The best books of 2021


To the brave reader who has been following me somehow regularly it’s obvious that Emacs is the main topic of discussion here on these pages. Being it a personal website, though, it makes sense to expand on other topics as well. And since my cinephile side is pretty much covered by Films in Words, what is left to write about? Books, of course. Starting from next year I will share here a few words on the books that I enjoy the most. For today, however, a classic best-of list is all that I am going to offer.

I have selected only the most relevant books from this year, setting aside almost everything related to my University exams. Without further ado, from bottom to top:

12) Spinoza (Lorenzo Vinciguerra)

Carocci has been covering many great philosophers with these handy companions. Beside Vinciguerra’s, I have been through the ones about Aristotle, Plotinus, and Decartes and they all proved to be more than mere introductions. They are deep, clear, and concise explorations that help the reader move swiftly among outstanding thinkers. I am singling out Vinciguerra’s book because Spinoza is particularly dear to me, but any serious philosophy enthusiast should check Carocci catalogue.

11) The Broom of the System (David Foster Wallace)

Not my favourite work from David Foster Wallace, but he was still able to absorb me and enthrall me. Even though most of the time I was looking for clues to understand how he moved from here to Infinite Jest, he was already a superb writer and an enigmatic story-teller when he published this.

10) Michael Mann (Pier Maria Bocchi)

My favourite Italian film critic on my favourite film director. There is nothing much to add. This is a work of love, it’s plain to see, but it is not only for Mann’s devotees. Bocchi has dedicated more than twenty years to study the director’s career and the amount of insights in these pages is outrageous. I won’t say this is the book about Michael Mann, but yes, it definitely is.

9) Surfacing (Margaret Atwood)

A little book about the imaginative power of memory and how hard it is to control it. Atwood does not tell. She evokes impressions, suggests emotions, points at infinite directions. She traps the reader gently and then shocks them at the right time.

8) Philosopher of the Heart (Clare Carlisle)

One the most introvert philosophers of all time, Kierkegaard put everything he thought and was in his writings, so why should we read a book about him written by someone else? Carlisle answers this rather silly question of mine with a marvellous work that places the reader within the Danish philosopher’s mind and heart. Eventually, she poses an interesting question to any Kierkegaard’s apprentice out there: what if there is something about him that he was not able to process with his philosophy?

7) Freedom (Jonathan Franzen)

Franzen always seems capable of capturing something about my life when he writes, as he does all the time, of people that could not be more different from me. Freedom tops the already great The Corrections not only because of this, but also because whenever I think of life one of his characters comes to mind, and more often than not they have such familiar faces.

6) Attesa di Dio (Simone Weil)

Considering my idea of Christianity, when a book forces me to think about the Pater Noster for months then it has to be special. Weil’s explorations of every word of the Lord’s prayer is the only thing I could think of when, a few days ago, I happened to be in church for a funeral. Faith remains a complicated issue for me, but Weil has forever changed the way I look at prayers.

5) Diari 1941-1943 (Etty Hillesum)

As a member of a book club, at one of our meetings I had a hard time explaining why it is next to impossible to write about what it means to live through hate and die because of it after Hillesum’s pages. Which is the main reason why I didn’t enjoy the book we were discussing, anyway. I wish Etty could have been there because she would have found the right words. She was truly one of a kind.

4) The Human Stain (Philip Roth)

From now on when someone asks me about race I will point them to this book, simply because I’ve never seen the hypocrisy of so many opinions about race and racism framed so intelligently. Roth sharp writing takes no prisoners. As soon as I was sure to have him finally pinned down, he punched me hard and woke me up once and for all.

3) Moby-Dick (Herman Melville)

For reasons beyond my understanding Melville’s masterpiece has entered my life many times but only this year I was able to pick it up and go through all of it. In awe, of course, because there is no other way to witness the literary genius of Melville at work. If you are not deeply in love with this book already, I could not recommend the Norton Critical Edition enough.

2) I Promessi Sposi (Alessandro Manzoni)

Possibly the most hated book in Italian high schools, I was lucky back then because I had a great teacher that was able to convey her passion for Manzoni to a kid who was not ready for the world just yet. More than twenty years later I decided to see whether I Promessi Sposi had still something to offer to me. It’s safe to say that it will take me a while to find another novel that can match the emotional turmoil Manzoni has put me through once again.

1) La Divina Commedia (Dante Alighieri)

As great as the above-mentioned teacher was, a colleague of hers who was supposed to enlighten us about Dante Alighieri was instead a complete jackass who disregarded La Divina Commedia entirely, and so I ended up finishing high school with little to zero knowledge about this classic. More so than with Manzoni, I wanted to feel ready when approaching Alighieri, and studying philosophy has taken me right where I wanted to be. I am going to read La Divina Commedia over and over again for the rest of my life and I am confident I will never be able to talk about it with the respect and the wisdom it deserves.

That’s all from 2021. Happy new year, people!