Best Books 2021

I read 23 books in 2021, but none that were written in 2021. Tim Ferriss stopped reading new books deliberately but for me it just happened, something about this year made me want to hang out in the ancient world instead.

I read about how five thousand years ago the Indo-Europeans figured out how to ride horses and use wheels, and so ended up spreading their language to half the world. I read about the Bronze Age Collapse three thousand years ago. Also set three thousand years ago are the semi-mythical events of the Aeneid and the Odyssey; I particularly enjoyed Emily Wilson’s new translation of the latter. From two thousand years ago, Caesar’s Commentaries reads like an action-packed fantasy novel but gives real insight into history and strategy. It was also a good year to go back to the Biblical events of two to three thousand years ago, though I didn’t make it cover to cover.

The one book about the modern world I gave 5 stars in 2021 was The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics. The short version of my review is that it’s secretly a development economics book:

Bueno de Mesquita, author of The Dictator’s Handbook, is a political scientist but his analysis is very much economic, in both the methods (rational choice & methodological individualism) and in the focus on material incentives as the main driver of behavior. The book is good as a manual for aspiring tyrants, but suprisingly great as an explanation for why many poor countries stay poor.

So overall compared to 2020 I don’t have many good books to share, apart from things like The Odyssey that you presumably already know about. The best new writing in 2021 probably isn’t happening in books at all, but in Substacks. Many bloggers switched to the Substack blogging/newsletter platform last year because it makes it easy to monetize their writing, while many professional journalists switched over as a way to keep being paid to write while enjoying near-complete editorial freedom. I recommend Byrne Hobart on finance and business strategy, and Razib Khan on history and genomics. Probably my favorite writing of 2021 was the return of Scott Alexander to blogging, now at Substack as Astral Codex Ten. He is also a great demonstration of just how much the monetization game has changed, as less than a year into the new Substack he is making enough money to start giving large amounts of it away.