In my experience, the best books are those in which I see myself. Those books in which I find a sense of familiarity, a sort of unity with the characters and their desires, thoughts, and behaviors. I believe one of the most important and beautiful things that literature can do is remind us we’re not alone. There exist others in the world who see things in a similar way that we do, who have both suffered and experienced joy in ways we can recognize. Books, in their great and unique power, can remind us of this comforting fact.
In 2018, I started keeping yearly counts of all the books I read. Initially, I used these annual lists to track my reading habits and develop informed goals. Last year, however, I decided to start narrowing them down further to determine my favorite reads from each year. It’s never easy to decide on such a thing; there are countless wonderful books in the world and such a variety of things that can make a great book stand out to us.
I certainly read many remarkable books in 2021. It was also the year I started to consciously broaden my reading horizons, so to speak. I’ve always been one to prefer fiction and primarily read novels. However, the more I read of other genres, the more I’ve come to realize each bears its own precious qualities. Last year, I read a bit of everything: poetry, novels, short story collections, religious texts, biographies, memoirs, and so on. Because of this, I decided to make my “narrowing-down” process a bit easier by selecting only one book each from three broad categories: poetry, fiction, and nonfiction.
Below are my top three reads of 2021, in the order in which I read them. I loved each book on this list for a number of different reasons, but overall, they had one important thing in common: they made me feel seen and understood. There were aspects of each that resonated deeply with me, as though they had been written just for me. I don’t believe I’ll ever take for granted how simply amazing it is that books have the capacity to do this. As Stephen King has wisely and famously said, books truly are a “uniquely portable magic.”
Content Warning: Depression, Suicide, and Sexual Assault.
In books I have traveled, not only to other worlds, but into my own. I learned who I was and who I wanted to be, what I might aspire to, and what I might dare to dream about my world and myself.Anna Quindlen
1. Ariel by Sylvia Plath (Poetry)
Content Warning: Depression and Suicide. These are both mentioned in the following section, as they pertain to the text and its author.
Ariel is the first collection of Sylvia Plath’s poetry that I’ve read. For various classes and assignments in the past, I’d read single poems of hers, but never an entire collection. As I mentioned in my poetry post several weeks ago, I’d never been one to read an entire book of poetry from start to finish until very recently. I’m glad I’ve begun to do so. Reading a full collection of poetry lends each individual piece a greater depth, in a sense, establishing a broader, encompassing theme. This collection of Plath’s poetry bore a theme to which I could relate. Her writing made sense to me, the emotions invoked in each piece familiar. Many of the poems in this collection were written in the last weeks of Plath’s life. The collection itself wasn’t published for the first time until 1965, two years after her death.
Plath suffered from severe clinical depression, a theme and the effects of which are present in much of her writing, especially this collection. She attempted suicide multiple times, tragically ending her life when she was thirty years old. Though certainly not to the same degree as Plath, I’ve struggled with mental health concerns for much of my life. A lot of what Plath writes in this collection of poetry, as it relates to her depression, I could understand on a fundamental level. Some lines knocked the very breath from my lungs, an ache of recognition settling in my core. She writes beautifully and expertly about dark and tragic affairs. Not only is her poetry rhythmic and well-composed, but its subject matter effectively reminds her readers our experiences of suffering are not isolated.
2. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert (Nonfiction)
Eat, Pray, Love is one of those books I think everyone should read at least once in their life. And certainly, it is most fruitful if read during a time when one is going through some sort of existential crisis or big life change (as I was). As a whole, this book is all about discovering who we truly are and cultivating the bravery to live out that truth. Often, the world applies pressure for us to uphold standards and meet expectations that conflict with our inner desires. In this memoir, Elizabeth Gilbert shows us the beauty and life-giving potential that comes when we abandon those confinements and pursue our own path instead.
Gilbert shares her own deeply personal journey through and following a divorce that turned her life upside down. Everything she’d once thought to be true about herself and her future changed seemingly overnight. In search of meaning and clarity, she sets off on a solo trip to Italy, India, and Indonesia. Each country, as she describes it, teaches her something unique and altogether necessary. What she learns over the course of her travels fosters a deep, spiritual transformation, which entirely changes how she views and lives her life from that point on. This book is lovely, heart-wrenching, and wholly inspiring, perfect for anyone with the desire for a journey of self-discovery.
3. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (Fiction)
Content Warning: Sexual Assault. Certain scenes in this book may be troubling to some readers as they include mention and attempts of sexual assault.
Where the Crawdads Sing is a beautiful and simultaneously heart-breaking story of introspection and acceptance. It chronicles the fictional life of a girl name Kya, who is known by locals as the “Marsh Girl,” who’s never known more than the North Carolina marsh region in which she grew up. Abandoned by her family at a young age, she learns how to survive and support herself in creative ways. She spends most of her time in absolute solitude, studying the plants and wildlife around her, documenting her discoveries, establishing only few human connections in her life. This novel intertwines a classic “whodunit” mystery with a unique coming-of-age narrative, making it truly unlike anything I’ve read. It was phenomenal and touched me far more deeply than I’d imagined it would.
Perhaps because I could relate to the childhood loneliness the main character feels (though not quite to the same degree, of course). I wasn’t abandoned by my family, left literally alone to fend for myself, as she is. But I did spend much of my childhood alone, lost in my own mind, exploring the outdoors, daydreaming, reading books, bonding more strongly with fictional characters and those of my own imagining than actual human beings. Because I could see aspects of myself and my own experiences in Kya, I cared more deeply about her desires and troubles, wanting more than anything to see her succeed. I truly believe the best books are those in which we see ourselves reflected, because as mentioned before, it reminds us we aren’t alone, not really, even when we may feel like it. And as a whole, that’s what this book is all about, too.
Bonus Books to Check Out
Since it truly was so hard for me to pick only three of my favorite books from last year, I’ve listed ten more below, all of which I thoroughly enjoyed and would highly recommend.
- A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (Fiction)
- Clara’s War by Clara Kramer (Nonfiction)
- Wild by Cheryl Strayed (Nonfiction)
- There There by Tommy Orange (Fiction)
- Homer’s Odyssey by Gwen Cooper (Nonfiction)
- The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich (Poetry)
- Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (Fiction)
- The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (Fiction)
- The Powerful Purpose of Introverts by Holley Gerth (Nonfiction)
- The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (Fiction)