I don’t think there has been a better year than 2020 to read books. With most of us confined to our houses at some point during the year due to Coronavirus, books have become more popular than ever.
I love reading, but this year I’ve taken it into overdrive. I’ve read well over 50 books, which is more than a book a week. Would I have been able to read so many without lockdown? Maybe, maybe not.
I try not to count the books I read too much. It’s not the number of books you’ve read that’s important, it’s what you get from them that counts. This year, I’ve tried to expand my reading into areas that I’m unfamiliar with and which fascinate me.
That’s led to me reading an eclectic mix of books. I’m not sure I ever thought I’d read about the Spanish Flu one day and life in a Russian gulag the next, but that’s what can happen when you love to read.
Trying to narrow down this list to just ten books is difficult. I’ve learnt a lot from all of the books I read and enjoyed reading every single one of them. Some of them resonated more than others and that is reflected in this list.
You may have heard of some of these books, you may not. All of them are well worth the investment of your time and money should you choose to read them.
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Franklin Roosevelt, also known as FDR, is a figure that has fascinated me for years. He is the only President to serve more than two terms and ruled during, arguably, the most tumultuous period in American history.
When he became President in 1933, the country was still in the grip of economic depression following the Wall Street Crash. His New Deal policy was an unprecedented remodelling of the American economy that met with fierce resistance but laid the groundwork for the years of prosperity that would follow the end of the Second World War.
Roosevelt is an interesting figure. A precociously gifted child, he almost died after contracting polio. The disease left him unable to walk without the help of braces or a crutch. That he was able to largely disguise his ailment from the American public and perform his duties almost unhindered for twelve years, is a testament to his character.
This biography is a fascinating look at his life and the challenges he faced before he became President and afterwards until his death before the end of the Second World War in 1945.
It’s a long read, at over 600 pages, but if you’re a keen student of history and want to learn more about Roosevelt, the challenges he faced in the face of adversity and how he overcame them, it’s a must-read!
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
I’d never heard of this book or the author, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, before I bought, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. But after reading this short novella, I lamented the fact it had taken me this long to read his work.
The novella follows the titular character through a single day in a gulag in Siberia. What’s depicted is the bleakness of his existence, the futility of his work, and the struggle to survive in a harsh climate.
The book was originally published as a series of stories in Russian newspapers following the death of Stalin and caused a stir. Criticism of ‘Uncle Joe’ was considered treason while he was alive, that Solzhenitsyn’s work was published is a testament to the changing atmosphere following Stalin’s death.
Still, the book paints a brutal picture of the Soviet regime and Stalin’s rule. One where anyone and everyone was under suspicion and at risk of being thrown into the gulag even if they were innocent of any crimes.
With similar atrocities occurring today, most notably in Xinjiang, it’s a timely reminder that freedom we all take for granted is not guaranteed and hard-earned.
The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein
The Shock Doctrine blew me away when I read it. I’m a big fan of Naomi Klein’s work. She’s one of my favourite writers and has an uncanny ability to get to the heart of the matter she sets her teeth into.
What she lays out in this book is how the economic paradigm we live under is one that exploits crises which a wealthy few profit from. The doctrine that she refers to is known as shock therapy.
It’s this therapy that was prescribed to the former Soviet nations as they emerged from fifty years of Communism. This resulted in a severe financial crash during the 90s, as their measures tanked economy after economy.
It may feel like this has always been the way the economy worked, but following the Second World War, Keynesian economics was in vogue during what was known as the ‘Golden Age of Capitalism.’
That was overturned when the Chicago School of economists, headed by Milton Friedman, came to prominence. Klein’s book is an explanation of the Chicago school’s struggle to dominate economic discourse and the resulting fallout when they did.
If you want to understand the world we live in today, this book will help to fill in some of the gaps and give you food for thought.
Atomic Habits by James Clear
Atomic Habits is a book I’ve had on my list for a while. This year, with a long lockdown here in the UK, I finally got a chance to read it. I wasn’t disappointed.
The beauty of the book is that it presents the creation of habits as small acts, hence the word atomic. James Clear states that breaking habits down to their fundamental core, it makes it easier for us to implement them into our lives.
Something as simple as placing dental floss next to your toothbrush will encourage you to develop flossing as a habit. Before you know it, you’ll instinctively reach for the floss after you’ve brushed your teeth.
Atomic Habits is the best book I’ve read on building habits and the psychology behind it. If there’s a better book out there on this topic, I haven’t come across it.
Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
Another book that I had on my list for a while, Siddhartha is the story of an Indian man who leaves his village in search of spiritual fulfilment. Throughout his journey, he meets many people, including the Buddha, in his quest.
I’m not overly familiar with Eastern philosophy, so Siddhartha was a good primer on its basic tenets. As the book progresses, we see the titular character join various groups and move on again, as he is left disillusioned with the practices they preach.
His wanderings take him far from home and he ends up by the river working for the ferryman who helped him cross it years earlier. It’s during these moments that he begins to find the fulfilment he was searching for.
Siddhartha is a reminder that there are many different ways you can live your life. The variety of religions around the world is a testament to the fact that no one has a monopoly on the correct way to live.
The search for enlightenment and truth is one that we all find ourselves on. Seeing it through the lens of Siddhartha makes us appreciate that progress is often zigs and zags rather than following a linear path.
Humankind by Rutger Bregman
Rutger Bregman is one of my favourite thinkers. I read his book, Utopia For Realists last year and found myself nodding in agreement with most of it. His latest book, Humankind is another thought-provoking book that challenges a lot of our preconceptions.
The premise of the book is that humans are a lot kinder than we, or the media portrayal of us, realise. In an age where fear of the ‘other’ is widespread, it’s a timely reminder that deep down, most of us are fundamentally good people.
One story that illustrates this, is the tale of four boys from Tonga who found themselves stranded on a deserted island after skipping school. The story has echoes of The Lord of The Flies, in which English schoolboys find themselves in a similar situation.
In William Golding’s famous novel, the boys descend into madness without an authority figure to hold them to account. Rutger searched for a real-life version of this story, as he felt the story was overly negative.
I won’t spoil what happened to the boys from Tonga, but Golding’s premise that underneath it all, we’re self-interested individuals with demons raging inside of us, isn’t as true as he might have thought.
The Odyssey by Homer
The Odyssey is a famous Greek myth, perhaps the most famous of them all. I didn’t know what to expect when I read this, but I was pleasantly surprised.
For a book that was written over two thousand years ago, it’s remarkable how well it holds up in the present day. The story is lucid, engaging and when I put the book down, I found myself itching to know what happened next.
Homer’s book tells the tale of Odysseus, who is trying to return to his homeland of Ithaca after being stranded abroad for years. We follow him on his journey as he battles Gods, nymphs, the elements and rivals trying to claim his throne.
This really is a fantastic book, I can’t praise it enough. As well as being a brilliant story, The Odyssey contains a lot of moral lessons that we could learn from, such as the value of perseverance and treating the people we met with respect.
When these two elements combine, you know it’s a book worth reading!
Pale Rider by Laura Spinney
As the pandemic started to spread across the world in the early parts of the year, I sought out a book detailing a similar virus that stalked the planet one hundred years ago, the Spanish Flu.
Pale Rider is a fascinating look at life in the midst of a pandemic that killed somewhere between 50 to 100 million over three years from 1918 to 1921. Looking back today with three vaccines on the verge of being approved, it’s incredible to think how different things were back then and how far we’ve come.
The book delves into various personal stories and describes how the virus made its way around the world after the end of the First World War. Even in an age where mass travel wasn’t commonplace, the virus managed to find its way to all corners of the globe.
Considering the sheer number of people who lost their lives to the Spanish Flu, it’s amazing that it had almost seeped out of the public consciousness until we faced a similar reality ourselves.
Pale Rider is a useful book to read if you want to understand about the Spanish Flu and how it changed the world. It provides some hints at what we can come to expect once we come out on the other side of the Coronavirus pandemic.
The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan
The Silk Roads is one of the best history books I’ve ever read. And I say that as a history graduate who read many a book during my studies. This is a long book, coming in at over 600 pages, but stick with it and you’ll be rewarded.
As the name suggests, the book focuses on the silk road, a trade route from Central Asia that stretched out into the rest of the continent and then west into Europe.
Peter Frankopan weaves together two thousand years of history into one book and shows how the silk road was intertwined with the rise and fall of empires and nations throughout the ages.
It’s different from most other history books due to its breadth and focus on economic aspects of history. But this is what makes it such a good read. The perspective it presents is different from what many of us are used to and provides much food for thought at how small changes or decisions can have huge reverberations.
This book and Frankopan’s subsequent book, The New Silk Roads, are brilliant reads if you want a general overview of history and where we may be heading in the future.
Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnemann
Another that had been on my ever-expanding reading list for too long, Thinking Fast and Slow blew my mind in a multitude of ways. If you want to understand how your brain works this is the book for you!
Written by the psychologist Daniel Kahnemann, the book looks at the various cognitive biases that dictate our lives. It’s a fascinating read that explains how many of us are beholden to these biases more than we might realise.
The main premise of the book is that we have too much faith in human judgement. Throughout the book, Kahnemann presents study after study were people delivered results that were not the optimal choice, or showed their bias in action.
This is due to two systems in our brain that are fighting for control, one conscious, the other automatic. As you progress through the book, you realise just how much of a struggle your brain has on its hands on a daily basis, as we stumble in and out of the differing states.
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