Best books of 2021

Best books of 2021. This picture shows the covers of The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honoree Fanonne Jeffers, A Psalm for the Wild-Built, by Becky Chambers, Intimacies by Katie Kitamura, and Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe.
Our resident book nerd and host, Greta Johnsen, read over 100 books this year. We talk about the best of them! All book covers courtesy of their publishers.
Best books of 2021. This picture shows the covers of The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honoree Fanonne Jeffers, A Psalm for the Wild-Built, by Becky Chambers, Intimacies by Katie Kitamura, and Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe.
Our resident book nerd and host, Greta Johnsen, read over 100 books this year. We talk about the best of them! All book covers courtesy of their publishers.

Best books of 2021

WBEZ brings you unbiased news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

Two certified book nerds, MJ Franklin of The New York Times Book Review and Traci Thomas of The Stacks podcast, join Greta to round up the best books of the year.

Here are their top picks, in no particular order:

The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois, Honoree Fanonne Jeffers

The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois, Honoree Fanonne Jeffers

This book is so good that both Greta and MJ included it on their lists. “It’s phenomenal,” Greta said. In this debut novel, Honoree Fanonne Jeffers traces the story of an African American family in the South from before the Civil War to the present.

“What. A. Book!” MJ agreed. “The thing I loved about it is that it announces itself with so much sweep and authority.”

Great Circle, Maggie Shipstead

Great Circle, Maggie Shipstead

Greta admitted this is not the first time she has talked about Great Circle on Nerdette, especially since it was the Nerdette book club’s June selection. “It’s historical fiction at its finest,” Greta said. The novel spans both centuries and geography to tell the stories of two heroines, a pilot and the actor portraying her in a biopic. “I think so often with books that have alternating timelines, there’s the one you really enjoy and the one you have to slog through so you can get back to the one you enjoy. And that never happened with Great Circle. It was always fascinating wherever you were in the story.”

A Psalm for the Wild-Built, Becky Chambers

A Psalm for the Wild-Built, Becky Chambers

A Psalm for the Wild-Built is a science fiction book about robots, humanity, purpose, and hope. “It explores what humans want and what it even means to be human with such sweetness and compassion that I was just so grateful for it,” Greta said. “It’s short and sweet. I just want to give it to everyone because it’s such a lovely reminder to revel in goodness, which I think we could all use more of this year.”

How the Word is Passed, Clint Smith

How the Word is Passed, Clint Smith

Clint Smith is a staff writer at The Atlantic and a poet. How the Word is Passed is a tour through American landmarks and monuments and their connections to American history. “It’s not necessarily about the history of that place,” MJ said, “but what the people there think of that history. He talks and listens. It is endlessly fascinating. I think what makes it so good is that it’s nonfiction but it reads like fiction.”

Traci couldn’t help but chime in: “This book is so so so so so so good!”

Intimacies, Katie Kitamura

Intimacies, Katie Kitamura

Intimacies is a novel that follows an interpreter in The Hague who is dealing with loss, love, and political conflict. “What wowed me about this book is truly the strength of Katie Kitamura’s prose,” MJ said. “The word I keep using is precise. You get the sense that every word is crafted with a poet’s precision. Every sentence is doing double and triple duty here.”

Seek You, Kristen Radtke

Seek You, Kristen Radtke

Traci does not normally pick up graphic memoirs like Seek You. But in this case, “this book totally blew me away,” Traci said. In this timely nonfiction book, Radtke explores the epidemic of loneliness in America. “It is so beautiful, Traci continued. “The writing is so beautiful, the pictures are so beautiful, the colors are so beautiful.”

Empire of Pain, Patrick Radden Keefe

Empire of Pain, Patrick Radden Keefe

Empire of Pain is a deeply reported account of the Sackler family’s rise to power and the drug Oxycontin. “For me, it’s the way the story’s written,” Traci said. “I don’t even know how to say how great it is. It’s one of the best things I’ve read in a long time, actually.”

A Little Devil in America, Hanif Abdurraqib

A Little Devil in America, Hanif Abdurraqib

In A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance, writer, poet and cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib discusses Black performance through a collection of far-ranging essays. “There’s an essay on Black people in space. He’s talking about Trayvon Martin. He’s talking about his own mother. And he’s weaving it all together,” Traci said. “He’s really a writer where it’s just like, how are you so talented? how are you gifted in this way, and thank goodness that I get to read your work as you write it.”