I read far fewer books in 2020 than in any year for at least a decade. Partly this was a conscious decision to shift my reading away from books, as I discussed last year, but mainly the pandemic was to blame. Pre-COVID I read books mostly while commuting and travelling — both of which disappeared this year (I also learned that if the first baby reduces your free time, the second obliterates it…) Nevertheless, there were some gems, which I’m excited to recommend.
My top three non-fiction books were:
- Who Will Govern Artificial Intelligence? by Jade Leung
- Albert Speer: His Battle with the Truth by Gitta Sereny
- The Shortest History of England by James Hawes
My top three fiction books were:
- Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
- Drive Your Plows Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk
- The Glass Hotel by Emily St John Mandel
More detail below…
The non-fiction “book” that most affected my thinking was Jade Leung’s Who Will Govern Artificial Intelligence? (I say book in inverted commas because it’s not actually been published as such, but is freely available online). This is a superb tour of the history of “general purpose technologies” and how they have been co-opted and exploited by states over time. This was Jade’s doctoral thesis and I do hope she turns it into a popular book. It’s important and fascinating material that I’ve not seen covered anywhere else.
Albert Speer by Gitta Sereny is a really extraordinary book — one of those that haunts you long after you’ve finished it. Long, but gripping, Sereny explores the life of Hitler’s architect and favourite and is ultimately damning — if, perhaps, a touch too taken with her subject. Perhaps even more than in Eichmann in Jerusalem the banality of evil in on full display.
The Shortest History of England should perhaps have been titled “The Longest History of Brexit”, as Hawes’ primary purpose is to show that the regional and class divides that led to the referendum date back at least a millennia. At times the thesis is a little heavy handed (and there are some odd factual errors), but it’s a fun and provocative take on the last 1000 years of British history.
Beyond these three I should give a special mention to Organizing Genius by Warren Bennis and Patricia Biederman, which led me (with my friend Arnaud) to curate a reading group on the history of great talent institutions. The full reading list we went through is here. I read pretty much everything on there, though few full books (other than the excellent One Giant Leap by Charles Fishman), so I won’t review them separately here.
As readers of my newsletter will know, I’ve been thinking a lot about decline and stagnation and this was the loose unifying theme of four other books I read.
Nostalgia for the Absolute by George Steiner (a re-read) is short and superb: fewer than 100 pages and dense with insight and provocation on the peculiar condition of the West at the turn of the millennium.
I enjoyed The Future of Capitalism by Paul Collier, which is by turns fascinating and frustrating. Its diagnosis of the causes of the rise of populism is perhaps the most compelling I’ve read, but in other places its sweeping and sometimes shoddy claims are infuriating. I felt similarly about The Decadent Society by Ross Douthat: compelling on diagnosis of an important societal phenomena, but weak on prescription (Peter Thiel’s review is excellent). On Tyranny by Tim Snyder is a short, punchy read on the lessons from history on resisting tyranny. It will, I hope, seem overblown in retrospect (I read it pre-November), but it’s an important reminder that catastrophe can and does happen — but also can be averted.
Finally, I read two short (spot the theme!) books on topics totally disconnected from the others. Spycraft Rebooted by Edward Lucas is a fun run through the challenges facing spies given the advent of widespread surveillance technology and leaves you lots to ponder. Hamlet: Poem Unlimited by Harold Bloom is a maddening but compelling take on English literature’s greatest play: Bloom loves making audacious claims with limited evidence, but he does it with so much joy you let him get away with it.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke is a wonderful exploration of beauty, knowledge and identity. It’s very different from her excellent Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, but has the same brilliance of world building and narrative. I think it will become a classic.
Drive Your Plows Over the Bones of the Dead by (Nobel prize-winning) Olga Tokarczuk is a beautifully written and highly eccentric murder mystery. The writing is mesmerising at times and the main character — and ageing woman obsessed with animals and astrology — one of the most unusual I remember.
I loved Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven (which happens to be about a global pandemic) when it came out in 2015, so I was excited to read her new The Glass Hotel. I thought it was excellent: gripping, intricately plotted and multi-layered (I particularly liked some of the inter-textual links with Station Eleven).
Beyond these three, I also enjoyed re-reading Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (loosely following the decline theme mentioned above). In a way it’s a nice pairing with the Shortest History of England and has several of the same themes.
Another re-read — after more than 20 years — was A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula La Guin, which I picked back up because parts of Piranesi reminded me of La Guin. It’s darker and more desolate than I remember as a teenager and a deserved classic.
Readers of previous lists (2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019) will know that my go-to comfort reads are epic fantasy and detective novels. Strange the Dreamer and Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor are quite original examples of the former, though I found them a little cartoonish at times (especially compared to, say, La Guin). Anthony Horowitz is my new favourite contemporary detective writer. His books are fun, compelling and much cleverer than your average murder mystery. This year I read his The Word is Murder, The Sentence is Death and Mayflower Murders. I enjoyed them all, but the first of those is probably the best.
Like everyone, I am excited that the triumph of the vaccine promises a post-coronavirus future within a few months, but I expect ~20 books a year is my new normal, so I’m looking forward to picking carefully in 2021! Recommendations always welcome.
Most of my non-book reading goes into my weekly newsletter Thoughts in Between — you can subscribe here. In my day job, I help extraordinary individuals find co-founders and build technology companies at Entrepreneur First.