ILLUMINATIONS: The Books I Read in 2021
Discovering the pleasure of police procedurals and what to read when you are mentally exhausted
I begin every year with the goal of reading about fifty books in the coming year. It’s not an impossible figure to reach—especially if you mix in a few short books that only take two or three sittings to read, thereby buying you more than a week’s time to read lengthier books. Nor is it a great disappointment if I don’t make it to fifty. Reading is not a competition. I often make a list of at least 20 or 25 books I’d like to read and leave the rest open for newly published works and interests that arise over the course of the year.
A significant portion of my reading each year winds up being determined by my work, including book review assignments, books I need to read for research purposes for assignments, and new books in my fields of expertise. Sometimes I am asked to blurb a book before publication, and most of the time I try to be accommodating (because everything that comes around goes around, or something to that effect).
In years such as this past one, when I am actively researching and writing my own book, the lion’s share of my reading time is typically handed over to the topic at hand. I am currently working on a book about George Harrison for Oxford University Press, and so the vast majority of my reading time was and will continue to be committed to reading books about Harrison (there aren’t many of those) and the Beatles (there are several hundred of those). In the list of what I read in 2021 that I have compiled below, I will mostly spare you the long list of books about the Fab Four, except for one or two that particularly stood out as ones that I would recommend to any casual fan of the group.
Working on a book also affects what books I choose to read for pleasure. (Not that reading books about the Beatles is not intensely pleasurable for me. If that were the case, I would be in the wrong line of work, or at least writing the wrong book.) Once I am at the point when the topic of the book becomes, as it must become, all-consuming, it becomes difficult to read books, particularly novels, that are demanding. These, as it so happens, are often the kinds of novels I most want to read, but after a day in the trenches of my “work reading,” I just lack the mental energy and focus that is needed to give the author (and myself as reader) a fair shake.
I have long enjoyed watching police procedural TV series, especially ones made and set in Scandinavia and the U.K. Before this year, I had never read a murder mystery, however. But I had collected a few volumes of Henning Mankell’s Wallander series, and so I gave that a try. And indeed, it turned out that those were pitch-perfect for reading-while-mentally-exhausted. I am just about done reading the Wallander series—there are about 10 in all—and so will be looking to find a new author and series to delve into soon. (Your recommendations are welcome and appreciated.)
As the last few weeks of the year wind down, I am currently reading Siri Hustvedt’s brand-new essay collection, Mothers, Fathers, and Others (Simon & Schuster), Dara Horn’s People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present (W.W. Norton), and finishing up Henning Mankell’s Firewall (Vintage Crime). Below is a (perhaps incomplete) list of books I did find time to read in 2021, minus the dozens of Beatles books I have made it through so far.
Wolfram Eilenberger, Time of the Magicians: Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Cassirer, Heidegger, and the Decade That Reinvented Philosophy (Penguin Press)
Like Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others (Other Press) before it, this book combines almost novelistic biographical narrative with the substance of its protagonists’ thought. I am a sucker for this sort of thing, especially if it features Walter Benjamin (from whom I derived the name of this Substack newsletter).
Roselle Kline Chartock, The Jewish World of Elvis Presley (McKinstry Place)
Roselle Chartock performs a heroic effort to collect all the bits and pieces of Elvis Presley’s secret Jewish history—including the fact that he likely had Jewish matrilineal descent—in one place, in a well-told narrative. (Reviewed by me in The Forward)
Michael Gray, Outtakes on Bob Dylan: Selected Writings 1967-2021 (Route Publishing)
Dylan fans are already familiar with Michael Gray’s work, as he was one of the very first (if not the first) to make the study of Bob Dylan a serious pursuit (some say he pioneered “Dylan studies,” and I have no argument with that). Yet Gray eschews an academic approach – rather, he works the middle ground, bringing a vast knowledge of literary and musical history to his subject while never sacrificing the joy that Dylan brings. Like Dylan himself, Gray’s writing always has one foot in the “serious” world and the other in entertainment; he is an inventive and at times astonishing writer, himself adept at brilliant metaphors and turns of phrase. (Reviewed by me in ISIS.)
Daniel B. Schwartz, Ghetto: History of a Word (Harvard, 2019)
Reviewed by me in The Forward
Sinead O’Connor, Rememberings (Mariner Books)
Sinead O’Connor’s memoir offers a fascinating and revealing look at her musical and spiritual evolution. Upon publication, much of the hype surrounding the book was about a frightening evening she spent with Prince, wherein his Purple Majesty was downright abusive to her. Overlooked in all that fuss were surprising revelations including her worship of Bob Dylan and Barbra Streisand and her serious studies in Judaism, along with her better-known relationship to Islam and Catholicism. (Reviewed by me in The Forward)
Harry Freedman, Leonard Cohen: The Mystical Roots of Genius (Bloomsbury Continuum)
Michael Posner, Leonard Cohen, Untold Stories: The Early Years (Simon & Schuster)
These two books about Leonard Cohen dig deep into the folk-rock poet’s upbringing as Canadian Jewish royalty and how it deeply affected his entire body of work as a novelist, poet, and songwriter.
Susan Orlean, On Animals (Simon & Schuster)
Craig Brown, 150 Glimpses of the Beatles (FSG)
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (Modern Library)
Perhaps the original self-help book, written in pithy epigrams.
Sam J. Miller, The Blade Between (Ecco)
A native of Hudson, N.Y., Sam Miller and his fictional stand-in return to his hometown for a dystopian psychological fantasy that takes on the centuries-old forces of “gentrification” in the form of a mystery and ghost story. (My review for Chronogram.)
Martin Amis, Inside Story (Knopf)
I will read anything by Martin Amis, but I cannot recommend his latest, a failed and clumsy attempt to write a memoir couched as autofiction. Amis is as brilliant an essayist as he is a novelist; he should have just played this one as straight memoir.
Heidi Pitlor, Impersonation (Algonquin Books)
A contemporary drama of single-parenthood set in the Berkshires.
Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle Vol. 5 (Archipelago)
Karl Ove Knausgaard, Spring (Penguin)
I know and understand that Knausgaard isn’t for everyone, but I’ll read anything he writes, including and especially his nonfiction (he is terrific on art and especially on Munch). My Struggle Vol. 6, the final entry in his sextet of “autofiction,” is first on my list of books to read once I submit my George Harrison manuscript to my publisher. Spring is one of a quartet of books that are written as letters to his children, mixing biography with observation in a form not so different from My Struggle. His seasonal quartet might more properly be thought of as personal essays or creative nonfiction, if you care about such labels. One great thing about My Struggle is how it similarly defies any conventional labeling: while it may or may not be based on the “actual facts” of his life, it is filled with pages of digressions into art, literature, philosophy and such.
Nick Laird, Modern Gods (Viking)
Two sisters exist a world apart yet are inextricably tied together.
Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (Harper Perennial Modern Classics)
I remember loving this when I first read it decades ago. This time around I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. It could have been due to my pandemic-inflected bad mood when I read it, or perhaps it really doesn’t hold up. At some point I will reread The Unbearable Lightness of Being to see how that one reads all these years later.
Sofi Oksanen, Dog Park (Knopf)
Henning Mankell, Faceless Killers (all Vintage Crime)
_______________, The Dogs of Riga
_______________, The White Lioness
_______________, The Man Who Smiled
_______________, The Fifth Woman
________________, One Step Behind