The Books I Read in 2021

Stars (★) mark the books that I liked the most. Please let me know if any of these resonated with you too or if you have recommendations for what I should read next. And here are the lists I posted in 2020, in 2019, and in 2018.



Bird by Bird

by Anne Lamott, finished January 15

In my mind there are two good books about writing, On Writing by Stephen King and this one by Anne Lamott. I’ve read it once before, and decided to read it again because I wanted to prepare myself for writing about our new adventure in Azerbaijan. The central takeaway from this book is the idea of the one inch picture frame. The idea is that when you want to write something you often have the idea of a grand vista unfolding in your head, but you can’t paint a grand vista all at once. Instead you have to capture what it looks like in one inch increments. And indeed, if you think about any great work of fiction, that’s precisely how it unfolds: through tiny snapshots that sum together to a greater whole.

★ Into Thin Air

by Jon Krakauer, finished March 6

I remember when this book first came out. We were visiting Sun River in January with my aunt and uncle and cousins. There was a foot of snow on the ground and the Super Bowl was playing in the background. Most of all, I remember that my uncle was reading this book and wouldn’t shut up about it. This memory really sticks in my mind now because during the three or four days it took me to read this I couldn’t shut up about it either. I even called my brother who was ten thousand miles away to tell him about it. By the end of it, all I wanted to do was to hug Oren and Idara and Rachael and never let them go.

The $100 Startup: Fire Your Boss, Do What You Love and Work Better to Live More

by Chris Gillebeau, finished March 12

I read this book a few years ago. I actually quite like my boss, and genuinely love teaching, so reading this wasn’t about wanting to quit my job. Instead, I wanted to revisit the ideas about how to build things and sell things. Teaching is, in some ways, an exercise in building things and selling them. The things are ideas, concepts, understandings, skills. And the people you’re selling them to often need to be convinced to buy them.

Motivated Teaching

by Peps McCrea, finished April 14

What motivates kids in a classroom? Five things, according to the research synthesized by McCrea:

  • Success
  • Routines
  • Norms
  • Belonging
  • Buy-in

I’m currently focusing on the first one. I want my kids to know that they can be successful in math, and that it feels good when they are. This doesn’t mean making everything easy (being successful at easy things isn’t very motivating). Instead, I’m organizing my lessons so that the difficulty increases at a rate that’s challenging but achievable.

Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit

by Steven Pressfield

One of the central tenets of this book is that in putting your work in front of someone you’re asking them to give you their most precious resource: their time. And so you ought to spend it well. The title is a nod in this direction. In other words, no one wants to give up their precious time, and so you’d better make your writing so succinct and compelling that they don’t have a choice. The books I read before and after this are good examples of that: big ideas expressed with simple sentences made up of short words.


by Marcus Aurelius, translated by Gregory Hayes

This is the second or third time that I’ve read Meditations. And each time I’m struck by his clean and clear writing, the immediacy of it, the practicality. I love having the opportunity to explore his internal mental dialogue.

And Then They Stopped Talking to Me: Making Sense of Middle School

by Judith Warner

All of my work last year and the majority of my work this is in middle school. In my experience, younger kids are more likely to show what they’re feeling and why they’re feeling it. Once they get to middle school, though, they get better at hiding it. Warner’s book is a window into their world.

“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to argue that the greatest danger facing middle schoolers right now isn’t their phones or their peers. It’s us—or, more specifically, it’s the common values that hold sway in our world: selfishness, competition, and personal success at any cost.”

I picked up this book to learn more about what many kids are going through. While I don’t have many bad memories from school itself (I actually really liked it), that age was by far the most emotionally tumultuous of my life thus far.

The most memorable line in the book was this:

“Amy tried her best to help Caroline make friends, hosting parent potlucks, inviting other families over for brunch or dinner. But that only meant that she had the opportunity to experience what Caroline was dealing with firsthand. “People are ‘so busy’ now,” she told me acridly. “People are Just. So. Busy.””

This is one of the things I struggle with most in adulthood. It feels like no one has the time for anything anymore, which makes developing strong, deep friendships extremely difficult.

Lean Lesson Planning

by Peps McCrea

Like McCrea’s other books, this one is extremely short and succinct, almost more of a thick book than it is a pamphlet. The important stuff has been left in. I wish I had read this book a very long time ago. The basic idea is that in planning a lesson you should figure out where your students are, where it is you want them to go, and the most direct path to get them there. Obviously this is much easier said than done, but this kind of succinct summary was exactly what I was missing when I first started planning lessons.

Die with Zero

by Bill Perkins

The main idea expressed in this book is that while we think we retire on our savings, really we retire on our memories. And so we ought to use more of our savings accumulating memories while we’re alive and able. Many people who focus on saving for their retirement end up saving too much, which means that they worked more than they had to, or that they missed out on memories they could’ve had if they had spent more of their money while they were alive.

“And if you die with $50,000 left, well, that’s $50,000 of experiences you didn’t have.”

This is a big shift from most of the stuff I’ve read about money, which is all about frugality and saving money (The Millionaire Next Door, Your Money or Your Life, etc.). And while it’s true that money is a limiting factor when you’re young, as you age the limiting factors become time (in middle age) and then health (often around the age most people retire).

In case you’re wondering, I’m not rushing out to buy a fancy car with our savings, but I am trying to figure out ways to avoid postponing doing the things I want to do in life until I’m no longer working or having to save money. Maybe one of us will take a sabbatical at some point, or spend a year traveling instead of working? I don’t know, but thanks to this book I am starting to think about it.

★ Braiding Sweetgrass

by Robin Wall Kimmerer

If I didn’t recommend this book to you in the few weeks after I read it this summer, it’s only because I didn’t see you. I even bought a couple copies for people who I was sure would like it. This is, among other things, a book about our relationship with nature. Unlike most books I read about nature, this book offers example of plants and animals that benefit from our presence, with the enormous caveat that it depends on what that presence looks like.

If all the world is a commodity, how poor we grow. When all the world is a gift in motion, how wealthy we become.

Writing to Learn

by William Zinsser

This book was published in 1988. At the time, the idea of “writing across the curriculum” (integrating writing into subjects like math, science, etc.) was becoming popular in American education. Zinsser makes his case for the idea here, to somewhat mixed results. It’s a good book, as everything I’ve read by Zinsser is, but it didn’t present me any ideas I hadn’t already come across elsewhere.

★ Several short sentences about writing

by Verlyn Klinkenborg

Written like a 150 page poem, Klinkenborg tells us in short, direct statements to focus on the sentence.

Writing even one clear, balanced, rhythmic sentence is an accomplishment.

One directive is new for me: Ignore “volunteer” sentences.

The writer’s job isn’t accepting sentences. The job is making them, word by word.

He also advises against outline.

You’re more likely to find the right path — the interesting path through your subject and thoughts — in a sentence-by-sentence search than in an outline.

I read about writing to be inspired to write, and I have been.

★ 4000 Weeks

by Oliver Burkeman, finished August 29

Every few years I come across a book that radically reshapes my perspective. The Last Child in the Woods, which I read a few years ago, was one such book. And here’s another one.

The central premise of the book is that our goals are largely unachievable, our standards are nearly impossible to meet, and that we spend our lives planning for futures that will never actually arrive. Perhaps others who are more centered and present than I am would find this book to be unremarkable. For me, it was a revelation.

I want to be an incredible father and a perfect husband and a transformative teacher. I also want to be a writer someday, and to run a marathon, and to sail around the world, and to own and work a farm. These are goals and standards and futures all wrapped into one, and the probability that I will be able to accomplish all of them — or even most of them — is low.

The book does not make the case that you ought to not have goals, or to lower your standards, or to not plan for the future. But rather to make peace with the idea that before long your 4000 weeks will be up, and that it will have been a hell of a waste if you’ve spent them feeling like you don’t quite measure up.

What would you do differently with your time, today, if you knew in your bones that salvation was never coming—that your standards had been unreachable all along, and that you’ll therefore never manage to make time for all you hoped you might?

Art Matters

by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Chris Riddell, finished September 2

I read this short book in one sitting during a period of “Drop Everything and Read” at our school. It takes two angles which sometimes line up: that the free exchange of ideas is a fundamental good and that by creating art you get to be a participant in this free exchange of ideas.

★ The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs

by Tristan Gooley, finished September 11

Rachael gave me this as a birthday present. The real gift was the knowledge within. For example, did you know that many trees in (in the northern hemisphere) have a slight southern tilt? As you might guess, this is because the sun crosses the southern sky and the trees will their crowns toward it. There are tons of little things like that to notice, not just about trees and the sun but also about what the clouds and water and wind can tell us about the world, and the stars and moon and planets, plants and animals and insects, and on and on. I find myself thinking about it regularly when I’m outside, and especially when I’m on a walk.

How to Grow a School Garden

by Arden Bucklin-Sporer and Rachel Pringle, finished September 13

I’m trying to start a proper school garden where I work and I’m using this as my bible. One takeaway: Although it’s tempting to take baby steps (a bean trellis here, some raised beds there) it’s better in the long run to come up with something that has enough critical mass to become self-sustaining. Make a big production out of it and involve a lot of people so that when one person or group’s interest ebbs (as it inevitably will) there’ll be another person or group to take the reins.

Silent Spring

by Rachel Carson, finished in September

I’d heard about this book many times over the years and decided it was time to actually read it for myself. At the end of every chapter I thought, “What a world we used to live in!” Shortly after I finished the book I found out that there had been a major pesticide application at our school here in Azerbaijan. Worse, they used a type of pesticide that’s banned in the United States because of its toxicity. Which is not to say that there hasn’t been progress, of course, but rather that there’s still a long way to go. And that these kinds of things are often closer to home than we realize.

“If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or by public officials, it is surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem.”

The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming

by David Wallace-Wells, finished in September

Holy smokes. I hope this guy is wrong. Of course that’s what we’re all hoping, and he probably isn’t.

H Is for Hawk

by Helen Macdonald, finished in October

I tried to read this book back in 2015 but for whatever reason it didn’t stick. This time around it did, and while it wasn’t my favorite book of the year I still liked it a lot. Besides all of the description of her relationship with the bird and the natural space where she lived, I also appreciated how she wove her own stories with the biography of T.H. White, the British author who wrote novels about King Arthur’s court.

Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life

by David Montgomery, finished in October

Having finished The Uninhabitable Earth a few weeks earlier I was looking for something that might make me feel like good things are still possible. Mission accomplished. While there wasn’t much practical (for me) information, I still enjoyed reading about how people around the world are using conservation agriculture to improve soil health and fertility. The specific practices he talks about in the book are not tilling (which may require increased chemical application, which he claims is worth the tradeoff), planting cover crops, and rotating crops.

★ Running the Room

by Tom Bennett, finished in November

My graduate program in education stressed one theme over and over: relationships. Specifically, your relationship with your students. This is the source of the old adage: “Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” But just as important, perhaps even more important, is their relationship with one another.

If a student is terrified of her peers’ judgement she’s not going to raise her hand to answer a question. There’s nothing my relationship with her can do to change that. What I can do is to try to create a space in class where students’ needn’t be afraid of one another. In other words, I can try to change their relationship with one another. There are many ways to do this. One of them is changing what is perceived as normal.

“Students who would never drop a piece of litter will do so if they see piles of it in the school playground.”

There’s much more to this book than what I’ve written above, but it all moves with a common theme: If you want a student to do something (like raise her hand in class), you have to make it easy and normal for them to do so.

An Ethic of Excellence

by Ron Berger, finished in November

Ron Berger is (was?) a teacher from a one school district in Western Massachusetts. In this book he talks about all of the creative ways that he and his students approach their learning. In one part, they take a field trip to a school for the deaf in New York City. It’s impossible to imagine kids not learning a ton from that experience. He also writes about their portfolio process, which seems to be falling out of favor in education (perhaps for good reason), but he still makes a compelling case for it.

One of the most memorable parts of the book was where he talked about how abysmal the academics were (particularly for girls) at the school that was profiled in Buzz Bissinger’s book “Friday Night Lights.”

Why Don’t Students Like School?

by Daniel Willingham, finished in November

I’ve read a bunch of books since graduating from my teaching program that I wish had been included in the reading. If I had to choose only one of them, this would be it. It’s less about what the title suggests and more about how learning (defined as “a change in long term memory”) actually happens and what we as teachers can do to influence it.

Teaching with Worked Examples

by Michael Pershan, finished in November

A teacher from New York explains his method of teaching new ideas in mathematics. Teaching with worked examples is a form of explicit teaching whereby you show students a worked out solution before asking them to solve a structurally identical problem on their own. Shouldn’t be revolutionary, but it is.

Change Is the Only Constant

by Ben Orlin, finished in December

This guy has spun his funny little math drawings from teaching into a blog and now into two (great) books. I read his first a few years ago, and liked it more, but this one had some stories and drawings, too.


★ Gilead

by Marilynne Robinson, finished January 15

Here’s a new word for my vocabulary: “epistolary.” It refers to a novel written as a series of letters or documents. This is one such book, which is a collection of letters written by a much older father to his young son, who won’t remember much about him. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2005. Oftentimes the Pulitzer winners are difficult for me to get my mind around — this was no such book. There is not much plot development, but Robinson develops the narrator’s character and manner of speaking (writing?) in such a way that it was difficult to not want to read one more page.

“When you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation?”

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

by J.K. Rowling

I loved this series when I was in 6th grade (who didn’t?) and so when Idara expressed interest I jumped at the opportunity. I don’t think we would’ve managed the chapter book as I read it way back when, but thankfully our school librarian loaned me her personal copy of the recently-published illustrated edition. It’s gorgeous. If you want to read this with young kids, the illustrated edition is a great choice.

Klara and the Sun

by Kazuo Ishiguro

I’ve read two of Ishiguro’s other books: The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go. Both are fantastic, and Never Let Me Go is one of my favorite novels. This one had an interesting concept, but I had a hard time caring about any of the characters. I did find the final scene moving, though, and I don’t think I’ll forget it.

The Round House

by Louise Erdrich

My friend Liz recommended this book a year or two ago. It won the National Book Award for fiction in 2012. The book is set on a reservation in North Dakota and told through the eyes of an 8th grader whose mother has just survived a violent sexual assault. The boy, along with his friends, sets out to find the culprit. I found a lot of similarities to To Kill A Mockingbird: it’s told from the perspective of a kid (as a memory, if I remember correctly) and centers around a crime in a small community. The father also plays an outsize role in both books, and in both cases works in the law. There were other similarities besides. Anyway, I really enjoyed this novel. If I had not read Gilead earlier in the year this would be my favorite novel so far.

A Hope Divided

by Alyssa Cole, finished August 8

I came across an article in Esquire telling me that men were reading romance novels. I’ve never read a romance novel before, though thanks to my stepmom they were always lying around the house when I was growing up. Anyway, this one came highly recommended in the article so I gave it a shot. It was okay. It’s set in the Civil War. I found the historical fiction part interesting but the characters felt one-dimensional. All in all it felt like a 200 hundred page lead up to the lead characters finally having sex, which I suppose is precisely the point.

Get In Trouble

by Kelly Link, finished August 21

This is a collection of short stories by a woman who’s known for science fiction and magical realism. I picked it up at a great little bookstore in Manzanita called Cloud & Leaf. I liked the first story, entitled “The Summer People,” and a few others besides (“Origin Story” brought back a lot of memories from Idara’s birth, and “The New Boyfriend” felt like an incomplete companion to Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun). I found most of the others forgettable. If “The Summer People” were a novel on its own, though, I’d love to read it.

Tender Is the Flesh

by Agustina Bazterrica, finished in September

What if instead of raising animals for meat we raised people? This book is a thinly-veiled critique of the ubiquitous meat and dairy industry. It was a fast and decent read, but I didn’t find it any more compelling than the realities.

Island of the Blue Dolphins

by Scott O’Dell, finished in November

I was supposed to read this in 5th grade but…didn’t. I’m sorry, Ms. Schweizer. After reading the first Harry Potter book over the course of a month with Idara, I thought she might be up for this, too, and I was right. We read a few pages each night before bed and then a few more when we rode to school on the bus. And as far as Young Adult fiction goes, I found this to be pretty good. One thing we learned after finishing it is that the story was based on a real woman who lived alone on an island off the coast of California. She was the last of her tribe.

★ The Overstory

by Richard Powers, finished in December

I really enjoyed this book. The intergenerational aspect reminded me of East of Eden. And the meditations on the lives and interdependence of trees was fascinating, too. I’m having a hard time remembering a book that so artfully connected the lives of people with the natural world. I remember reading that you’ll never look at a forest the same way again, and I haven’t.

Cannery Row

by John Steinbeck, finished in December

This is the first comedy I’ve read by Steinbeck. I liked it and a few parts made me laugh out loud, but what I really appreciated was Steinbeck’s ability to bring his characters to life. Plus there’s this line:

“Our Father who art in nature, who has given the gift of survival to the coyote, the common brown rat, the English sparrow, the house fly and the moth, must have a great and overwhelming love for no-goods and blots-on-the-town and bums, and Mack and the boys. Virtues and graces and laziness and zest. Our Father who art in nature.”

Children’s Books

Here are a few of our favorite children books that we read this year.

Cómo bañar a tu dinosaurio

by Jane Clark, translated by Bárbara Fernández

I am far from fluent in Spanish, but I can read it pretty well. And when I say pretty well what I mean is that I can’t help but read it as passionately and emphatically as possible — especially when the book contains words that are as fun to say as “dee-no-SAUW-rio.”

La espera no dura para siempre

by Elizabeth Verdick

The best children’s books are adult books, too. And this is one of them. It reads like the writer was following Klinkeborg’s advice above: It’s filled with short, declarative sentences. Perfect for kids — and adults. The first sentence is a good example: “Pasas mucho tiempo esperando.” (You spend lots of time waiting.) Just six simple words, but also a universal truth and an acknowledgement of one of the frustrating parts about being a kid (or, again, an adult).

All the World

Liz Garton Scanlon

Some children’s books are excellent examples of world building: Richard Scarry might be the best example, but there’s also Dr. Seuss, and then this short book with rhyme and meter about a group of people living in a community. They grow food and trade it at a farmer’s market and cook it in a restaurant. And they play and rest, too, and laugh and cry and take care of one another. Of all the children’s books we read on a regular basis, this is the one I’d choose to live inside of.

All the world A spread from the book.

Books I Gave Up On

Limitless Mind: Learn, Lead, and Live Without Barriers

by Jo Boaler

I read a couple of her books during my master’s program. I didn’t find much new information in this one, so I put it down.

Laziness Does Not Exist

by Devon Price, stopped around page 50

I was hoping for a meditation on work and leisure and the good life, but this was more about politics and our endless drive for more (work, mostly). Perhaps it improved further in, but I just found it to be a steady (and boring) stream of anecdotes about people who, like the author, were working themselves to death.

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

by Barbara Tuchman, paused about a third of the way through

Despite my middle school history teacher’s best efforts (thank you, Ms. Sandeno!) I don’t remember much about the medieval period except that France and England fought a lot.

I picked up this book in attempt to broaden my understanding, and it has been fascinating and rewarding. Did you know that the Black Death killed around half of all Europeans in just four years? And that the population didn’t recover for almost two centuries?

And then there was the power of the Church, which ran through everything:

“Beneath it all was the daily condition of medieval life, in which hardly an act or thought, sexual, mercantile, or military, did not contravene the dictates of the Church. Mere failure to fast or attend mass was sin. The result was an underground lake of guilt in the soul that the plague now tapped.”

Another thing that stood out to me was how amorphous the boundaries between France and England were, both geographically and conceptually. I can’t find the exact quote now, but in one part Tuchman says that someone living in the north of what is now France (in Normandy, say) was as likely to think of themselves as English as French.

The violence described in the book makes our era seem like the most peaceful of human existence (which it might actually be). And not just the great violence of war, but quotidian violence, too. Tuchman describes a carnival game in which a cat was nailed to a board. Competitors then had to headbutt the cat to death, hoping that it didn’t first blind or maim them with its claws.

As I said, this is a fascinating book. It’s also just shy of 800 pages, and the Multnomah County Library only gives me three weeks. I’ll finish this next year.

The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children

by Alison Gopnik, stopped around page 102

I like to read books about parenting from time to time as a reminder to be a better parent. There was some interesting stuff in here (like that “parenting” as a verb is only a few decades old, previously it was just something that you were by virtue of having children), but none if it really felt actionable, nor did I find that it was expanding much on the theme of gardeners (people who try to get the conditions right in order for their children to flourish) or carpenters (people who try to “build” their children), so I gave up.