My Favorite Books of 2021

I read in two homes, across a move. I read mostly library books, across three different states where I have borrowing privileges. I read very very little on planes, between covid and a toddler who spent most of a flight trying to steal my mask off my face. I read aloud, and I do a very good voice for The Bear Snores On.

These books, in roughly chronological order, were my favorites.

The Friendship of Christ by Robert Hugh Benson

My husband and I pick out a readaloud book for our Sunday spirtual reading, and we began the book with this new edition from Oak and Linden Press. The book was simply written and moving—we incorporated it into our chaplaincy work with Catholic students. And there is something refreshing about reading a spiritual book from over 100 years ago and seeing how un-novel your questions are.

Perfectly Human: Nine Months with Cerian by Sarah C. Williams

Williams tells the story of her daughter Cerian’s short life. Early on in her pregnancy, they learn that Cerian has a congenital condition that means she will be stillborn. Williams and her husband and their children have to figure out what different shape their love for their daughter will take. This meant a lot to me as a mother who has lost children before birth.

Here is an excerpt from an essay Williams wrote for Plough on prenatal screening:

As a practice, prenatal scanning both teaches and reinforces particular ways of thinking about the human person. It teaches the pregnant couple to ask: Is this child physically normal? This question is asked as if it were of primary importance. Whether or not the scan results reveal fetal abnormality, irrespective of whether a parent chooses to act in certain ways as a result of the information given, the practice makes everyone ask this question at a relatively early stage in the pregnancy.

What It Means to Be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics by O. Carter Snead

This was my favorite book of the year, especially if you’re judging by how many of my own pieces I tried to sneak citations of Snead into. Like Williams’s memoir, Snead’s book is about our culture of “expressive individualism” and how an emphasis on choice diminishes the humanity of those who aren’t able to choose. I shared an interview I did with Snead on my substack, Other Feminisms. And here’s one of the quotes that I kept coming back to:

Law and policy, animated by an anthropology of embodiment would view the mother as a vulnerable, dependent member of society, who is entitled to the protections and support of the network of uncalculated giving and graceful receiving that must exist for any human being to survive and flourish.

Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX by Eric Berger

And now we’re into the “ripping good yarn” section of the list. This early history of SpaceX was thrilling to read. (There’s one scene in particular, when an engineer has to crawl into an imploding rocket body being transported by cargo plane, that is clearly awaiting film adaptation). The book is a real mix of joyful and stomach-turning moments. People get to do things right instead of “the way we’ve always done them.” But then you start hitting the list of SpaceX divorces and feeling sick about what a culture of total commitment means for families. It’s a fascinating story, well told.

Rust: The Longest War by Jonathan Waldman

Also a ripping good yarn (no no, hear me out). Here, one of the most thrilling scenes is when an inspector realizes that the Statue of Liberty is rusting through and is in danger of total structural collapse. Engineering and chemistry to the rescue! Almost everything we rely on is build with rust in mind (or else, we can’t rely on it for long). I loved learning about the design choices and work of maintenance that keeps buildings standing and pipes running.

Chosen Country by James Pogue

Pogue found a space for himself at the Bundy standoff and has a sharply observed, thoughtful book. There’s nothing pat about his portraits of the militiamen he meets or their politics. It’s not a book you can wave as an answer to what is dividing the country. I liked it because it reminded me how dense the lives behind any news story are.

The Obligated Self: Maternal Subjectivity and Jewish Thought by Mara H. Benjamin

This is a book I plan to return to for Other Feminisms, and one that fits nicely into conversation with Snead. Benjamin is offering an understanding of what it means to be human that doesn’t start with negative freedom, but positive duties. While Jewish men have their days and their bodies shaped by their halachic obligations, women’s work carries a different weight. Instead of binding their arms with tefillin, women jut out a hip to carry a child. But in both cases, Benjamin sees who we are defined by whom and what we are burdened by. It was a moving book and very alien to mainstream individualism.

The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope

I always close the year with less fiction on the list than I would wish. Vespertine and The Mirror Season also stood out to me (though the latter has a sexual assault that is handled well but is tough to read, so I feel like it needs a note when I recommend it).

But Perilous Gard is the one I’m most excited to share with others. I am a tremendous fan of 1) Tam Lin retellings with 2) genuinely inhumane fey and 3) a world that rewards both gentleness and stubbornness. I loved it and I believed it. (I also enjoyed Pope’s The Sherwood Ring).

Finally, I want to mention three books I got to cover in more detail through book reviews. I reviewed The Deep Places, Ross Douthat’s Lyme memoir, for National Review (“Becoming Literate in Suffering”) and I reviewed two books on disability and design (What Can a Body Do? and Making Disability Modern) for Plough (“Spaces for Every Body”). All three books were excellent.

And if you’re interested, my favorite books from last year are listed here.