The Best of the Best Books I Read in 2020

best books of 2020


Over the last couple of years, my reading time has mostly been chewed up by research for my book. So it was a great relief to find myself with more scope to read for pleasure in 2020.

My favourites of the year are a mixture of classics that were so good that I have no choice but to include, along with some lesser-known works where I might actually be able to add a useful signal.


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The Autobiography of Malcolm X — Malcolm X with Alex Haley

As a non-American, I didn’t have a whole lot of background knowledge on the racial tensions flaring up this year. I bumped Malcolm X’s posthumously-published autobiography up the list on that basis, but ended up enjoying it for another reason: it’s an absolute rip-snorter of a story.

The descriptions of Malcolm’s childhood in Michigan and becoming a hustler-pimp-thief in NYC are so vivid and colourful that they somehow make his prison sentence and conversion to the Nation of Islam look boring. Then it gets interesting (and topical) again in the last section of the book.


Pride and Prejudice — Jane Austen

If you told me I was going to stay up until 3am reading a dusty old romantic novel of manners I would… not believe you.

I have never read Jane Austen before, so I was pleasantly surprised by the humour (Mr Bennett is my favourite character), and fascinated by the language and dialogue. Now I kind of want to see the movie.

File under: ‘if everyone raves about it for centuries, it might be worth checking out’.


Blindsight — Peter Watts

This is it. The best hard sci-fi novel I’ve ever read. Tackling free will, wireheading, and p-zombies, with a dose of space vampires thrown in for good measure. Extremely dense and often hard work but so, so worth it. And the writing is actually good!

This set me down the path of reading all of Watts’ other major works. While none of them are on the same level as Blindsight, I recommend The Island as a somewhat more approachable novella with similar themes, along with Starfish, in which psychologically damaged people are bio-engineered to withstand the huge pressures of living in an ocean rift (and Watts shows off his chops as a marine biologist).


Orthodoxy — G.K. Chesterton

Chesterton was a big influence on Terry Pratchett, my favourite humourist, so I decided to go straight to the source and check out his fiction. Honestly, I was a little disappointed: the mysteries solved by the priest-detective Father Brown are clever but you can tell he started phoning them in, and The Man Who Was Thursday kicks off with a fantastic premise, but fizzles into a vague metaphor for theodicy or the Book of Job or something.

Instead, it was Chesterton’s brand of Christian apologetics that knocked my socks off, which was kind of surprising given the genre holds about as much appeal to me as chewing gravel.

If Chesterton was around today, there would be a lot of YouTube videos along the lines of “literary critic DESTROYS reddit atheists!!!”. Never mind the actual object-level arguments in Orthodoxy: the real treat is being taken for a ride by someone operating on a completely different level of mental flexibility and rhetorical ingenuity.

I would quite happily read G.K. Chesterton arguing that up is down and black is white, and probably come out halfway convinced. A masterclass in persuasion and the playful inversion of tropes.


Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War — Robert Coram

I am not hugely into biographies but I very much enjoyed the story of John Boyd. His most famous idea, the OODA loop, has become trendy amongst business and consultant types trying to get inside the decision-making cycle of their opponents. This doesn’t interest me so much, and my understanding is there are better works on the subject.

This is not an adrenaline-fuelled war story, either. Boyd saw very little direct action during his service, and never shot down an enemy plane.

Instead, Coram’s biography is a character study of a (flawed) heroic figure pitting himself against the great enemy of modernity—bureaucratic institutions primarily interested in ass-covering and ruled by inertia. It’s a lesson on the sheer bloody-mindedness required for one person to actually effect change, and the high price that must be paid.


Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life — Anne Lamott

I am deeply suspicious of writers writing about writing, but I decided that it wouldn’t hurt to brush up my scribbling game, so I read five craft books in 2020 (and bailed out of about the same number).

Bird by Bird is my pick of the bunch, and another example of a rare book that deserves the hype. Lamott’s self-deprecating wit is of the bone-dry variety, which has clearly caused some whoosh moments amongst the reviewers who accuse her of projecting her mental illness and insecurities onto other writers. There’s not much in the way of actionable advice here, but it’s beautifully written as you would expect, and only a tiny bit mawkish.

Of the other trade books I read, Secrets of Story by Matt Bird is indispensable for anyone interested in fiction/screenwriting—I’ve sent copies to a few friends—while Steven Pinker’s stylebook had some interesting and scandalous bits (reverence for Elements of Style is completely misplaced!) and might even have some appeal to non-writers.


Flowers for Algernon — Daniel Keyes

Classic story in which a mentally disabled man and his lab mouse companion are given an experimental procedure to increase their intelligence far beyond that of their peers, and then descend back to baseline again.

Man. Perhaps I was feeling unusually sentimental but this really got me good. Expect these themes to become more prominent as less-obvious forms of inequality start to get more attention. See also: gwern’s essay The Algernon Argument for heuristics on whether smart drugs are likely to improve human intelligence, and Ted Chiang’s story ‘Understand’.


Ed and Ra— Sam Hughes

Sam Hughes’ stuff will not be for everyone, but I would like to shout him out as one of the most exciting and little-known authors I’ve come across recently.

Ed is a series of goofy sci-fi vignettes about a brilliant inventor and his sidekick that coalesce into an overarching story of sorts. Basically the PG-rated version of Rick and Morty.

For something a bit more substantial, Ra is a rational-ish take on a scientific magical world with defined rules and principles. The plot is so ambitious that it gets kind of insane and makes it impossible to suspend disbelief—there are at least three books’ worth of content crammed in here—but you have to admire the sheer audacity.

I think Hughes originally wrote these as online web serials, so they lack the polish of traditionally-published sci-fi. Come for the ideas, don’t get too hung up on boring old characterisation.


As always, I’m keen to know what Deep Dish readers have been getting into. What was the best book you read in 2020?

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Concerned 3rd party
Concerned 3rd party
2 months ago

Are you alive? You haven’t posted in forever! Hope the virus didn’t get you.

JC83
JC83
5 months ago

Hey Richard,

will there be a spending breakdown for 2020?
Greetings from Germany.

Tim
Tim
5 months ago

Feel free to troll my entire 2020 (https://www.goodreads.com/user/year_in_books/2020/52786003) but if I had to pick one I REALLY loved…honestly a juvenile fiction called ‘No Fixed Address’ by Susin Nielsen. Dealing with homelessness, hope and realizing life isn’t always easy on the edges of what ever else calls normal.

Peter Brown
Peter Brown
5 months ago

I am currently reading A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles it is a book I don’t want to end, the story is about a man exiled to a hotel in Moscow at the beginning of the last century. It is a fun, well written novel.

Rob Bee
Rob Bee
5 months ago

I would be so interested to see what you think of Ted Chiang’s writing. He writes these meticulously crafted short stories. I read Exhalation last year and it blew my freaking mind. It’s definitely not hard science fiction like the book you mentioned, but it uses science to explore big ideas. I will admit that there are a couple stories in the collection that really didn’t land with me, but I think he is brilliant.

Jon
Jon
6 months ago

If you liked The Autobiography of Malcolm X, you might also like Soul on Ice: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soul_on_Ice_(book)

Kate
6 months ago

You might like Wuthering Heights, another classic love story set on the English moors! (I liked Pride and Prejudice, but I loved WH.) Bear with it for the first 10-20 pages; it gets good after that. Plus I recall from another post that you already know of the requisite accompanying song by Kate Bush 😛

It’s interesting that you’re reading so many biographies; Scott Young (another blogger I like) points out that biographies are often a better way to learn history than plain history books. (As he wrote in a 2017 email/newsletter, “Biographies are useful because they [can often] show the abstract ideas in politics, science and history through the lens of real people. Reading Deng Xiaoping’s biography helped me understand the recent history of China far better than I had been able to glean from scattered sources.”)

mike
mike
5 months ago

if you want a good historical fiction about the enlightenment and the baroque period; Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver is awesome. (the whole Baroque cycle trilogy is good)

cdh
cdh
21 days ago

If you liked Pride and Prejudice, you’ll like Austen’s Persuasion. 10/10 would recommend.

Dark
Dark
6 months ago

The Great Frontier by Webb will blow your hair back.

In fiction, I’m enjoying the Expanse series.

Leane
Leane
6 months ago

I really enjoyed “Fixation: How to Have Stuff without Breaking the Planet”
by Sandra Goldmark. It goes beyond Minimalism and into the next steps that IKEA, Patagonia and the rest of the planet need to take in order to rethink GDP.

Leane
Leane
6 months ago

Hi. Yes! I, like you, started with Minimalism and have worked my way towards Buymeonce(.com), but those are both subsets of this wide ranging (slim) volume. It covers our relationship with “stuff” from prehistoric times all the way up to today and the materials that make up our current stuff. She goes into which stuff is good, bad and ugly. There’s so much in this little book that I can’t recommend it enough. She looks into the weight of all the cellphones that get manf. and then discarded on our planet just to get you thinking about the waste and consequenses, but is hopeful in that she mentions companies that are starting to turn the tides (and these are some big battleships like IKEA) by going towards a repair model. She also mentions startups that are starting to change the buy & click model from acquiring stuff to making selling on our stuff as seamless. If you do read, I hope you enjoy it!

Dawn Tuffery
6 months ago

Good list, will look them up. I would recommend the BBC Pride and Prejudice series if watching an adaptation, may have dated but have fond memories of it. Enjoyed reading Plan B by Lamott this year.

Monica
Monica
6 months ago

Great recommendations, thank you.
I really enjoyed Troy by Stephen Fry.
If you want to read another autobiography Acid for the Children by Flea is an excellent read. He’s a good writer.
Jane Austin’s other books are also great, the language is beautiful. Go for Sense and Sensibility.

Monica
Monica
6 months ago

Yes I have and I absolutely loved it! Song of Achilles is a close second.
Stephen Fry has also written Mythos and Heroes. I haven’t read those ones yet but he refers to them quite a lot in Troy.
Not sure if you’re into podcasts but he’s done one on the 7 deadly sins which I really enjoyed. (I think it was just called Stephen Fry’s Seven Deadly Sins.) He has such a fantastic way with words.

Jack Sarles
Jack Sarles
6 months ago

I bought two books for my little brother this year, optionality and mate by Geoffrey miller and tucker max. Mate has been a great read, still a self help book but I learned a ton from it. I would classify it as a quake book for me

Jack Sarles
Jack Sarles
6 months ago

Yeah the writing style is definitely very dominated by Miller I think. It’s a bunch of his work on dating and stuff. I guess if you could explain more what you mean by writing style I can explain more. I haven’t read any of tuckers stuff but if you liked spent I think you would really like mate. It’s been a real page turner for me, it’s definitely made me realize how spending money on stuff is actually important in some areas.

Jack Sarles
Jack Sarles
6 months ago
Reply to  Jack Sarles

I would hate to give you a bad book recommendation but it’s been mind blowing for me, similar to when I read Spent or read Bryan Caplan on the case against education.

David
6 months ago

I’m on record saying that Optionality was the best book I read in 2020 (a bit of shameless flattery never hurt anybody), but I also read Boyd and Bird by Bird over the summer, both of which were great.

I went down a bit of a strategy rabbit hole last year which meant my reading was a little drier and less satisfying than usual. But I really enjoyed:

  • Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson series (I know, I know) – helped me understand the history of the US government, racial inequity, voter suppression/fraud (the real kind!) and the state of Texas. So, yes, I spent ungodly hours plowing through 3,000 pages of genuinely page-turning biography of a dead and somewhat not-famous president. But I got way more than the story of a powerful person in return.
  • David Foster Wallace’s non-fiction – I had read Infinite Jest ( I should have held my “I know, I know”s for the end) and This is Water, but I’d never spent much time with his essays. They’re deeply, deeply funny, digestible (relative to his fiction, anyway) and well worth the focus. I’d start with A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, but Consider the Lobster is also excellent.
Mike
Mike
6 months ago

Always like you reading recs. Thanks. Highly recommend kingkiller chronicles. It’s fantasy but really well written.