I Read 100 Books In 2021: Here Were My Top 20

In 2021, I read 100 books. It might have meant spending the two weeks leading up to New Year’s speedreading eight books, but what matters is that in the end, I made it. Of the 100, I’m highlighting 20 of my favorite reads last year, in no particular order.

When taking a quick look at my Goodreads account, it’s become evident there are certain genres I’ve given more love to than others. To keep it simple, I’ve split my top 20 into these categories. Get ready for some recommendations on the following:

  • fiction,
  • autobiographies,
  • graphic novels,
  • essays,
  • feminism,
  • and professional development.

Fiction

Fiction will always have my heart over non-fiction, despite this last year being more focused on the latter for speed reasons. Still, I made sure to add fiction to the reading list whenever possible (aka whenever I wasn’t behind). These were the best of the best.

Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

I’m a sucker for well-done satire, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle did not disappoint. If you’re looking for a genuinely funny, satirical take on science and religion, look no further.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

The story of a young, handsome, yet cruel man who seemingly never ages, but who’s driven mad by a portrait of him that becomes older and uglier with each act of cruelty.

Clever writing paired with great characters and a hint of controversy (at the time) for its homosexual subtext. Oscar Wilde’s wit is famous for a reason.

Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

Before reading this book, I was well-versed in Neil Gaiman and a newbie to Terry Pratchett. I’m now trying to remedy the latter.

A fun read about an angel and a demon who are working together to avoid the apocalypse because they like being on Earth too much. Add in some anti-Christ and witch shenanigans, and you’ve got yourself a fun comfort read.

Out of Bounds by Beverly Naidoo

On the heavier side of things, there’s Out of Bounds by Beverly Naidoo, a book about racism and apartheid in South Africa throughout the decades.

Each chapter details a separate story related to the societal changes caused by increasing (and eventually decreasing) racism during each particular decade. It’s a heartbreaking and sobering reminder of the potential humans have in being inhuman to others, based on something as arbitrary as the color of one’s skin.

Autobiographies

Sometimes the best life advice comes from people sharing their own stories. In 2021, spending most of it cooped up in my home, unable to do much, I leaned into my obsession with hearing about other people’s interesting lives and dove into some top-shelf autobiographies.

My Life in France By Julia Child

Julia Child is a treasure. I picked this up because of the Julie & Julia movie and was not disappointed.

It follows Julia Child’s life after she left the US, detailing her lifelong affair with French cooking (and France itself). Highlights include her loving relationship with Paul, the arduous journey of publishing her first cookbook, and her frank but wonderful tone of voice, that sweeps you into the story of her life with ease.

The Autobiography of Gucci Mane by Gucci Mane

Some background: my partner, G, and I sometimes read books to each other in the evening. If you’re white, I do not recommend trying to read this out loud, because you’ll be censoring yourself a lot.

Despite this initial hiccup that led to choosing another book to read out loud instead, this book made me majorly respect Gucci Mane. From his roots to his rise to fame, to his battle with addiction, to his arrests, each page had me hooked. His story deserves to be heard, and his redemption is one you’ll be rooting for by the end of the book.

You don’t need to be a rap fan to appreciate this one.

Dapper Dan: Made in Harlem by Dapper Dan

Love it or hate it, logomania has its place in fashion history, and it all started with Dapper Dan.

A hustler turned fashion trendsetter, Dapper Dan was the first to take high fashion brands’ logos and not only make entire clothing items out of them but also make them available to the black community. Going largely unrecognized by these same fashion houses he helped modernize for most of his life, he helped cement the relationship between these fashion houses and some of the greatest black entertainers from the 80s onwards.

If you’re into fashion history that deviates from the traditional European luxury brands, I’d check this out.

Cash by Johnny Cash

Things I recommend: this book. Things I do not recommend: reading this book and then remembering that the music video Hurt exists and re-watching it five times in a row on YouTube, with a glass of white wine, until you’re sobbing all over your keyboard at one in the morning on a workday.

In this autobiography, Johnny Cash looks back at his life, sharing the highs and the lows, from amphetamine addictions to his relationship with June Carter Cash.

Graphic Novels

If you’re still on the fence as to whether graphic novels count as real novels, these next few might finally convince you otherwise. We’re moving past superheroes for this one.

The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

A first-hand account of a young woman living through the Iranian Revolution, and the ramifications of it on her life including her move to Europe.

It’s hard to find a more unique, poignant, and deeply personal story anywhere else. All I can say to not spoil it: just check this one out.

Pyongyang: A Journey In North Korea by Guy Deslisle

Guy Delisle is a French-Canadian animator who makes travelogues of his work supervising animation studios in other countries.

In Pyongyang, he offers insight into what life in North Korea is like as a foreigner, without being sensationalistic. His approach makes the strange mundane, giving it a more “slice-of-life” feel than the usual exploitative, sensation-seeking, undercover journalist one that tends to be the angle of most insider stories about life in North Korea.

Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh

I used to read Allie Brosh’s blog, Hyperbole and a Half, religiously in middle school. Whatever she posts hits me right in the funny bone, every time. On top of that, she’s also able to hit an emotional nerve, with her last book having one of the most recognizable depictions of depression I’ve ever come across.

So, when I found out she released Solutions and Other Problems, I bought it and read it within two days. Once again, Allie Brosh hits the perfect balance of funny, bizarre, and heartbreaking that gets me every time.

Essays

This might not be a surprise to those who regularly read my blog, but I love essay compilations – especially funny ones. Here are the highlights of 2021.

The Best of Me by David Sedaris

David Sedaris is one of my favorite authors, and as such, a compilation of his top essays was always going to end up on the best list. Snort-worthy, slightly neurotic, and off-beat – just what you’d expect from one of the funniest authors out there.

I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts On Being A Woman by Nora Ephron

Another compilation of funny essays, this time by Nora Ephron. Although I originally knew her for her writing work on my favorite rom-com, When Harry Met Sally, her essays didn’t disappoint. A fun read covering topics ranging from aging to housing in New York, that’ll make you chuckle.

Feminism

2021 was the year of moving beyond my narrow understanding of the female experience, instead choosing to focus on intersectionality. Here were the best of the bunch.

It’s Not About The Burqa by Mariam Khan

A compilation of essays from different English-Muslim women about what it means to be a Muslim woman, and more specifically, what it means to them to be a Muslim woman in the United Kingdom.

A book interested in giving a voice directly to these women, instead of having a white knight Westerner speaking for them.

Hood Feminism: Notes From The Women That A Movement Forgot by Mikki Kendall

Feminism that chooses to leave some women behind to benefit others, isn’t feminism.

In Hood Feminism, Mikki Kendall breaks down exactly where modern-day feminism is lacking in supporting black women (and other women of color) in America today. By stating the facts, she leaves little doubt as to why feminism should focus on intersectionality and encourages magnifying BIPOC women’s voices to help their communities, instead of hogging the microphone and turning to blanket solutions that ultimately silence them, while raising up the few.

Whipping Girl: A Transexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity by Julia Serrano

A trans woman shares her thoughts on feminism, misogyny, and womanhood, based on her experience being raised male and later living as a woman.

Her point of view on misogyny, female sexuality, and trans-exclusionary radical feminists (also known as TERFs) are eye-opening, to say the least.

War’s Unwomanly Face by Svetlana Alexievich

A tough read, but one that’s worth it.

Svetlana Alexievich shares interviews with hundreds of Soviet women who fought in World War II. In it, the pomp and circumstance of war are torn down, and the everyday stories of women on the front lines are pushed forward.

Svetlana Alexievich does a fantastic job of not only highlighting the difference in these women’s experiences compared to the men but also the differences in storytelling between men and women. The little details are what make this one a must-read.

Professional Development

In January of last year, I started off the year at a new company, with a new role. To make sure I made the most of it, I added many books on marketing, communications, and writing to my reading list. These were the ones that stood out.

The Ask, You Answer by Marcus Sheridan

If you’re not in marketing, you can skip this one. But if you’re in marketing, this book is your essential guide to content marketing.

In it, you’ll find actionable advice, real-life examples, and a person-centric approach. The last part, in particular, is what sets it apart from the rest of the marketing drivel.

Lost And Founder: The Mostly Awful, Mostly Awesome Truth About Building A Tech Startup by Rand Fishkin

A book I did not expect to enjoy as much as I did. Although I have no interest in being a founder in a start-up, it’d been so heavily recommended, I caved. And I’m happy I did.

It’s clear that Rand Fishkin is an experienced writer. His openness with his failures (and not just successes) and de-romanticization of the start-up sphere make this the first start-up-related book I’ve read that doesn’t come across as an extensive ego-trip.

On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft by Stephen King

I’ve already written about why you should read On Writing by Stephen King if you haven’t already, so I’ll keep it short: great tips about writing from a great writer. The memoir part of this book is phenomenal.

And that’s a wrap! I’m doing 60 instead of 100 this year, so if you have any recommendations based on these, drop them in the comments. I’m always looking to add to my never-ending reading list.

Like what you see? I post a new blog every beginning of the week where I talk about… whatever THOUGHT interests me that week. Expect a bit of books, travel, beauty, life lessons, and taking pop culture way too seriously.

An Open Apology to the Non-Fiction, Self-Help Genre

Hi, my name’s Nicole, and I’m a reformed non-fiction, self-help book hater.

Previous blogs may make it seem like I hate non-fiction, especially of the self-help variety. It’s not that I hate it, it’s that it’s not what gets me fired up when choosing books. At least it wasn’t until last year.

What broke my stubborn streak? Once I started reading more, I wanted to add a wider variety of books – including those for personal and professional development. Upping my reading habit coincided with a new mental health diagnosis and the start of a new job. Since I had a lot of novel things to figure out, I thought I might as well add some self-help into the mix.

I learned that while there’s a lot of fluff out there, there’s also a lot of good advice that my stubborn ass was finally open to taking in. Here’s what I’ve found separates the worthwhile ones from the junk.

Well-researched

If you’re trying to convince me an idea works, you need to give me the proof. Any book that comes in with reputable studies and pertinent real-life examples to back up its claims is already far and ahead of some of the “best” self-help books I’ve read.

There are two ways these books fail at this first step. The first is the quality of the studies they use. Self-help books love using pop culture science – pop psychology being the worst offender. The moment that authors start sharing debunked research, like the Stanford Prison experiment, I no longer trust them. If they can’t take the extra minute to Google whether it’s true that showing willpower as a child sets you out for later career success or that the average person only uses 10% of their brain, then I find it hard to trust the rest. Just in case you’re wondering, neither of these are true.

The second, are the real-world examples used to illustrate the effectiveness of the advice. Some famous individuals have become a staple in self-help literature: Steve Jobs, Theodore Roosevelt, Bill Gates, Abraham Lincoln, and Albert Einstein. These paragons of excellence have entered the pantheon of “most-successful-people-who’ve-ever-succeeded”. It weakens the argument when every example I’m reading are the usual suspects. On the other hand, if your only examples are average Joes with generic names who would be difficult to track down if needed, doubts start to creep in, wondering if these people exist. Being selective, specific, and critical with examples goes a long way in building trust.

Who does this well? The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter – And How To Make The Most Of Them Now by Meg Jay Ph.D. + Why We Sleep: Unlocking The Power Of Sleep And Dreams by Matthew Walker Ph.D.

You don’t need a Ph.D. to write a book, but it shows when you do. Both of these books nail it when it comes to backing up their advice with facts.

If you’re still in your twenties, I recommend The Defining Decade. An easy read that covers why you should start laying the foundation for the life you’d want to live already in your 20s, even if you’re also figuring things out. Meg Jay uses real-life examples from therapy sessions they’ve conducted, with some pretty convincing evidence as to why waiting until your 30s to set a good foundation isn’t ideal.

Reading Why We Sleep gave me many sleepless nights where I reevaluated how little I’d prioritized sleep in my life. At the time of reading it, I was working a hectic job that made having a consistent sleep schedule impossible. This book forced me to come face-to-face with the reality that this was unsustainable. The evidence that Matthew Walker provides is hard-hitting and makes it a must-read for anyone still not convinced that getting enough sleep at night matters.

To the point

The majority of self-help books I’ve read are quite short to start with (under 250 pages), and often half the book is unnecessary. The culprit behind this disaster? I’m blaming an abundance of long-winded examples and anecdotes, paired with a heavy hand of repetition.

Remember that thing about good examples mattering? This is why. One well-chosen example can outweigh 5 mediocre ones. This also goes for personal anecdotes that sidetrack more than illustrating the point.

I get it. Repeating something helps it stick. Repeating something helps it stick. R̸̡̝̫̫͈̆ẽ̸͎͎̹̖̬̽͛̈́̚p̵̬͔̓̚e̵̡̪͇͔̾ͅa̶̱̽̀͝t̴̯̻͈̝̂͛͘i̵̛̟̬̮͒͛̈́͂n̷͕̍͆̏g̶͕͖̫̮͔̎ ̸̻̘̯͝ş̶͝ơ̷̗̬͊̉̇̈́m̸͕̤͆̐͘e̴̛̟͔̓͌̊̿t̶̡̪̂͜͝ͅĥ̸̨͎̝̮͓̀̎̈́i̵̩͝ṅ̴̨͍̞̣͖̍̽̋̔g̵̥̜̳̣̅͜͝ ̵̘̔́̄͑ḫ̸̟̔è̶̖ḷ̶̝̗̲͌͐p̵̡̣̭͚̗̎̚͠s̴̪͜͝ ̸̠̇̒̀͑i̷̗̮͙͌̈́͠t̶̠͙̣̮̓̓̐ ̴̘͔̳̩̔͠s̴̙͍͉̦̘̒̏̅̚t̵̡̙̖͍͑͝ͅi̶̼͈̭̺̫̒̆͝ć̴̨̥̯̄̏̓ḱ̵͙̃. But there’s a finite amount of times this can be done until it becomes condescending, even when it’s done with a wink and a nudge. When heavy-handed, the tendency to repeat statements can come across as the author thinking you’re too thick to remember the point if it’s not repeated two thousand times.

I’m not reading your book for style but content, so please, just say what you’ve got to say without underestimating the reader and get out.

Who does this well? Deep Work by Cal Newport

As someone who finds it difficult to pay attention to…anything, I came into this book skeptical. A book about how deeply focusing on one task is better than pinging back and forth? Well, that’s not only impossible, but it can’t make that much of a difference.

Still, it’d been recommended so often, why not give it a go? Well, I’m happy I did, because Cal Newport puts together a convincing book about the benefits of deep work and how to integrate the practice in your life.

While never overstaying its welcome.

Specific and actionable, yet flexible

Some people read self-help non-fiction to be inspired.

I am not one of these people.

I’m not interested in vague sentences about believing in yourself. I read self-help non-fiction to learn how to do things better. I don’t want the author to just share their philosophy with me, but for them to also share how to best put it into effect. Only telling people what to do, without providing them the ways how to do it, isn’t just useless. It can come across as gatekeeping at best, and like you don’t actually understand your ideas as much as you think you do, at worst. Once again, being specific helps in creating credibility. Even if the only point of reference is how the author did it, as long as that’s recognized, it goes a long way in building trust.

Very few of the self-help non-fiction books I’ve come across allow for adaptability in their advice. If the author also recognizes that human beings can differ in the way they live their lives, their resources, and their ways of thinking, I’m sold. Stepping away from the one-size-fits-all mentality shows an effort to think about the solution being provided from more than one angle.

If you can’t tell me what to do with your advice and are incapable of giving options or seeing more than one way to implement it, I’m left doubting its use. General tips like “be more organized” or “learn to prioritize” don’t do anything for me, unless you can give the specifics.

Who does this well? A classic: How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.

At this point, How To Win Friends and Influence People is infamous. If you haven’t read it, you’ve most likely already heard about it. I wasn’t keen on reading it, at first. I thought this book was going to be an amalgamation of nebulous motivational confidence boosters. Or, it was going to be the handbook to manipulate other people to bend to your will. Neither of these sounded interesting to me.

But then my partner pushed me to read it because he found it useful. And since this was in the beginning stages of the relationship where you’re still trying hard to impress each other, so you follow through on their recommendations, I read it. And he was right. It is useful.

I am a human who gets sweaty at even the thought of interacting with other humans. Dale Carnegie’s tips have helped me be a little bit less sweaty. Which I’m qualifying as a win.

Doesn’t only exist to sell the author

I understand that authors of self-help books have to sell themselves a little. We don’t want to take advice from someone who isn’t successful or happy or an expert in whatever they’re vouching. We want to learn from the best. Unless they’re already a worldwide famous figure, they will need to bring in their credentials to convince us they are worth taking advice from.

But more often than not, from the first few pages, you can tell that a book was written to sell the author and his services more than it was to help you. If I read one more marketing book where the author says they were doing something unrelated to marketing but “I’m just so weird and quirky that this completely non-marketing thing reminded me of something marketing-related” in an effort to convince you of their expertise, I will throw myself – or them – into an active printing press.

This flaw becomes particularly egregious when the author’s wrapped up in an inspirational spiel with little substance, while also aggrandizing their own accomplishments. If the conclusion to your story is “it worked so well for me because I’m so smart and I’ll tell you how you could be too, but at a price“, then I’ll stick to not making deals with the devil and moving on to another book that will give me the information I want in one go.

You can have your actions speak louder than words, even when relying only on words. I promise.

Who does this well? On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

This one almost feels like cheating. Considering Stephen King’s reputation and what he specializes in, he more than proves himself as a master of his craft without having to explicitly shove it in your face.

On Writing gives useful writing tips in the context of Stephen King’s own experiences as an author. He takes you on his journey from amateur writer to bestselling author, sharing best practices along the way, without ever feeling like he’s bragging or boasting or trying to sell you his latest book.

It’s not about avoiding talking about yourself, it’s about not putting yourself on a pedestal in an attempt to gain the respect of your reader. Have some trust in your reader and let them decide first, before grabbing them by the shoulders and yelling out your accolades in their face.

I wish I’d told the contrarian in me to shut up and just give the genre a try earlier than I did. Instead, I’ve spent years flip-flopping between either believing I was too capable to do things on my own or believing that I was so different and broken I was beyond help. Getting outside my comfort zone and reading more helpful non-fiction hasn’t changed my life, but I’ve gained some useful tips, tricks, and tidbits along the way that have come in handy.

Simply put: self-help non-fiction can be a great tool to further your understanding of yourself and increase your knowledge about the things that matter to you.

Even though sometimes it’s still more fun to figure things out yourself, not caring if you end up falling on your face.