2021 on Goodreads by Various

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Well, it is fair to say that this year did not go as well as many of us hoped. Pandemics, it seems, are rather drawn out affairs. Viruses have commendable persistence but atrocious manners. Yet books may be enjoyed in even the most trying times.

The most important event of my reading life this year was the publication of my own book, Their Solitary Way. I was extremely grateful for the support of many readers on this site—proving, once again, that this community is one of the bright spots of the internet. Indeed, the experience was so gratifying that I soon began work on another novel (this one hopefully a bit more readable), which has occupied a good deal of my attention lately. If anyone asks, this is my excuse for reading and interacting a bit less on Goodreads these past few months.

But on to the books! Two of my absolute favorite books of the year were about birds. Sibley’s What It’s Like to Be a Bird is a beautifully illustrated compendium of curious bird facts, while Ackerman’s The Bird Way is an exploration of the most extreme bird adaptations. Both books brought home to me how absolutely ignorant I was of our feathered companions, and what wonderfully interesting organisms they are. All this has not, however, been enough to motivate me to become a bonafide birder. You have to wake up too early.

One major theme this year has been my attempt to learn about Asia (another subject I knew very little about). This led me to read a history of India and to listen to lecture series on China and Japan. I also took a crack at some literature, reading Basho’s travel sketches, Babur’s autobiography, and an abridged version of The Ramayana. I remain both eager to learn more and embarrassed at how little I know.

Apart from my novel, one major event was turning 30. To commemorate this milestone, I read Meg Jay’s The Defining Decade, which convinced me that I am a lost cause. I followed this up with a book about aging, Younger Next Year, which essentially said that the secret to a long, healthy life is lots of exercise. This redoubled my commitment to running, and led me to read a couple books by the sports writer, Matt Fitzgerald. Several races later, however, I wonder if all this running isn’t more unpleasant than just letting my body fall apart the natural way.

Throughout high school and college, I was an avid consumer (and occasional producer) of music. This habit fell by the wayside when I moved to Spain, crowded out by other interests. But this year music made a grand return. I became a member of the royal opera house, and signed up for flamenco guitar classes at an academy. Aiding me in this venture were Juan Martin’s excellent instructional volume on guitar technique, and Robert Greenberg’s lecture series on opera appreciation. I also tackled Paul Berliner’s monumental Thinking in Jazz, which convinced me that I am never going to be a jazz musician. (A career as an opera singer is still a possibility.)

Another book category this year has been—for lack of anything more precise—depressing and horrifying events. The four books I read about the September 11 attacks (inspired by the twenty-year anniversary) all fall neatly into this bin, as does Bartolomé de las Casas’s book about the genocide of the native peoples of the Americas, Max Hastings’s book about the Vietnam War, and—most chilling of all—Lawrence Rees’s book about Auschwitz. History is, apparently, inexhaustible in atrocities.

Thankfully we have fiction to distract us. My favorite novel of this year may have been Corazón tan blanco, by Javier Marías. Other honorable mentions are Carl Sagan’s Contact, Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, Forster’s A Room with a View, Ellison’s Invisible Man, Woolf’s Orlando, Alas’s La Regenta, Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, and Richard Wright’s Black Boy (though it is somewhere between a novel and an autobiography). And I cannot neglect to mention Flannery O’Connor, whose collection of short stories were easily among the best books I read this year.

I finished many other books, of course, though they seem rather random in retrospect. This includes a virtual class on photography (I think I improved), a book about trees, one about oranges, one about the intestines, and one about a whale attack. The only “serious” philosophy book I read was Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception—and I remain phenomenologically unperceptive. More enlightening was Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma. which convinced me that, perhaps, the meaning of life might be found in my refrigerator after all.

I end this year merely hoping that life throws many more interesting books my way, and that I have the time, the patience, and the wisdom to let myself get lost in their pages. Oh, and if I can get this next novel finished, too, that would be nice.

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