So now that we’ve all reset our internal clocks to adjust to the new year and set our resolutions, why not add another tempting one: to read a new book every month. Since many of us have more time on our hands (thank god) to cultivate our skills other than commuting, we all owe it to ourselves to enhance the experience, or, really, dig into a different world or reality other than our own. That’s where the best books of 2021 come in handy.
Nonfiction can offer a glimpse into a soccer player’s life, or take you on a breathtaking journey into the Arctic. Fiction transports us, leaves us breathless for more, and always humbles us to our fellow man’s tale. Walking away with more empathy at the end of the day can only be a good thing, right?
We’ve rounded up the most anticipated books of 2021 and added a few you might have missed from December.
1. The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr.
The debut novel by blogger @sonofbaldwin has been a hot topic this month. His novel follows the story of two slaves on a plantation in the Deep South that revolves around themes of pain, suffering and love, the hidden gem they find together despite their circumstances. Told with a lyricism that echoes Toni Morrison, Robert Jones Jr. has crafted a subtle masterpiece that will leave you mesmerized for days afterward. Enjoy one of the best books 2021 has to offer.
2. Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World by Andrea Pitzer
Looking to escape to the snowy 17th-century Arctic? Andrea Pitzer’s latest historical nonfiction story is exactly the escapism we all need right now. She follows a team of men in search of a polar bear but for whom misadventure and mishap is a recurring theme: on all three expeditions, they fall into disrepair, and cannot even seem to shoot the polar bear they came so far to see. Pitzer takes us on a harrowing journey through the ice, one full of danger and sickness. It has just the right amount of escapism and just the right amount of historical knowledge to keep us hooked.
3. Walking With Ghosts by Gabriel Byrne
The acclaimed actor Gabriel Byrne is here with a memoir that goes further back than his glamorous Hollywood days. In 1960’s Ireland, we follow Byrne as he makes his way through a harrowing coming of age in a nearly vanished time. If you’re interested in ’60s Ireland, this story will captivate your heart as we see Byrne stumble his way through seminary school, fall almost accidentally into acting and then directly into a terrible plight of addiction. Told with a lyricism that will leave you mesmerized, Walking With Ghosts gives us the empathy every human deserves, making it one of the the best books of 2021.
4. Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion
A highly anticipated book of essays from the acclaimed journalist and essayist, Let Me Tell You What I Mean lands on bookshelves this month and it is sure to create a stir in the literary world. She writes about her usual suspects: California robber barons, WWII veterans, a Gamblers Anonymous meeting she stumbles into and other profiles of writers and people of note like William Randolph Hearst, Nancy Reagan and Ernest Hemingway. Take a deep dive with Joan as she explores our culture with commentary via her own enduring wit and style.
5. Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone by Sarah Jaffe
Jaffe bites back against the theory that doing what you love means you’ll never work a day in your life; instead, she argues against this idea with thoughts about sacrifice, and how much we give to be able to do what we love. Already a preeminent voice on labor, social justice and inequality, Jaffe takes us on a journey with overworked teachers, unpaid interns, nonprofit workers, and even professional athletes and into their real lives as exploited workers. A good book for anyone rethinking their idea of work and what it means to do what you love.
6. My Year Abroad by Chang-Rae Lee
This exciting new novel from the writer Chang-Rae Lee should be on everyone’s radar in February. A coming of age tale set in America with the protagonist Tiller, he befriends Pong and together they take off on a year abroad which will change Tiller’s outlook on life forever after. An exploration of an American in China and a Chinese man in America, values are questioned, cultural differences are evaluated and a rich commentary on capitalism, global health and parenthood abound. If you’re seeking out a novel of escapism and an analysis of Western culture, My Year Abroad will surely delight you.
7. Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui
A deeply researched book about why we swim, Tsui writes with an electric ferocity about why some people crave total immersion. If you’re a swimmer or know a swimmer, this book is the perfect choice to flounder in the deep end of our own psyche. Tsui explores the history of swimming, writes about how it brings the unlikeliest of people together and pens harrowing adventure tales of people surviving freezing temperatures. This is a book that shows us who we are through the beautiful process of the water and why we keep coming back to it.
8. Kink: Stories, Edited by Garth Greenwell and R. O. Kwon
In this groundbreaking literary anthology about sex, two editors decide to call upon some of the best of the best sex writers in the business: Alexander Chee, Carmen Maria Machado, Chris Kraus and Brandon Taylor, just to name a few, to share short stories about BDSM, love and desire. Hopefully, this book will prove why sex writing is deserving of a proper place in the literary canon. Plus, we could all use some raunchy entertainment these days. Look no further for a book to share and read aloud with your own partners.
9. Gay Bar: Why We Went Out by Jeremy Atherton Lin
Since the start of the pandemic, bars and restaurants have been hit hard, and the gay and lesbian culture at these bars have fared no better. Why not take a deep dive into the history of gay bars while we can’t fully immerse ourselves in them? Written in great depth and detail, Lin takes us on the journey of the origins of the gay bar and how it cultivated a generation. Interspersed with his own stories of nights out, Lin reminds us the importance of social culture and historical reflection.
10. Cowboy Graves: Three Novellas by Roberto Bolano
A contemporary voice of Latin America who is rich in prose and plot, these three novellas by Roberto Bolano take us through the journeys of his strange characters and uncanny settings. The first story Cowboy Graves takes us to Chile to fight for socialism after a coup. French Comedy of Horrors takes us to French Guinea when a teen finds himself called into a Clandestine Surrealist Group. In Fatherland, a poet watches airplanes write her poetry in the sky while they reckon with the fascist overthrow of their country. Each story will transport you to another place and time and since they are quite short in length, the perfect remedy to a longer novel’s heft.
11. The Hill We Climb and other poems by Amanda Gorman
The National Poet Youth Laureate that took the world by surprise on Inauguration Day has a book of poetry coming out in September, and we couldn’t be more excited. As the youngest poet to ever speak at an Inauguration, Gorman has a beautiful, strong, and willful voice that she projects with serenity and strength, no matter the topic. This young poet is on the rise and should be closely watched, as her forthcoming book should be quite a stunner.
12. Phillip Roth: The Biography by Blake Bailey
If you’re a fan of the literary star Phillip Roth, then you’ll be excited to dig into his biography by the esteemed writer Blake Bailey. Writers are often enigmas and their fans often have to guess at their inner lives or how they came to be a writer, so a biography is always an interesting document in and of itself. So if you’re curious about Roth or how he came to be such an infamous author, snap up this biography, quick. You’ll be occupied for hours as it comes in at 912 pages.
13. Under the Wave at Waimea by Paul Theroux
If you’re interested in the real underbelly of the North Shore on Oahu, Hawaii, Paul Theroux’s latest novel depicts with delicious detail the gritty life of his protagonist Joe Sharkey, a famed surfer past his prime. When he drives home drunk from a bar one night and accidentally kills a stranger on the highway, his life is unmoored. How will he grapple with his age, his lackluster love for the ocean, and finding out whose life he took? Paul Theroux tackles the themes of privilege, age, and mortality with aplomb. Read this book if you’re interested in the real lives of surfers on the beautiful island.
14. World Travel: An Irreverent Guide by Anthony Bourdain and Laurie Woolever
If you’re a fan of the late chef and master of food, Anthony Bourdain, and devoured Kitchen Confidential like it was a hot panini, then you’re in for a real treat with his essays on culture, travel and of course, cuisine. There are also essays from his friends and family which honor his life’s work and style. Pick this up if you’re feeling nostalgic for a time when we could travel just to try the new food and culture and hopefully it will make you feel as if you are.
15. Everybody: A Book About Freedom by Olivia Laing
A hotly anticipated book full of essays on artists, political figures and what it means to truly protest, Olivia Laing is back again this year with another beautiful book. She shares stories of her own time spent protesting, what it means to be a body and how everyone has the right to life. She draws from complicated figures such as Malcolm X, Susan Sontag, Nina Simone and Sigmund Freud to draw out what it truly means to live in the world right now. An excellent examination of our current culture and political climate.
16. While Justice Sleeps by Stacey Abrams
From the instrumental person whom we all wish was our alter ego, Stacey Abrams has arrived this year with a plucky thriller novel set in the courtroom. If it’s by Abrams, need we say more? She already has some stellar nonfiction out there to pursue as well as a few delicious romance novels if you’re in the mood, but either way, pick up her thriller and you’ll be in for a sweet spot of escapism.
17. The Great Mistake by Jonathan Lee
If you’re a fan of historical New York novels, then you’re in for a treat here. This book follows the life and then the assassination of the city planner Andrew Haswell Green, the creator of Central Park, the MET and the NYPL. A vivid historical novel, character-driven, and richly depicted, Lee has given us a masterpiece. A sure favorite for all of us obsessed with the city of New York.
18. Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder
A surrealist novel for the ages, Yoder has written a marvel in terms of parenthood: driven wild by her children, the protagonist has given up being an artist to care for her children . . . and then turns into a dog. What? If anyone can relate, it’s all the parents who have been locked away at home working with kids. This book will tickle nerves you didn’t know you had. A must-read for anyone alive today.
19. On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint by Maggie Nelson
Probably the most acclaimed critic of our time, Maggie Nelson is back with another book of essays that dwell on the themes of freedom within four realms: sex, drugs, art and climate. If you were a fan of Bluets or The Argonauts, you’ll surely want to pick up Nelson’s latest on where freedom really lies.
20. Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead
Phenom novelist Colson Whitehead has written a love letter to Harlem in the 1960s. This latest novel is a social novel about race and power, following a family saga that is full of heists, rip-offs and drama. If you’re a fan of Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, then you’re in for another treat and a trip down nostalgia lane.