Despite having put several together over the years, I’ve never been all that good at best-of lists. Trying to identify the “best” of anything—like the best books I read this year—sends me into a tailspin. What does “best” even mean, anyway? Is this book objectively good (if such a thing even exists), or did I just connect with it for idiosyncratic personal reasons? Or was I just in a good mood the day I read it? Several times, I’ve revisited a book that had a huge impact on me when I first read it only to discover, upon re-reading, that it wasn’t actually that good. I just encountered it at a time in my life when I was primed for it to hit me hard.
So, with that disclaimer in mind, here’s some commentary on some books I read in 2021—not my favorites, not necessarily not my favorites, just five arbitrary choices that seemed interesting to write about.
The Smartest Guys in the Room, by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind
Before reading this book, all I knew about Enron was that it was some kind of fraud. After reading this book, my takeaway is that Enron maybe… wasn’t as bad as I thought? Yes, it was a fraud, but it wasn’t just a fraud. Unlike Theranos, whose core product never worked, Enron had many legitimate businesses, and could have been a successful company if not for the self-immolating decisions of a few key leaders.
This book is also memorable for the many insane details it provides about those leaders. Among my favorite tidbits: Jeff Skilling, the nerdy CEO, ate the same breakfast every day: Twinkies and a Diet Coke. And Ken Lay, the gladhanding billionaire founder, compared Enron’s falling stock price to 9/11—in October 2001.
Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977–2002, by David Sedaris
I avoided David Sedaris for most of my life because I was under the vague impression that he was too mainstream for such a refined literary mind as my own. But then, earlier this year, it occurred to me that if I was going to keep writing personal essays in this newsletter, I should probably familiarize myself with the work of someone widely considered a master of the form. I started with his diaries because I figured they were slightly more alternative than his more famous essay collections, thus allowing me to maintain the breathtaking amount of hip indie cred that I possess in my imagination.
In total defiance of the genre of “diary,” Sedaris almost never writes about himself in this book. His diaries are more like a log: of goings-on with other people, family and friends and strangers, and the things he thinks as he goes about his day. You nonetheless finish the collection feeling like you’ve learned a lot about him implicitly, through the observations he makes about others. This book inspired me to write less about myself, and demonstrated more than anything else I’ve read recently how a good writer can find an interesting story in pretty much anything.
Inside the Third Reich, by Albert Speer
Whenever I read a story, I inevitably imagine myself as the protagonist, even if that protagonist is Hitler. What does it say about me that whenever I read about an authoritarian dictatorship, my first thought is, “If I were in charge, I’d do things much better?” Of course, totalitarian governments inevitably tend towards cultural rot, because the skills necessary to thrive inside them don’t exactly lend themselves to the creation of healthy internal cultures. This book was a fascinating firsthand look at what it was like to work for Hitler, with all the necessary disclaimers about Albert Speer being a slippery liar who can’t be trusted, and who probably would have gotten the death penalty at Nuremberg if he hadn’t managed to obfuscate the full extent of his involvement in the Holocaust.
My Less Than Secret Life, by Jonathan Ames
Jonathan Ames writes hilariously about his insecurities, humiliations, and sexual perversities. I am forever fascinated by writers like him who live messy lives in public. There’s something undeniably compelling about artists who just let it all hang out, who splay themselves open on the page. I’m not sure if I can’t look away because it’s great art, or if I can’t look away because it’s like a car crash. I’m open in this newsletter, but I’m not anywhere near as open as Jonathan Ames (or Elizabeth Wurtzel, or Cat Marnell, or Caveh Zahedi). Part of me wants to be more like them—and another part of me is horrified at the idea.
A Promised Land, by Barack Obama
Whatever his other flaws, Obama is undoubtedly the best writer to hold elected office in this country in recent memory, and this is undoubtedly the best book I’ve ever read by a politician (with the possible exception of the infamous Providence ex-mayor Buddy Cianci’s Pasta and Politics, which is good for a whole different set of reasons). There is a level of candor and introspection here, of second-guessing his own decisions and motivations, that is highly atypical for a political memoir.
I was left with two contradictory impressions. The first was awe, at this incredible mind, at this person who saw his own life with a clarity few people of any kind have, let alone those in a profession that actively selects against any soul-searching.
The second was wondering if any of that actually matters. I think Obama was a pretty good president—not an all-time great, but certainly well above average. He did some good things, did some bad things, made the heartbreaking moral compromises every president makes. In the end, does it make any difference whether he saw those compromises with clear eyes or not?
Reading this book, I was reminded of another great work about a politician: The Fog of War, Erroll Morris’ documentary about Vietnam War architect Robert McNamara. McNamara caused an order of magnitude more harm than Obama—by his own admission, he would likely have been tried as a war criminal for his role in the firebombing of Tokyo if we’d lost World War II—but he displays a similar level of introspection and thoughtfulness. In the end, though, self-awareness only gets you so far.
Yours in realizing that these books were all non-fiction, but I actually read just as much (if not slightly more) fiction, it’s just that (I guess) I usually have more to say about the non-fiction, but so if you want some fiction recommendations I really liked Luster by Raven Leilani, Trust Exercise by Susan Choi, and all of Ted Chiang’s stories,
P.S. If you want to keep tabs on what I’m reading throughout the year, you can follow me on Goodreads, where I write reviews that are even less well thought out than these.