The Best Books I Read in 2021

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Best Books 2021

Do you have a book addiction? I’m here to make it worse.

Another year has come and gone. Berlin’s still huddling beneath a pandemic sky, and I spent much of the past twelve months reading and dreaming dreams of freedom.

I started a podcast this year, too. It’s called Personal Landscapes: Conversations on Books About Place, and given the topic, it’s added even more to my reading list.

I read and re-read a lot of great travel literature this year to prepare for those interviews. I also have some essential history reads to share, and some truly outstanding general nonfiction.

Each of the books below made my list because it was memorable, important, or just thoroughly enjoyable, and each is worth your time. I hope you’ll track them down.

Okay, first up, my Top Pick of the Year. This was a close tie with Hidden Hand, but I went with Gray because this book is just so useful for understanding the times we’re living through.

TOP PICK: Two Faces of Liberalism by John Gray

Two Faces of Liberalism by John Gray

I know, the work of John Gray was my top pick for last year, too. I tracked down some of his earlier books in 2021, and Two Faces of Liberalism found a permanent place on my shelves. 

In it, he argues that liberalism contains two contradictory philosophies. 

One face posits a universal rational consensus that tolerates diversity — but based on the faith that everyone will eventually evolve towards that same inevitable liberalism. This face takes a legalistic, rights-based approach in pursuing its aims. It believes there’s one “best” way of life for all humankind.

Gray believes this is a dead end, unworkable in modern societies that contain several ways of life, with many people belonging to more than one. 

The other face of liberalism is framed in terms of peaceful coexistence between conflicting communities and different ways of life. The future of liberalism lies in this face, in a project of modus vivendi that permits the peaceful coexistence of different interests, convictions and lifestyles. 

Consensus is sought through structures that help us maintain peaceful coexistence as values and norms evolve and change. It’s the polar opposite of the rights-based forced conformity being pushed by the woke, and it might just hold the way out of our increasingly bitter political divide.

This is an incredibly dense, highly relevant read. Get your copy here.

In the category of travel literature

The Gardens of Mars by John Gimlette

The Gardens of Mars by John Gimlette

I knew three things about Madagascar before reading this book: it was settled from the east, across the Indian ocean from southeast Asia rather than from nearby Africa; it contains an incredible array of unique flora and fauna (including lemurs — thank you second year Anthropology); and I knew about the coelacanth from a 1990’s Volkswagen commercial.

But I had no idea the island was riddled with ghosts, crawling with cattle rustlers, and seething in optimism. John Gimlette gets to every corner of this fascinating country, and touches on every era of its history. Listen to our conversation on Personal Landscapes, and get your copy of The Gardens of Mars here.

A Coup in Turkey by Jeremy Seal

A Coup in Turkey by Jeremy Seal

Jeremy Seal’s fascinating account of Turkish prime minister Adnan Menderes and the coup that overthrew him in 1960 has so many parallels to the Turkey of today. 

I also read Meander, the account of his journey down a Turkish River at a fascinating crossroad of civilizations. And I re-read his brilliant first book, A Fez of the Heart, a fascinating account of the divisions in modern Turkey symbolized by the banning of a hat.

I’d been to Turkey on a press trip 10 years ago, but such trips barely scratch the surface of a place. Talking with Jeremy and reading his work had me flying off to Istanbul for a long Christmas break. I just got back to Berlin a couple days ago. Listen to our conversation on Personal Landscapes, and get a copy of A Coup in Turkey here.

On a Shoestring to Coorg by Dervla Murphy

On a Shoestring to Coorg by Dervla Murphy

This title and cover serves as a stand in for a very large stack of Dervla Murphy books I read this year. 

It was a pleasure to revisit In Ethiopia with a Mule, the gripping story of her journey on foot across Ethiopia’s rugged highlands in the late 1960s. Murphy’s stamina and capacity for discomfort would humble a Spartan, but it was her gradual understanding of and deep affinity for the highland cultures that stayed with me after turning the last page.

I also enjoyed On a Shoestring to Coorg, her wonderful account of southern India, and in particular, the small, magical hill province of Coorg. She said it was the one place she could imagine herself living, apart from the small corner of Ireland she calls home.

The other highlight for me was Wheels Within Wheels, a wonderful memoir about Dervla’s first thirty years, her love of books, her early cycling adventures, the abiding love and frustrations of caring for her invalid mother, and her coming of age as a writer.

Finally, A Place Apart, her insightful exploration of Northern Ireland in the 1970s taught me more than anything else I’ve read on The Troubles.

Pick up these and other books by Dervla using the links above, or go directly to her publisher, Eland books. And be sure to listen to our conversation, recoded during the week of her 90th birthday.

City of Djinns by William Dalrymple

City of Djinns by William Dalrymple

I’d hoped to finally travel to India this past year, but Covid put it off for now. In the meantime, I started filling in my shameful ignorance of this fascinating region by reading William Dalrymple’s wonderful chronicle of a year in Delhi, as he digs through the city’s many layers and previous incarnations with help from friends at the International Backside taxi company. Get your copy here.

The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald

The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald

Okay, Sebald’s work isn’t really travel, but what is it? 

I read several volumes of Sebald for a podcast chat with his biographer, but the publicist stopped replying to my emails not long after I received the book. Hopefully we’ll manage to schedule something in the new year.

The Rings of Saturn is an astonishingly original work by a writer whose prose can only be described as Sebaldian. Purportedly about a walk in England’s eastern coastal regions, the book is a vast palimpsest of digressions into natural history, art, the nature of decline and fall, decay and loss. Mesmerizing, hypnotic, and a seemingly different book on each reading of it. This was my third.

The Emigrants is ostensibly the story of four Jewish emigrants, but this hypnotic exploration of displacement morphs into “one overwhelming evocation of exile and loss”.

Vertigo is a mesmerizing exploration of the mind and memory. Categorized under Fiction, Travel and History, it is each of these things simultaneously. Baffling, compelling, and utterly original.

The collection of essays in A Place in the Country pays homage to five writers and a painter who influenced the author, blending time and space, culture and memory, with Sebald’s trademark mesmerizing prose. This was an enjoyable read, despite knowing nothing about five of his six subjects.

Finally, I read Speak, Silence: In Search of W.G. Sebald by Carole Angier. This long-awaited first biography provides a fascinating glimpse behind the pages of a baffling, compelling, and utterly original writer. Angier does an admirable job of tracing Sebald’s life, struggles, strengths and shortfalls, and his potential motivations. I found her final chapters on his most important books especially enlightening.

I’ve included links to each book above in case you’d like to track down a copy.

In the category of general nonfiction…

Hidden Hand by Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg

Hidden Hand by Hamilton & Ohlberg

This heavily footnoted investigation into how the Chinese Communist Party has been quietly spreading its tentacles for decades is essential reading.

I was aware of some of the ways the PRC has infiltrated Western politics, academia and media, and has worked to exert control over citizens of Chinese heritage (including our fellow Canadians — why aren’t we defending them?). But I had no idea it was so pervasive and so far advanced.

The authors go into great depth to explain the bewildering array of front organizations in every sphere that have ties to the Party and to the People’s Liberation Army — often even the same personnel.

Our leaders don’t just seem determined to do nothing. They’re actively participating in it for their own short term gain. This book names compromised politicians — Justin Trudeau comes up more than once — as well as media outlets, corporations, global governing bodies, think tanks and universities who sold out the much-vaunted value of academic freedom for PRC cash.

I spent two months traveling overland in China 20 years ago, to regions including Tibet and Xinjiang. It was a bleak vision of the world back then, and it’s going to be the world we’re all living in if we don’t wake up.

A must read. Highly recommended — though it will keep you awake at night. Get your copy here.

The Power of Geography by Tim Marshall

The Power of Geography by Tim Marshall

Geography limits us and defines our possibilities in fundamental ways. A nation’s physical location — at a vital choke point like the outlet of the Red Sea; commanding the waves on Europe’s northwest fringe; at the vulnerable end of the wide open North European Plain — does much to dictate its strengths and fears, as does its store of resources, and its location in relation to powerful neighbours.

Marshall’s previous book focused on the big players: Russia, China, the US, EU and more.

This time he turns his lens on states which are increasingly important in our multipolar post-Cold War world.

He covers the role of Iran in fomenting instability across the Middle East, Turkey’s growing “neo-Ottoman” ambitions, the perils and possibilities of Australia, and the continuing instability of The Sahel (and why it matters for Europe). 

That’s just part of what’s in store for the curious reader. And at the end of the book, he points to looming conflicts over the geopolitics of space. 

“We are entering a new age of great-power rivalry in which numerous actors, even minor players, are jostling to take centre stage.”

Marshall’s new book is essential reading in these increasingly fractured times. Get your copy here.

Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom

Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom

I decided to read — and in a dozen cases, reread — all of Shakespeare this year. I’d bought a blue hardcover edition from Chancellor Press on a school bus trip to Toronto when I was 17 or 18. Over 1,000 pages long, with very small print that seemed easy to read at the time, but which challenged even my book-adapted eyes on dark winter nights in Berlin. It was one highlight of the year’s reading.

Harold Bloom was my reading companion. At times brilliant, bombastic, insightful and overblown, the great critic and champion of the Western canon always provided food for thought as I read each play and then consulted Bloom’s chapter to see how his reading compared with my own. 

I’ll give him the final word by quoting the book’s final line: “Shakespeare’s plays are the wheel of all our lives, and teach us whether we are fools of time, or of love, or of fortune, or of our parents, or of ourselves.”

Get your copy here.

But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz by Geoff Dyer

But Beautiful by Geoff Dyer

Geoff Dyer’s mesmerizing exploration of jazz is a work of ‘imaginative criticism’ told through vignettes of seven haunted geniuses of the genre. This is a book that soars.. breathes… reeks of cigarettes and whiskey and the sweat of crowded bars… and the quiet collapse of lives that burned hot and fast and etched themselves on vinyl. Get your copy here.

Political Fictions by Joan Didion

Political Fictions by Joan Didion

I’ve been working my way through Didion’s nonfiction, mainly to study her incredible prose style, but I found what she wrote about in 1990s here far more interesting than I expected. It’s a snapshot of a moment in our recent past in the West, and the continuities are obvious. See the full review on my blog, and get your copy here.

The Secret of Our Success by Joseph Henrich

The Secret of Our Success by Joseph Henrich

A fascinating look at how cultural evolution marked a crucial transition point in our past, setting us off on an unprecedented evolutionary path, altering our genes and providing us with a ‘collective brain’ in the form of the toolkit that allows us to survive and thrive by learning from one another over generations. Get your copy here.

In history…..

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan

The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan

This fascinating broad brush reassessment of world history shifts the focus from Europe to Central Asia. Frankopan argues that Western Europe was not the nexus of history or the continuation of Greece and Rome, but a backwater until the discovery of the Americas. 

According to him, the centre of history, spawner of Empires and driving force for human culture was the middle of Asia, and the trade routes that allowed ideas and goods to flow between East and West. 

This dynamic region is rising to dominate global politics, commerce and culture once again. He makes a compelling case in this thoroughly engaging read. Get your copy here.

Osman’s Dream: The History of the Ottoman Empire by Caroline Finkel

Osman’s Dream by Caroline Finkel

The Ottoman Empire sprawled across three continents and lasted for more than 600 years. Caroline Finkel’s grand history brings it back to life, with all its conquerors, reformers, fratricides and caliphs. The story is centred on Constantinople, one of the oldest and greatest cities of the world, and it’ll challenge all your stereotypes about the so-called ‘sick man of Europe’. 

I read John Julius Norwich’s brilliant three-volume history of the Byzantine Empire years ago, and this thoroughly enjoyable book filled me in on what came after, up to the Ataturk years — just in time for a Christmas trip to Istanbul. Get your copy of Osman’s Dream here.

The Last Crusaders by Barnaby Rogerson 

The Last Crusaders by Barnaby Rogerson

I thoroughly enjoyed this tour-de-force through the skirmishes, raids, wars and trades that shaped the Mediterranean and the Europe we inhabit today. Vivid writing brought these events and long dead people to life, and I liked that it told the story from both the Christian and Ottoman perspective. I couldn’t put it down. Listen to my conversation with Barnaby Rogerson on the Personal Landscapes podcast, and get your copy here.  

In memoir…

Confessions of an Igloo Dweller by James Houston

Confessions of an Igloo Dweller by James Houston

What a thoroughly enjoyable book of memories about life in the Canadian Arctic between 1948  and 1962. James Houston’s novel Frozen Fire was one of my favourite books as a child. I had no idea he lived such an interesting life. Get your copy here.

And finally, in fiction

Essential Stories by V.S Pritchett

Essential Stories by V.S Pritchett

This was brilliant. I can’t believe I’d never read Pritchett before. A master of the short story. Not a word out of place. This is a book I’ll dip into from time to time to learn about writing. Get your copy here.

Dodsworth and Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis

Dodsworth and Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis

I read these two in an omnibus edition of Sinclair’s novels.

Elmer Gantry tells the story of a hypocritical, hedonistic evangelist hiding his pursuit of wealth and fame behind his ‘heavenly’ calling. It’s a snapshot of the growing tensions between secularism and fundamentalism in 1920’s America, with interesting parallels to today’s woke ideologues and the self-serving grifters peddling Critical Race Theory.

I also read Dodsworth, the last of Sinclair Lewis’s four great novels. It’s about an American automobile manufacturer who tours Europe with his selfish social climbing wife. Lewis shows us the slow unraveling of their marriage while contrasting the cultures and traditions of Europe with the ascendant drive of American commercial success. What a pleasure to read this great chronicler of middle American life. Get your copy here.

Foundation by Isaac Asimov

Foundation by Isaac Asimov

I’ve been reading (and in a few cases re-reading) the novels loosely connected to Asimov’s groundbreaking sci fi trilogy by following the author’s suggested reading order, and I finally got to Foundation just before the end of the year. I’d read it as a teenager and wanted to know if it still holds up. I think I enjoyed it even more this time around. Get your copy here.

So there you have it. My top reads from the past year, narrowed down with great difficulty from a rewarding 12 months of reading. I hope you’ll share it with others who might enjoy these recommendations.

What stood out for you in 2021? 

Please share your best reads of last year in the comments below. I’m always looking for new worlds to explore.

About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Columnist at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

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Ryan Murdock

Author of Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Columnist at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

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