi's Jean le Flambeur series, which starts with The Quantum Thief, is just one crazy cool sci-fi idea after another. Dilemma Prisons, societies built on negotiable privacy, "cognitive rights management software" (eep!)... it's got enough mind=blown moments that I'm willing to forgive its horrible abuse of the word "quantum".


If you want to know more about the issues that machine learning raises for society, Brian Christian's The Alignment Problem is an excellent introduction. It gives important and sometimes shocking examples of real-world risks posed by AI, and discusses approaches being explored to address the problems, without being alarmist or dismissive. It's also full of interesting historical anecdotes, like that time William James had to foster chickens in his basement.

I haven't seen much of Trevor Noah's show, but his memoir Born a Crime is fantastic. In case you haven't thought about South Africa in a while, this is a reminder that plenty of millennials grew up under an explicitly racist government with legally-enforced segregation. Despite that horrifying setting, Noah's story is inspiring and has some really hilarious moments.

I remembered Leah Remini from the sitcom King of Queens but did not know about her history with Scientology. Her memoir Troublemaker is a grimly fascinating look into how someone gets sucked into an abusive cult and what makes it hard to get out.

Julia Galef's The Scout Mindset is reminiscent of other "how to think better" books, such as the Skeptics' Guide, but I think this one is my favorite (or is that just recency bias?). There's a risk of sounding arrogant when recommending a book like this: it can come across like, I'm a totally clear thinker and you're hopelessly confused, you need to learn this list of logical fallacies and social psych results so you can be rational like me. When in reality, of course, knowing that stuff hasn't saved me from being wrong and confused on a regular basis. The flaws in our brains don't go away just because we become aware of them, nor can we root them out by just deciding to be better. They remain, subtly warping our view of the world, leading us to wrong conclusions and disastrous decisions.

And that's why I think it's important to keep reading books like this from time to time: to be reminded the flaws are there and to seek new strategies for the neverending battle against them.

Honorable Mentions


Translator Ignat Avsey notes:

...the standard English rendering of [the title] is The Brothers Karamazov. This follows the original word order, the only one possible in Russian in this context. Had past translators been expressing themselves freely in natural English, without being hamstrung by the original Russian word order, they would no more have dreamt of saying The Brothers Karamazov than they would The Brothers Warner or The Brothers Marx.

I tell you that so you'll know it's not a typo when I refer to Dostoevsky's book as The Karamazov Brothers. Anyway, I'm not convinced this deserves its status as a classic. Book 12 - yes, it's long enough to be divided into 12 "books" - is pretty good, but most of the rest could have been dispensed with. The characters are unrealistic and unrelatable, and the philosophical/religious messages are more like rants than deep thoughts.

Is The Turn of the Screw a ghost story or a tale of psychological horror? I don't care. It's boring and repetitive under either interpretation.