RJ’s 2021 Draw-bag Booklist

In compiling my annual draw-bag list for 2021 I’ve invested many hours, seeking the most relevant, informative, and challenging books out there, of which there are so many that I’ve had to practice tough-mindfulness in deciding what to exclude. My list includes classics that remain resonant as well as newer works on many subjects, providing provocation and challenge. As we travel 2021 together, I wish you good reading, health and abundant joy. —rj


Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio. (Often considered among the first modernist American novels, narrated in twenty-two short stories exploring the psychological consciousness of protagonist George Willard, it remains an enduring and influential classic of life in pre-industrial small town America.)

Anyuru, Johannes. A Storm Blew In From Paradise. (Taking Sweden by storm, Anyuru’s novel, drawn from the life of his Uganda father and himself, movingly, and without sentimentality, narrates a story of loss, exile, and search for identity.) 

Bruner, John. Stand on Zanzibar. (Bruner is largely unknown, save to science fiction buffs, which is a pity. A prolific genius, Bruner penned more than 80 SF novels along with short stories, of which Stand7 on Zanzabar (1968) is eerily prescient in anticipating our contemporary world.)

le Carré, John. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. (le Carré’s most renowned espionage novel set in East Germany, it transcends plot to indict practices inconsistent with professed democratic and moral values.)

Lewis. Sinclair. Main Street. (Edged out for the Pulitzer because it was judged too political, it remains Lewis’most renowned novel, satirizing small town America and setting the stage for the Nobel Prize for Literature a decade later.)

Marquez, Gabriel Garcia. Love in the Time of Cholera. (One of Latin America’s greatest writers, Marquez’ embraces love, aging and mortality in what will remain an enduring classic.)

McEwan, Ian. Atonement. (A stunning achievement telling of love, war and the destructive capacity of the imagined, rendered in stunning prose.)

Penny, Louise. Still Life. (First in detective series featuring inspector Armand Gamanche. Penny’s mysteries, numbering fifteen, have been translated into twenty-three languages.)

Robinson, Kim Stanley. Ministry for the Future. (Prolific and gifted, science fiction writer Robinson presciently narrates a killing heat wave that may become our future.  Superbly relevant.)

Roy, Arundhati. The God of Small Things. (Set in Kerala, India, Roy’s novel narrates an illegal liaison with fateful consequence. A novel destined to become a classic.)

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. (Believed to be one of Shakespeare’s last plays, The Tempest has sparked revived interest for its timeless relevance.)

Wharton, Edith. Age of Innocence. (An enduring classic, set in the Gilded Age, it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, making Wharton its first female recipient.)


Aronoff, Kate, et al. A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal. (A specific strategy for limiting global carbon emissions simultaneous with promoting economic equity.)

Aurelius, Marcus. Meditations. Tr. Gregory Hays. (If I were exiled to a remote island I can’t fathom a better companion. Wise meditations on what really matters.)

Berlin, Isaiah. Four Essays on Liberty. (GPS host Fareed Zakaria says Berlin’s book profoundly impacted his political views. That’s good enough for me.)

Blum, David. Quintet: Five Journeys Toward Musical Fulfillment. (The late conductor Blum’s revealing portraits of five beloved classical music performers: cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the conductor Jeffrey Tate, the violinist Josef Gingold, the pianist Richard Goode, and the opera singer Birgit Nilsson. )

Cose, Ellis. The Short Life and Curious Death of Free Speech in America. (A cogent polemic revealing the usurpation of the First Amendment by marginal interests groups bent on distorting truth and despoiling American democracy.)

Dalrymple, William. The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East Asia Company. (The history of an international corporation in India, its arrogance, racism, and corporate abuse.)

Dawkins, Richard. River Out of Eden. (A summation for the layman of Dawkin’s previous works on the legacy and centrality of evolution. )

Davis, Wade. Magdalena: River of Dreams. (Davis’ exploration of Columbia’s arterial waterway, explores not only a river, but through largely indigenous narratives, the lives it touches. Powerful, unforgettable.)

Dillard, Annie. For the Time Being. (Miscellaneous topics, among them Dillard’s rejection of “the doctrines of divine omniscience, divine mercy, and divine omnipotence.”)

Ferry, Matthew. Quiet Mind Epic Life: Escape the Status Quo and Experience Enlightened Prosperity Now. (Ferry compellingly shows us how to escape a chattering mind and find inner peace,)

Graeber, David. Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. (Best selling, Graebner’s exploration of the rise of “meaningless” jobs and their social consequences.)

Hãaglund, Martin. This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom. (A powerful reexamination of our material pursuits under capitalism and challenge to commit ourselves to values that sustain and promote true freedom.)

Jefferies, Richard. The Story of my Heart. (Jefferies died at 39, leaving behind some of the keenest observations of nature ever written. This moving work will leave you wiser.)

Kendi. Ibram X. Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. (A sobering critique of the continuing presence of racism in American life,)

Kolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. (Humanity’s destructive contribution to species decline.)

Nussbaum, Martha. The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis. (A brilliant and candid analysis of the culture of fear by one of our leading moral philosophers.)

Obama, Barak. Dreams from my Father. (I love this man for his decency and eloquence. This seems a good place to begin.)

Obama, Barack. The Promised Land. (No former president has written so remarkably candid a memoir like this, first of two volumes.)

Pickney, Steve. Angels of our Better Nature. (Harvard psychologist’s reasoned contention that violence is not our future.)

Sheehy, Gail. Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life. (The late Sheehy’s 1976 study explores transitional stages of human development from early adulthood to midlife and beyond.)

Thompson, Evan. Why I am not a Buddhist. (A critique of modernism within Buddhism per se. Thompson, for example, views the notions of non-self, mindfulness and nirvana as empirically problematic.)

Westover, Tara. Educated. (Raised in a survivalist Mormon family, Westover recounts her journey to independence, academic achievement and self-esteem.)

Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste: The Origins of our Discontents.
(May well-be the priority non-fiction read of 2020 in its timely assessment of America’s enduring legacy of racial divide. Riveting, transforming, magisterial.)

Zakaria, Fareed. Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World.
(What constitutes good governance? Drawing on economic and cultural resources, Zakaria provides a convincing answer.)


Author: RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.

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