2020 reading list

A weird year for books

If 2019 was the year I made a concerted effort to start reading whole books again, it was even better as practice for the nightmare of 2020. This year has been nothing but books, video games, cooking, and work.

Once again, I thought it might be fun to share a bit about what I read this year. Last year’s reading list was almost entirely fiction and mostly science fiction, specifically. 2020 was a bit more diverse but I think it also lacked any of the singular pleasures of 2019. Tl;dr my favorite book of 2020 was probably The Sympathizer.

Here’s my 2020 reading list in chronological order with shout outs to those that recommended each book to me:

Nothing to See Here - Kevin Wilson

This was a really fun one. It’s got an absurd premise - a nanny takes care of the neglected twins of a rising political star who has the unfortunate habit of spontaneous combustion - but pairs that with a really sweet heart. It’s pretty fun and an easy read. If you’ve ever done weird babysitting, this one is for you.

Thanks to my sister Liya for getting me this as a Hannukah last year.

Exhalation - Ted Chiang

Last year I read Story of Your Life and Others by Chiang and it was one of my favorites of the year. Exhalation, another collection of short stories, is even better. The titular story (Exhalation - about a scientist discovering the key to human cognition and its eventual end) wasn’t my favorite but through the eight or so stories, but Chiang is always exceptionally imaginative and entertaining. Despite being a sci-fi writer, he never feels particularly bound by any one style, theme, or type - you’re at no risk of boredom or repetition.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold - John le Carré

This was the year I really got into John le Carré. I don’t know what exactly got me to finally pick him up after hearing the name for so long but at least some credit has to go to The Watch podcast. I am so glad I that I did get to read him before le Carré sadly passed away just a few weeks ago. He was an absolutely iconic author and master of the literary spy novel, both of practitioner (he served in MI6) and chronicler of the Cold War and the slow erosion of British imperial power. If you want to get into le Carré, you may as well start off here. The Spy really gets at the dingy cruelty and pain of the Cold War. It’s also a great introduction to some of the iconic characters (namely George Smiley) who are mainstays of le Carré’s writing.

Tinker Tailor Solider Spy - John le Carré

I liked The Spy so much that I moved straight into Tinker Tailor, undoubtedly his best known, most iconic work. It’s just such a slow burn and such a painstaking portrait of its subjects: the characters and the British bureaucracy. I was introduced to Smiley in The Spy and got to really spend time with him as a person in Tinker Tailor. It was also pretty fun to watch the movie and read the book in sequence together.

The Plot Against America - Phillip Roth

I bought this one the first week of March in preparation for the HBO adaptation and started reading it as a we went into lockdown. Let me tell you, that was a fucking trip and I do not recommend it. Plot Against America is a speculative fiction about a Jewish family in New Jersey in the 1940s as America succumbs to fascism and home-grown Nazism sympathizers. It’s a painfully tense and anxious build up, made more so by its pre-teen POV character just trying to be a kid as his world falls apart. I found it deeply unsettling and didn’t even bother starting the TV show.

Legacy of Spies - John le Carré

The last of my 2020 le Carré kick, Legacy is one of the last books he wrote at 86. Fittingly, it’s a series of short stories told by wizened retirees from the service to newly minted agents ready to launch their careers. It’s something of a capstone on his writing in that you really feel both his age and that of his characters, and that it speaks to the ultimate futility of the Cold War. It’s rich and entertaining - everything he writes is - but it’s also pretty gloomy. Regimes rise and fall. Young people die. Spies betray each other and defect. Ground is gained and lost. To what end? The world keeps spinning.

The Great Influenza - John Barry

The pandemic really blew up my ability to read for a while. I was so anxious I couldn’t really focus. Reading about the 1918 flu helped, in its own way. Obviously we’re living in a different world and we’re dealing with a different pathogen than we were 100 years ago but reading about how humanity made it through (that humanity made it through) certainly brought me some solace. The 1918 pandemic came at a liminal moment in medical history, just as the germ theory of disease and epidemiology were becoming widespread enough to shape possibly the first scientifically grounded public health response to a crisis. Barry does a fantastic job weaving together that medical history with its political counterpart: the first World War and President Wilson’s determination to preserve public morale, even at the cost of public health. Sound familiar?

Three Body Problem - Liu Cixin

I read the full Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy this year. Each of the books deserves recognition on their own but before I get there, I want to address the elephant in the room. Cixin is a pretty brilliant science fiction thinker (maybe not the best “writer”) and I really thank all the people who recommended it to me (Dan Khan, Trace Cohen, Charley Ma, and many others). That said, knowing what I know about the author, I can’t really recommend this series to anyone. Cixin is an apologist for the Uyghur genocide happening in China:

When I brought up the mass internment of Muslim Uighurs—around a million are now in reëducation camps in the northwestern province of Xinjiang—he trotted out the familiar arguments of government-controlled media: “Would you rather that they be hacking away at bodies at train stations and schools in terrorist attacks? If anything, the government is helping their economy and trying to lift them out of poverty.” The answer duplicated government propaganda so exactly that I couldn’t help asking Liu if he ever thought he might have been brainwashed. “I know what you are thinking,” he told me with weary clarity. “What about individual liberty and freedom of governance?” He sighed, as if exhausted by a debate going on in his head. “But that’s not what Chinese people care about. For ordinary folks, it’s the cost of health care, real-estate prices, their children’s education. Not democracy.”

Remembrance always at least flirts with being collectivist propaganda and I understand that being an artistic in China might put Cixin in a precarious position with the CCP but this is a bridge too far. This whole series was/is a bit of a phenomenon this year and made quite a mark on me and my wider social circle. Knowing what I know now really casts the series in a much darker light and I am not comfortable with how influential it is/will continue to be.

Dark Forest - Liu Cixin

The Dark Forest theory itself is really compelling and I’d definitely encourage you to read about it. Here’s an article that lays it out.

The Pioneers - David McCullough

I took a quick break from space (and time) exploration to read about the settling of the Ohio territories. This is just a chapter of American history I really didn’t know much about: the birth of the country as told from outside the halls of power in the capital(s). While it’s not the primary focus of the book, you can really see the battle lines of the eventual Civil War being drawn in the western territories as early as the 1790s and the choices around slavery in these territories. Is McCullough a bit rosy in his view of the country? I mean the subtitle is literally “The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West”… But I took a few days to read this one and felt like I learned something.

Thanks to my grandmother for this book as a birthday gift.

Deaths End - Liu Cixin

Even if I didn’t have my other issues with Cixin, this one is where the series really falls apart anyway. So if you’ve read the first two, you seriously can just skip the finale. Seemingly as the books got more popular, the editing got lighter. Let me tell, it was missed.

Power of The Dog - Don Winslow

For my Sicario fans out there, this one is for you. It’s a super intense crime thriller set across decades at the US-Mexico border and the escalation of the drug war (and the cartels as global powers). Winslow does his homework and paints a picture. Pick this one up in the morning and you’ll be done by dinner. Trust me.

Thanks to Nat and Henry for pushing this one on me.

Destiny of The Republic - Candice Millard

In middle and high school I had a history teacher, Chris Mellon, who absolutely loved President James Garfield. After reading this book, I finally get why. Garfield was a pretty incredible guy and probably could have been an incredible president had he not been shot by a crazy person shortly after taking office. His death was a catalyst for what we now think of as the modern White House, a renewed respect for medical science, and even the invention of the metal detector!

If The Pioneers seemed a bit cutesy at first reading, it definitely helped me enjoy Destiny a few weeks later. Garfield was born in Ohio shortly after the events of The Pioneers and there’s a direct through-line from that story to his own. Moreover, Destiny serves as a snapshot in time medical history of the US that leads directly into The Great Influenza and the 1918 flu. The germ theory of disease and antiseptic theory were just *ahem* germinating at the time of the assassination and Garfield famously could have lived if his doctors had been more willing to trust the latest research on antisepsis.

Dune - Frank Herbert

In a bit of a theme, I picked up Dune so I could get ahead of the movie adaptation. Turns out I had more time to get through it than I initially thought but whatever. I’m definitely very excited for the movie. A new Denis Villeneuve? Yes please. That cast? Incredible. The fucking trailer? No words.

…Anyway, Dune is great and lives up to the hype. It’s a weird fucking book but if you like science fiction and fantasy (and especially if you like Star Wars, Star Gate, and/or Mad Max) this is pretty much required reading. It’s not nearly the slog to get through that I was anticipating. Despite its age, it’s such an influential book that it feels timeless. It feels familiar because Dune basically created the tropes and language for everything that came after.

Golden Gates - Conor Dougherty

Dougherty tells the contemporary of California housing policy through a series of vignettes and mini-profiles of some of it's principal players. The co-option of environmental protectionism by anti-housing homeowners is the most cutting piece of the story here and deserves more than the one chapter it got. In short, new construction is blocked over environmental concerns even though the resulting sprawl and low-density development does far more harm than mixing concrete ever could. But these are big complicated fights and if you care about the future of cities and the planet, you should spend the time on this compact book.

Picked this one up after Dougherty made an appearance on the Slate Money podcast.

The Name of The Wind

This is just an old school fantasy epic. Very D&D. If it’s your thing, you’ll probably like it. If not, you just won’t.

Nat got me to read this one.

Interpreters as Diplomats - Ruth Ailene Roland

I don’t normally read straight up academic books but after reading a section of this during my sophomore year of college, it’s stuck with me and I wanted to revisit it. This is basically a survey history of how interpreters have functioned in cross-cultural diplomacy. The idea of interpreters not just translating diplomatic cables but basically brokering diplomacy was fascinating. They played (and still do to a lesser extent play) a very active rather than passive role in negotiations, trade, etc. The interpreters were basically responsible for filtering information selectively to bring the two sides together in practice, even if they each had totally different understandings of the context and meta-narrative of negotiations. Who was being differential to whom, which side was making concessions, etc. There’s even instances where the same treaty says conflicting things in two different languages - both sides get to believe they got the best of the deal. Even if the particulars of language have literally changed (and the legal review is a bit more robust), that should sound pretty familiar to anyone who makes deals for a living…

Thanks to my professor Jun Hee Cho for adding it to the syllabus.

The Sympathizer - Viet Thanh Nguyen

I can’t recommend this one enough. The titular sympathizer is French-Vietnamese double (or triple or quadruple) agent during and immediately after the Vietnam War who is both good at and compromised in his role because of his ability to see both sides at once. Darkly (seriously, really darkly) funny and touching. The style is really interpretive or impressionistic rather than literally descriptive, which works to just draw you in. It’s just fantastic.

Thanks to Henry, Ganesh, and Hannah for suggesting it.

The Cartel - Don Winslow

This is the follow-up to Power of The Dog but it kind of lost me. The first book managed to just toe the line between literary thriller and pulpy trash. The Cartel did not. It’s fine as a beach read but don’t expect much more than that.

Upcoming/What I’m reading now

I often like to read works of fiction and non-fiction simultaneously, switching off between the two periodically. Right now I’m reading Dark Matter, a collection of short sci-fi stories by black authors, and Epidemics and Society, which is exactly what it sounds like.

Next up, I’m looking forward to getting into (in no particular order):

  • Address Book: a history of addresses and city planning

  • Kochland: profiling the Koch brothers and their influence in America

  • The Fish that Ate the Whale: a biography of the banana king

  • Artemis: the latest book from Andy Weir, who wrote The Martian

But I am very, very open to recommendations for what to read next, especially fiction. Please send em over!