The Best Literature We Read in 2021

Our critics pick the books that affected them the most

Despite our society’s general lack of interest in reading, declining literacy and technological changes, and propensity toward a censoring impulse, the world of literature continues to thrive anyway. Books continue to appear, and they continue to be worth pursuing. It’s impossible for one book critic to read even 10 percent of the thousands of books that come out every year. Even the critics for Book and Film Globe, the best reviewing staff in our star system, can’t read them all. So we asked them to pick one that stood out this year. Their answers were as diverse as their tastes, and of literature itself.

God, Human, Animal, Machine: Technology, Metaphor, and the Search for Meaning by Meghan O’Gieblyn

O’Gieblyn does something I would’ve thought impossible before reading her title. She links the loss of faith in the evangelical Christianity of her formative years to the Singularity, or the idea that one day soon we will all be able to upload ourselves to the digital realm and thereby become “immortal.” Most importantly, O’Gieblyn examines this idea using the only metaphysical tools humans have successfully welded for centuries: a rational mind and the insights of some of our greatest thinkers. It’s a book that resists the ever-tempting authorial techniques of battering you with some easy answer or drowning you in jargon, instead clearly laying out what we can know, what we’ll probably never know, and what we might be able to do about it.–Art Edwards 

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr 

Cloud Cuckoo Land

I read a lot of books this year. More than 300, by my Goodreads tally, which doesn’t include the books I forgot to count, or didn’t track on my Kindle, or abandoned midway through. And many of them were brilliant, including Elizabeth Knox’s The Absolute Book, Neal Stephenson’s Termination Shock, and Edward St. Aubyn’s Double Blind. I got to read Born For Trouble , the new Hap & Leonard collection from Joe R. Lansdale, which reminded me how good it is to read about bad guys getting what they deserve. I also finally got around to some books that were recommended highly for a long time, like The Raw Shark Texts and Dept. of Speculation and confirmed for myself how good they were.

But the best book I read all year was, somewhat predictably, Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land, a massive, interwoven tale of five people separated by time and united by a single story. I say “predictably” because Doerr’s novel was highly anticipated, a massive bestseller, and guaranteed a spot on most critics’ lists. But dammit, it really is that good. At a time when a lot of people are looking for a reason to keep turning the page, Doerr’s book renewed my faith. That it was also beautifully written and masterfully plotted was icing. This is what novels are for.–Chris Farnsworth

Our Country Friends by Gary Shteyngart Our Country Friends

This is the first time since 2006 that Gary Shteyngart has released a book and I haven’t covered that release with a review or an interview. In that time, the world has grown more absurdly tragic and Shteyngart’s prose has grown more measured and satirical.“Our Country Friends is positively Chekhovian (though I’m no fan of Chekhov) and I thought, until the end of the novel, that it was going to be the first masterpiece of the pandemic. The trouble is that Shteyngart can’t end as Chekhov does by demonstrating how modern life has swept away the dramatic battleground of the pre-modern world. Still, worth a read.–Dan Friedman 

Storm by George R. Stewart

Yet another winner from NYRB, the best little imprint around. It has impeccable taste, this time highlighting a writer who got in early on the cli-fi craze. That’s the catch-all term for fiction dealing with the climate and especially the climate crisis. Cli-fi covers everything from Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry For The Future all the way back to Genesis and that whole Noah’s Ark mishegoss. Back in 1941,  Stewart delivered a novel whose main protagonist is…a storm. It starts as a little nothing and then grows in fits and starts, traveling the globe before it smashes into the United States. Stewart brings to life weathermen, people trapped in their cars, farmers, pilots and countless others caught in its path, cooly observing them under pressure. I swear writer Arther Hailey took notes before delivering similarly structured bestsellers like Airport and Hotel. All he forgot was the skill.–Michael Giltz 

The Council of Animals by Nick McDonell

The pandemic has not slaked my appetite for dystopian yarns, and Nick McDonell’s The Council of Animals delivers a biting, non-human-focused comedy of post-apocalyptic manners in which a number of species, domesticated and wild, engage in a highly political debate that will decide the fate of mankind. Look for the demented, oppositional mutant lizard who’s convinced he’s a bat.–Ayun Halliday literature

Mary Jane, by Jessica Anya Blau

Don’t let the tagline “Almost Famous meet Daisy Jones” mislead you. This uses comparisons that have nothing to do with this delightful, warm and wonderful story about the titular 14-year-old whose summer job is looking after five-year-old Isobel Cone in a chaotic household full of affection and messiness. It’s a far cry from Mary Jane’s conventional and cold, if organized and reliable home life. As Mary Jane brings order to the Cones, they shower her with recognition and open her world, partially guided by their rock star- and movie star-in residence, Jimmy and Sheba. The love in this book extends out to envelop the reader with its overwhelming intensity. –Lily Moayeri

Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again by Katherine Angel

I read and returned to Katherine Angel’s treatise on female desire and the possibilities of consent in the modern world throughout 2021. The author teases out so many questions that have plucked at the edges of my sexual consciousness over the years: broadly, how can we hold the horrors of sexual violence and the idea of female desire as essential to sexuality, femininity, and personhood at the same time? And Angel does all of this in a concise 160 pages. I would recommend Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again for anyone interested in sex and power—I know Verso has a lefty bent, but Angel’s work resounds regardless of your politics.–Katie Smith 

People Love Dead Jews by Dara Horn

In this collection of essays, novelist Horn deftly captures a disturbing truth for modern Jews. The world is far more invested in antisemitism as something that happened a long time ago, she argues, something all can rest assured will happen “Never Again.” It’s an argument that resonates deeply, especially since I read it as my own city of Austin, Texas, experienced a wave of antisemitic hate, from swastikas painted on Jewish high-schoolers’ parking spaces to a synagogue set ablaze.

Horn unpacks our selective embrace of history, including Anne Frank, the Jews of Harbin, China, and lesser-known “righteous gentiles” like Varian Fry who saw and fought the dehumanization of Jews in World War II. And she maps how more recently, the country mourned Jews killed in the Tree of Life synagogue mass shooting, but by the time people were attacking Jews on the streets of New York, in shops and even at homes, media coverage had shifted. It’s not a happy read, but it is an important one. –Sharyn Vane 

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