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Our Best (and the Rest) Books of 2021
Just in time for last minute gifts and gift card cash, our top reads from the past year.
Hello and welcome to the Stuff They Never Told You! This week many Seekers are fasting. A big congratulations to everyone who has finished, begun, or plans to do the 3rd annual IHD December fast. It is a tremendous accomplishment — a demonstration of self-mastery (that most essential human quality) and a willing step into discomfort in order to experience one of the most timeless and once-universal of human experiences.
Today, we offer our second annual review of the best books we’ve read over the past year. But before we jump in, a quick announcement. We’ve recently turned the “paid” option on for this newsletter. Nothing is changing for you. We will continue to write and share this newsletter for free forever. We are grateful for the opportunity to speak to you each week. We simply want to open the opportunity to give back. And those who sign up this week will be entered into a drawing for a free signed copy of Setting the Bar. We’ll randomly select the winner on Thursday, December 16th, and ship it right away. Now to the Stuff!
ONE FROM THE AGES
“The reading of all good books is like a conversation with the finest minds of past centuries.”
ONE FROM YESTERDAY
“Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.”
ONE FROM TODAY
“Reading is an exercise in empathy; an exercise in walking in someone else’s shoes for a while.”
ONE FROM US
For both of us, 2021 was among the busiest and most demanding years of our lives. It included loved ones lost, Justin’s return to engineering, and, for Shane, the all-encompassing process of publishing a book. We are both looking forward to practicing more essentialism in 2022, but are happy to see, upon reflection, that we still found time to read a few great books. This daily habit is truly essential to living well.
A year ago, we gave you each of our top 15 books, along with our favorites from the past year:
In order to avoid redundancy, we’ve linked those above and will focus this year on a review of the books we each read for the first time in 2021. To the lists!
Top Books That We Both Read This Year:
The Every, by David Eggers
A sequel to The Circle (please don’t watch the movie). This modern-day dystopia brilliantly and hilariously highlights the dangers of many modern trends. Eggers has a way of revealing just how ridiculous common norms are by describing them as an alien might while visiting a strange new land.
A Hunter Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century, by Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein
At times brilliant; at times preachy and brimming with undo certitude. We found that they often fell into the naturalistic fallacy and seemed to have different standards for which they judged cultural norms of different societies. Still, when it was good, it was very good. Their insights about gene-culture coevolution are fantastic and the Chesterton’s Fence heuristic they introduce will be a vital part of our sense-making toolkit going forward.
Justin’s Top 5 Books of 2021:
Setting the Bar, by Shane Trotter
I had the pleasure of doing one of the final deep edits on Shane’s book and could not believe in it more. It’s ostensibly about our failing education and youth development paradigm but is actually a book about how to be the best human possible. Shane is such a great student of history and my favorite aspect is how well he weaves together the many historical and social threads to describe where we are now and how it got so bad. But it is not a doom and gloom book. The ending is all hope. He presents a new theoretical model for what education could be that nearly has me running off to open a school. A fellow educator, Jeremy Adams just published this extremely well-crafted review of Setting the Bar. Many of you who subscribe have heard plenty about Shane’s book over the last year and I can assure you that the same interest that brought you to IHD will make Setting the Bar one of your best books of 2022.
Bluewater Gold Rush, by Tom Kendrick
This is a mostly-true memoir of a California sea urchin diver. It is set in my home area (Ventura and Santa Barbara, CA) and takes place mostly in the Channel Islands that I look out at nearly every day. Kendrick is a master storyteller and has lived an amazing life. I’m not sure if it will resonate for others as it did for me because underneath a fascinating tale is also a love affair for a section of California’s coast that holds the most special place in my heart. In any case, it is a masterwork of narrative non-fiction and while many other books this year contributed more to my life, I think I enjoyed the time spent with this story the most.
The World Beyond Your Head, by Matthew B. Crawford
Last year Shane and I both read and loved Why We Drive. Matthew Crawford immediately became one of my favorite thinkers. His perspective is difficult to pin down. On the one hand, he writes with erudition and vocabulary befitting his PhD. and professorship in political theory. However, he is also an itinerant tinkerer and gear-head and advocates a life of self-reliance and self-governance. I find his perspective one of the most valuable in the world today. The World Beyond Your Head focuses mostly on developing sovereignty of focus and attention in a culture where so many forces are seeking to steal them from you.
Free to Learn, by Peter Gray
I’ve been a fan of Peter Gray and his work on youth development for a long time but finally got around to reading his book. His research demonstrates that free play and self-discovery are much more potent forms of learning than implicit instruction. This book is the motivation for the Free-Range Kids movement and the many great books that have come from that continued research. It is an important read for anyone who cares about learning. If you aim to be a lifelong learner and to understand a little better how your mind works, give this a read.
Antifragile, by Nassim Taleb
A book from Shane’s all-time best list that I finally decided to read. If you understand the basic concept of antifragility you might believe, as I did, that it isn’t necessary to read this book. You would be wrong. It takes an immediate place on my all-time favorite list and I believe that this is one of the most important books to come from our time. The ideas changed my life, as they did for Shane, but I also loved his wit and snark. His sarcasm and cynicism might be off-putting if the concept was not so genius and the writing not so perfectly laced with humor.
Shane’s Top 5 Books of 2021:
The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, by Edmund Morris
There is a reason this won the Pulitzer Prize. The most well-researched, entertaining, and stunning biography I’ve ever come across. Roosevelt had a spirit and capacity unlike anyone else and Morris brings it to life. This book is long but worth the investment. The audiobook is fantastic.
The Paleo Manifesto, John Durant
From Justin’s top 15. I finally got around to it this year and was fascinated from cover to cover. With fantastic research and nuanced perspective, Durant crafts a vision of human thriving that covers everything from nutrition to hunting, fasting, cold immersion, the brilliance of the Crossfit culture, and the brilliance of Mosaic law as a pre-germ theory defense against diseases.
Hollowed Out, by Jeremy Adams
Among the coolest parts of writing Setting the Bar was that it brought me into contact with 2014 California Teacher of the Year, Jeremy Adams. Adams wrote a similarly-inspired book as my own, but with a different perspective about our unsettling youth development paradigm and cultural trajectory. In it he does more than just shine a light on our students' lost zeal for living and engaging with the world. He reminds us about what makes life so wonderful, why the humanities are so special, and why America is an idea worth fighting for. He is fair, open-minded, and empathetic, while strong in his conviction that our current course is untenable. This is an inspiring and beautiful read full of real, human examples and passionate reminders about the power of great educators and a great education.
First Principles, by Thomas E. Ricks
A fascinating look at the education, temperaments, influences, and beliefs of our four most influential founders and first four presidents: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. By highlighting the Greek and Roman influences that shaped these men’s thinking, Ricks tells the story of America from 1740 to 1820 in a way that clarifies the founder’s worldviews, deepest values, and attitudes about the cultural transformation of the early 19th century.
Here All Along, by Sarah Hurwitz
Michelle Obama’s former speechwriter, Sarah Hurwitz, was raised Jewish but, more or less, just went through the motions. In Here All Along she explains how she came back to Judaism and was amazed by the power and profundity of the Jewish tradition, even for a woman who does not have a very clear belief in God. In fact, she shows how sophisticated Jewish thought has become on the subject of what God is and how Judaism tends to focus more on the traditions, the community, and the power of these combined forces in helping people live better in this life. She covers everything from summarizing each chapter of the Torah, to explaining evolutions in Jewish thinking about God, to explaining the meaning and power in each holiday.
Admittedly, this is a book I would have probably never picked up had the timing not been perfect. I am not Jewish and, temperamentally and philosophically, I’m pretty different from Hurwitz. But this year I’ve done a lot of thinking about the current challenges in society and how many of the traditions that might have seemed antiquated or illogical, actually have an essential function that society depends upon.
The Rest from Justin:
Liferider, by Laird Hamilton and Julian Bora - The life philosophy of Laird Hamilton, perhaps the person I find most inspiring.
Caffeine: How Caffeine Created the Modern World, by Michael Pollan - This is a 2.5-hour Audible original production that, I believe, is roughly the first 30% of Michael Pollan’s latest book This is Your Mind on Plants (next on my list).
Sleep Smarter, by Shawn Stevenson - This is a re-read from 2015 for me, but I want to share it here because it is so valuable. It is extremely well-researched but written to be very quick and accessible. 25-30 short chapters on every aspect of proper sleep and written in a conversational and funny tone.
How to Live: 27 conflicting answers and one weird conclusion, by Derek Sivers - The title and subtitle say it all. Derek Sivers is an absolute gem and I will read everything he writes. While he is quite different from Laird, I admire him nearly as much and often joke that he is my spirit animal. Marika and I had the pleasure of meeting him for coffee when we all lived in Wellington, New Zealand.
Shogun, by James Clavell - Fun and fascinating fiction. It is quite renowned for being an extremely accurate account of life in feudal Japan. I really enjoyed it and I’m now even more enamored with Samurai culture.
The Sandman, by Neil Gaiman - I’m a huge fan of Neil Gaiman’s work. He somehow strikes the perfect balance of whimsical language and dark themes. This was a fun audiobook with a great soundtrack and ensemble cast.
Atomic Habits, by James Clear - I’ve read James Clear’s newsletter for years and pre-ordered this book when it came out in 2018. Since then, I’ve read many different sections and quoted it often in this newsletter. However, this year I finally read it straight through. The only reason I have not placed higher on my list is that we have recommended it and discussed it so many times elsewhere. It remains one of the most important books on this list.
The Great Train Robbery, by Michael Crichton - A very fun fiction read. This was one of the last remaining Michael Crichton books I had not read and I enjoyed it very much. He is a former ER physician and is most known for Jurassic Park and his similar medical-based science fiction. This piece of historical fiction is about a real event in London in the mid-1800s. It’s written as though told by a pompous British gentleman of that time. I found it delightful.
Dune, by Frank Herbert - I originally tried to read Dune over eight years ago and it did not grab me. I returned to it this year and now understand why it has such a cult following. The new movie is fantastic but pales in comparison to the richness of the world and depth of character development that Frank Herbert accomplishes in the book. I’m excited to dive into the rest of the series.
The Rest from Shane:
Man’s Search For Meaning, by Viktor Frankl - Everyone should read this amazing, short book from a psychologist and holocaust survivor. Brilliant insight about the power of purpose and a story that we’d all do well to revisit.
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy - Another Pulitzer Prize winner. A boy and his father navigate an apocalypse world while striving to continue “carrying the fire.” It is depressing, yet inspiring. Endlessly thought-provoking and unique.
The Triple Package, by Amy Chua and Jeb Rubenfeld - An amazing look at how specific ethnic groups and sub-cultures thrive by actively rejecting the predominant norms of American society since the self-esteem movement. Well-researched and fascinating.
The Leader’s Mind, by Jim Afremow and Phil White - In this leadership book, you get insight into the rituals, perspectives, and values that drive each leader's behavior. By interviewing all the leaders they cover, Afremow and White give us real access to the foundation that makes these leaders successful.
Notes from Underground, by Fyodor Dostoevsky - My first Dostoevsky novel. Wonderful, yet I found I had to stop after each chapter to look at literature study guides to be able to comprehend the full brilliance of his writing.
American Gospel, by Jon Meacham - A nuanced look at the Founders’ views on religion and its relationship to government. Sheds a great moderate light on this too-often divisive topic. I, for one, love to discuss religion and politics.
Jewish Literacy, by Joseph Telushkin - Amazing insight into the Old Testament and the foundations of Judaism. It goes much further, but I only made it through a few hundred pages of the 784. Still, found them invaluable and clarifying.
Foundation, by Isaac Asimov - Brilliantly entertaining sci-fi, which has recently inspired a show on Apple TV.
The Rise of Superman, by Steven Kotler - An inspiring, entertaining, and insightful look into the science of flow.
The Wedge, by Scott Carney - In the same genre as Paleo Manifesto, but a little corny (dubbing everything a wedge got old) and not quite as good. Still, enjoyable for bio-hackers and Wim Hoff fans.
The Way of Men, by Jack Donavan - A unique perspective. Donavan tracks his view of manliness to the behavior of nomads throughout time. Redundant, laced with confirmation bias, and morally questionable at times, yet also thought-provoking. In the end, I find it to be a narrow view of manliness that does more to diminish than help.
The Listening Society, by Hanzi Freinacht - Full of fascinating insights into modern political trends, yet ultimately unconvincing. Not very well written and Freinacht’s self-loving egotism is hard to stomach.
Thank you for reading and sharing with your fellow book lovers!
A reminder: we have a quickly growing group that is excited to begin reading one chapter per day of War and Peace in 2022. At 361 chapters (average of 4 pages per chapter) this breaks down to a 10 to 15-minute daily investment. In exchange, you’ll access what many consider to be the greatest novel ever written and engage in a timeless pursuit that connects you across generations in less time than most people spend scrolling social media each day.
Have a great week and remember, life is too short to be normal!
Shane and Justin