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NPR's picks for 2021 books on current events


While I love to escape with a good novel, especially these days, I also read a ton about current events, what's happening in politics, what's happening to the climate, what's happening in the world of technology. It will probably not shock you that is the case for a lot of other people here at NPR, too. Books We Love, NPR's list of best reads from 2021, has hundreds of recommendations for books that came out over the past year. And today, we have four suggestions all about current events. I'll go first. I recommended "Last Best Hope: America In Crisis And Renewal" by George Packer. It is really no exaggeration to say that I have thought about the essay at the core of this book, which is about how America has sorted itself into four tribes that increasingly view each other with suspicion and contempt. Just about every day since I first read it, I think I've sent a link to the Atlantic excerpt to nearly everyone that I know. George Packer's analysis of how the pandemic and the Trump-era hypercharged division in the country is pretty bleak, despite the positive spin that the title's framing and the book's final chapter attempt to put on things. But it is an essential reading to understand what has gone wrong in our politics and in our civic institutions.


LATESHA HARRIS, BYLINE: Hi, I'm LaTesha Harris, an editorial assistant for NPR Music and Louder Than A Riot. I recommend that you read Mariame Kaba's "We Do This 'Til We Free Us" as soon as you can. Last summer, after the police killing of George Floyd, abolition became a mainstream conversation for the first time in its organizing history. Even though global calls to end policing and replace it with other practices of communal safety petered out, the need for that to happen is as pertinent as ever. We saw the double standard of policing in its institution in the verdict of Kyle Rittenhouse. We will always see this double standard because that's how the law functions.

"We Do This 'Til We Free Us" is a vital introductory text of transformative justice and its organizing principles. Kaba's analysis of prisons and policing is human centric and expansive. She explains that as it stands, the institution of punishment is restrictive, carceral and dependent on racism. "We Do This 'Til We Free Us" breathes hope into the movement and is equally accessible for people new to abolition and its veteran organizers.

MANO SUNDARESAN, BYLINE: Hi, I'm Mano Sundaresan, and I'm a production assistant on NPR's All Things Considered. And the book I chose is "Under A White Sky" by Elizabeth Kolbert. Now, there is a pervading sense through this book that we've royally screwed up. Kolbert reports on the many ways humans have created these environmental problems, tried to solve them and create even more problems as a result. This sounds kind of sad and bleak and maybe even dry, but it's actually really, really engaging and really funny. Kolbert's travels take her all around the world, to some pretty bizarre places, including one Asian carp fest, which is quite literally a celebration of Asian carp. It's an interesting book that will make you laugh and make you really think about the state of things and how we've maybe gone too far. And the question it poses and doesn't super answer is, have we gone too far?


DENISE COUTURE, BYLINE: I'm Denise Couture, and I'm a senior editor at NPR. My book recommendation is "Flying Blind: The 737 MAX Tragedy And The Fall Of Boeing." The author is Peter Robison. The book is actually kind of heartbreaking. Remember those 737 MAX crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia a few years ago? This book is about what happened at Boeing, the company, that led up to those crashes and why there's been so little accountability. But he also tells a bigger story, one we've seen other places in corporate America over the decades. He explains in detail how Boeing went from being a company of engineers, where creating a perfect product was everything, to becoming a company of Wall Street types where the bottom line was everything and safety took a backseat.

I love this book not just because it's so well researched and interesting, which it is, but also because I'm from Seattle. Back in the day before Amazon, if you lived in the Seattle area, you either worked for Boeing or you knew someone who worked for Boeing. In my case, it was both. And I just think it's really important for people to know where Boeing went wrong.


DETROW: That was Denise Couture recommending "Flying Blind," Mano Sundaresan with "Under A White Sky" and LaTesha Harris who suggested "We Do This 'Til We Free Us." And that was also me, Scott Detrow, recommending "Last Best Hope." For more ideas on what to read, you can find the full list of Books We Love at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Denise Couture
Mano Sundaresan is a producer at NPR.
LaTesha Harris is NPR Music's editorial assistant. A relentless jack-of-all-trades, she takes turns writing, editing and producing music coverage. Invested in the culture behind pop, hip-hop and R&B, her work highlights the intersection between identity and history. Once in a blue moon, Harris moonlights as a talking head with no filter.
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.