A dozen books for a better 2021

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Every New Year is filled with the promise of new beginnings – a chance to start over, to become our best selves.  But this year feels bigger. It’s as if the entire planet is impatient to heal – cautiously optimistic of the change that lies ahead.

When I look at the books that stuck with me from 2020, they’re stories that forced me to deepen my understanding of big issues that shape our world, from health to wealth, from identity to leadership.  A few of these books have already changed how I lead my life. All of them helped me gain a new perspective. 

Long-form reading demands something from us patience, openness to new ideas, and even resilience to distraction. As we grapple with a year when we try to figure out what “normal” looks like, these lessons will be more valuable than ever.

So here are a dozen books that touched my life this past year. I hope at least a few of them help you in 2021.  Happy reading!

One more thing: if you’d like to share your love of reading with children who currently don’t have access to books, consider donating to Worldreader. We bring digital books to children in need across the world – and your support makes all the difference.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

A supremely written story of choices and identity. As the son of a Black father and white mother who was often asked to choose “what I was,” I saw myself in the story. I bet most people have stories about being asked to make choices they’d rather not make . . . and then dealing with the consequences. 

Read it here

This America: The Case for the Nation by Jill Lepore

In this brilliant short book Lepore examines the history of nationalism in America. The book forces us to take a sometimes unpleasant look at some of the darkest moments of our history and how nationalism played a part in shaping those events. By offering a revised definition of what American nationalism could and should be, Lepore gives hope that we can get beyond it. An honest and fearless account of the American story that will give you a deeper understanding of the issues our country –  and others – are facing today.

Read it here

Breath: The Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor

This book has changed my life. I say that because it’s changed the way I think about breathing – something we all do thousands of times throughout our lives. So we should be pretty good at it, right? Actually, most of us are doing it wrong – at great cost to our health. This book is full of mind blowing explanations, histories, and interviews about breathing and the benefits that come from being more conscious of how you breathe. And it works! I’ve felt more energy, clarity, and a greater sense of calm since I’ve tried some of these breathing techniques. It might sound a little strange, but I can’t tell you how much you’ll enjoy learning how to breathe properly. 

Read it here

The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell by Robert Dugoni

“Don’t ever think of yourself as being something less than a person because of your eyes, Sam. If you do, people take advantage of it and you’ll find yourself doing things you don’t want to do.” Sam Hell was born with red eyes, so children called him the “Devil Boy.” This is a truly uplifting story of self-acceptance and redemption. It’s a reminder that our character, family, and friendships make us who we are – not the way we look. If you’ve ever felt different or left out, I think you’ll find comfort and strength in Sam’s story.

Read it here

The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company by Robert Iger

I don’t love “leadership” books as a rule – too often they’re extended humble-brags that leave me thinking: “Right place, right time.” But this one’s different. Bob Iger’s clarity of thought in front of chaos, his honesty in a world that doesn’t always reward that, and most of all his empathy come together to serve as a lesson for us all. In the end, I found myself thinking something very strange, particularly for someone who has led an organization for 10 years: This is someone I’d love as a boss.

Read it here

Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica

This is a brutal, yet fascinating book on many levels. Imagine a dystopian future where eating animals has been outlawed because of a plague. So humanity turns to cannibalism. Inevitably, the book raises ethical questions around how we treat animals for consumption. But this is a book about language as much as it is about culture and ethics. It’s a reminder that words can have a tremendous – and dangerous – influence on people’s perceptions. 

It’s worth emphasizing that this is a gruesome, even nauseating book – you’ll need a strong stomach to get through it. But if you’re in the mood for a really important story, I think you’ll find yourself as engrossed in it as I was.

Read it here

The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite by Daniel Markovitz

Meritocracy sounds like a good thing, right? The harder you work, the better you do in life. It’s a big part of the American dream. But Markovits doesn’t buy it. He argues that people at the top tend to stay there, leading to widening inequalities between the rich and the poor. What’s more, Markovits makes the radical argument that this system is less than favorable for the elites who find themselves under enormous amounts of stress, working at great intensities, all the while feeling inadequate. A thought-provoking book that made me re-examine my own life and raises the question around what it means to live in a just society. 

Read it here

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

This book documents the brutally tough journey of a Mexican mother and her son who are forced to walk to the United States after a cartel murders the rest of their family. As a parent, I started to ask myself what I would do for my kids in her position. How far would I go to save their lives? Would I make the same sacrifices? And of course, the answer is “yes.” This is a beautifully written, engaging story that gives you enormous empathy for the millions of people who are forced to emigrate from their homes each year.

This book has sparked impassioned conversations about cultural appropriation, about who gets to write which stories in the realm of fiction, and how represented communities should respond. My wish is that there be more opportunities for these types of stories to be told by those with first-hand experience. It’s why in our work at Worldreader, we support local authors and publishers – so they can bring their unique experiences to life in the most authentic and honest way. 

Read it here

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

A friend described this book to me as “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe for adults.” Set in wartime, the story follows a young man and woman, Saeed and Nadia, who decide to escape the hardships of war by jumping through a kind of portal that instantaneously brings them to a new place. 

Like American Dirt, this is another story about the pain of migration. (In fact, I read one right after the other. They’re a great matched set.) But instead of focusing on the immigrant’s journey, this book considers what happens once you make it to the other side. This is another mind-expanding book that touches on the worst and best of humanity. 

Read it here

We Need to Talk: A Memoir About Wealth by Jennifer Risher

I’m proud to say that this book was written by my wife – but that’s not why I’m recommending it. This book tackles a taboo subject that’s hard to talk about: the way we perceive and deal with wealth. 

Jen writes about the weird and unexpected impact that wealth has had on our lives. She reveals how it’s created all sorts of challenges around relationships, friends, family, and raising our daughters. She also addresses the shame that can come from being in this unexpected position. And when people feel shame – for whatever reason – it’s really hard for them to feel empathy. The only way to address feelings of divisiveness between the rich and the poor is by having these honest conversations. So it’s really a book about unity and talking, no matter where you find yourself. 

Read it here

Together: The Healing Power of Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World by Vivek H. Murthy

This past year, many of us experienced loneliness on a whole new level. Sadly, loneliness has been a growing epidemic in our country since long before COVID-19 forced us to socially distance. In this book, Dr. Murthy shares years of extensive research into how loneliness can affect our mental, emotional, and even physical well-being. Shockingly, Murthy tells us that loneliness is as destructive to our health as smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. He’s careful to say that loneliness isn’t about how many friends you have. It’s about how you feel. And he provides a framework for building relationships and feeling a sense of community. 

I asked my leadership team at Worldreader to read this book, and it opened an entirely new set of conversations among us about how we grew up and the sense of community we had (or didn’t have). I hope you find it as interesting as we did.  

Read it here.  Or if the book’s length is a bit too much and you want a different experience, have a listen to this conversation between Dr. Murthy and Brenee Brown. It’s outstanding.  

The Ransom Letters of Sisi Eko 

This is a delightful and often hilarious series of letters written from the wife of a civil servant to the kidnappers of her husband. Aside from its unexpected humor, what I love about this book is that it’s written in Nigerian English. Even though similar to American English, Americans will see unfamiliar words and expressions threaded into the story. The story gives those living outside Nigeria the opportunity to learn about its culture through the language. 

It’s a book that is available on Worldreader’s main reading application and you can read it here via your mobile phone.