This year has been my biggest for reading, finishing 60+ books. Perhaps the overall number of books had something to do with it, but I might go as far to say that 2021 has been filled with a higher proportion of great books than any other year I can remember.
As usual, my annual list includes books that were most interesting to me: books that offer unique insights on a topic. Eight of the books were released this year, with two that were originally released in 2020 (noted in their description).
This year’s annual ‘Most Interesting Books’ list is double that of previous years, containing 10 amazing books. You can see my lists for 2020 and 2019 for even more great reads to bookmark. Happy reading!
Drug Use for Grown-Ups
Drug Use for Grown-Ups: Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear by Carl Hart (published 2021) was one of the first books I read in 2021 and set the bar high. Hart provides a brave and, to some, provocative thesis that drug use – by stable, responsible adults – can enhance our lives. In fact, the prohibition of drugs, Hart argues, infringes on our constitutional right to the pursuit of happiness. I absolutely loved this book and admire his vulnerability and candor in the sharing of his own drug use. This is a must read for anyone with any opinions on the legality and use of drugs.
The Secret of Life
The Secret of Life: Rosalind Franklin, James Watson, Francis Crick, and the Discovery of DNA's Double Helix by Howard Markel (published 2021) provides a well-rounded and detailed history of all the scientists involved in the race to discover the double helix structure of DNA. The well-known characters are central – Franklin, Watson, and Crick – but many lesser-known scientists also make appearances and provided crucial insights that led to the breakthrough. A fantastic read that provides the whole story of what happened in those crucial years. You can read my longer Bookmarked📚 review of The Secret of Life here.
Exercised: Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy and Rewarding by Daniel Lieberman (published 2021) had a huge impact on how I view health and exercise, leading to an actual change in the way I move and approach fitness. Liberman expertly explains not only the evolution of our physicality, but also why walking is actually great exercise and why it’s important to have a certain base-level of activity each day (hint: it’s probably more than the average millennial professional like myself has been getting). Our bodies evolved to operate with a certain level of movement, albeit relatively low compared to other apes, and without such activity our health suffers. A must read for anyone interested in their health and fitness.
The Code Breaker
The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race by Walter Isaacson (published 2021) is one of the best biographies I’ve ever read. Isaacson is able to tell the life story of the phenomenally smart and talented Jennifer Doudna, while explaining her complex scientific discoveries with expert clarity. What makes this book and Doudna’s research particularly interesting, however, is the connection of her work and broader scientific field with the development of COVID-19 vaccines, which explains, in part, why the vaccine development was so quick relative to historical vaccine development. A can’t put down book of science discovery!
Pipe Dreams: The Urgent Global Quest to Transform the Toilet by Chelsea Wald (published 2021) tells a fascinating history and global perspective on a topic most of us probably rarely think about: human waste disposal. Honestly, developed nations largely take for granted how amazing toilets, plumbing, and sewage systems are – and their importance for both our present and future. With humor and grace, Wald will lead you on a fantastic journey of all things poo related.
Sustainable. Resilient. Free.
Sustainable. Resilient. Free.: The Future of Public Higher Education by John Warner (published 2020) provides the best argument I’ve read for free, publicly funded higher education in the United States. Since discovering Warner’s book, and his blog and Substack this year, he has become one of my favorite voices on higher education. It’s clear that higher education is in a bit of a bind right now, with exploding costs, decreased public trust, and relentless political drama, but Warner cuts through the noise with actionable, clear thinking. Read my longer review of this book here, and absolutely pick it up – even if you think you’ll disagree!
The Genetic Lottery
The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality by Kathryn Paige Harden (published 2021) is a tour de force on the behavior genetics of educational attainment. I was pleasantly surprised to find that education was a core focus of the book, which in hindsight makes sense given that education is a crucial contributor to social inequality in our modern economy. Harden is one of my favorite scientists because of her clear, honest, and nuanced thinking on behavioral genetics. Though many dismiss the book because of her political leanings that bookend the science content, I want to remind readers that you can, in fact, read books by those politically different than you. You just may learn something new!
This Is Your Mind on Plants
This Is Your Mind on Plants by Michael Pollan (published 2021) is one of the most unique books I’ve ever read. The book is really like three mini-books, each on his experience with a different drug. But what really stands out is how one writer can display three different writing approaches, yet deliver a cohesive and holistic book. It’s fantastic! A wonderfully engaging book filled with authentic experience and interesting history – a must read.
On All Fronts
On All Fronts: The Education of a Journalist by Clarissa Ward (published 2020) is a truly excellent book. Telling her story of her telling others’ stories during her 15+ year career as a foreign correspondent, Ward delivers an emotional and informative memoir. Ward has spent much of her career in the post 9-11 Middle East, providing an on the ground and behind the camera look into some of the war zones that most readers could never imagine living in. I highly recommend listening to this book on audio as I did. Given Ward’s skilled verbal delivery refined from being in front of the camera for over a decade, her performance is excellent.
Arriving Today: From Factory to Front Door -- Why Everything Has Changed About How and What We Buy by Christopher Mims (published 2021) provides a detailed look into just how much work goes into you getting your Amazon prime delivery after clicking the “buy now” button on your app. Amid constant supply chain issues plaguing seemingly every major market in the United States currently, Arriving Today is an extremely timely book to read. Traveling the entire supply chain from manufacturers in South East Asia, on ships across the pacific, to the Port of LA, onto 18 wheelers, to Amazon fulfillment centers, and finally to your local delivery driver placing your package on your doorstep, you’ll be truly amazed at the journey your goods take before arriving to you, today.
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