The 5 best books I read this year
Those who do not read have no advantage over those who cannot read
We’re teaching my six-year old grandson, Benjamin, to read. We started by teaching him the alphabet using the brilliant and famous A-B-C Song. Then we taught him how to write the alphabet using capital letters, then lower-case letters. Next came phonics. Then, we worked on ten sentences a day until he mastered each one. Finally, we reached the ultimate goal—Ben started reading. This was a three-year project.
I wanted Ben to learn to read early and well because we can learn anything in the world by reading and thinking deeply about what we have read. If we can read, all the knowledge of the world is available to us. What an incredible gift.
But the incredible gift is squandered if we don’t read. Mark Twain’s observed, “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.”
Said another way, those who are literate, but don’t read, have no advantage over those who are illiterate.
There was an extended time in my life when I didn’t read books. I finished my Ph.D. when I was 27 years old and for the next 20 years I didn’t read anything except newspapers and magazines. Perhaps I was burned out (graduate degrees require a lot of reading), or lacked curiosity.
About 20 years ago I decided to start reading books regularly, and I’ve sustained that commitment since.
Here’s a list of books I read in 2020. At the bottom of the list I’ve enumerated my top five books of the year.
The numbers in brackets represent how I rate each book on a scale from 1 (not good) to 10 (exceptional).
- Superbugs – The Race to Stop an Epidemic – Matt McCarthy, 2019, 258 pages  – A fascinating journey into the world of medical scientists who develop bacteria-resistant antibiotics. Who would have thought that this topic would become the most talked about subject in the world in 2020.
- Educated – Tara Westover – 2018, 332 pages  – Tara was born into an ultra-fundamentalist religious family in which medical doctors and formal education were anathema. At age 27 she received a PhD from Cambridge. This is her story.
- The New Medicine – What Is Helpful? What Is Hype? – 2019, 96 pages  – A compilation of articles from the New York Times. An update on CBD, mindfulness, exercise, food, etc.
- 10% Happier – Dan Harris – 2014, 242 pages  – Harris, a news correspondent for ABC News, tells the story of his discovery of the benefits of meditation. Colorful writing, but if you primarily want to know more about meditation, there are better books.
- Probability for Dummies – Deborah Rumsey – 2026, 360 pages  – I had not studied statistics since college, so I wanted to refresh my thoughts on probability.
- Wave – Sonali Deraniyagala – 2013, 215 pages  – The author experienced the 2004 tsunami that hit Sri Lanka. She lost her parents, husband, and sons.
- White Fang – JackLondon – 1992 Wordsworth Edition  – I read this as a child, and it still speaks to me as an adult. It makes me love my dog, Buddy, even more.
- The Art of Thinking Clearly – Rolf Dobelli – 2013, 306 pages  – He describes 89 faulty ways of thinking that we all succumb to.
- Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart – Mark Epstein – 1998, 181 pages  – Lessons on how meditation and psychotherapy can help manage our powerful emotions and our lives.
- A History of the World in 6 Glasses – 2005, 290 pages  – A fascination history of the world centered around beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and cola.
- Grapevine Disorders – A Pocket Guide for Growers in Texas – 2019, 165 pages  – My vineyard is now three years old; I need help in keeping the plants healthy.
- The Splendid and the Vile – Eric Larson – 2020, 501 pages  – Focuses on Churchill’s leadership during several years of WW2. Well written and engaging.
- Range – Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World — David Epstein – 2019, 291 pages  – A deeply impactful and well-researched book. It affirmed my desire to be a generalist in life. A must-read.
- First You Have to Row a Little Boat – Reflections on life and living – Richard Bode – 1993, 182 pages  – Bode grew up in New England and learned to sail as a child. Later in life he wrote this book about life-lessons learned from sailing.
- The Backyard Vintner – Jim Law – 2005, 164 pages  – A practical book that is helping me plan my first harvest.
- The Fire Next Time – James Baldwin – 1962, 106 pages  – Written during the Civil-rights movement, the book offers a historical context for the current Black Lives Matter movement.
- The Precipice – Toby Ord – 2020, 460 pages [8.5] – Ord discusses the existential threats that could cause humanity to become extinct, both natural causes and anthropogenic causes. Very readable and engaging.
- Blueprint – how DNA makes us who we are – Robert Plomin, 2018, 200 pages [7.5] – 99% of our DNA is the same for all humans. Plomin focuses on the 1% that makes us who we are. By necessity, there’s a lot of science in the book which makes it challenging for a lay-person.
- Transcend—The New Science of Self-Actualization – Scott Kaufman, 2020, 309 pages [8.5] – Part biography of the famous psychologist – Abraham Maslow – and an update on the principles he espoused. It’s not an easy read but well worth it.
- A Universe From Nothing – Lawrence Krauss – 191 pages  – A succinct update (as of 2012) of what physicists and cosmologist know about the universe.
- Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind – Shunryu Suzuki, 1970, 148 pages  – I want to know more about mindfulness, but I had difficulty understanding this book.
- The Falcon of Sparta – Conn Iggulden, 2019, 433 pages  – Iggulden writes historrical fiction focusing on the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Persians. I learn a lot from his books. If you want to read his works, start with The Emperor Series book one – The Gates of Rome.
- Caste – The Origins of our Discontents – Isabel Wilkerson – 2020 – 377 pages  – The Pulitzer-winning author advances a sweeping argument for regarding American racial bias through the lens of caste. Drawing analogies from the social orders of modern India and Nazi Germany, she frames barriers to equality in a provocative new light.
- Borges And Me – Jay Parini – 2020 – 299 pages  – In 1970, while a Ph.D. student at St. Andrews in Scotland, Parini spent two weeks with the great writer/scholar from Argentina – Jorge Luis Borges. This is the story of their time together.
- Arguing with Zombies – Economics, Politics, and the Fight for a Better Future – Paul Krugman – 2020 – 414 pages  – The left-leaning Nobel Prize winning economists shares insights into a broad range of topics: Obamacare, the Euro, macroeconomics, tax cuts, trade wars, climate change, media, and others.
- Deepfakes – Nina Schick – 2020 – 222 pages  – Good insight into our current age of misinformation and disinformation. Fake news is just the tip of the deception-iceberg.
- A History of the World In 100 Objects – Neil MacGregor – 2010 – 584 pages  – McGregor is Director of the British Museum. He tells the history of the world using 100 objects from the museum. A clever and insightful approach to history.
The best books I read in 2020 [See above for a description of each book]
- Range – Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World – David Epstein
- Transcend – The New Science of Self-Actualization – Scott Kaufman
- The Precipice – Toby Ord
- The Splendid and the Vile – Eric Larson
- Educated – Tara Westover
Warren Bennis says, “One of the marvelous things about life is that any gaps in your education can be filled, whatever your age or situation, by reading, and thinking about what you read.”