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The Books I Read in 2021

At the end of each year, I list the books that I have read during that year. Earlier years were 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013 and 2012. Below, you will find the list of books that I’ve read in 2021. Every year I also include an overview of my other media consumption habits (magazines, RSS feeds and podcasts).

This year, I only managed to 38 books for a total of 7.660 pages. This is about half as much as last year.

Close to 30% of the books that I’ve read were written by women. About a third of the books that I’ve read had authors that were born in the US or the UK, a third were from Dutch writers, and a third came from the rest of the world.

I’ve ordered the list of books into categories that make sense to me (and that are in many ways overlapping and arbitrary). These are the books that I’ve read and what I thought of some of them:

Digital rights and technology

Bowles has written the book that I wish I had written myself. It is very short, but manages to frame the most important ethical issues around (the design of) technology in a brilliant way. McLuhan was extremely entertaining and insightful as per usual. The other three titles each taught me worthwhile lessons about how to develop technology in an ethical manner.

  • Cennydd Bowles — Future Ethics (link)
  • Marshall Mcluhan — Counterblast (link)
  • Sasha Costanza-Chock — Design Justice (link)
  • Michael Kearns and Aaron Roth — The Ethical Algorithm: The Science of Socially Aware Algorithm Design (link)
  • Eva PenzeyMoog — Design for Safety (link)

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The book club read seven books this year. Stanley Robinson’s book led to the most discussion (and included some unforgettable harrowing scenes about climate change), and Xiawei’s was the most idiosyncratic, teaching us about how China is using technology to keep its countryside (culturally and economically) connected to the rest of the country. Tufekci’s book is worth spending your time on to understand how technology changes protest and activism, even though we are now a decade after the Arab spring. Wiener is a brilliant writer and Hoepman has written a book about the technology behind privacy that every tech policy maker should read.

  • Kim Stanley Robinson — The Ministry for the Future (link)
  • Xiaowei Wang — Blockchain Chicken Farm (link)
  • Zeynep Tufekci — Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest (link)
  • Anna Wiener — Uncanny Valley: A Memoir (link)
  • Jaap-Henk Hoepman — Privacy Is Hard and Seven Other Myths (link)
  • Kate Crawford — The Atlas of AI (link)
  • Mariana Mazzucato — Mission Economy (link)

Improving my game skills

I played a lot a games this year. I had read Lugo before, and doubt there is a better book about partner dominoes. Olsen’s book about backgammon really improved my game. It is great for beginners, but will also satisfy the most competitive of players. Dee’s book about one of my new favorite games (Hive) was a sweet and short introduction, but if you enjoy the game you should really go for Ingersoll’s Play Hive Like a Champion instead.

  • Miguel Lugo — How to Play Better Dominoes (link)
  • Marc Brockmann Olsen — Backgammon (link)
  • Steve Dee — The Book of Hive: Strategy, Tips and Tactics (link)

Fiction

The fiction with the most impact on my thinking about the world were the books by Balci and Gül. Both of them showed – each in their own way – the stifling conditions that exist for many people living in or around Muslim communities here in the Netherlands. They have fundamentally shifted my perspective. It was great to reread the mysterious Chimo’s Zei Lila after many years. Chimo’s follow-up book is less interesting unfortunately. Den Ouden wrote a funny Roman à clef about being a project manager at the institution for higher education where I work (think the worst of bureaucracy, combined with a satire of agile software development, and an attack on diversity thinking). The most overrated book in the Netherlands in 2021 must be Lakmaker’s, whereas Coelho’s is probably the most globally overrated book of all time.

  • Chimo — Zei Lila (link)
  • Erdal Balci — De gevangenisjaren (link)
  • Lale Gül — Ik ga leven (link)
  • Chimo — Ik ben bang (link)
  • René den Ouden — De projectleider (link)
  • Tobi Lakmaker — De geschiedenis van mijn seksualiteit (link)
  • Paulo Coelho — The Alchemist (link)

Children’s books

Joke van Leeuwen will always be my favorite children’s book author. It is my ambition to read all of her work, so I’ve added three of her books to my list and enjoyed them thoroughly. Dahl’s book was a perfect as I remembered. And Van Lieshout has written (and designed) a beautiful young adult book about (the meaning of) art.

  • Roald Dahl — De reuzenkrokodil (link)
  • Joke van Leeuwen — Ergens (link)
  • Joke van Leeuwen — Waarom lig jij in mijn bedje? (link)
  • Joke van Leeuwen — Tijgerlezen – Fien wil een flus (link)
  • Ted van Lieshout — Wat is kunst? (link)

Non-fiction

The most special book I’ve read this year is Angelo’s. It is a mind-blowing exposé of the ingenious material objects that prisoners make in the US prison system. De Bono gave me some more thinking tools, these ‘shoes’ are good, but not as useful as the ‘hats’. De Dijn wrote a discerning history of our political ideas of the concept of freedom (if you are interested in this topic, I think Pettit will give you more actionable insights). Levine and Heller should be required reading for anybody with attachment problems in (love) relationships. Tanizaki is a beautiful ode to darkness, and Jansen gave me a very real and personal history of the beginnings of our welfare state. I found Gunster’s book about ‘omdenken’ to be an insult to my intelligence.

  • Angelo — Prisoners’ Inventions (link)
  • Edward de Bono — Six Action Shoes (link)
  • Annelien De Dijn — Freedom: An Unruly History (link)
  • Asis Aynan — Eén erwt maakt nog geen snert (link)
  • Hafid Bouazza — De akker en de mantel (link)
  • Amir Levine and Rachel S.F. Heller — Attached (link)
  • Junichiro Tanizaki — In Praise of Shadows (link)
  • Suzanne Jansen — Het pauperparadijs (link)
  • Simon Pridmore — Scuba Confidential: An Insider’s Guide to Becoming a Better Diver (link)
  • Henno Eggenkamp — De verguisde stad (link)
  • Berthold Gunster — Ja-maar… Omdenken (link)

My consumption of other media

I decided early in the year that I wanted to financially support journalism. So next to my existing Wired, Economist (reading their daily Espresso update), and New York Review of Books subscriptions, I also subscribed to De Groene Amsterdammer, De Correspondent (now turned into a lifelong subscription due to my volunteering as a board member for the Correspondent Foundation), Follow the Money, Vrij Nederland, and OneWorld. This is one of the reasons why I read less books: too much reading of long form journalism. I switched from the NRC to Parool as my daily newspaper, mainly because I enjoy reading about what is happening in my city of Amsterdam.

I strongly prefer to keep up to date through RSS instead of through email newsletters. But I can’t escape email fully and read the newsletters I get from Rick Pastoor (about productivity), Dipsaus, Audrey Watters (who has stopped writing for the most part), and the local neighbourhood I live in. Every morning I get the newsletter aimed at journalists from the ANP press service, giving me an update about what has happened and what will happen during the day. My favourite curators still are Cory Doctorow and Stephen Downes. Both provide me daily with interesting links (thankfully via RSS).

Authors I follow via RSS include Kashmir Hill, Zeynep Tufekci, Bert Hubert (for his Covid updates), Evgeny Morozov, Jaap-Henk Hoepman, Karin Spaink, Ben Thompson, Linda Duits, Maciej Cegłowski, Ian Bogost, Matt Taibi (only his free posts), Harold Jarche, Rineke van Daalen, Wilfred Rubens, Aral Balkan, Cennydd Bowles, James Bridle, Ernst-Jan Pfauth, Axel Arnbak, Matthew Green, Yasmin Nair, and Bruce Schneier. Organizations and blogs I follow include Colossal, The Hmm, Bits of Freedom, EDRi, Digital Freedom Fund, Controle Alt Delete, Bij Nader Inzien, XKCD, EFF, The Markup, The Black Archives, Stop Blackface, and Stichting Nederland Wordt Beter. I keep up to date with technology news through Guardian Tech, MIT Technology Review, and Tweakers. For fun, I enjoy the Reddit on The Big Lebowski. The only two Twitter accounts that I check regularly are the ones from Alexander Klöpping and Nadia Ezzeroili. And finally, the most valuable new edition to my RSS diet is the news from Rest of World.

Using Pocket Cast, I still listen to all new episodes of This American Life, Een Podcast over Media, Radio Rechtsstaat, and Replay-All. New on the list of must-listens are Napleiten and the Rudi en Freddie Show (I enjoyed the shows without Rutger Bregman the most). I listen to the majority of episodes from 99% Invisible, Cautionary Tales, Cyberhelden, Lex Bohlmeier’s interviews for De Correspondent, and In Machines We Trust. When an episode looks appealing I will listen to Dipsaus, The Ezra Klein Show, Freakonomics, Philosophy Books, Philosophical Disquisitions, The Nextcloud podcast, Philosophy 24/7, Philosophy Bites, Planet Money, RadioLab, The Tim Ferris Show, and Where Should We Begin by Esther Perel. This means that This Week in Tech has dropped off the list after many years of loyal listening.

There were a few one-off podcasting series that I listened to this year. The first few episodes of Bits of Freedom’s Big Brother Awards podcast of course, De Dienst (about the Dutch secret service, it mostly made me very angry), The Noord Face, Stuff the British Stole, and Sudhir Breaks the Internet.

What will I be reading in 2022?

My reading plans for 2021 did not come to pass for the most part. I did manage to read a bit about data/AI/technology ethics, but I only enlarged my list of half-read books instead of reducing it, and didn’t read any Toni Morrison nor did I get to Piketty or Kelton. Those latter two are still high on my list. I also want to make sure to read another McLuhan book.

Other than that, I am hoping to read a bit more fiction this year. Hopefully my personal rule of only bringing fiction on my holidays should help with that goal.

Update (10 January 2022): I like recommendations, and especially if they are done by a human being or are if they are not algorithmically personalized towards me. One of the best recommendation engines are (literary) awards of course. I have therefore created my own personal recommendation algorithm using awards as a guide. So this coming year I will challenge myself to read the following:

  • All Booker Prize shortlisted books of the previous year.
  • The winner of the Booker Prize of a random previous year (only books that I haven’t read yet).
  • The winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction of the previous year.
  • The winner of the International Booker Prize of the previous year.
  • The winner of the Libris Literatuur Prijs of the previous year.
  • A book of choice by the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature of the previous year.
  • A book of choice by the winner of the P.C. Hooft-prijs of the current year.
  • The winner of the Pullitzer Prize for Fiction of the previous year.
  • The winner of the Royal Society Science Books Prize of the previous year.
  • The winner of the Socratesbeker of the previous year.
  • The winner of the Boekenbon Literatuurprijs of the previous year.
  • The winner of the Gouden Griffel of the previous year.
  • The winner of the Bronzen Uil of the previous year.

If there are no double winners/nominations, then this will be a list of eighteen books to read, most of which will be fiction. The list is very biased towards current and new books (which the Lindy Effect tells us, isn’t necessarily a smart idea). I am still thinking of ways to engineer reading more great books that are a bit older.

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  1. Hoi Hans, errig leuk om weer op zo’n manier van je te horen, te begrijpen en je veranderingen te zien. Het grootste deel van de boeken (inderdaad niet veel, 38) heb ik niet gelezen. Komt m.n. door interesse verschil denk ik. Ik lees veel geschiedenis en veel fictie. Daarnaast op mijn reader ‘s nachts veel detectives. Mijn favoriete fictieschrijver dit jaar; colson Whitehead. Favoriete geschiedenisboek; Helmut walser Smith, duitsland, een natie en haar geschiedenis. Favoriete detectiveschrijver; Deon Meijer en Philippe Kerr

    • Fascinating! You’ve inspired me to read a few books more and listen to a couple podcasts. All the best, Hans!