Best books I read in 2021

I read 32 books this year; these are some of my favourites.

Blueprint, Robert Plomin

Genetics is the most important factor shaping who we are. It explains more of the psychological differences between us than everything else put together.

This book, along with Freddie de Boer’s The Cult of Smart (which I’ve yet to finish) and reviews of Kathryn Paige Harden’s The Genetic Lottery (which I’ve yet to start), has changed my philosophy more than anything I’ve read in years. I’m now increasingly convinced that any society built around “meritocracy” is unjust as intelligence is mostly genetic (and therefore mostly luck). Accepting this has in turn led me to think our entire society needs to be restructured, and made me more left-wing than I have been before. It’s also made me think that private school is probably a scam.

Dealers of Lightning, Michael Hiltzik

I had developed and honed the skill of making myself useful to people whose intellectual gifts dwarfed my own.

Harold Hall

An incredibly insightful look at Xerox PARC, one of the most important organisations in human history. It doesn’t directly explain why PARC achieved the things it did, but a careful reading of the book helps you identify factors that probably contributed. More than anything, this made me reconsider my views of remote work being a panacea — employees being in the same place and socialising after work seems like a key part of PARC’s success. 

Essays/Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell

In a tropical landscape one’s eye takes in everything except the human beings.

George Orwell, Marrakech

Restaurants which are distinctively English and which also sell good food are very hard to find.

George Orwell, In Defence of English Cooking

I had awakened the pew-renter who sleeps in every English workman. Though he had been famished along with the others, he at once saw reasons why the food should have been thrown away rather than given to the tramps … These here tramps are too lazy to work, that’s all that’s wrong with them. You don’t want to go encouraging of them. They’re scum.’  … It was interesting to see the subtle way in which he disassociated himself from ‘these here tramps’.

George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London

Orwell is probably my favourite writer, and I tend to prefer his non-fiction. The “Essays” collection is full of gems, much of it (particularly “Notes on Nationalism” and “Writers and Leviathan”) still relevant to today. Down and Out, meanwhile, is a depressing yet humorous exploration of poverty — and particularly insightful when it comes to what poverty does to people’s sense of self-worth.

First, Catch, Thom Eagle

There is a theory, expounded in the book The Devil’s Cup, that coffee, as it replaced beer, cider or wine as the everyday drink of choice for the population of Europe, was largely responsible for the lifting of the fog of superstition and the sudden fashionability of clear, rational thought, which goes by the general name of the Enlightenment.

Possibly the best “cookbook” ever written. It doesn’t have any recipes, really, just very clever and beautifully written musings on food and people.

Exhalation/Stories of Your Life, Ted Chiang

Every story in both these collections is smart, interesting, and well-written. The best sci-fi encourages you to think about the real world in different ways; Chiang consistently achieves this.

Conversations With Friends, Sally Rooney

My ego had always been an issue. I knew that intellectual attainment was morally neutral at best, but when bad things happened to me I made myself feel better by thinking about how smart I was.

For me, this is the only of Rooney’s books with relatable characters. I read this just before reading Beautiful World, Where Are You; I was very disappointed by the latter.

Utopia Avenue, David Mitchell

‘Our friend Eno talks about “The Scenius”,’ says Elf. ‘The genius of the scene. Art’s made by artists, but artists are enabled by a scene – non-artistic factors. Buyers, sellers, materials, patrons, technology, places to mingle and swap ideas. You see the fruits of scenius in Medici Florence.

Everything David Mitchell writes is good, this is particularly good. It gets the blend of sci-fi and realism right, and is genuinely touching in a way his other books aren’t. And it makes you long for the “scenius” of 1960s’ Soho.

Foundation, Isaac Asimov

It’s Galaxywide. It’s a worship of the past. It’s a deterioration — a stagnation!

A very fun sci-fi book. The second and third are also good, though less so.

Honourable mentions: The Netanyahus; Kitchen Confidential; The Anomaly; Dune; The Doll’s Alphabet; Slaughterhouse Five; Piranesi.

Waste of time and money: Mercifully, none.

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