The Best Books I Read in 2021

The Best Books I Read in 2021

All the local year-end recaps are quick to remind us that 2021 brought our county record high temperatures and record lows. We weathered record rainfall, record flooding, and record Covid cases/hospitalizations/vaccinations/etc. But here in our house, we also played a record number of card games. We baked and consumed a record number of blueberry-almond muffins and vacuumed up a record number of salt-and-pepper puppy hairs. We now live with a record low number of cats (sigh). With four daughters in school, we washed a record number of uniforms, packed a record number of lunches, and hastily fashioned a record number of ponytails at 8:03 a.m.

The shape of our family’s reading life changed somewhat this year: with five fluent readers in the house (and one more piecing together letter blends), we read a record number of books—though not always the same books and not always (alas) together. I personally read a record number of books on local history and a record number of memoirs that seem, at first glance, like they should be boring but aren’t. I spent a record number of school-day mornings drinking black tea and reading in one coffee shop or another.

Best Books I Read in 2021 | Little Book, Big Story

But, about those memoirs. This year I discovered a genre that grew on me quietly but that I now love fiercely: that of the “ordinary life” memoir. These are the books where the author captures the everyday details of his life in some specific place and time and makes me love that place and time as well. By some happy accident, I read several of these this year, from James Herriot to Gerald Durrell to a surprise discovery in the local history section of our library. Having discovered them, I want to read dozens more.

And that is, perhaps, the theme of this year: ordinary life, in a particular time and place. While the storm blew and blustered outside, I’m grateful that we were able to go on making dinner, constructing Lego houses, playing Nertz, and staying up late to drink tea and talk teen struggles. May it be so in the new year.

(As always, the best children’s books we read this year have appeared or will appear on this blog over the coming months, even though my “best of” list always feels incomplete without them here. The books listed here are the ones I don’t have room to share elsewhere on this blog, but that I still hope you’ll enjoy.)


Gentle and Lowly, by Dane Ortlund

Gentle and Lowly, by Dane Ortlund | Little Book, Big Story

A gorgeous meditation on the heart of Christ, so lovely I read it not just once but once-and-a-half. Using passages from Scripture and from Puritan writers, Ortlund explores the “heart of Christ,” a desire for us that is tender and welcoming. I know: this book is really popular this year. You’ve probably read it or heard it recommended so many times that you, contrarian that you are, don’t want to read it at all. But this book outpaces the hype. It really is that good.


All Creatures Great and Small (Series), by James Herriot

All Things Bright and Beautiful (Series), by James Herriot | Little Book, Big Story

After years of reading and rereading James Herriot’s Treasury for Children, I finally hopped over to his memoirs, and—what a treasury for adults! Herriot’s books chronicle his life as an English country vet in the 1930s. They are funny, warm, emotional, honest, and from time to time they demand to be read aloud. I can’t bring myself to finish the series, so I read a volume only every few months and linger over it as long as I can.


Turning of Days, by Hannah Anderson

Turning of Days, by Hannah Anderson | Little Book, Big Story

A collection of essays that works from the garden outward, toward spiritual truths about who God is and the world he’s made. Turning of Days is illustrated by the author’s husband, so it reads like a natural journal filled with entries that connect theology to everyday things like trellising tomatoes and preparing the peach tree for frost.


The Corfu Trilogy, by Gerald Durrell

The Corfu Trilogy, by Gerald Durrell | Little Book, Big Story

When eleven-year-old Durrell moved, with his mother and three older siblings, from England to the Greek island of Corfu, his interest in the natural world bloomed even as his sharp eye missed nothing of his family’s eccentricity. I’ll admit upfront that the humor in these memoirs may not always be to every reader’s taste—but I loved it. Durrell’s vivid descriptions of the flora and fauna of Corfu, and his ability to communicate so much of his family’s character and personality through a few short words, made closing this book feel less like finishing a story that it did like leaving a place I’d come to love.


The Place Trilogy, by Margie Haack

First of all, I must make a disclosure: I served as copy editor for these books. One might see that as a professional bias—perhaps. But I think it’s a testament to their goodness, because I read all three of these books at least twice (but some portions much more than that), and even now, I still love them. Margie Haack’s memoirs begin in rural (very rural) Minnesota and take her from childhood to marriage to an empty nest. At every stage, she invites us to see how the gospel informs her life—even the painful, humbling portions of her life that still haven’t resolved cleanly. One of the things Haack does best is write from a place of vulnerability and humility, as though she knows she doesn’t have the answers, but she continually points readers toward the One who does. The second book, No Place, is out now; the other two should be along soon.


Making Sense of God, by Timothy Keller

Making Sense of God, by Timothy Keller | Little Book, Big Story

In his winsome way, Tim Keller invites skeptics and believers both into a discussion of why Christianity still matters today, when it seems we have access to all the answers and the means to satisfy every appetite without help from God. Like every other Tim Keller book I’ve read (and loved), this one is hospitable, well-reasoned, and thought-provoking.


The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a Kempis

The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas A Kempis | Little Book, Big Story

I’ve been making my way through this one gradually, a few paragraphs at a time. A Kempis’s meditation on the Christian life reads like a prayer book at times, like a spiritual journal at others, and occasionally like a dialogue between the narrator and God. It’s a beautiful book, and one to meditate on.


Underpinning, by Caroline Reed

Written by the daughter of a doctor in the Puget Sound area, Underpinning chronicles the childhood of Caroline Reed from 1908-1925. When I picked it up in the local history section of our library, I hoped I’d find a few details about our city at that time, but what I found instead was a delightful narrator with a knack for weaving together both the history of our region and her own childlike observations of it. And because she spent much of her childhood in my very own neighborhood, her descriptions brought to life, for me, places I spent hours when I was a child and where I spend hours with my daughters now. This book is thoroughly, woefully, completely out of print, but reading it brought me so much delight I couldn’t resist listing it here.


A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, by Eugene Peterson

A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, by Eugene Peterson | Little Book, Big Story

Peterson’s meditation on the Psalms of Ascent is beautiful, so quiet and personal. This was my introduction to Peterson’s books, and I’m eager to read more.


The New Color Mixing Companion, by Josie Lewis

The New Color Mixing Companion, by Josie Lewis | Little Book, Big Story

You know what didn’t break any records this year? The amount of time I spent painting. Now that everyone (but me) is done with daily naps, I haven’t had the quiet space or table room necessary to finish detailed, multi-layer paintings. But Josie Lewis’s clean, brilliant, geometrical paintings are wildly inspiring, and her projects are simple and meditative: perfect for tackling while, for example, my daughters Rollerblade around the dining table. And they have a magnetic effect: once I sit down to work on one, I’m inevitably joined by a curious daughter armed with her own set of watercolors.


What about you? What are the best books you read last year?