Summary: I share the best books I read during 2021.

I’ve long wanted to start a tradition of sharing the best books I read each year. This year I was lucky to read a lot, so I have lots to share. The end of the year also seems like a good time to promote good reading. I love recommending stuff, too, to be honest. Here’s a list of the best books I read in 2021 with a very short review of why I liked them.

Request: if you read this post, please send me an email with 1 book you really enjoyed. Some of the best books I ever read were recommended by random strangers on the internet.

1. “What Is Life?” by Erwin Schrödinger

goodreads link non-fiction biology

“We are thus faced with the following question: Why should an organ like our brain, with the sensorial system attached to it, of necessity consist of an enormous number of atoms, in order that its physically changing state should be in close and intimate correspondence with a highly developed thought?”

Easily the best book(s) I read in 2021. The edition linked above combines two related works by Schrödinger where the Nobel prize in physics delves into biology and consciousness science. Absolute must-read for anyone even mildly interested in figuring out what we are (along the lines of Darwin’s The Origin of Species and Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene). An extremely honest, humble, inquisitive and nuanced exploration into the nature of life (both in the material and mental realm).

2. “Cryptonomicon” by Neal Stephenson

goodreads link fiction cypherpunk crypto

“Show some fucking adaptability!”

What an epic book. Must-read for people interested in cryptocurrencies. Already a fan of Stephenson since I read Snow Crash (which inspired Decentraland), I found Cryptonomicon even better. The story is unbelievably prescient and thrilling, and combines mystery, action, and lots of humor. Split between two timelines, this book shows the power of crypto both during WW2 and an imagined future that hits way too close to reality. Probably the best depiction/parody of startup life I read, too.

3. “The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect” by Roger Williams

goodreads link fiction singularity ai

A surprising find, this short book is perfect for sci-fi fans. Explores what happens after the singularity when AI exceeds human intelligence. I think I read this thanks to a mention from George Hotz in some interview. Recommended for anyone working on tech. I think this is the shortest book in the list so if you “have no time”, go for this one!

4. “The Beginning of Infinity” by David Deutsch

goodreads link non-fiction epistemology science

“That is what makes good explanations essential to science: it is only when a theory is a good explanation – hard to vary – that it even matters whether it is testable. Bad explanations are equally useless whether they are testable or not. Most accounts of the differences between myth and science make too much of the issue of testability.”

Slow and methodical construction of a system for understanding the world. I think this book has potential to be an epistemology classic. An amazing proposal of “good explanations” as the foundational element of scientific progress and the growth of knowledge. Not the best writing style, but the clarity and strength of the arguments is very refreshing. I actually read this book in December 2020, but I couldn’t leave it out of the list, it’s too good. Will probably re-read in 2022.

5. “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” by Richard P. Feynman

goodreads link non-fiction science biography

“I often liked to play tricks on people when I was at MIT.”

Some books are just fantastic ways to get a feel of how people lived in the 20th century. Some books teach you some great science. Some books give you a glimpse into an astounding mind with near-infinite curiosity. This book is all of that combined. At first I was hesitant to read this amazing autobiography based on the self-centered and pedantic title, but boy was I wrong! Feynman is indeed pedantic and self-centered, but the book is a gem. Thanks to Esteban for the recommendation, even if it took me ~10 years to get to it :)

6. “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury

goodreads link fiction dystopia classic

““Are you happy?” she said. “Am I what?” he cried.”

“Do you know why books such as this are so important? Because they have quality. And what does the word quality mean? To me it means texture. This book has pores. It has features. This book can go under the microscope. You’d find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion. The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more ‘literary’ you are. That’s my definition, anyway. Telling detail. Fresh detail. The good writers touch life often.”

A classic which almost needs no introduction: I just happened to read it this year. I was pleasantly surprised and a little saddened by the applicability of its critique of modern-day superficiality and general distractedness.

7. “The Trial” by Franz Kafka

goodreads link fiction dystopia classic

“Progress had always been made, but the nature of this progress could never be specified.”

Dreadful tale of a man slowly drowning in the bureaucratic nightmare of an incomprehensible process. Reading this will make you sad. Thanks EK for recommending.

8. “Entangled Life” by Merlin Sheldrake

goodreads link non-fiction biology

“We are not a special case. Even bacteria have viruses within them (a nanobiome?). Even viruses can contain smaller viruses (a picobiome?). Symbiosis is a ubiquitous feature of life.”

Although at times a little too pop, this popular science book is fantastic. Before reading it, I thought of nature as geography + plants + animals, and I realized I was missing one of the most fascinating kingdoms: fungi. Very well written and you’ll learn a lot.

Final words

To know more about what I read, add me on Goodreads. I’m really trying to push more people to share what they’re reading there. Consider giving it a try!


Cover photo by Lennart Schneider on Unsplash

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