I’m not Obama, but if you’re looking for a read below are some ideas of what to pick up (and some thoughts about what to skip). A skimable read.
I read less than normal in 2020. It turns out that my commute by transit is my primary reading time (even more than before bed). I also read, mostly, much harder reads, which slowed me down.
Learning is probably a theme every year in one way or another, but this year was very much focused (unintentionally at first) on deepening my understanding of humanity (Sapiens), especially from a perspective different than my own (The Invisible Man, The Skin We’re In, Policing Black Lives).
As a a white sis gendered guy a significant amount of culture is made for me (mostly we’re the heros, sometimes we’re not, but even then it’s mostly us on screen). Last year I joined a number of Black Lives Matter protests to show with my body that this matters, and, to help put my brain where my body was, I read as much about the topic as my COVID brain could handle. This doesn’t make me a great person, or get me a gold star, it just makes me a learner.
Books are listed in the order read, not the order of recommendation.
- The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre
History of a KGB agent who joined MI6 and helped end the Cold War, and the the American Spy who sold him out. Reads like a spy novel because it is, it just also happens to be real life.
- Educated by Tara WestoverThe story of Tara Westover’s crazy growing up in the remote mountains of Idaho (crazy meaning more than mental health issues, though those are at the core of her mind-blowing story). It’s great that this book exisits and that she wrote it (she seems quite incredible). It is hard (emotionally mostly) and probably most people don’t need to read it. In summary, white christians in tiny remote places are possibly even more off the charts than you thought.
- The Coddling of the American Mind by Jon and Gary
I liked this booked, but am appreciate that it is pretty much up my white male sis gendered alley. The core messages of this book resonate deeply with me: be charitable in interpretation, be anti-fragile vs a victim (resilliant), exposure helps not hurts. Again, all easier things for a priviliveged whute guy to say, but there are truths here as well. Especially, the first about being charitable.
- Sapiens by Yuval Noah HarariRight at the top of my list. Humans should read this book to better understand how they are human and why they have made the world the way they have made it. Our ability to tell stories is the core thing that seperates us from all other animals. Our ability to make terrible decisions that take centuries to undo is so much of why were are where we are.
- Oh Canada! By Mordecai RichelieurEvery Canadian should read this book, or at least every Canadian who grew up somewhere from 1970 to 2000. As someone who grew up going to French School during the Quebec referendums (and wanted Quebec to stay) this captures that time perfectly.
- Nobody Talks About Anything, But The End by Liz Levine
If you want to support a new Canadian author buy this book. It wasn’t my favourite read of the year, but I love that a person we know wrote it.
- Neither here nor there by Bill Bryson
The great Bill Bryson shows that he’s a white boomer by being an old white guy saying things you ought not to ever have said across Europe. Read something else by him, not this. I’d go so far as to recommend against ever picking it up.
- Consider the Lobster by David Foster WallaceA book of essays, by someone who was probably a genius. If you like words and especially how they can/ought to be put together this is the book for you.
Recommend — if you’re in the mood to read essays
- The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power by Desmond ColeHighly recommend this book. The writting is super easy to read, but the content is so hard that I found myself having to take breaks. Basically, the content made me so angry at how racist people are, at the unending terribleness of it right here in Canada that I had to put it down regularly. In interviews I have found Desmond’s voice to be condescending (which considering how he has been treated and the good work he does is earned), it made me hesitant to pick up his book. The book has none of that tone, all of the desired anger, all of the sadness, all of the beauty, but I never felt like I was being talked down to. We haven’t met, but you should read this book.
- Policing Black Lives : State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present by Robyn MaynardThere is a ton of research that went into this book and I am so glad I read it. I have an anti-cop bias so it played to my confirmation bias, but is backed up and well laid out. It is another of the hardest books I read this year, mostly because of the anger it generates, but also because it is quite academic (big words often preferred over small ones, tones of references). Because it is academic non-fiction (instead of narrative) many people are not going to bother reading it, they should. It is a deep education in the fundamentally racist people and polices that created Canada. Highly Recommend
Tangent: This book led me to get out some reference books from the library and try to re-write John A MacDonald’s (first Prime Minister of Canada) wikipedia page (he was a racist). In doing this I discovered that wikipedia remains a great bastion of systemic racism. Specifically, wikipedia uses the “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” (a.k.a., the Sagan standard)” as a shield of white-goodness. I don’t know if they know they’re being racist (unconcious bias?), or maybe most editors are actually straight up racists (or pretending not to be?), it’s hard to say. In this example, I used some references to point out the MacDonald was famously racist and moved his racism higher on the page. The references were relatively weak in that original text pointed to racist policies but it was contemporary authors (opinion?) calling him a racist. These claims were taken as “extraodinary” and I couldn’t keep up with the wiki-editors (what else do they do?) so I lost. It seems that we should assume that a rich white man who was an adult before the abolishment of slavery, created the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to remove (aka commit genocide against) indigenous people, and never did anything that could be considered to show he was against slavery or felt people of colour should have equal rights is racist and extraordinary claims are required to prove otherwise. .. but what do I know. I’m still learning.
- The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Professor Shoshana ZuboffIf I had to recommend only one book toread from this list, maybe it’s this one. The last two are super important, and so is this. It is very well written. Despite the complex topic Professor Zuboff does a great job of weaving in narrative and using other techniques to keep it very readable, a page turned even. Here’s what the Guardian has to say about it.
- RANGE: WHY GENERALISTS TRIUMPH IN A SPECIALIZED WORLD by David Epstein
As a generalist I am heavily biased to love this book, and I do. For years when hiring I looked for people who had applicable, but not necessary relevant experience and it (almost always) worked. We are taught to specialize. We fund head count by describing highly specific business needs; then we find out we need to be able to roll with “it” and change. The position we filled needs to do something totally different, uh-oh. We need to generalize to succeed (now if someone could help me figure out how to explain this to finance and people and culture).
- Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison
(Probably) not the Invisible Man you are thinking of. Set in maybe the 50’s in the United States the narrator of Invisible Man is a nameless young black man. A surreal complex, dense novel the people the narrator encounters “see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination,” and so he is effectively invisible. This book requires heavy mental lifting. The text is dense, the concepts difficult, the work is important. It’s not light, but it’s worth the read.
- The Never-ending Story by Michael EndeIt’s a book too! What a great and fun read, no wonder they wanted to make it into a movie. Who knew so much had to be cut out to make the movie work. Super fun. Super good read.
- Tree of smoke by Denise Johnson
Not my favourite. Well written, long. All about communism and vietnam. I’m not sure what to think of this. Parts were great. Parts were not.
- Eragon by Christopher PangoliniWhat a great book and series! Do you read “kids books” or Middle Grade Fiction as “industry people” call them? If not what’s your problem?! Middle Grade Fiction has all the stuff we actually want in books, great plots, great characters, righteousness. If you like fantasy you probably have already read this, if not, get on it! If you don’t like dragons and dwarves and such, well, it’s not for you.
- Less by Andrew Sean Greer
Some adult books are also fun and heartfelt and have a forward moving ploit. This is one of them. It’s fun and funny and I hope everyone in it is truly okay, they deserve it.
- Eldest by Christopher PangoliniSee above. Once you’ve started you’ll want to read the whole series.
- Dual citizen by Ali’s Ohlin
My wife is right about a lot of things, telling me to read this book was one of them. What a great book! You should click the link above and buy it right now. I had never heard of it and loved its unexpected beauty.
- The Mercies by Koran Millwood Hargrave
The basic messsage is don’t be a woman in the 1600s. I assume this is true. The book says they burn a witch, and they do. It just takes a really long time to get to that point and when you do it is predicable and sad. If you are fine with what you think is going to happen happening and just want to read nice descriptions with a whale motif woven through out this is the book for you! It was not the book for me.
- The Secret History By Donna Tart
I love Donna Tart’s style, less so the length of her books. She is wicked smart (and so are her characters). This book reminded me that I struggle with books that tell you what happened then take the rest of the book to walk you through it. Just not my thing. You’ll see that the books I do not recommend mostly have this theme. This is the best written of the books I’m not recommeneding. Some of it is great and there’s at least one big surprise at the end (thank goodness) For me it too many words to get to that surprise.
- Brave New World by Aldus HuxleyA worthwhile piece of history and always out at the library so I had to buy it for $6 which seemed reasonable. The jauntier version of 1984 (how many book reports have been written about that?) this is a required read for all. It’s easy and good. Do I recommend it? Probably only if you didnt’ have to read it in high school. If you did you still get it.