The Books that Stuck with me in 2021

My preferred approach to reading is to take a single topic that interests me and to read a number of different books on it. So this year, I found myself diving deeper into a select number of topics and exchanging my pace of reading for a deeper, more syntopic approach, in the pursuit of uncovering nuances between multiple perspectives and helping me answer some key question on the subject.

So here are the Big Questions I continue to explore and one book from this year that helped me sharpen or otherwise deepen my perspective on the matter.

What happens when we have radically extended life?

Human beings are living longer than ever before. While the U.S. life expectancy decreased last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, our overall life expectancy is nearly twenty more years than the average life expectancy of someone living a century ago. Today’s longevity research enables us to slow down the aging process even further, steering us towards the opportunity to live well above a hundred years. Naturally, who wouldn’t want to? In university, I became fascinated by this growing trend and wanted to understand it from the other side: for those who choose differently, what will it mean to die with dignity? In The Inevitable: Dispatches on the Right to Die, Katie Engelhart deftly explores the idea of autonomy around a life almost finished. She offers a history of the contemporary right-to-die movement and manages to lay out all the arguments for or against a “good death” without bias, without reproach, and with heroic empathy in the human stories behind this choice. It only underscored my own belief that as we are gifted with more time, we will all need to think more intentionally about the ends of our lives.

What kind of relationships will we have with artificial intelligence that’s embedded into our lives?

First of all, Kazuo Ishiguro is hands down one of my favorite authors of all time. His earlier work Never Let Me Go is one of my favorite novels for his characters’ subtly revealed devastation (I won’t spoil any more of it.). In his latest novel Klara and the Sun, he paints a similarly familiar yet dystopian future where intelligent machines play a huge role in our lives. The plot is timely, with children, like Josie, forced to attend school mostly online these past two years. Perhaps they too would have benefited from a companion like Klara to fight loneliness and have an outlet for socialization. The book struck me for Ishiguro’s delicate and haunting writing style just as much as it did for the depiction of a future where our machines go beyond the utilitarian. It makes me wonder, how will our relationships with our machines change in a future where they increasingly fulfill more of our needs ; and how close are we to it?

What is the future of families?

Americans are having less sex than ever before, marrying or cohabitating with partners later in life, and having fewer children. At the same time, women are undergoing egg freezing in record numbers and forgoing the traditional notion of the nuclear family. So this year, I found myself thinking a lot about how community will play an increasingly large role in redefining what family is in the future.

While only tangentially related, I kept coming back to the philosophical underpinnings of Amia Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex which considers the unconscious and conscious factors that contribute to when, how, why, and with whom we pursue physical intimacy. This isn’t a book about sex itself. It’s a book about how feminists have historically reclaimed bodily agency. I didn’t agree with it all; in some ways, it makes a huge miss in distilling sex into something purely rational and denying the role of raw physical desire. But there are lucid moments in it that helped me draw new connections to explain why we are seeing a generation identify as gender fluid, and the omnipotent role of media in learning about intimacy and why platforms like OnlyFans became so popular.

Orienting my reading around Big Questions shaped not just what I read but how I read. These were just three highlights, and 2022 will continue to expand on these and even more Big Questions, including “What is the future of cities in an increasingly remote, decentralized, sustainable world?” “What does a post-college future look like?” “How do we make decisions in an increasingly noisy world?”

If you have recommendations for readings that relate to any of these Big Questions, I welcome them.

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