My top ten all-time favorite books list probably has about 35 books on it. Because I regularly catch myself saying things like “That’s a top ten all-time favorite book” about at least 35 different books.
Making a top ten life-time favorite list is impossible because there are different lists for different reading moments. My top ten favorite books list has hundreds of titles vying for a position, depending on the list I’m making. Top ten favorite comfort reads, top ten favorite books from my childhood, top ten favorite books to get someone hooked on graphic novels, top ten favorite books that will change your life, top ten books I’d actually take to a deserted island. You get the idea.
Even though I’m not very good at narrowing it down, I do enjoy creating top ten book lists. 2021 was the first year in 12 or 15 years that I didn’t make a top ten of the year list. I meant to. But 2021 was probably the worst reading year of my life. Normally, I read around 150-200 books a year (not including picture books). In 2021, I barely read 50. Normally, I track my reading carefully. In 2021, I didn’t bother to keep accurate records. Normally, reading is the great joy of my life. In 2021, I mostly didn’t feel like reading.
Still, I did read 50 or so books, and thanks to science fiction and some bookish penpals who kept talking about books, I did rediscover my joy of reading. Here, in March, is a top ten favorites from 2021 list.
The Book of Delights was a reread for me, this time on audio read by Ross Gay–highly recommended. He started writing this collection of essays on his birthday, and I started reading it on my birthday, and for a few days at least joined him in writing about a daily delight in my notebook. A good project for a birthday, even if it didn’t go anywhere.
I read about five picture books in 2021, and it was pure luck that the eventual Caldecott winner happened to be one of them. (In the before times, I also used to love predicting the Caldecott winner–and making sure I’d read all the possibilities.) Watercress is gorgeous–art and prose. Even if I’d read my usual 300 picture books, it would still have been my favorite.
I had no interest in reading the massive biographies Robert Caro spends years (decades) writing–well, at least not until I read Working, his short book about his writing process. And then I found myself unreasonably fascinated by Robert Moses and Lyndon B. Johnson of all people. Caro writes like a dream, and I find his life just as interesting as the lives of his subjects.
The Women in Black has the best blurb ever: “The book I most often give as a gift to cheer people up.” I think I found a recommendation for this book (and the next two) in a thread on Rachel Syme’s Twitter feed. An Australian novel about a group of women working in a department store in the 1950s. It’s very funny and very sharp.
Love, Nina was definitely my favorite book of 2021. It’s a collection of letters Nina writes home to her family while she’s in London nannying for a quirky family with serious literary ties (Alan Bennett is a frequent dinner guest; Claire Tomalin and Michael Frayn are the parents of the boys’ best friends). A book I wanted to loan everyone–but very selfishly kept for myself because I didn’t want to lose my copy!
Another reread motivated by the many appearances of Alan Bennett in Love, Nina. An Uncommon Reader is a slim novel with a fun premise: the Queen of England (yep, that one) has a chance encounter with a mobile library and becomes an obsessive reader, much to the dismay of her handlers who wish she’d just stop talking books at the state dinners. It’s really a book about the joy of reading.
Matthew Salesses’s Craft in the Real World is a must-read for writers and teachers of writing, but I think it’s a great book for most readers of contemporary fiction as well as he tackles the ways that creative writing programs privilege and thus create a certain kind of writing. It got me thinking deeply about how certain elements I take for granted in fiction aren’t neutral or objective at all. Definitely a book I’ll be re-reading.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X is part of the required curriculum I teach, and while I don’t love the lesson plans that go along with it (map the central ideas, track the evidence, rinse and repeat), the book itself is stunning and most of my students found it engaging, relevant, powerful, even a page-turner. One of the few books I think everyone needs to read.
Nino Cipri’s Defekt is the book that saved my reading life in 2021. I was barely reading before I picked this one up, and it reminded me of all the reasons reading is joyful and also gave me a place to look for more reading joy–sci-fi. Defekt is a novella set in an IKEA-like store where a group of misfits has the task of finding and destroying defective merchandise–only the defect happens to be sentience. Weird and wonderful and both hilarious and perceptive in its critique of capitalism.
Finding a series to love was also a huge help to my reading life last year. Although each book is quite different, you should definitely read Becky Chambers’s Wayfarers series in order. The second book, A Closed and Common Orbit, was my favorite. Chambers is such a generous writer, and her vision, characters, world-building contain so much hope.
I’m always looking for my next great read. What’s a book you loved last year?
My theme for Slice of Life 2022 is finding inspiration in the writing of others. Each day I plan to find my slice in someone else’s words or forms. Today, I’m writing alongside Top Ten Favorite Books? at Teachers Write.