I read a LOT of books this year. My running total is at 105 as of this morning, and I expect to read 3-4 more books before the year ends. I read more than usual this year, in part because reading is a coping mechanism and in part because I leaned in hard to romance novels and mysteries, which are almost all quick reads. None of those romances or mysteries made this Best Of 2021 list, but they might rate a post of their own because I probably owe a chunk of my 2021 well-being to the way those genres unfailingly resolve any tension introduced and can be consistently relied on to end on a high note. If you can’t find resolution in real life, fiction is a pretty good substitute.
Which is part of why I’m surprised, looking at this list, to find that so much non-fiction made the cut. Let’s start there.
Wild Mercy: Living the Fierce and Tender Wisdom of the Women Mystics, by Mirabai Starr
I picked this book up because a speaker at an online conference used one of the contemplative practices that are embedded in the book during her keynote address. This is a cross between a textbook and a workbook. I learned about mystics I’d never heard of and was invited to put down the book and enter into modes of prayer that I hadn’t tried. I’m going on sabbatical in March, and several of the mystics I was introduced to in this book are going to be my friends during that time.
How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America, by Clint Smith
This book deserves all the accolades and recommendations it’s gotten. Smith builds the book around pilgrimages to various sites of historical interpretation. He visits Monticello, the Whitney Plantation, New Orleans, New York City and several other places where people are interpreting America’s history of slavery, racism and white supremacy. It’s history and social commentary in the shape of a travelogue and Smith – who is a poet – is the perfect tour guide. In fact, I heard him speak a couple of months ago and he said that he was so inspired by the *actual* tour guides he met at these places, by their patience and hospitality and grace, that he wanted to model his writing after their work. I grew up visiting plantations on school field trips and battlefields on family vacations, and only this summer participated in a state-sanctioned tour (at Historic Stagville – if you’re local and haven’t taken a tour there, DO IT.) that was explicit about telling stories of the enslaved people’s resistance in that place. This is the book to read and share with your relatives who are scared about Critical Race Theory, because it is so deftly written and powerfully crafted and manages to be simultaneously strikingly upsetting and gently invitational.
See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love, by Valarie Kaur
Oh, this book is GOOD. Like, the kind of good that led me to ration my reading so I wouldn’t finish it too soon and could extend my morning porch reading of it by another couple of days. I learned after I finished it that some friends were reading it as an assigned text in a seminary Theopoetics course, which makes complete sense because it is both theology and poetry. Kaur writes in a way that weaves stories from her personal life into her spiritual commitments so seamlessly that I was left with my mouth hanging open. I don’t teach seminary courses, but if I did, I would probably pair this book with a chapter from James McClendon’s “Biography as Theology” and leave students to draw their own conclusions. You might know Valarie Kaur’s name because she partners with Rev. William Barber in his public theological work, and her sermon about the darkness of the womb (which I heard in one of Dr. Barber’s Watch Night services a few years ago) went a bit viral. Her book is even better than that clip.
The Book of Delights, by Ross Gay
Gay is a poet (another one…maybe my 2022 reading list should include more poetry!), and this book is a master class in the practice of paying attention. He chronicles daily delights, from one birthday to the next. Some of the delights are what you might expect (love, laughter, etc.), but most of them are tiny moments. Gay trained himself to notice those moments when he felt delight, and then he wrote them down, day after day. For someone who used to keep a blog called “I Like Today Because Of…” and, then, alternately “The Daily Discipline,” this book was perfect. Put it in your daily devotional reading rotation.
And, then, there was some very good fiction, too.
Matrix, by Lauren Groff
This is not THE Matrix, despite how often I want to add the article to the title. It’s a novel about nuns, but it is also a novel about power. I read Mary Sharratt’s “Illuminations” earlier in the year, which is a novel based on the life of Hildegaard von Bingen. Hildegaard was a mystic and a Benedictine abbess and that book is very, very good. But reading it so close to reading this one colored my expectations for what “novel about nuns” should be, and it took me a while to settle in and figure out what Groff was doing in this one. Once I did, though, I was mesmerized. If you are someone who thinks about or lives in the places where religion, gender and power often intersect, then this book is for you. I am still figuring out what I think about Marie, the main character who is hell-bent on bringing her vision to reality and protecting her flock along the way.
The Night Watchman, by Louise Erdrich
Louise Erdrich is just a master. Go pick up anything she’s ever written and your existence will be improved by it. This book is loosely based on the life of Erdrich’s own grandfather who worked as a night watchman and also helped lead the fight against a very real, very horrible campaign against Native American dispossession in the 1950s. I heard another author say that this was one of her favorite books of the year because of the sheer, startling number of full, textured characters that Erdrich managed to include in one book. One of my favorite kinds of fiction is fiction where I learn something important about the world while being completely absorbed in the narrative, and Erdrich manages to do that on levels I can hardly appreciate.
Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague, by Maggie O’Farrell
If you’re not up for reading about pandemics in your fiction, go ahead and skip this one. But if you can handle some plague background to a fantastic story, this book is for you. The story is about Shakespeare and his wife and the loss of their real-life son, Hamnet. I resisted this book for a while because that plot summary sounds SO DRY AND BORING AND ALSO WHO CARES ABOUT SHAKESPEARE’S DEAD SON? But I was very, very wrong. Plus, this is a story from a time of plague that we KNOW eventually ended. And we KNOW that even though Shakespeare’s life included immense tragedy and complication, his life and work continues to have enduring meaning for humanity. And there’s something soothing about all of that, in the same way that reading romances and mysteries for the guaranteed resolution soothes some unmet need for certainty in these unprecedentedly uncertain times. And also, Maggie O’Farrell can write the lights out.