What an incredible year for non-fiction books! But let me first start with two picks from 2020, buried under the avalanche of Covid news then, and missed because I was less mobile than usual. These books are not only good enough to make this list, but in just about any year they are good enough to be the very best book of that year:
Edward Nelson, Milton Friedman and Economic Debate in the United States, 1932–1972, volumes one and two.
Alexander Mikaberidze, The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History.
Also noteworthy is Reviel Netz, Scale, Space and Canon in Ancient Literary Culture, which I hope to write more about.
Per usual, there is typically a short review behind each, though not quite always. As for 2021 proper, here were my favorites, noting that I do not impose any quota system whatsoever. (And yet this list is somehow more cosmopolitan than most such tallies…hmm…) I don’t quite know how to put this, but this list is much better than the other “best books of the year” lists. These are truly my picks, ranked roughly in the order I read them:
Colin Bryar and Bill Carr, Working Backwards: Insights, Stories, and Secrets from Amazon.
Ivan Gibbons, Partition: How and Why Ireland Was Divided.
Serhii Plokhy, Nuclear Folly: A History of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
William Deresiewicz, The Death of the Artist: How Creators are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech, brief discussion of it here.
Roderick Matthews, Peace, Poverty and Betrayal: A New History of British India.
Alejandro Ruiz, Carla Altesor, et.al., The Food of Oaxaca: Recipes and Stories from Mexico’s Culinary Capital.
Tomas Mandl, Modern Paraguay: South America’s Best Kept Secret.
Kara Walker, A Black Hole is Everything a Star Longs To Be.
Richard Zenith, Pessoa: A Biography.
John B. Thompson, Book Wars: The Digital Revolution.
Joanne Limburg, Letters to My Weird Sisters: On Autism and Feminism.
McCartney, Paul. The Lyrics. A remarkably high quality production, again showing McCartney’s skill as manager and entrepreneur. Perhaps the biggest revelation is when Paul insists that if not for the Beatles he would have been an English teacher. He also claims that he and not John was the big reader in The Beatles. It is also striking, but not surprising, when explaining his lyrics how many times he mentions his mother, who passed away when Paul was fourteen. There is a good David Hajdu NYT review here.
Bob Spitz, Led Zeppelin: The Biography. They always end up being better than you think they possibly could be, and this is the best and most serious book about them.
gestalten, Beauty and the East: New Chinese Architecture. Self-recommending…
Is there a “best book” of 2021? The categories are hard to compare. Maybe the seven volumes of Architectural Guide to Sub-Saharan Africa? But is it fair they get seven volumes in this competition? The McCartney? (He took two volumes.) The Pessoa biography? Roderick Matthews on India? So much to choose from! And apologies to all those I have forgotten or neglected…
Read more! And here is my favorite fiction of 2021 list. And I will write an addendum to this list as we approach the very end of 2021.