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On my favorite books I’d read in 2021

Jack MapelLentz '22

Reading is an almost-unparalleled escape; it’s a portal through which dreams are almost close enough to touch. But I digress: without waxing too poetically about it, here are a few of my favorite books from this past year.

Virgil Wander, by Leif Enger
I started the year by finishing Virgil Wander, a charming story about the semi-fictional town of Greenstone, Minnesota. Perched on Lake Superior along the North Shore, it seemed to me strikingly like Silver Bay, sans the looming taconite plant. My brother Max and I went winter camping in Cascade River State Park, and there I dove into the book, bundled up in our tent as the snow fell outside and the sound of Lake Superior stretched past Highway 61 and all the way to our tent. I loved the book, in short. One integral part of the plot is that the main character drives off a cliff along a curve in MN-61 during a snowstorm, and the story felt so tangible as I drove along, thinking, oh, that must be the curve! I finished it back at home, I think, just after we’d all rung in the new year. I was lying on the carpet beside our fireplace, and I read the last sentence, closed the cover, and stared up at the ceiling, feeling the warmth of the fire and of the book all at once. That’s the best way to describe the story: an occasionally winding road, but heartwarming above all else.

One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez
After Virgil Wander, I delved into the Mysterious Benedict Society series — a likewise charming and equally profound children’s series that comprised a solid percentage of my childhood — but following that escapade, I stumbled upon One Hundred Years of Solitude and decided to give it a go. I can’t quite remember what pushed me to read it, but regardless, I do recall reading the paperback’s reverse and being utterly clueless as to what the description meant . But shrugging my shoulders, I jumped right in. I don’t regret it one bit. One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of those books that I know I’ll have to reread in ten years, because then I might have a greater chance of grasping it to a slightly greater degree. I now understand why Márquez is one of the most renowned authors ever, and why the book won a Nobel Peace Prize. Márquez invented a whole new genre with One Hundred Years of Solitude — “magical realism,” in which magical things happen as if completely normal. The interlocking stories of the byzantine Buendia family — many share the same exact name, so good luck keeping track of them — form an almost-fairytale, halfway-allegory, and time-warping circle. In The New York Times Book Review, author William Kennedy wrote that “One Hundred Years of Solitude is the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race.” I couldn’t agree more. It’s brilliant. Even if you’re like me and only understand a third of it.

The Anthropocene Reviewed, by John Green
I picked up The Anthropocene Reviewed after finally reaching the end of One Hundred Years of Solitude. I’ve long been a fan of, well, basically everything John and Hank Green have done, so when John began a podcast centered around the uniquely anthropocenic idea of giving everything a review on a five-star scale, I was immensely excited. I’d frequently listened to the podcast on bike rides, a pairing that I heartily recommend for its synchrony of introspection and nature. Once or twice, I tried playing an episode for my parents while on a long car ride, and I inevitably ended up accidentally picking the most borderline-depressing episode (I think it was the one on the Bonneville Salt Flats, if I recall correctly); consequently, they now joke about me and my somber podcasts. But there’s a whole lot of joy — on a transcendent, bittersweet, whole-being kind of level — as well. We drove up to Grand Marais with my family while I was in the midst of reading The Anthropocene Reviewed, the namesake book that's an expanded collection of the essays behind the podcast. I so vividly remember sitting on the concrete wall at the end of Wisconsin Street — the place where, when you’re driving in on Highway 61, it looks like the road heads straight down into Lake Superior. I just sat there for an hour or two reading, lit by the lone street lamp as the sun dipped away and it eventually grew dark; soon, my dad called me to let me know that I should probably head inside. It was one of the most peaceful things I’ve ever experienced. The Anthropocene Reviewed is ruminative, uniquely human, and, in short, exceedingly awesome.

Canoeing in the Wilderness, by Henry David Thoreau
I resided within an in-between state for the next little bit post-Anthropocene, until I ended up in the gift store for Michigan’s Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, situated atop the Upper Peninsula. They had a row of books, reprints of classic environmentalist titles like John Muir’s and one of Mark Twain’s, and among them was Henry David Thoreau’s Canoeing in the Wilderness. I actually have yet to read Walden or, well, anything else of Thoreau’s (I say this slightly ashamedly, because I’ve looked forward to reading them for years). But I picked up Canoeing with excitement, and purchased it right there, taking it with me on the hike we undertook thereafter and sheltering it in a sweatshirt-bundle from the rain that suddenly glazed the sky. I dropped it at one point, and it still has a little dirt mark along the bottom, but I thought it kind of fitting. I didn’t get much of a chance to read it on the hike — we were, after all, hiking — but when I got the chance to, I found a charming logbook of Thoreau’s travels in to the Maine wilderness. (I wonder if that area is still wilderness — it was remarkable to later, driving west on Massachusetts Route 2 out of Boston, see the little sign for Walden Pond. It was charming and still quite pristine around there, though we were on a tight schedule and didn’t stop to visit, but the sudden interconnectedness of the world struck me.) Emphasis on the logbook, though — it read very much like a direct accounting of events as they occurred, and less like a philosophical commentary as I’ve picked up on Walden possibly being. I would have liked a little more of the latter, but it was still on the whole charming, relatively short, and well worth a read.

Amity and Prosperity, by Eliza Griswold
I shortly thereafter went on a Barnes & Noble buying spree after discovering that they had a couple of ongoing sales. (I think this might be how they make more money in the long run.) One of the books I ordered was Amity and Prosperity, a gripping narrative about the perils of unfettered fracking in southwestern Pennsylvania. The companies come in — this one goes by Range Resources — with big checks and charismatic salespeople and covert marketing tactics, and they extract the natural resources, make boatloads of money, and slink between regulators, using their deep pockets to smooth over any potential roadblocks and abetting the rest with outright intimidation. It’s a story as old as time, it seems (or at least as old as exploitative corporations), but Eliza Griswold tells it with remarkable depth and clarity, and I was hooked the whole time. I sat on a dock adjacent to a campsite in Grand Portage State Forest, on Devilfish Lake, reading it for hours on end as the sun receded. (At one point, I thought I saw some people swimming across the bay, but then they slowly grew larger, and I realized they were swimming towards me. They were an older couple from St. Louis, I think — apparently they’d capsized their boat, losing it and their cooler full of Cokes to the lake bottom, and they’d been bushwhacking along the shoreline, trying to make their way back for the past five hours, before eventually encountering an impassible section and reluctantly doggy-paddling over to the dock and boat launch. Anyway:) The story is incredibly prescient; just today, I got a National Geographic notification that read, “A Canadian oil company with a history of breaking rules illegally bulldozed protected land in Africa in its quest for oil and gas.” Yesterday, I finished reading the groundwater hydrology report on Washington County, and we’re lucky to be on the other side of a fault line that separates our aquifer from the portions contaminated by 3M’s dumping of forever-chemical PFASs in Oakdale, Woodbury, Lake Elmo, and Cottage Grove. The movie Dark Waters tells nearly the same story as Amity and Prosperity, but this time with DuPont’s PFASs. All over the place, past and present, companies take advantage of ill-informed locals desperate for economic revitalization, extracting their natural resources, leaving them with the toxic residue, and siphoning away the profit. Amity and Prosperity is about a town in Pennsylvania and one woman’s fight against one company, but it’s much, much more than that: it’s a bellwether of things to come; a cautionary tale. It’s easy and convenient to believe that the fight has been fought; that our governmental agencies are acting with due diligence and that fines doled out to corporate offenders are fair and just. No: they make back the fines in a day, set aside another day for paying the top-notch lawyers who litigate the agencies to bureaucratic oblivion, and pocket the rest thereafter. Amity and Prosperity is about the newest incarnation of the same old story, but it’s frightening as ever. You will never look at a natural gas flame the same again.

Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison
I read Invisible Man, as some reading this likely will, for Ms. Benz’s AP English class. I’d long had it on my to-read list, and here was the perfect excuse to do so. What I found inside was poignant and altogether quite brutal, yet relentlessly compelling. The novel felt almost dreamlike in its recurring absurdity at various points — and when it would finally become real, something would strike again, hitting harder each time. Ellison managed to weave a remarkably detailed picture of mid-twentieth century America into a buzzing, sometimes flaming thread. Like One Hundred Years of Solitude, I know that I will certainly have to reread it at least once to even minutely approach fully understanding it. Perhaps I should withhold a proper review until then. But in the meantime, know that there’s a reason why it constantly tops lists of the best American books.

LaserWriter II, by Tamara Shopsin
I finally rounded out the year with LaserWriter II, a charming tale about a mid-90s computer repair shop called Tekserve in Manhattan. I grew up in the era of a nimble, quirky, endearing Apple, when the Internet was still only a moderately-sized snowball rolling down a mountainside. I giddily-anxiously looked forward to every WWDC conference Apple held, wishing that I could get out of school at noon to watch them. I couldn’t wait to borrow my mom or dad’s plastic iPhone 3GS to look at the maps while in the car. I learned everything I could conceptualize as a five-year-old about my white plastic MacBook that my aunt had given me when she bought a new one. A screenshot of skeuomorphism takes me straight back to circa-2012, when my dad and I would wait excitedly for the next five seconds of a video to load because the new 3G reception didn’t cover beyond the cities yet, so we did our best with the few bars of 2G EDGE that we got. LaserWriter II captures that feeling so, so perfectly. It predates me by a decade, but reading it feels remarkably familiar. The book’s cover is in and of itself a work of art; I’m still a bit annoyed that I dropped it on the gym floor and slightly scratched it. (This doesn’t come as a huge surprise — Shopsin is an illustrator for The New York Times and the New Yorker.) I imagine that the book isn’t for everyone, though I suspect that most anyone would be charmed by its anthropomorphic printer parts. But if LaserWriter II is for you… it’s definitely for you. I think I’ll be singing its praises for at least a decade. I’m normally not a huge fan of short sentences, but Shopsin is apparently a rhythmic-sentence aficionado, because each and every one of them are perfect. If you miss the days of AIM and pixels you can see and off-white plastic and skeuomorphism, then you just might wind up with a new favorite.