2021 was my biggest year for reading ever. With the help of audiobooks, I read about 10,000 pages of books, chapters, articles, essays, and other readings, including finishing 34 books (my goal was 25). I’ve always been a slow reader, and with my ADHD, audiobooks have helped me focus more on the “big picture” of texts without getting lost in details.
All of the books I completed this year were nonfiction, so I did not read a single book of fiction, poetry, or drama in 2021. I think that I will prioritize those genres more in 2022, but in addition to the books listed below, this year I read titles that sometimes received more notoriety by the likes of Hanif Abdurraqib, Ted Gioia, Joan Didion, Toni Morrison, and Paul Gilroy.
Every book I read in 2021 impacted me, but I wanted to share my list of the ten books that made the biggest impact on me this year.
These ten were all books that I finished for the first time this year, with many released in other years. So, in no particular order:
Collected Essays, James Baldwin
This is actually six books of essays, but I’m counting it as one here because the revelation of James Baldwin’s essays in totality is that I realized how strong his later work is, despite the derision of many literary critics, including Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Julius Lester. Many have noted that Baldwin’s later essays are angrier, more bitter, but especially from today’s perspective, work like No Name in the Street (1972) is exceptionally useful and prophetic, as is often said of his earlier work that many liberal integrationists approve of, including Notes of a Native Son (1955) and The Fire Next Time (1963).
What shocked me was how beautifully Baldwin writes in his underappreciated later essays and how right he was about many things. Contrary to Gates, I don’t think Baldwin’s disillusionment at the state of the US was indicative of a lack of nuance. Especially in terms of its organization, I much preferred Collected Essays to another Baldwin compendium, The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (2010). Both, of course, proved extremely useful for my article on Baldwin and music, possibly to be expanded in 2022.
Against Memoir: Complaints, Confessions & Criticisms, Michelle Tea
The essays in this book don't just have style; they have flair. I loved reading Michelle Tea’s accounts of different music, activist movements, and the memoir genre--very powerful for someone who has long considered writing a memoir. One of the most enjoyable essay collections I’ve read in years.
Sounding Like a No-No: Queer Sounds & Eccentric Acts in the Post-Soul Era, Francesca T. Royster
I read a number of excellent books on soul music for my article on the 45th anniversary of Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life. Emily J. Lordi's The Meaning of Soul (2020) most effectively redefines the terms of discussions of soul, including as a genre with underappreciated representation of women and queer people. Mark Anthony Neal's What the Music Said (1999) provided the best broad historical overview of the books I read. Either of those could have made this list. But to me Royster's Sounding Like a No-No was the most revelatory for its interpretation of gender and sexuality in the work of "post-soul eccentrics" like Michael Jackson, Prince, Stevie Wonder, Grace Jones, and others.
Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping, Matthew Salesses
How many times have marginalized writers heard advice like "show, don't tell" and realized their writing doesn't fit those conventions? Count me in as a disabled gay writer: the way I tell stories is unconventional, so Salesses's points about craft being culturally constructed by dominant groups--white, male, cisgender, heterosexual, etc. folks--will resonate with many, many people. Though I admit that I love some more conventional craft books, including Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones, this has to be the most revelatory book on craft that I've read. I look forward to rereading it in 2022.
The most theoretically dense book I read this year was extremely useful for me considering different paths as a music historian/potential ethnomusicologist. Nettl has a lifetime of experience studying music and culture, and his insights on what defines or illuminates any number of key issues in the field, as well as his refreshing admission of biases, make this a treasure trove for the field in the twenty-first century.
Just Kids, Patti Smith
One of the most gorgeously written and haunting works on nonfiction I've ever read. As much as I'm sympathetic to Michelle Tea's title essay in Against Memoir, Patti Smith's evocative writing and considerations of her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe made me once again reconsider the memoir genre.
Are Prisons Obsolete? Angela Y. Davis
I've read some about the contemporary prison system in the U.S., and Davis's short 2003 book is one of the most necessary social documents of this century to date. Her explorations of the consequences of prisons, especially on women, are devastating, and this book needs to be read as part of a larger social conversation on the abolition of not only prisons, but larger social systems of domination and oppression.
In a world of chaos, my ADHD-addled brain can struggle with meditation. I found this book quite helpful in breaking down different ways to sit with my thoughts.
The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, revised edition, Jessica Hopper
Jessica Hopper is a treasure in the world of music. Though I very much enjoyed the first edition of this book and included it in an article I wrote about conversation-shifting books about music, this revised and expanded edition is better and a joy from start to finish. I loved reading her critiques of any number of artists and bands that I'm not as familiar with, and her insights on older artists like Joni Mitchell and Fleetwood Mac made me reconsider music I've loved for decades in new ways. Dare I say that I might have enjoyed and learned more from this than any book of music criticism I read this year.
The Business of Being a Writer, Jane Friedman
I highly recommend this book for anyone trying to make a career out of writing in the current landscape, including with digital publishing.