My Top 8 Books of 2020

This year I read 43 books. Of those, eight books earned a 5-star rating, which I only give if they changed something about the way I think about the world, they are well written, and they are enjoyable to read. I hope you find something you like.

The complete list of 43 books can be found on my Goodreads profile.

Piranesi by Susanna Clark
In a house of infinite rooms, two people reside. Piranesi, who is fairly sure that he was born with a different name, is assisting the Other, who is searching for a “Great and Secret Knowledge” in the labyrinthine halls. It is one hell of a fantasy, and it struck all the right chords for me—exploration, mystery, beauty, compelling characters, clear storytelling. This is a stay-up-late-to-finish kind of book, and it made me believe in magic again.

Becoming Animal by David Abram
The descriptive magic of Annie Dillard, the practical philosophy of Thoreau, and the shamanic mysticism of Carlos Castaneda. Each chapter examines a different way of perceiving our relationship with the natural world. Along the way he makes compelling cases for the animism of rocks and wood, the embodied intelligence of ecosystems, the reciprocity of fixed objects, our immersion in a sea of atmosphere (and how that should change our perceptions), and other deeply profound insights. This is a book that mirrors much that I have wanted to write, but expresses it with more depth and insight than I am currently capable. I am envious and grateful for this book of fecund wisdom, and it is at the top of my very short list of books to reread.

Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold
This 1949 classic of environmental literature is wonderfully wrought.  Leopold, a Wisconsin farmer and hunter, argues for a conservation ethic based on stewardship and a respect for our place in the “biotic team” that is made up not only of animals and plants, but also the soil and air and water.  His arguments are compelling and perspective-altering, and so clearly and meticulously constructed as to make his conclusions inevitable.  I often found myself wondering “how had I never thought of that before?  Why aren’t these points being considered in every courtroom and senate in the world?  How, seven decades later, have we still refused to admit these obvious and self-evident truths to ourselves?” For example: “If the biota, in the coures of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts?  To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

Leopold is a practical philosopher on par with Thoreau and Emerson, a naturalist with an enthusiasm every bit equal to Muir, and the Sand County Almanac deserves far more attention than it receives.

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
In 1962, Silent Spring exposed the disastrous ecological and human consequences of indiscriminate pesticide use, particularly dieldrin and DDT. It is often credited with kicking off the modern environmental movement. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of writing, as well as how directly the arguments still apply to contemporary life. She makes her arguments as thoroughly and with as much inevitable momentum as Darwin. Her points are less of a revelation than Darwin’s, but no less important: manufactured chemistry has far outstripped the ability of evolution to keep up; pesticides have a tendency to backfire, because they destroy predators as readily as they destroy the pests they are intended for; life is interconnected and we must be careful not to create larger problems than the ones we are trying to solve. It well deserves its place as a classic of environmental literature.

Atomic Habits by James Clear
I’ve read a lot of books about habits over the years. Some ideas stick, some don’t. This book did better than most, because Clear creates a good framework stuffed with tons of useful examples, and he makes it engaging and easy to read along the way.

Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton
Botton is a straightforward, uncluttered writer and a remarkable thinker. His thesis: Status concerns have gotten worse in recent history because we believe that we live in a meritocracy but “merit” is often determined by birth into a particular strata of society. We are biologically primed to worry about our status, even though it is often out of our control.

The first half of the book is devoted to proving the thesis, which he does with style and wit while drawing on the classics, twentieth-century advertising, the philosophers, and rich historical examples. He lays out how the powerful have used the idea of meritocracy to justify offenses that would have been unthinkable a century or two ago, and how we have all bought into it and worsened our own lives in the process. The second half of the book is devoted to solutions: how we can free ourselves from the pernicious effects of status-seeking and defuse the anxieties it causes. The style and use of edifying examples reminds me much of Robert Greene’s books, though far more concise.

Crow and Weasel by Barry Lopez
This was my first book of the year, and probably the shortest on the list. In my original review I wrote of Lopez: “He is one of our greatest treasures.” Sadly, we lost Lopez only a few days ago. This book is a testament to his compassionate heart. It’s a parable about valuing others, appreciation for the world in which we live, and friendship.

The Moral Animal by Robert Wright
Part science, part well-reasoned speculation, part Darwin biography, all fascinating. It’s all about Evolutionary Psychology, which uses the principles of natural selection to describe and explain what makes our minds tick. Some of the theories feel cold and Machiavellian, but much like The Prince and Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power, Wright makes the point that our natural drives don’t have to be our destiny. What I found so satisfying about this book was the way the theories inside not only elegantly explained the way the human race works, but the fact that when I applied it to my own life, my emotions, even my classroom, the predictions held up. Particularly useful were the sections on status and social connection, which have been an area of interest for me recently. Pairs well with Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene (for the genetic perspective) and Daniel Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach and Back (for the memetic perspective).

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