My favorite books out of the 43 books (~17,000 pages) that I read in 2020:
Sci-Fi and Fantasy
The Ministry for the Future — This is a challenging, and, at times, bleak book, but ultimately an incredibly thought-provoking look at a potential future of the world as climate change continues to accelerate. One of those books that sticks with you long after you finish reading it.
Fiction and Classics
Wolf Hall Trilogy (The Mirror & the Light) — A satisfying conclusion to the Wolf Hall trilogy (we all knew how it was going to end, after all, such is the curse and joy of historical fiction). The prose continues to be beyond amazing. It was more than a little surreal reading this soon after it came out, as the COVID-19 pandemic world spread across the world, only to have the book open with Thomas Cromwell grappling with a plague, way back in 1485.
The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power — A brilliant journey into the creation of the multinational oil industry and its adventures and run-ins with government bureaucrats, Texas oil men, Middle Eastern sheikhs, and South American autocrats. Contains perhaps the best explanation of the 70s oil crisis that I’ve read.
Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World — A fascinating history of Christianity’s impact on Western culture by a stored historian, from its earliest beginnings, to its collision with the rise of Islam (Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and Africa were once bastions of Christianity), to the Reformation, to the Enlightenment, and finally culminating in the modern day. Can a post-Christian society continue to energetically espouse a morality that is ultimately largely derived from Christianity?
Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power — A brilliant comprehensive history of one of the largest and most powerful Native American nations, the Lakota. Much, much more than the antagonists of Custer’s Last Stand, the Lakota and their history has been deliberately ignored for too long. This book is a powerful beginning toward rediscovering them.
The Story of China: The Epic History of a World Power from the Middle Kingdom to Mao and the China Dream — It’s challenging to summarize the history of China in a single volume, but this book makes a valiant attempt and serves as a great starting point for better understanding.
Sid Meier’s Memoir!: A Life in Computer Games — I think I first played the original Civilization sometime in the early 90s and immediately fell in love. Games are a new form of media, born the digital age, whose bounds have yet to be fully explored, but Sid Meier’s name will forever resound in history as an early innovator and creator of multiple genres. This is a heartfelt, honest, humble memoir of a career in the game industry and what it means to be a game designer, and more broadly, a creative and a businessperson.
Economics and Politics
The New Map: Energy, Climate, and the Clash of Nations — In some sense, this book picks up where The Prize, by the same author, leaves off. It looks at the future (and the past) as the world begins its transition away from carbon-based forms of energy.
The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World — I wear clothes every day and have done so for my entire life. Yet, until I read this book, I pretty much took clothing entirely for granted. This book narrates a beautiful journey into fabric and textiles: how they’re made, where they come from, how they become clothing, whence the vagaries of fashion arise. Written with a love for the subject that shines through its pages.
Business and Leadership
The Art of Leadership: Small Things, Done Well — This is a heartfelt and brilliant book. The “small things” are like finely crafted gemstones – faceted and polished to focus their light of wisdom. Each small thing manages to capture and distill an “unspoken truth” about what makes effective management and leadership (as well as the difference between them!)
The prose is direct, honest, and warm. Think of an old friend or mentor offering you advice for different stages of your career. The author spans the range: starting out as a manager, to a manager of managers (director), to a manager of manager of managers (executive).
There is much to learn from in this book – it can be read straight through, but it also demands to be returned to, drawn upon in the movements when the poignant lesson of one of its “small things” might just what is needed.
The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company — Usually retrospective tomes by accomplished CEOs are not worth reading. This book is an exception, as Bob Iger takes an honest appraisal of his career and offers sound, thoughtful and dare I say humble advice throughout.
That Will Never Work: The Birth of Netflix and the Amazing Life of an Idea — A compelling and inspiring book, framed using the creation of Netflix, but really containing lessons for anyone wanting to start something new.
No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention — The successor to the famed Culture Deck, this look inside how Netflix works lays out a different perspective on business as usual: instead vigorously arguing that freedom and responsibility go together and complement each other in innovative, margin-enhancing ways.
Philosophy and Humanities
Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit — I’ve never gone clubbing (nor had much desire to do so, despite enjoying EDM). Nonetheless this book was an utterly gripping (and devastating) ethnographic/economic analysis of the world of models, bottles, promoters, clients, whales, and clubs. Clear, direct prose hauntingly illustrates the gender-based inequities of power that persist in our world and are brought under a glaring spotlight in the club.
The Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn — Hamming is a giant in the field. His “You and Your Research” talk served as an inspiration in my computer scientist undergraduate research days. This book runs along much the same themes, albeit with a deeper treatment and a wider scope.
The Origins of You: How Childhood Shapes Later Life — A fascinating read exploring the eternal nature v. nurture debate, informed by the latest research. Importantly argues from a perspective of children as their own agents (children are people too!), e.g. “To mix metaphors, or at least switch from one involving wet clay to one involving a chalkboard, the child is not simply a blank slate that others write on. Rather, at least to some extent, the child plays the roles of the slate being written on, the chalk doing the writing, and the person holding the chalk.”
The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous — It turns out 20 year old college students in prosperous Western countries are not actually valid as useful proxies for all of humanity. This book explains why.