Best Books of 2021: Non-Fiction
Why does it feel so good to have books around? For most of the last three years, I’ve had my library in boxes in a storage unit, meticulously organized (in my own mind) so that I can go and pluck out the desired book amid dozens of boxes. I started these trips to the storage unit when I lived in Kansas City. Punching in the code, walking down the labyrinthine halls, undoing the lock, raising the door, and being greeted by the company of books has become one of life’s simple pleasures. Finding a book you haven’t seen in a while brings its own little joy; it opens up a world. This world is filled both with the content of the book and the thoughts and circumstances surrounding the time you read it. Book lovers will know these little worlds I’m talking about.
Before Christmas, I saw that the New York Times had investigated this phenomenon. Covering Reid Byers’s new book, The Private Library, Julie Lasky writes, “Individually, they are frequently useful or delightful, but it is when books are displayed en masse that they really work wonders. Covering the walls of a room, piled up to the ceiling and exuding the breath of generations, they nourish the senses, slay boredom and relieve distress.”
Byers coined the term “book-wrapt” to describe the feeling of having access to all of these little worlds. So how many books do you need for a well-stocked book-wrapt room? Some say 1,000, others 500. For however many you need, here’s my non-fiction contribution:
The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl Trueman. Crossway, 2020.
This is - and I’m not exaggerating - one of the most important books of the decade and my pick for the book of the year. I say that because I don’t know of any other book that has summed up and explained our cultural moment as well as this one. Starting in conversation with modern philosophers Charles Taylor, Philip Rieff, and Alasdair McIntyre, Trueman moves through Rousseau, Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud, the Romantic Poets, Reich, Marcuse, and other critical theorists, up through the current debates on sexuality and transgenderism. It’s not an easy read, but it is a profound work of scholarship and cultural commentary.
The central focus is an examination of identity. Why is it that we – for the first time in all of human history – understand what someone might mean with the phrase, “I’m a man trapped in a woman’s body”? The answer can only be that we have experienced one of the most comprehensive ideological shifts in the history of Western Civilization. What we have now is a malleable self: you can be anyone or anything you decide to be. What matters most is not what’s objectively or biologically true about you, but what you assert and express about yourself. We don’t just live in a sexualized world, we live in a society that believes sexual expression is an essential component of identity.
Trueman’s analysis lays bare the philosophical movements, assumptions, and cultural pathologies that run underneath our culture. By the end, he has constructed a lattice of our world and it has a stunning amount of explanatory power. It would be good for every Christian to read this book – and to that end – Crossway is publishing a less-technical version titled, Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution in March. One way or the other, this is a book worth spending the time to understand.
Chaos Under Heaven by Josh Rogin. Mariner Books, 2021.
After listening to Rogin as he made his way through the podcast circuit, I decided this was a must-read. The relationship and rising tension between the US and China is one of the most important issues in the world, and if you want to understand what’s happening as the Biden administration begins developing its China policy, this is the book you need to read. Rogin covers China and the U.S. for the Washington Post. I’ve recently put him in my I-read-everything-they-write category.
On his podcast, “The Interview,” with Rogin, Hugh Hewitt said there are four books everyone should read to understand the US and China: On China by Henry Kissinger, Destined for War by Graham Allison, The Hundred-Year Marathon by Michael Pillsbury, and Chaos Under Heaven. I would add H.R. McMaster’s book Battlegrounds to that list. Rogin and McMaster cover similar ground, and both have been significantly influenced by the work of Matthew Pottinger, who was the Deputy National Security Advisor for the Trump administration. Of the bunch, Rogin’s is the most accessible. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say it will be one of the most important books of the decade.
The Last King of America by Andrew Roberts. Viking, 2021.
If you’ve followed any of my recommendations, you know I think Andrew Roberts is the greatest living biographer. Churchill: Walking with Destiny is the best single volume on Churchill. Napoleon: A Life is the best single volume on Napoleon. What he’s done in this book is slightly different than his others. George III’s reputation needed a reboot. Blamed for losing the American colonies and remembered as barking mad for the last decade of his life, George III could have sidled into history as one of Britain’s lackluster kings and a stock villain in the American Revolution, but when the Queen allowed Roberts to access the King’s private correspondences, he found a very different king than you’ll hear about in “Hamilton.”
One of the things that surprised me about this book is how comprehensive the coverage of the American Revolution is. It’s a sign of a great biography that you don’t just learn about the person, you see them in their own environment making real-time decisions and responding to real-world problems. It turns out that with a bit of context, George III emerges as a brilliant and fascinating figure pinned between Britain’s colonial rise and political movements that threatened his rule. He was a deft political operator and a patron of the arts. His ceiling may always be low in America, but Roberts captures the spirit of the revolution, 18th Century England, and an underrated British monarch.
Right now, Roberts is finishing a biography on the British press magnate Lord Northcliffe who owned both The Times and the Daily Mail. It should be out by August 14, the centenary of Northcliffe’s death. I’ll wager you’ll find that book on next year’s list if history is any indicator.
One last thing: as of right now, this book is 50% off on Amazon.
San Fransicko by Michael Shellenberger. Harper, 2021.
The subtitle of Shellenberger’s book is “Why progressives ruin cities,” and it more than delivers. From the standpoint of saying the quiet part out loud about American life, this is the book of the year. If you look around and wonder why life in cities is getting worse read this book.
I’m always looking for books that are idea-rich. Shellenberger tends toward data. He’s been an activist for over thirty years and he knows his stuff. But that alone would make this book tough to trudge through. He’s also able to get to the core ideas behind the problems. Homelessness, he argues, is a euphemism that keeps us from dealing with the true problems in cities; crime, addiction, and untreated mental health problems. Progressivism as an ideology has devolved into paying for people to do whatever they want. Housing first strategies don’t align with human nature or sociological research. Shame is a good and powerful social motivator.
From another angle, this book ties together lots of loose ends. Why is San Francisco home to some of the world’s most profitable companies and the worst drug and mental health crisis in America? How have all of these California politicians passed the buck on crime only to win national elections? Why do cities keep electing DAs who refuse to enforce the laws?
One sign of a great non-fiction book is that you finish it and feel like you’ve moved from a simplistic paradigm through complexity and into simplicity. The highest compliment I can give San Fransicko is that on the other side of these 400 pages you’ll find insight, clarity, and simplicity.
In Trump’s Shadow by David Drucker. Twelve Books, 2021.
I’m not typically one to follow the latest political books. After you’ve read one, you’ve typically read them all. Memoirs are one thing, the latest Trump tell-all is something else. So I’ve made it a rule to skip the political best-sellers, but I read this one because I was looking for someone to begin making sense of the GOP after Trump’s defeat in 2020. Who will the ascendant candidates be in the run-up to 2024? Who’s going to chart the new course for the Republican party by maintaining the best of Trump’s policies and moving away from the worst of his personality? This book is as close as it gets this early in the process.
In the introduction, he lays out the must-have qualities for future GOP candidates. They must be willing to fight and they must preserve Trump’s populist appeal to working-class voters. Outside of those two qualities, the candidates will be very diverse.
Drucker’s insight lies in decades of political reporting and insider access. Following the 2020 election, he was able to talk with almost every one of the candidates he includes in this book: Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz. Nikki Haley, Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, Marco Rubio, and the “Florida Man” himself, Donald Trump. Drucker elegantly relays each candidates’ background, their actions since 2020, their x-factor, and the moves they might make to get ready for a run. I came into the book seriously underestimating Pompeo and Pence. Drucker’s almost convinced me about Pompeo.
My only complaint with the book is that he did not profile Ron DeSantis or Chris Christie. Regarding DeSantis, Drucker worries that he might have peaked too early. He has a tough re-election bout to worry about in 2022 and hasn’t had much success in building and keeping a good team. He’ll need to do both before a 2024 presidential run. There’s wisdom in not jumping ahead, but my sense is DeSantis has become a more popular poster-child than Drucker gives him credit for. I agree that Christie has a narrow chance of winning broad support, but he’s almost certain to run and he’s been as close to the action as any of the candidates included in the book. A profile of Christie and his activities since the election would have added a dimension to the sketches of the GOP heading into 2024.
We, the Robots? By Simon Chesterman. Cambridge University Press, 2021.
T-Minus AI by Michael Kanaan. BenBella, 2020.
It’s Better to Be Feared by Seth Wickersham. Liveright, 2021.
King Richard by Michael Dobbs. Knopf, 2021.
New to me:
Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth. HarperCollins, 2004.
Like the wonderful Tolkien movie made from this book, I didn’t want it to end. What about the rest of his life? Garth traces two fascinating interwoven threads in Tolkien’s life: friendship and writing. There’s something idyllically perfect about John Ronald’s group of friends at King Edward’s School, the Tea Club, Barrovian Society (TCBS); high school boys who believe they can change the world through language, art, and myth. They were poets and rugby players, and they were also soldiers.
The epic sagas of Tolkien’s Middle Earth germinated in this seedbed of war and friendship. Whereas the movie focuses on the friendship that developed at King Edward's, Garth spends a lot of time introducing the reader to Tolkien’s early poetry. Garth expertly brings you along to discover Middle Earth right over Tolkien’s shoulder and in his own verses.
Friendship, or perhaps we should say fellowship, was one of the driving loves of Tolkien’s life. This book puts the depth of his friendship with the TCBS on display. It casts the Inklings in a whole new light (I hope Garth writes a sequel about this stretch of Tolkien’s life someday) and you’ll never read The Lord of the Rings the same way again.
This year I’m breaking up my best books into categories. Check back this week for Christian, fiction, Churchill, and nerdy deep tracks!
Cole Feix is the founder and president of So We Speak and the Senior Pastor of Carlton Landing Community Church in Oklahoma.