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The 15 Best Books I Read in 2020

Books I read in 2020

Here’s the best of what I read in 2020.

As usual, I chose print books over ebooks whenever possible (all the better for taking notes in the margins and distilling them into my Book Notes posts).

Since we moved here to Hong Kong early in the year, and given that I continue to cover technology, you’ll see the world’s most populous country, our new home, and the themes of tech and business figure prominently in this list. Oh, and books about…pandemics, too!

As in my previous round-ups, I’m listing these titles in roughly the order I read them, and with selections not limited to books published during the year. Here goes:

1) "The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State," by Elizabeth C. Economy. An insightful explication of just why Xi is such an important figure.

2) "Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built," by Duncan Clark. An in-depth account of Alibaba’s rise, and of founder Ma’s background and personality. (My Books Notes entry is here.)

3) "Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment," by Robert Wright. The title, of course, cannot deliver, but Wright makes the case that Buddhist thought, and especially meditation, can make life easier and more rewarding.

4) "The Quiet American," by Graham Greene. A classic I can’t believe I’d never read. A memorable story, written with skill by the great Greene.

5) "Pandemics: A Very Short Introduction," by Christian McMillen. Helpful historical context. One lesson that has stuck with me, which isn’t always obvious these days: pandemics do not last forever! (My Book Notes entry is here.)

6) “Brave New World,” by Aldous Huxley. Another classic I must have dipped into at some point. Like “1984,” a book with themes that remain ever relevant.

7) “Hong Kong,” by Jan Morris. A thoughtful, highly detailed survey of this majestic city. Highly recommended.

8) “The Stand,” by Stephen King. What better to read during an actual pandemic than a 1000-word-plus novel about…the aftermath of a pandemic? I found it riveting. If long. And it’s clear to my why this is a favorite King book for many of his fans.

9) “Skinny Dip,” by Carl Hiaasen. I love Hiaasen’s humorous brand of crime fiction, set in Florida, and this 2004 novel is so, so fun. I mean, do the first few lines of a thriller get any better than this?

“At the stroke of eleven on a cool April night, a woman named Joey Perrone went overboard from a luxury deck of the cruise liner M.V. Sun Duchess. Plunging toward the dark Atlantic, Joey was too dumbfounded to panic.

I married an asshole, she thought, knifing headfirst into the waves.”

10) “Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China,” by Evan Osnos. A stunning work encompasses a grand sweep of a narrative, but is also grounded in rich detail. Osnos tells important stories about individuals in a country that outsiders sometimes view through stereotypes.

11) “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos,” by Jordan Peterson. Thought provoking, controversial, moving.

12) “Be Free or Die: The Amazing Story of Robert Smalls’ Escape from Slavery to Union Hero,” by Cate Lineberry. I’d never heard of this book but a friend raved about it and let me borrow it. My first reaction was: WOW. A fantastic, fantastic, story. My second reaction was one of sadness, because despite the time I spent in the South Carolina Lowcountry growing up, I knew little of what Smalls accomplished. A must-read for anyone interested not just in U.S. history, but in heroism and moral courage.

13) “The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet,” by Nina Teicholz. In this painstakingly researched book, which took nearly a decade to write, Teicholz shows how faulty science and powerful personalities drove the narrative, subsequently adopted by the U.S. government and enshrined in nutritional guidelines, that saturated fat causes heart disease. But there is little, if any, significant evidence for this claim. Nevertheless it was adopted as conventional wisdom, and as Americans began eschewing animal fats, meat and dairy products, we increased our consumption of grains, refined carbohydrates, trans-fats, and sugar. That has been disastrous, a major factor in the obesity epidemic. A remarkable book.

14) “The Silence of the Lambs,” by Thomas Harris. I love thrillers and had never read this one. The ultimate page turner, with some sparkling prose thrown in.

15) “Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World,” by Cal Newport. A convincing argument for making room for what’s really important in life, and putting the rest in its proper place.

Honorable mentions:

Here are my round-ups for 2019, 2018, and 2017.

On to 2021. Happy reading, friends.

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