My Year in Reading: 2020

Living Dangerously, While Never Leaving Your Couch

Reading, especially this year, allowed me to travel the world and travel across time, finding and broadening my perspectives. Below are those books that accompanied me in that journey.

As in prior years, this list only reflects the books I read cover to cover. I abandoned or have yet to complete many others. My inability to complete those books is not always an indictment of the quality of those books. Often, my fleeting attention span diverts me to new books, while leaving other incomplete.

In earlier years, I had several big themes and topics I dug in deep. This year, I had one big one: Why Black Lives Matter. Several books opened up me up to layers of the Black experience that I was previously oblivious to or even ignored.

All 39 books are below, followed by my Top 10.

Why Black Lives Matter

Before this year, I had little idea what BLM meant. I supported it, but from a vague sense. And I’m not going to say I now understand the pain and the anger completely. But I do have more context I did not have before. I have a better appreciation for systemic racism, at a macro and at an individual level. These books helped. A lot.

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight

A 36-hour audio book that accompanied me over 6 weeks of early morning walks 2–3 times a week. The journey of Douglass — who was perhaps, with the exception of Mark Twain, the most traveled man in America — was truly an epic life, through key years of America’s struggle with race, including the Civil War and Reconstruction. David Blight opened me up to the man, his impact, but also inspired me to do better. Douglass was “an honest patriot” — working through the country’s tragic past, but not evading it.

Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy by Heather Ann Thompson

Attica Prison Riot and its overtaking, which took place in 1971, was a tragedy, leading to the death of 43, including 33 inmates and 10 correctional officers and employees. Yet, the impact of the taking of the prison went far beyond those few days in upstate New York. This episode transformed the meaning of “law and order” in America, and how that phrase became an excuse for extreme violence by authorities.

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

Wilkerson introduces a model that explains the necessity for racism. It’s not about color. Instead, it’s about using color as a way to perpetuate a caste system; a hierarchy where whites are at the top, and blacks are at the bottom. It’s a riveting theory, and a riveting book full of stories from history and Wilkerson’s own personal experience to illustrate the tragedy of this system.

The Nickel Boys by Colston Whitehead

Another example of systemic racism, but instead of at a macro level, this book explores the impact at an individual level. When our best, in this case, a talented boy in the 1950s, are denigrated, it reflects a hollowness — an emptiness in the human character. Whitehead tells tragic story of what happens when one’s potential is hollowed out.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Another searing, modern example of the impact of racism and slavery. The writing here is powerful, planting me into the shoes of those who live with this every day.

“The enslaved were not bricks in the road and they were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel in the American machine. “

Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own by Eddie Glaude

Eddie Glaude calls on us to get acquainted with James Baldwin. His call resonates. Baldwin and Glaude ask us to craft a new narrative; to develop a “new and better story” and to “bury that old Negro, and the white folks who need him, in order to begin again. “

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson explains the theory behind racism. This book illustrates the tactics used to facilitate systemic racism for decades. Don’t believe the false narrative that someone can get ahead through hard work and gumption alone. Entire systems were in place for decades to hold back generations of African Americans — from real estate practices to housing associations, to urban renewal efforts. This book lays those tactics out, in shameful detail.

The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution by Eric Foner

The Reconstruction is not something that ended 150 years ago, instead, its ideals are fought today. The Reconstruction remains vital to our current national conversation, asking us questions like who is entitled to citizenship, who can vote, and what is the balance of power between the federal and state governments. Foner reviews the story behind the amendments that came out of the Reconstruction (13th, 14th, and 15th). We have failed to implement these ideas thus far, but the battle continues.

Reading and Thinking with Purpose

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell

One of the most impactful books I read this year. A small book dense with ideas and concepts that are worth their own books.

Here are just a few concepts that hit me hard:

  • The endless pursuit of productivity is destructive in many ways, including our own ecosystem.
  • Social media asks us to adopt one persona, which is disorienting and unnatural. We have personas for the different aspects of our lives: work, neighbors, college friends. It’s healthy and normal to have a different persona for each.
  • The attention economy destorys our ability to concentrate, which leads to a perpetual state of chaos.
  • By pulling away from social media to focus on new things, we bring ourselves to a state of openness to learn new things.
  • Creativity is not always in building. Sometimes creativity can be found in the dismantling of structures or of old ways of doing things.

How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking — for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers by Sonke Ahrens

I read a lot (obviously) and I’ll take notes of what I read but in a haphazard way. For years, I tossed notes into Evernote, hoping I would one day get value out of them. (I wrote about this here.) This book opened me to new approaches in notetaking, but additionally, to new approaches in learning.

Notetaking is a vital process, not just to remember, but to prioritize, to think, to make connections, and to understand. The process is critical and this book lays out a process to do all of these things in a consistent, meaningful way.

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

A book about creating and making things while disproving the bad, conventional idea that we need inspiration in order to create. “It is our privilege as humans to keep making things as long as we live “

Business and Innovation

Post Corona: From Crisis to Opportunity by Scott Galloway

I enjoy Scott Galloway (see Pivot podcast) and his takes on business, technology, and innovation. This book is a summation of his key theories and ideas, wrapped in the context of the pandemic. Some of these ideas are vital concepts for our new world in 2021, like The Great Dispersion of movies, workers, and retail workers to the home. His point of view on the necessary changes for academia is urgent and spot on. Other ideas, like his take on The Four (Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google) are just remixes of earlier works, re-gifted around the urgency of the pandemic, but still fascinating nonetheless.

Ten Lessons for Post-Pandemic World by Fareed Zakaria

Very similar to Post Corona, in that a smart author (Zakaria in this case) takes concepts he is well-versed in and applies them to the new, urgent context of the pandemic. Zakaria injects urgency into topics like building a better government, balancing the harshness of capitalism, and making globalism work in this new reality.

Science

Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald

Many short essays, some just a few paragraphs long. Some stay with you long after reading (or listening, in my case.) Particularly the essay about the flight of the swifts, small birds that stay up for 10 months or longer, following air patterns that are invisible to us. Macdonald finds human relevance in the minutae of the natural world.

The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman

Birds are not bird-brained. Ackerman shares many examples of why they are not. One of my favorites: Birds create cognitive maps in their head to help them navigate spatial and emotional relationships. Humans could benefit from the same to “navigate not only place but the social and emotional relationships of the human world “

Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back by Mark O’Connell

Mark O’Connell takes us around the world, meeting people who are invested in the end of the world. We meet real estate hucksters selling abandoned missile silos in North Dakota as luxury bunkers, billionaires buying land in New Zealand, and those looking to colonize Mars. O’Connell smartly points out that many of these individuals are giving up on the world, finding it easier to start anew rather than invest in the hard work of caring and fixing this one.

Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life by Lulu Miller

An unpredictable read. I thought this was going to be a biography of David Starr Jordan and how he dedicated his life to understanding and documenting variations of fish, opening a world of discovery and insight. Instead, this took a different, dark, but very captivating turn, upending everything you thought you knew about fish.

The Sirens of Mars: Searching for Life on Another World by Sarah Stewart Johnson

Through Mars and our history of exploring it, we can discover our place in the universe. A host of explorers have struggled to understand, to learn about the planet, and find life on it. The author is a part of that journey and shares a history of its exploration here.

History

Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA and the Secret History of the Sixties by Tom O’Neil

A mis-titled book. A more accurate title is Obsession: How I Spent Twenty Years of My Life in the Manson Rathole. It’s fascinating to read how one gets lost in a rathole on such a topic, but at the end of the day, very little is revealed or uncovered.

Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higginbotham

Here’s what happens when incompetence runs rampant in government. The love of the design for a flawed reactor leads to the Chernobyl disaster. This book details the origins of the disaster, the details of the disaster itself, and the years of efforts to clean up those mistakes.

Fiction

Not a great year for me in fiction-reading. I didn’t read much of it, and most of what I read was airy and unmemorable. The best were S.A. Crosby’s “Blacktop Wasteland” and N.K. Jesimin’s “The City We Became.”

Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

After reading about the horrors of living in Black America, this work of fiction takes these indignities and turns them into horror scenes. Normal activities, like driving across America, eating in a diner, finding a job, buying a house each become horror scenes — turning the monstrosity of racism into literary monsters. It’s a brilliant concept, that doesn’t quite come together as a riveting novel.

The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

What if NYC and its boroughs were personified: actual living things, struggling to find their own place in the world? Queens represents the struggle of the immigrant, Brooklyn struggles with its own gentrification and maturity, the Bronx is all street smarts and artistic, etc. The boroughs must team up and fight evils and demons of small-mindedness and racism.

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

A captivating story but one full of coincidences and harmful stereotypes. In the end, it feels a little hollow.

Normal People by Sally Rooney

The talented young people in this book are too wrapped up in their own heads to be likable in any way. A book I couldn’t wait to finish so I wouldn’t have to spend any more time with these spoiled brats.

Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Crosby

After reading this, I realize I need to read more fiction. This excellent read drops you into the life of a tortured, fascinating man; pulled between the obligations of family and the temptations of crime. This book pulls you into drag races, fistfights, jewelry heists, and other activities so vivid, you could feel the G-force gut-punch of that Plymouth Duster as it accelerates across gravel roads.

Politics

What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era by Carlos Lozada

A study of the books that studied Trump. Lozada read hundreds of books about Trump, gleaning valuable insights across topics that were at the forefront in Trump’s America: immigration, gender politics, race relations, Russia, etc. The Trump administration is ending soon, but its impact will be felt for decades across every aspect of American life.

American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump by Tim Alberta

The Rise of Trump. You’ve heard of all of the episodes described here, but you likely have forgotten most of them. Tim Alberta recaps them all and provides additional details, reminding you of all Trump has done to “flood the national consciousness with fear and contempt, with suspicion and resentment, with ad hominem insults and zero-sum argument.”

Anti-Social: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation by Andrew Marantz

So many people are living on the margins of what is real, exploiting fear in Americans, expanding, dangerously, the topics that are acceptable to discuss in society. This is a book about those who are crashing the Overton Window for their own advantage. (What’s the Overton Window?)

No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us by Rachel Louise Snyder

A brutal book. A true-life nightmare by Rachel Louise Snyder. Private violence against women is a national emergency. Snyder recounts episodes in nightmarish detail, which will stay with you longer than any work of horror fiction will.

This system of disregard is similar to our national system of racism in this book: Caste by Isabel Wilkerson. We support this quietly, and at a cost to ourselves.

Snyder describes it here:

Violence is the result of a belief system men all seemed to share, which told them they were the authority in their lives that they were to be respected, obeyed. Top of the human hierarchy. It was a belief system that not only distanced them from people around them, but also limited their range, kept them boxed in by their own narrow ideas of what men could be an how men could behave.

Everyone should read this book, especially every man.

Music and Entertainment

The History of Rock & Roll, Volume 2: 1964–1977: The Beatles, the Stones, and the Rise of Classic Rock by Ed Ward

The history of Rock and Roll goes way beyond the Stones and Beatles. It includes Sam and Dave and Otis Redding and many others traditionally classified under R&B. These performers were vital to rock and roll and rightfully are included in this wider, grander narrative of the genre. Kudos to Ed Ward for adding them to story and making it much richer as a result.

The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones by Rick Cohen

The creativity of the Rolling Stones has and will always be focused on the groove between Jagger and Richards. This book chronicles that groove and the severing of it. Without that groove, the band stopped reinventing itself and stopped being relevant. Yet they didn’t die, they just learned to live for 50 years on nostalgia for that groove.

Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music by David N. Meyer

Gram Parsons’ life was full of episodes that could be standalone movies, or at least episodes of fine television: The Byrds and their long hair at the Grand Ol’ Opry, the bond and breakup between Parsons and Keith Richards, his discovery and elevation of Emmylou Harris, the tragic theft and burning of his body (this actually was made into a terrible movie). These episodes tell a tragic story, but one that is captivating and thrilling. Meyer covers it all here, while giving a critical history lesson in country rock.

Just Kids by Patti Smith

The benefit of a muse. Patti Smith tells the story of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe and his impact on her creative life.

Petty: The Biography by Warren Zanes

I went deep into Petty in 2020. (Spotify told me I was in the top 0.05% of listeners of Petty and the Heartbreakers!) This biography was a part of that journey. An honest, at times bare-knuckled, portrait of Petty and the band. The “band” is an important part of this story. The Heartbreakers were more than a backing outfit. Their creativity and contributions were vital counterweights to Petty’s success.

Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey

A light, surprisingly insightful book of stories and some sound advice, like “block and tackle, before you play wideout.” In other words, understand the art, then innovate.

Pet Sounds by Jim Fusilli

I saw Brian Wilson on a music cruise early in 2020 — pre-pandemic. He was mostly a shell, but I was able to experience his songs with a full band, giving me a new appreciation for their beauty and power. This short book recaps his best album, an album that changed pop music forever. An album that opened up pop music from being only about fun to new arenas like loss, desire, and acceptance.

Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson by Peter Ames Carlin

More of my Brian Wilson phase. This book covers the career of Wison and the Beach Boys, spending considerable time on Smile and the impact that had on him. This lost, then found album had become a metaphor for every “fragmented dream and broken ambition in the world.”

The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s by Andy Greene

We watched a lot of The Office this year in my house. This book, an oral history of the show, dives into the creative process behind its success. The factors leading to its success are not unique: talented & generous people, a willingness to shake up the creative process, and a willingness to see an idea to fruition. All lessons to apply in business and beyond.

Is This Anything? by Jerry Seinfeld

Full of jokes. Every joke Seinfeld has every told, I believe. A little commentary sprinkled in, but not much. It’s mostly just the jokes. My daughters and I enjoyed this in car rides around town.

My Top 10 Books for 2020:

  1. Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom
  2. Nickel Boys
  3. Twenty Thousand Roads
  4. Begin Again
  5. How to Do Nothing
  6. No Visible Bruises
  7. How To Take Smart Notes
  8. Caste
  9. Why Fish Don’t Exist
  10. Blacktop Wasteland

technologist, cultural omnivore, book nut, father

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