Book Reviews

My Favorite Books of 2021

2021 is coming to a close and as it goes when the year ends, most people do an overview of what the best things in their year were. I have already talked about going deeper into history in a previous post, but here I want to share the best books that I have read in 2021. Many diverse topics came to my attention this year, but most of the books were either philosophy or history. So, without further ado, let’s look at the best books I’ve read this year.

            First on the list is a trilogy. The three books on Greek mythology by Stephen Fry, Mythos, Heroes and Troy, were all excellent. Fry is a master in telling stories in an easy-to-read way. The many Greek myths can be confusing because of the many names and characters, but self-aware as Fry is, he plays with this in a superb way. The Greek mythology is a rich world with everything you could want from some action-adventure fantasy. It also brings a deeper understanding in many contemporary books, as many modern novels take a theme of ancient Greek mythology and put a spin on it. Ulysses by James Joyce is the perfect example. A fourth book is in the making and I can’t wait to read about the adventures of Odysseus when Fry releases it unto the world as Zeus releases monsters unto mortals.

            The best history book I’ve read this year has to be Freedom: An Unruly History by Annelien De Dijn. De Dijn shows what path the concept of history has traveled throughout the ages. Starting from Ancient Greece, she makes her way up to modern day. One key component is highlighted throughout the book; we have two main concepts of freedom. One where freedom is defined as the absence of laws, where people can choose what they want to do. And one where freedom is defined as being able to choose the laws which you are subordinate to. The second concept of freedom was prevalent in Ancient Greece, where the democracy was instituted so that the people (albeit a small minority of well-off individuals) could choose which laws would be installed. The first concept came into being through Christianity but even more through liberalism and the Enlightenment. Liberalism put forth the concept of rights and that the government wasn’t allowed to impede the things you could do as long as you didn’t hurt other people. Not more laws but less was the way to go. De Dijn shows how these two concepts of freedom have been battling each other throughout history in an engaging and easy-to-read way.

            Another history book that deserves to be mentioned is the Gulag Archipelago by Alexandre Solzhenitsyn. This book shows the horrific acts the Sovjet Union performed under the regime of Stalin. Solzhenitsyn is goes in depth of how many of the opponents (former allies) of Stalin were persecuted and on what grounds. Sometimes it was enough to write that Lenin wasn’t a good economist in the margin of a book. Another funny example is that no one was allowed to stop clapping first when Stalin finished a speech, because the first to stop would be a traitor to the nation and thus be sent to the Gulag. In vivid detail, Solzhenitsyn describes the horrors of the many gulags in the USSR.

            A good philosophy book to start with for those who are interested in existentialism, is Existentialism is a Humanism by Jean-Paul Sartre. This book describes a college Sartre gave on existentialism and is the easiest way to enter this movement in philosophy. Sartre explains the key premises from which existentialism departs from. The idea that God is dead and that we as individuals are thrown into a meaningless world. The fact that we are ultimately free and thus ultimately responsible for everything that comes our way. By everything Sartre does mean EVERYTHING. According to Sartre, we always make a choice. Even if we decide to not make a choice, we still have chosen to not make a choice and thus made a choice in the process. For those interested in existentialism and philosophy in general, this is an easy to read and engaging book.

            The best philosophy book I’ve read this year, however, is What is Ancient Philosophy? by Pierre Hadot. I read this in the beginning of this year, and it gave me a clear view of why I wanted to study philosophy. I’ve written quite a bit about this book already, but it has influenced the way I see philosophy quite a lot. Hadot writes that during the ancient times philosophy wasn’t seen as what it is seen as now. Where nowadays we focus a lot on the theoretical side of philosophy, in ancient times this was combined with a highly practical side. Your theory was always connected by a practice. If you were a Platonist, you would live your life a lot different than if you were a stoic or cynic. Nowadays, this study of the practical side of theory is taken over, in my opinion, by psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis studies the unconscious desires of the person. But desires always come from somewhere, I would say from your philosophy. And you better figure out what your philosophy is because it could be a highly damaging one. By reflecting on your life and actions, by ‘knowing yourself’, you understand which philosophy you adhere to. Philosophy tries to pave the way to the good life. Depending on what your philosophy is, you have a different conception of the good life. By making these things explicit, which is what philosophy is supposed to do in my opinion, but hasn’t really been doing nowadays, we can see if this life is worth pursuing, or see if we should change our actions and thus our philosophy.

            By bringing up psychoanalysis, I have to mention one author that I’ve discovered this year, who really made an impact on me: Erich Fromm. The first book I’ve read of him was the Fear of Freedom, where he analyzes the psychology of the Nazi regime. How was the 20th century and it’s horrifying acts possible? Can it happen again. As I wrote in my previous post, I have been very interested in the history of the 20th century and more specifically how it was possible that we as human beings committed these many different atrocities. Fromm’s analysis of how people can perform those monstrosities or at least bringing people to power who would commit those, is deeply disturbing since it confronts you with yourself and satisfying as you feel like you understand the behavior of people a little bit more. After that I read a lot more books from Fromm. His analysis on capitalistic consummation society is pretty thoughtful in my opinion, but the book that was the real icing on the cake was The Art of Loving. This book tries to delve deeper into the psychological reasoning of love. Why do we desire love? What kinds of love are there? And what is the difference between those kinds of love? The Art of Loving isn’t a guidebook for love but tries to investigate what it is to have love. There are numerous prerequisites if you want to fully experience love or be able to give love. And Fromm analyzes them in depth with clear and concise language.

I have been blown away by Fromm. He tries to take the cultural philosophical critique of Marx and tries to combine it with the psychoanalytic insights of Freud. He delves into the social structure that shapes our unconscious, which is something I haven’t seen a lot of in other psychoanalytic writers I’ve read, so to read him do this, was an eye-opening moment for me. I have been simping pretty hard on Fromm as I’ve read six of his books in the last three months and if I had the money, I would have already bought all his other books that are available. If you are looking to get into psychoanalysis, Fromm is the way to go in my opinion.

I like to dabble in self-help books. I don’t think that because your life is going well, you should refrain from reading this type of books. Also, it isn’t because you’re reading self-help books that your life is going to hell. I read self-help books because they give me some new tool that I can use in life to make it more meaningful and enjoyable. I believe that is the reason that they exist. Atomic Habits by James Clear was a book that really helped me in developing beneficial habits in a sustainable manner and to break with bad habits. We all have habits that we want to implement and get rid of. Clear shows that habits are made by small steps, consistency, and the forming of an identity. You want to be a writer? Call yourself a writer, do it every day and it is perfectly fine if you only write a sentence a day. Every day that you write a sentence you are a writer. The days that you don’t, you’re not. The inverse goes for quitting bad habits. You can replace them with good habits. You can reward yourself if you performed a habit that you wanted to do or if you didn’t do the bad habit that day.

The other self-help books that really helped me in my personal life was Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. This one is personal for me. When I was 16 years old or so, I could only sleep for two hours every night. I was tired every day in school but for some reason I would only be able to sleep after 3 or 4 in the morning, but I had to wake up at 6 to go to school. It wasn’t a great time at school. But after a year it left, and I was able to sleep normally again. I had no idea how or why this happened. But now that I’ve read this book, I finally have some answers. Why We Sleep goes deep into the science of sleeping. Why is it good that we get a full night sleep? What are the harms of not sleeping enough? What are those consequences? The book showed me that having a decent sleeping routine is valuable if you want to have a productive lifestyle. There are many toxic productivity influencers out there who claim that you can survive on 2 to 3 hours of sleep and just grind your way through life. That you should wake up at 3 or 4 so you’re productive before anyone else. But if these people go to sleep at eleven pm and wake up at 4 am, they had only 5 hours of sleep and that isn’t enough for the majority of people and can negatively impact your health. You remember less, lose muscle, and feel endlessly tired which makes you less able to work well at your job. I can highly recommend this book for those people who have some sort of trouble sleeping or are feeling continuously tired. It has helped me a lot since I’ve read it.

These were some of the best books I’ve read this year. Again, this year has been a hell of a ride. Definitely in the book department. I’ve learned a lot of new things and I’m excited to discover new, engaging subjects. The thing with books is, that it never stops. Just like questions, when you find an answer 5 more rise like the heads of a hydra. Whenever you read a book, you find 5 more to read. Books in a way are a conversation you can have. The book speaks to you and tries to convey a message to you. By really engaging with a book, you can learn something new about different subjects but also about yourself.

What were some of the best books you’ve read this year? Or what books are still on your list that you want to read next year? I’d love to find out. Anyways, this will be the last post of 2021 and with that I wish you all a happy new year and the best of luck in 2022. Hopefully it’ll be even better than this one.

By elenchusphilosophy

Philosophy student from Ghent, Belgium. I write about what I find interesting which is about nearly anything. Though my guiding question in life is how to be a good person.

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