What I did do this year is read a lot, more than I’ve read in any year. In 2021 I finished 52 books total, made a little bittersweet by the fact that I got slowed down a lot in the last few months of the year; I’d read 42 books by the end of July.
Just as I did last year, I wanted to share my favorite books of the year. With so many awesome books, I’m categorizing them this year into fiction and non-fiction. It’s really tough to rank my favorites, almost a little random. Especially the fiction, if I was ranking them again a week from now it could totally be reversed, it’s really close.
But without further ado,
#10 “Border & Rule” by Harsha Walia
#9 “Manufacturing Consent” by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky
#8 “Debt: The First 5,000 Years” by David Graeber
#7 “Assata: An Autobiography” by Assata Shakur
#6 “Bullshit Jobs” by David Graeber
#5 “Culture Warlords” by Talia Lavin
#4 “Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook” by Mark Bray
#3 “In Defense of Looting” by Vicky Osterweil
#2 “The Operating System” by Eric Laursen
#1 “Direct Action: An Ethnography” by David Graeber
Honorable mentions: “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts” (Gabor Maté), “Who Really Feeds the World?” (Vandana Shiva), “Rojava” (Thomas Schmidinger), “Why Not Default?” (Jerome Roos)
#10 “Songs of a Dead Dreamer” by Thomas Ligotti
#9 “City of Saints and Madmen” by Jeff VanderMeer
#8 “The New Weird” edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer
#7 “Occultation and Other Stories” by Laird Barron
#6 “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” by Shirley Jackson
#5 “Aickman’s Heirs” edited by Simon Strantzas
#4 “A Manual for Cleaning Women” by Lucia Berlin
#3 “Red Mars” and “Green Mars” by Kim Stanley Robinson
#2 “If on a winter’s night a traveler” by Italo Calvino
#1 The Southern Reach Trilogy (“Annihilation” “Authority” “Acceptance”) by Jeff VanderMeer
Honorable mentions: “The Imago Sequence” (Laird Barron), “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn), “Cold Hand in Mine” (Robert Aickman), “The Word for World is Forest” (Ursula K. Le Guin)
Additionally, this holiday I’ve been concurrently reading 3 more books that are each so incredible that they could easily make the top 5 of these lists. For the sake of recency bias, I’ll probably delay reading the last pages of each until January and just call them my first books of 2022. But they are: “Light” by M. John Harrison, “A Country of Ghosts” by Margaret Killjoy, and “The Dawn of Everything” by David Graeber and David Wingrow. All excellent!
Moreso in the first half of the year I was keeping up a detailed description each month of the books that I liked. The following is how I described some of these books:
“Border & Rule” by Harsha Walia
“This is the perfect book, vital analysis of the true and horrific function of borders: physical borders and the racist institutional terrorism there, militarism and mass surveillance and state-and-corporate sponsored slavery and poverty, the cruelly intended segmentation of world labor. Crucially this book is also a thorough reminder of the hopeless inadequacies of liberalism to solve any problems that it has itself caused and cyclically makes worse and worse. The liberal foci on “humane” policing, “humane” immigration policy, “pathways” to citizenship—these are all pathetic non-solutions and will never substitute a real embrace of the human right to true freedom of mobility and association. We must realize that there is no humane perspective on borders short of seeking the total abolition of borders. No middle ground, no compromise, no incrementalism, no platitudes. Demand radical freedom and right to prosperity for all people.
Anyways, Walia is an awesome writer and can convince people of all this better than I ever could hope to with my ranting haha. I highly recommend people read this book.
For the record, there have been no less than THREE HUNDRED THOUSAND deportations under the Biden administration so far.
“Manufacturing Consent” by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky
“Herman and Chomsky’s book ought to be required reading, I think, in light of a troubling development in the era of Trump and political hyperpolarization – that is, conservatives alleging that MSM is strictly ‘fake news,’ while liberals reacted to Trump’s refutation of reality or rampant conspiracies by cementing their faith absolutely in the word of the WaPo or NYT or the like. The truth is that both perspectives are flawed, and Herman and Chomsky thoroughly examine the major media’s principal objectives executed via selective coverage and careful cultivation of narrative in order to: promote corporate interests, serve the government while crafting a reputation as being watchdogs against power, and undermine communism worldwide.
Although the book mainly covers events of the 70s and 80s, its ideas are vital to understand today if we want to avoid being goaded into supporting wars with China, Russia, Venezuela, Syria, Iran or anywhere else the malevolent eye of the military-industrial complex casts its gaze.”
“Bullshit Jobs” by David Graeber
“…Graeber’s, though, addresses a societal problem that, while absolutely qualifying as a serious one, allowed for more laughs as I read simply because the sheer absurdity of some of the anecdotes here were almost unbelievable: companies with more middle-managers than there are employees for them to manage, tasks as inane as moving a computer down a hallway that inexplicably require four layers of subcontracting to perform, people paid to act like statues or guard empty rooms for hours, etc.
Studies have found that about 35-40% of people feel their jobs do not “make a meaningful contribution to the world” or had “no good reason to exist.” Graeber’s book pretty thoroughly explores why people feel this way, what types of industries are most likely to have such employees, how this phenomenon has apparently grown even in capitalist systems which should in theory eliminate pointless or unproductive jobs, and most importantly what the implications are on the mental and spiritual health of societies where an incredible number of people experience no catharsis or satisfaction from how they make a living. There are jobs (and not only in the public sphere, which in any case is increasingly incomprehensibly enmeshed with the private sphere) that entail little to no actual responsibilities but flourish because it is an industry standard that they exist; there are jobs that exist not to meet a supply but to create demand; jobs that exist only to “duct-tape” massive, easily solvable inefficiencies that no one is incentivized to fix (or even, these inefficiencies are profitable so that managers or executives actively work to keep them in place); jobs that exist to convey impressions that are demonstrably false, especially the impression that work is being done which is actually, intentionally not being done; jobs that exist to redundantly assign tasks that would be accomplished anyways. Additionally, economists and sociologists have consistently have found that—with exceptions such as doctors—the more socially valuable and necessary one’s job, the less likely one is to be compensated adequately.
One reason why these kinds of jobs might proliferate is that we have been conditioned as a society to believe that work is, in and of itself, such a sacred value and responsibility that even if our jobs are spiritually frustrating or obviously stupid, the most important thing is that we “earn our keep” nonetheless. Not only is this extremely unhealthy and nonsensical, but it is totally unnecessary. Technological innovation, automation and unprecedented capacity for productivity have created the conditions where all of us could easily work 10-15 hour weeks max and still have just as efficiently (or likely better) functioning a society and be free to connect with each other and devote our days to wherever our passions lie.
This was the first book I’ve ever read by David Graeber, who I had somehow never heard of until last year, but he was one of the most well-known modern anthropologists and an important part of the Occupy Wall St protests in 2011. He died suddenly last year sadly, but he had a big impact on anthropology as well as left activism and anarchism, and I’m excited to read the rest of his work.”
“Culture Warlords” by Talia Lavin
“As an investigation into the depths of online white supremacy, this was frequently nauseating and chilling to read, so Lavin’s fathomless courage and resolve as she exposed herself to and confronted the worst sorts of human evil is truly awesome. She’s very upfront too about the spiritual toll writing this book had on her, especially as a Jewish woman interacting with those who would wish her harm, but what she’s produced is an absolutely vital glimpse of the moral rot central to the fascist creep worldwide, as well as lessons for we fight it.”
“Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook” by Mark Bray
“An excellent collection of the historical evolution & tactics of anti-fascist activists across Europe and the U.S., as well as an analysis of the arguments surrounding antifa today and reasons why it is an essential force in society to protect communities and vulnerable people.”
“In Defense of Looting” by Vicky Osterweil
“This was fantastic! Here Osterweil takes a deeply controversial subject, property destruction, and contextualizes its use throughout U.S. history, demonstrating its crucial value by workers and marginalized communities to fight back victoriously against oppression. She also explores the very racist origins of property, policing, and the characterization of looting and protest.
What is really interesting about looting is how even progressives and leftists are often heard disavowing the tactic: pointing out how footage of looting in media is used to discredit and vilify protest movements (and so forgetting that the media is *inevitably* going to vilify any protests that present a real threat to systemic oppression), ascribing acts of violence to so-called “outside agitators” (I had said something like this once last year, not realizing then that such rhetoric has racist origins and denies the agency of protestors and is intended to discourage what is one of protest’s most potent tactics), or parroting the popular mischaracterization of looting as chaotic and self-destructive (when historically, looting has been frequently, effectively organized by the communities involved in order to target symbols and institutions of oppression). These patterns of thinking have time and time again led even the most well-intentioned people to end up cooperating with the police and repressive governments—and a special, too common case of this has historically been the leadership of progressive/socialist organizations that feared losing influence over their memberships.
What is also often missing when we think about looting is that it can be highly politically, intentionally anti-capitalist and has often been essential for communities to acquire food, resources, power or justice that was denied them. And when we idolize or insist on the nonviolent movements of the past, we also discount the massive presence of radicals and militants that without whom, no progress would ever have been achieved.”
“The Operating System” by Eric Laursen
“This could be my favorite non-fiction book this year—really hard to say since I’ve read so many good ones! I was particularly excited about this book and happy to get it free through Friends of AK Press; for anyone interested, AK Press is a fantastic, cooperatively organized and operated indie press that publishes and distributes a ton of awesome anarchist and left literature: https://www.akpress.org
Here, Laursen offers a solid explanation of what anarchist anti-statism is all about, which I think is important to understand, even for non-anarchists. After all, the idea that the state should be opposed, avoided, dissolved, abolished and defied may seem understandably odd (and at worst seems reminiscent of the popular, peculiarly American so-called libertarian advocacy of unrestrained capitalism) for liberals and progressives whose model for progress envisions the strengthening of the welfare state and a more benevolent government. What I think this book elucidates so well is how the state cements itself in our minds as the only possible mechanism to achieve societal justice (and this is so entrenched that we struggle to even entertain the idea of modern society without the state, it seems preposterous), when in fact its purpose is inevitably to coopt or minimize the gains of social movements, and to protect the interests of capital and itself. We take it for granted that modern society is just too complex to be organized and operated without hierarchy, when in reality there is no reason that must be the case, especially given how novel so many of our institutions really are.
“In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts” by Gabor Maté
“This one was recommended to me and I’m glad I finally read it. Maté is famous for his advocacy for one of society’s most abused and maligned groups, those who suffer from drug addiction. He’s also famous for some controversial ideas of combating addiction, such as decriminalizing and even providing free controlled access to drugs, but he makes excellent arguments for these propositions. His book also provides astounding evidence of addiction’s roots in trauma and environment as well as the countless, cruel ways our society—and especially the maddeningly, lethally conservative policies of the U.S. government—guarantee an unending cycle of mass addiction and suffering until we fundamentally change our perspectives.”
“Who Really Feeds the World?” by Vandana Shiva
“This was really interesting, especially considering that I knew virtually nothing about its subject matter going in: agroecology and the destructiveness wrought by corporate, global commoditization and monopolization of food and farming. So much of what I learned here is staggering: the crises of suicides worldwide by impoverished farmers, the incredible inefficiency and massive resource-consumption involved in monocultures and industrial farming, the displacement of Indigenous producers of food, the patenting of seed and erosion of ecological knowledge thousands of years old, etc.
My only complaint would be the sort of redundant style of Vandana Shiva’s writing. Although the subject matter is interesting and the book is pretty short, this took me awhile to read, simply because there seems to be so much repetition of the same themes throughout. Nevertheless, Shiva is doing extremely vital work, and her books are equally important in educating about a global problem that I’m not sure many people know very much about, or certainly I didn’t.”
“Rojava” by Thomas Schmidinger
“I had never heard of Rojava until last year—not coincidentally, around the time that my politics shifted from Bernie-style state socialism towards anarchism. It is officially called the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), and has become something of a cause célèbre throughout the global libertarian left because of this region’s radical and decentralized approach to socialist direct democracy, gender equality, environmental advocacy and pluralist inclusiveness of diverse religions, culture and ethnicities. That such a project emerged and has managed to survive amidst one of the most disastrous and violent conflicts of this century so far (the Syrian civil war) is no less astounding.
So is Rojava really the pure libertarian society that some leftists would like to believe? Not totally. It seemed to me that Schmidinger overall does an admirable job keeping his analysis of Rojava’s various parties and perspectives fair and without being overtly partisan, yet also not discounting the awesome accomplishments and ideals of its people and its leaders and volunteers. This is the only book I’ve read about Rojava so far, and I know even less about the Syrian civil war more broadly, so I’m really interested in finding more books and get a better understanding. Still, the conclusion I arrive at is that the people of Rojava have absolutely begun a project that is really miraculous and precious and worthy of solidarity.
Schmidinger’s book only covers events up to early 2018. It’s difficult to understand exactly what has happened since then, not least because any perspectives even on-the-ground tend to be highly partisan but also because the network of international alliances and interventions in Syria in general is surreally convoluted. From what I understand, at present the Rojavan society is still precariously rebuilding following its prolonged struggles against fundamentalist militias. As ISIS/ISIL and other jihadist groups have been largely defeated in Northern Syria, Rojava has been faced with a different foe with the government of Turkey’s 2018 invasion of the Syrian border and its conquest of Rojava’s former canton of Afrin, into which it has moved millions of refugees from the Syrian war (following the closure of most of Europe’s borders to refugees). Under Trump, the US military reduced its support for the Rojavan defense forces, and that support is increasingly tenuous also under Biden (which is to say nothing of the seeming absurdity of US alliances throughout the Syrian war, which has led to situations where it is involved on some level with both sides of violent conflicts). At the same time, as with any beleaguered government that ever is given the US’s aid, that aid is leveraged in order to exert militaristic, economic and political influence and demands, which threatens also to ‘liberalize’ (corrupt) the Rojavan political project.”
“Why Not Default?” by Jerome Roos
“Really technical and will only appeal to those interested in international finance from an anti-capitalist perspective. Good shit though. To sum up, just know that the loans given by wealthy countries, like the U.S. or in Europe or even China or international lending bodies like the IMF and World Bank, to poorer developing countries are absolutely predatory. These loans are specifically designed to be unpayable and to keep poor countries barely afloat and fiscally and legally entrapped as tightly as possible.”
“Songs of a Dead Dreamer” by Thomas Ligotti
“Some would say Ligotti is the best living horror writer. I could see that; I think he’s certainly the most literary. What he isn’t, at least for me, is scary. Or rarely. His stories are better considered as “strange” in a kind of bleak, highly cerebral, sepia, opaque, anonymous (there are extremely rarely ever references to real locations or people in Ligotti’s stories), dreaded way of pointing to his ever-present conviction of the total futility of existence. All to say that Ligotti is fascinating for his intelligence and mastery of prose and the thoroughness of his craft, but it can also be so sapping that I’m surprised I could even read two of his collections in a month, this being his debut (1985) and then “Grimscribe” below being the sequel (1991).”
“City of Saints and Madmen” by Jeff VanderMeer
“Where to start… weird fantasy set in a city named for ‘the most secret and valued part of the whale.’ Ambergris also boasts an exquisite variety of freshwater squids and related cults, as well as mysterious, murderous mushroom people.”
“The New Weird” by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer, et al.
“An awesome anthology of short stories of basically my favorite loose ‘genre’ of fiction—the New Weird of the late 90s and early 2000s—and its influences. So many authors I love are here: China Miéville, Jeff VanderMeer, Michael Cisco, Felix Gilman, then a dozen others I had never read before but now can’t wait to dive into. This book also contains reference to an archived online discussion by several of the most prominent authors who would come to be most identified with the New Weird; that discussion is fascinating and convoluted and even in the form of disconnected web posts surpasses 100k words by the end, all in the Byzantine pursuit of determining if this genre is even real and if so, what is it anyway?
Very loosely, “New Weird is a type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy… [combining] elements of both science fiction and fantasy… has a visceral, in-the-moment quality that often uses elements of surreal or transgressive horror for its tone, style, and effects… acutely aware of the modern world, even if in disguise, but not always overtly political” although it has also been noted how many prominent New Weird writers are leftists, with perhaps the most famous New Weird writer China Miéville being a Marxist.
Awesome, bizarre stuff overall.”
“Occultation and Other Stories” by Laird Barron
“This book is scary as shit, more than anything else listed here. Richly crafted, nightmarish stuff. The collection as a whole as well as the novella ‘Mysterium Tremendum’ contained within both respectively won the Shirley Jackson award in 2010, and it’s clear why. The level of writing is masterful.”
“We Have Always Lived in the Castle” by Shirley Jackson
“Sisters Mary Katherine and Constance, and their ill Uncle Julian, are the last living members of the Blackwood family; six years before, the sisters lost their parents, their brother, and their aunt when the family’s dinner was poisoned. Since then, their uncle writes compulsively about the circumstances of that day, Constance has never ventured beyond the Blackwoods’ garden, and ‘Merricat’ fantasizes about killing the spiteful villagers in the town over.
This is such a good, weird story. Saying more would give away the plot, but this was the last book written by Shirley Jackson, who also wrote the famous short story ‘The Lottery’ (first seen in The New Yorker) and the eponymous novel that inspired Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House TV anthology, the latter of which I’m always telling everyone is one of the best shows produced in the last decade.”
“Aickman’s Heirs” by Simon Strantzas, et al.
“This collection of stories by fifteen different authors is meant as an homage to Robert Aickman (1914–1981). The thing is, I had never read Aickman going into this and was unfamiliar with all but one of the authors listed here (what inspired me to grab this book then?), so I was unsure what to expect and am fascinated with what I found. These are strange, unsettling, obscure stories. Horror that is sometimes so subdued and nebulous so as to questionably qualify in popular conceptions of the genre, but the entire time you read you are deeply uneasy without having a clear idea why. As an anthology, this one has no lows or misses in my opinion; I obsessed over every single story, and now have a whole new list of authors to investigate.”
“A Manual for Cleaning Women” by Lucia Berlin
“I can’t think of exactly how to put into words how much I enjoyed discovering Lucia Berlin’s stories. The eponymous story is informed by her time cleaning houses, in addition to all the other occupations she held in all the various places she resided; Chile, Mexico, Alaska, Texas, California, Colorado, teaching in classrooms or working in emergency rooms in hospitals, and frequently drinking, all experiences that make her writing authentic, immersive, vivid. I love her prose; her stories are variably warm, weird, unsettlingly hilarious, sometimes gut-wrenching or horrifying, softly inspiring, always affecting.”
“Red Mars” by Kim Stanley Robinson
“So this is absolutely my favorite fiction novel I’ve read this year so far. In 2027, the first human settlement of Mars comprises 100 people: about 30 Americans, 30 Russians, and the remainder from other countries—tasked with building a sustainable community, setting up infrastructure and documenting the barren planet, and most importantly initiating the first steps towards converting the planet into a hospitable habitat for human civilization’s expansion. Without spoiling anything, these first 100 people have variably different attitudes among them concerning what Martian civilization should look like, and whether or not Mars should be transformed or preserved. In the following decades, Earth’s spiraling catastrophes make the Martian planet seem all the more appealing for world governments and corporations looking to extend profits and influence…
Since this was written in 1992, there are some obviously understandable but amusing issues with some of the premise/plot: the first man on Mars touching down in 2020, Russia managing to have equal say and presence on the first Martian settlement (and meanwhile China has virtually no presence at all iirc), the absence of any consequences of global warming on Earth (to me this sticks out a lot, especially as the timeline of the series extends into the 22nd century lol), etc… But for all that, Robinson spends a lot of the story including talking in detail of geology, engineering, biology, terraforming, psychology, philosophy, and plenty of theoretical analysis of what future economics and politics would look like on future settlements in the cosmos. Which, Robinson’s obvious fascination and devotion to such a range of subjects—in addition to the timeline of the story being about forty years, so naturally featuring numerous time-skips—might turn away readers looking for a more straightforward, action-oriented or more typical sci-fi novel, but I enjoyed every bit of it.”
“Green Mars” by Kim Stanley Robinson
“The sequel, set from 2081 to 2127. This was also awesome. The pacing is consistent with Robinson’s style in general, a little slow in parts and the usual lengthy sections devoted to different sciences and philosophy, but it never stops being captivating. There is one element of the plot (Praxis) absent from the first book that I didn’t completely appreciate in this book, and I miss a couple characters from ‘Red Mars,’ but still 5/5 overall.
Fun fact about this book: it exists on Mars right now, in real life, included within the data on a special silica glass DVD attached to the deck of the Phoenix spacecraft that landed on the surface of the planet in 2008. Only three other books coexist on this time capsule, “the first library on Mars,” that will be retrievable someday by future explorers.”
“Annihilation” by Jeff VanderMeer
“A team of four never-named women—a biologist, a surveyor, a psychologist, and an anthropologist—is sent into a mysterious wilderness called Area X. Without giving more away of the plot, I’ll just say that things become disturbing, especially upon their early discovery of a strange tunnel/tower into the ground and when more is learned about the fates of previous expeditions. This is actually the first book in the Southern Reach trilogy, and this book I devoured in a single day.”
“Authority” by Jeff VanderMeer
“John Rodriguez, aka Control, is placed at a backwater governmental agency as its interim director, tasked with investigating the details of the last expedition into Area X. As the sequel to ‘Annihilation,’ I was aware going into this book that reviews were mixed, and I can somewhat understand why since ‘Authority’ is totally unlike its predecessor in terms of genre. Whereas ‘Annihilation’ is more of a solitary wilderness horror, this book is more of a Kafkaesque pseudo-detective slow-burn of creeping unease. That said, the weirdness and horror ramps up quickly in the last third, and even prior to this I found the whole book to be a page-turner I couldn’t put down.”
“Acceptance” by Jeff VanderMeer
“To confess that the third, final act of the Southern Reach trilogy ranks marginally as my least favorite entry is *not* to say that this wasn’t also an addictive reading experience. It’s still an awesome bookend to a phenomenal series. Honestly, ranking these books is counter-intuitive in the sense that I would still award these first 6 entries grades of A+ to A- at minimum. Do I wish this book made things a little clearer or answered more questions? A little bit, but it’s also in keeping with a general theme explored of that which is forever beyond human understanding. The opposite, insofar as horror is concerned, would be kinds of ghost stories where the reason for everything is eventually explicitly clarified, much to the detriment of any mystery that ever existed or any value in analysis or wondering.”