My Favorite Books From 2020

📖 Books, essays and other stuff

I didn’t think I read all that many books but when I was doing an end of year reflection it seems I had. Turns out I read somewhere around 35 books. I likely will read a bit less this year and focus more on writing but we shall see!

If you want to leave comments about books you’ve read or ask anything about these add a note in the comments.

📚 2020 Books

My Favorites (in no particular order)

The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. Alan Watts: Written in 1966, I find it fascinating to read Watt’s perspective on modernity and his frustration with how many people seem content to go about their days without asking deeper questions.

it really take any considerable time or effort just to understand that you depend on enemies and outsiders to define yourself, and that without some opposition you would be lost? To see this is to acquire, almost instantly, the virtue of humor, and humor and self-righteousness are mutually exclusive.

Aspiration. Agnes Callard: This book is hard to read but has a great central idea that aspiration and ambition are different aims of one’s life and directing your life toward each can have very different circumstances. Here is an essay write-up I did of the book

Black Mass by John Gray: This book was written in the Bush presidency as a warning against following milleniarinism predictions defined as “the belief by a religious, social, or political group or movement in a coming fundamental transformation of society, after which “all things will be changed” I read this a couple months before the start of covid and it was fascinating to approach it all with a new appreciation of the limits of these stories. Check out my full write-up here.

American Bloomsbury: A great book about how Emerson, Thoreau, Alcott, Hawthorne, Melville and others all hung out in a small Massachusetts town in the mid-1800s. You’ll get a kick out of this book if you like history, writers and explorations of day to day life of people you didn’t know were connected.

The Great Work of Your Life, Cope: My friend had been suggesting this book for a while and I put it off because it sounded cheesy. However it was a great exploration of the Hindu idea of dharma and the stories of many famous artists and how they discovered it through their lives.

Reclaiming Control, Amy McMillen: A friend, Amy, released this book halfway through the year detailing her achievement journey and eventual opting-out of the default path. I’m continually meeting more people like Amy who are not scared to take bold leaps before getting some form of legible career success and she also inspired me to think I might be able to publish something in 2021 too. Check out our podcast here.

CHAOS: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties: Wild book mostly because I didn’t know the history of the Manson murders nor the heavy involvement of the CIA in everyday American culture in the 1960s. Fun read if you like this kind of stuff or just listen to the rogan podcast on the book.

Education In a Time Between Worlds, Zac Stein: This is more of a collection of essays but is a great bold vision of the possibilities of education. Stein believes that education is at the center of all modern crises. I did a YouTube review of the book here.

The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion: This book was heartbreaking and a great introduction to Didion and her book writing. The way she is able to tell the story of losing her husband is powerful and I came away wildly impressed with her unique writing style as well.

In Praise of Idleness and Other Essays, Bertrand Russell: Russell is impressive in his ability to write so clear-headed in the 1930s when everyone is getting caught up in communist, fascist or socialist idealism. He seems to be able to cut through the nonsense in a few essays that stand the test of time. If you don’t want the whole book definitely check out “In Praise of Idleness” and “Useless Knowledge”

Souls of Yellow Folk, Wesley Yang: Another good collection of essays on living as an Asian-American in modern culture. If you want a taste of Yang’s writing check out his essay “Paper Tigers

Vagabonding An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long Term Travel, Rolf Potts: This is my second read of this book. Always fun to read this in the midst of heading to new places. Helps me appreciate the journey a little more

The Getaway Car, Ann Patchet: A short read detailing Ann’s struggles with becoming a writer. Her witty and direct style is very fun and worth reading if you like writing.

Is there some shortcut? Not one I’ve found. Writing is a miserable, awful business. Stay with it. It is better than anything in the world.

The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics: This takes a cold look at why governments and leaders make the decisions they do. Helps to make clear that politics is mostly about getting and keeping power. Surprisingly, a lot of people don’t see it that way.

Educated by Tara Westover: This was a fascinating book of Tara’s story growing up in Idaho with parents that thought the government was trying to destroy their lives. She details her journey growing up without ever really going to school and then ending up as a homeschool student at BYU at the age of 17

Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell: Transcript of a four part TV series between Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers. Helps distill a lot of Campbell’s ideas about myth and the role it plays in our culture.

But there is a fourth function of myth, and this is the one that I think everyone must try today to relate to—and that is the pedagogical function, of how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances. Myths can teach you that.

Nerdy History & Philosophy of Work Reads

These are more aligned with my ongoing fascination with the history of work so I probably wouldn’t recommend them widely

The Organization Man, William Whyte: This was an interesting read on this writer’s obsession and observations on the state of work in the last 1950s and early 1960s. He documents a time in which there was a major shift in the types of work that people strived towards and marks the beginning of the move towards knowledge work and the professional class

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber: This was much more readable than I imagined and outlines how Weber sees the role of religion in capitalism. I found his contemplations on greed (how it is timeless, not an aspect of capitalism itself) and overcoming traditionalism (the tendency to stop working once you have enough) the most interesting.

Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deneen: This book details a lot of the flaws in modern liberalism - namely the type oriented around freedom, individualism and labor market freedom. He argues persuasively that things things are great but tend to orient people towards norms that destroy social trust, community and the foundations needed to guarantee those things in the first place.

Not My Favorites But Interesting To The Right Person

The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson: Fascinating account of the first year of WWII in Britain through the eyes of Churchill (who clearly sees the evil of Hitler early on and tries to convince the world) and his family. Interesting to see some of the parallels between the covid pandemic, lockdowns and some of the behaviors of the British in 1940 a year when the city was bombed countless nights:

Dune: Super popular book among tech nerds. Somewhat interesting plot but I didn’t find it all that great. Not sure why.

Three Body Problem: As the only other sci-fi book I read this year I enjoyed this one a bit more. It contemplates what might happen if humans received signals

Poor Charlie's Almanack The Wit and Wisdom of Charles T. Munger - A collection of Munger essays. I had read most of them already and didn’t find the commentary that much of a value add but may be perfect for a hardcore Buffet/Mungerite.

  • His two most famous talks are here and here for free

On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser. A good book worth skimming if you are looking for inspiration on being a better writer.

Body Keeps The Score, Bessel van der Kolk: Fascinating book that details how we deal with trauma in the body and a lot of the techniques for helping people deal with that trauma. This seems like an area to take seriously for the future but worry sometimes the broad acceptance of trauma will orient people towards seeing otherwise normal suffering as worth avoiding.

Other Books I Read - Quick Hits

The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature: I think I read this when I was a bit sick so don’t clearly remember it but Ridley always makes one think:

And I end with one of the strangest of the consequences of sex: that the choosiness of human beings in picking their mates has driven the human mind into a history of frenzied expansion for no reason except that wit, virtuosity, inventiveness, and individuality turn other people on. It is a somewhat less uplifting perspective on the purpose of humanity than the religious one, but it is also rather liberating. Be different.

Hell Yes Or No by Derek Sivers: I feel like I’ve already been Sivers-pilled by Anything you Want, so this book wasn’t as profound for me. A book of about 100 essays that will make you think that are also worth implementing in your life

The Way of Zen, Alan Watts: Watts interpretation of Zen Buddhism through a western lens. If you like this quote you’ll like the book:

Zen Buddhism is a way and a view of life which does not belong to any of the formal categories of modern Western thought. It is not religion or philosophy; it is not a psychology or a type of science. It is an example of what is known in India and China as a “way of liberation,” and is similar in this respect to Taoism, Vedanta, and Yoga. As will soon be obvious, a way of liberation can have no positive definition

Altered Traits, Davidson & Goleman: Interesting book on the background of mindfulness-based stress reduction and how those methods were brought to the west.

The Art of Possibility, Ben & Rosamund Zander: This book seems to have resonateed with others in a more profound way. Perhaps I’ve read too much behavioral science. Wish there was more about the Zanders themselves but I do admire their optimism for the world.

What Money Can't Buy, Sandel - Details the things that money can’t buy. Literally. A bit too cold and academic for me. Sandel is better in lecture form in his famous Harvard course, Justice.

Remote, Jason Fried - Not a shocking book for me because I am fully bought in at this point but figured I should read their book since I praise Basecamp publicly. Highly recommend if you are just getting started shifting to remote.

Music And Your People by Derek Sivers - Fun book applying Derek’s mental models to the music industry which I don’t know a ton about.

Loserthink by Scott Adams - Solid ideas. Should have been a longform blog post. He points out a lot of mental errors people make in arguments which is convincing but then a bit depressing when you realize we aren’t overcoming our biases anytime soon.

Pyramid Principle, Barabara Minto (re-read) - One of the books people claim to read but don’t and for good reason. The book is dense and a bit too detailed. Going to do a writeup soon.