The best books I read in 2021 – Part 2: Non-fiction

“Surprise” and “convention” engender one another, like a bracelet or a ring, with no beginning or end. Who can exhaust their variations?

The Art of War, by Sun Tzu, translated by Michael Nylan

Every year I write about the books I read in the last 12 months. This year I’m posting my top three favourite reads and handful of other recommendations in three categories: fiction, non-fiction and business.


1. Working, by Robert A Caro

…there had been a lot of stolen elections in American political history; it wouldn’t be exaggerating much, in fact, to say that the stealing of elections was an integral part of that history; I wanted to examine, to dissect, a stolen election in detail.

This is a book about writing about power, and a life dedicated completely to understanding and explaining power with a focus and intensity that is inspiring emotionally and practically.

Caro describes Working like this:

It’s about what it was like to imagine that I had, during the years I had been a journalist, learned something about how political power worked—and then to realize, as Robert Moses [the subject of his first biography] talked, that compared with him I knew nothing, nothing at all; that there was a whole level of political power, not what I had learned from textbooks and lectures in college and not even what I had learned as a political reporter, but a level of which I had hardly ever conceived. And, listening to Commissioner Moses, I learned there was a whole level of ruthlessness, too, of which I also hadn’t conceived—learned it the hard way, interviewing the people whose lives he had destroyed, people who lived in the way of his roads, and people—public officials or reformers—who stood in his way period.

He began his career as an investigative journalist, but chose to write biographies. As a biographer, he has only written about two people, and completed five books, four of them about President Lyndon Baines Johnson, (a fifth volume about LBJ is eagerly awaited). Now in his late eighties, Caro has recently pledged his detailed research archive and notes to be catalogued by a New York library1. His papers are already regarded in themselves as an invaluable historical record of the second half of the 20th century.

This is a book I will forever recommend and give to people who write, are interested in power and politics. It is also very manageable 200 pages, unlike Caro’s routinely 1,000 page plus biographies (I’ve started on the Powerbroker for the second time, but goodness only knows when or if I will finish it).

Caro’s respect for the craft of writing, for the importance of good writing is wonderful. Talking about the introduction to his first book he says:

I thought I could have a rhythm that builds, and then change it abruptly in the last sentence. Rhythm matters. Mood matters. Sense of place matters. All these things we talk about with novels, yet I feel that for history and biography to accomplish what they should accomplish, they have to pay as much attention to these devices as novels do.

It’s a book about a life of complete focus on an a topic so huge and so obvious – power – that it is rarely engaged with in a meaningful way (perhaps because, as Caro shows, its something that will take a whole lifetime).

There is also a sense of the connectedness and fractal nature of knowledge, of the difficulty in knowing where to stop. Of his intensely deep research Caro says at one point:

Of course there was more. If you ask the right questions, there always is. That’s the problem.

Robert A Caro

One last thing: I recommend listening to an interview with Caro or an audiobook sample of Working before reading it. His voice is a rich, gravelly New York accent, and it is good to have it in your head when you read the prose and tune in to what he’s saying.

Some other passages I loved:

[…] a row of tiny dots on a map helped lead me to the realization that in order to write about political power the way I wanted to write about it, I would have to write not only about the powerful but about the powerless as well—would have to write about them (and learn about their lives) thoroughly enough so that I could make the reader feel for them, empathize with them, and with what political power did for them, or to them.


When Ina [Caro’s wife and research partner] said to me one evening with real anger in her voice, “I don’t ever want to see another John Wayne movie again,” I knew exactly what she meant. So many of the women in Western movies were simply the background figures standing at stoves or pleading with their husbands not to go out to a gunfight. You hear a lot about gunfights in Westerns; you don’t hear so much about hauling up the water after a perineal tear. But both acts are equally part of the story, the history, of the courage it took to settle America’s frontier. I understood that now, and I remember how badly, when I sat down with my legal pads and my typewriter, I wanted to make others understand it, too. (Location 321)

If I had to pick a book of the year, it would be this one because it is a work of brilliance, about how the brilliant mind that wrote it made a life’s work of slowly, carefully achieving its goal. It’s useful and beautiful and mind-boggling and challenging and full of wisdom.

2. The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt

What a person sees as right and wrong is more of a sensed than a reasoned thing, says social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind.

This idea is a threshold concept – a perspective, that once gained, makes you look at the world completely differently, but that is difficult, at first, to comprehend.

Haidt takes the reader through the necessary steps to reach this complex idea and then grasp it. His analogy of our sense of taste and our morality is useful and fascinating, and the concepts of parochial altruism (in-group selfless generosity), group selection (how evolution selects for cooperation) and the apparently contradictory, nested duality of humans’ instincts for self-interest and group-interest, and the need for people to lose themselves (sometimes) in the ecstasy of a group identity (in sports, culture, etc.) is wonderful.

I’m indebted to Steve Moore for his insistence that this book has to be read by everyone. In this age of destructive political and cultural polarisation, we need as much help understanding our own partisan urges and those of others as possible.

Passages that stuck with me:

If you really want to change someone’s mind on a moral or political matter, you’ll need to see things from that person’s angle as well as your own. And if you do truly see it the other person’s way—deeply and intuitively—you might even find your own mind opening in response. Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathize across a moral divide.

It may sound depressing to think that our righteous minds are basically tribal minds, but consider the alternative. Our tribal minds make it easy to divide us, but without our long period of tribal living there’d be nothing to divide in the first place. (Location 3540)

Good leaders create good followers, but followership in a hivish organization is better described as membership. (Location 4006) leadership

3. When We Cease To Understand The World, by Benjamín Labatut

A late entry to the list, I was given this book as a Christmas gift on Boxing Day by my kind siblings–in-law. When we got home I promptly read half of it immediately.

When we encounter the saying “the truth is stranger than fiction” a legitimate response is “you should really read more fiction”. I mean, there’s a lot of really weird stories. This book feels like fiction but is fact, and it’s the more fascinating and terrifying at times because it is real. I love it so much.

When We Cease To Understand The World is a swirling series of stories and vignettes and facts connected in surprising ways. We open with the chronically opioid–addicted successor to Hitler trying to escape Germany with a suitcase stuffed with 100,000 doses of his dihydrocodeine, but within pages are following the Jewish scientist Haber’s inventions that both kill millions and make possible billions of lives in the 20th century and beyond. The sensation of reading this book is like reading the best page-turner thriller you’ve ever picked up combined with a documentary about scientific and mathematic discoveries that while you don’t fully understand them, give you that sense of the sublime, of our smallness in the universe and the wonder of it.

Frequently scientists in the book come close to discovering great, world changing insights and recoil from them. They become recluses, their minds spin away from their grasp, their bodies destroy themselves, they try to destroy their work – forever haunted by Oppenheimer and the physicists that built the atomic bomb. Sometimes they seem to fear worse. It’s almost Lovecraftian horror, with equations and the workings of the universe instead of indifferent monster-gods.

In case all this feels too distant, one account comes right up to our contemporary doorstep and lets us know there are mysteries and terrible truths we may not want to know being fought over right now – the strange case of Mochizuki, a Japanese mathematician whose work “appears to come from the future” according to some mathematicians who have spent years trying to comprehend his work.

According to Yuichiro Yamashita, one of the few who claims to have grasped the real scope of his Inter-Universal Theory, Mochizuki has created a complete universe, of which, for the moment, he is the sole inhabitant.

I was reminded of the book yesterday when reading a Technology Review explainer of quantum computing which – when it works – takes advantage of the phenomenon of quantum entanglement to perform calculations that would be almost impossible for the most powerful “classical” supercomputers to perform2.

Nobody really knows quite how or why entanglement works. It even baffled Einstein, who famously described it as “spooky action at a distance.” But it’s key to the power of quantum computers. In a conventional computer, doubling the number of bits doubles its processing power. But thanks to entanglement, adding extra qubits to a quantum machine produces an exponential increase in its number-crunching ability.

– MIT Review: “Explainer: Quantum Computing”

This is the frontier of what’s possible with computers and even the experts can’t really explain what’s making it work. Without superstition or alarmism, reading When We Cease To Understand The World leaves me wondering if that may be for the best.

Other favourite non-fiction reads

The Art of War, a new translation by Michael Nylan

Notable as the first translation of The Art of War into English by a woman, Nylan’s version has been well-received by academics and critics.

If you’ve read it before, this is an excellent excuse to revisit. If you’ve not, then this is a good place to start. Why read The Art of War at all? It’s a rewarding text on strategy and power with lessons for us all in any age. While The Art of War if still a required text int he world’s largest military force – China’s People’s Liberation Army – and taught in military schools everywhere, its insights are as applicable to any marketplace of commerce or ideas as to a battlefield. Like Machiavelli’s The Prince, The Art of War is tainted for many by its martial or macho associations and by its use as a cultural accessory to say “I am aggressive”. Best to get over that prejudice and not miss out on wisdom that those bozos will have missed even if they have forced their eyes to move over words in a old translation, read without context or expert commentary.

This is a favourite passage of mine from this translation:

There are no more than Five Notes, yet the variations on them can never all be heard.

There are no more than Five Colors, but the variations on them can never all be seen.

There are no more than Five Flavors, but the variations on them can never all be tasted.

There are but two battle strategies, the conventional and the surprise, but, used in combination, they produce an infinite number of variations.

“Surprise” and “convention” engender one another, like a bracelet or a ring, with no beginning or end. Who can exhaust their variations?

A quick note on aesthetics: the pocket–sized hardback edition is incredibly well designed – with this Chinese plated armour pattern – my favourite physical book of the year. Just don’t leave it on your desk at work unless you’re going to explain why it is a wonderful piece of literature and not an Apprentice-contestant affectation to everyone who might see it.

Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art, by Rebecca Wragg Sykes

…an archaeological layer can swallow up surprising amounts of time: sediments separating different deposits of artefacts can erode or slip away, leaving a mixed mass of objects. In this way, a hand’s breadth thickness may be a palimpsest of a thousand summers.

There are two great delights in Kindred. First, Dr Sykes gives us the current state of knowledge about what we understand about the close relatives of modern humans – knowledge that has changed, deepened and been enriched by new technologies. The second, is to get a sense of a field of knowledge – giving the reader a sense of scale of the vast timescales and geographical breadth of the evidence that archaeologists are working with. For instance, analysis of the tooth enamel of individuals can tell us what they ate, how thy used some tools, the kind of fires they gathered around in the evenings.

While minds create things, things also create minds in a manner that extends far beyond the individual or even the generation, and can transform whole species. For Neanderthals, new experiences or encounters opened up fresh ways of thinking about the world. It’s not a stretch to suggest that their technological innovations probably impacted other aspects of their lives.

The Hard Crowd: Essays 2000–2020, by Rachel Kushner

After reading the fantastic The Mars Room I picked up this collection of Kushner’s non-fiction writing.

It had a hold on me from the first, exquisite sentence:

What others get from me is then reflected back onto me, and forms the atmosphere called: “I.”

The first essay – an account of an illegal motorbike road race across California and Mexico – is worth the cover price alone. It read like some of the best of Hunter S Thompson’s work. Let this paragraph roll around your palette for a moment:

Sean had a sweet-yet-guilty, girlish smile and long, wavy hair, and he wore black race leathers with the white bones of a skeleton stitched over them. Mounted on a race bike, he looked like a visitation of death.

You go with Kushner into her worlds, very specific times and places, like the bar she worked at in her hometown of San Francisco:

“Those hours at Fascination, and many other corners of my history, made it into a novel of mine, The Mars Room, after I decided that the real-world places and the people I knew would never be in books unless I wrote the books. So I deputized myself world’s leading expert on ten square blocks of the Sunset District, the west section of the Great Highway, a stretch of Market, a few blocks in the Tenderloin. My expertise is not just my knowledge but my permeability. The expert absorbs in excess to what is “useful” for a person to remember.

And thoughts somewhere between insights and questions:

Hard liquor is not the aesthetic or spiritual hearth of a feel-good world, the mirror in which people want to see themselves. Even if liquor does hold some promise of revelry, of escape, the ads for it are a mediated layer away from that. They are corporate fictions that do not ignite privately stored memories from good times, bad times, or any times. Mostly, they ignite memories of looking at the ads themselves— in magazines, on roadway billboards, or elsewhere—giving a sense of déjà vu. (What is being done to me? Something, but I can’t name it.)

How to Be Broken, by Dr Emma Kavanagh

As I write this, I feel a shiver run through me. Because I recognise the truth in it. That I have been broken. But that through this awful, awful year, I have learned to rebuild. And what is there now is far, far stronger than what came before.

Advice from an expert on stress and trauma on living through the first year of the pandemic How To Be Broken3 is a radically blunt mix of personal and professional. Dr Kavanagh is a psychologist who specialises in high stress situations, including training for armed police and the military.

During the pandemic she, like the rest of us, lived through the uncertainty and trauma of lockdown. What makes her book so useful is the labelling and explaining of emotions that so many of us have experienced in the last two years. She underpins this all with an insight that gives so much hope – that post-traumatic growth is possible, common even, and that what we can grow stronger through adversity.

Perhaps there was an entire world of us out there who longed to feel normal, never realising that to feel normal is to feel all these things.”


  1. NYT: What We Found in Robert Caro’s Yellowed Files
  2. Technology Review | Explainer: What is quantum computing?. And how bizarre to think of silicon/electron-based computers as “classical”. I wonder if that term will stick once quantum computing becomes more commonly used.
  3. Please note: How To Be Broken is available only as Kindle and Audible versions – so the link in this section is to Amazon not

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