Reading is a human superpower, cheesy as that sounds. It allows us to travel across time and speak with the dead. It allows us to travel far and wide, building empathy via the written word, sparking and fuelling the fire of interest in the great human conversation.
Last year I wrote down some favourite reads of the year as a way of paying it forward. Many titles come to me via the recommendations of others and are a boon. Maybe you will find something great to read too.
In no particular order, I give you five fiction and five non-fiction titles that I enjoyed the most in 2021. There is also an educational book of the year for those of us at the chalkface.
The Great Influenza: The Story of the Greatest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry
Topical, no? This book grabbed hold of me from from first to last. Partly, it is the fascinating story of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century shift in American medicine from gentlemanly pursuit to the more rigorous science and evidence-based approach we know and recognise. Following the paths of several men and women who pioneered this shift, it also reveals what happened when this expertise intersected with the Spanish Flu epidemic at the end of the First World War and beyond. The parallels to our experience over the last two years is haunting and humbling, especially if we subscribe to the flawed view that this is unprecedented in human history. It is also a frightening testimony to the ease at which history repeats. Published in 2005 and updated in 2012, it could not accurately foresee and the times that we know well, but it provides a hopeful tone for the way out.
Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman
The premise of this book is the assertion that veneer theory, the widespread assumption or belief that humanity is only ever a short ride away from descending into chaos and brutal tribalism is not true. Indeed, Bregman’s message is that most people are actually good and provides plenty of evidence to support it, skewering some long held misunderstandings and beliefs along the way. This was a timely message in a year when optimism and hope were periodically in short supply. This enjoyable, thought-provoking book had me desperately making time to read more.
Yes to Life, in Spite of Everything by Viktor E. Frankl
A new title from Viktor Frankl? How is that possible? Man’s Search for Meaning is one of my all time favourite books, making a ‘newly’ discovered title an exciting proposition. It is actually a collection of public lectures Frankl gave in Vienna during March and April of 1946. The tile, poignantly, is taken from the story of the Buchenwald camp song which prisoners were ordered to sing over and over at the end of long days of brutal work, punishment and starvation. Initially sung under sufferance, some lyrics inspired people to sing it quietly amongst themselves as an act of defiance and ray of hope. These lectures offer the broad strokes that would become the latter best selling book and inform Frankl’s guiding concern as a psychiatrist: Why did some people survive and others did not? It is a great little read and another book with a hopeful and powerful message.
The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant
I love me a good story about Russia and this one does not disappoint. Set in the wilds of far eastern Russia in the decades after the decline and collapse of the Soviet Union, this true story is essentially the tale of the hunt for a man-eating Siberian tiger by the rough and ready posse formed to track it. It is also a compelling and complex tale of geopolitical and cultural forces and decline and the fight for the conservation of these majestic and unique animals. Sometimes non-fiction is even more riveting because it is real and true, and this is one hell of a read.
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
A ‘quake book’, so I learned this year, is one that shakes you to the core and challenges your knowledge and perception of the world. I found this book via one of last year’s favourites ‘The Undoing Project’ by Michael Lewis, which told the story of psychologist Kahneman and his friendship with Amos Tversky. They won a Nobel prize for economics, despite never studying it, for their work on prospect theory. That work led to the exploration, study and defining of human cognition and the heuristics and biases that influence a vast amount of human thought and behaviour. This is not a fast read – but it is important if you are someone with an interest or stake in humanity or cognition. It is rigorous and highly supported with evidence, and weighty as a consequence, but completely worth the effort. Read this book.
The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
Just as in 2020 when Amor Towles’ ‘A Gentleman in Moscow‘ was a great salve for the trials and tribulations of the pandemic, this title came along at the right time in 2021. While nowhere near as extreme in my intentions as Nora Seed, the protagonist, I opened this at a time when we were deep in the belly of the lockdown beast and feeling flat. While it begins darkly, it meanders along interesting and diverting paths including a healthy dab of quantum theory and big philosophical questions to end which results in a hopeful message about living where your feet are and always looking for the good. Funny, dry and very clever, this is a really high quality read.
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
Like many good reads, this came to me via a mixture of word or mouth and serendipity. Low or no expectations are often a way to a really entertaining book and this is no exception. This was recognised with shortlisting for the Booker Prize, telling the story of two assassin brothers on the trail of a bounty across the rapidly vanishing Old West as it is swallowed, inevitably, by modernity and progress. With a distinctive narrative voice and varied point of view, there is plenty of humanity among the dark humour and themes as the pursuit of Herman Kermit Warm (what a name!) unfolds. This is digestible in small chunks if you are under the cognitive pump.
Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier
Though dated, I enjoyed this one from du Maurier and her particular brand of British noir. Set in a very gothic Cornwall of the early 1800’s, it follows the travails of the orphaned Mary Yellan who goes to live at the isolated and mysterious inn with her aunt and dodgy uncle. Although the plot is a bit cliched and over the top, there is enjoyment in the strength of Mary amid the backdrop of the oppressive and menacing world she enters, where telling friend from foe is inherently difficult.
The Didomenico Fragment by Amor Towles
Okay, so this is an audiobook short story – what of it? Towles is easily my favourite author at the moment. His ability to craft compelling stories filled with really interesting characters and maintain an easy , positive tone is exceptional. Narrated by John Lithgow, this is the story of the long retired Percival Skinner, a former Wall Street man who is fighting to come to terms with the fact his cash reserves may not keep him in the manner to which he is accustomed and indeed, entitled. When approached about the sale of a piece of a Renaissance artwork handed down to his extended family, he sees a way to make a bit of cash on the side, if only he can persuade a distant cousin to part with it. Great entertainment for a long walk or drive.
Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian
I began this some years ago after being gifted it and was convinced myself I’d read it. Happily, I was wrong. Guiltily, not far into re-reading I determined that it was probably a reluctance to make sense of the nerd-level, microscopic detail O’Brian includes about life on a British Navy vessel in the early 1800’s. Nautical deep trivia aside, which understandably floats the boat of devoted O’Brian fans, the action and adventure is excellent, though less compelling perhaps than the establishing friendship between Captain Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, the mysterious figure he convinces to serve as ship’s surgeon on his first command. Happily, in the spirit of finishing loose ends and making the most of more lockdowns, this proved a welcome and entertaining diversion and now set sail to complete the rest of the series.
Education Title of the Year
Putting on the teacher hat, I must confess that the disruption and resulting lack of continuity left much less bandwidth for wide reading about education. I did enjoy Tom Sherrington’s books out of the UK. ‘The Learning Rainforest’ is a book with really wide scope and some interesting ideas and experiences of implementing evidence-informed practice from the micro to macro levels. It is a great overview which a lot of specific threads to explore. One of these was outlined in his book ‘Rosenshine’s Principles in Action’, which was really handy in shifting some of my instructional practices, even online. That said, the most useful and enjoyable title was ‘Thinking Reading: What every Secondary Teacher needs to know about reading‘ by James and Dianne Murphy. Like many high school teachers, the attitude for most of my career was that reading instruction was not really my job, but the responsibility of primary teachers, even as an English teacher. This view is and was shared by many colleagues in secondary education, and the time has come to admit that we were wrong. Reading instruction, or at least possessing a working knowledge about what reading is and how it works is a critical and often ignored body of knowledge. This is amazing when you think about it. As a classroom teacher, this accessible guide is exactly what I value – a strong evidence base matched with long term classroom experience in a digestible and user friendly manner. Highly recommended.