I read some great books this year. I didn't set out in 2019 to read 1-book-a-week, but well here we are. 😄 I've been reading to “wind down” in the evenings which, unsurprisingly, led to me finishing a lot more books.
As I did last year, I compiled a list of my favorites. I tried to curate this list to contain books that are of general interest and haven't been over-discussed. If you're looking to add to your 2020 reading list, I'd highly recommend any of the following:
The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (David Wallace-Wells)
This was the most arresting book I've read in the past 3 years. The Uninhabitable Earth is about what climate change is on track to do to our planet. It's an unrelenting, brutal presentation of the current state of climate research. It is not a book with a hopeful ending, nor is it alarmist. One of the saddest takeaways of this book is that climate change will probably not result in an Earth that is literally uninhabitable, but rather one that is unrecognizable to people currently alive.
The Uninhabitable Earth made me more acutely aware of the range of outcomes climate change will produce (from horrific to catastrophic) based on the efficacy of our response. I also was left reflecting upon the inequity of the effects of climate change.
If there's one book from this list you should read, it's this one.
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (Barbara Demick)
Nothing to Envy is a great piece of historical narrative. It recounts stories of those who lived under the North Korean communist regime through the late 1980s through the early 2000s. This book fleshed out the “boogeyman” image that the DPRK has in our media, and does it in a way that humanizes the real impact of its totalitarian government.
The real standout section to me was about the mid-1990's North Korean famine which, until reading this, I was only vaguely aware of. I loved the way that this book focused on distinct individuals and how their lives’ courses were altered by the political backdrop of the DPRK.
This is, understandably, not an upbeat book. However, I found it to be a worthwhile read.
Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style (Benjamin Dreyer)
Who'd think that an English usage manual could be entertaining? I've never considered myself a grammar nerd – I like my English usage to be precise, but not naggingly so. However, I was totally taken in by this book.
It's an eminently practical look at the English language. Since English is my native language, there's a lot of grammar and syntax that I learned intuitively. This book illuminates some of the weird glitches in the language that are often taken for granted.
As one would hope, this is also a very well written book. Its voice and wit reminded me of David Foster Wallace's essays. Dreyer manages to spend an entire chapter on punctuation usage, and still make it entertaining and practical. Solid recommend.
Radicalized (Cory Doctorow)
Radicalized is a collection of short stories, all of which could easily be reworked as Black Mirror episodes (in a good way).
Set in the near future, Radicalized‘s stories discuss the societal impacts of DRM, the crumbling of trust due to wealth stratification, and the ability of internet communities to radicalize otherwise “well-adjusted” individuals. Somehow, Doctorow pulls this off without sounding like a complete pessimist.
My favorite story, by far, was “Unauthorized Bread”, which explores a near future in which appliances are locked down to such an extent that, for example, toasters only work with bread made by certain manufacturers. What happens when the companies making these appliances fall into bankruptcy and shut down their DRM servers? This story alone is worth picking up this collection.
Red Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson)
I'm far from the first person to recommend this book, but here it goes: Red Mars is great science fiction. It follows a crew of people working to colonize and, eventually, terraform Mars.
The political intrigue in this book combined with the sheer scale of the narrative made it worth the large page count. I'd enthusiastically put Red Mars on equal footing with Seveneves – one of my favorite sci-fi novels. I look forward to eventually reading the other two books in the Mars trilogy. Though they're all quite long books, so it'll take a while. 😀
A Gentleman in Moscow (Amor Towles)
I was thoroughly entertained by A Gentleman in Moscow. It's a small story, set in a hotel in Moscow, that takes place over several decades of Russia's turbulent 20th century.
Though its plot is entirely confined to within a single building, it tells a quite charming tale featuring a great cast of characters. I appreciated the author's reflections on friendship, tradition, and (if you'll excuse the cliche) “what makes life worth living”.
This is one of those novels that has an impact that supersedes its plot. It was steeped in nostalgia, polite humor, and nails its ending.
Designing Data-Intensive Applications (Martin Kleppmann)
This was my favorite technical book that I read this year. Unfortunately, I didn't read a ton of technical books, but… hopefully more next year. Kleppmann does a great job summarizing the field of distributed computing, especially as it pertains to designing systems that process large amounts of data.
As an aside, I was charmed by the chapter art. Each featured a maritime-styled image that captured the contents of each section.
There's something for everyone in this book: how to describe data with data models, using SQL to query data, detailed descriptions of the internals of various data storage and retrieval systems, design considerations for online and offline applications, distributed systems theory, and a survey of extant and extinct data systems. Each chapter left me wanting to implement or dive deeper into what was being discussed.
There was also a surprisingly cogent, if unexpected, discussion about the ethics of data collection and processing at the end of the book which was right up my alley.
On the Clock (Emily Guendelsberger)
On the Clock is an account of a journalist working in 3 “future of work” low wage jobs: an Amazon warehouse, a call center, and a McDonalds.
A few poignant snippets:
When was the last time you asked permission to go to the bathroom? Would you panic over running two minutes late? Is it normal to be constantly monitored at work, to have everything you do timed by the second?
Depression and anxiety are perfectly normal reactions to the insanely stressful world we’ve built for ourselves. Suppressing our humanity is exhausting. It’s driving us crazy. It’s ruining our experience of life. It’s making us sick and terrified and cruel and hopeless. And it’s killing us.
The book provides a quite intimate tableau of 3 “new sector” jobs and discusses how these types of jobs are “cyborg jobs”: all but automated. Working in conditions where each second of your day is planned, your schedule is unpredictable, and you're placed in an intentionally understaffed environment because a scheduling algorithm has deemed that most efficient sounds, frankly, hellish.
This book made me reflect on work. A job should be more than a paycheck; the jobs presented were all somehow dehumanizing in a way that leaves the reader feeling pretty crappy about supporting companies that follow these business practices. An informative if rather disturbing read.
Debt: The First 5,000 Years (David Graeber)
I'm still processing this book. It's one of those books that gives you a lot of food for thought. Debt is not just about debt – it's about societies and how humans form relationships as groups grow in size.
This is really an anthropological text. While I did enjoy learning about debt's history, I found its refutation of the common Adam Smith myth of the invention of currency to be fascinating. (i.e. “Before there were coins there was only bartering, then we invented currency and capitalism became inevitable”) This was a surprisingly political book, and made me think a lot more about slavery, capitalism's impact on history, and how economics is much more than what I conceived of as “modern economics”.
So, there were more than a few downers in my list this year. I hope that can be balanced by the hopeful futurism of Red Mars and the charming, nostalgic tone of A Gentleman in Moscow.
Here's to more good reads in the coming year (and decade, for that matter)!
Book covers from GoodReads.