My Ten Best Books of 2021
This year’s list has a number of books from the learning journey that I am on at Stanford. I am very grateful for that program turning me on to works I don’t think I’d ever have read otherwise.
But I had more time to do outside reading than I thought I would, thanks to breaks between academic quarters and then of course the summer. That gave me a few gems for this list too. A couple are re-reads, but a good book is sometimes an even better book the second time around.
As always, I provide a line or two of commentary on, and a quote from, each work. The titles link to the Amazon Kindle store page for the book. Page numbers are provided for the quotes if available and Kindle locations if not.
Lorenzo da Ponte: The Life and Times of Mozart’s Librettist, Sheila Hodges
I watched and analyzed The Marriage of Figaro in an academic setting this year, and since I am inevitably drawn to historical contingencies, I found my way to the extraordinary story of Mozart’s librettist. No writer of fiction could have dreamed up Da Ponte’s life story. This is a learned biography but the subject matter is enough to make it enormously entertaining.
Da Ponte had two warring personalities within himself: on the one side was the man who delighted in the life of pleasure and debauchery which characterised Venice in the last years of her existence as a republic; on the other was the scholar whose passion was to read, study and memorise great literature, especially the great Italian poets, and who was a teacher of genius. (p. 21)
Old Man Goriot, Honore de Balzac
I confess approaching reading canonical works with a bit of dread. I find myself invariably surprised, and always end thinking that there is a good set of reasons why these works are canonical. So it was with Balzac and Goriot.
Let me shed some light on your position, from the vantage point of a man who, having studied the world, has seen that only two courses of action are possible: slavish obedience or revolt. I obey nothing, is that clear? Do you know what you need, my young friend, at the rate you’re going? A million, and fast. (p. 95)
Bored of the Rings: A Parody, Douglas Kenney and Henry Beard
Canonical texts, such as the Lord of The Rings, are often subject to exegesis. Very rarely are they subject to parody. This book is more than fifty years old now, but as parody it is timeless (plus footnotes in the latest edition explain all dated references). If you are amused by the idea of Gwahno instead of Gwahir, and a ballhog instead of a balrog — in other words if your inner spirit is that of an adolescent boy as it would appear mine is — you will find much to chuckle about here.
“For as surely as the Ring gives power, just as surely it becomes the master! The wearer slowly changes, and never to the good. He grows mistrustful and jealous of his power as his heart hardens. He loves overmuch his strengths and develops stomach ulcers. He becomes logy and irritable, prone to neuritis, neuralgia, nagging backache, and frequent colds. Soon no one invites him to parties anymore.” (p. 11)
The Story of My Teeth, Valeria Luiselli
Luiselli’s book is a great example of “experimental” fiction that doesn’t leave you with a headache. But leaving it there would be a disservice; it is playful, quirky, charming and above all a page-turner. It reminded me of something I read as a very young man, Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual. And the peculiar back story of how Luiselli wrote it (as a partial collaboration with its first readers) just adds to the entertainment.
I began to travel. I became a man of the world. I attended seminars and participated in workshops the length and breadth of the Republic, even the Continent. You could say that I became a collector of courses: First Aid, Anxiety Control, Nutrition and Dietary Habits, Listening and Assertive Communication, DOS, New Masculinities, Neurolinguistics. That was a golden age. (p. 13)
The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis
This book was published in 1881 yet reads like a fresh modern work. Bras Cubas, the hero, provides a chronicle of his life (from the grave). Like Catch-22, you can read it on two levels: as a hilarious satire that is just an entertainment from start to finish, or as a angry satire that is filled with pokes and prods at the stupidity of human society. Two translations were published in 2020; I read the one by Flora Thomson-Deveaux.
Each season of life is an edition that corrects the last and that will be corrected in turn until the definitive edition, which the editor delivers to the worms, free of charge. (p. 77)
Perdido Street Station, China Mieville
I re-read this book this year, twenty years after first reading it. The book has lost none of its power to immerse the reader in a dramatically different universe, one in which there are multiple humanoid species that are mashups with other living forms (the quote below about a khepri will give you a sense). But the frisson of creepiness that comes from those acts of invention shouldn’t obscure the fact that the book is a deeply interesting act of world creation with a compelling narrative drive.
Isaac watched the huge iridescent scarab that was his lover’s head devour her breakfast. He watched her swallow, saw her throat bob where the pale insectile underbelly segued smoothly into her human neck . . . not that she would have accepted that description. Humans have khepri bodies, legs, hands; and the heads of shaved gibbons, she had once told him. (p. 10)
A History of the Bible: The Book and Its Faiths, John Barton
I’m surrounded by highly religious people — who for the most part do me the courtesy of letting me live my vigorously atheistic life — but I am very curious about religion and read extensively about it. This book is a marvelous exposition of the Bible-as-historical-text, written by an Anglican priest. There is something in the idea that there is more of the unafraid, and more truth seeking, in Christian exegesis (by believers) than in any other major religion.
It is very common for Christians to argue from the exact wording of Jesus’ sayings, for example on subjects such as divorce, while forgetting that he uttered them in a language different from that in which we have them in the New Testament. (p. 155)
India in the Persianate Age: 1000-1765, Richard Eaton
This book presents a very different lens on the history of India for most of the second millennium after Christ. That history, in our time, is increasingly positioned as a clash of religions. It is refreshing then to at least read about another, perhaps more believable (and more historically grounded) take, one that involves two cultures colliding, yes, but also interacting and exchanging. Those cultures are the Persian and Sanskritic. Be prepared to leave your strong binaries behind.
Shah Jahan was therefore three-quarters Rajput by blood. Since Rajput mothers imparted their inherited culture to their offspring, the Mughal harem became a site for the diffusion of Rajput values at the heart of the imperial system. The Mughal connection with Rajputs, then, was more than political. It was biological and cultural, as Rajput institutions, introduced at the upper end of the Mughal order, percolated downwards, gradually diffusing among the officer corps. (p. 259)
The Great Indian Education Debate, Martin Moir and Lynn Zastoupil (editors)
I wrote recently about the fraught issue of English in India, something of obviously deep personal interest. If you are interested, I cannot recommend this collection of source documents highly enough. It is not just that many hard-to-find documents have been collected in one place; the introduction is worth the price of admission by itself, and each document is superbly annotated and explained. “Collection of source documents” is a phrase that would appear to suck all the joy out of reading — I assure you this is a wonderful read from start to finish, and you will be surprised by what you learn.
Encouraged by the enduring popularity of Persian, and confident that self-interest would lead Hindus to turn to English if it became the language of government, Grant urged the British to follow the example of their Mughal predecessors and introduce a new language – their own – into public affairs. This act alone would go a long way towards diffusing a knowledge of English, and with it western knowledge, throughout the land. (p. 7)
China’s Leaders: From Mao to Now, David Shambaugh
I continue to read voraciously about China. Xi Jinping shows us the dangers of extrapolating from historical trends and that means I need to “correct” some of what I read as works written just five years ago can seem dated. But not this book. It helps of course that it came out in 2021. But beyond that, it is an investigation of Chinese Communist leaders in the times they lived in, and in that sense is timeless. Notwithstanding my point about Xi, we do get clues to the present in this history of prior leaders, as can be seen in the quote below.
Returning to Beijing, Mao brought back more than just a treaty—he returned with a template for the entire organization of the country: for the political system, organization of the military, the national economy, the educational system, for everything.17 China was to become Sovietized. The importance of this cannot be overemphasized, as many core structural elements and procedures to this day were drawn directly from the Soviet Union. (p. 37)