The Books I Read in 2020

Jan 15, 2021

Because of COVID-19, I read more in 2020 than I ever remember doing in previous years.

It is a habit that I wish to continue into 2021, but it is also a habit I desire to be more deliberate and thoughtful about going forward.

First, I have selected the top five books I read in non-fiction and fiction during 2020. More than sharing my thoughts about each one, I felt that I needed to write a summary of each book in order to convince you why you should make these books a priority in 2021. I challenged myself to write only three sentences for each summary– an exercise in restraint to kick off my year of intention.

After each top five list, I listed a few honorable mentions which would have made it onto longer lists and deserve to be read just as much as the top five.

Top 5 Non-fiction

1. Pacific by Simon Winchester (2015)

Both comprehensive and regal, Simon Winchester’s Pacific tells a sweeping story of the Pacific Ocean through ten, detailed histories. From the development of the nuclear bomb to surfing, Winchester deploys unlikely narratives to discuss broader trends developing in the Pacific—mainly global warming and geopolitical power balances. If aliens invaded Earth, they would appoint Winchester to tell our story.

2. The Mathematical Universe by Max Tegmark (2014)

There is no bigger-picture book than Max Tegmark’s The Mathematical Universe. At its foundation, Tegmark argues that beyond subatomic particles, mathematical structures lay at the base of our reality. While I am completely unqualified to comment on the scientific merit of his theories, Tegmark’s sweeping, logical creativity leads to a mind-bending exploration of multiverse theory.

3. The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman (1962)

The Guns of August expertly traces the complex web of relationships, correspondence, and strategy that led to the disastrously consequential 1914. Without explicitly stating it, Barbara Tuchman’s history explores the slow slide into World War I until conflict became unavoidable. As such, Tuchman’s perspective on the lead up and first few months of World War I has become a definitive and indispensable volume–illuminating that even though we may fight back, we are all mere instruments of history.

4. The Perfect Weapon by David E. Sanger (2018)

From Bush to Obama, David E. Sanger employs his diligent reporting to explain the rapid rise of geopolitical, cybersecurity concerns in The Perfect Weapon. In chapters covering attacks from North Korea, China, and Russia, Sanger underscores the abundantly varied capabilities exploited by foreign agents. And through uncovering the United States’ own cybersecurity operations and strategies, Sanger rails against the secrecy surrounding cybersecurity and argues that transparency is the only way to begin closing the Pandora’s box of the information age.

5. The Shortest History of Germany by James Hawes (2017)

Tracing German history from the Romans to Angela Merkel, Hawes’ The Shortest History of Germany is as readable as a breezy, Sunday afternoon. Thoroughly researched, Hawes’ synthesizes the work of various German studies scholars to argue that German history is a constant battle of power between the people West and East of the Elbe. My only complaint—I wish it were longer.

Non-Fiction Honorable Mention: Whipping Girl by Julia Serano (Second Edition, 2016)

Top 4 Fiction

1. A Burning by Megha Majumdar (2020)

The title says it all. Centering on three characters of different classes in modern-day India, Majumdar’s debut novel, A Burning, blazes like a prairie fire. Through its urgency and immediacy, Majumdar criticizes Indian politics and investigates the ramifications of consumer technology bleeding into governing.

2. The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (2008)

Insanely imaginative, Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem tells the story of a physicist who discovers that a hyper-intelligent alien civilization is approaching Earth. With a similar style to both spy and detective novels, this high-tech race against time underscores how people can turn on each other even in times of existential crisis. Even if you are not into sci-fi, The Three-Body Problem is an essential read for allegedly being an allegory for a rising Chinese nation challenging the United States.

3. The Odyssey by Homer (translated by Emily Wilson) (2018)

Confession—I have never read The Odyssey. However, Wilson’s translation continues the oral history of Homer’s classic by making Odysseus’ journey read as if your best friend was recounting their Friday night. In addition to a triumphant and analytical introduction, Wilson successfully makes the case that, in the 21st century, studying the classics is more important than ever.

4. Borne by Jeff Vandermeer (2017)

Telling the story of a couple living in an urban jungle ravaged by a climate change apocalypse, Jeff Vandermeer’s Borne is a stirring drama of survival and sacrifice. Like his Area X series published before this, Vandermeer drops readers into a vivid, lived and strange world exploding with the unexpected. From a giant grizzly bear terrorizing the city to gangs whose members are fusions of humans, plants and animals, Vandermeer’s terrifyingly tense hellscape exemplifies the strength of the human spirit—-but underscores that it’s better to live in a stable world than an exciting one.

Fiction Honorable Mentions: A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams (1947) and The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde (1890)