My favorite books out of the 54 books (~23,000 pages) that I read in 2021:
Sci-Fi and Fantasy
Fall or, Dodge in Hell — A sequel of sorts to the author’s earlier work, REAMDE, this book is a fascinating exploration of what it means to create a world, inspired at least partly by Milton’s Paradise Lost, but enjoyable and thought-provoking on its own merits.
Diaspora — Opens with a gripping telling of the creation of new, non-embodied intelligence and proceeds from there. A fun exploration of possible implications of where physics could lead, if speculating on possible interpretations of physics is your flavor of fun (it is mine!).
Schild’s Ladder — Another dazzling exploration of the potentialities contained within the possibility space of quantum theory as well as what it means to encounter a truly alien universe.
Inhibitor Phase — Set in the author’s Revelation Space universe, this book begins seemingly out of the way but quickly brings events back into the main thread of the series. I only wish I had read the short story collection Galactic North before having read this book, as that would have provided some additional backstory to characters featured in this book.
Aurora — What would life be like on a generation ship? How might things fail? What happens when they do? This book deeply explores these questions.
The Fall of Gondolin — As a huge Tolkien fan (having read pretty much everything published by Tolkien or Christopher Tolkien), I found this book a treat: an in-depth exploration of one of the oldest stories in the legendarium.
Fiction and Classics
Middlemarch — I did not expect Middlemarch to blow me away, but it did. This book is an incredibly deep exploration of what it means to live as a human among other humans, with all our faults and failings and foibles. Brilliant.
The Remains of the Day — Understated, quiet, with a forceful, inexorable prose, with thought-provoking meditations on the nature of political conscience, representation, and opinion.
Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan — A blistering tale of when the British tried to conquer Afghanistan, and how they met more than their match, much as the Soviets and the Americans would in subsequent centuries, for, tragically, much the same reasons.
The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War — A short vignette about how modern-day bombing first arose. Enjoyably told.
The Premonition: A Pandemic Story — It’s probably too close to reflect properly on it (as I write these words, COVID-19 daily new cases are at an all time peak…. 2 years into the pandemic), but this book tackles the early days of the pandemic and points out how bureaucratic instincts to avoid blame and follow proper procedures ultimately led to failure, over the strident objections of those who wanted to, y’know, actually help stop or at least mitigate the pandemic.
War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires — A fascinating exploration of the cyclical nature of empires: how the seeds of their doom are borne in the fruit of their success.
The Wright Brothers — Surprisingly gripping narrative of how the Wright Brothers created and flew the first flying machine. Persistence and patience enabled them to see possibilities that others did not.
Economics and Politics
How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Region — This book should be titled “What to do (and not do) if you’ve just been handed the reins of power in a developing country,” because it’s almost a manual for what works (and what doesn’t) in developmental economics. Compellingly argues that what works for a full-powered, developed economy is a different brew than what a developing economy needs. Alas, then, that many of our global institutions have been prescribing the wrong medicine for decades.
Business, Leadership, and Product Management
United States v. Apple: Competition in America — Remember the puzzlement that greeted the US suing Apple in its attempt to work with large, legacy publishers to try to fight against Amazon? This book provides a deep dive into the workings of modern antitrust law, pointing out its shortcomings as well as the political realities that underpin it.
Cracking the PM Career: The Skills, Frameworks, and Practices To Become a Great Product Manager — Perhaps the single best book on product management as a career. Reading it felt like discovering GameFAQs as a kid: “oh, this is how the game is played." The missing manual for the product management career.
Working Backwards: Insights, Stories, and Secrets from Inside Amazon — A useful summary of Amazon’s best practices, at least as they were back when the authors worked there. The first half of the book introduces practices such as the six-page memo and the second half explores how the practices were applied in products such as the Kindle and the Echo.
Radical Focus: Achieving Your Most Important Goals with Objectives and Key Results — Perhaps the single best book on OKRs. Unusual in that the first half of the book is a fable, but the structure works in that the second half of the book explains the approach by referencing back to the fable, so there’s always a practical illustration instead of just abstract theory.
Philosophy and Humanities
Make It Clear: Speak and Write to Persuade and Inform — Expanding on the late author’s How To Speak annual lecture, this book is a wonderful compendium of a lifetime’s knowledge about effective communication.
Journey Across Europe Trilogy (A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water, The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos) — What was Europe like between the two World Wars? This is a unique trilogy that explores, via beautiful prose, a now-vanished world.
Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals — Masquerading as a book about time management, this book is that, but only in the grander sense of one’s entire life being an exercise in, well, time management. The title refers to the rather shockingly ignored fact that each of us gets about four thousand weeks of life. What then should we do with it?
The Gene: An Intimate History — A brilliant exploration of the gene and how genes affect human lives, interwoven with a moving tale of how genes affected the author’s own family.
Where Is My Flying Car?: A Memoir of Future Past — A book that defies categorization. Persuasively argues that the future we could have had would have been significantly more awesome than the one we’re in, had we only not succumbed to failures of nerve and imagination. Compelling and entertainingly told, with a sobering and sad thread throughout as one pauses to consider what could have been. It is, of course, not too late to change our ways from bureaucracy, virtue-signalling, and stasis and instead orient toward new frontiers. As the book repeatedly puts it: It is a possibility.