In February of 2020, I set a goal of finishing 40 books for the year. Before then, reading was never a habit I fully developed — I could never find the time or interest. But a few months after finishing college and starting a full-time job, I finally found an opportunity to add reading to my daily routine. First I developed a habit of spending my evenings after work in a cafe, bookstore, or library. While I often felt tired at the end of the workday, physically putting myself in a new environment was a crucial change. Nestling in a comfortable corner of a shop, surrounded by others who were busily engaged in their own reading, gave me the extra motivation to start. And most nights, reading just a few pages would produce enough momentum to last a few hours.
Once quarantine started, I could no longer spend time in cafes and bookstores, but by then I had built enough of a habit that I felt confident I could continue. With my commute to and from work removed, I also had more time. As often happens with habit-building, the more books I read, the more I became excited about reading even more. I read a mix of genres, from mystery novels to short story collections, popular science, philosophy, memoir, and even some textbooks. Having finally finished my 40th book, in this post I’ll be sharing some of my favorites.
Fiction: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
As I wrote earlier this year, this was effectively the book that got me back into fiction, and reading in general. It was the first time in years that I genuinely looked forward to reading the next chapter of a novel and didn’t want it to end. Set in a coastal town in North Carolina, Where the Crawdads Sing is part murder mystery, part coming-of-age drama, and part exposition of the beauty of nature. It’s a story about a girl named Kya who has to grow up alone in a marsh after her family is torn apart by an alcoholic and abusive father. Kya’s story is intertwined with an investigation of the murder of Chase Andrews, which takes place years later. Crawdads was deeply moving and an absolute thrill to read. Owens really brought the characters and the imagery of the marshland to life. Another benefit: it’s relatively short.
Fiction (runner up): Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Before I read this book, my knowledge of Life of Pi was “that children’s movie about the kid with the tiger.” So I was pleasantly surprised to see just how emotionally layered and gripping the story of Pi was. Life of Pi is about the journey of a young man named Piscine Molitor Patel, who is left alone at sea in a lifeboat after a shipwreck. As with Crawdads, I was fascinated by the depictions of nature; I loved learning about the social behaviors of tigers and other animals as well as the challenges of surviving alone at sea. But unlike Crawdads, Pi didn’t have a particularly eventful plot. Rather I was mesmerized by Martel’s writing — his exploration of existence, suffering, and the will to survive, through the lens of Pi’s journey in the company of a tiger. If you’re looking for a dynamic and intricate plot, this isn’t the novel for you; but if you want to explore incisive musings about family, love, compassion, spirituality, and a metaphorically rich story, you’ll love Life of Pi.
Fiction (runner up): Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder
I’m cheating here, but I didn’t want to finish my 2020 list without a mention of Sophie’s World. Sophie’s World is a novel about a young Norwegian girl learning philosophy under the tutelage of the mysterious teacher Alberto Knox. My love for this book was not so much for its writing, plot, or character development, all of which were passable but not superb. The best part was the lucid exposition of the philosophical problems humans have grappled with throughout history. Interspersed with mystery and some fun plot twists, the core of Sophie’s World is the conversations between Sophie and Alberto that in which they jointly ponder the deepest questions. It was a very readable introduction to the history of philosophy and major philosophical movements, re-sparking an interest I had developed early in college but hadn’t explored further. Almost every sitting with this book left me in a state of wonder and awe.
Science: Scale by Geoffrey West
The full title of this book is a mouthful: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies. The book itself was as big an undertaking as this title would suggest — four hundred plus pages of in-depth technical explanations sprinkled with personal anecdote and historical narrative. The core ideas center on how the very simple relationships between linear, square, and cubic functions (corresponding to the length, area, and volume of a shape as it scales) allow us to understand the behavior of phenomena from the smallest sub-cellular structures to the largest cities. Cells, organisms, cities and companies all share the property of being evolutionarily-optimized, fractal-like networks, allowing us to apply the same mathematical tools to understand the coarse-grained behavior of all of them. West shows how the mass of a mammal allows us to predict its lifespan, heart rate, metabolism, and many other traits, and does a similar analysis with companies and cities, mapping population to economic properties like GDP, patent creation, and even walking speeds. Altogether, it was a wonderful discourse on complexity, networks, and the joy of scientific discovery.
Philosophy: The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch
This book is a little hard to categorize, because Deutsch covers such a wide array of topics with mind-bending clarity, from evolution to epistemology, psychology, mathematics, aesthetics, ethics, quantum physics, and even fiction. The Beginning of Infinity is a defense of the view that there are such things as progress and objective knowledge, and that we have the capacity to create an unbounded amount of them. It is also an argument for optimism — which Deutsch defines in a very precise way — and the view that everything that’s physically possible is achievable by “people” (which Deutsch also defines precisely — it’s not exactly the same as “humans”). Given these central theses, I’d categorize Deutsch’s book under philosophy, but it really presents ground-breaking insights in a number of other fields. If you’re looking for a wide-ranging set of frameworks with which to think about the world, and an understanding of how knowledge is created, this is the book for you. Altogether, it was definitely the most impactful book I read this year.
Memoir: The Lonely City by Olivia Laing
I began to read this book a few months after moving to New York and in the thick of the first wave of COVID-19. The timing couldn’t be better — Laing’s elegant survey of loneliness, art, and city life was the perfect escape for the uncertainty and anxiety of the pandemic. She recounts her experience of moving to New York after a difficult breakup, interleaving it with the biographies of iconic artists and with the history of New York itself. I felt like I got a window into the deep pains of loneliness, both through Laing’s experiences as well as that of the artists she profiled, many of whom suffered through poverty, mental illness, social stigma, disease, and profound isolation. In this book, Laing exposes the power of art, the common humanity among those who are seen as different, and the complexity inherent in the human experience. It wasn’t light reading by any means, but it was cathartic.
Mindfulness: The Little Book of Being by Diana Winston
I got introduced to Diana Winston through an interview in the Waking Up app, a meditation app I’ve been using for a few years. In The Little Book of Being, Winston describes her particular method of meditation practice that she calls Natural Awareness. She caters the book for both beginning and advanced meditators, providing introductions to the very basics of mindfulness as well as a long list of exercises for expanding one’s awareness. In addition to technical instruction, Winston shares her personal experiences and practical advice, like what to do if you’re feeling sleepy or particularly anxious in a sitting. It was an excellent refresher for my own meditation practice. Even just reading Winston’s prose and trying out the exercises was very effective in triggering waves of openness and clarity in my mind, often lasting beyond the reading itself. I highly recommend The Little Book for cultivating more awareness and tranquility in life, especially if you have a meditation practice and are looking for something new.
Society: Learning to Die in the Anthropocene by Roy Scranton
Another one of my favorite books from the year, Learning to Die is a little difficult to categorize. It’s about the problem of climate change and facing our own death — not just as individuals but as a broader society. In this short book, Scranton manages to unpack the basics of climate science, the social and political complexities in tackling climate change, the unrest and societal unraveling we might be in for, and how our humanity and accumulated knowledge may be the only thing we can save and that can save us. Scranton’s examination of the human condition is wise and arresting, leaving me with a mix of concern and optimism for our future. “While dying may be the easiest thing in the world to do, it’s the hardest thing in the world to do well — we are predisposed to avoid, ignore, flee, and fight it till the very last hour.”
Short Stories: Exhalation by Ted Chiang
I didn’t read many short story collections in 2020, but Ted Chiang’s Exhalation nonetheless stood out as a favorite read from the year. Chiang is a science-fiction writer most well-known for Story of Your Life, which was the basis for the film Arrival. That short story was part of the acclaimed collection Stories of Your Life and Others, and Chiang’s second collection doesn’t disappoint. In this set of nine stories, Chiang covers broad scientific and philosophical ground, touching free will, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, language, chaos, and more. His stories are fun and very thought-provoking. The final story, Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom, is probably my favorite short story of all time.
And that’s it! 40 books down, another 336 to go (from the current length of my “to read” list).
On Setting Goals
I have mixed feelings about goal-setting in general. While it can be a perfectly reasonable way to achieve a desired outcome, it can also make a given activity feel overly mechanical, especially when it’s meant to be done for leisure. In my case, I didn’t start with the goal of 40 books. Rather, as I noticed that I was already reading a little bit more than I usually do, I began to wonder and estimate how many books I might finish by end of year. Starting with my pace at the time, and stretching a bit for challenge, I established the goal of 40.
The crucial element of this behavioral change for me was habit-building over the course of many days, not a single instance of setting a goal. This is why many people argue you should be much more focused on habits than goals. Ultimately, habits and goals can go hand in hand and reinforce each other. The most helpful part of setting the 40-book goal for me was that extra bit of motivation on certain evenings when I just didn’t feel motivated to read. It helped keep me on course in moments of doubt or lethargy.
I think the person I was a year ago would genuinely be surprised by this development — as I’ve written, I never considered myself a “reader”. But partly stemming from this reading habit, and partly from seeing transformations and improvements in others, it’s quite clear to me that a whole lot is possible if you focus on doing the best you can, one day at a time.
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All Books Started & Finished in 2020
With some links to my notes.
The Stoic Challenge by William Irvine
Notes from Underground and Other Stories by Fyodor Dosoevsky
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Exhalation by Ted Chiang
The Magic of Thinking Big by David Schwartz
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
The Defining Decade by Meg Jay
After Dark by Haruki Murakami
Outline by Rachel Cusk
The Lonely City by Olivia Laing
Black Hole by Charles Burns
On Having No Head by Douglas Harding
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
Learning to Die in the Anthropocene by Roy Scranton
The Non-Designer’s Design Book by Robin Williams
The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
The Shape of Design by Frank Chimero
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryü Suzuki
The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt
The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen
Y: The Last Man by Brian Vaughn and Pia Guerra
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Foundation by Isaac Asimov
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Scale by Geoffrey West
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Still Alice by Lisa Genova
Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman
The Little Book of Being by Diana Winston
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari
The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch
Conscious by Annaka Harris
The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli
Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin Abbott
Book Started & Abandoned in 2020
Designing Data-Intensive Applications by Martin Kleppmann
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
The Hidden Girl and Other Stories by Ken Liu
Underland by Robert McFarlane
Blindsight by Peter Watts
The Nature of Consciousness by Rupert Spira