2020 Reading List

2020 was a lot. You all know what happened, I don’t need to reiterate. In times like these, sometimes all you can do to keep yourself sane is escape between the pages of a good book.

The format of this one is the same as last year. There was less that landed in my top category this time around. There’s a few things that I could see leading to that:

  • A 5 month vacation made 2019 a big year for books.
  • I picked up a couple of long biographies (John D. Rockefeller and Ike Eisenhower), that together sucked up a lot of my reading time.
  • I picked up several novellas and collections of short stories this year. Many of these were great, but they were often more experimental and less balanced than a full novel, and that kept them out of the top ranking.
  • My 2019 strategy of “find books that made it onto both Obama’s and Bill Gates’ reading lists in the last 5 years” has started to run out.

That’s not to say that what I read in 2020 wasn’t good, it’s just not the sort of thing where I’m urgently excited to share it.

Anyway, here’s the books.

Read Right Now

These books have it all. Delightful prose, fascinating content, a meaningful message. Once you’ve picked it up you’re loathe to put it down, and once you’ve finished you feel a better person for it. There is no reason that one of these shouldn’t be your next read.

So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo

It’s 2020, check out how woke I am with this best-seller at the top of my list!

Seriously though, if you haven’t done some reading and some self-reflection on the topic of racial justice this year, and especially if you’re white, you should probably get on that. This book is a good place to start.

Above all I was impressed by how accessible this book felt – you don’t need to be a social justice warrior or have read a bunch of theory to get something out of it. Taking a step to educate yourself can feel intimidating, but while this book was a lot, reading it didn’t feel like work. I honestly believe that any human would benefit from reading it.

If it still feels like too much, go check out Trevor Noah’s autobiography (see last year’s list), then come back to this.

Ought To Read

These are the ones I enjoyed, and maybe thought were important, but for one reason or another I couldn’t quite give them top honors. Still highly recommended, especially if the seem like your cup of tea.

  • To Be Taught, If Fortunate, by Becky Chambers
    • Becky Chambers is one of my favorite modern sci-fi authors, and this novella about a crew of explorers on a distant world is fantastic. If you’re into sci-fi at all, go check it out!
  • Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami
  • The Nonexistent Knight, by Italo Calvino
    • Italo Calvino is weird. The Nonexistent Knight is weird. It’s silly and absurd and almost begs to be read aloud. If that sounds good to you, you’ll probably enjoy it.
  • The Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang
  • The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway
    • Somehow I had never read this! I love Hemingway, and this delivered.
  • The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison
    • Serenity! This delightful little novel gets props because
      1. It’s an excellent bit of political drama with a side of unique world-building
      2. It’s the rare standalone fantasy novel (no trilogy required)
      3. I read it aloud on the Wonderland trail and we got a lot of mileage out of doing the voices
  • Liveship Traders Trilogy, by Robin Hobb
    • Fantasy pirates on sentient ships! What more could you ask for? I picked this up at the end of October as a distraction from election season, and it definitely did its job. It’s incredibly well-written, I blazed through the three books in about a month and a half, and the characters and events stayed with me long afterwards.
    • Fair warning: it does involve rape. It serves to advance all three of plot, character and setting, and it’s handled with what to me seems an appropriate amount of gravity. But if that’s going to trigger you, maybe skip this one.

Read If You’re Into It

  • Titan: The Life of John D Rockefeller, Sr., by Ron Chernow
  • Eisenhower in War and Peace, by Jean Edward Smith
  • The Orchardist, by Amanda Coplin
  • The First Law Trilogy, by Joe Ambercrombie

Skip

  • The Art of Possibility, by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander
    • Read this with a work book club. I didn’t get a lot out of it. Oh well.

Reading List

I did a lot of reading while I was on walkabout! Some of it was really good and I would highly recommend. Some of it came highly recommended and didn’t live up to the hype. I’ve divided the books into 4 categories: read-right-now, ought-to-read, read-if-you’re-into-it and skip. I’ll even do little summaries for the first category!

Read Right Now

These books have it all. Delightful prose, fascinating content, a meaningful message. Once you’ve picked it up you’re loathe to put it down, and once you’ve finished you feel a better person for it. There is no reason that one of these shouldn’t be your next read.

Catfish and Mandala, by Andrew Pham

My sister recommended this one to me to get pumped for Vietnam, and she nailed it. Pham’s memoir about bicycling through the country he fled as a child is funny, moving, and strikes deep at the heart of what it means to be an American, an immigrant and an outsider.

Factfulness, by Hans Rosling

Rosling has identified a problem: most western readers, regardless of education or background, consistently overestimate how bad the world is. Whether it’s infant mortality, women’s education or AIDS infection rates, most places are doing much better than you think they are.

To address this problem Rosling presents a different framework for thinking about economic development (4 levels, each with a “dollars per day” level attached) to replace the tired “developing/developed” dichotomy, and presents 10 good habits to help you fight bad instincts and see through misleading data. Yes this book is about economics, but it’s also about you, dear Western reader, calling out your biases and misconceptions and identifying tools to overcome them.

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, by Trevor Noah (audiobook)

Noah’s autobiography is nothing short of brilliant. Noah is of course a comedian and the work is hilarious, but he’s also a storyteller. It’s the sort of book where you’re not sure whether the tears are from joy or sorrow. Plus he reads the audiobook, and does a tremendous job.

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

This one ended up on both Barack Obama’s and Bill Gates’ reading lists, but I was still surprised by how much I enjoyed it. The plot summary didn’t pull me in: a Russian nobleman is sentenced to house arrest in a Moscow hotel after the 1917 revolution. But this isn’t really a plot book. It’s a character study, and Towles uses that character as a lens on one of the most fascinating and fast-changing settings in modern history, all to brilliant effect. A Gentleman in Moscow is witty, charming and tugs at your heartstrings in just the right ways, exactly as a gentleman should.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari (audiobook)

Another B&B book. I’ve tried to summarize this book to a few people and ended up monologuing for half an hour, so we’ll see if I can do better here. Harari looks at humans from the ground up, starting with our basic biology and evolutionary history, and building that up piece by logical piece into how modern society developed. It’s interesting and insightful and quite well-written, and it doesn’t sugar-coat what we are or how we act. Plus the audiobook is read by this British fellow with an absolutely perfect accent for drawing you in and making you feel intellectual.

Ought To Read

These are the ones I enjoyed, and maybe thought were important, but for one reason or another I couldn’t quite give them top honors. Still highly recommended, especially if the seem like your cup of tea.

  • Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
    • I really wanted to put this one in the top category. Coates’ book about the realities of living as a black man in modern racist America is unquestionably something that every American should read, probably twice. It’s well-written, and insightful, and goodness is it relevant. You will definitely be a better person for reading this. The reason I didn’t bump it is because this is not a “read it any time” book. Coates’ book is a downer. It’s brutally honest and kind of bleak, and I believe that if you’re not in a place where you can handle that its impact will be lost. Maybe it will do more harm than good. My recommendation: listen to Trevor Noah’s autobiography first, that will kind of prime the pump, then tackle this.
  • Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, by William Finnegan
  • Arkwright, by Allen Steele
  • Record of a Spaceborn Few, by Becky Chambers
  • The Raven Tower, by Ann Leckie
  • Rolling Rocks Downhill, by Clarke Ching
  • The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb (yes all three of them)
  • Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when the Stakes are High, by Patterson et al
  • Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler

Read If You’re Into It

  • The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell
  • The Book of M, by Peng Shepherd
  • The Cuckoo’s Egg, by Cliff Stoll
  • The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie
  • Human Acts, by Han Kang

Skip

  • Monkey, by Wu Cheng-en, translated by Arthur Waley
  • Upheaval, by Jared Diamond
  • The Design of Everyday Things, by Don Norman