The Best (And Worst) Books I Read in 2020

The title says it all. Of the 45-ish books I read last year, here are the few that stand out as particularly good, bad or otherwise noteworthy:

Cynical Theories - James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose

If you want to make sense of our current cultural moment, you need to know about Critical Theory, the peculiar school of postmodern thought that underpins modern Social Justice activism. Social Justice, capitalised, refers to “Critical Social Justice”, a particular philosophy of lowercase social justice that’s stooped in Critical Theory and has recently reached critical mass after decades simmering in an obscure corner of academia. The forefathers of this ideology might not be household names, but their influence is spreading like wildfire and must be understood - and for a clear and concise introduction you could do a lot worse than this new book from James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose, a meticulously-researched and highly-readable foray into the past and present of Social Justice "scholarship" and where it goes wrong.

The authors track the evolution of postmodern thought from its abstract origins in the 1960s to the actionable, activist ideologies of today that speak with unassailable conviction and permit no dissent or debate. This activism claims historical continuity with the successful liberation movements of old, but - as Lindsay and Pluckrose make clear - it openly attacks the philosophy that gave those movements such strength, namely liberalism. That word should be understand in the broadest sense, not as a particular point on the left-right axis but as a general commitment to the principles of liberal democracy: universalism, legal equality, open debate and free expression, respect for viewpoint diversity and a belief in the power of science and reason. These values are the best trick humans ever invented for achieving social justice, yet they’re now under attack from both Left and Right. We’ll miss them when they’re gone.

Ultimately, Cynical Theories is a rallying cry to defend the liberal values that have worked so well in the past and will work again if we reassert them. It's timely and important and deserves a place on every "anti-racist" reading list.

The Third Reich trilogy - Richard Evans

I liked William Shirer's The Rise And Fall of the Third Reich, but this more recent history blows Shirer out of the water. This isn't just the best thing I've read about Nazi Germany: it might be the best work of history I've read on any topic. And don’t just take my word for it: the trilogy has received universal acclaim from professional historians, including Hitler biographer Ian Kershaw, who called it "the most comprehensive history in any language of the disastrous epoch of the Third Reich".

The first volume traces the origins of Nazi rule, the second goes from Hitler's appointment as chancellor to the outbreak of war, and the final book covers 1939 to 1945. The level of detail is beyond impressive: Evans weaves epic narratives of politics and war with everyday tales of life and death, interspersed with all manner of statistics and analysis and fascinating insights into this uniquely evil slice of human history. The full thing weighs in at more than 2,000 pages, which makes it all the more remarkable that not a word is wasted. I learned so much from these books and I know I'll be going back to them again and again.

Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air - David McKay

The surprising thing about this book is that it's not about climate change. As important as that topic is, you don't have to be concerned about climate change to care about sustainable energy. Even if fossil fuels won't cook the planet, they still have to run out one day! We need to figure out a long-term source of reliable energy before that happens, and Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air is an ingenious exploration of what that looks like in practice.

The brilliance of McKay's approach is that he boils everything down to the absolute fundamentals, starting with basic physics. How much energy, measured in kilowatt-hours, do we need for transportation, heating, lighting, aviation, manufacturing, and so on? (That's energy in all its forms, not just electricity.) And how many kilowatt-hours are available from sustainable sources such as solar, wind, hydro, geothermal? From there it's a balancing act, trying to keep the sum of the first column lower than the sum of the second. Each chapter starts with the barest building blocks (how many kilowatt-hours does it take to accelerate a car-sized object up to driving speed?) and stacks them up into a clear, convincing argument about the constraints of physical reality and how to work within them.

This isn't an academic book; no more than a secondary-school level of maths is required for the technical parts, and even those are extracted into dedicated chapters which the less-devoted can skip. That's what makes Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air so remarkable: McKay has an extraordinary ability to explain complex topics in an understandable, intuitive way. This is a masterpiece of science writing and it's got me thinking a lot harder about the environmental and scientific challenges we're going to face in the century ahead. Highly recommended.

The New Jim Crow - Michelle Alexander

This book has been on my radar for ages, and if ever there was a year to finally get around to it, it was 2020. I'd try to condense my thoughts into a paragraph, but I really can't do better than this one from Bill Gates:

Like many white people, I’ve tried to deepen my understanding of systemic racism in recent months. Alexander’s book offers an eye-opening look into how the criminal justice system unfairly targets communities of color, and especially Black communities. It’s especially good at explaining the history and the numbers behind mass incarceration. I was familiar with some of the data, but Alexander really helps put it in context. I finished the book more convinced than ever that we need a more just approach to sentencing and more investment in communities of color.

The New Jim Crow makes a good companion to the Netflix movie 13th, which I watched a couple of years ago and still think is the best documentary I've ever seen. Read the book, watch the movie and wake up.

The New Jim Crow also stands in stark contrast to the other “anti-racist” book I read last year, White Fragility, which I would charitably describe as a nonsensical pile of toxic garbage. Until I can be bothered to write a full review I’ll merely note that I agree with every word of this analysis by John McWhorter (a man far more qualified to speak on racial issues than I.) Don’t waste your time on this poison.


Some honourable mentions:

  • Stalingrad by Anthony Beevor was the other great WWII book I read last year. I always enjoy Beevor's history books and this is as good as any of them.

  • Napoleon the Great by Andrew Roberts (I wrote a longer review here) was a comprehensive and entertaining guide to a titan of history whom I previously knew far too little about. Next on my shelf is Roberts's biography of Churchill; can't wait to read it.

  • Lenora Chu's Little Soldiers was an interesting exploration of the differences between the Chinese and Western education systems, as if we didn't have enough reasons already to despair about the rise of China. (See also the Reddit post that made me read the book, and the blog post that made me read the Reddit post.)

  • Range by David Epstein and Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker were great reads too.

  • I didn't read as many novels as I'd have liked last year, but of those I found time for the one that really stood out was Kurt Vonnegut's classic Slaughterhouse Five. Jaw-droppingly good.

Finally, a few books I read in 2020 that didn't live up to my expectations:

  • I'd heard good things about Annie Duke's Thinking in Bets, but wasn't impressed by it. "Expected value" is a useful concept for your intellectual arsenal, but it can be explained in a paragraph and I didn't gain anything useful from Duke's 300+ pages of fluff.

  • Nir Eyal's Indistractible was similarly uninteresting. God knows I struggle with distraction, but I didn't find much in here that wasn't obvious, or that I hadn't heard explained better elsewhere (see e.g. Deep Work and Atomic Habits, both of which are excellent.) Also, Eyal's previous book was about how to get people addicted to your products, so his writing a book about staying focused is like if Osama bin Laden wrote a book about skyscraper architecture.

  • In our current political climate there’s a gaping need for a scientific book about sex and gender that’s incisive, persuasive and well-written, but Debra Soh's The End of Gender wasn't any of those things.

Alright, that covers it. Here's to all the things I haven’t learned yet; I look forward to chipping away at them for another year. 🥂

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