clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The books that made us think and act differently this year

These book recommendations from the Vox staff will make you laugh, cry, and really think.

If you buy something from a Vox link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Eight book covers laid out in a two-by-four grid.

The events of the last two years have left a lot in their wake, including despair and loss. Those feelings can cause a tunnel vision that’s hard to snap out of, but reading can help us find a way to escape. We can engage with new ideas, ones that cultivate hope, calm us, and help us to imagine the possibility of a different world.

As 2021 draws to a close, we’ve asked members of the Vox staff to share the books that made us think or act differently this year. We hope these books carry you into the new year with a refreshed sense of purpose and peace. —Melinda Fakuade, associate editor, culture and features

More Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin

More Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin
Harper Perennial

Early on in More Home Cooking, the novelist and Gourmet columnist Laurie Colwin confides that she loves to read cookbooks.

“I’m very interested in people’s domestic lives,” she explains. “I used to think I was frittering away my time, but the fact is, what is more interesting than how people live? I personally can’t think of anything. Maybe war, or death or something, but not to me. I like to know how they serve food, what they do with it, how it looks.”

Colwin, who died in 1992, was celebrated in her lifetime as a quietly elegant novelist of quirky bohemian love stories. But since her death, a cult has developed around her food writing, the columns she wrote for Gourmet magazine in which she celebrated her own domestic life: washing dishes in the bathtub of her tiny East Village apartment, nursing a hangover with veal medallions and watercress, feasting on a roasted turkey neck she kept back for herself after Thanksgiving “without a trace of guilt, because I did all the work.” Colwin’s food writing is built on a commitment to good, simple food, cooked very well; what she describes in one of her novels as a sort of domestic sensuality.

Home Cooking and More Home Cooking have both been reissued this year as part of Harper Perennial and Vintage’s Year of Laurie Colwin. Both are excellent, but if you must choose one, go for More Home Cooking. That’s the one that offers up Colwin’s philosophy, her reason for “frittering away her time” on simple domestic concerns like what people eat and the way they eat it. Because what could be more interesting than how people live? —Constance Grady, book critic

Proof!: How the World Became Geometrical by Amir Alexander

I have felt a lot of things about the layout of the streets of Washington, DC: anger, frustration, general incredulousness that such a nonintuitive mess is allowed to exist. I didn’t think I’d ever feel wonder, or even appreciation. But when I picked up Amir Alexander’s book, Proof!, he took me on a tour of Euclidian geometry, French gardens, and absolute monarchies, which culminated, eventually, in an explanation for why the map of DC is the way it is.

Proof! was another reminder to me that everything in the world — even the things that seem the most absurd — is the product of a cultural and social history. Street maps are political arguments. Gardens are essays about power. You just have to dig around a bit (or read Alexander’s work) to understand what is being said. —Byrd Pinkerton, podcast producer

Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich

I picked up Secondhand Time in early 2021, around the anniversary of the Covid-19 lockdowns. That anniversary coincided with America’s expanded vaccination campaign, and it came with this sense that, finally, this might all be over.

Secondhand Time was a reminder that endings are rarely so simple. Alexievich’s book documents the collapse of the Soviet Union through the oral histories of the people who lived it — the soldiers, former party leaders, factory workers. Alexievich, a Belarusian journalist who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2015, lets her subjects talk. What you get are these intimate portraits of daily life framed against the turmoil of the breakup of the USSR.

Together, the oral histories reveal a collective disillusionment with the end of communism, and the gangster capitalism and corruption that replaces it. With that comes nostalgia for Soviet rule, even as people tell harrowing stories of life under it. The past gets reframed in the chaos of the present.

This made me think of how we will remember this time — the pandemic, but also the social, political, and economic upheaval that accompanied it. Vox’s Anna North and I put together an oral history of the pandemic from the view of a New York City block, but Secondhand Time made me wonder what people might say in another year, or five, or 10. Alexievich’s work shows memory is as much about what we experienced then as now. Almost two years into a pandemic, we don’t really know where the present is taking us, so we are still making and remaking our collective past. —Jen Kirby, foreign and national security reporter

We Are Watching Eliza Bright by A.E. Osworth
Grand Central Publishing

We Are Watching Eliza Bright by A.E. Osworth

I adore a point-of-view shift. When a book is written in something other than first-person singular or third-person singular, please place it in my hands immediately. Some readers find this sort of gambit incredibly gimmicky, but not me. The storytelling conventions we follow to explain the world and the people in it very often don’t explain the world or the people in it.

That affinity for this sort of device may explain why We Are Watching Eliza Bright might be the book I most fervently devoured this year. Author A.E. Osworth builds this story of a young woman working in the video game industry, who is harassed almost into oblivion by a faceless online mob, in such a way that it makes the most sense in first-person plural. The mob is narrating this book, which means the reader is immediately plunged into “we” statements (like the title!) over and over again.

Osworth is canny enough not to leave readers trapped in the POV of a misogynistic mob for their whole book. They find ways to pull out specific subsets of that mob, particularly the queer voices within it, who feel marginalized by the actions of the mob, even as these queer people are, too, “watching Eliza Bright.” You can watch someone online because you’re stalking them, or you can watch them because you want to help them, but the feeling of being watched is still what your target most perceives. Osworth and their novel understand that in a way too much writing about Our Online Life doesn’t. —Emily VanDerWerff, critic at large

A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet

The history of humanity might best be summed up with, “I told you so.”

Really, though, who wants to hear that? I know we’re living through a climate crisis of our own making; I just want a novel to read under the covers, hiding from the burning world. But if we’re going to continue stumbling toward catastrophe — and perhaps try very, very late to do something about that — we could do worse than to have A Children’s Bible at hand.

It’s a rare book that can make “I told you so” surprising, horrifying, and screamingly funny. There is still plenty in this tale that author Lydia Millet leaves ambiguous, but the battle lines are clearly drawn from the start: It’s the kids versus the parents who failed the world.

The setup is a small-scale disaster. Several well-to-do families are staying at a vacation house by a lake, and everyone is barely keeping it together. Millet wisely uses the opening to make us dislike both camps equally (hard to wring sympathy from neglectful parents or casually cruel rich kids who envy even richer kids). But when push comes to shove, we learn a lot more about where their loyalties lie.

Millet is both sensitive and ruthless in probing these dynamics, with too many great lines:

He kept a private journal in which his feelings were recorded, possibly. The possibility was widely mocked.

The brutal war these characters enter doesn’t allow for much more than grasping for the next lifeline. I kept rooting for them to make it — for their bubble of privilege to extend to the world, rather than be swiftly punctured.

There is no straight line connecting art to action. But this book left me ready to join the absurd fight, too. —Tim Williams, deputy style and standards editor

Several People Are Typing by Calvin Kasulke

I’m slowly but surely recovering the ability to read after many, many months spent unable to look a novel in the eye. Part of what’s helped me get back into my usual cadence is listening to audiobooks, and Calvin Kasulke’s Several People Are Typing was such a delight that I finished the whole thing in one sitting. It’s a novel told entirely via Slack messages, with a fully acted voice cast, and features at its center a guy whose consciousness has been somehow trapped inside the app itself. From there, it twines outward, giving glimpses of the mundane and thrilling conversations that hum underneath the activity of most white-collar workplaces. The novel could not have been more prescient given our remote-work-inclined reality at the moment.

Kasulke’s writing is clever and coy, and frequently captures the precise turns of phrase that I, a Slack-happy millennial middle manager, found so instantly recognizable as to be embarrassing. What the experience of reading (or, you know, hearing) the book did most for me, though, was remind me of all the ways there are to tell a story — even using the distinctly unglamorous tools with which so many of us organize our professional lives. If you are someone who’s at all interested in how narratives are shaped, this novel is well worth checking out, in whatever form your addled little brain can handle. —Alanna Okun, senior editor of The Goods

We’re Still Here: Pain and Politics in the Heart of America by Jennifer Silva

If you want to understand why white working-class voters are so attracted to Donald Trump and Trumpism, you shouldn’t go into a diner and talk to the first white people you find. You need to do what Jennifer Silva does here: spend years developing deep personal relationships with residents of a Pennsylvania coal town, and talking through their values, hopes, and fears.

Silva did not set out to write a book about the 2016 election, and that remains only part of the work she did write. She spends much of the book getting to know the town’s large and growing Black and Puerto Rican populations, and recounting the prejudice and discrimination that have met them as they moved to the region. But she wrote the book as the 2016 election raged, and her analysis is some of the most insightful I’ve seen on the complex interplay of views regarding class, race, and cultural identity that fueled Trump’s victory.

Silva describes a community where trust in government has collapsed among people of all races, and where citizens have largely abandoned politics in favor of a focus on self-help and personal growth. It’s a harrowing and unflinching account of how we got to now. —Dylan Matthews, senior correspondent

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell
Melville House Publishing

It would be too simplistic to say Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing is a manifesto against social media. We have plenty of those already.

Instead, it is a corrective to the supposed virtues of productivity, of “engagement,” of being connected in that superficial sense in which social media platforms claim to connect us.

Doing nothing, in Odell’s view, doesn’t mean literally sitting in your house, staring at the wall, not doing anything at all. Instead, she urges us to seek meaningful interactions — and while, yes, those can sometimes be found online, they are more likely to be outside your front door, out in the street, or in the park. She asks us to do something that feels almost radical: to value our time and attention. To take seriously the opportunity cost of scrolling through Instagram or Twitter, hunting one more “Like” or retweet, as those companies have tried to train our brains to do.

That is what I have tried to take away from Odell’s book since I read it 18 months ago. The changes it spurred in my life have been small but they are consequential. I don’t have the Twitter app on my phone anymore. I am more likely to leave my phone on the other side of the room if I am hanging out with my family or friends.

It gave me a framework within which I have tried to be more present. I don’t always succeed. But I am trying. And that alone is an improvement. —Dylan Scott, senior correspondent

Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh

I stumbled onto Allie Brosh years ago at a moment in my life that was a bit of a disaster. I’d gone through a breakup, moved to a new city, and was out of a job. Her first book, Hyperbole and a Half, for whatever reason, helped. I made a rule that I wasn’t allowed to read it in public because I’d laugh so much — at a time when it was not always easy to laugh.

After that, I’d always sort of wondered what happened to Brosh, when she’d write more. Finally, at the end of 2020, she released Solutions and Other Problems. The humor and brilliance of her writing and drawing are as incredible as ever. (I still can’t read it in public.) But the book is also a gutting portrait of real life and the personal tragedies, like death and divorce, that have befallen Brosh, as they do others.

“Sometimes all you can really do is keep moving and hope you wind up somewhere that makes sense,” she concludes at the end of a chapter that she warns readers is “the serious part” of the book. It’s a reminder that sometimes the only thing you can do is just be. —Emily Stewart, senior reporter

White Freedom: The Racial History of an Idea by Tyler Stovall

White Freedom: The Racial History of an Idea is one of those really challenging books that I couldn’t speed read through. Through a chronological examination of the concept of “freedom,” Tyler Stovall explains how the idea itself — from the birth of the country to the present day — has always been exclusionary because it’s based on white ideals. In fact, the idea of “liberty for all” was a thought that was happening in tandem with the trans-Atlantic trade.

One of the most jarring revelations the author shares is how the Statue of Liberty is “the world’s greatest representation of white freedom.” Rather than equating the symbol with this end-all “I made it” feeling of liberty for those immigrating to the US, the author contextualizes the statue’s origins — US independence and the ending of slavery — as a counter to US treatment of nonwhite persons, particularly Black people. Before reading this book I’d never heard of “white freedom.” It’s definitely a read that racked my brain and challenged my own views about how I interpret what social justice and liberty mean for different groups of people and movements. —Kaylah Jackson, associate editor, optimization

Art Is Everything by Yxta Maya Murray

Art Is Everything is the story of Amanda Ruiz, a Los Angeles artist who falls apart and puts herself back together again by posting unsolicited critical essays on the websites of various prominent art museums and other institutions. That makes it sound sort of dry, but the book is anything but — it’s just that talking about art is how Amanda processes the heartbreak of a failed relationship, the grief of losing her father, the sudden realignment of priorities that comes with becoming a parent herself, and the constant frustration of trying to make a life and a living as a queer Chicana artist in America.

This novel woke up my brain and heart in a bunch of different ways. It introduced me to artists from Scarlet Tunkl to Mickalene Thomas, and it changed how I think about others, like Agnes Martin. It gave voice to the conflicts I sometimes feel about being a writer and a mom. Most importantly, it shook up my ideas of how art becomes political. There’s sometimes an idea that for art to carry political weight, it has to sacrifice beauty, nuance, or feeling. But Ruiz thinks about her own work and the work she cares about — much of it by women of color and queer people — in a way that’s at once deeply political, intellectually complex, and grounded in care and love. Her voice showed me new ways to create and appreciate art while living in and railing against our terrible world. I’m grateful. —Anna North, senior correspondent

Let’s Talk About Hard Things by Anna Sale
Simon & Schuster

Let’s Talk About Hard Things by Anna Sale

Anna Sale hosts a podcast and I listen. When she told me she would be writing a book similar to her show — Death, Sex & Money — I was thrilled for her, but I didn’t necessarily think I’d need to read it. I’m a listener, after all! But then she sent me a copy, and I read it because my friend had just written a gosh darn book, and now I’m evangelizing because it’s really good.

Let’s Talk About Hard Things is like Death, Sex & Money in that Anna centers difficult conversations about the things we struggle to talk about, but it’s different in some key ways. For starters, these are tons of fresh stories from tons of people just like you and me. Anna puts her reporting shoes on and finds subjects who are struggling to talk about Trump, dealing with death, questioning their identity. The stories they tell will break your heart, redeem your faith, and maybe even help you heal.

The book is chock full of tools to approach conversations with the people who matter most in your lives, but it feels more like a work of journalism than self-help. Let’s Talk About Hard Things refuses to be left on a shelf once you finish it. It demands to be passed on to someone who might also benefit from the manifold lessons between its front and back covers. I shared my copy with my dad. Hope he reads it. —Sean Rameswaram, host, Today, Explained

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.