The Best Books I Read in 2020

Eliot Peper
Dec 31, 2020 · 5 min read

Every month, I send a newsletter recommending books, fiction and nonfiction, that crackle and fizz with big ideas, entertain with wild abandon, challenge assumptions, and find meaning in a changing world. Reading is an integral part of my creative process and I often find gems in unlikely places.

Every year, I go back through and select my absolute favorites. Without further ado, here are the twelve best books I read in 2020:

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles is a novel as exquisitely balanced as the temperament of the Russian aristocrat it follows through his decades of house arrest in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel. Hilarious, heartbreaking, and humane, this story is a prism through which truth shines with uncommon clarity.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow is a no-holds-barred adventure full of heart and imagination in which a young girl discovers magic doors that lead to other worlds and must learn to harness her power to write changes into reality itself in order to untangle the secret history of her own origins. This is Indiana Jones meets Narnia, but smarter, subtler, and more culturally informed. Complement with my conversation with Harrow about the creative process behind the book.

The Spark by Lyn Heward and John U. Bacon is a lovely parable of rediscovering the creative spark that burns inside all of us, revealed through one man’s journey behind the scenes of Cirque du Soleil. Populated by a diverse cast of artists, acrobats, clowns, riggers, and choreographers — each with something universal to offer — this story will give you the gentle push you need to take a leap of faith into fulfilling your unrealized dreams. I found this book so useful that I’m including it as a resource in my advice for authors.

The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson follows scientists, diplomats, and activists working across decades and continents to forge a future you might actually want to live in from the shattered remains of a civilization on the brink. I love so many things about this novel — its sprawling future history, its rigorous picture of institutional change, its structure of feeling, its cascading collisions of big ideas — but what resonates most deeply is that this is a book about and for practical, determined people working to make a messy, complicated world better. Like Veil, the story kicks off with a deadly global heat wave that begets a controversial geoengineering scheme — a parallel that inspired a wonderful correspondence.

Little, Big by John Crowley is a kaleidoscopic epic that redefines what imaginative literature can do. My aunt gave me this tattered paperback last year and I had no idea what to expect and you shouldn’t either before you read it — just know that it’s weird, wonderful, so very worth your time, and boggles the mind and heart simultaneously.

The End of October by Lawrence Wright is an exceedingly compelling, deeply researched technothriller that extrapolates the cascading consequences of a deadly global pandemic. Published in April, it feels like each and every one of us is now an extra in this page-turner, with chilling implications. You won’t be able to put it down, and you’ll learn a lot about epidemiology along the way.

Austral by Paul McAuley is a gorgeous, haunting novel — brimming with fractal stories-within-stories — about a fugitive on the run through the backcountry of the new nation established on a greening Antarctica. McAuley’s unskimmably precise prose conjure the bleak beauty of the internal and external landscapes the protagonist navigates as she tries to find her way in a world where humanity has become the primary agent of change — the biosphere increasingly subject to the vicissitudes of human nature. See my conversation with McAuley about what inspired the book and how he wrote it.

Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl is a concise, powerful memoir detailing the life lessons the author learned from surviving the Nazi concentration camps. Even in his darkest moments, Frankl manages to distill profound truths of the human mind, heart, and spirit that will lend you courage in these strange times.

Agency by William Gibson is a kinetic thrill-ride through an unevenly distributed future that reflects how aggressively weird life has become as we embark on the century’s third decade. Populated by app-whisperers, spooks, and hackers, Agency grapples with literally revisionist histories, the branching, unpredictable nature of all the possible futures that splay out from the fulcrum of our present, and just how difficult it is to achieve “agency” in a culture spiraling out of control. See my conversation with Gibson for more about the creative process behind the book and how he tracks reality’s “fuckedness quotient.”

Permanent Record by Edward Snowden is an arresting memoir that takes you behind the scenes of the author’s NSA whistleblowing, and will challenge you to reframe your understanding of internet politics. Snowden tells his story with striking power and clarity — a testament to the integrity and courage that issuing his warning demanded.

So You Want to Publish a Book? by Anne Trubek is a practical, accessible, and concise guide to book publishing that should be a must-read for aspiring and experienced authors, as well as anyone else curious about the complex and too-often opaque business of literature. I found this book so useful that I’m including it as a resource in my advice for authors.

Dune by Frank Herbert is a richly imagined science-fiction epic that follows the coming-of-age of a young aristocrat whose life is torn apart by political turmoil when his family arrives on the new planet they’ve been assigned to govern. This is adventure on a grand scale, brimming with intrigue, philosophy, and twists of fate.

Bonus recommendation: I had a new novel come out this year. Veil is hands-down the best thing I published in 2020, and if you appreciate my writing, you’ll love it.

Remember, in an age of digital abundance, quality is the new scarcity. The right book at the right time can change your life.

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