Best Books I Read In 2021

When Things Fall Apart, Caste, Upstream, etc

🌱 2022-02-19

Last year I rekindled my love of reading. When I was younger, I was a voracious reader. Like barnacles on the rock of adulthood, these unsaid rules kept clinging on to me. I slowly started throwing aside these secret rules, and allowed myself to meander from one interest to another.

Most of the year was spent in discovery of new loves. Like my love of poetry, thanks to Kenneth Koch’s Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry. Kenneth Koch, who wrote the poems on Jim Jarmush’s Patterson, did extensive research of children and poetry. He believed that we thought like poets, but like every other form of creative arts, was beaten out of us by the time we reached adulthood.

One of my secret rules that I discarded is my need to finish a book, irrespective of how bad it is. So if a book didn’t do it for me, out it went. Which means a large percentage of the books I read, I read only because I enjoyed them. (disclaimer: the books are linked to amazon with my affiliate code)

Here are a few in no particular order,

  1. When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron

There are books that morph to match your needs. American Buddist nun Pema Chodron’s When things fall apart was my shadow companion all through out the pregnancy. Every time I opened to a new chapter, it held the answers I needed.

  1. Several short sentences about writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg

A book, essay or poem all have one thing in common. Sentences. Sentences bring together disparate words. Bequeathing meaning to an expression that didn't exist before. Verlyn Klinkenborg, made me enjoy the joys-of-pausing. By the end of which I came off becoming a better reader.

  1. Caste : The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

Isabel Wilkerson’s blistering look at the oppression of the black man in United States. She draws parallels with caste system in India and persecution of Jews in the Third Reich. I think it’s easier for a brown man to empathize with the oppression of black community in the states. We ourselves being outsiders in America. We rail against the police, when we see a video of a man being killed with a foot on his neck. Caste, now that we take for granted. Teenage girls are raped and hung from trees. Couples killed for marrying outside of their caste. We are dulled to its venom, having been fed it all our lives. Isabel brings our attention back to this hypocrisy. By showing us these parallel of oppression, deeply inherent in the system that we participate in, she tells us we can do something about it. We can say we have had enough. All we need to do is be brave.

”We all think we would be the man in the crowd. Standing up for what’s right. But it takes a lot of sacrifice and bravery to be that man.”

  1. How to take smart notes by Sonke Ahrens

We have always been thought to fear the blank screen or sheet of paper. Imagine a world where the notes you make all link to each other. Rising up to meet you just when you need them. Then, writing is as easy as pulling pieces from across all the notes you made.

Making knowledge stick and seeing connections build between different interests of mine has always been important to me. This book was an eye opener!

  1. How to do nothing by Jenny Odell

Jenny Odell took me by surprise with this book. I went in expecting yet another book on digital detoxes and fighting distractions. It was an extensive look at how we humans have tried and failed at being able to do nothing. From communes to digital utopias, how we warped the very meaning of time.

  1. Upstream by Mary Oliver and The Wander Society by Keri Smith

Keri Smith's Wander society might not have been the strongest book. But, she led me to the poet, Mary Oliver's Upstream. For that I am grateful to it. Upstream is book of essays. On poetry, nature and relationships. It harnessed in me a deep love of poetry. For Walt Whitman, who became a companion of mine since I met him.

The moth and the fisheggs are in their place,
The suns I see and the suns I cannot see are in their place,
The palpable is in its place and the impalpable is in its place.

  1. On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Voung

Ocean Voung’s takes on a poetic and heartbreaking journey on what it means to be an immigrant, a man, gay, a son and a grandson. In a country that has standards for all this that you can’t match.

  1. John Cage: Diary: How to Improve the World

The rows of the library are full of unlimited possibilities. Worlds ready to be inhabited, that we didn’t know existed before. Musician John Cage was a prolific diarist. Cataloguing every interest of his across a decade, with never-ending curiosity


  1. Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The body keeps score. Ta-Nehisi Coates letter to his son, reminding him of what it means to be black in America today makes up for most of the book. At what point do you break a child's innocence to let them in on how the world functions. That in most places, you won't get further than the colour of your skin will allow.

  1. Joan MirĂł: I Work Like a Gardener

A look at the artistic philosophy of Catalan artist, Joan Miro. From the deep influence he took from folk art, to the inherent tensions he expects from his art work, we see a brilliant mind at play.

“I work like a gardener or a winemaker. Things come slowly. My vocabulary of forms, for example—I didn’t discover it all at once. It formed itself almost in spite of me.”

  1. Seven Brief Lessons on Physics (paperback, kindle) by Carlo Rovelli

The world of science is poetic by its very nature. Beauty unfurling in every new concept we learn. Carlo Rovelli unveils the deep beauty of contemporary physics in this small volume by breaking down competing/complimentary ideas. Simon Carnell and Erica Segre translation carries over that poetic magic from the original italian into english wonderfully.

  1. Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind (hardcover, kindle)

Annaka Harris looks at the fundamental mystery of being a sentient being. Starting from the hard problem of consciousness, "How could something appear out of nothing?". We are taken on a whirlwind exploration of different theories. Anna settles on panpsychism, further analyzing if it makes the cut.

  1. Sapiens (paperback)

I am a good ten years behind when it comes to Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens. This is book of massive ambition, filled to the brim with ideas. Ideas that will take me years to grapple with.

  1. Emperor of all Maladies (paperback, kindle)

Siddhartha Mukherjee, a brilliant science communicator, dives deep into the history and legacy of cancer. The people involved in the war against it. With their massive personalities and even massive hubris of conquering a disease that keeps shifting the rules of the game.

Under the surface, it's a book about the nature of the practice of medicine. Ideas and methodologies, good and bad, take generations to change. Good ideas are often ignored and lost, if not for the persistence of their creators. This book uncovers the systemic rot deep in the bones of the medical infrastructure.

  1. On Imagination (paperback, kindle)

“The daimon is a kind of twin that prowls alongside, is most often vivid when things are tough, that pushes you toward the life you signed up to live before you fell into the amnesia of birth and forgot the whole affair.” says Mary Ruelfe. With an ingenious eye, she proceeds to question how imagination is both "my own best friend and my own worst enemy.". A shadow companions in our time of loneliness. At the same time, allowing terrifying thoughts to take over your head.

  1. Dune (paperback, kindle)

I wrote about how the cinematic medium, even in the hands of competent director, can find itself lacking when transforming this book for the big screen. Particularly one that straddles seamlessly between mythology, geo politics and world-building.

  1. Matrix by Lauren Groff (paperback, kindle)

One wouldn’t think that 12th century historical fiction about a group of nuns would be interesting. But, I was hooked. We follow Marie exiled by her Queen to an abbey, which she eventually leads into prosperity. A Journey of her heart from self-pity to truly caring about her sisterhood. Along the way battling with her own personal aspirations and ego.

With complete control over the prose, Lauren Groff builds this world with a lot of care.

Marie looks from the mother whom time has coarsened to her fresher likeness in the girl, and does not say that beauty is the great deceiver, that it is harder and not easier to become saintly when one has been born with it, that ordinary women become more holy only when the dew of youth has passed from their bodies and the small humiliations and stamps of age have pressed themselves through the skin and into the bone.

To think: All the hatred so deep inside Marie when she was young has, through the pressure of time, somehow turned to love.

Now that’s just poetry!

  1. Jesus's Son (paperback, kindle)

Denis Johnson’s cutting look at Americana through episodic and disorienting storytelling. A set of darkly hilarious, empathetic and deeply sad stories about lost souls. People sailing through the fringes of society. A book that is hard to categorize. One of the best reads of 2021.

“All these weirdos, and me getting a little better every day right in the midst of them. I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.”

  1. Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (paperback, kindle)

A dueling narrative between Daniel H. Burnham and H.H. Holmes. Between two people driven by two different needs. Burnham want to build the greatest expo the world has ever seen. An expo in which the world was exposed to things that have become household names now. Holmes, America’s first serial killer who leverages the chaos around 1893 Chicago World's Fair to do his killings.

Deeply researched and exquisitely written. Another book I couldn’t stop reading until I finished it.

  1. Walking - Henry David Thoreau (standard ebooks - free)

If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again,—if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk.

Thoreau’s love letter to walking, which he calls a “direct dispensation from Heaven”. Beauty and harmony, he says, lies in and around us. All we need to do is walk and look. Houses, fences, man and his affairs all fall away like background noise. Then the beauty of the mundane shows itself. All we need to do is heed the call to walk.


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