14 min read

What I Read in 2020

What I Read in 2020

TLDR: Caro is king. Read all of his books.

This year I decided to keep track of my books in overall best to worst order. As I finished a book, I tried to slot it in to this post relative to the books that came before it. It’s not exact and there is some recency bias. I’ve also added headings to roughly denote where the post moves between various levels of recommendation.

Strongly Recommend

The Passage of Power
*They said well, you love biography but you never read Robert Caro? So the very last time I was in Waterstones (when…*www.goodreads.com

The story of the Kennedy presidency, the Johnson vice presidency, the assassination and the start of the Johnson Presidency. Remarkable book. Finished (2020–05–10)
Master of the Senate
*Just as Caro began the first volume of Lyndon Johnson's biography telling the entire history of the Texas hill country…*www.goodreads.com

This series gets better by the volume. For book 3, Caro gives us a rich, gorgeously written, comprehensive history of the United States Senate through LBJ’s time bending the institution to his will. Caro remains the king.
Means of Ascent
*I loved the first volume of Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson, The Path to Power. I'd ever read a better…*www.goodreads.com

Caro is an elite biographer. No one comes close. Here is the story of how LBJ bought a Senate seat and stole an election.
The Path to Power
*The ends justify the means. LBJ was corrupt, a womanizer, and a pathological liar. But, he got things done. In 1949…*www.goodreads.com

This book is a beast. There is no one who writes like this. Robert Caro is king.
The Trouble with Peace (The Age of Madness, #2)
*I have a Booktube channel now! Subscribe here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCRjh... ARC provided by the…*www.goodreads.com

I think I’m ready to say I like this series better than Lord of Rings…. Better than Dune. Better than The Song of Ice and Fire, even. I’m okay saying that Joe Abercrombie’s First Law universe is my favorite fiction. It’s grim, dark, exciting, filled with amazing characters, and also hilarious. This isn’t something to tide you over while you wait for GRRM, this surpasses and transcends the works of fantasy that come before it (and also inform its execution).
A Promised Land
*Oh, the era of Barack and Michele, good times for us all. The whole world is effected by who runs the USA. Hope for the…*www.goodreads.com

I enjoyed this one a lot more than I thought I would.
*I loved her interview with Stephen Colbert, when she said: "It is lazy and easy to lead by fear, it is harder to lead…*www.goodreads.com

Everyone says this book is fantastic, which maybe is one of the reasons I put off reading it. It is absolutely fantastic. (Finished 2020-06–15)
Know My Name
*This is a tough but important book to read. But I want my 16 year old to read it. At 16, many teenagers would be facing…*www.goodreads.com

Chanel Miller’s memoir is powerful and excellently written. I hope everyone, especially my male friends, read this book. Be like the Swedes.
Running the Dream
*The author lives out the fantasy of every middle-aged, injured endurance athlete to regain or surpass the fitness of…*www.goodreads.com

A book about Matt Fitzgerald pushing himself to achieve his best marathon performance by training with professional runners. I am very here for it.
Life Is a Marathon
*Life Is a Marathon book. Read 44 reviews from the world’s largest community for readers. An endurance athlete and coach…*www.goodreads.com

This book inspired me to pick up my training, but it is at least as much about Fitzgerald’s marriage as it is about running.
*I knew who Robert Caro was, but I hadn’t read any of his books. Then recently I heard an interview with him on a Conan…*www.goodreads.com

The king explains how he became king.
The Meritocracy Trap
*"Data sliced sufficiently finely begin once again to tell stories. The top 1 percent of the income…*www.goodreads.com

I highly recommend this work on the nature of inequality in the United States. With a focus on the differences between the middle class and the top 1% and through further subdividing the 1%, Harkovits is able to present a really fresh take on wealth and present compelling prescriptions.
Digital Minimalism
*Having read both, I would say Deep Work is a much stronger book overall - if you had to pick just one to read, pick…*www.goodreads.com

Excellent book. While reading I started incorporating some of its suggestions. Our time = Their Money in today’s attention economy. I’m going to opt out of that as much as I can.
Weapons of Math Destruction
*The author explores the ethical and moral dilemmas generated by algorithms that contain within themselves the…*www.goodreads.com

On how data is used to screw the poor. Particularly interesting is how terrible value add models in education are. Ten years ago, I would have said the exact opposite.

Warmly Recommend

The Radical King
*"When a writer does the extensive research necessary to write a factual biology. . . " Fairly sure that should be…*www.goodreads.com

If you aren’t sure who Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have voted for in the 2020 Democratic primary, this book might be for you. MLK was a Democratic Socialist before it was cool. His speeches and writings are critical reading for anyone interested in practicing radical love and envisioning a future that honors human dignity.
Midnight in Chernobyl
*I've read both now (finished Midnight yesterday), and while I liked both I prefer Higginbotham.I've read both now…*www.goodreads.com

If you liked the HBO show, you’ll also like this. There is definitely more depth and nuance here than the HBO show. The hospital scenes are brutal. The thought of radioactive lava is terrifying. I highly recommend. (Finished 2020–02–12)
How the Other Half Learns
*"The more challenging question is the moral one: If a child is seriously disruptive, whose interests should we…*www.goodreads.com

This book is only for people with first hand ed reform experience. I enjoyed it, but seriously I do not recommend it for folks who haven’t taught in urban education — it just paints too rosey of a picture of the charter school side of ed reform.
*I find this memoir near impossible to review for a number of reasons: the book was near impossible to read for me; the…*www.goodreads.com

Really powerful memoir written by a black academic who grew up in Mississippi.
Rhythm of War (The Stormlight Archive, #4)
*This review in video format is here: https://youtu.be/vzzMUk7B4Kk Brandon Sanderson is a storming genius. Rhythm of War…*www.goodreads.com

The first two books in this series were transcendently good. This fourth entry had some great parts, but also a lot of annoying, cringey, or just boring parts. I’ll likely continue through the Stormlight Archive when the next one is released in a few years, but more and more of the main characters are starting to wear on me.
Culture Warlords
*Illuminating, sometimes amusing, and often disturbing - Lavin is a compelling narrator whose personal principles anchor…*www.goodreads.com

The author of my favorite article from the democratic primary put out her first book, so obviously I had it pre-ordered. It is a short dive into extreme right wing culture online. Lavin is a great writer and she puts herself in danger to uncover some of the more disgusting corners of the internet.
*I’ve had this book lying around for a couple years. I’m about to start a new position which allows remote work, and…*www.goodreads.com

Makes a strong case for remote work along with some solid tips at how to manage and be successful at it. I picked it up when my company announced it was going full WFH for the foreseeable future. (FINISHED 2020–03–14)
Why Buddhism is True
*I read this book because I really enjoyed Nonzero, a book the author wrote a while ago. At first I was disappointed he…*www.goodreads.com

I enjoyed this look at the science and philosophy of meditation and enlightenment. The piece I found most interesting was the idea that the mind is made up of competing modules shaped by natural selection that drive one’s behavior — as opposed to a central ‘self’.

Cooly Recommend

Red Rising (Red Rising Saga, #1)
*I'm a professional format editor. I can tell you from experience that the same text translated from English to Spanish…*www.goodreads.com

Pretty good scifi. Has some elements from The Matrix, Hunger Games, Ender’s Game, Old Man’s War, but doesn’t really transcend.
Consider the Lobster and Other Essays
*Yes: I read the Lobster on Kindle. The more recent Notes system on Kindle works very well. The footnotes are easy to…*www.goodreads.com

This was my first introduction to David Foster Wallace. His writing style is smart and funny. It is a collection of essays that were published in the late 1990s to early 2000s so it has a bit of a time capsule feel to it today. A few essays stood out to me in order of my own preference are: 1. Up, Simba — an article for Rolling Stone about the John McCain 2000 campaign. 2. Consider the Lobster — a review of the 2003 Maine Lobster Festival. 3. The View from Mrs. Thompson’s — an account of Wallace’s experience on September 11th. 4. Host — a profile of a right wing radio show host. 5. Big Red Son — an account of Wallace’s visit to the academy awards of pornographic film in the late 1990s. Shout out to my friend Brandon who recommended this one to me. I’d highly recommend the aforementioned essays (you can probably just google those), but the other essays kind of fell flat for me. (Finished 2020–01–06)
Midnight Rising
*Thoreau's essay "In Defense of Capt. John Brown" is one of my favorite political essays. I've been looking for a good…*www.goodreads.com

The words “I, John Brown, am now quite certain, that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with blood.” ring as true today as they were in 1859. (Finished 2020–04–16)
*Because somehow the game of Pachinko and the story of Sunja are correlated. The idea may not occur while reading the…*www.goodreads.com

This is a family historical saga like an East of Eden, but set in Korea and Japan. It’s quite good and different from what I typically choose to read. I’m glad I took a chance with this one.
Station Eleven
*"What's going on?""I don't know, Jeevan. That's the short answer. I don't know what's going on. It's a flu, that much…*www.goodreads.com

Mandel wrote a bunch of compelling vignettes set before, after, and during an apocalyptic pandemic. Each of these vignettes relates to the others and the further you read the more connections you find. Not a great time to read this book. It has exacerbated my stress stemming from current events. (Finished 2020–02–27)
Winners Take All
*Antonio, the question is not globalization, or coming together, it's how it is done, and who is benefiting from…*www.goodreads.com

This was a good reminder that it’s misguided to praise elites for their philanthropy when they shirk their tax responsibilities, fund the drive for austerity government, and earned their wealth by exploiting have-nots.
Boys & Sex
*"We fuss a lot about 'the sex talk,'" says Richard Weissbourd, the director of Making Caring Common. "We do not fuss…*www.goodreads.com

This is a sociological study of young masculinity in America. A lot of this resonated with my experience as a young man and there are many lessons that I’m taking away from this book regarding how I want to raise my son. I definitely recommend this for parents of boys who are worried about perpetuating toxic and unhealthy ideas about masculinity.
Cinderella Ate My Daughter
*This is an older book, but I still remember it as impactful and hope to share it with my daughter when she hits her…*www.goodreads.com

This gave me a lot to think about as a new parent. What messages and values do I communicate with the gifts I buy and the language I use? How do I maintain the self-confidence my daughter already has as she grows up? Overall, this journey across some of the most problematic and contradictory parts of popular girl culture will help me be a better dad. Finished (2020–03–02)
Siblings Without Rivalry
*AMAZING book! Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish have wonderful, practical ideas for dealing with kids (and in this case…*www.goodreads.com

So the kids started to rival a bit, so I picked this one up. It is very similar to How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and also a quite helpful reminder on how to defuse sibling conflicts.
Why We Sleep
*No, it's not really a how-to guide. There is a two-page appendix which gives tips for getting consistently good sleep…*www.goodreads.com

It turns out that increased sleep quality is correlated with virtually everything you want to get better and improve in your own life. I’ve started using a sleep tracking app.

Capital and Ideology
*Reading this behemoth is not easy...physically for me, psychically for more reactionary folk...but this article…*www.goodreads.com

This one was a bit of a slog at points, but I’m happy I persevered. The book examines the ideology of property over time and ends with some innovative tax policies. The book covers wide swaths of history and geography, so some of it I enjoyed more than others. Overall, it’s definitely worth fighting for the kind of equitable future Piketty imagines.
The Pragmatic Programmer
*It's a great book, hands down. I rate it 5/5.It's a great book, hands down. I rate it 5/5. Vatsal Ambastha Having said…*www.goodreads.com

This is a great guide for anyone interested in writing quality software. The original was published in 1999, but the second edition that I picked up was pretty fresh. (Finished 2020–01–12)
The Hobbit, or There and Back Again
*I personally really enjoyed the films and the extrapolations they took from Tolkien's other works, besides The Hobbit…*www.goodreads.com

Read this to the kids to get them to fall asleep, but also to grow their appreciation for high fantasy. This book is not bad and the back half is quite good.
Blood Red Snow
*Blood Red Snow book. Read 148 reviews from the world's largest community for readers. For the German soldier fighting…*www.goodreads.com

This is a memoir of an Eastern front Nazi soldier beginning with his retreat from Stalingrad through the end of the second World War.
The Fire Next Time
*Absolutely. It's hard to see the effects because they are oftentimes overshadowed by the pitting nature of black and…*www.goodreads.com

Great to get Baldwin’s voice first hand.
*Unbound book. Read 15 reviews from the world's largest community for readers. From one of Washington's most influential…*www.goodreads.com

An overview of the latest economic thinking around how inequality is very bad. If you need a reminder about how much of a sham supply side economics is, look no further.
Stories for Children
*A whimsical, satisfying collection of short stories for children and adults alike. Many are set in Poland and Russia…*www.goodreads.com

I used this book to put my kids to bed for the past few weeks. I would read one or part of one story each night and they’d be out before I finished (typically). The stories are Brothers Grimm meets the shtetl. A lot of what I’m guessing is 19th and early 20th century Jewish Polish culture in here. Lots of demons, devils, witches, and whatnot, but I think my kids were too young to understand or be frightened by any of it. I am not going to lie, some stories I’d read out loud even after I knew they were asleep. (Finished 2020–01–10)
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
*His depiction of the act of running is great. How he narrates about a marathon, and his stories about the…*www.goodreads.com

This is a memoir by a Japanese novelist and amateur runner. A lot in here resonated. It’s not about becoming a better runner or winning races, it is more about running sustainably and making running part of one’s life. (Finished 2020–04–19)
Talking to Strangers
*I agree with Pinker. There were a lot of holes in the theory. The themes were simplified to the point of being rather…*www.goodreads.com

I can see how a lot of people might find this book problematic because it tends to minimize the idea of racism as a cause of police violence and shift the focus on to how generally bad humans are at understanding each other. It has been a long time since I picked up some Gladwell. Overall I’m pretty meh on this one — it is easy to get get through, tough to put down at times, but also problematic. (Finished 2020–01–08)
*I only really care about cars. OK, I also care about my family, but not any more than I care about cars. They're right…*www.goodreads.com

I am now a fully recovered Elon Musk and Tesla fanboy. This book charts some of the broken promises, production problems, and bad decisions that are not typically part of the Tesla-Elon narrative. (Finished 2020–02–17)
That Will Never Work
*This book was like listening to an annoying uncle brag about how good he is at business. It seems like he just wrote it…*www.goodreads.com

A self serving take on the origin story of Netflix. I’d say skip this unless silicon valley startup memoirs are really your jam. (Finished 2020–04–10)
*"If it had turned out that Aboriginal Australians were the ones to possess that tiny bit of Neanderthal ancestry…*www.goodreads.com

I picked this one up after bed bug and New York Times columnist Bret Stephens wrote that awful article about how smart Jews are. This book covers the history race “science.” (Finished 2020–01–18)
The Good Lord Bird
*I'm reading the 2018 biography of Douglass by David Blight, and it is true that the German woman Ottilie Assing lived…*www.goodreads.com

What if Django Unchained was about John Brown?
*"Beavers, the animal that doubles as an ecosystem, are ecological and hydrological Swiss Army knives, capable, in the…*www.goodreads.com

Beavers are pretty cool. This is an interesting natural history and story of conservationism and environmental restoration. I can see how a Manhattan financier who actually wants to live in Colorado could really love this book. (Finished 2020–02–24)
American Wolf
*The book actually documents the lives of the Yellowstone wolves, those who came to know and love them, and the…*www.goodreads.com

This is the story of the reintroduction of wolves from Alaska to Yellowstone National Park. The Wolves and their naturalist observers are the main characters. If you like books like “Eager” or “The Emerald Mile” you’ll enjoy this book.

Do Not Recommend

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
*From wiki: "The main Earth religion is Mercerism, in which Empathy Boxes link simultaneous users into a collective…*www.goodreads.com

This felt dated to me in a way that Blade Runner the movie, or Dune, which was published around the same time as this, do not. It was fine. (Finished 2020–06–01)
Jewish Stories One Generation Tells Another
*Nice resource for Hebrew school.My second grade learns about charity and this book has some great Elijah stories where…*www.goodreads.com

Half of this book are fables and stories that I read out loud to my kids before bed. But, before each story, and comprising about half of the book are introductory essays to each story almost all of which I did not read. The stories get pretty repetitive and some of them teach lessons about traditional gender roles and religiosity that are pretty counter productive. (Finished 2020–04–08)

Hard Pass

The Red Knight (The Traitor Son Cycle, #1)
*This is what I know having finished the series- no spoilers but overall theme related: The author works very hard and…*www.goodreads.com

I abandoned this book 75% of the way through. There were 2000 characters and I didn’t care about any of them.
A Memory Called Empire (Teixcalaan #1)
*With reservations. What do you mean, what do I mean? There's something about it--as good, as inclusive, as remarkable…*www.goodreads.com

I really wanted to like this book, just look at the cover! I gave it 67% to convince me it wasn’t unbearably boring. Sadly, it did not convince me.
The Future of Another Timeline
*It is throughout the book (though maybe not as thick), and it's not really used other than to narrate. I found it…*www.goodreads.com

I abandoned this book also about 75% of the way through. Just really not for me.
This Is How You Lose the Time War
*Congratulations to the 2020 Hugo winner for best novella! But when I think of you, I want to be alone together. I wan…*www.goodreads.com

This was the worst book I read this year.