I read a lot of books in 2020, and most of them were pretty good. I trawled through them looking for the ones I got the most out of–either in information or sheer pleasure. I ended up with, I felt, enough to recommend. So, I set about putting together a long post detailing all these recommendations. My wife, Mary Dan (aka MD), asked me what I was working on so diligently, and I her about the 52 books. The conversation went sort of like this:
MD: 52 books! You’re putting up a post reviewing 52 books?
MD: You are insane. No one will scroll through 52 books. You are wasting your time.
Me: I scroll through long lists of books all the time.
MD: Yes, but you’re weird. Most people won’t do it. You’re wasting your time.
Me: Oh, come on. Wouldn’t you scroll through a long list of books if you were interested.
MD: I supposed. If I were really interested. But I’m not interested in scrolling through a list of 52 books selected at random by some guy on the internet.
Me: But these aren’t random. They’re the best from all my reading last year.
MD: Do what you want, but I’m telling you no one will scroll through all those. You’re wasting your time.
Since she’s generally right about these kinds of things, I figured I would break it into several parts.
Since 52 is easily divisible by 4, I decided to break this into four posts over the next couple of weeks and put a baker’s dozen up in each post. What follows are 13 of the 52 books I enjoyed this year. I’ve added a small paragraph to each book describing why I savored it or what I got from it and why I recommend it.
Not all of these books were published in 2020. In fact, most weren’t. But I read them in 2020, so they all made the 2020 list. Don’t assume anything based on the placement on this list. I simply put these books on a list as I found them and I’m transferring that list here. Other than the first one, they are not in any order at all, so don’t try to decipher any kind of rationale as to where a particular book is on the list.
And if you’re glad you don’t have to scroll through 52 books, you’ve got my wife to thank for it.
This is the first book on the list, and I purposefully put it there. It was one of the best reads of the year for me. Alan Jacobs, the author of How to Think, takes a different look at critical thinking than any I’ve seen before. A real eye opener for me. It was the featured book in my first weekly newsletter (sign up here if interested). Highly, highly recommended. The rest of the books are in no particular order.
I just got my copy of The Case For Keto a couple of weeks ago, so it was on the top of the pile. But I already read it in manuscript form last year, so it counts. It’s as much an overall treatment of a low-carb diet from a scientific perspective as it is a keto diet book. As with all of Gary’s books, it’s chock full of insights from scientists long dead whom he’s resurrected to make important points. I think it was supposed to be a prescriptive book in that it advocates a keto diet, but, unlike most prescriptive diet books, this one presents both sides of a number of arguments. So you can see the data and make your own decision.
Hello World is fun to read, but infuriating and frightening at the same time. The author, a math professor in the UK, pulls back the curtain on the various algorithms Big Tech uses to collect our data and use it for their benefit. It can also be used for our benefit or to our detriment. Problem is, we don’t get to make the choice. Big Tech does. Facebook and Google can serve you ads you might want to see, while saving you from an onslaught of ads for products and services you probably don’t want. They can also influence your vote, and if you don’t believe they can influence your vote, then just read this book to see how Big Tech can influence other peoples’ votes. Elections may never be the same again. Highly recommended book both for the content and the writing style.
Larry Olmsted’s book Real Food Fake Food is a winner. I can’t remember when I learned so much about food. Who knew that real Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese has a texture “just firmer than aged cheddar,” and that it actually crunches in your mouth as you chew it thanks to “tiny crystals of calcium lactate”? Who knew that most of the fish you buy at the store isn’t really the fish specified on the label? I didn’t know any of this. In fact, I didn’t know most of the information in this book. But I do now. Consequently, I’m more careful about ordering fish. As the author points out, it’s really easy to tell the difference between chicken and lamb if you’re served it in a restaurant. Not so much so when you get a plate of some sort of fish. Grab this book and learn all about all the fake food you may find in your shopping cart. It has made MD and me much more careful shoppers.
The Volunteer is the story of Witold Pilecki, a member of the Polish gentry, a WWI veteran, and a member of the Polish Resistance, who volunteered to be imprisoned in Auschwitz. In 1940 the Germans were putting Polish prisoners into what is now know as Auschwitz. At the time no one knew what was going on inside the prison camp. Pilecki volunteered to get captured in the hope he would be imprisoned there and be able to set up a means of getting info out. He took part in a partisan uprising, allowed himself to be captured by the Nazis. He was sent to Auschwitz where he stayed for two and a half years while putting together a group of agents within the camp to gather intelligence that he transmitted to the outside world. He reported the horrors going on there, but the world was in disbelief. He finally decided to escape, which he did in 1943, in an effort to tell his tale of horror in person. It fell on deaf ears. Pilecki’s own book on his time in Auschwitz in an incredible read. But The Volunteer is an easier read and brings in information Pilecki could not have known when he wrote his book. If there was ever a hero worth reading about, it is Witold Pilecki.
Safi Bahcall, a physicist and biotech entrepreneur, writes in Loonshots about how companies or governments can allow renegades (for lack of better word) to have the freedom to pursue oddball ventures while maintaining the status quo. It’s not an easy balance. I have no interest in working in a company or, God forbid, for the government, but I enjoyed immensely the tales related about those who did. The chapter about the development of radar during WWII is fascinating. As is the one about the discovery of statins and the many hurdles overcome to develop and bring them to the market. That story has a sad ending. They succeeded. Now the world is awash in a sea of expensive and useless drugs. But the story of how they pulled it off is amazing. Many other stories to make you wonder how anything gets accomplished.
Theodore Dalrymple (real name Anthony Daniels), the author of Life at the Bottom, is a retired UK physician, who spent his career taking care of the poor and those in prison. He writes, “I am in an unusual position: while I spend most of my professional life as a doctor working in the extensive lower reaches of society, I have, because of my writing, an entrée into literary society. The complacent disregard by the latter of the social catastrophe wrought in the former appalls me almost as much as the catastrophe itself.” The mindset of the people he treats is unbelievable, and makes one believe nothing will ever change. The writing is superb. I read it not only for the information, but just for the joy of reading the prose.
The authors of The Enigma of Reason, cognitive scientists both, ask why humans born with the ability to reason often act so completely irrationally in their possession of seemingly impossible beliefs. In their analysis we didn’t evolve the ability to reason to solve problems, but to be able to successfully deal with the problems encountered while living in collaborative groups. This is another well-written book that reads easily. The authors so skillfully mount their arguments that it’s hard to find fault with them.
Time for a little fiction. I don’t know what inspired me to read The Shipping News. I had never read any Annie Proulx. In fact, I really knew nothing about her. I didn’t read a review of the book. For reasons known only to my subconscious I just picked it and started reading. If someone had told me what it was about, I would never have read it. But I was absolutely mesmerized by the story, which I got into quickly. I enjoyed it so much I badgered MD into reading it, and she loved it. The mark of a good book–to me, at least–is if you find yourself thinking about the characters months after you’ve read the book. This one has got one of the all-time great characters. I don’t want to put anyone off by telling what it’s about, because, as I said, had I known, I would never have read it. And my life would be the less for it.
A Woman in Berlin is a book I had heard about for years, but just never took the opportunity to read it until last year. In the final months of WWII, when shelling could be heard outside the city, a young female journalist living in Berlin started keeping a diary. The people living in Berlin, especially the women, had heard all the horror stories of what was going to happen to them if and when the Russians arrived in town. The Russians arrived and the populace paid. Especially the women. This young woman, who was a terrific writer, recorded the first eight weeks of the nightmare. Because she wrote about the rape she suffered and the mass rape of others, she had to publish the book anonymously. She died in 2001, and her name has become public since. You can find it on the internet, but I’m not going to reveal it. Despite the excellence of the writing, the book is difficult to read, because the conditions it describes were so terrible. But she dealt with it and helped others deal with it. It really is a testament to the human spirit how people manage to survive under the worst situations imaginable. Everyone should read this book.
I read The Great Influenza years ago and thought it was wonderful. I decided to read it again during the current pandemic. Makes for a different read now than it did on my first time through it. Along with the story of the flu pandemic, the author describes the tortuous history of medical education in the US, which was grim at the turn of the 20th century. And it details the beginnings of serious US scientific investigation, which was really kicked off by this grim onslaught of influenza. It’s a dreadful story told well. A must read during these troubled times.
I met Rodney Mullen several years ago and we struck up an unlikely friendship (unlikely because I have no interest in skateboarding and Rodney is one of the sport’s patron saints). I discovered he was into hacking as a sort of hobby. I had always been interested in hacking myself, but didn’t really have the programming chops to do it. I asked him if he had a book he could recommend to get me started. In typical Rodney fashion, he told me he wanted to think on it for a day before he made a recommendation. He told me the next day that I should read Ghost in the Wires. Of all the books he had read on the subject, he felt it was the best one for a rank beginner (or even whatever the step is before that) to read. So I did. And until I read it, I had no idea what true hacking involves. Most of it is what is called “social hacking,’ not creating some devious programming virus to penetrate and get info. A real eye-opening book. And a terrific read, even if you don’t have plans to become a hacker.
For the final book in this baker’s dozen, up popped A Statin Nation. My friend Malcolm Kendrick delves into all the Big Pharma shenanigans that have made statins the best-selling drugs of all time. He dissects the studies purporting to show their efficacy and, in a meticulous yet accessible way, describes them and shows how dubious the data really are. If you’re worried about your cholesterol, this is a must read book. It will provide you all the information you need to have a serious discussion with your doctor.
Back again with the next baker’s dozen soon.