While there were some initial adjustments and cancellations during the early months of the pandemic last year, the book industry rallied, and online sales at least have been booming ever since. There has been no shortage of excellent work in both fiction and nonfiction this year.
Here are some of the best books published in 2021, as read and nominated by the staff of Fortune, in no particular order. (And be sure to read our recap of the best books published during the first six months of the year.)
Seeing Ghosts: A Memoir by Kat Chow
Many NPR listeners, like myself, might be most familiar with Kat Chow through two of the station’s most popular podcasts: Code Switch and Pop Culture Happy Hour. In Seeing Ghosts, readers get to know Chow on a much deeper level in this memoir about life and death. The running thread throughout the memoir is grief, especially as the author still grapples with the loss of her mother. But not only is the book about how grief has affected her other family members and her relationships with them, but also how that grief changes how we look back on memories with a person lost.—Rachel King, editor
The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley’s Pursuit of Power by Max Chafkin
In writing a biography of Peter Thiel, the deck was stacked against Max Chafkin, the Bloomberg Businessweek writer and editor who daringly took to the task. His new book charts the billionaire’s rise from his early days as a precocious chess champion who never quite fit in to a world-conquering tech visionary and political firebrand. Even with limited access to his subject, Chafkin managed to shine a light on one of Silicon Valley’s most elusive powerbrokers. But it’ll still leave you wondering at the end: What does Thiel really believe?—Robert Hackett, senior writer
An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination by Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang
Facebook’s massive 2021 reckoning was simmering long before Frances Haugen. An Ugly Truth, published two months before the Facebook whistleblower first went public in the Wall Street Journal, is a deeply-reported investigation into the social-media giant and its track record of enabling the spread of misinformation online and real-world violence offline. New York Times reporters Frenkel and Kang interviewed more than 400 people, including former and current Facebook executives and employees, to inform this riveting portrait of how founder-CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his top executives wield their enormous power over the world.—Maria Aspan, senior writer
The Last Embassy: The Dutch Mission of 1795 and the Forgotten History of Western Encounters With China by Tonio Andrade
The Last Embassy is rare in the field of academic history, in that it works just as well as a story as it does as a work of significant historical investigation. The story of the Dutch embassy to Beijing—the last to the Imperial Chinese court—has everything: competing protagonists, trials and tribulations, and imperial pomp and circumstance. Andrade’s work is a wonderfully written work about a neglected event in diplomatic history.—Nicholas Gordon, associate editor
Six Faces of Globalization: Who Wins, Who Loses, and Why It Matters by Anthea Roberts and Nicolas Lamp
A lot of political movements have turned against globalization in the past few years. But not every reaction is the same: some are motivated by concerns over big business, some by the rise of geopolitical competitors, some by concerns over immigration and cultural change. Six Faces of Globalization looks at the globalization debate by splitting it into six different “narratives”: stories people tell about what globalization is, and who wins and loses from it. Roberts and Lamp give their readers a useful framing to understand today’s—and tomorrow’s—fights about the world economy.—N.G.
The Good Asian by Pornsak Pichetshote
This new comic series written by Pornsak Pichetshote and illustrated by Alexandre Tefenkgi stars Edison Hark: a Chinese-American detective in 1930s San Francisco, trying to solve a murder in Chinatown. The Good Asian has all the trappings of a noir tale, but also tackles questions of race, immigration, and “respectability politics.” All wrapped up in a thrilling mystery. The series is still only six issues into its ten-issue run; I can’t wait to read what happens next!—N.G.
Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney
In Beautiful World, Where Are You, Sally Rooney applies her typical insight into the millennial psyche to a slightly older demographic, her characters now reaching their thirties rather than in their teens and early twenties. Her first novel written after her own meteoric success and the television adaptation of Normal People, Rooney examines everything from the drawbacks of fame (those who seek it out, knowing its reality, are “deeply psychologically ill,” she writes) to the pressures of fertility and motherhood. A bonus: Her usual sparse prose this time brings with it lengthy emails about the Bronze Age.—Emma Hinchliffe, editor
The Joy of Basketball: An Encyclopedia of the Modern Game by Ben Detrick and Andrew Kuo
This beautifully illustrated, personality-driven tome by the guys behind popular basketball podcast Cookies Hoops is all anybody needs to fully understand the modern state of the NBA: how we got where we are, and where we’re going. Read it front-to-back to become a b-ball savant or keep it on your coffee table and reference it as needed. This book is so comprehensive and fun to read that I promise it will turn even the most ardent anti-hoop person in your life into a grade-A basketball-head. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.—Nicole Goodkind, writer
The World Gives Way by Marissa Levien
What do you do when your world is ending—and the only choice you have is how to face that loss? This debut novel, part-Station Eleven and part-social critique, imagines a future where humanity has fled Earth. Those who were wealthy enough to buy their way off the planet are living aboard a generation spaceship, on a 200-year journey to a new world—accompanied by a servant class of indentured workers whose ancestors sold their families’ freedom in exchange for their passage. But now, we learn at the beginning of the novel, that spaceship is dying. And it can’t be fixed.
I’ve avoided most apocalyptic fiction since the start of the pandemic, but The World Gives Way transcends its grim (and occasionally all-too-real) premise. Levien builds a fascinating new world, before lyrically chronically its destruction–along with all the different, now-familiar ways that her characters face individual grief, and find moments of joy and life amid implacable tragedy.—M.A.
The Optimist: A Case for the Fly Fishing Life by David Coggins
Whether he’s chasing bonefish in the Bahamas or stalking easily-spooked brown trout on a chalk stream in England, David Coggins is at his happiest with a fly rod in hand. In each chapter of the The Optimist, Coggins transports the reader to transcendent moments on the water when one’s skill, preparation, a helpful guide, and a bit of luck convince some of nature’s most wary creatures onto a hook. Coggins’ keen observations of this genteel pursuit are offered with humor, a dash of wisdom, and an enthusiasm so infectious you’ll be itching to perfect your backcast between chapters.—Daniel Bentley, senior editor
The Premonition: A Pandemic Story by Michael Lewis
This is a thrilling, can’t-put-the-book-down account of how U.S. government officials dismissed all the warnings about what to do in case of a pandemic. Michael Lewis showcases the brilliant scientists and public health professionals who for decades before anyone heard about COVID-19 were already voicing concerns about a global pandemic and what do when it happens. Even though we all know how the events of the past two years played out, Lewis’s well-reported narrative has all the drama and suspense of a Hollywood movie.—Susie Gharib, anchor and senior special correspondent
My Body by Emily Ratajkowski
2021 saw a reckoning in the media and the public conversation about how women are portrayed in the media, especially in the wake of of the challenge and dissolution of the conservatorship over Britney Spears. Model, actress, and activist Emily Ratajkowski succinctly addresses this in one of her essays in her first book, My Body. Anchored by her 2020 first-person essay from The Cut about the dehumanization women in the entertainment industry experience daily as well as reclaiming her image, Ratajkowski is sincere, but raw in reflecting on archaic notions about femininity discussed by her parents and their friends, the often repulsive treatment of young women by older men, and the unspoken rule that beautiful women need to makes themselves “ugly” to get better parts in Hollywood. (And for anyone who has read Billion Dollar Whale or has casually followed the Jho Low case, there is one wild essay, which lines up with everything that has been reported to date, but offers yet another perspective into the fugitive’s world of excess and greed.) —R.K.
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