The books I read in 2020

You’d think the waking nightmares of 2020 would prompt more escapist reading, but instead I zagged toward nonfiction. I do notice this list of authors is very male: something to work on.

In alphabetical order:

  • 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann
  • Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, by James C. Scott
  • American Radical: The Life and Times of I.F. Stone, by D. D. Guttenplan
  • The Dream Machine, by M. Mitchell Waldrop
  • Fight No More, by Lydia Millet
  • The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin
  • Fortune’s Children: The Fall of the House of Vanderbilt, by Arthur T. Vanderbilt II
  • Foundation, by Isaac Asimov
  • Infinite Detail, by Tim Maughan
  • Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
  • Nature’s Mutiny: How the Little Ice Age of the Long Seventeenth Century Transformed the West and Shaped the Present, by Philipp Blom
  • The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead
  • The Night of the Gun, by David Carr
  • No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, by Erin Meyer and Reed Hastings
  • Something That May Shock and Discredit you, by Daniel Mallory Ortberg
  • Strangers: Homosexual Love in the 19th Century, by Graham Robb
  • Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • Uncanny Valley, by Anna Wiener
  • Utopia Avenue, by David Mitchell


I don’t have something to say about every book here, but some stray thoughts:

  • Fortune’s Children is a wonderfully indiscreet history of the Vanderbilts, written by a latter-day Vanderbilt nephew. Tons of detail but always breezy and readable.
  • The Nickel Boys is a perfectly cut gem. Whitehead’s earlier novels dabble across genres, and here he deploys some of those techniques to give his flinty realism a mythic quality. The result is beautifully haunting.
  • I read tons of sci-fi as a kid, and yet I never cracked any Asimov, strangely. I can see why Foundation was influential in its time but all its ideas feel out of date now, and the writing isn’t good enough to bridge the gap.
  • I audiobooked Lincoln in the Bardo, which I think was a mistake. The recording has like 150 celebrity voice actors switching in and out like a radio play; I suspect it works better on the page.
  • The Dream Machine was out of print for years and very hard to find before Stripe Press reissued it in a beautiful new hardcover volume. Definitely lives up to its billing as a key history of the early computer age, but not a casual read. I stalled out once and came back to it months later. I’m glad I did!