Saturday, February 13th, 2021

2020 was a critical year for reading in many ways. Reading the right news at the right time from the right source, could save your life in 2020. Reading and consuming propaganda, on the other hand, could get you killed by a new virus or result in, you know, a failed coup.

2020 was also a good year for long novels, given the long periods of time cooped up at home. But on the other hand, with a raging pandemic, nationwide racial equity protests, deadly white nationalist violence, and an existential presidential election, it was kind of hard to stick to books.

In this recap of what books I read in 2020, I want to give a shout out first to writers and newsletters that provided excellent reading material. First up is Dr. Zeynep Tufecki, whose writing on public health during COVID-19 has been crucial in shifting the national conversation on mask wearing and, more recently, on the dosing regime for the vaccine. By reading her work you are essentially giving yourself a one or two month lead time on where the public health conversation is headed. Check out her newsletter, or you can find her writing in The New York Times and The Atlantic

Ben Thompson of the Stratechery newsletter wasn’t new to me in 2020, but he has been prescient as usual in writing about Big Tech, anti-trust, and the role of social networks in politics and public health discussions.

Lastly, I recommend Matthew Yglesias’ Slow Boring newsletter for your politics fix and, yes, again, public health (and it doesn’t look like public health will be any less central to our everyday lives in 2021).

Now, on to the books!

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh (Link)

Ok, this was not an ironic book selection for 2020. I bought this book at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco during a work trip in early January 2020 – when COVID-19 was in China, and probably here in the US too, but not yet a pandemic. It was, actually, my first and last trip in 2020. The book’s narrator is a depressed, rich, young woman who tries to sleep for an entire year. But the larger theme is the pre-9/11 culture and mindset of the New York upper crust – its nihilism, its decadence, and its utter divorce from reality. All of which comes crashing down on 9/11. 

In retrospect, it was quite possibly a pretty fitting read for 2020, not just because the protagonist was secluded at home for a year, but because in 2020 the curtains came down for us as well: we saw the dire results that follow when political power is wielded by people who don’t respect science, and who think truth is just a meme they can manipulate to their own purposes.

But my take doesn’t really reveal the mood or feeling of the novel. Here are two quotes taken from Wikipedia that help with that:

“Reviewing the novel in The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino wrote, “Ottessa Moshfegh is easily the most interesting contemporary American writer on the subject of being alive when being alive feels terrible.” In The New York Times, Dwight Garner was more hesitant in his praise, but ultimately concluded: “Moshfegh writes with so much misanthropic aplomb, however, that she is always a deep pleasure to read. She has a sleepless eye and dispenses observations as if from a toxic eyedropper.””

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (Maude translation)

Ok, again, although this was a popular pandemic read, I actually started this book in 2019 and it took me a good few months of 2020 to finish it. Its length, plus the aforementioned flood of critical news, is what I blame for not getting more books read in 2020.

All that said, it was a great read, and there is nothing quite like an amazing Russian novel to wrap you up into a completely different universe. There are scenes from this novel that will live with me forever.

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell (Link)

Boy, I sure do know how to pick titles that make it seem like I was just making ironic reading choices throughout 2020. But I wasn’t. More than anything this was a book about our attention, and how our attention can influence our personal lives and our social and political realities. I got this book from the library, but it’s probably worth owning and rereading in the future. The key things for me in this book were Odell’s examination of public spaces in Oakland and their history, her emerging knowledge of birds (and how that changed her perspective on life itself), and her thoroughgoing analysis of how social media takes our attention hostage. 

The Princess Bride by William Goldman (Link)

Longtime fan of the movie of course, and in 2019 I had read Which Lie Did I Tell, Goldman’s second book on screenwriting. The book version of The Princess Bride didn’t disappoint, but I could also see how the movie got it better by cutting out lots of stuff. There’s some gender stuff in the book (and I guess in the movie too) that hasn’t aged well.

Design for Real Life by Eric Meyer and Sara Wachter-Boettcher (Link)

This had been on my reading list forever, ever since I had read Meyer’s original articles that served as the inspiration for this book. In 2020 I was on a UX principle committee at work focused on inclusion, which served as the impetus for finally reading the book. It has a lot of great advice and should be required reading for all designers and researchers. Anyone can fall into a “stress case” and the design process should account for that. We should be especially mindful of stress cases when we push unsolicited experiences onto people – whether through our product itself, email campaigns, or push notifications. And we should be even more mindful of this if we are leveraging data like past behavior. Personalization isn’t always welcome – invite people in, and give them the option to opt-out or ignore that invitation completely.

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson (Link)

When you can understand that in the South in the early 20th century there was a cottage industry of postcards made out of photos of lynchings that people would buy (on the spot, shortly after the lynching took place) and send to their friends and family, you can begin to see the scope of the depravity and inhumanity that has shadowed the United States from its founding to today. Racism is the epidemic that has never stopped killing and sickening people for the last four hundred years on this land we now call the United States. By reframing our history through the lens of caste divisions, Wilkerson alights on a more accurate way of interpreting the history of the United States.

I could only imagine what would be the fruits of making this book required reading for all citizens of the United States. It would be a worthy start to acknowledging who we are as a people, so that we can change who we will be in the future.

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi (Link)

I am still working my way through this book. Kendi’s incisive and clear language brings to light all the twisted ways that racist thought has embedded itself in American thought, society, politics, and culture.