Best Reads of 2021
It turned out to be a strange reading year and as a result I read less than my norm. There are two main reasons for this. First, I read and listened to two books, Live Not By Lies and Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy multiple times each as part of research projects in preparation for presentations, so the work went much deeper than simply reading or listening. Each required hours upon hours of research, cross checking, and the like. As for the second reason my reading was reduced from previous years, I was simply burnt out from the research projects and needed a break. After nearly three months away from books, I returned in mid-October. Over the course of the year, I read twenty-six books, about half my norm. This tally counts the two books mentioned above as one apiece. As for what I read, the three top categories were Fiction (8), History (7), and Faith (5). The remainder are scattered between Non-Fiction, Science Fiction, and Biography.
Two Important Books
Of the twenty-six books, two stand out as important to our world today and its future.
Live Not By Lies (non-fiction) is Rod Dreher’s warning to America and the world that a confluence of ideology, technology, and marketplace changes are fundamentally altering today’s American experience and the nation’s future. It is subtitled “A Manual for Christian Dissidents” but is applicable to all people who desire to protect their values and principles in an era of social and political intimidation. Dreher leans heavily upon the experience of those who endured Cold War era Soviet domination in Eastern Europe and still managed to maintain and protect their faith in ways private and communal. He uses their stories to compare their experience, including its early onset and tells, to what is happening today, and to share the strategies and practices they adopted to successfully shepherd their faith for a more hopeful future. I think Dreher is too pessimistic about America’s trajectory but admit there is plenty of reason to be intentional about our personal responses to society’s direction. The book is a primer that provokes thoughtfulness and for that reason it is highly recommended.
The Age of AI and Our Human Future (non-fiction) is a collaboration by Henry Kissinger, Eric Schmidt, and Daniel Huttenlocher. Kissinger needs no introduction, Schmidt is ex-CEO of Google, and Huttenlocher is Dean of MIT’s computing school. They are giants in their fields. The fact that they joined in common cause to raise the alarm about AI while it is in its nascent form is telling, and I believe a service to our species. If we will listen. The authors present an overview of AI, how it is changing our world, and its potential to change our role and even how humans see themselves. They urge immediate global collaboration to establish a set of guidelines and principles for the development, deployment, and management of AI. They are not concerned in this work about AI force feeding us content, for example, but with bigger and more important issues including how information is manipulated to manipulate different segments of society, and AI’s capacity to overwhelm human decision making in critical areas such as economics, geopolitics, warfare, and science. All this sounds technical and possibly overwhelming, but it is not. The book is written in plain language and addresses AI’s leverage on disciplines and functions critical to society, doing so in ways that illuminate the issue for all. No science degree is required, but a willingness to listen to wisdom is.
One Beautiful Book
I had the great fortune to stumble upon a relatively new author, Amor Towles, who is a masterful storyteller. The only comparisons that come immediately to mind are Beneath A Scarlett Sky by Mark Sullivan, and Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield. Mr. Towles is breathing rare air to be in their company.
A Gentleman in Moscow (fiction) is simply, beautiful. The story is wonderfully revealed at a pace that fits its time and with poetic elegance that draws the reader in. The milieu is post-Bolshevik Revolution Russia. The story’s vehicle is Count Alexander Rostov, a man of the noble class and means during pre-revolution times, who has been confined for life to the world-famous Metropole Hotel. Unable to set foot outside its doors, he faces a new world with principle, class, and pragmatism. The characters are deep and rich, and the Count’s experiences transport us back in time. His friendships with those who work and visit the hotel, his love affair with a famous actress, and his is love for his daughter are rich in tone and tenor. These combine to portray his humility, honor, strength, and grace during societal upheaval as he faces a new order. His sacrifice, intelligence, wit, and style as he navigates each day’s surprises are the fabric and stitching that make this book so beautiful. The crafting of this work is marvelous. I am a fan of historical fiction and find this to be one of the best I’ve encountered. You need not be a fan of Russia or the historical period. This book is about the human spirit’s ability to endure with grace and overcome with subtle yet strong purpose.
Last Stand at Khe Sanh (history) by Gregg Jones. The Marines earned their honor during this epic battle of the VietNam war. Well told in detail and heart.
Forgotten Fifteenth (history) by Barrett Tillman. The Fifteenth Air Force operated out of Northern Africa and was largely responsible for the destruction of Hitler’s war making capacity. It is not as famous as the Eighth, but it should be. It counted in its number Doolittle, Eaker, Quesada, and Twining, all of whom would become influential in the development of American air power doctrine and capability in the following years.
Man at Arms (fiction) by Steven Pressfield. It is A.D. 55 when a legendary ex-Roman soldier, battle hardened and honor-shaped by numerous brutal campaigns, takes on the task of shepherding Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. Rich in detail and character development, the story paints an image of this ancient, harsh, and yet exceedingly human time. Pressfield has done it again.