One gift of the pandemic was more time for reading. The reading habit, neglected for too many years, proved a shining light in a most challenging year.
Conscious of the glut of reading lists swelling blogs and social feeds like autumn leaves, yet mindful of their important role in providing fuel for the bookish bonfire, here are some recommendations based on what I read in 2020.
There are five fiction titles, five non-fiction and three honourable mentions, listed without sequential significance. Enjoy.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
The first book of the year and my favourite. More than slightly prescient, too, considering the forced isolation that followed. Count Alexander Rostov is a terrific character for our times despite being well outside them. The story follows his life of house arrest in Moscow’s luxury Metropol hotel across thirty or so years of the Soviet era from 1922 to 1954. As everything representing his status and rich life is removed, Rostov maintains an optimistic and expansive attitude, cheerfully embracing fate without compromising his principles. This is a transportive and beautifully written novel that I recommended more than any other. Read it.
Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson
This is Ready Player One for grown ups. Published in 1992, this dystopian story is set in a world where capitalism reigns supreme and virtual living is preferred to reality by most. It is a darkly funny romp and Stephenson creates a rich and engaging vision of an imagined future. The aptly named protagonist – um – Hero Protagonist, is an early developer of this virtual universe and accidentally finds himself hot on the trail of a mysterious and deadly computer virus that somehow reaches into the real world. Clever, entertaining and relevant.
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
The early part of the year saw a deeper dive into the work of Neil Gaiman, including a final public outing in February for a live Q and A in Melbourne where the greatest issue was bushfires – aah, those were the days! This is The Graveyard Book for grown ups, maybe? It rests firmly within Gaiman’s noir-ish horror fantasy wheelhouse. After an act of kindness, young businessman Richard Mayhew crosses into the shadowy otherworld below the streets of London. His journey, dotted with a remarkable cast of allies and villains, is a terrific tale to escape with, from young adults onwards.
Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
Towles was a merchant banker before turning to a career in writing and this was his first novel. This kind of talent appears greedy, but this book underlined his bona fides as a writer and weaver of great historical stories. Set mostly in New York of the 1930’s, we follow the fortunes of Katey Kontent as she makes her way in publishing, straining against the confines of society and expectation. As with A Gentleman in Moscow, the characterisation and setting are a real highlight, and it is astonishingly well written.
V2 by Robert Harris
I discovered Harris more than twenty years ago via his early novel, Fatherland, and confess an unashamed enjoyment of historical fiction with a cerebral and compelling plot. Though he lost me during the ancient Rome period, recent titles have me back on board. This is a parallel narrative set in the latter years of World War Two, when Germany’s V2 rockets rained down on London and surrounds. Willi Graf and Kay Connolly are characters on two sides of the firing line whose fates are entwined more than they know. Written wholly during the first UK lockdown of 2020, it was a perfect decompression read after a long year, offering a nice blend of fact and fiction with just the right amount of historical rocket nerdiness.
Figuring by Maria Popova
This is a remarkable book in so many ways, if for nothing else the depth of knowledge and effort behind it. Popova has published her blog, Brainpickings, for more than a decade which is a testament to her love of poetry, science, mathematics and literature. Figuring is an opus that reveals the somewhat obscured (well, definitely to me) tale of a range of historical figures, mostly women, at the intersection of these points over four centuries. It is actually really hard to describe, so I’ll say that it really shifted my knowledge and view of science and literature, who we are encouraged to believe are incompatible. Like all good non-fiction, this book pushes the boundaries of understanding and shines a light on a topic that feels so critical, albeit embarrassingly concealed. Hard fun, but brilliant.
Principles by Ray Dalio
This book was the fly that kept returning to bash on my mental window. I read it out of curiosity and it exceeded my expectations. Ray Dalio built an extremely successful investment house over thirty years and never intended to write a book. This is a fascinating insight into the underlying principles employed and refined over his career. Initially written for employees so he did not need to explain everything, it grew into a comprehensive and rich reference. Though dry in places, the wider value comes from the ability to explore the mind and rich experience of Dalio. It is a reminder of the power of books to gain access to the wide variety of human experience.
The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis
Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky were a most unlikely duo who had a massive impact on human understanding of how our thinking minds work. They met as young psychologists in Israel before forging a partnership that produced a body of research work that fundamentally changed our understanding of human motivation and behaviour. Lewis explores the nature of their friendship more than the work and it is here the real magic of the story comes alive. This was a lot of fun to read.
A Dream About Lightning Bugs by Ben Folds
The Ben Folds Five album ‘Whatever and Ever Amen’ played on high rotation when I was at university and Folds is an intriguing character fondly remembered. Music biographies have never featured too prominently in my reading, but this one broke the mould in many ways, mostly for the honest self-appraisal at the expense of a biased recount of history. There is little whitewashing by Folds – he knows he can be a prick – and it also contains a good deal of exploration and analysis of his creative process and experience of fame. Folds is a wild and forthright host and this was a great read.
The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande
Let me confess to a deep hatred of routine and a long history of mocking those poor souls fixated on protocol and process. Sure, I write lists, but the thought of a living life by checklist seemed like prison. Gawande is a surgeon who took on the challenge of developing a surgical checklist for the World Health Organisation in the hope they might improve related mortality rates in hospitals around the world. In the process, Gawande discovered the power and simplicity of checklists and how one could borrow great ideas from seemingly unrelated fields – like airlines. This is a great example of the unexpected benefits of reading outside your familiar box.
The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton
This is a terrifically accessible philosophical exploration of what it means to live a good life via six philosophers and their work. I had long avoided de Botton due to pretentious name prejudice and happily admit my wrong headedness. If you ever find yourself feeling sad or melancholy, this is a good place to start and a great place to revisit.
The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant
This little book is the condensation of a lifetime of work by this most interesting couple. Profound observations about humanity bounce out of every paragraph and one risks a sore neck with all the nodding in agreement. The writing is first class, reminding us that great literature is not the soul possession of fiction.
Running the Room by Tom Bennett
This is a book for teachers, one I wish was around when I was starting out. Released late in 2020, it is a most rare professional reading title that manages to be insightful, rigorous and funny at the same time. If you teach, this is a must read. If you know a teacher, tell them about it.