2021 Retrospective: Favorite Non-Fiction Reads

For those interested I walked through my most important reads in 2021 in this space over the last 10 days. They included the following:

10. The Nolan Variations: The Movies, Mysteries, and Marvels of Christopher Nolan by Tom Shone

9. Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by Adam Grant

8. The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold Warby Louis Menand

7. In Pursuit of Disobedient Women: A Memoir of Love, Rebellion, and Family Far Away by Dionne Searcey

6. Dominion: How the Chrsitian Revolution Remade the World by Tom Holland

5. 21 Lessons For The 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari

4. The Mysteries of Cinema: Movies and Imagination by Peter Conrad

3. Work: A Deep History From the Stone Age to the Age of Robots by James Suzman

2. Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason by Justin E.H. Smith

1. History and Eschatology: Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology by N.T. Wright

Having put together that list i also felt compelled to make a ditinction between my most important reads and my favorite reads. There would certainly be overlap, but I figured I would give some space to some additional picks with an emphasis on my “favorite” non-fiction reads in 2021.

My year started with Age of Anger: A History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra which was quickly followed by Survival of the Friendliest: Understanding Our Origins and Rediscovering Our Common Humanity by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods. Mishras’ hard hitting critique of modernism and its promise to lead us to a kind of liberating global identity underscores the sort of societal and political forms that have led to a new kind of anger, one as rooted in the past as it is expressive of the present. Which is what makes Hare and Wood’s book such an interesting complimentary read. If, as they suggest, it is our penchant for “friendliness” that explains the sudden explosion of humanity, cast as it is, ironically, against the subsequent and necessary extinction of other human-like species, then friendliness has a really difficult time attending for attempts to mine from modernism a greater ethic of a largely undefined definition of love in a global age. This reflects the authors own difficulty in reading the data that we have into a better (read sanitized) narrative of where they believe we should be heading according to the evolutionary story. For as good as the book is, its appeal against the primary problem of dehumanization, and as Misha suggest the necessary creation of binaries and polarties as necessary for progress, and progress is itself the measure of the good, then we are stuck unabe to attend for the correlation of natural and cultural evolution at the same time. As these books underscore, these are hardly seperable when attending towards a sensible reading of history leading us towards a bit of a conundrum. Where that conundrum leads us is a different question, but acknowledging this problem is the first step in reconciling anger and friendliness as mutual parts of the same story.

I read some outstanding memoirs, biographies and autobiographies in 2021, and two that stand out is Jim Henson; The Biography by Brian Jay Jones and the lovely Kindness and Wonder: Why Mister Rogers Matters Now More Than Ever by Gavin Edwards, two films that dig deep into personas who occupied this untenable space between childhood wonder and the potential cynicism of their adult experiences, leading to two of the most affectionate and compelling stortytellers and voices of recent history. Along these same lines, its also worth mentioning Enchanted Hunters:The Power of Stories in Childhood by Maria Tatar, which presents the fascinating thesis that storytelling finds its truest exprsession at this intersection between child and adult perspectives, something made most readily visible in the stories that adutls and children read together, and likewise the stories that we read as children and revisit as adults. Something emerges from this intersection that can teach us about precisely how it is that we are shaped and formed by stories and the power of the imagination.

Other autobiographies/memoirs that I thought were really entertaining were The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music by Dave Grohl, Broken Horses: A Memoir by Brandi Carlile, and Will by Will Smith. All three are deeply spitual works in their own unique way, telling of how it is that art intersects with matters of faith and the spirit. Grohl’s descriptive of the auditorium as his cathedral and music as his worship, Carliles deeply compelling testimony and witness of reconciling God from within the LBGTQ+ community, and Smiths own reconciling of a life of success with a life of spiritual formation certainly kept me engaged and invested.

Given how opportunity for travel has been disrupted by the pandemic, travelling the world through books has been something of a necessary tonic for the weary. Northland: A 4,000 Mile Journey Along Americas Forgotten Border by Porter Fox was a fun romp through one of the worlds longest borders. Given how it navigates both Canada and U.S., which as a Canadian left me a bit wanting in terms of how much time it spends necessarily north of the often undefined border while giving very little attention to the Canadian side of the story, the history itself becomes especially robust when it uncovers the mutuality of this space. In a different way At Home in the World: Reflections on Belonging While Wandering the Globe by Tsh Oxenreide follows the personal story of Oxnreide as she finds heailng for her own struggle with mental illness in broadening her sense of the world. I know not everyone was a fan of how she keep this journey internalized desiring less of her story and more of the stories that surround her, but for what the book desired to be it resonated with some of my own struggles longings. Perehaps traversing this line between self and other was captured more astutely in World Travel by Anthony Bourdain, a book that recognizes how food shapes our travels, our togetherness and our exploration. That this becomes a stepping stone into his ownlife as a chef is part fo the books power.

For the pure thrill of exporation, City Squares: Eighteen Writers on the Spirit and Significance of Squares around the World and For the Love of Europe: Musings on 45 Years of Travel by Rick Steves were two excellent reads for growing my cultural awareness and experiencing the world in a practical and enlivened sense through the experiences of the stories. On a more unique train of thought, The Socrates Express: In Search of Life Lessons From Dead Philosophers by Eric Weiner is both a fascinating romp through the places and spaces that make up this world through the development of philosophy. It provides a great summary of the history of philosophy by loacating it in its time and place.

I can also speak of the spiritual journey. Jesus: A Pilgrimage by James Martin was an amazing pick for the Lenten period as it follows the story of Jesus through the footsteps of his life and ministry with a unique eye given to the land, the history and the culture as it would have been and as we experience it today. A Rhythm of Prayer: A Collection of Meditations for Renewal by Sarah Bessey and Lent For Everyone by N.T. Wright were both devotions that helped shape my journey through similar periods with intention.

Also shaping that spiritual journey on a larger level was Invasion of the Dead: Preaching Resurrection by Brian K. Blount, a book that presents a revelatory look at how it is we see understand death and life fom a more ancient vantage point, seeing in the Gospel certain assumptions about what it means to be truly alive and dead. In a similarly perspective shaping way This Hallelujah Banquet: How the End of What We Were Reveals Who We Can Be by Eugene Peterson, based on a series of sermons he gave early in his pastoring days and formulated by his life long interest in the subject of Revelation, really helped me to see both this present reality and our future hope in a fresh way. Same with the invigorating The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant: A (Not So) New Model of the Atonement by Mchael J. Gorman, which does the same with the subject of Christs death and resurrection by forming it against covenant theology.

On a slightly shared by different spiritually concerned front, The Good News of the Return of the King; The Gospel in Middle Earth by Michael T. Jahosky and J.R.R. Tolkiens The Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle Earth by Bradley J. Birzer are two reads that tapped into a curious cultural phenomenon, which is the tendency for society to demonize Lewis while wholly embracing LOTR even though they wrote from similar points of perspective and shaped their stories from a shared worldview. Both books help to underscore how to read LOTR and Tolkien at large appropriately rather than recontextualizing the story out of its contextualized intention. Bringing to light the idea of the true myth that makes sense of all the worlds story was deeply ingrained in Tolkien and his passionate desire for these stories.

When it came to history I was especially captivated by Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror by W.Scott Poole, which is a must read for any fans of horror. It helps to underscore how it is our modern landscape remains deeply formed by the Great War and how horror continues to operate as a universal language that attempts to make sense of this shaping through its questions, fears and hopes. It is quite brilliant as it calls out our dangerous neglect of this historical event through consecutive generations, as is Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder, a book that dares to call out the ways we have narrowed the defining event of the second world war to a very small point of what is in fact a much larger and more encompassing history. Of special interest to me was how this played into the history of the middle lands, the blood lands, of Ukraine. It makes sense of how they find themselves where they are today and helps to reshape our undersanding of the second world war as a gradual and unfolding movement between powers east and west. Speaking of East and West, I love the ocean. If I could live anywhere it would be not in the mountains but on the waterfront. Something about the wide open space and its sense of comfort and danger draws me in. Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms and A Vast Ocean of a Million Stories by Simon Winchester is a book that tells the captivating story of the Atlantic Ocean from its creation to its imagined future with an eye turned towards its symbolic positioning between east and west as it functions as the point of barrier and connction for humanities westward movement. I found it thrilling if a little long.

Equally interested in the complexities of a historical event was the ridiculously entertaining The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France by Eric Jager, a book that helps us to embrace the nuances of a significant historical event we likely hadn’t heard of (the last duel of this kind used to determine justice) while also pulling from this an interest in our own context when it comes to the ongoing challenge women face in being heard. In an equally fascinating look at the nuances of histor, This is the Voice by John Colapinto takes a look at the broader history of humanities development by suggesting that the reason we exploded on the scene the way we did is because of our unique ability to connect sound to the nuances of tonal and physical expression. There are plenty of theories out there, many contained in similarly minded books as a propos “narrative” This one I found really captivating, especially where the author presents the data but also leaves room for mystery. That’s rare in books like these.

The Queens of Animation: The Untold Story of the Women Who Transfmed the World of Disney and Made Cinematic History by Nathalia Holt, The Lady From the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick by Mallory O’Meara, and The Monster She Wrote: The Women Who Pionered Horror and Speculative Fiction by Lisa Kroger are a wonderful mix of history, biography, cultural interest (in horror and animation) and social concern.

Lastly, three books inspired me towards goodness and hope like few others this year- This Beautiful Truth: How God’s Goodness Breaks Into Our Darkness by Sarah Clarkson, He Saw That It Was Good: How Your Creative Life Can Change a Broken World by Sho Baraka and Art and Faith: A Theology of Making by Makoto Fujimura. The first is a challenging call to think differently about the darkness by allowing goodess to inform it and allowing the illumination to call us into a more fully formed picture of this world as one where beauty can be declared as truth. The second locates the same sentiment within the call to partipcate in the creative process of bringing this beauty to light and life. Taking an even deeper dive into this same process of being and creatiing as witness to the beauty the third book breaks open precisely how it is that our creativity captures the power of the creative act in a world where both beauty and the darkness coexit.

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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