2020 on Goodreads by Various

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Well, this has been quite a year.

I began by reading the latest release of one of my favorite authors, Bill Bryson, about the human body. I devoured this book—a Christmas present—with the kind of rapacious glee that comes over me whenever I discover an untapped well of unfamiliar facts. It had never even occurred to me that the human body could be so strange and so mysterious, or that there was still so much we do not know about our organic vessels. One particular moment sticks in my memory: The section on infectious diseases ends with a warning that another 1918-type pandemic is very possible, and that we are little better prepared to deal with it. I remember this because I actually scoffed at it, thinking the notion alarmist.

Life went on as planned, at least for a while. My big idea was to continue reading about economics, mathematics, and the history of science. I listened to several Great Courses, struggled through the works of Archimedes, and beat my head against a biography of John Maynard Keynes. Unfortunately, I remain much unimproved; but at least I finally read Daniel Kahneman’s fascinating work on the psychology of decision-making (another Christmas present), which has quite serious ramifications for economics.

Then the coronavirus hit, derailing my reading as well as the rest of my life. While many used reading as a means of escapism, I felt extremely frustrated by my lack of understanding of what was happening, and so I embarked on a series of books about diseases. This began with Micheal Osterholm’s book about infectious illness, Deadliest Enemy, which is a kind of all-purpose primer about the threats posed by different sorts of germs. I recommend it. Another all-purpose analysis is William McNeill’s speculative book on the impact of infectious diseases on human history. This was followed by John Barry’s history of the 1918 pandemic (also recommended), Richard Preston’s account of Ebola, Andrew Spielman’s summary of mosquito-borne illness, and Daniel Defoe’s fictional narrative of the bubonic plague. The best book of the lot was And the Band Played On, Randy Shilts’s devastating report of the AIDS epidemic in America, which unfortunately has many parallels in the handling of the pandemic by the current administration.

In June, the pandemic restrictions were mostly lifted in Spain. Meanwhile, Black Lives Matter exploded across the world, and the American elections came into focus. This prompted another reading adventure. I had the idea of reading at least one book about each major problem facing my beloved and beleaguered country. This began with David Wallace-Wells dire warning about climate change (potentially much worse than a pandemic!), Uwe Reinhardt’s mordant criticism of the abysmal American health system, and Sara Goldrick-Bar’s study on the difficulties of paying for higher education. Alex Vitale made the case for defunding our militarized police force, Angela Davis urged for decarceration, and Michelle Alexander—in perhaps the most eye-opening book of my year—compellingly argued that mass-incarceration was just another chapter in American racism.

Economics looms large in any diagnosis of societal ills. Andrew Yang, William Julius Wilson, and the co-authors Nicholas Kristoff and Sherlyn WuDunn all came to similar conclusions: that good jobs are disappearing from many parts of the country, with devastating social consequences. David Harvey, Thomas Piketty, and the co-authors Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo analyzed this same worrisome trend on a macro-scale, and came to essentially the same conclusion: that the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer, in part thanks to neo-liberal economic ideas (“trickle-down economics”) which have failed quite abysmally in delivering on promised growth. But as an analysis of economic woes, no book was more revelatory than Matthew Desmond’s book on eviction—easily one of the best, and most depressing, books of my year. Before leaving politics, I should also mention David Hemenway’s analysis of gun violence, Herman and Chomsky’s critique of the mainstream media, and two very upsetting works of journalism about the presidency of you-know-who.

Since I devoted so much energy to all this nonfiction, my fiction reading was necessarily limited, though I did get around to many books which had long been on my list: Henry James’s The Ambassadors, D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, Lord Byron’s Don Juan, Gabriel García Márquez’s Cien años de soledad, John Williams’s Stoner, and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. To a certain extent, I liked all of these books, some of them very much; but I cannot say that any of them were the gut-wrenching literary experiences I was hoping for. My year in philosophy was even less impressive, consisting only of Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation, which mostly left me cold.

But I did learn some new things. I revisited college chemistry with lectures by Ron B. David, Jr., and I also make some clumsy attempts at learning to draw. My biggest accomplishment was probably my German. Lockdown provided me with a lot of time to regain all the proficiency I had lost since switching my focus to Spanish, and I think I am now better than ever before. And of course there were many books that did not fit into any of the above categories, some of them quite excellent, like McCullough’s history of the Wright brothers or Murakami’s essays on running.

On the whole, then, I think I must rate this year very highly, if only because I learned so many things—about history, disease, politics, economics, science—that I had not even considered learning before. Somehow, my main coping mechanism (read a book about whatever it is that is giving me anxiety) served me well during this whole, 365-day ordeal. I do hope, however, that I will not have to use it so much in the year ahead.

Thanks to you all for being a part of this great community. This year would have been worse without you.

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