What We Carry: 2021 book list

When our son was three months old, the library near us reopened with limited hours. After subsisting on the riches of the Libby and Hoopla apps I was eager to re-enter a library and peruse its shelves, to introduce our son to the pleasures of browsing. Since we’d moved from one state to another during the pandemic, my wife and I had to get library cards at this new library. So one day we calculated the continuing risks of taking our infant son indoors and went together, as a family of three, to the library for the first time.

One of my 2021 goals was to “read 100 books to the baby.” I’d made the goal without having any idea what was reasonable. How could I guess how long would it take to read a book to a person I’d never met? What if I gave birth to a baby who hated books? I’d read on the library’s website about the 1000 Books Before Kindergarten program, so after we got our new cards I inquired about enrolling our son in the program. Since he was still at the stage when he slept most of the time and couldn’t hold his head up, we hadn’t been doing much reading to him yet – though we’d been given a lot of new and hand-me-down board and picture books – so I still didn’t have a sense of what kind of commitment 1,000 books was, and kindergarten seemed a long way away. Fast forward five months, and we have read more than 800 books to our son. We’ll easily hit 1,000 books before his first birthday.

One of my other goals for 2021 was to read 50 books myself. I knew going into the year that midway through our lives would change in ways I couldn’t anticipate. Fifty books seemed like a conservative goal, given previous performance and the prospect of three-months’ parental leave. In the end, I’ve made it to 40 books this year, and now even that feels like a victory, though I tackled tougher books than I’d initially expected. Some of the books I read were purely tactical, meant to give me some tools for this new adventure in parenting. Yet in some ways, all of the books I read this year equipped me for this vocation, as I turned to Ann Patchett, N. K. Jemisin, Virginia Woolf, Kate DiCamillo, Alice Hoffman, and Marilynne Robinson for the sublime fiction I needed to make it through the sleepless, stressful days and weeks of becoming a parent.

(I also watched 65 movies this year, many of them lighthearted kid-favorites I’d seen long ago that were perfect for my sleep-deprived state. Many of them ended up being movies that I was unwittingly previewing so that I could make sure that my son never watches them. “Aladdin” is now definitely on the Do Not Watch list, due to some pretty serious racist representations.)

I revisited some classics (like The Great Gatsby) and discovered new ones (like A Perfect Spy) thanks to my book clubs; I devoured the Pieometry cookbook in the twilight hours when my brain couldn’t handle much more than a paragraph but desperately needed some connection to the person I was before I became a parent. I re-read Ann Patchett’s What Now? because that became my mantra this year in the midst of pregnancy, pandemic, and parenthood. I mastered the art of reading ebooks on my phone while nursing in the middle of the night and consequently fell in love with imminently readable books like Jasmine Guillory’s deceptively easy-to-digest romance books. I invited Layla Saad, Ann Patchett, Barack Obama, the Dalai Lama, Abby Wombach and Glennon Doyle into my heart and head to teach me about the importance of compassion, empathy, justice, and (perhaps most importantly!) boundaries in the pursuit of being true to oneself – especially when your days are reshaped by the utter and delicious addition of a child who makes you (me!) remember what’s really important. (Spoiler: it’s boundaries, which makes everything else possible.)

I didn’t know what to expect from this year, but I should have anticipated the need to retreat into myself, to reintroduce myself to myself even as everything changed. Looking back on the year, I am surprised to discover that I want to inscribe “Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings” and “What We Carry” – the titles of two exquisite books of poetry – across my 2021 agenda.

This year I read 40 books to myself. Twenty-six were written by women, 11 by people of color (with an overlap of 8 books by women of color).

  1. My Life As A Villainess, Laura Lippman *
  2. A Promised Land, Barack Obama *
  3. What No One Tells You, Alexandra Sacks and Catherine Birndorf
  4. Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, Joy Harjo
  5. Truth and Beauty, Ann Patchett *
  6. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
  7. Still Life, Louise Penny
  8. A Perfect Spy, John LeCarre *
  9. Anxious People, Frederik Backman *
  10. The City We Became, NK Jemisin *
  11. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Michael Chabon *
  12. Designing Your Life, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans
  13. Call Your Daughter Home, Deb Spera
  14. Me and White Supremacy, Layla Saad
  15. Harriet the Spy, Louise Fitzhugh
  16. Harry Potter et la chambre des secrets, J. K. Rowling
  17. Sport, Louise Fitzhugh
  18. Tiger Rising, Kate DiCamillo
  19. What We Carry, Dorianne Laux
  20. Saga, Brian Vaugh and Fiona Staples
  21. Nurture, Erica Chidi Cohen
  22. The Happiest Baby on the Block, Harvey Karp
  23. Dear America: A Light in the Storm, Karen Hesse *
  24. Louisiana’s Way Home, Kate DiCamillo *
  25. No Cry Sleep Solutions, Elizabeth Pantley
  26. Crying in H-Mart, Michelle Zauner *
  27. Pieometry, Lauren Ko *
  28. Wolfpack, Abby Wombach
  29. What Now, Ann Patchett *
  30. Magic Lessons, Alice Hoffman *
  31. Schomburg: The Man Who Built A Library, Carole Boston Weatherford
  32. Interior: Chinatown, Charles Yu
  33. The Taking of Pelham 123, John Godey
  34. Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson
  35. Untamed, Glennon Doyle *
  36. Monday or Tuesday, Virginia Woolf
  37. The Proposal, Jasmine Guillory *
  38. A Terrible Thing to Waste, Harriet Washington
  39. Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut
  40. The Art of Happiness, The Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler

* books I loved

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