The 48 Books I read in 2021

Shocking! Real life thrillers at RBC.

Here is a run down of what I read in 2021. It equates to about 45 minutes / 35 pages a day.

Thanks to Rebel Book Club for the accountability and inspiration as always!

RBC is kicking off a big year in January with Black Spartacus by Sudhir Hazareesingh. Join in and accelerate your reading habits with us.

The scores are the personal impact and enjoyment I got out of each book specifically, not necessarily the topic or RBC conversations.

The Books

  1. Feet in the Clouds by Richard Askwith: First read of 2021 was the classic I had hoped for. Escape, adventure, extremes & wild characters — of man, woman & mountain. 9/10
  2. Travelling While Black by Nanjala Nyabola (RBC Campfire): Nanjala’s book and inspiring conversation reminded us of why we love to travel, how free human movement is still unfair for many — even if you can afford it — and how everyday activism makes the difference in the long run. Post pandemic Nanjala is off to Antarctica. 8/10
  3. The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker (RBC Jan): “A great book written with brilliant examples from an amazing lady who has lived through them all. I have used many of her rules in both a personal and business gathering space and it made my life so easy.” We had fun re-creating some of the books lessons at our virtual meetup. 7/10
  4. A Life on Our Planet by David Attenborough: Attenborough’s witness statement surpassed my expectations. I’ve read a lot of books on the climate & nature crises but this one cuts through the noise, communicates the complex & sets out a clear path. Book + Netflix film a perfect package. Living legend! 10/10
  5. The Land of Green Plums by Herta Muller: Given to me by a friend, Green Plums is definitely a novel I wouldn’t have picked up. Beautifully translated, but the style took me most of the book to get used to. Having said that the characters, atmosphere and intensity of bleak emotions were powerful. Made me more grateful for democracy. 6/10
  6. Less is More by Jason Hickel: A tough read because of the reality (a bit like The Uninhabitable Earth) but powerful because of the sketched map of solutions as an alternative to destructive capitalism. The best economics book I’ve read since Doughnut Economics. 9/10
  7. The Life-Changing Magic of Numbers by Bobby Seagull (RBC Feb): “Made me look at maths in a more positive way, I had always been disdainful of it in the past but this book has helped me see it in a different light. Enjoyed reading it!” Phil. Fun quiz at our virtual meetup with Bobby. 6/10
  8. All We Can Save by Dr.Ayana Johnson & Kendra Pierre-Louis (RBC Campfire): Books on the climate crisis often leave me with a mix of fatigue and fear. All We Can Save is different. Not just because of the splattering of powerful poetry but principally because it’s a collective work. Described as ‘provocative and illuminating essays from women at the forefront for the climate movement who are harnessing truth, courage, and solutions to lead humanity forward.’ We were lucky to spend an hour with one of the project’s contributors, Kendra Pierre Louis, who explains that Wakanda, the eco-paradise capital in the Marvel film Black Panther, shows the power of imagining a better future. The story rejects the standard narrative that humans and our environment are nature enemies. Alongside the climate science and critical realities we face it is the power of storytelling, both personal and imagined, in All We Can Save by Kendra and her fellow leaders (all women for once), that makes it such a compelling, moving and ultimately uplifting work. “It is a magnificent thing to be alive in a moment that matters so much. Let’s proceed with broken-open hearts, seeking truth, summoning courage, and focused on solutions.” 10/10
  9. It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy At Work by Jason Fried & DHH: They’ve built a $100m B2B subscription business and managed to stay calm. So its worth paying attention. I read this in 3 sittings. So many great reminders and lessons about building and running an organisation without too much stress. The kind of book you want to send to a lot of people. Unfortunately Basecamp has since been through a lot of fall out over not taking care of its people, ironically. Hard to know how to feel about it all. 7/10
  10. How to Spend a Trillion Dollars by Rowan Hooper: If you had a trillion dollars and a year to spend it for the good of the world, what would you do? A refreshing, fun and enlightening look at how we might prioritise tackling the world’s biggest challenges. Proof that if you had the funds available (and they are out there), fixing things wouldn’t be so difficult. Solving the climate crisis, Hooper concludes, is his top priority for spending the $$$ as without it, many of our other problems are impossible. 8/10
  11. Manifesto by Dale Vince: Inhaled Dale Vince’s story in 2 days. His life & career is bold, relentless & brilliant. From energy to transport to football & remarkably now, diamonds, Dale is the 🇬🇧 climate generation’s Richard Branson….and all from a hill in Stroud. Also sponsored Tribewanted Vorovoro’s wind turbine & solar panels back in 2007! 8/10
  12. How to Be More Pirate by Alex Barker & Sam Coniff (RBC Campfire): People are changing the world and having fun doing it! 7/10
  13. Rest by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang (RBC March): “The world treats rest as a privilege rather than the right it ought to be.” On the one action we can all do: “Learn how to take an effective nap!” Great RBC guest. 7/10
  14. Climate Change: How we get to Carbon Zero by Bianca Nogrady: Making the complex, clear, accessible and compelling. Especially interesting on food and waste. Good intro for people new to the subject. Ultimately not that optimistic about staying below 2 degrees. 7/10
  15. Waypoints by Robert Martineau (RBC Campfire): “An extraordinary, dreamlike journey.” @adharanand First travel book I’ve read in ages & what a gem. I got lost in the heat, history & magic of this humble West African pilgrimage. Brilliant debut from @the_tribe_way’s Rob Martineau. 9/10
  16. Slay in Your Lane by Yomi Adegoke & Elizabeth Uviebinene (RBC x Audible Live): A combination of anti-racism, invisible women and no BS entrepreneurship, its no wonder this book caused a stir. We loved hosting Yomi & Elizabeth for our first Audible event. Powerful, fun, & personal storytelling. 7/10
  17. The Fate of Food by Amanda Little (RBC April): One of those books that hurls you back and forth between wonder and shock. From the scale of food waste (a third of all we produce) to the brilliance of vertical farming. From the horror of droughts to the controversial brilliance of GMO. From the disgust of industrial agriculture to the genius of lab-grown meat. Whenever you reach the depths of ‘how are we ever going to get out of this?’ a new, or very old, story of food is shared through an individual human journey and then at scale, that gives you genuine hope and, in the case of 3D printed foods, wide-eyed amazement. Amanda was an effervescent and generous guest author at our April meetup. I left the conversation hungry; for more ideas about how to fix our broken food systems, for more things I can do in my weekly shop, for more ways to encourage others to explore one of the most important topics of our time. “A human being is primarily a bag for putting food into. A man dies and is buried, and all his words and actions are forgotten, but the food he has eaten lives after him in the sound or rotten bones of his children. I think it could be argued that changes of diet are more important than changes of dynasty or even religion…yet it is curious how seldom the all-importance of food is recognised.” George Orwell, Road to Wigan Pier (p.260 Fate of Food) 8/10
  18. The Green Grocer by Richard Walker: I’ve followed the rise of Iceland Foods as a progressive, industry-shaking brand outside the middle-class vegan nutrition bars and harissa jar bubble, with real admiration. Richard became MD of a £4bn a year revenue business with 30,000 ‘colleagues’, as he calls his staff, in 2018. Since then he’s worked tirelessly to bring his environmental concerns to the company by getting rid of palm oils, plastics and much more. What I loved about The Green Grocer was his candid insights into making this happen — appeasing his successful but resistant Dad and board — in a business with significant pressures to make profits and deliver a great service to families living off a food budget of £25 a week. It’s the kind of book you want to send to all CEOs and corporate directors. Each chapter ends with a bullet pointed plan for how to put what Richard has learnt into action. A handbook for the corporate activist generation. I think, in time, it will read well alongside Richard’s hero, Yvonne Choinnard (Patagonia) and other progressive big business leaders: Paul Pollman (Unilever), and Anita Roddick (The Body Shop). 9/10
  19. Working Hard, Hardly Working by Grace Beverley: The new productivity queen. An impressively wise 23 year old entrepreneur, model and influencer is leading the charge for a new generation. Great RBC event alongside other female founders and Grace’s dog. 7/10
  20. Eat Like a Fish by Bren Smith: I picked up this book after listening to Bren’s wild story on the ‘How to Save a Planet’ pod. It was the ideal follow-up read to Fate of Food & The Green Grocer. The subtitle describes this raw, lucid, and remarkable journey perfectly: My adventures as a fisherman turned restorative ocean farmer. Bren’s lived experience at sea describes the environmental and human cost of destructive industrial trawling and fish farming, and how farming ‘ocean greens’ (kelp etc..) is not only something that has been done for centuries, but — if scaled up — could be a big part of the answer of how to healthily feed 9 billion people without destroying nature. It even comes with recipes! 8/10
  21. Breaking Out by Janice Nix: A real-life crime thriller. Threading of past and present, before and after, sin and redemption worked so well. I was hooked, shocked and uplifted. What a wild life Janice has led. 8/10
  22. Five Rules For Rebellion by Sophie Walker (RBC May): A philosophical toolkit for a more activist life. Sophie is an honest role model and inspiration for all of us. Brilliant at our meetup. 7/10
  23. The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green: Clearly a brilliant, poetic writer, but I found the essays were so random that they were fun to discover but lacked an overall arc or purpose. Might work better in a different format. 5/10
  24. From What Is to What If by Rob Hopkins: One of the most important and uplifting books I’ve read. Hopkins makes the case that the reason we’re facing so many significant challenges is because modern life has suppressed our imaginations; to have a strong, clear vision of a better future for all. This is more than innovation. This is the complete rethinking of the way we make and do things. To resurface our imaginations we should start by asking interesting ‘what if’ questions. The books chapter titles follow this path…
    What if we took play seriously?
    What if we considered imagination as vital to our health?
    What if we followed nature’s lead?
    What if we fought back to reclaim our attention?
    What if we nurtured young imaginations?
    What if we became better storytellers?
    What if our leaders prioritised the cultivation of imagination?
    Brilliant questions, stories and case studies demonstrate what is possible. 9/10
  25. Humankind by Rutger Bregman (RBC June): There is a persistent myth that by their very nature humans are selfish, aggressive and quick to panic. In actuality, the opposite is true. It’s when crisis hits — when the bombs fall or the floodwaters rise - that we humans become our best selves.’ Bregman spends the next 400 pages making compelling cases against some of the most well known ‘humans are bad’ stories and psychological experiments over the last 100 years. From the British & German responses to the bombing blitzes of WW2 to the fate of the Easter Islander’s and the Stanford Prison Experiment, we are taken on an investigative adventure to prove that in each of these cases, the results are either unjustified or mistaken. Humankind is a rollercoaster ride of hope, surprise and further questioning of human nature. It is not bulletproof and picking intellectual holes in Bregman’s tapestry of ‘new realism’ is tempting but when you zoom out it is hard not to feel more confident that your own sense of ‘the kindness of strangers’ is part of a much bigger cultural and historical pattern. Ultimately I suspect that Humankind is particularly compelling for those with a relatively pain-free lived experience. For those who have suffered at the hands of others, the idea that we are programmed for good might be a lot harder to accept. 9/10
  26. The Book Collectors of Daraya by Delphine Minoui: A brilliant, shocking story of resilience, community and the power of books. 8/10
  27. Natives by Akala (RBC July): Where do you start with this sweeping history, personal journey and pop-culture exploration and dissection of race and class? Akala is such a compelling writer, storyteller and activist. Reading Natives I was simultaneously entertained, shocked, uncomfortable, educated and galvanised. Impressive melting point of a nonfiction classic. 9/10
  28. Sustainable Travel by Holly Tuppen: I’ve been following Holly’s excellent work on sustainable travel for years, this is a great (and beautifully packaged) summary of where we’re at and how we can all play a part in the future of travel. 7/10
  29. Breaking Boundaries by Johan Rockstrom & Owen Gaffney: “The Anthropocene forces us to acknowledge that we live on a finite planet, pushed to its limits. We are approaching the edge.” A powerful science book (with great graphics) from those that have been doing this for a long time. Shows the seriousness of the situation as well as the solution. Didn’t make me more hopeful, but certainly more empowered. Will return to this regularly. 8/10
  30. The Great Gatsby by F.Scott Fitzgerald: Recommendation from a friend as a classic to read from 100 years ago reflecting our contemporary spiritual void. Enjoyed the powerful imagery but maybe didn’t connect with the symbolism in the way I was hoping. Where are my York notes? 6/10
  31. Catch & Kill by Ronan Farrow (RBC August): Like previous RBC reads, Bad Blood & Mindf*ck, Catch & Kill rolls like a thriller, except it’s real. Depressing on the state of institutional corruption, misogyny, sexual violence & litigation within US culture. Amazing reporting and remarkable bravery of women who were abused. Hopefully this work and book, have played a part in changing the story. 8/10
  32. How to Save the Planet: The Facts by Professor Mark Maslin: A triple espresso of facts, clarity and action. Can be read in 2 hours but referred to for months/years. 8/10
  33. The Cult of We by Eliot Brown & Maureen Farrell: Me, not we. A mad story of extreme capitalism, hyper overvaluation, greed, and the American Dream being seen for what it often is — an oversold promise. It’s amazing how the old story of money drives so much bad human behaviour, especially when greenwashing tools are easy to come by. Despite the chaos at the top of the company, WeWork has undoubtedly played an important part in shifting work culture. 8/10
  34. Under a White Sky by Elizabeth Kolbert: Like a science road or river trip. Stories from the front-line of geo-engineering (from genetically modifying cane toads to carbon capture) was interesting but didn’t engage me as much as I’d hoped. But Kolbert is clearly an expert nature investigator and finds herself in curious social and scientific circles. 6/10
  35. Exponential by Azeenm Azhar (RBC insta LIVE): The exponential gap is the distance between the pace of new technology and the slowness of society trying to keep up e.g Uber app vs employment regulation. This creates so many challenges and opportunities. Azeem was a great guest and his breadth of thinking on the subject helps us make sense, in real time, of this accelerating age. 8/10
  36. Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss (RBC September): Former FBI negotiator Chris Voss tells a good story. From persuading hostage takers to bank robbers to stand down is an art and, it turns out, a method we can all learn too. Show tactical empathy by mirroring our opposition, use leading questions, let the silence hang, reassure, create an illusion of control and have a lot of patience. These are the tools that win negotiations. We had a brilliant night at our London meetup playing ‘negotiation games’ and discovered quite a few strong performers and persuaders amongst us. Chris kindly joined us for a Q&A from NYC which demonstrated his famous late night DJ voice and why he believes we can all learn to become negotiators in our work and lives, and, crucially, never split the difference! 8/10
  37. This One Wild & Precious Life by Sarah Wilson (RBC Insta LIVE): This is one the most beautifully messy, visceral, wise and wonder-inducing nonfiction books I’ve read. I was lucky to be able to chat with Sarah for RBC and its not often you see such clarity in a person: an understanding of who they are, what they are committed to and why they must be this way. It shakes you. But it’s also a real adventure; via her many incident filled treks, businesses and campaigns she’s built, Sarah is a kaleidoscope of human emotions, talents and self-confessed faults. The “elephant in the room” chapter is one of the best introductions to the climate crisis and why we must not simply ‘do our bit’, but do everything we can. Sarah’s painful fertility journey shows the fragility of life in microcosm. Her mindful wanderings, prescriptive wisdom — and actions — on helping us all reconnect to tackle our greatest challenge, is galvanising. This one wild and precious life is worth fighting for. 10/10
  38. Attached by Dr. Amir Levine & Rachel Heller (RBC October): Are you anxious, avoidant or secure? It seems too easy to divide humans into 3 types of attachment but Levine & Heller do a good job in making it feel like we really do live up to one of these roles in relationships. We heard from quite a few members who found the book a real game-changer in their lives as well plenty who were skeptical about its simplicity and lack of awareness of a diversity of relationship types and sexual orientations. It led to some excellent, bigger discussions on effective communication and at our meetups we heard from experts who use attachment theory as a big component of their work. We even played Blind Date, attachment style! 7/10
  39. Do Earth by Tamsin Omond: Healing strategies for humankind. Fascinating author (climate activist and more) who is refocusing some of her anger at injustices into new ways of connecting with nature and people to build community and solve big problems. Great little reminders and, as always with DO BOOKs, small is beautiful. 7/10
  40. Consumed by Aja Barber: “The price you pay often pays back.” Powerful, personal and clear on the intersection of fast fashion, climate, colonialism and injustice. Its excellent — but an even stronger reminder of the need to not work with or buy from any fashion brand that doesn’t first focus on: Cutting the amount of clothing people buy. Make sustainable fashion accessible with full supply chain included. Make sure transparency in supply chain around finance and payment of garment workers. 8/10
  41. The Deficit Myth by Stephanie Kelton (RBC November): Great intro to Modern Monetary Theory. Top insight: The State (one that has monetary sovereignty) won’t ‘run out of money’; there will never be a day where our government cannot afford to pay for healthcare or pensions. 7/10
  42. The Good Ancestor by Roman Krznaric: How to think long-term in a short-term world? One of the most important questions to ask today. Roman does a great job guiding us through the big long-term ideas from Cathedral Thinking to Legacy Mindset before sharing political, cultural and social examples of people and orgs already putting good ancestorship into practise. Considering these big questions and how we might apply them never feels like wasted time and that’s the point. We need to think (and act) a lot more in the ‘long-now’. 9/10
  43. Sleights of Mind by Stephen Macknik & Susana Martinez-Conde (RBC December): What can we learn from magicians? Magicians know that multitasking is a myth & so they use ‘divide and conquer’ approach with attention. Magicians make mistakes all the time, but they move on quickly so the audience never notices. Magicians use empathy and humour to lower our guard. 7/10
  44. Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley-Robinson: Fiction! The opening chapter gripped me. After that it was an up and down journey between a fascinating near future climate adventure and some fairly strange explorations. The core story and premise was powerful but could have been 100 pages shorter. Got me thinking differently about the climate crisis and visualising alternative futures which is pretty powerful. 8/10
  45. A Bigger Picture by Vanessa Nakate: Fascinating close-up, step-by-step story of how a young Ugandan woman started bravely protesting about the climate crisis. Inspiring by doing rather than talking. 8/10
  46. 4000 Weeks by Oliver Burkman: Time management for mortals. Kicks hustle culture and productivity hacking into touch and zooms in on the bigger question of our relationship with time. The shortness of the average human lifespan in the UK (80 yrs or 4000 weeks) is not a cause for despair, but relief; we get to choose how best to spend it. 9/10
  47. English Pastoral by James Rebanks: “There is nothing beyond this. Nothing higher. Nothing more profound than these simple things; nothing that matters more than trying to live our little life on this piece of land.” Loved this poetic, reflective, insightful journey into the heart of a family run farm. As uplifting as it is painful. Strong storytelling. 8/10
  48. Saltwater in the Blood by Easkey Britton: Part human, part Irish fish; Easkey Britton’s myriad identities of big wave surfer, marine scientist and social activist flow their different life paths but inevitably take her, and all of us, back to where we came from — the sea. A unique, thunderous and inspiring exploration of our relationship with water. 8/10

My Book of the Year: This One Wild & Precious Life by Sarah Wilson

Why? The perfect mix of personal life adventure (as well as actual adventures), wisdom and action through activism. Loved the refreshing format with post-pandemic side-notes. Movingly captured the moment and feelings of the last couple of years. Great to chat with Sarah, an Australian author and activist, as we kick off a new funding platform for climate startups down under; Raaise.

Thank you for reading my reviews. Please add any of yours or recommendations for future reads yourself.

Join us at Rebel Book Club in 2022 for 12 (not 48) more remarkable reads.

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co-founder @RebelBookClub non-fiction community @raaise startups fixing climate http://benkeene.com

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Ben Keene

Ben Keene

co-founder @RebelBookClub non-fiction community @raaise startups fixing climate http://benkeene.com

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