2021 Audio/Book List

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I started 2021 off with the usual plan to read more. Read, as in my eyes scanning the words printed on paper. God knows I do enough scanning of text on a screen for my job. Of course, that did not happen. Instead, I road my bike more than 4,000 miles this year, something like 291 hours in the saddle with Apple ear pods in my ears listening to audio books. It’s not for lack of trying. I’m desperately trying to complete one paperback in the next two weeks so I can say I read a book from start to finish rather than listened to it. But I’ve found that audio books work for me. They just do. Here’s what I listened to this year.
“Why Fish Don’t Exist” – Lulu Miller
This one was a huge surprise. The premise didn’t really excite me much, but I work with a lot of biologists, so taxonomy has been something I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around more. So, loosely based on the premise of the guy who identified the world’s ocean fish species, I had myself a listen. Turned out the book involves the first President of Stanford, murder, earthquakes and an astonishing look at the spiral a human life can take over the course of a lifetime. I can highly recommend this book as something that will surprise, entertain, disgust and inform.
“The Ancient Minstrel – Jim Harrison
I love Jim Harrison’s writing. I haven’t read much of it since he died a few years ago. I was surprised to come back to his writing and find myself a little tired of the tropes in the books of his older years. Jim is brilliant. There isn’t a writer in America that can craft a sentence like he can. But his storytelling was a decade ahead of where I’m at in terms of my age and of no interest to me in terms of sexism and misogyny. It doesn’t take away from the brilliance of his writing, but the book grossed me out at points in a way I’ve never experienced reading Harrison before. Or, listening to it, as it were. “A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor” – Hank Green I read Hank Green’s first book, “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing” in 2020, which is why it didn’t make this list. But it needs remarking that the two of these books are delightful in the way that books that are very timely usually are. They take the current Internet culture and use it to save the world. In so doing, they tell the stories of the way the Internet impacts each of us and all of us.
“To Shake the Sleeping Self” – Jedidiah Jenkins
I wanted to read a book about cycling. Jedidiah Jenkins wrote a book about cycling from Oregon all the way to the tip of South America. But this wasn’t about cycling. The journey simply paved the way to talk about a man’s life, his choices and the way he was beginning to align his experiences with his thinking. I enjoyed the cycling backdrop of this book as much as I enjoyed Jedediah’s journey.
“The Righteous Mind” – Jonathan Haidt
This is one of four books that have completely changed my life. When Jonathan Haidt told democrats that they needed to fill in some missing narratives in order to speak more fluently to the country’s undecideds, he wasn’t mincing words. This book serves as a history of the evolution of the human mind and how that process split us into billions of factions.
“Sophies World” – Jostein Gaarder
I’ve been reading a lot about philosophy and science, but I’d never read a good narrative about the history of philosophy. I stumbled upon this classic book at just the perfect time, and it made philosophy so much more approachable than anything I’ve read previously. I will likely re-read this book each year to refresh my knowledge of the process of knowledge. I also bought this book in hardcover and gave it to my daughter as a gift.
“The Naturalist” – E.O. Wilson
In my job I often hear biologists refer to E.O. Wilson. At some point you think you begin to understand someone based on the way that people talk about them. In the case of this extraordinary scientist, I decided I needed to understand the man who’s thinking shapes what the people I work with do each day.
“The Sixth Extinction” – Elizabeth Kolbert
This book has been sitting on my nightstand for several years. So, I finally listened to it on audio book. I think I was probably afraid of initial marketing of the book and needed to give it a chance. I’m glad I did, because while the message is terrifying, the book is not without hope. I wish more people would read this book and understand this precipice on which we stand.
“The Happiness Hypothesis” – Jonathan Haidt
I’m not entirely sure why I bought a book that has essentially the same premise as Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind,” but I’m happy that I did. Instead of reading the same book twice, as I sometimes do, I read “The Happiness Hypothesis,” and came away with a slightly different way of seeing essentially the same message. One book was written with the background research installed and referred to frequently, which doesn’t work as well in audio book format. The other book is the same material told more from a storyteller’s perspective. Both are brilliant and will change your life.
“Travels with Charlie” – John Steinbeck
Sometime earlier this year I stumbled on a John Steinbeck quote and realized I hadn’t read as much of his writing as I thought I had in high school and college, especially his non-fiction. What a time to read Steinbeck’s American travelogue. The America of today doesn’t look as different from the America of the 1960s as you might think. But Steinbeck can explore it with the power and vision of a brilliant writer who brought characters to life out of the very dirt and stones of real places. Want to see where we are today and how far we’ve come? Read this book.
“The Log from the Sea of Cortez” – John Steinbeck
I’d wanted to read this book for a long time and felt that I must have read it in the past. Thirty pages in, I had no memory of it. What a delightful way to communicate science against the backdrop of an impending World War. This book made me want to explore more of this world and to go out into the field with the biologists I work with as often as I can to learn about how life works.
“The Founding Fish” – John McPhee
I’d been wanting to read this book for a long time. A colleague loaned me a hard copy, but it took listening to it on audio book for me to finally finish it. It’s actually a very good read, though you have to know a little bit about why shad are such amazing fish. One of the unexpected aspects of this book was learning how much these fish are connected to early American history and the fact they really helped shape the country early on before they were over harvested.
“Cannery Row” – John Steinbeck
It would’ve been a sin to read this much Steinbeck this year without reading “Cannery Row.” Especially because we designed our vacation last summer around Monterey. The book and its characters were on my mind constantly as I rode through and walked the streets of that quintessential California town.
“Tortilla Flat” – John Steinbeck
This book was a new experience for me. I’ve read some of the Steinbeck books I read this year many years ago in college or high school but not “Tortilla Flat.” Coming away from it, my initial impression was that the book had the general feel of one of Hemingway’s impressionist era books, where reading it gives you a fairly good idea what you’re looking at, though the details are not sharp. After further reflection, I really enjoyed the book, and it added much to the experience of going to Monterey.
“The Cougar Conundrum” – Mark Elbroch
Wildlife management is insanely complex. Predators more so than any other aspect of it. Cougars are a terribly misunderstood creature, and so I wanted to read as much about our social perception of them and how scientists and biologists and wildlife managers respond and try to balance it all.
“A Most Remarkable Creature” – Jonathon Meiburg
This was a most remarkable book. When I downloaded it, I had low expectations. I wanted to read more about birds in general, and I’d long been interested in caracaras and intelligence in birds. This book turned out to be an absolutely fascinating combination of biological history and travelogue. This well-written story is a hidden gem, in my opinion.
“The Fools Progress” – Edward Abbey
I love “Desert Solitaire,” and read it every five years or so. I thought for sure I’d love this book. I didn’t hate it, but love is a too strong of a word for it. Abbey was a complicated fellow. I knew that going in. But I also felt like I didn’t want to know Abbey apart from “Desert Solitaire.” There’s something about knowing too much about a person and it takes away from the mythos you create in your own mind. This book unwound some of the mythos I’d built up about Abbey. But that is probably a good thing in the long run.
“Sprinting through No Man’s Land” – Adin Dobkin
To learn more about cycling and a race I’ve been infatuated with over several periods of my life, I read this excellent account of the Tour de France and how it survived World War I on the strong legs of veterans who cherished the sport and the race enough to overcome the physical and psychological injuries of war.
“Zealot” – Reza Aslan
In my continuing effort to understand human evolution and how culture drives us, I come back again and again to religion and the way that a handful of influential men throughout history have influenced so many  lives. Those men are often bigger than life and completely misunderstood. Take the stories of Siddhartha Gautama, Zoroaster, Muhammad, Maimonides, Krishna, Confucius and Baba Nanak for instance. Each influenced millions of people thousands of years after they allegedly lived. But much of what we know of them is myth built for the purpose of maintaining the religions founded by them or in their names. Jesus of Nazareth can be lumped into this group of influential people who were sometimes created for the purpose of influencing lives and changing the world. What Aslan does with the known Jesus of Nazareth and the mythological one we celebrate each December 25th is truly profound. In this book you can see how a zealot became a movement that would quite literally take over the world.
“East of Eden” – John Steinbeck
You can’t read a little Steinbeck and then back off. It’s like making a good cocktail and then declaring yourself satisfied. No, you ask the bartender for another to prove to yourself that it was as good as you thought. I just kept downloading Steinbeck books on Audible this year as a person goes back to the bar for another drink. These drinks are good, and “East of Eden,” is such a profound and disturbing story of family and place and the intersection of human ambition and circumstance. You will be repulsed by and fall in love with characters so many times in this book, that you will question you own empathy.
“The Dutch House” – Anne Patchett
I listened to this book only/mostly to hear Tom Hanks read it. And I found I enjoyed the story. I was disappointed to learn that Anne Patchett has profited off the life of another writer with whom she was friends and who died of an overdose. After reading an essay by Lucy Grealy’s sister, Suellen Grealy, I’ve come to understand that writers are not their work, and I have the burdensome task of deciding whether to separate the artist from the art.
“The Winter of our Discontent” – John Steinbeck
When I finished reading “East of Eden,” I declared it to be the best book I’d ever read. After finishing “The Winter of our Discontent,” I declared, no, this is the best book I’ve ever read. Steinbeck builds on Steinbeck, and each story is so profoundly good as to stir a person to make such reckless declarations. This story went to the core of who I am in ways that no other book has ever managed to do. In the experiences of Ethan Allen Hawley, I came face to face with the many pathways I have chosen to follow in my own life. I was revealed repeatedly in the internal dialogue. Of course, the best book you have ever read is the one that completely exposes you to yourself.
“Guns, Germs & Steel” – Jared Diamond
In my continuing human evolution journey, I would be remiss if I didn’t read one of the signature works on how we as a species got from there to here. Jared Diamond’s 1994 book was something I wanted to read since reading Harari’s “Sapiens.” I’m glad I read it, so that I’d have the needed background on this work after it was fairly torn to shreds by David Graeber & David Wengrow in “The Dawn of Everything” (down list). The book was a good read and left me feeling more informed about how we see our world. But the book is from a colonialist perspective and therefore lacking in the kind of breadth of understanding a work like this needs.
“The Actual Star” – Monica Byrne
I’ve been following Monica Byrne on Twitter for a long time. I’m not sure when, exactly, though I suspect it was when I was working on a series called “After Water,” for Chicago Public Media that put speculative scientists in touch with writers to postulate what a future without water might look like. During the leadup to the publishing of her book, “The Actual Star,” I became very interested in the premise. A book that spans 3,000 years by telling a story in each millennium. Those stories are, of course, interconnected. What fascinated me was the scope of time in the book and idea of what we could become being based so solidly on where we’d been. In this case, we start at the height of Mayan civilization and follow two would-be rulers to their fates while at the same time watching a modern girl of a Mayan ancestry, navigate family dynamics and the transition from girl to woman in North America while heading toward a seemingly self-inflicted fate that would ultimately shape the next millennium, which takes place across the vast landscape of a climate changed future studded with the implications of the first two millennia. I’m not doing this book justice. It’s absolutely stunning in scope and particularly hopeful in its portrayal of the future of humanity.
“The Wizard of Earthsea” – Ursula K. Le Guin
I’ve been looking for a way to jump back into magical worlds, and this fall was the perfect time to discover Ursula K. Le Guin. I’ve been thinking about her work for a long time but never took the time to read any of it. Of course, “The Wizard of Earthsea,” is a great starting point and a wonderful way to go back to wizarding school without all the controversy surrounding another famous author who writes about wizards.
“The Tombs of Atuan” – Ursula K. Le Guin
I loved this book, because the lead female character doesn’t take a backseat to the more familiar lead male character. In fact, three-quarters of the book features Tenar’s story before Ged, the expected hero of the story really shows up in any detail. I think this was a brilliant thing for a writer to do, but one expects no less from Ursula K. LeGuin.
“The Sandman Act II” – Neil Gaiman
I can’t even with this story. I’ve loved listening to these re-productions of Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” comic novels for many reasons, not the least of which is the way the stories are told in cinematic form but for your ears. These are just brilliantly read by so many fantastic actors. But “Sandman,” also made me realize just how wonderful Gaiman’s sense of delight in exploring humanity through myth and mirth is and the way it is reflected so strongly in all of his works but perhaps more so in these stories.
“The Song of Achilles” – Madeline Miller
My 15-year-old daughter has talked endlessly about Madeline Miller’s “Circe,” this year. Like many women her age, she’s very into mythology, especially Greek mythology. I wanted to find out why she’s talks about “Circe” so much, but I wanted to start with Miller’s first book to get a sense of the writer and where she is going. “The Song of Achilles” is a wonderful story that fleshes out the cobwebbed and shattered fragments of the taking of Troy. More so, it fleshes out mythological characters in the way a beautiful painting sometimes becomes the way you see something real.
“Circe” – Madeline Miller
I read “The Song of Achilles” first to get to know Miller so I’d have some background before reading “Circe,” and I’m glad I did. But “Circe” could easily stand on its own, and you’d still be lauding Miller’s ability to paint mythology so realistically that you want to hang it on the wall and gaze at it continually. This book will make you appreciate the women who healed us through their knowledge passed down in secret for so many thousands of years in spite of the retribution and anger of the patriarchal gods.
“The Dawn of Everything” – David Graeber & David Wengrow
This is also one of the four books that changed my life. And I only just finished it and need so much time to process it. I also need more people in my life to read it, as I have so much to discuss with them. I listened to this on Audiobook through much of November. It’s a long read. But I have such a deeper appreciation for human evolution as told with the added perspective of women and indigenous cultures. Without those perspectives on the history of humans, you have only a male and colonialist view of how we got to where we are today, which is to say a very lopsided and narrow view. I also learned to appreciate the art of speculating based on the best available science and knowledge, something Graeber and Wengrow have taken to a higher form. This book is profound. Simply the best thing I’ve put in my head since I discovered that words on pages is how you grow as a human.
“The Night Watchman” – Louise Erdrich
I didn’t think I’d finish another book before the end of the year after reading “The Dawn of Everything,” but I was wrong. I needed something to cleanse my palate, so to speak, and so I Googled the Pulitzer Prize winner from 2021. I feel I need to read more award winners to understand what we’re seeing, loving, reading as a larger community. I was not disappointed. This book tells the story of one of many efforts America has undertaken to annihilate Native American tribes. Not through warfare this time but through an act of Congress that would “emancipate” the Turtle Mountain band of Chippewa. Told through the perspective of a young women coming of age in 1950s America and watching a national effort to take away an identity she is only truly just discovering at this point in her life. Re-Reads – I re-read several Neil Gaiman books this year, including “The Ocean at the end of the lane,” “Neverwhere,” “The Graveyard book” and  “Stardust,” because they’re fantastic filler books when you need a break from the heavier tomes. They’re easy to come back to again and again, and again. I also re-read Harari’s “Sapiens,” for the third time.

2 thoughts on “2021 Audio/Book List”

  1. I’m intrigued by your list; some are quite familiar, having read them also. I like how you respond and evaluate them. EO Wilson is a favorite of mine. I have a backpacking buddy who was a close personal friend of E Abbey. My friend shared plenty of Abbey tales on our high country treks; I must have heard them all. I am going to take you up on the audiobook idea on my commutes in from the coast, and I’ll pick from your list.

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