Favorite books of 2020
50 books. 15,000+ pages. 2020 was an awful year, but it’s given me a lot of time to read.
When going through the list of books I read this year, I found an interesting pattern. Before the lockdowns began, only one of the books I read was fiction. After, fiction made up the majority. I guess that’s my way of coping with a pandemic.
Sapiens (Yuval Noah Hararis)
A fascinating book about the history of humans, starting from the times when we co-existed with other human subspecies, all the way to modern times. It’s in a similar vein to The Ascent of Man, which was on my 2017 favorites list.
Born A Crime (Trevor Noah)
A collection of 18 essays about being a mixed race child in South Africa during the apartheid regime. His very existence was a crime and he had to be hidden from the authorities during his early childhood. With his trademark charm and humor, Noah writes a heartwarming tale about growing up in those times.
A Mind for Numbers (Barbara Oakley)
I started reading this alongside Oakley’s Coursera course, Learning How to Learn, and found it a superb book about learning. This had a lot of overlap with Make It Stick, which is another great book on the subject.
Midnight in Chernobyl (Adam Higginbotham)
If you liked HBO’s outstanding Chernobyl miniseries, and wanted to read more about those events, this is the book to read. Higginbotham manages to find the right balance between describing the events, while also explaining the science and the political background.
44 Years With the Same Bird (Brian Reade)
The author is a sports journalist who has supported Liverpool FC from the 60s. The book follows his journey as a fan from the highs of the Shankly years all the way to the Premier League era. Highly recommended if you support Liverpool, but interesting for anyone following football.
Doing Good Better (William MacAskill)
Fantastic book about effective altruism. If you want your charitable donations to have the most impact, this book has a lot of great ideas. Provides a great framework to think about which charities to prioritize, and shows how some charities can be orders of magnitude more effective than others.
Refactoring: Ruby Edition (Jay Fields, Shane Harvey, Kent Beck)
Read this for a book club with my team at work. The first 5 chapters, which introduce refactoring, form about a third of the book and are a nice read. The rest is a catalog of refactoring techniques which I’d usually treat as a reference and not read through. But as part of a book club with coworkers, it was more interesting because we were able to discuss actual code examples.
The Road (Cormack McCarthy)
A father and son walk through a post apocalyptic hell in this haunting, and often times disturbing book. Set in America, wildfires destroyed civilization years ago. The few survivors now resort to cannibalism and robbing anyone they can to survive. The narration of the audiobook by Tom Stechschulte was also top notch.
The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood)
What if America were taken over by a theocratic dictatorship? One in which women are treated as nothing more than vessels for procreation. Where some are denied even the right to have a name. This was a terrifying story about oppression and power structures. About how fragile rights are, especially women’s rights.
The Fifth Season (N K Jemisin)
This is one of the freshest takes on fantasy I’ve seen recently. The world, characters, the societal structure, magical system and narration - everything feels different from anything else I’ve read. The people who have magical abilities are the ones that are oppressed in this world. Set on a geologically unstable planet, extreme events like volcanoes frequently cause civilizaiton to collapse.
The Whisper Man (Alex North)
North does a brilliant job building up the suspense in this serial killer story. Imagine a cross between Silence of the Lambs and Stephen King, with a dash of True Detective, and you have this intensely horrifying novel.
The Calculating Stars (Mary Robinette Kowal)
A meteor strike has caused runaway climate change and NASA is trying to colonize the moon and Mars to get people off this planet. The story follows a female pilot/mathematician, who dreams of being an astronaut in a male dominated NASA in the 1950s, and the challenges she faces. The sequel, The Fated Sky, was equally good.
The Left Hand of Darkness (Ursula K Le Guin)
Le Guin’s Hugo and Nebula winning novel that examines the role of gender in society by setting the story in a planet inhabited by people without a fixed gender. It’s a slow but though-provoking read.
Imperium (Robert Harris)
This book follows the career of Roman statesman Cicero, told through the eyes of his slave, Tiro. This is a really nice glimpse into the political life in Rome just before Caesar took over. (Caesar is actually a minor character here, and looks like he will play a greater role in the sequels.) Highly recommended for fans of history.
Leviathan Wakes (James S A Corey)
A space opera set a few centuries from now. There’s a cold war between the powerful governments of Earth and Mars, with the Belt caught in between. There are two strands to this story - one follows a detective looking for a missing woman on Ceres, while another follows the survivors of a spaceship after their ship is destroyed by unknown attackers.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Iain Reid)
This short novel was hard to put down. It starts off as a road trip where the narrator and her boyfriend are driving to meet his parents, even as she is thinking of “ending things” with him. From there, it takes a turn towards horror, and Reid expertly builds the tension towards a disturbing twist at the end.
Audiobooks made up a third of the books I consumed this year. I’ve only listened to 3-4 books in the past, but this year I’ve almost entirely given up listening to podcasts and instead got a subscription for Scribd, so I can spend that time on audiobooks. Over the course of a year, that added up to 17 books!
I’m often picky with books, so this let me try out books that I wouldn’t normally have picked up. This way I came across some enjoyable books, like Cormack McCarthy’s The Road (mentioned above), and Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley.
I’ve already finished my first book of 2021 - Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire, and started Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. Next up is the 1200 page Rhythm of War, which will take up a significant amount of time over the next month. Quite a few of my favorite scifi/fantasy novels of the year were Hugo and Nebula winners, so I’ll be picking more books from those lists this year.
I didn’t read many technical books this year, and hope to read more of those. My team at work is doing a programming book club, so I’ll at least finish the book we’ve picked up, Growing Object Oriented Software, Guided by Tests.
As for number of books, I’d love to reach 50 again this year. But I’ve found that consistently reading a few pages every day is more effective than setting a target like this. If you’re planning to read more this year, I recommend starting with the article Just Twenty-Five Pages a Day.