Picture of the spines of some of the books I read in 2020

Books I Read in 2020

2020 was definitely a year to read books. Good ones, preferably.

As a kid, Thursday was always a bit special: Grandma came over and made dinner for the whole family! More pertinent to this post, my grandmother is also a wonderful librarian, and along with the shepherd’s pie or broccoli-ham hot dish (which, when asked, she would inevitably claim was “boiled bear” πŸ˜† ) she also brought books.

By middle school, I was such an avid reader that my father had to take the lightbulb out of my room at night so I would actually sleep. I was far more interested in what Harry Potter was up to in the next chapter than I was in being unconscious for a few hours.

Though I don’t read as much as perhaps I used to (thanks, internet) I still like the feeling of making my way to the end of a good long book.

2020 by the Books

Every year I like to take a moment and catalog the things I read over the course of the outgoing year. For example, if you’d like to read about what I was mentally chewing on at the end of 2019, you can read it here!

Now, this is the obligatory paragraph where I am required to talk about how 2020 was totally unprecedented, with unforeseen challenges, blah blah blah. Doom, gloom, everything sucks.

Yes, it was all of those things…

… And it also wasn’t. Events like that of 2020 have certainly happened before (e.g. 1918 Flu Pandemic, Justinian Plague, etc., etc.) and more broadly the last 500 years of human existence have probably been a very far cry from the hardships that most humans have faced over our tens of thousands of years on this planet. Millions, depending on which upright apes you’re inviting to the party. Even in a global pandemic, we do in some ways have it pretty good.

What does this have to do with books? Well, this year’s reading list has been shaped by the events of the year to some extent, but in other ways, I’ve just trundled on with what I normally read. More on that a little further below.

So here you have it, a ranked list of what I read (and re-read! Marked with ‘RR’) in 2020:

A 2020 Book List

  1. Who We Are and How We Got Here – David Reich
  2. How to be Anti-Racist – Ibram X Kendi
  3. White Fragility – Robin DiAngelo
  4. Team of Rivals – Doris Kearns Goodwin
  5. Conspiracy – Ryan Holiday
  6. Training for the New Alpinism – Steve House & Scott Johnson
  7. Letters to a Young Scientist – E. O. Wilson
  8. The Obstacle is the Way (RR) – Ryan Holiday
  9. Ego is the Enemy (RR) – Ryan Holiday
  10. Bored and Brilliant – Manoush Zomorodi
  11. Mord am Morgen – AndrΓ© Klein
  12. Capable Monsters – Marlin M. Jenkins
  13. Almost Human – Lee Burger
  14. Cat’s Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut
  15. Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman
  16. Talking to Strangers – Malcolm Gladwell
  17. Dune (RR) – Frank Herbert
  18. Run Fast, Eat Slow – Shalane Flanagan & Elyse Kopecky
  19. How to Break Up With Your Phone – Catherine Price
  20. Charlotte’s Web – E. B. White
  21. Hyperbole and a Half – Allie Brosh
  22. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck (RR) – Mark Manson
  23. The Ecommerce Marketing Handbook – Ben Jabbawy, Daniel J. Murphy, & Lauren Hall
  24. Who Moved My Cheese? – Spencer Johnson
  25. The Magic of Thinking Big – David J. Schwarz

Similar to last year, I’ll pick out a few to talk about in more detail in a bit. But first…

A Note on Diversity

One of my goals for this year was to read more broadly, from a more diverse set of authors.

Basically, trying to get away from just reflexively reading white male authors and their perspectives, my usual.

To investigate this, I took a very informal survey of the authors I read this year, pulled up their Wikipedia pages and/or personal blogs or social media, and did the best job I could at determining how they identify. This is problematic as they were not given the opportunity to self-categorize and my literal discrimination on this might not be at all effective. Still, I wanted some approximation, and this got me as close as I could.

From my inexact survey, this year 30% of the authors I read were non-male and 11% were non-white.

Not so good.

To give me a tiny bit of credit where none is due, this is indeed better than 2019 when I was only at 15% and 5% respectively.

Going from half of a bad score to still a bad score is not much progress though, I am reminding myself. I clearly have my work cut out for myself in the new year! I’m planning to make 2021 a breakout year in this regard.

A Few Selected Titles

I’d like to take a few of the titles from the 25 mentioned above and expound on them a bit, as much for my own benefit as for those who might be interested in reading the titles themselves. Feel free to skip around, this is neither chronology nor logical argument.

1. Who We Are and How We Got Here

This book was revolutionary to my thinking in a variety of ways, and if you have any background in biology, anthropology, or genetics I would highly recommend this book. It functions as a large, well-written review paper of what the boom of Ancient DNA Analysis (up to ~50,000 years into the past, if memory serves) that has come online in the past 10 years has taught us about human evolution, population change, and our collective history.

While the language is a bit technical at times for those who’ve never had any exposure to DNA studies, I think most people would still get a ton out of this, and the things they are able to elucidate about the human past were absolutely fascinating for me. Much more will come from this research in the near years to come, and I’m excited to continue learning more.

Who We Are and How We Got Here once and for all rips down long-held beliefs about population ‘purity’ (read: grouds for racism) while also troubling some of the equally orthodox intellectual regimes that have been ineffectually erected to combat that same issue, arriving at a more true picture of our recent and distant history. Ultimately Reich shows that the human past is a grand, complex saga of population development, mixing, replacement, and further ad-mixing, and the intricacies and subtleties of this are both fascinating from a scientific perspective and directly useful from a socially-conscious perspective. ‘The Genomics of Oppression’ was both one of the most difficult, as well as one of the most illuminating, chapters for me.

Again, highly recommended.

2-3. How to Be Anti-Racist and White Fragility

I suspect I’m not alone in having read these books in June, shortly after the brutal murder of George Floyd in my home state of Minnesota. Both of these books taught me to think critically about my place in a system that has been constructed to keep equity in my group of people, at the expense of opportunity for many others.

I’ve still got a ton of work to do in this regard, and both of these books made me uncomfortable in good ways, challenging me to think and ask questions about how I can be actively working towards making the world a better place, not sitting passively on my hands while machinery that I didn’t put in place still works to benefit me.

‘White Fragility’ has received some great criticism that helped me put the book in context. I still felt like it was useful in my journey, and I still recommend it to people. Paired with ‘How to be Anti-Racist’ I felt like I got a decent primer to these subjects, but as I’m a newbie here I’m very willing to be shown the error of my ways in the future. More to come.

4. Team of Rivals

Another fascinating book, and an important one for my understanding of race racial tension, set against the backdrop of an incredible man by many measures, Abraham Lincoln. Despite being a 750-page tome, I found myself picking up this book at any spare moment, basking in the tension of 1860’s election or marveling at the public access that the White House of that era afforded.

Kearns-Goodwin knocked it out of the park with this biography, in my opinion, and I took lots of notes on leadership, humility, and what it means to be good-natured. Lincoln is larger-than-life (literally as well as figuratively!) and this book painted him in his multifaceted, at times problematic glory.

5, 8, 9. Conspiracy & Other Ryan Holiday Books

I’m a huge fan of Ryan Holiday, as those who’ve read my blog articles in the past might already know. Conspiracy, much like Team of Rivals, was a white-knuckle-white-collar-thriller, detailing how a billionaire mogul conspired to eviscerate a media empire.

I was left unsure who the heroes and villains were, as both sides slowly slip from various ideals into the slurry-filled trough of money, machinations, and malice. Did society win here? Did anybody? If nothing else, it is a fascinating tour behind the curtain of a genuine conspiracy, not the hilariously misguided theories like Q and the other pantheon of crazies that 2020 has paraded before us.

I also re-read two of Ryan’s books on Stoicism this year, as it seemed like a good time to reacquaint myself with the ideas of that school of practical philosophy. I even hand-made myself a ring with symbols reminding me of these books and their precepts, so you know I think they’re good. If you’re looking for a place to start I think ‘The Obstacle is the Way’ is still Ryan’s pinnacle work, so grab yourself a copy.

6. Training for the New Alpinism

Technically this is somewhat of a re-read (I read the first ~1/3 of this in 2013), I tackled the whole thing this time and now have a definite goal in mind: Climbing Mt. Shasta’s 8,000 ft flank in June of 2021.

Beyond the particulars of training for alpinism, this was a good reminder for me that as a semi-professional athlete in dance, periodization and modulation of my training load is a very necessary thing. Left to my own devices I tend to fall into the ‘I can rest when I’m dead’ method of attacking things. Turns out that doesn’t give you great results in the long run. This book reminds me of how training should look.

7. Letters to a Young Scientist

This book did a lot to revive my interest in the world as a scientist! Short, sweet, and filled with fun anecdotes, I really enjoyed this. I’m stoked to begin poking my nose back into some scientific endeavors in 2021…

10. Bored and Brilliant

Basically, don’t be afraid to let yourself get really bored. Turn off technology, take away your fidgets, and sit with some problem or task until you are bored. The time that we spend daydreaming, doodling, or doing low-level tasks that free up our minds is incredibly important. Phones destroy this time and suck away our attention very effectively.

Take long walks, showers, and do other things in silence. See what pops into your brain, and pay attention to the ideas you get during this time, they just might be brilliant.

12. Capable Monsters

It’s been a while since I read poetry, but this was a wonderful way to remind myself of how great that style of work can be! I really enjoyed Jenkins’ use of PokΓ©mon as vehicles for insightful, beautiful words. It was both immediately relatable (I grew up with PokΓ©mon!) and interesting as a prism through which to see someone else’s experience refracted.

18. Run Fast, Eat Slow

I don’t often post about cookbooks, but this one has been truly great! For me, Shalane and Elyse totally nailed the recipes for athletes and I’ve already got an Evernote notebook full of ‘keepers’ from this cookbook. I would highly recommend the Beet Smoothie (it’s both gorgeous and delicious) and the Bacon-Wrapped Stuffed Chicken Breasts paired with a healthy serving of Sweet Potato Fries. So good.

23. The Ecommerce Marketing Handbook

Other than some good tips, the most important thing that I got from this book is that there are millions of online stores up and running these days…

And only 8% have ever done more than $1,000 in sales.

First, both of those numbers are pretty remarkable. Second, it’s easy to get lost in the slipstream of comparing yourself (or in my case, Feather Three) to all of the mega-successful brands out there, but in reality, I’m well into the top 5% of all online stores on the web. Pretty cool, and something to be grateful for knowing.

Well, there you have it! 2020 Books. Boom.

It was quite the year, what else can you say? I’m glad I have eyes to read and glad I made use of them.

Onwards, to 2021!

– Joel

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