Books of the Year 2021

Our best reads and most pertinacious page-turners of 2021

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Matt Labash
I read a lot of books. Probably well over sixty in the last year. I’m not saying that in some little-kid braggadocious way. After all, I’m fifty-one years old. Though some have said I read on a fifty-two-year-old level. In addition to the couple of books I have open at any time, a good deal of my book consumption comes via audio: I have an audiobook going in my car or on my MP3 player at all times. And at my advanced age, if I don’t dog-ear and underline a book, it’s lost down…

Matt Labash

I read a lot of books. Probably well over sixty in the last year. I’m not saying that in some little-kid braggadocious way. After all, I’m fifty-one years old. Though some have said I read on a fifty-two-year-old level. In addition to the couple of books I have open at any time, a good deal of my book consumption comes via audio: I have an audiobook going in my car or on my MP3 player at all times. And at my advanced age, if I don’t dog-ear and underline a book, it’s lost down the memory hole forever, no matter how much I liked it.

But one I do remember liking so much that it bears mentioning, is John Green’s The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centered Planet (Penguin, $28). You might recognize his name, since Green’s also a famous YA novelist and YouTuber. Don’t hold that against him. Here, he writes some of the most beautiful and humane essays of his or any generation as he “reviews” seemingly prosaic subjects from Canada geese to Diet Dr Pepper then gives them stars like a bad Yelp reviewer. Diet Dr Pepper gets four stars. Don’t hold that against him, either.

Anne-Margaret Daniel

T. Coraghessan Boyle, one of my favorite writers, unleashed a wild, loving novel, Talk To Me (HarperCollins, $28), this spring. Its exploration of connections and affections between species, and our responsibilities as humans to other living beings, have been themes of Boyle’s for decades.

Equally wild, and also brutal and beautiful, are Louise Kennedy’s short stories in The End of the World Is a Cul de Sac (Bloomsbury, $30). From the title story and its sleepy, inadvertently destructive donkey now resident in a failed fancy estate property, to the doomed marriage in “Garland Sunday,” her characters, living mostly in rural Ireland, struggle with cruelty, loss, disappointment and the surprise of occasional joy.

Linda Colley’s The Gun, The Ship and the Pen: Warfare, Constitutions and the Making of the Modern World (Liveright, $35) is nothing less, and much more, than the history of written constitutions shaped and set down in the wake of war. To write such a book for a single country or nation would be a feat; to do it for many, covering failed attempts in Haiti and experiments in Russia, with equal knowledge and skill, is both enlightening and dazzling.

Hermione Lee’s Tom Stoppard: A Life (Knopf, $38) seemed an impossible task to me. How could anyone, even the gifted Lee, write the life of such a multitudinous man? Somehow she managed, like Hercules with a charming Cerberus, to tame Stoppard into nearly nine hundred pages. His remarkable life to date is admiringly told.

Simon Sebag Montefiore

I adore Sebastian Barry’s novels. A Thousand Moons (Penguin, $16) is a brutal, poetic and poignant story of a Native American girl brought up by White American men on the frontier. I’ve just read Frances Harris’s excellent The General in Winter (Oxford, $55), a portrait of the foursome of the Duke of Marlborough and the Earl of Godolphin with Queen Anne and Sarah Marlborough. It’s simply outstanding and unputdownable. John Hardman’s Marie Antoinette (Yale, $20) is a masterly biography of the queen that gives a fresh, moving and humane portrait of her.

I loved A History of Modern Japan (Tuttle, $17) by Christopher Harding, a history of Japan that illuminates the country’s usually difficult politics and society with sparkling portraits. The Making of Oliver Cromwell (Yale, $35) by Ronald Hutton is a superb, essential, authoritative and fresh portrait of the rise of the sacred warlord. I’m fascinated by the addictive venom, racism, envy, snobbery and deviance of the Chips Channon Diaries, edited by Simon Heffer (Hutchinson, $65). Almost the opposite is Andrew Roberts’s George III biography, The Last King of America (Viking, $40), an outstanding and surprisingly moving portrait of a misunderstood king, distinguished by refreshing revisionism but also illuminated by deep humanity.

Amanda Craig

What would Britain have been like had the Nazis won? In Widowland (Quercus, $30), Jane Thynne, writing as C.J. Carey, gives a familiar counterfactual premise an original feminist twist. In 1953, as the coronation of Edward and Mrs. Simpson approaches, Britain cowers beneath the power vested in the “Protector” and works of literature are systematically censored. Yet what begins as grim dystopia becomes a thrilling testament to female resistance that resonates with real-life horrors today.

Katherine Langrish’s From Spare Oom to War Drobe: Travels in Narnia With My Nine-Year-Old Self (Darton, Longman and Todd, $24) describes re-reading C.S. Lewis’s classic children’s books as an adult and explains why, despite their dismaying flaws, they still enchant us. Funny, scholarly and perceptive, her clear-eyed honesty and warmth have never been more welcome.

William Boyd

In Modern: Genius, Madness, and One Tumultuous Decade That Changed Art Forever (The Experiment, $35), Philip Hook undertakes a wonderfully insightful and acute study of the first ten years of Modernism. What makes this analysis so intriguing is that Hook looks at the contrast with the contemporary non-modernist art of the period — a Braque reproduction sits beside a Peder Mønsted, a Munch is compared to an Emil Filla, and so forth. The originality of the context that this provides is highly illuminating and original, a brilliant new focus on a familiar era.

This year saw a new edition of Donald Rayfield’s magisterial, unsurpassable biography Anton Chekhov: A Life (Garnett Press, $35). First published in 1997 but totally revised with revelatory new material, this biography provides a detailed portrait of Chekhov and his circle that fizzes with unique familiarity, great unobtrusive scholarship and human understanding. You come away from the book feeling that you know Chekhov as you would know a close friend. An amazing masterwork.

Andrew Roberts

A Drink at the Bar by Graham Boals, QC (Quiller, $39) somehow manages to be both a witty memoir of life as an Old Bailey judge, and also, as he puts it on the first page, “an account of the life of a barrister who was, or became, an alcoholic depressive” or, perhaps more accurately, the story of a now-recovering alcoholic depressive who was a barrister and then a judge. Subtitled A Memoir of Crime, Justice and Overcoming Personal Demons, it is a searingly honest and engaging account of failings and redemption.

Nigel Biggar’s What’s Wrong with Rights? (Oxford, $45) is a thought-provoking book about moral, legal and political rights and how they interact and often clash. For those of a less philosophical bent, however, the price of the book is justified by the wonderful chapter attacking the “excessive self-regard” of modern human-rights lawyers. Biggar, an Oxford professor of the British Empire, takes on big subjects and annoys all the right people.

P.J. O’Rourke

Take the plotting of Agatha Christie and the atmosphere of Alan Furst, add John le Carré minus the moral ambiguity, and mix with rounded characters — Daniel Silva (HarperCollins) is the best spy-thriller writer going.

Alan Dershowitz

Steven Pinker’s new book Rationality (Viking, $32) couldn’t be timelier in this age of irrational partisanship. Years ago, philosophers recognized the irrationality of judging the merits or demerits of an argument by the person who offered it. Today the ad hominem fallacy is being extended from individuals to groups by the dangerous concept of “identity politics” and its close cousin “intersectionality.” These fallacious approaches to determining truth purport to judge the merits and demerits of arguments by the nature of the groups that are benefited or harmed by them.

A decade ago, before this topsy-turvy world became so dominant among the academic left, a book advocating rationality would have seemed unnecessary. Today it couldn’t be more relevant and important.

Jessica Fellowes

This year will go down as a good one for me, as I discovered Katherine Heiny. Warm, funny and true, her two novels — Standard Deviation (Knopf, $16) and Early Morning Riser (Knopf, $27) — were like being in the company of a great friend. If you like Anne Tyler, you’ll love Heiny, and I don’t think there’s any higher praise than that.

I dived into Graham Norton’s Home Stretch (HarperCollins, $27), too. He’s been a wonderful surprise as a writer: sensitive and witty, without cynicism. I know the rural Ireland he writes about, and this book is alive to the country’s charms and flaws in equal measure.

But the book that stole me away and sometimes woke me in the night demanding to be read was Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet (Knopf, $17). Her lightness of touch yet authoritative authenticity when it comes to evoking historical detail is extraordinary. You feel as if you can reach out and touch the characters within, that you would know them by their voices if blindfolded. And even though you know what happens at the end, you turn every page in haste. She’s a modern genius.

Harry Mount

The Fran Lebowitz Reader (Knopf, $17) was the funniest new book I read all year. It’s actually several old books — Metropolitan Life (1974) and Social Studies (1981) — wrapped into one to capitalize on her 2021 Netflix series with Martin Scorsese, Pretend It’s a City.

Her humor doesn’t date because she states eternal truths: “Remember that, as a teenager, you are at the last stage in your life when you will be happy that the phone is for you.” She’s also written the best defense to the cancel-culture killjoys: “I would be the very last to criticize the annoyed. I myself find many — even most — things objectionable… I do not, however, go around enacting legislation and putting up signs.”

Amen to that. I’m anti-signs too, though I wouldn’t mind those words of hers being put up on banners across schools and universities worldwide.

John R. MacArthur

The late John le Carré’s final novel, Silverview (Penguin, $28), is the best fiction I read this year for all the same reasons that make his other work so riveting. Characters are described in such vivid detail that you feel as if you’re living inside the novel; the plotting is meticulously complex; and the ending is almost unbearably suspenseful, forcing the reader to slow down and savor every word. It seems that le Carré wasn’t capable of writing a bad or superfluous sentence.

But there’s a dramatic nonfiction bonus aside from the fictional story. Before his death last December, David Cornwell, the man behind the pseudonym, entrusted the not-quite-finished manuscript of Silverview to his novelist son, Nick (for what Nick describes as “a clandestine brush pass”). Nick’s afterword contains a moving portrait of his father and their mutual affection. Given the elder Cornwell’s famously fraught relationship with his own deeply untrustworthy father, it’s gratifying to learn that David and Nick’s bond was everything that David had missed as a child.

Sohrab Ahmari

As research for a new book project, I read Michael Young’s genre-bending 1958 masterpiece, The Rise of the Meritocracy (Taylor & Francis, $55). In it, the sociologist and subsequent peer Lord Young of Dartington imagined a twenty-first-century Britain where democracy has been replaced by the rule of the “the cleverest people; not an aristocracy of birth, not a plutocracy of wealth, but a true meritocracy of talent.”

We owe the coinage “meritocracy” to Young’s book, which offers numerous strikingly prescient observations about the nature of meritocratic neoliberalism, including the coming apart of social classes owing to “intelligenic” marriages; the sheer ruthlessness of such a regime; and the discontents it would breed among working-class people. Young even predicted the geographic distribution of the Brexit vote (“this hostility to London and the South is a sinister aspect of the agitation too much played down by government sociologists”), but he retained a light literary touch as he described this horror show of a society.

Chilton Williamson, Jr.

America’s catastrophic retreat from Kabul at the end of last summer put me in mind of the equally disastrous retreat on a smaller scale by Lord Elphinstone from the same hellhole in 1842 — as depicted in George MacDonald Fraser’s superb historical novel about the subject, Flashman (Penguin, $17), the first of a series of twelve books taking as their antihero the altogether reprehensible character Harry Flashman from Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s School Days (1857).

Somehow, I missed Mao: The Unknown Story (Knopf, $22), by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday upon its publication in 2005. It is without doubt the definitive biography of this satanic megalomaniac, who by his own admission believed in nothing from his youth; despised China, her culture, and the peasantry; cared nothing for socialist ideology, his country’s welfare or its future; speculated that more than half the Chinese people might have to die in his quest for nuclear weapons; and died after having killed more than 70 million of his own people, all while being embraced by Richard Nixon and praised by Henry Kissinger as “a philosopher.”

Madeleine Kearns

Tucker Carlson tells budding journalists that his best advice to them is to get married young and have as many children as possible. The introduction to his The Long Slide: Thirty Years in American Journalism (Threshold, $28) is similarly down to earth: “Death and irrelevance are coming for all of us. Repeat that to yourself every morning, and things soon fall into perspective.” There are some gems in the collection, but the most enduring is his 1996 piece “Eugenics, American style,” about the perniciousness of using abortion to eradicate children with Down Syndrome.

I enjoyed Helen Joyce’s Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality (Oneworld, $26), a superbly matter-of-fact account of how transgender activists have managed to invade every sphere of public life, threatening everything from children’s sexual development and women’s spaces to freedom of speech and common sense. Evelyn Waugh’s Edmund Campion: A Life (Ignatius, $18) is as gripping and eloquent as any of his novels — good enough, even, to inspire a fondness for Jesuits.

Andrew Taylor

Crime fiction is often inevitably formulaic, but Joseph Knox comes up with an unsettling variant on the form in True Crime Story (Sourcebooks, $17). Dealing with the disappearance of a university student, this dark and refreshingly ambiguous novel is presented as a nonfiction investigation with a raft of unreliable witnesses, including “Joseph Knox.”

My favorite historical novel of the year is undoubtedly Elodie Harper’s The Wolf Den (Sterling, $19). The protagonist, Amara, has been sold into prostitution in the vibrant, vulgar world of first-century Pompeii. She and her colleagues, the “She Wolves,” are desperate to find a way out. The book has it all: drama, humor, strong characters you care about and contemporary detail that feels wholly authentic yet strangely modern.

Finally, an uncategorizable novel set somewhere between here and nowhere in a vast mansion regulated by the moon and the tides. You’ll either love or hate Susannah Clarke’s award-winning Piranesi (Bloomsbury, $17). Like all the best fiction, it creates a world that is unique, fascinating and wholly convincing within its own terms. Personally, I loved it, and I hope you do too.

Bill Kauffman

What the world needs now is love, sweet love. Which means, contrary to the demands of the placeless technocrats of the global anti-village, the rebarbative brats of the woke Left and the bellicose thumb-suckers of the nationalist right, we need a radical turn to roots, to the local, to decentralism.

In their own ways, coming from diverse points on the collapsing political spectrum, the way home in 2021 was pointed by Pete Davis’s Dedicated (Simon & Schuster, $27), Will Hoyt’s The Seven Ranges (Wipf & Stock, $28), Michael Warren Davis’s The Reactionary Mind (Regnery Gateway, $29), Jimmy Duncan’s From Batboy to Congressman (University of Tennessee Press, $25), Tony Woodlief’s I, Citizen (Encounter Books, $31) and Stephen Lewandowski’s poetry collection Hard Work in Low Places (Tiger Bark Press, $18). Something’s happening here…

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Due to the pandemic, there was more time for reading this year than ever before. Several pivotal books were published, but nothing was more important than Helen Joyce’s new book, Trans (Oneworld, $26), which can be paired with Abigail Shrier’s book from last year, Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing our Daughters (Regnery, $17).

Both women write with compassion toward the transgender community, acknowledging the dignity and worth of each transgender individual. But they also highlight the unintended consequences that transgender activism has on the rights and freedoms of women and girls. Trans provides a thorough understanding of the history of trans activism, its evolution and its impact on today’s society. Irreversible Damage takes a deep dive into how trans activism is inspiring rapid-onset gender dysphoria in young girls, who are being guided down an irreversible path under the influence of trans activists, doctors, teachers and therapists.

I implore anyone who has a daughter, who cares about the rights of women and girls or who is interested in the well-being of children to read these books.

Daniel McCarthy

January brought us one of the year’s best books with Helen Andrews’s Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster (Penguin, $27). Andrews is her generation’s finest practitioner of the vituperative arts, which she employs here to fillet such representative boomers as Steve Jobs, Aaron Sorkin and Sonia Sotomayor.

One of the biggest stories of this year remains the 2020 election. And the best book on that is Mollie Hemingway’s Rigged: How the Media, Big Tech, and the Democrats Seized Our Election (Regnery, $30). The book is as graceful as it is compelling, a combination to delight the open-minded liberal as well as conservatives.

Whether conservatism and liberalism of the classical variety have vital principles in common is a subject of perennial debate. This year has seen serious attempts at rehabilitating liberal conservatism in the form of Donald Devine’s The Enduring Tension (Encounter, $32) and Samuel Goldman’s After Nationalism (University of Pennsylvania, $25) — works which ought to be read even by those who expect to disagree with them.

D.J. Taylor

I enjoyed Rebecca Solnit’s Orwell’s Roses (Viking, $28), one of her customarily elegant circular flights which uses Orwell’s love of nature as the take-off point for an enquiry into all kinds of related and not-so-related subjects. Also straying into Orwell territory was Will Loxley’s impressive debut, Writing in the Dark (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, $31), a revealing tour of 1940s literary London as seen through the prism of Cyril Connolly’s Horizon magazine. Rediscovery of the year was The Collected Breece d’J Pancake (Library of America, $25). Heaven knows what the West Virginia-born Pancake, who killed himself in 1979 at the age of 26, would have turned into had he lived.

Lisa Hilton

My pick of the year is Helen Joyce’s Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality (Oneworld, $26). This book has been described by its admirers as “brave,” which says more about the febrility of the debate with which it engages than its actual focus. Joyce’s subject is not trans people but gender-identity ideology. To question its validity as a concept, before even taking into consideration the non-science which supports it, is to invite vilification on an extraordinarily aggressive scale.

Joyce’s work has turned her into a hate figure for many activists, yet her detailed research and the measured and compassionate arguments she draws from it make this book extremely useful for anyone who wishes to understand more about what has become one of the most contentious topics in contemporary culture. Given the pusillanimity shown by many journalists and politicians towards the issue, Trans might well be perceived as courageous, but calm rationality is its most impressive — and persuasive — feature.

Anne-Elisabeth Moutet

Boris Pasternak once said of Sergei Dovlatov that he was the one who should have won the Nobel Prize. Dovlatov, whose books were regularly banned, tells short, wry stories of his own life in Brezhnevian Russia. The Suitcase (Catapult, $18) examines the contents of the one piece of luggage he was allowed to take with him: it unrolls tales of Leningrad smugglers, Estonian bureaucrats, drunks, officers, actors, policemen — and of human resilience and irony.

Fateful Years (Central European University Press, $50), the memoirs of General Vilmos Nagybaczoni Nagy, Hungary’s defense minister under Admiral-Regent Horthy in 1942-43, is as obscure as it is riveting. And I came back again and again to old dog-eared friends: the novels of Georgette Heyer (Sourcebooks), which at their best combine a sense of comic plotting worthy of P.G. Wodehouse within a finely documented recreation of Jane Austen’s world, seen through the lens of an early twentieth-century sensibility.

Roger Kimball

It’s been quite a good year for books and, mirabile dictu, not all of the memorable ones were published by Encounter Books. Just out from Mollie Hemingway is Rigged: How the Media, Big Tech, and the Democrats Seized our Elections (Regnery, $30). If you wake up most mornings muttering the phrase “the Big Lie,” convinced that the lie in question is that the 2020 election was stolen by the Dems, you will not like this book. Still, you might profit from it, so you should buy it.

Other non-Encounter books: two volumes of the diaries of Chips Channon (Hutchinson, $65), taking that astonishing reprobate and social climber from 1918 to 1943. Superbly edited by the indefatigable Simon Heffer, these volumes are as entertaining as they are, in their exhibition of narcissistic, priapic snobbery, appalling.

Of course, you cannot miss Andrew Roberts’s new biography of George III, The Last King of America (Viking, $40).

Finally, I cannot resist mentioning one Encounter book, The Critical Temper: Interventions from The New Criterion at 40 (Encounter, $40), a plump complication of writings from that robust monthly review edited, as is the volume in question, by moi.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s December 2021 World edition.