2021 was a hard year, and once again I got through it by gorging myself on books. I completed just over 50 books, and the following are the standouts. A reminder: this is not a “best books” list. These are the most notable and interesting to me personally, including the best and the worst. Finally, a book only makes this list if I have something to say about it. A novel might blow my mind, but if I struggle to write a paragraph about it, it won’t make this list.
Worst novel: The Scarlet Gospels by Clive Barker
Clive Barker is my favorite author, but every great author has their miscarriages. The long-awaited sequel to The Hellbound Heart reads more like a dull video game than a Clive Barker novel. The awesome power of his previous work is conspicuously absent here. Barker has been in poor health for the past decade, and I can’t help but wonder if he handed off the manuscript to a ghostwriter. I don’t blame him for producing a bad novel. I mostly feel sad and worried for him and wish him the very best. Stick with his greatest novels: Weaveworld, Imajica, and the Great and Secret Show.
Best counterpoint: Woke Racism by John McWhorter vs. How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X Kendi
In 2020, we all learned that we should listen to people of color, so that’s what I’ve committed myself to do. As a minority myself, though, I know that “listen to x minority” is often code for, “listen to the specific members of a minority who agree with me and reinforce my beliefs.” This is just another form of dehumanization: a corralling of an entire swath of humanity into an ideological stereotype.
Ibram X Kendi is a pioneer of modern anti-racism, and everyone should read him. Everyone should also read John McWhorter, who mounts a full-on assault against Kendi’s proposed solutions. Both agree that racism is a problem, but they disagree on the details and solutions. Both authors critique each other by name in their work. If you are serious about “listening to people of color” I challenge you to read both these books, and don’t believe Twitter when it says that such a practice is a sort of intellectual treason. It isn’t enabling dangerous beliefs, it’s being a grownup.
Most mind-blowing: Conscious by Annaka Harris
Conscious is a succinct review of the primary philosophies of consciousness, and it leads to some startling places. It’s the sort of book that reinvigorates my profound wonder at the fact of being. It is also an excellent introduction to panpsychism, which is one of my favorite weird philosophies about the universe.
Most annoying: Live Not By Lies by Rod Dreher
As is so often the case with conservative literature, there’s a book somewhere in here that I would actually find interesting and worth reading. The accounts of Christian soviet dissidents are genuinely fascinating and worth preserving. If this book were simply that — a humane exploration of the lives and memories of Christian dissidents in the soviet regime — I would read that with interest. But that is not this book.
Rod Dreher attempts to draw parallels between the experiences of outright totalitarianism in Soviet Russia to the excesses of leftism and cancel culture today, and that’s where the book falls apart for me. I think leftist toxicity is a problem, but I don’t know how helpful it is to compare it to the worst atrocities of the 20th century. Being unjustly mobbed by brigands with anime avatars can be devastating and even have real-world ramifications, but it isn’t a gulag, firing squad, or struggle session.
Dreher seems so enamored with certain embarrassing excesses of the left that he turns a blind eye to the totalitarianism and theocracy of the right, presumably because (I can only assume) he agrees with them. I am far, far more terrified of the American right than I am the American left. What would Dreher replace leftist excess with? Certainly not a pluralistic society that honors bodily autonomy, free speech, LGBT rights, women’s rights, and genuine religious freedom.
Best Fantasy novel: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
What can I say? Sanderson is king, and this series is his magnum opus. The audiobook of the Way of Kings was my companion through a particularly dark winter.
Most enlightening: T by Carol Hooven
T is a fascinating exploration of the power of testosterone. No recent book has helped me understand myself — and other men — more than this book. It also explores the scientific malpractice surrounding this hormone, and the pseudoscientific attempts to downplay its importance. A controversial but important book.
Most Surprising: Beyond Order by Jordan Peterson
I confess it: I actually liked this book. That doesn’t mean I’m a Peterson fan. That doesn’t mean I worship him or deny he has some very problematic and hurtful views with real-world consequences. One of the dangers of reading widely is that you find yourself enjoying certain books against your better judgment, and frankly, I think that’s fine. Life is complicated like that.
What I enjoyed most about this book is how much of an oddity it is: it’s a self-help book by a drug addict. It is far from a triumphant, masculine parade. Peterson is a broken man in these pages, suffering from crippling depression and addiction. As a result, the Peterson in these pages is more mature, more humane, and more understanding. He also seems to have absorbed some of the criticisms of his previous book, 12 Rules for Life.
Much as I disagree with Peterson and find his round-about prose annoying, I couldn’t help but read this book and see a fellow sufferer doing his best to survive. I actually found myself helped by Peterson’s advice as a lifelong sufferer of mental illness. I still think he’s batty as fuck and a dangerous cultural force, but I also feel genuine gratitude to the man for giving me good advice that got me through this hellish year. I can’t help it.
Best Horror: The Books of Blood vol 1-3 by Clive Barker
Where The Scarlet Gospels fails miserably, The Books of Blood are practically explosive. At his best, Clive Barker is a heady mixture of transcendent prose and horrifyingly decadent body horror. The combination of these elements results in something that feels almost religious. I can’t help but feel that Clive Barker captured something primordial and eternal in these stories.
But that’s just me. What do you think? Do you agree? Do you disagree? Please share your thoughts in the comments below, or on my discord server. Also, don’t forget to become a patron so I can continue to bring you content every single week.