The Best Books I Read In 2020

Books provided comfort in this long hard year.

Just some of the books I read in 2020

We read to know we are not alone.

— from the movie on CS Lewis, Shadowlands

Thanks to the quarantine, 2020 was my year of fanatical reading. My secret dream of prison time so I could read all the books I have always wanted to read without doing time did come true.

I wasn’t about to blow it so I didn’t waste any time. I devoured my to-be-read pile like a maniac, reading 4 to 5 books at a time, 2–3 hours a day, sometimes even more. I would still wake up at 430AM so no one would interrupt reading time, listened to audiobooks when it was time to walk outdoors, and read on my phone while at the grocery where the lines were always long. Not once did I feel bored or impatient during the lockdown because there was always a book to be read.

Nevermind that I was out of work — jobs can wait. The attempt to read every book ever written cannot. Besides, I learn best when reading so I am actually sharpening the saw. All the wisdom I glean from it adds value to my professional life. So for me, and presumably fellow readers, 2020 wasn’t all that bad.

Despite having more of it this year, time is still a finite resource, so I don’t pick up a book at random. I usually listen to reader podcasts, read 2–3 reviews on the prescribed book, scan other reading lists, and go over the essential Penguin Classics selection when curating my to-read list on Goodreads. I review this list constantly. I love the no-fail classics and award winners and will only venture into more modern titles when almost every reader I know has read them. The broad genre selection was intentional — I try to balance my reading diet — so expect an off-kilter menu filled with self-help, science fiction, music, sports, historical fiction, and memoir. I must warn you: if you are looking for young adult or romance themes, you will be disappointed.

Here are the books, in the order that they were read, in honor of the amazing authors whose hard work challenged my thinking, offered succor at the height of hardship, and changed my life forever.

Letters To A Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

Why I read it: In his book Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury encouraged writers to make reading poetry a habit. Rainer Maria Rilke is my favorite poet, so after reading his Duino Elegies, I read his short collection of missives offering counsel and friendship to an aspiring poet.

Excerpts:

It is good to be alone, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult should be one more reason to do it.

To love is also good, for love is hard. Love between one person and another: that is perhaps the hardest thing it is laid on us to do, the utmost, the ultimate trial and test, the work for which all other work is just preparation.

Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen

Why I read it: As a musician, I make an effort to live vicariously through the adventures of artists of the highest caliber. I particularly admire those who write well, and for that, the Boss is the man. Getting to know Bruce Springsteen a little bit through this outstanding memoir was a privilege. (Tip: get the audiobook on Scribd and hear Bruce tell his own story. Make sure to watch the YouTube video when he describes his performance with the E-Street band at the Superbowl to get the complete experience).

Excerpt:

My voice was never going to win any prizes. My guitar accompaniment on acoustic was rudimentary, so that left the songs. The songs would have to be fireworks. I decided the world was filled with plenty of good guitar players, many of them my match or better, but how many good songwriters were there? Songwriters with their own voice, their own story to tell, who could draw you into a world they created and sustain your interest in the things that obsessed them. Not many, a handful at best.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Why I read it: I like learning from a master storyteller, so I chose her memoir which won a National Book Award. It would turn out to be my first real lesson on grief, one so full of raw emotion, beautifully written, that I think even a person with a heart of stone will have to surrender to the weight of its tenderness.

Excerpt:

Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

The question of self-pity — those were the first words I wrote after it happened. And after that — I’m a writer — But after that I didn’t write anything for a long while.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

Why I read it: This book was highly recommended by a fiction fan with no prior interest in science fiction until she read this book. The main character discovers a world with no sexual prejudice, where inhabitants are free to choose their own gender. Now wouldn’t that be fun.

Excerpt:

It is a terrible thing, this kindness that human beings do not lose. Terrible, because when we are finally naked in the dark and cold, it is all we have. We who are so rich, so full of strength, we end up with that small change. We have nothing else to give.

Around The World In Eighty Days by Jules Verne

Why I read it: It’s travel on speed, reminiscent of my solo sojourns when I was a much younger backpacker. What an absolute joy to read that got me moving across continents even while global travel is on hold.

Excerpt:

‘I have yet twelve hours to spare; I can devote them to that.’

‘Why, you are a man of heart!’

‘Sometimes,’ replied Phileas Fogg, quietly; ‘when I have the time.’

Ultralearning by Scott H. Young

Why I read it: I was committed to learning something new and hard during the quarantine. Scott Young learned the entire 4-year MIT curriculum for computer science without taking any classes in just one year. He talks about how he did it in this book.

Excerpt:

The first reason is for your work. You already expend much of your energy working to earn a living. In comparison, ultralearning is a small investment, even if you temporarily made it a full-time commitment. However, rapidly learning hard skills can have a greater impact than years of mediocre striving on the job. Whether you want to change careers, take on new challenges, or accelerate your progress, ultralearning is a powerful tool.

The second reason is for your personal life. How many of us have dreams of playing an instrument, speaking a foreign language, becoming a chef, writer, or photographer? Your deepest moments of happiness don’t come from doing easy things; they come from realizing your potential and overcoming your own limiting beliefs about yourself. Ultralearning offers a path to master those things that will bring you deep satisfaction and self-confidence.

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Why I read it: This book won the Pulitzer Prize and enjoys high ratings everywhere, as it should. I wanted to interrupt my non-fiction addiction with something completely different, and this book blew me away.

Excerpts:

“Isn’t doing nothing a kind of troublemaking?”

“Doing nothing is doing nothing.”

“Doing nothing is as good as collaborating.”

“How do you fight a system?”

“You try.”

Quiet by Susan Cain

Why I read it: I have always been fascinated by introversion. I feel that as a long-time extrovert, I had missed out on the gifts of solitude and silence. I came out of this book believing that it is only when we are alone that we can create something of high value. It was perfect for the pandemic.

Excerpt:

Psychologists usually offer three explanations for the failure of group brainstorming. The first is social loafing: in a group, some individuals tend to sit back and let others do the work. The second is production blocking: only one person can talk or produce an idea at once, while the other group members are forced to sit passively. And the third is evaluation apprehension, meaning the fear of looking stupid in front of one’s peers.

In The Shadow Of Man by Jane Goodall

Why I read it: Because it was about time I read it. Jane Goodall is the field scientist and humanitarian in whose footsteps I could only hope to follow. This book lurches from one adventure to another, like the tree-swinging chimpanzees that she was studying, her excitement about this exotic new world around her palpable in every word.

Excerpt:

The more I thought of the task I had set myself, the more despondent I became. Nevertheless, those weeks did serve to acquaint me with the rugged terrain. My skin became hardened to the rough grasses of the valleys and my blood immune to the poison of the tsetse fly, so that I no longer swelled hugely each time I was bitten.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Why I read it: It is recorded in Philippine history as the favorite book of Filipino polymath and national hero, Jose Rizal. While reading it, I discovered that he learned to reveal the brutal colonial injustices in our country through the gossamer drapes of fiction from Stowe, who wrote this book that sparked the Civil War. I read this after the killing of George Floyd, which triggered the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States. (Note: This was heartbreaking to read, but it is important. I listened to the free audiobook on iBooks in trickles and suggest you do the same.)

Excerpt:

‘Why, the fact is, Haley, Tom is an uncommon fellow; he is certainly worth that sum anywhere — steady, honest, capable, manages my whole farm like a clock.’

‘You mean honest, as niggers go,’ said Haley, helping himself to a glass of brandy.

‘No; I mean, really, Tom is a good, steady, sensible, pious fellow. He got religion at a camp-meeting, four years ago; and I believe he really did get it. I’ve trusted him, since then, with everything I have, — money, house, horses, — and let him come and go round the country; and I always found him true and square in everything.’

The Power Broker by Robert Caro

Why I read it: I love biographies and Robert Caro is the master of the craft. (Caro talks about his research and writing process in Working, which I also read this year.) The Power Broker was his first seminal tome which takes the reader into a visceral examination of the life of Robert Moses, the man whose genius and legacy is indelibly sealed in today’s New York City. This book is well-researched, elegantly written, and always a struggle to put down. The length of 1,246 pages is hardly intimidating once you get started. This book, in my opinion, deserves not just the one Pulitzer Prize it won but maybe 9 more.

Excerpts:

Robert Moses, who had never been elected by the people of the city to any office, was henceforth to have at least as much of a voice in determining the city’s future as any official the people had elected — including the Mayor.

Since a greater proportion of the poorer classes rather than upper rode the subways, doubling the fare was a financial burden that would fall heaviest on those of the city’s people least able to bear it. Moses’ taxing proposals left real estate taxes unraised and income taxes unmentioned, these being taxes that would adversely affect big real estate holders and the city’s wealthier citizens, whose welfare Moses equated with the welfare of society. Instead he proposed doubling the 1 percent sales tax and imposing a 5 percent tax on all monthly telephone, gas, electric and other utility bills as well as on admissions to all places of amusement in the city — three regressive taxes that would fall heaviest on the city’s poorest inhabitants.

Exhalation by Ted Chiang

Why I read it: I like short story collections, such as Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson. This one stood out because the stories depicting human and AI interactions forced me to reflect on what our future might look like, and revisit lingering questions on where to draw the line. It is Black Mirror-ish but for optimists. Tim Ferriss, whose podcast I follow zealously, highly recommended it and I am glad that he did.

Excerpt:

…your choices matter. Every decision you make contributes to your character and shapes the kind of person you are…The more often you make compassionate choices, the less likely it is that you’ll make selfish choices in the future…”

Deep Work by Cal Newport

Why I read it: I have read about Newport’s aversion to social media and was curious enough to give it a shot. Like him, I wanted to produce and leave behind meaningful work that can stand the test of time. This book crystallized for me why it is necessary to follow my instincts in the pursuit of deep difficult work, never mind if everyone else has chosen to embrace modern-day distractions.

Excerpts:

Deep work is at a severe disadvantage in a technopoly because it builds on values like quality, craftsmanship, and mastery that are decidedly old-fashioned and non-technological.

You don’t need a rarified job; you need instead a rarified approach to your work.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

Why I read it: It talks about comics and won the Pulitzer Prize.

Excerpt:

In later years, holding forth to an interviewer or to an audience of aging fans at a comic book convention, Sam Clay liked to declare, apropos of his and Joe Kavalier’s greatest creation, that back when he was a boy, sealed and hog-tied inside the airtight vessel known as Brooklyn, New York, he had been haunted by dreams of Harry Houdini. “To me, Clark Kent in a phone booth and Houdini in a packing crate, they were one and the same thing,” he would learnedly expound at WonderCon or Angouleme or to the editor of Comics Journal. “You weren’t the same person when you came out as when you went in. Houdini’s first magic act, you know, back when he was just getting started. It was called ‘Metamorphosis: It was never just a question of escape. It was also a question of transformation.”

Open by Andre Agassi

Why I read it: I am an avid sports fan. I love it because you can’t fake it. Then this book reveals Agassi’s big secret. I tracked tennis by watching televised grand slam tournaments with my dad. At the time, Andre Agassi and his rival Pete Sampras were rock stars. The opening sentence alone of this memoir will captivate you and make you wish you had nothing else to do for the rest of the day.

Excerpts:

How I hate this dirt. I lose four of the first five games. Then I win the set. How I love this dirt.

It’s no accident, I think, that tennis uses the language of life. Advantage, service, fault, break, love, the basic elements of tennis are those of everyday existence, because every match is a life in miniature.

I hope you find something you like, and that it enhances your life the way it did mine. Happy reading!

Former presidential speechwriter, still a musician; writes about urban gridlocks. Will work full time for the planet. Harvard Kennedy School ‘14 🇵🇭

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