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.

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)

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.

Caro is an elite biographer. No one comes close. Here is the story of how LBJ bought a Senate seat and stole an election.

This book is a beast. There is no one who writes like this. Robert Caro is king.

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).

I enjoyed this one a lot more than I thought I would.

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)

Chanel Miller’s memoir is powerful and excellently written. I hope everyone, especially my male friends, read this book. Be like the Swedes.

A book about Matt Fitzgerald pushing himself to achieve his best marathon performance by training with professional runners. I am very here for it.

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.

The king explains how he became king.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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)

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.

Really powerful memoir written by a black academic who grew up in Mississippi.

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.

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.

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)

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’.

Pretty good scifi. Has some elements from The Matrix, Hunger Games, Ender’s Game, Old Man’s War, but doesn’t really transcend.

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)

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)

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.

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)

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.

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.

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)

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.

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.

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.

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)

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.

This is a memoir of an Eastern front Nazi soldier beginning with his retreat from Stalingrad through the end of the second World War.

Great to get Baldwin’s voice first hand.

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.

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)

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)

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 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)

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)

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)

What if Django Unchained was about John Brown?

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)

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.

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)

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)

I abandoned this book 75% of the way through. There were 2000 characters and I didn’t care about any of them.

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.

I abandoned this book also about 75% of the way through. Just really not for me.

This was the worst book I read this year.

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