2020: My Year In Books

What a year, friends, what a year. At the start of the year I had big plans both intellectually and physically, but in the end, I ended up holding on and finishing, even if just barely, 52 books. Here they are, with some of the best highlighted.

Best Fiction Book

Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison Over the last two years I’ve been working my way through Morrison’s work and for the second year in a row, she was, surprise, surprise, the author of the best book I read. Song of Solomon has to be as close to perfect as any work of fiction I have ever read. You’ve probably already read it, but if not, do.

Toni Morrison
The Master Herself

Best Nonfiction Book

I am again going to go with two very different, but brilliant, books here. First, The Power Broker, by Robert Caro. A work of stunning brilliance that I am ashamed I took so long to read. I’ll admit, I was intimidated. I thought I’d be bored, but I tore through this. Yes this is history, but it is also literature.

And speaking of books that are history and literature, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments by Saidiya Hartman is a beautiful, haunting, work of genius that we’ll be talking about for years to come. This is not always an easy book to read, but it is an incredibly important one showing us in vivid detail the lives of Black women at the cusp of the 20th century. Incredibly good.

Saidya Hartman

Book That Had the Biggest Influence on My Life

I held off on reading How to do Nothing by Jenny Odell because I figured it could not live up to the hype. I was wrong. As a general rule, listen to Obama. My overriding goal in 2021 is to slow down, go deeper, respond rather than react, and this book went a long way in helping me think about that.

Best Poetry

I am a huge admirer of Danez Smith and it was one of the highlights of my year when they followed me on Instagram for my project this summer highlighting Black authors. I read Smith’s latest, Homie, right before everything went to total shit and it’s brilliant. Many people I know are intimidated by contemporary poetry. Don’t be. Start with Smith.    

Smith

 EVERY BOOK I READ IN 2020

Here they are along with a note of whether I recommend it for general readers, recommend it for enthusiasts in the subject matter, or don’t recommend it all. Click through for capsule reviews. One final note before the list, this will be the last year I do these little capsule review posts for each book. As short as they are, they’re still a fair amount of work, yet very few people read them. The list and recommendations will continue forever, but the individual reviews part of this project is over.

  1. Anti-Social: Online Extremists Techo-Utopians and the High jacking of the American Conversation, Andrew Marantz — Recommended

  2. Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life, Dianne Tavenner — Recommended for the enthusiast

  3. Homie, Denez Smith — Recommended

  4. Tightrope: American’s Reaching for Hope, Nicolas Kristof and Sheryl DuDunn — Recommended

  5. The Optimists Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age, Bina Venkataraman — Recommended for the enthusiast

  6. Drink? The New Science of Alcohol and Your Health, David Nutt — Recommended

AND… COVID HITS

7. The Splendid and the Vile: A saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, Erik Larson — Recommended for the enthusiast

8. The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity, Tony Ord — Recommended for the enthusiast

9. The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, Robert Caro — Recommended

10. Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts, Grafton Tanner — Recommended for the enthusiast

11. In the Garden of the Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, Erik Larson — Recommended for the Enthusiast

12. The Wedge, Scott Carney — Not recommended

13. The Great Influenza, John M Barry — Recommended

14. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami — Recommended for the enthusiast

15. Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel — Recommended

The killing of George Floyd…

16. Sula, Toni Morrison — Recommended

17. Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin — Recommended

18. The Marshmallow Test: Mastering the Art of Self Control, Walter Michel — Recommended for the enthusiast – Recommended for the enthusiast

19. The Spook Who Sat By The Door, Sam Greenlee Recommended — Recommended

20. Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, Martin Luther King, Jr. — Recommended

21. Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison — Recommended

22. Surviving the Future: Culture, Carnival and Capital in the Aftermath of the Market Economy, David Fleming — Recommended for the enthusiast

23. To See Every Bird on Earth: A Father, A Son and a Lifelong Obsession, Dan Koeppel — recommended for the enthusiast

24. Beloved, Toni Morrison — Recommended

25. Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw, Mark Bowden — not recommended

26. I Want to Believe: Posadism, UFOs and Apocalypse Communism, A.M Gittlitz — recommended for the enthusiast

27. The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception, Emmanuel Carrere — recommended

28. Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA and the Secret History of the Sixties, Tom O’Neil — recommended for the enthusiast

29. Eiger Dreams: Adventures Among Men and Mountains, John Krakuer — Recommended for the enthusiast

30. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, Lawrence Wright — Recommended

31. Pale Horse Rider: William Cooper, the Rise of Conspiracy and the Fall of Trust in America, Mark Jacobson — Recommended for the enthusiast

32. The Bullet Journal Method: Track the Past, Order the Present, Design the Future, Ryder Carroll — Recommended for the enthusiast

33. Dawn of the New Everything: Encounters with Reality and Virtual Reality, Jaron Lanier — Recommended

34. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, Saidya Hartman – Recommended

35. Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, Jack Weatherford — Recommended

36. A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe — Recommended

37. Dancing in Odessa, Ilya Kaminsky — Recommended for the enthusiast

38. Aphrodite Made Me Do It, Trista Mateer — Not recommended

39. The Silence, Don Delillo — Recommended

40. Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, Alex Ross — Recommended

41. Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, James Nestor — Recommended

42. This is How You Loose the Time War, Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone — Recommended

43. The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win, Maria Konnikova — Recommended

44. Bone Games: Extreme Sports, Shamanism, Zen and the Search for Transcendence, Rob Schultheis — Not recommended

45. Sibley’s Birding Basics, David Allen Sibley — Recommended for the enthusiast

46. In Search of Lost Books: The Forgotten Stories of Eight Mythical Volumes, Giorgio van Straten — Recommended

47. How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, Jenny Odell — Recommended

48. True Stories, Sophie Calle — Recommended for the enthusiast

49. We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence, Becky Cooper — Recommended

50. Death in Mudlick: A Coal Country Fight Against the Drug Companies That Delivered the Opiod Epidemic, Eric Eyre — not recommended

51. Skiing with Henry Knox: A Personal Journey Along Vermont’s Catamount Trail, Sam Brakeley — Recommended for the enthusiast

52. Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control, Stephen Kinzer — Recommended

Brakeley’s Skiing with Henry Knox

Skiing with Henry Knox: A Personal Journey Along Vermont’s Catamount Trail
Sam Brakeley 

I have a real soft spot for books like this.

Young dude decided to take on doing the Catamount Trail, (a cross country ski route that runs the length of Vermont) in a single push. Ostensibly he’s doing this to give himself time to make a major life decision, but it’s also just a cool adventure. He weaves the tale of this quite challenging, and very cold, adventure with a retelling of an expedition by Revolutionary War officer Henry Knox engaging in a winter campaign through New England.

A fun read, and is inspiring me to think bigger about my own adventures.

Recommended for the enthusiast

Eyre’s Death in Mud Lick

Death in Mud Lick: A Coal Country Fight Against the Drug Companies that Delivered the Opioid Epidemic 
Eric Eyre

The worst book I read this year. A full of himself reporter takes the destruction wrought on West Virginia by big pharma and attempts to turn it into a hero story about himself. In almost every case it’s a bad idea for a reporter to put himself in the middle of a story, which is exactly what Eyre does here. There’s a good story lurking in here, about communities destroyed, and battles for justice, but its buried under so much ego it never really sees the light of day.

That this made best of lists absolutely blows my mind.

Not Recommended.

Cooper’s We Keep the Dead Close

We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence
Becky Cooper

True crime for fancy folks. An investigation into the murder of a student at Harvard in the 1960s that turns into an investigation into the way power works. The way Harvard, men, and the state all use power against those who would attack it. Very well crafted and written. I flew through it. It’s rare a book is both this readable and thought provoking.

Recommended.

Calle’s True Stories

True Stories
Sophie Calle

Been sitting on my shelves for years and years. So happy I finally took down this little book of aphorisms and photos (both original and found) by the wonderfully bizarre performance artist / writer Sophie Calle.

I have followed Calle’s work for decades. It has often focused on the contradictions of desire, obsession and misogyny, all of which hits different, and more profoundly, in a post-me too world. A worthy addition to her long career.   

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Odell’s How To Do Nothing

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy
Jenny Odell

I may be the last dad in brownstone Brooklyn to read this book, but I’m glad I did. It lives up to the hype. The central premise you probably already know – there is power in slowing down, in paying attention, in resisting the never ending demands on our attention. This is a theme cropping up all over in recent years from the Shallows to Deep Work.

But Odell takes things a bit further. This isn’t just a book about resisting twitter, it’s a book about resisting capitalism and its obsession with speed and growth. It’s about rooting yourself locally and taking the time to know, really know, the world around you. In today’s world, that’s a radical notion, and one I am very interested in continuing to explore.

On a personal, how do I want to live my life, level, this may be the most important book I read this year.

Recommended.

von Straten’s In Search of Lost Books

In Search of Lost Books: The forgotten stories of eight mythical volumes
Giorgio von Straten, Simon Carnell (Translator)

A wonderful little book chronicling the stories of books lost to time. By “lost books” von Straten isn’t referring to rare books, or even books we know were published, but no longer have. Here’s he’s talking about the even more mysterious, the books written, but never published, and in many cases, never read. He’s talking about Byron’s memoirs, destroyed to protect a reputation, or Benjamin’s possible final work, dragged with him across Europe only to disappear at his death. An engrossing look into the missing corners of literature and total fun for the bibliomaniac such as myself.

Recommended for the enthusiast.  

Sibley’s Birding Basics

Sibley’s Birding Basics: How to Identify Birds, Using the Clues in Feathers, Habitats, Behaviors, and Sounds
David Allen Sibley

David Sibley, is the author of perhaps the most popular guide to birding in the U.S. Sibley’s Guides. Gorgeously illustrated with his own renderings and written in a wonderfully dense, descriptive way, my Sibley is one of my favorite books.

This is his complementary guide for getting into birding. Calling this a book about the “basics” of birding is a bit of a stretch. This includes detailed information on plumage, changes in appearance based on age, determining size and color and more. Absolutely fascinating for a beginner birder like myself and written in the most wonderful, hyper clear, prose.

Recommended for the enthusiast.  

Schultheis Bone Games

Bone Games: Extreme Sports, Shamanism, Zen, and the Search for Transcendence 
Rob Schultheis

This one is a pretty deep cut in the world of endurance literature. The premise is that extreme sports (mountaineering, ultra endurance events, etc) are a modern, western, form of vision quests. An attempt by domesticated, bored, largely affluent, westerners to reconnect with something dangerous and life affirming.

This isn’t a new idea, but Schultheis ties these ideas to his own story in an engaging, and at times inspiring, way. Perhaps not the greatest book ever written about the spiritual aspects of sport, but still deeply enjoyable for those interested in this area.

Recommended for the enthusiast.  

El-Mohtar and Gladstone’s This Is How You Loose the Time War

This Is How You Loose the Time War
Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

A wonderful little book imagining a fight / friendship / love affair (?) between two warriors in a war across time. Written by two top notch SF writers it consists essentially of letters our warriors write to each other across time. The whole thing is just so well done. Places visited are both real (the Mongol horde) and imagine (future possibilities) and across them our warriors begin a relationship where it is never really clear exactly what is happening here. Is this love, or a trap?

Incredibly clever, very well written, this was just a joy.

Recommended.