It’s that time of year again – my annual post about the best books I read over the past twelve months. You can find previous years’ posts here:
Favorite Books of 2014 (yes, I skipped a few years)
This year I read a little less than in years past. The one thing missing this year is an amazing epic fiction book, on the level of Musashi.
Here are my 2021 picks!
The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
This was the best book I read in 2021. Given some of the other books I’ve read over the years (like 12 Rules for Life), this book had been on my radar for awhile but I hadn’t gotten around to it. It’s an eye-opening read to say the least.
Solzhenitsyn writes in a way that puts you in his shoes as much as humanly possible, and gives the reader an intimate understanding of the Soviet and Gulag experience, starting with what got people sent to the Gulag in the first place. One story talks about a high ranking official getting sent to the Gulag for ten years because he was the first to stop clapping for Stalin at an event. Soldiers who were prisoners of war during WWII got sent to the Gulag after the war because they were potentially corrupted while imprisoned. Imagine being a POW for your country and getting punished for it! Snitching was also used as a weapon – if you didn’t like your neighbor, you could report them for some offense against the State and have them sent off for a ten year term in the Gulag. This created a state of perpetual fear among Soviet citizens and made sure everyone went along with the agenda.
The lack of respect for individual human life is also astounding. In the calculus of the Soviet (or really any Communist) state, there is a brutal, rational, mathematical approach to human life. You are only valuable in terms of your value to the State. This can be quantified by production quotas. If you’re unable to meet the quotas and die in the process, well that’s one less mouth to feed.
Nazi crimes against humanity get a lot of attention and mindshare in our society, and for good reason. But Soviet crimes against humanity were just as bad, if not worse, and we should have an equal understanding of the terrible things that were done in the name of the “common good”. In fact, Soviet-like states (to different degrees) still exist today in places like North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, and of course, China.
You may be wondering how the author was able to write a book exposing these crimes while in the Gulag himself. The incredible answer is he would write on scraps of paper, memorize them, and then destroy the scraps so there was no evidence of his writing. Once he was out, he compiled these memorized sections into books.
This book is dark as hell but it should be on your list if you want to understand the evil that human systems are capable of. The complete version is three volumes but I read the abridged version. Either way, read it.
The Quest of the Simple Life by William James Dawson
I randomly stumbled upon this book (and honestly wish I could remember where), saw it was free on Kindle, and decided to give it a try. Serendipitously turned out to be a great decision. This book is basically the journal of a guy in London in the 1800s who is sick of living in the city and wants to live a simpler life in the country. So many of the things he talks about could have been written in 2021. For example, as he does the math for living in the city, he realizes he’s spending a huge percentage of his income on things like commuting, work lunches and dinners, and clothes for the office. In other words, he’s living to work.
Eventually, he makes the move to the country with his family and builds a life. He talks about self-sufficiency, finances, and unexpected benefits that came from making the move. But he doesn’t sugarcoat the journey and gives a full account of the difficulties as well. Interestingly, one of his sources of income while living in the country is writing articles for newspapers as a freelancer – remote work before it was cool!
There’s even a chapter where one of his friends argues against his choice to live away from society, telling him he’s abandoning his duties to humanity. His rebuttal alone makes the book worth reading.
The Bitcoin Standard by Saifedean Ammous
I went deep down the bitcoin and crypto rabbit hole over the past few months. I’ve read a lot about bitcoin in particular over the years but it wasn’t until reading Saifedean’s book that a lot of things clicked. This is book isn’t technical and mainly focuses on the economic theory underpinning bitcoin. One thing he does really well is give you a grounding in the Austrian theory of economics and contrasts it with mainstream Keynesian economic theory. There are many principles of Austrian economic theory embedded in bitcoin, such as a predictable money supply. Saifedean also does a great job comparing bitcoin to gold (a common topic) and making the case for why bitcoin is superior.
Another thing that I found fascinating is that the foreword to the book was written by deranged bitcoin critic Nassim Taleb. I’m of course joking about him being deranged but his bitcoin hate (he claims the price should be $0) is even more fascinating to watch now that I’ve read his glowing foreword about bitcoin. I truly wonder what happened to cause him to change his mind in such a drastic way.
If you’re new to the space or even if you’ve been exploring it for awhile, The Bitcoin Standard is a really well done primer.
Layered Money: From Gold and Dollars to Bitcoin and Central Bank Digital Currencies by Nik Bhatia
This is another really good bitcoin book. I recommend reading The Bitcoin Standard first to fully grasp the concepts and then moving to Layered Money. Nik Bhatia starts by going into detail about how the worldwide banking system works today, especially the settlement layer, which is not something I knew about. The way the banking system is currently structured, bank to bank settlement is slow. Even ACH takes several days to settle. Obviously this doesn’t work for things that need real-time speed (like buying lunch) so a second layer (like a credit card) allows you to use your money immediately. In addition, settlement between banks (particularly central banks) may entail real assets like property or gold, which has a massive cost to transfer – such as audits and secure shipping.
In contrast, bitcoin settles globally in roughly 10 minutes with very minimal fees and excellent (thus far unbreakable) security. Bhatia explores how bitcoin will emerge as the global settlement layer and eventually will be used by central banks as superior to the current system. On top of the settlement layer will emerge other services (like the Lightning network) and currencies that allow consumers to spend their money in their day to day life.
It’s a fascinating book and will definitely have you thinking about new possibilities for the future of money.
Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves by James Nestor
This book is about the deep ocean and free diving, something I know absolutely nothing about. I’ve never even gone scuba diving. Nevertheless, I found this book to be incredible.
Free diving involves people diving without breathing assistance down to depths of hundreds of feet. How this is humanly possible still blows my mind. In Deep, James Nestor explores the training techniques, events, and individuals behind this daredevil sport. He even starts training and participating himself. He also joins undersea explorers going thousands of feet deep in submersible vehicles. It’s a world that is in some ways more exciting than deep space exploration because of the huge variety of wildlife that we know very little about.
This book is also filled with fascinating (to say the least) trivia like this one about coral:
Every year on the same day, at the same hour, usually within the same minute, corals of the same species, although separated by thousands of miles, will suddenly spawn in perfect synchronicity. The dates and times vary from year to year for reasons that only the coral knows. Stranger still, while one species of coral spawns during one hour, another species right next to it waits for a different hour, or a different day, or a different week before spawning in synchronicity with its own species. Distance seems to have no effect; if you broke off a chunk of coral and placed it in a bucket beneath a sink in London, that chunk would, in most cases, spawn at the same as other coral of the same species around the world
Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made by David Halberstam
I’m a sucker for anything Michael Jordan related and also a huge fan of David Halberstam (see previous years’ favorite books posts) so I’m personally surprised it took me so long to finally read Playing for Keeps. It did not disappoint. There’s a lot of overlap with the events shown in The Last Dance documentary series (also excellent) but the book gets into details that get skipped over in the series. If you like sports books and behind the scenes stories of greatness, put this on your list.
Fun fact about Michael Jordan that I never knew before: he often smoked a cigar on his way to games. He said it put him in the zone. This guy was on another level.
The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 by Lionel Shriver
I initially didn’t like this book but found myself thinking about it more and more as the year went on.
The Mandibles is a novel that follows a family during a period of hyperinflation in the U.S. in the not so distant future. The family has a wealthy patriarch but the descendants are all middle to upper middle class. They live comfortably. The patriarch is wealthy but he is still alive. The descendants are anticipating a big inheritance when he dies. But the thing about wealth is that it is relative to how much things cost. If carrots start costing $20 per pound or chicken becomes $100 per pound, you probably aren’t as wealthy as you thought you were.
In the book, as inflation got more and more rampant, basic things like food become extremely costly and scarce. The grocery store became a battleground. In order to combat the problem, the government did a monetary reset, while the rest of the world stopped using the dollar, which made things even more chaotic. The stock market closed for many days and when it did open, everything crashed. And not just 10% but 70, 80, 90%. Someone who thought they had $100,000 of assets now had $10,000. But it gets worse because the banks and brokerages stopped allowing fund withdrawals so in reality you had $0 you could access.
It also became illegal to hold (or “hoard”) precious metals like gold and the government sent troops to search for and confiscate valuables from households. By the way, gold was illegal to own in the United States during the Great Depression so this idea is not far-fetched at all.
There were also some hilarious moments in this book, like when one of the family members who works as a prestigious economics professor has literally become homeless but is sticking to his clearly incorrect academic theories about inflation. It reminded me of Taleb’s famous IYI concept.
I won’t say what happens afterwards because I don’t want to spoil the book for you but I recommend reading this book to understand the kinds of effects out of control inflation can potentially have and why your inflation hedges probably won’t work. I was on the fence about including this book as one of my favorite reads because the characters and plot are weak but the concept was too intriguing to leave it off the list.
One by David Karp
This is a psychological thriller novel about totalitarianism and conformity. It’s better than 1984 and I don’t say that lightly. I’m a huge George Orwell fan and have read nearly everything he ever wrote, including his hundreds of essays and newspaper articles.
One shows a society that believes it has achieved perfection (eliminated poverty, crime, war, and intolerance) by rooting out all dissension and having every citizen identify his or her own desires with those of the “benevolent State”. In order to achieve this, the State has set up a massive network of surveillance and re-education. The main character in the story, a professor, is part of this surveillance system but soon finds himself ensnared because the State discovers that he secretly values his individuality.
This gets to the core of the issue. To eliminate all differences in outcomes between individuals, you by necessity need to lose the uniqueness of individual human beings. And that is exactly what this book explores – the effort of the State to first cure the professor of his individuality by persuasion but also by obliterating his entire sense of self.
One is under the radar but it should be a lot more popular than it is. This book may also freak you out in a way that 1984 does not. Just a warning.
The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America by Daniel Boorstin
This is a book about media, namely media-manufactured events, that everyone should read. These media-manufactured events are referred to in the book as pseudo-events. These events are those that are created purely for media consumption. The easiest example to understand is the press conference. These aren’t really “events” but rather, events that are manufactured to write about as news – fill up space in newspapers – and have little to do with actual valuable information. Boorstin also talks about celebrity culture – his definition of a celebrity is “a person who is known for his well-knownness”. Pretty accurate!
While this book was written in the heyday of newspapers (1962), the concepts apply even more today, given the insane clickbait/outrage media world we live in.
Once you read this book, you’ll take the mainstream media even less seriously than you already do. Just turn it off.