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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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.
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’.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 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?