20 Book Recommendations From 2021

I’m probably not supposed to be doing a book recommendation list at this time of the year. I should probably be trying to figure out a creative way to nudge you to buying my books, since I’ve written some, and if people buy them, I theoretically make money. But you know what, I’m just generally excited about books, and I think the world would be a better place if we all spent more time reading them. So I started to put together a *brief* list of some of my favorite books that I read this year, and it got kind of out of hand. I finally stopped at 20 books, and I hope there are no typos in the following text, because I finished it late last night and I was getting pretty bleary by the end. I hope you like some of these books, or that you gift them to someone who might like them. 

Also: Some of the links to buy these books are affiliate links, so if you buy books through the links, I will receive a small commission. I tried to put links to Bookshop, Amazon, and the publisher’s website when possible, and hey, a note about that: If you don’t know how Bookshop works, let me tell you that it is pretty great. You can select a local independent bookstore from Bookshop’s list, and when you buy a book, that bookstore gets a small commission from the sale. If you like bookstores, and you would like them to stick around, it’s great. I’m not going to talk shit about Amazon, but Jeff Bezos did just go to space, so I think they’re doing all right over there. Obviously your call. Like I said, I just hope people read books. 

[Note: If you do want to buy any of my books, they’re here]

 

1. Arbitrary Stupid Goal
b
y Tamara Shopsin

I have thought about this book several times a week since I finished it back in August, and I may have just bought six copies of it so I could force it upon friends—because it’s one thing to tell someone “I think you would like this book” and it’s a completely different thing to tell someone “I think you would like this book” and literally hand them a copy. I just need more people close to me to talk to about it. Tamara Shopsin grew up in the 70s and 80s working in her parents’ restaurant, the legendary Shopsin’s in Greenwich Village (now in the Essex Market on the Lower East Side), and this book is a memoir full of characters (including her dad, the legendary Kenny Shopsin, who she refers to at one point as a “militant Buddha”), as well as a memoir of a part of a city, a meditation on how to live life, and the story of how a restaurant with 900+ items on the menu started and survived. The story itself is wonderful, but how Shopsin tells the story is fascinating. I found out about it either through Kottke.org or Austin Kleon’s website, where he wrote “Reading a Shopsin book gives me the same jolt I get when I read something like Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions: “I didn’t know a book could do this!” And I cannot say it any better than that. 

Bookshop

Amazon

 

2. The Book of Delights: Essays
by Ross Gay

 

A caveat: I am only halfway through reading this book. That is not a reflection of the book—on the contrary, I find myself saving it so I can keep reading it as long as possible. I have it sitting on the kitchen table and pick it up in the mornings, to coincide with the first sip of coffee, when I want to start my day with Ross Gay’s singular brand of joy, delivered in microdoses. Gay set out to write a short daily essay for a year, and 102 of those are collected in this book of gratitude for often normal or mundane things that turn magical when he shines his light on them. 

Bookshop

Amazon

 

3. A Little Devil In America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance
by Hanif Abdurraqib

People way smarter than me will tell you this is a great book—it was a National Book Award Finalist this year, and Abdurraqib received a MacArthur Fellowship (genius grant) this year as well. This book came to me as a gift, a result of a back-and-forth with my friend Kris about how much we love Abdurraqib’s writing. I had started with his book Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest (Bookshop, Amazon), and then read his 2017 essay collection, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us (Bookshop, Amazon). A Little Devil In America is a sprawling piece of cultural commentary, with Abdurraqib’s insight and perspective, casting a wide net to capture “black performance,” including Aretha Franklin, Merry Clayton, Bernie Mac, Beyoncé, Billy Dee Williams, Michael Jackson, blackface, dancing, space travel, and more. With the voice of a true poet, Abdurraqib has made a book that is a work of art, about art. 

Bookshop

Amazon

 

4. Unsolicited Advice 2022 Weekly Planner and Journal
by Adam J. Kurtz

Maybe you already have a favorite planner. This is mine. Adam Kurtz is one of my favorite follows on Instagram, consistently delivering funny and encouraging pieces of his experience and perspective on life as a creative designer and writer. This planner, as I understand it, is one of his longest-running projects, which started on Kickstarter back in 2011, and has come back every year due to extremely popular demand. Kurtz designs the planner, hand-drawing lots of it, and adding in messages, jokes, and a little bit of positivity throughout the year (as well as a couple pages of stickers in the back). I use mine as an end-of-day check in book, writing notes of what I did that day, so it’s kind of the opposite of a planner for me, but I feel like Adam wouldn’t mind that

Adam’s website

Amazon

 

5. The Field Guide to Dumb Birds of North America
by Matt Kracht

I am not a birder, but I had to have this book when I saw it in a bookstore in Atlanta a couple years ago. Correction: I am not a birder, so I had to have this book when I saw it in a bookstore in Atlanta a couple years ago. Designer, illustrator, and writer Matt Kracht made this book by making fun of birds, and the humor in it has about the exact amount of depth you might expect—for example, a few names of birds included: Ass-throated Flycatcher, Shit-Headed Cowbird, Great Blue Moron. I’m not saying I’ve read it cover-to-cover. You get the general idea within a few pages, but it’s just fun. We have a shelf of birding books in the kitchen, and I slid this one in next to them, just in case it comes up in conversation when we have people over for dinner. Apparently Matt Kracht has a new book coming out on Dec. 21, titled The Field Guide to Dumb Birds of the Whole Stupid World. I look forward to adding it to our shelf (although I can’t say if anyone else in my house does).

Bookshop

Amazon

 

6. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking
by Susan Cain

My friend Aaron texted me about this book in September, saying “I’m having my worldview so delightfully reoriented by this book I bought a couple extra copies.” Although Quiet came out in 2012 and was a massive New York Times bestseller, I hadn’t read it. So I listened to it while I was on a long road trip by myself, and also had my worldview delightfully reoriented by Susan Cain and her insights on introversion/extroversion, culture, and nature vs. nurture, to the point that after each chapter of the book, I had to pause it and drive for a few minutes to digest what I’d just read. And became totally confused about my identity, or how long I’ve thought of myself as sort of an extrovert. But damn. I probably brought this book up in conversations with 12 different people over the course of several weeks, and shared how it blew my mind and also helped me empathize with a huge segment of the population (of which I may be a member?). 

Bookshop

Amazon

 

7. The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design
by Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt 

If I quit my job (or whatever this is) and go back to school to study design, a not-insignificant chunk of the blame will be the 99% Invisible podcast and this book. The 99% Invisible City illuminated so much for me—things that I’ve been curious about but didn’t know how they worked, things that I didn’t know I was curious about and didn’t know how they worked, and things I didn’t even know existed and (obviously) didn’t know how they worked. It’s broken up into short pieces about everything from fake facades and fake buildings used to deal with exhaust, to unpleasant design to prevent loitering, to tactical urbanism. This is another book that I put on our kitchen table for slow Sunday mornings with a pot of coffee, and leisurely read it over a couple months. I’m normally pretty free with loaning out books that I think will change people’s lives, whether I get them back or not, but I can’t seem to let this one leave the house. 

Bookshop

Amazon

 

8. Send Help! A Collection of Marooned Cartoons
b
y Ellis Rosen and Jon Adams

When I was a bartender approximately 150 years ago, I used to know about a dozen “guy walks into a bar” jokes that I could recite off the top of my head (sadly, I’m now I’m down to five or six.) In a best-case scenario, one or more people who were sitting at the bar knew a handful of them too, and we could go back-and-forth for a few minutes. There are endless iterations on a single, simple idea: a person (actually, sometimes a horse, or in my favorite one, a polar bear) enters a situation and says something. This is the premise behind Ellis Rosen and Jon Adams’ book, Send Help!, which collects 150+ cartoons drawn by 100-plus cartoonists, based on the classic desert island trope. Same joke, 150 ways, plus some additional material, including the history of the desert island trope, and stories of real-life castaways. This is the type of book you can put out on a coffee table for guests, if you’re OK with them dropping out of conversation and getting lost in the pages for several minutes [see also The Field Guide to Dumb Birds of North America and Conquer the Day]. 

Bookshop

Amazon

 

9. The Only Way is the Steady Way
by Andrew Forbes

I was in a bookstore in Asheville, North Carolina, in 2019 and stumbled upon Andrew Forbes’ book of baseball essays, The Utility of Boredom (Bookshop, Amazon). I loved it so much I wrote him a gushing email thanking him for writing it. To my surprise and delight, he wrote me back. A while later, he emailed me and asked if I’d like to read an advance copy of his next book of baseball essay, to which I of course said yes, and offered (completely unsolicited) to write a blurb for the book, if that might be helpful. He graciously let me do exactly that, despite the fact that I’ve never professionally written a single sentence about baseball, ever. 

Here’s what I wrote: “You don’t have to love (or even like) baseball to love The Only Way is the Steady Way. Forbes’ writing about baseball, something he’s loved his entire life, transcends statistics, standings, highlight reels, and hype, and captures soul—not the soul of the game, but the soul of fandom. If you do love baseball, or have had any fond feelings about the game at some point in your life, you will find your feelings put into writing in the pages of this book. Baseball may not save the world, but this book will remind you that it does indeed matter.”

Bookshop

Amazon

 

10. Conquer the Day: A Book of Affirmations
b
y Josh Mecouch

Josh Mecouch’s cartoons are maybe not for everybody. They are, however, for me, and, as I’ve discovered, several of my friends. The figures are a little, I don’t know, creepy? But their aesthetic makes the jokes work so much better. When I found out he had a book coming out, I bought it, and I was not disappointed. It is 100 percent a book to leave on your coffee table for friends and guests to leaf through, and will also enable you to separate your friends and guests into “people who get me” and “people who get me, kind of, but maybe not entirely.” If you obtain a copy of this and find yourself deeply enjoying how hard you are laughing, I will be very happy for you. But also very happy for me, because I own it already. 

Bookshop

Amazon

 

11. China in Ten Words
by Yu Hua

If you, like me, have ever been walking down the sidewalk and found yourself realizing that you don’t know shit about Chinese history—OK, maybe that’s a little harsh—that you know very little about Chinese history and culture, you might wonder how to rectify that. I must have googled something about books about China, and decided to start with this cleverly-conceived 2011 book by Yu Hua, an acclaimed novelist and writer whose adolescence coincided with China’s Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976. Each of 10 words is a springboard for Yu Hua to explain the Chinese experience in his lifetime: People, Leader, Reading, Writing, Lu Xun, Revolution, Disparity, Grassroots, Copycat, Bamboozle. Obviously not a comprehensive history of China, but as James Fallows wrote in his review of the book in The Atlantic, a collection of writings “on the general topic of why modern China is the way it is.” 

Bookshop

Amazon

 

12. Hoop: A Basketball Life in Ninety-Five Essays
by Brian Doyle

I love Brian Doyle. I have bought at least a dozen copies of his posthumous essay collection, One Long River of Song (Bookshop, Amazon), to give to people, and absolutely none of those people have been disappointed. His prose is powered by wonder and gratitude, and if you’re a reader, it’s easy to love, and if you’re a writer reading his work, it’s hard to not be inspired. You might ask: Is his book of basketball essays as good as One Long River of Song? I would answer your question with another question: Do you like basketball? If you do like basketball, and maybe moreso the minutiae of the game, and the feel of playing it, and the memories of moments that happen in gyms and outdoor courts far from the eyes of fans, and less analysis of professional or college games and stars, then you might like this book. 

Bookshop

Amazon

 

13. Soundtracks: The Surprising Solution to Overthinking
b
y Jon Acuff

Jon Acuff is a New York Times bestselling author, sought-after speaker, and has half a million followers on social media. He knows how to tell a story clearly, concisely, and more importantly, he knows how to make it entertaining, and how to build other people’s experiences into his narrative. He does not need me to help him sell books. But he followed me on Instagram a while back, and I thought I’d give this book a whirl—so I listened to it while painting the walls of a stairwell in our house. And I liked it, because a lot of it hit home for me. Am I confessing to being a bit of an overthinker? OK, sure. Do I think you might be too? I’ll just say that I would be willing to bet that most people who read Soundtracks have more than a few moments when they find themselves saying, “Oh yeah, I do that too.” 

Bookshop

Amazon

 

14. Soviet Bus Stops
b
y Christopher Herwig

I found out about this book a few years ago through my friend Alastair Humphreys, and I think about it all the time. Look: it’s a book of photos of bus stops in former USSR countries. The diversity of their designs is kind of the point of the book—some are more interesting than others, some are in better shape than others, but viewed as a collection, the whole concept is fascinating. Herwig spent 12 years working on the book, traveling more than 30,000 kilometers in all, using rental cars and taxi drivers to hunt down new bus stops to photograph. Something I think about a lot: Herwig write in his brief introduction that usually, the taxi drivers he hired were a bit confused about what he was doing, but, “Occasionally, a local taxi driver would become addicted to the hunt too, developing an appreciation for something he had forgotten existed, and together we would careen round the Soviet landscapes, racing the setting sun in search of ‘just one more bus stop’.” (Also: I’m aware that there’s a second book, Soviet Bus Stops Volume II, and another book, Soviet Metro Stations—I just haven’t bought them … yet)

Goodreads

Amazon

 

15. Seasons: Desert Sketches
b
y Ellen Meloy

Thanks to my wife, Hilary, I got to read this extremely slept-on trim collection of essays about desert living by the late Ellen Meloy, a former resident of Bluff, Utah—a town I’ve passed by and stopped into dozens of times while crisscrossing the desert in the Four Corners. Meloy originally wrote these pieces (and read them) for Utah’s NPR station, KUER, in the 90s, and they’re transcribed from those original recordings. She covers the terrain and the people of the southwest desert with wit and charm, and reading this made me miss southeast Utah and start thinking about when I could get back again. 

Goodreads

Amazon

Torrey House Press

 

16. Punch Me Up to the Gods
by Brian Broome

 

I picked this book up because I thought whoever came up with a title like Punch Me Up to the Gods probably knew their way around a story. Brian Broome’s memoir about growing up in Ohio (and later, Pittsburgh), trying to find a way to fit in, as a gay black man, and figuring it all out the hard way, through addiction and drugs. Broome alternates stories from his life with scenes from a bus ride in Pennsylvania, during which his observations of a young father dealing with his young son provide a structure for Broome to ponder our ideas about masculinity. One of the most memorable pieces in the book (for me) was Broome’s narrative of hanging out as an older gay man in a present-day, well-lit gay bar with big windows facing the street, thinking back on when he was a young gay man hanging out in dark, windowless gay bars, when things were much more secretive because they had to be, and his feeling about being the old(er) guy at the bar now. (If my ham-fisted attempt to tell you this book is good isn’t working, let me just say: Punch Me Up to the Gods won the Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction last month.)

Goodreads

Amazon

 

17. Alright, Alright, Alright: The Oral History of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused by Melissa Maerz

All I have to say about this book is that if you didn’t watch Dazed and Confused dozens of times at Travis Brummond’s house with your friends Robb and Scott and Travis and don’t know half of the lines in the movie by heart, or maybe you’ve never seen the movie, or saw it once but didn’t really like it, or didn’t get it, or it just didn’t click with you, and despite its cult status as a movie about how much high school sucks or alternately is awesome, maybe this book isn’t for you. But if you have a relationship with Dazed and Confused and/or just like to read about how movies are made, you’ll probably dig it.  

Goodreads

Amazon

 

18. The Practice: Shipping Creative Work
by Seth Godin

Seth Godin, time and again, reminds me that the most important part of creating things, is just sitting down and creating things. Same thing, every time I listen to an interview with him, or read one of his books. Do I still need him to tell me that in different ways, or using different stories, every once in a while? OK, yes I do. This book is not a waste of your money if you need a kind but firm kick in the ass to create things. 

Goodreads

Amazon

 

19. Kissa by Kissa
by Craig Mod

This is an expensive book. It’s $95, not including shipping from Japan. So: I sometimes ask my friends something along the lines of “Why do we work hard?” Some people work hard so they can fly in private jets, or retire at age 45, or drive a Bentley, or collect hundreds of pairs of rare sneakers. How would I answer that question? There’s a guy who walked 1000 kilometers across Japan in a search for mid-century cafes called kissas and the culture of toast in those cafes, who then wrote and photographed a book about all that, and had a couple of very small print runs of the book made. I work hard so I can buy books like that, I guess. And then sit at my kitchen table and drink coffee and listen to old jazz and read that book. That’s why. 

Craig Mod’s website (the only place you can buy the book)

 

20. Insomniac City: New York, Oliver Sacks, and Me 
by Bill Hayes

I have recently read a handful of books that I think are equally memoirs of a person, and of a city, New York: Patti Smith’s Just Kids, The Beastie Boys Book, Tamara Shopsin’s Arbitrary Stupid Goal, and this one, recommended to me by my friend Ian. Bill Hayes, a photographer and writer, moved to New York from San Francisco in 2009 at age 48 after the death of his partner. Insomniac City is his story of becoming a New Yorker in mid-life and falling in love with the city, and also falling in love with neurologist Oliver Sacks, who he dated for the last six years of Sacks’ life. Hayes’ sense of wonder and joy for all of it is painted almost all in scenes—bits of dialogue here and there from his experiences navigating the city, and the funny, fun, and touching moments as his friendship with Sacks gradually grows into a romantic relationship. A bit about riding the subway, from “On Becoming a New Yorker,” an essay early in the book: “If it’s late at night, I try to get into the first car and stand up front, so I have a clear view through the windshield. As the subway barrels ahead, star-like lights flickering on either side, I feel as though I am on a rocket hurtling through deep time, with no idea where we will land, or how, or when.” 

Bookshop

Amazon

 

PS: I log all the books I read on Goodreads—if you’re a Goodreads person and would like to follow me there, I’m here 

—Brendan

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