Every book I read in 2021

2021 was a weird one. I had a hard time reading as much as I usually do. For my top five and the full reading list, scroll down. But first a story about when Texas froze…

Nathan Ryan
10 min readJan 7, 2022

On Friday, February 19, 2021, the snow and ice melted enough that I could get my truck out of the neighborhood safely. I bought a Silverado in 2018 because everybody always needs help moving something and I like to help. I didn’t get the off-roading package because, why? It’s Texas. Sure, that might be a fun thing to have but I’d rarely, if ever, need 4x4 capabilities, right?


Chevy Silverado vs. Snow and Ice. Snow and Ice win.

When a cold front moved in on February 10 and Winter Storm Uri bore down on Texas on February 14 and the state’s power grid failed Amanda and I, like so many Texans, were woefully unprepared. We were lucky though. We reduced but didn’t lose power and we didn’t lose water, though we did have to boil it.

The Texas freeze happened a little over a month after the January 6 insurrection, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Vaccines weren’t widely available yet, so Texans all over the state took one another in regardless of their own risk of infection. Ordinary Austinites and Texans sprang into action once the freeze thawed, organizing the delivery of food, water, and other essentials.

When the freeze first hit, though I couldn’t get my truck out of the driveway, I had power and internet so I spent my days and nights helping coordinate fundraising, distribution, and housing efforts with various groups around the city from my home office. We also took my business partner and his girlfriend in for the week, stretching five days of food for two people to almost seven days for four people.

Once it was safe to drive I connected with Austin Mutual Aid and started delivery groceries. Then I saw a call from the Austin Firefighters Association asking any Austinite with a truck to come to one of their headquarters to get a big cube that could be filled with potable water provided by local Austin breweries. So I picked up a cube, got it filled up at 4th Tap (I also got a beer), jury-rigged it so it could dispense water, and started driving to retirement homes, schools, and apartment complexes, coordinating with city council offices along the way.

We made it work.

I spent more than two weeks delivering groceries and essential items, about six days delivering water. It’s still such a blur, but I can remember two very distinct moments.

The first was an apartment in north Austin where we dropped off groceries. Even walking up the stairs to the apartment unit was dangerous because a lot of the ice hadn’t melted yet. We knocked on the door and a woman came out, we were all masked up. We handed her a few bags of groceries and… she handed us a bag back. When we asked what was in it she said it was full of feminine care and other toiletry products. She was in need but had those in excess. She asked if we would give those to Austin Mutual Aid or another group to be distributed. Even though she had no water, no power, no food, she wanted to give back, too.

Me, Martin, and my truck, Reservoir Dog.

The second moment I remember clearly was the last full day I had the cube on my truck (Twitter named my traveling water mobile “Reservoir Dog”). My friend Martin Martinez traveled with me for most of the week, and we had coordinated with newly inaugurated city council member, Vanessa Fuentes’, office to put together an event for residents in southeast Austin (where I live) so they could drive through and pick up a hot meal, groceries, water, masks/PPE, and other essentials. This was a hard day. Everybody had been working nonstop, around the clock, for well over a week.

We set up at an elementary school in the middle of a neighborhood, Austin ISD Police were there to help direct traffic, delivery trucks were coming with more product, and cars were lined up for at least a mile around the block. As is normal in these kinds of emergency scenarios, it wasn’t always clear who was in charge, and there were lots of different opinions about how to handle the process. We stocked a few cars, changed our approach, and repeated that for a couple of hours. But then, at some point, we found our groove.

Have you ever worked with a group of strangers that finds its groove? It’s such a beautiful thing. Suddenly songs from Selena and Willie Nelson were blasting from the speakers, and it was a dance party as we continued to load supplies into peoples’ trunks. People in their cars were crying, telling us their stories of trauma from the week, telling us how thankful they were for whatever we were able to give them until their power or water turned back on. Thanks to a few brave, skilled organizers, and one highly skilled, brand new (!!!) elected official, we were getting people things they needed and having a mid-morning dance party in the aftermath of a freeze, in the middle of a global pandemic.

Volunteers (and Amanda) at Jane Langford Elementary School in Southeast Austin, directing cars to pass out supplies.

I know we all hate this word by now, but the human spirit is incredibly resilient. 2020 was really hard, but I honestly have a hard time wrapping my head around everything that happened in 2021.

A global pandemic that’s killed more than 800,000 Americans and continually shocked the U.S. economy continued to evolve and introduce new variants; police brutality; a rise in violent crime; extreme partisanship; an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol; brazen attempts to make it harder to vote and easier for elected officials to cheat in elections; an increasingly unstable democracy; a freeze that killed more than 700 Texans; a state government here in Texas that prioritized cheap and costly partisan politics and culture war over any kind of real progress on Texas’ electrical grid or public health.

That list doesn’t include anything that happened internationally, much less the very personal things each of us have dealt with.

None of this is easy. Lately I’m tempted to say screw it and go back to bed. Then then I remember we only get one shot at this. That what we do matters, how we show up and how we respond to the little things and the big things outside of our immediate control matters. Our responses individually and collectively today create a template for our responses tomorrow.

That people are resilient is no excuse for systemic or other failures. But if we choose to respond to what’s in front of us by throwing up our hands in despair, saying, “whatever will be, will be,” regardless of the headwinds—if we choose to give up hope—we lose opportunities, even little ones, to change the course of things.

That’s what I learned in 2021. That’s what that little, spontaneous dance party in the aftermath of a freeze, in the middle of a pandemic taught me: hope is hard work, but it’s worth it because people are worth it.

In years past, I’d have a sort of loose theme I wanted to read about throughout the year, 2021 proved a tough year for that. A tough year to quiet my mind enough to focus on a book at all.

When I did read last year, I found myself gravitating towards topics that were not at all part of my normal reading diet — like a history of the dinosaurs, or novels about magicians.

I also found myself reading other books that were highly relevant to things that were happening, like how authoritarianism creeps in to take over democracies, how we’re wrong about what we think we know about the Alamo, and novels about global pandemics.

Here are my top five, and the rest of the list below.

Links to buy go to Austin’s beloved local bookstore, BookPeople.

Forget The Alamo
by Bryan Burroughs, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford

The challenge is to tell a story about our past grounded in historical fact. The Battle of the Alamo in 1836 is an integral part of Texas history, and the myth circled the globe in books, poems, songs, television shows, and movies. What must change, though, is the story we tell about the Alamo. To learn the real lessons of the Texas Revolt, we need to learn the truth about Bowie, Travis, and Crockett. Bowie was a murderer, slaver, and con man; Travis was a pompous, racist agitator and syphilitic lech; and Crockett was a self-promoting old fool who was a captive to his own myth. They can no longer be the holy trinity of Texas, nor can the Alamo be the Shrine of Texas Liberty. But all three men did believe in liberty and self-determination, and Travis was one hell of a letter writer. They fought for freedom, just not everybody’s freedom. We also need to remember the people intentionally left out of the Alamo myths and legends, like Juan Almonte, the Mexican revolutionary who fought against the Texians to abolish slavery. Or Juan Seguin, the Tejano leader whose fight for federalism was coopeted into a successionist movement by the Texians. If we shift the frame just a little bit, the whole story of the Alamo is transformed. And, frankly, a lot more interesting.

Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth
by Rachel Maddow

Here’s the crux of the matter. Oil and gas companies do the kind of risky, capital-intensive work that the average Joe, the average mom-and-pop business, even the average country, doesn’t do for itself. In so doing, they can make a spectacular pile of money, but they can also make a tremendous amount of mess. And ruin. And even catastrophic, polluting apocalypse, when they really put their shoulder into it. But they are also big enough and hold enough sway that even big powerful governments tend to defer to them when it comes to how to best police their behavior.

The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir
by Samantha Power

“Listen,” he said firmly. “If you hear nothing else, hear this. You work at the White House. There is no other room where a bunch of really smart people of sound judgment are getting together and figuring out what to do. It will be the scariest moment of your life when you fully internalize this: There is no other meeting. You’re in the meeting. You are the meeting. If you have a concern, raise it.”

Valentine: A Novel
by Elizabeth Wetmore

I got my first cheerleading outfit when I was still in diapers. All of us [girls] did. If we were lucky, we made it to twelve before some man or boy, or some well-intentioned woman who just thought we ought to know the score, let us know why we were put on this earth. To cheer [men and boys] on. To smile and bring a little sunshine into the room. To prop them up and know them, and be nice to everybody we meet.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: A Novel
by Susanna Clarke

It has been remarked (by a lady infinitely cleverer than the present author) how kindly disposed the world in general feels to young people who either die or marry. Imagine then the interest that surrounded Miss Wintertowne! No young lady ever had such advantages before: for she died upon the Tuesday, was raised to life in the early hours of Wednesday morning, and was married upon the Thursday; which some people thought too much excitement for one week.

All the rest

  1. Washington: A Life’, by Ron Chernow
  2. A Swim In A Pond In The Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life’, by George Saunders
  3. Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump’, by Spencer Ackerman
  4. After the Fall: Being American in the World We’ve Made’, by Ben Rhodes
  5. The Boutique: How to Start, Scale, and Sell a Professional Services Firm’, by Greg Alexander
  6. The End of October’, a novel by Lawrence Wright
  7. Plague Year: America in the Time of Covid’, by Lawrence Wright
  8. The Age of Dinosaurs: The Rise and Fall of the World’s Most Remarkable Animals’, by Steve Brusatte
  9. Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones’, by James Clear
  10. This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends: The Cyberweapons Arms Race’, by Nicole Perlroth
  11. California’, a novel by Edan Lepucky
  12. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold’, a novel by John le Carre
  13. On Liberty’, by John Stuart Mill
  14. Leadership: In Turbulent Times’, by Dorris Kearns Goodwin
  15. Wilderness Essays’, by John Muir



Nathan Ryan

People person, friend 🤟 CEO, @blueskyprtnrs ; co-founder, @ourgoodpolitics ; board, #LBJFutureForum; commissioner, ATX; hot takes, my own