2020 Reading List and Recommendations

I managed to get through 35 books in 2020. These are the ones you want to read and why. Also, a Do Not Read list to save yourself valuable reading time by not wasting it.

2020 started off really strong, though textbooks sucked up a large amount of reading time this year (and my will to recreationally read as often). Plus, my read-at-lunch-at-work habit crumbled with lockdown and not having to go into the office. So, not a stellar number of books, but respectable. Some interesting pondered and digested.

Here’s the past year in books.

2020 in Books

  1. Enlightenment Now
  2. Tiny Habits
  3. The Grid
  4. The Art of Learning
  5. Against the Gods
  6. The Moon: A History for the Future
  7. How to Be Heard
  8. Hidden Messages in DNA
  9. The Unthinkable
  10. Rich Dad, Poor Dad
  11. Start Your Own Corporation
  12. The Ghost Map
  13. The Way of Kings
  14. Just 6 Numbers
  15. Astrophysics for People in a Hurry
  16. Ancillary Justice
  17. Ancillary Sword
  18. A Theory of Fun for Game Design
  19. The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates
  20. Enemy of All Mankind
  21. Becoming Monday
  22. Uncle Tom’s Cabin
  23. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
  24. The Best Place to Work
  25. The Infinite Machine
  26. First 90 Days
  27. Feral
  28. Show Your Work
  29. Steal Like an Artist
  30. How to Take Smart Notes
  31. Make Time
  32. Circe
  33. Radical Focus
  34. The Four Steps to the Epiphany
  35. The Jungle

To Read

  1. The Grid
  2. Against the Gods
  3. The Moon: A History for the Future
  4. The Unthinkable
  5. Rich Dad, Poor Dad
  6. The Ghost Map
  7. A Theory of Fun for Game Design
  8. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
  9. Show Your Work
  10. How to Take Smart Notes
  11. The Four Steps to the Epiphany

The Grid by Gretchen Bakke

The electrical grid is the largest machine in thew world. Something we take for granted, /despite/ the fact we orient our lives around our access to electricity and the ubiquitous outlets needed to power out modern devices and world. This is a seriously fascinating tale of how it developed the way it did in America, how amazingly unfit it is for its future because of its past, and what possibilities there are for the future. I learned a lot from this book, but strangely I also thought it’s parallels as a cautionary morality tale for IT infrastructure and tech debt made it even more valuable to me (as it was /highly/ applicable to the company I was at in 2019 and choices made there prior to my arrival), when I read it. Much like a previous year’s recommendation The Box, on shipping containers, deep dives into the ever-present, invisible pillars we take for granted that support our modern world. Highly recommended.

Against the Gods by Peter L Bernstein

Another super interesting book on yet another something-you-don’t-think-about topics: the nature of Risk. How we have understood it, mitigated it, pooled it, and managed to tame it. In fact, there are good arguments made that our ability to master risk and think about things from a statistical and risk-managed perspective were key innovations that led to the massive economic development in the modern world. In fact, even cultural characteristics in nations, seem to suggest many benefits seem to accrue to those how mange risk in a methodical, controlled, and statistically rigorous way. This book covers the history of risk and its management as well as teaching you about the underpinnings of how it’s managed in the modern world. A surprisingly great read despite the seemingly dry subject. 5 stars all the way down though gets a bit repetitive and meandering near the end.

The Moon by Oliver Merton

A grudging 5 star recommendation as it did tend to drag on a bit, but the first 3/4 of this book is a fabulous investigation of our ever-present neighbour, the Moon. From how little we knew about it for so long, to its composition and its possible formation and its effect on life on the Earth (in fact, the discussion on whether a lunar companion was necessary for life to evolve on Earth was fascinating), much like The Grid and Against the Gods, it’s something that is always there but that you rarely think about. Especially with many discussions about why we may be returning to the Moon after such a long hiatus, and discussions about establishing a permanent presence there, the book is super interesting and topical. Highly recommended if you’re a scifi or astronomy geek at all.

The Unthinkable by Amanda Ripley

This book was actually pretty amazing. I have to admit it made me think a lot about things I had never thought about before, despite reading things like Neil Strauss' Emergency (also a 5-star reco). I really love the way the author obviously got highly obsessed with the question of how some people survived and some don’t in disaster scenarios and how she attributes a lot of it to how we behave during the Denial, Deliberate, and Act cycles which she details at length with examples of various disasters from the mundane and everyday (fires, which kill far more people than many people realize ), bona fide natural catastrophes, and man-made disasters from plane crashes to to 9/11. Very well written page-turner tht will have you thinking a lot about how you might better prepare yourself for many of the unthinkable things that are the title of the book.

Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki

I have to say I find this book is a little too trite for my liking and I did not give it a 5 star rating (and as the author is a real-estate mogul I almost dismissed it out of hand before reading it, to my shame), but a lot of people have been asking me in the last 18 months (tripling during COVID) about financial advice and I have to say, I think the model the author provides here to how to think about asset accumulation and financial independence is excellent. Forgetting the shade that the author throws on people who work versus people who accumulate, I do think the mental model of how he describes building wealth is understandable, actionable, and east to implement, so have mentioned it to many others as a goal and book that, once you get past the American-ism, has a great underlying model for thinking about long term financial independence.

The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

Topical with the world on lockdown when I read it, though been on my list for a long time. The Ghost Map covers two interesting amateur sleuths, the birth of epidemiology, and the eventual discovery of the means of transmission of one of the world’s greatest killers, cholera. A fantastic tale told about Dr John Snow (really, the world’s first epidemiologist) and the local parish priest, Hayworth, and how they managed to track down through statistics and detective work that water was somehow involved in cholera outbreaks, and eventually the index patient. Understanding transmission led to cholera being virtually eliminated in London even before we had a germ theory of disease. Super interesting though the larger story is on how this discovery paved the way for urbanization and city density to make city living sustainable and our modern means of living. Really fascinating read all the more interesting as you know how the story ends and it seems almost unfathomable now that people could have believed that smells, effectively miasma, was responsible for a fatality like cholera. A rarity; a good scientific tale, well told. Page turner though it veers into strange territory around the future of urbanization at the end.

(also, shout out to the author who pinged me on twitter and told me about his new book on pirates which he intuited I would enjoy.)

A Theory of Fun for Game Design by Raph Koster

Koster’s classic is well worth your time if you’re at all interested in games or game mechanics. While there is much on the nature of games and their role as a cultural force, the primary takeaway from this book is about games and learning. That basically, games, as opposed to books or other material, are basically chunked experience for our brains to pattern match and permutate. They allow practice as a learning experience and an exercise beyond knowledge acquisition. That games are basically teachers. It also explains why games are fun, until they’re not anymore or we become bored with them. For me, since I’m interested in designing a game, and particularly one that plugs into learning, the idea that games are skill and knowledge based helped me see the job in an entirely different light (though, unfortunately, has not handed me a mechanic to solve my main educational design problem.). Great, interesting, read covering everything from cheating to storytelling.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

Good science fiction is in very short supply (imho) these days. This was just a really fun, enjoyable read, which was more about the characters and their interactions and, well… modern family and even gender perhaps, than really the depth of exploring the many ideas scifi makes possible outside of normal novels. Super nice break from non-fiction also, if you’re a geek who likes scifi (and what geek doesn’t?). Sadly, it felt like this story should have been continued but the next book in the “series” has the author move onto other ancillary characters and ideas, so unusually, it can almost be a great one-off in a modern plague of quartets, pentologies, and decologies from authors and publishers.

(hat tip to my friend @pat who recommended this book often before I picked it up.)

Feral by George Monbiot

I have to admit, I’m recommending Feral for its core idea, more than anything about the book itself, which I found a bit meandering, long-winded, and self-indulgent. But… the grain of a great idea is here: rewild nature and allow our ecosystems to heal. Basically, the idea that over-management, farm and land policy, and interventionism have wrecked nature even when we try to manage things well through stewardship. Allowing nature to take its course, and doing such things as re-introducing top level predators or animals back into ecosystems (eg. the wolves in Yellowstone, or beavers back into river systems) and then letting the created interconnections play out, emphasizing interdependence and trophic cascades does more for creating healthy ecosystems than any of our land management attempts. It is a compelling argument backed by substantial evidence, even if indulgently written. This rewilding idea deserves a lot more attention even if poorly presented. The idea presented here has actually changed the direction of my conservation philanthropy efforts, which is saying something (especially considering I did not enjoy reading it all that much — thouh it did make me very badly want to get out in a sea kayak again.).

Show Your Work by Austin Kleon

This book reminded me a lot of another recommendation from a few years back, The War of Art. It possesses good, no-nonsense, pragmatic advice on how to build a body of work and get noticed. Anyone who is thinking of being a content creator or who just wants to hone their craft further and find a better outlet and audience for their work would not be amiss in following Kleon’s advice. And the way you do that is pretty basic when he breaks it down: do something, work on your process (make it a habit), share, share your taste, tell good stories, and teach what you know as well as a few things you should absolutely not do. Great, short book. Enjoyed this vastly more than his other work I read after this, Steal Like an Artist.

How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens

Embarrassingly, I resisted reading this book for a long time because I like to think I am very organized and take good notes. It forms the core of my GTD system and I, well… Get Things Done, so what could I have to learn? (seriously, my dismissiveness at times is my biggest barrier to learning new things. :-/ ). This book is really great. While it lays out what seems like a seemingly pedantic way of note-taking to support what is known as Zettelkasten, the idea here is that basically writing structures though, and inter-connections foster long-term learning and recall, and if you do this well enough your academic papers will almost write themselves. In theory the idea is great, and a bunch of pieces of software have leapt to the fore recently (Roam Research, Obsidian) to support these interconnectiveness ideas, but while I found it difficult to find people who use this technique and can substantively represent that it changed their recall and creative output, the idea has legs and have to admit I’ve been trying to implement the core ideas myself in an emacs-based Roam Research clone. Great ideas, and if nothing else, it is worth the read, since its focus on notes being for recall, discovery, and connecting ideas, rather than retrieval is a powerful one that has changed a few of the way I do things. Definitely worth your time, doubly so if you’re an academic or researcher. Also, if like me, you worry you read a lot, but incorporate little of the ideas you gain into your work, this method may help you be more reflective and in incorporating new ideas into your work.

(By the way, anyone who has successfully managed to incorporate Zettelkasten into Notion in a substantive way and have it non-clunky, I’d love to talk to you. Right now, emacs makes this much easier, but been toying with Notion a lot for some of its charms.).

The Four Steps to the Epiphany by Steve Blank

There is actually a dearth of good, practical books on how to launch a startup and get it to a profitable, repeatable business. While techniques like Lean Startup and Agile help with the product development process and getting an MVP shipped, this is one of the few books actually structured around how to shape the processes around determining what sort of market you’re in, how that defines your customers and how you should approach your product, as well as how to structure your teams to make sure your burn rate matches your ability to sell into it. A great quote from this books says it all:

… the difference between winning and losing startups is that winners understand why customers buy.

This book walks you back to before the Product Development process talking about the Customer Development cycle and what you need to know and have cold before you start Marketing, Sales, and to a certain extent, how that influences Product Development. While I’m slightly dubious of the Blank’s idea that everything descends from your determination of Market Type, there is still a lot of great, strategic thinking in this book about how to run a successful startup and scale it. Great book. Highly recommended. Can’t believe it had never come up being recommended to me before this year.

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

Desolate and brutal in its portrayal of the crushing servitude and debt slavery of immigrants in the meat packing industry in the turn-of-the-century stockyards of Chicago (and by extension, across America in its cities.). The lack of social supports we take for granted and the hopelessness which Sinclair took had a major effect on America though many of those were in regards to health violations in the meat packing industry. Jack London famously called it, “the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of wage slavery.” It is still a brutal read a century later with its desolate hopelessness and harsh descriptions of the living and working conditions as well as corruption that was prevalent at the time. The very end gets a little tiring as Sinclair had originally been trying to promote the Socialist International, rather than just muckraking meat-packing. Definitely needs to be followed with a unicorn chaser or internet kittens, but it’s a lasting reminder of the power of great art to transform our world for the better and the transformations it helped fuel in industry and labour laws cannot be ignored.

Do Not Read

These are either rehashes, redundant, irrelevant, or self-indulgent to the point of narcissism. You can be looking at even mediocre books with the time you would have used on these and be better off. Take a look at the To Reads in some of my past annual Reading List recos from 2019, 2018, 2017 or 2016 for something that is a better use of your time.

  1. Tiny Habits
  2. The Art of Learning
  3. How to Be Heard
  4. The Infinite Machine


4a87282 @ 2021-01-21