Identifying the Best Books from 2021 to Read in 2022

by James Wallace Harris, 12/18/21

December is the time when we get loads of best-books-of-the-year lists. I enjoy looking at all those lists because I love finding the books that are the most recommended. I can’t read everything. I can’t even read everything that’s great.

I’m lucky to read 4-6 new books as they come out during the year, and sometimes they are among the ones critics have loved. That’s satisfying. For any given year I probably read 10-12 of its best books, that’s including fiction and nonfiction. That’s out of thousands of books published each year, so I get a microscopic sampling of books published. That’s why I work to find the best books, and by best, I mean the most talked about, the most recommended, the most newsworthy books.

I read on average one book a week, or 52 books a year. Most of them are older books, usually from the 20th century, sometimes from the 19th, and on rare occasions even older. I don’t want my head stuck completely in the past, so I try to read 10-12 books each year from the most recent two years. I usually discover a handful of books as they appear during the year, and then identify several more to read in the following year from the end-of-the-year lists.

Over time I’m discovering the most useful best-of-the-year lists. Here are the lists I’m using this year:

Books We Love – NPR. NPR lists over 2,800 books, but they provide a filtering system to help you zero in on the ones you might prefer. Their site has yearly lists back through 2013. Just the button for Staff Picks lists 179 books, that’s way too many. What I do is study the covers. And then go on to other best-of-the-year lists. It’s like the old TV quiz show Concentration, I try to spot covers again from memory. But instead of finding the pair, I try to find covers that are shown on the most lists.

Of their Staff Picks I’ve already discovered the following during 2021:

New York Times Critics’ Top Books of 2021. This is another very long list. But they also offer another shorter list, The 10 Best Books of 2021. Sadly, the long list doesn’t include cover photos, so it’s harder to play my Concentration cover game, so reading the short paragraphs about them is important. And The New York Times even offers an even longer list, 100 Notable Books of 2021, this time with covers. The critics at the Times picked many of the books the NPR critics picked, and many books I’ve already heard some word of mouth. These are the ones I want to try so far:

Vogue, Vulture, and Time have recommendations that are often similar to NPR and The New York Times. Time also recommends another book I’ve already read: The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson. That makes me feel I did pretty good finding books coming out during 2021. And they recommend Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe that’s been on most of these lists. I’m just not interested in that subject, but with so many recommendations I feel maybe I should try it. These lists also reinforce the books I list above that I already want to read.

Publishers Weekly has a website system like NPR that recommends way too many books to consider but has a filter system to narrow things down by genre and interest. Their database goes back to 2010, and their lists have links to the original reviews. Once again I’m seeing the same covers of books I’ve been wanting to read, but I’ve spotted two additional books to add to my list from their Top Ten List: All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, A Black Family Keepsake by Tiya Miles and The War For Gloria by Atticus Lish. I’ve been remembering those two covers from the lists I’ve been seeing, and their descriptions are enticing.

I believe I’ve found a total of 23 books from 2021 that interested me most, and I’ve already read 7 of them. That leaves 16. I doubt I’ll get all 23 books read in the coming year. It depends on how many 2022 books attract my attention first, or how mired in the past I become. If I read all 23 that will double my normal current book consumption habit.

There is one last list to mention, Goodreads Choice Awards 2021. These are voted by members of Goodreads. Sometimes the bookworms pick the same books as the critics, and sometimes not. However, this list at Goodreads uncovers a lot more fun genre titles.

Lastly, I’ve discovered that if I keep these recommended novels in mind, sometimes they appear in sales at Bookbub, or in the Kindle Daily Deal, or on Audible. Also, many of them come to Scribd, a book subscription library. I think of Scridb as Netflix for books. Five of the sixteen books I want to read are already available at Scribd. It’s a bargain at $9.99 a month.

JWH

How Well Do You and Pop Culture Remember Your Favorite TV Season?

by James Wallace Harris, 8/7/21

I recently joined the Facebook group The History of American Television. It has 73.4 thousand members, and I feel many are Baby Boomers. We were the first generation to grow up with a TV. It’s both remarkable and disturbing how many thousands of hours we’ve spent in front of a cathode ray tube. Television imprinted on us like ducklings to their mother. Now that we’re old, we nostalgically remember TV shows, and some of us even rewatch our childhood favorite series time and again. Everyone I know loves TV, but most stick to the new shows. However, a large percentage of my friends if they don’t occasionally rewatch TV from the past, wistfully remember shows from when they were tykes and teens.

My father (1920-1970) and mother (1916-2007) liked TV but they seldom talked about pop culture from their youth, or tried to reexperience it. And my mother’s mother (1881-1972) never talked about pop culture at all to me, and neither did my father’s mother (1898-1981). My generation, the Baby Boomers seems obsessed with remembering TV shows, movies, albums, books, games, sports – everything they loved growing up. That’s quite evident by all the diverse groups on Facebook devoted to wallowing in Oldie Goldie pop culture.

When the TV History Facebook group began discussing the first TV show they remembered I posted a photo from the show Topper (CBS 1953-55). That was the first television series I remembered watching when I was four or five. Up till then I never met anyone who talked about seeing Topper as a kid. I got 7,300 likes and 746 shares. I was amazed that so many people had the same blast from the past.

Like my peers, I’m hung up on memory and pop culture. Individually, we have personal memories, but collectively we have history. Both kinds of recall tend to forget and distort the past, often rewriting it. I’m old enough that every year is the 50th anniversary of a year I remember living, and the media celebrates with a string of significant anniversaries. For younger people it’s only abstract history. But if a kid today grows up watching Star Trek and digging The Beatles, do they have the same experience we had?

I find it enlightening to challenge my memories. Because of this Facebook group, I struggled to recall everything I could about the TV I watched in the 1966/67 season and compare it to how pop culture remembers those shows today. I was 15 and in the 10th grade. A great deal of real history happened during those months, especially regarding the Vietnam war, but I’m only going to focus only on TV shows.

First, my memories without using Google for help. Here are the shows I remember now and believed I tried to watch every week.

  • Star Trek
  • The Time Tunnel
  • The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.
  • ABC Stage 67

Of course Star Trek has become a cultural phenomenon and I’ve seen all the first season episodes since, some several times. I’ve also read books about the creation and production of the program, meaning my memories have been reinforced. I do have a memory of watching the very first episode of Star Trek when it premiered, and I have vague memories of liking specific first season episodes that existed before I saw the reruns. I think it came on Thursdays.

My memories of The Time Tunnel are vaguer. In recent years I’ve caught a few episodes shown on MeTV, and I remembered seeing them in 1966 but I couldn’t have recalled them before hand.

I’ve never seen The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. again but I remember it starred Stephanie Powers and Noel Harrison, Rex Harrison’s son. I have seen The Man From U.N.C.L.E. in reruns, a show I also loved from that time period, but I find them impossible to watch now. I’d love to see The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. again, but I assume it would be just as stupid to me now.

I can only recall one episode from ABC Stage 67, a musical with Ricky Nelson. I think it was called “Yesterday’s Heroes.” I’ve always had fond memories of that episode and even tracked down a copy of the soundtrack years ago.

That’s not much to remember to believe the 1966-1967 television season was my favorite. I can’t watch Star Trek anymore, but I did love it for many years and watched all the sequel series through Voyager. Star Trek has made a huge impact on pop culture, and even young people today know about it. I’ve had dreams over the years where I’m flipping through the TV channels and find an episode of Star Trek I haven’t seen before. I wake up feeling this tremendous sense of nostalgia, and wanting to watch Star Trek again. When I do I’m always disappointed. It’s never as good as my memories.

Now, using help from Wikipedia’s page for the 1966-1967 television schedule. It triggered countless memories I’ve forgotten. And that makes me wonder just how many memories are still recorded in my brain? I can only access them when triggered with an external clue. Could complete ancient episodes be recorded in my brain?

Sunday: I watched Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea by myself, The Ed Sullivan Show with my family, and then my sister Becky and I would fight with my dad over the final hour. He wanted Bonanza and we wanted The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

Monday: My sister and I would watch The Monkees and I Dream of Jeannie, then I’d watch The Rat Patrol. I’d skip the rest of the evening, but I think my sister and mom watched The Andy Griffiths Show and Family Affair.

Tuesday: I watched The Girl From U.N.C.L.E, and then the family would watch The Red Skelton Hour (which is probably why I don’t remember The Invaders, a show I would have watched), and then my dad watched The Fugitive. The Fugitive bored me then, but a few years ago I bought the complete season on DVD and got into it.

Wednesday: My mom commandeered the first hour with The Virginian, which meant I usually didn’t get to see Lost in Space. I remember the kids at school loved Batman, but I thought it stupid. The family would watch Green Acres and Gomer Pyle. Sometimes I would stay, but mostly I’d go read science fiction. If I came back out I’d watch ABC Stage 67 or I, Spy, shows no one else in my family liked. I, Spy was my favorite show from the 1965-1966 season.

Thursday: I’d hog the TV on Thursday for Star Trek. Me and Becky would sometimes watch F Troop or That Girl. And my parents like The Dean Martin Show.

Friday: I’d watch The Wild Wild West or Tarzan, and then The Time Tunnel, and then 12 O’Clock High, sometimes with my dad, but usually I was by myself with the TV on Friday nights.

Saturday Night: This wasn’t a big night except for Mission Impossible which I think the whole family enjoyed. However, we often skipped it for Saturday Night at the Movies. That’s the show we watched most as a family.

Before I started these memory excavations I assumed I watched TV every night, and caught every episode of my favorite shows. But when I’ve tried to watch these shows again as reruns, DVDs, or streaming, I seldom found episodes I remember, except for Star Trek or The Time Tunnel.

As I squeeze my brain cells I realize I don’t believe now I watched as much television as I thought I did, and I don’t think we had as many regular family viewings. But I’m not sure. I do remember what I watched, and to a much lesser degree, remember who I watched with.

My mother and father were separated for the first half of that TV season, so we couldn’t have had that many family viewings that year. And once they were reunited, and we were all together again, we did watch TV as a foursome like I describe above, but I’m not sure how often. Once I began remembering TV from 1966-1967 season other memories emerged like digging for fishing worms in cow pies.

On the other hand, most of the shows from the 1966-1967 schedule are still being rerun, streamed, or sold on DVD today. Well, except the variety shows, but even clips and compilations from The Ed Sullivan Show and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour still show up. Pop culture has a more powerful memory than I do, especially after digitizing it. I could recreate and relive my 1966 days from artifacts off the internet.

These efforts to remember watching television is unearthing all kinds of connected memories. I need to stop here otherwise this blog would turn into a book. But I have one last interesting observation. I no longer like the shows I loved as a kid, but I discovered I now enjoy the shows my parents loved back then. I’ve bought the complete series DVDs of my mother’s favorite show, Perry Mason, and my father’s favorite show, The Fugitive. In the 1960s, both bored the crap out of me. In the 2020s I enjoy them.

JWH

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