What I Read In 2020

I read a lot of great books this year, and my favorite, hands down, was the City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

For a few years now I wanted to “read more” but I realized one problem was that I could never remember what I read! More than what? So this year I decided to log my reading so I can set better goals going forward.

So here’s my list. I read 24 books. That averages to 2 per month but in truth I went weeks (hello, March and April. oh, and November) where I read very little. I read 14 nonfiction books and 10 fiction. This is a big change in my reading habits over my life — I used to be all fiction all the time. But as I’ve gotten older I’m find myself more interested in nonfiction and more impatient with bad fiction (of which there is a lot). Actually, there are a lot of bad books. But at least when I read a bad nonfiction book I feel like I learned something. Bad fiction just feels like a waste of time.

Luckily I didn’t read any truly bad books this year. Certainly some were better than others but they were all good.

So now that I have a baseline I’m trying to decide if I should set a reading goal for this year. I certainly would like to read as many books in 2021 as I did this year. But I care less about a number than I do reading more consistently. Without a commute (which I don’t anticipate having in 2021, certainly not for the first six months or so …) it’s a little trickier. I also don’t like to get hung up on a number of books because it discounts bigger and more challenging books. I think for 2021 I’ll just keep tracking books, but maybe do quarterly updates. That will help me keep on track, and maybe even challenge me to add a few more books to the pile. Also, it will make my little reviews a bit fresher.

Anyway, here’s my 2020 list …

(Note: The links are to Amazon using my affiliate account. I have this set up to pay to the nonprofit I run, Path Forward.)

Moment of Lift by Melinda Gates: I really liked this book. My life is organized around gender equality so this book hits me where I live. And while there was a lot in here I already knew there was plenty for me to learn and even the parts that were more familiar included language and frameworks that I found helpful in informing my own work. She does a particularly good job in explaining, with data, why gender equity can be so transformative to a society.

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami: I’ve been a Murakami fan since about 2007/08 when a friend recommended The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. I’d read several of his other novels but had been intimidated by the heft of 1Q84. Laura Vanderkam inspired me to tackle a big book and I chose this one. It was disappointing. Not terrible and certainly had some of the scenes and language that I’ve come to enjoy from Murakami. But the overall story just didn’t come together in a satisfying way.

Why We Can’t Sleep by Ada Calhoun: This book was all the buzz at the beginning of 2020 (before we knew we were going to have 7,392 more reasons not to be able to sleep in 2020). It’s focus is narrow, by her own admission, but the women she focuses on are women like me — affluent, white, GenX. Like the Gates book this one gave me some new ways to describe what I already know. Unlike the Gates book there wasn’t as much in here that I didn’t already know. But it did make me feel that I’m not the only one who feels how I feel.

Last Kids on Earth (#1 and #2) by Max Brallier: I like to read some of my kids books. This one was a fave of my son. Fun. If you have a kid, especially a boy, in the 8 to 12 demo give this one a try.

The Good Girls Revolt by Lynn Povich: This book is from a few years back and it’s about the gender discrimination suit at Newsweek. A fascinating piece of history. And a bracing reminder that if we have not come a long way, baby, we have had it much, much worse.

American War by Omar El Akkad: What a book to read at the start of a pandemic and in the year of an election that has ended with one side refusing to believe it lost. It’s a novel about a civil war in America. Exactly as terrifying as that description makes it sound. It’s very much a first novel but a worthwhile read.

How to Be An Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi: I’d read Stamped from the Beginning a few years ago, after I heard Kendi on WNYC. It blew my mind and gave me a new way to think about racism and how it operates. But I found myself wondering what to do with that new knowledge. How to Be An Anti-Racist offers that “how.”

The Giver by Lois Lowry: Another reading what my kid is reading, plus a classic. Very dark.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay: I’m a fan of Gay on Twitter and so her books have been on my “to read” lists for awhile. These essays were so, so good. Again, if you are looking for new perspectives to understand how racism and sexism (and the specific sexism that is aimed at Black women) operate in the world, this is a great read.

The Year of Yes! by Shonda Rimes: I’m a sucker for a well-marketed self-help book. While I’m someone who does often say “yes,” I still found this book helpful in understanding what holds me back from saying “yes” to certain kinds of experiences and opportunities.

The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis: I heard Lewis in the Chris Hayes podcast after this book came out and I knew I wanted to read it. A wonderful description of the federal government, what it does and how Trump has managed, in a few short years, to seriously dismantle important parts of it.

Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein: I’ve been listening to Klein’s podcast almost since its beginning and had been looking forward to reading this book. It’s mostly depressing but he does offer some ideas that could help to break what he describes as the “democracy doom loop.”

Atomic Habits by James Clear: Again, I’m a sucker for self-help, especially stuff about habits. The premise of this one is that by starting with very small habits (make your bed, exercise for 5 minutes) you can build a cascade effect. I’m a fan of this idea and also the idea of keystone habits — the idea that certain habits (generally exercise, sleep, etc.) can set the stage for other habits to take hold.

Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner: A very fun, very readable novel. Has a really fun twist that was no less so because I anticipated it a bit. Actually, it’s the kind of twist that your anticipation makes even better. Not sure if that makes sense — just read it and I think you’ll see what I mean.

The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom: I loved this story. It’s about a house in New Orleans owned by the author’s mother and what happens before, during and after Katrina. Part memoir, part family history, part history of New Orleans and its Black community, it explores big issues through the most intimate lens. The writing is a bit clunky in spots but the depth of reporting and research the writer engages in to tell this story well overcome any stylistic challenges.

I’m Not Dying With You Tonight by Kimberly Jones: A YA book that got a lot of press in the wake of the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. It was really good and gives both of its teen characters — a white girl and a Black girl — life and depth.

The Hundred Thousands Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin: I’m ambivalent on scifi but I heard N.K. Jemisin on the Ezra Klein show and I found the interview so intoxicating I started following her on Twitter. This books was very fun. It’s the first in a trilogy and the other two books are on my list for 2021.

The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin: I liked The Hundred Thousands Kingdoms, but I LOVED The City We Became. I have decided this was my favorite book of the year. Smart, intriguing, thought-provoking. And it is one of the best books about NYC you will ever find. Most books confuse NYC with Manhattan. This book does not make that mistake and instead sees all of NYC, including its contradictions. The prescience of NYC beset by a contagion is eerie — and even more so now that the COVID infection rate has spiked on Staten Island (read the book and you will get what I mean.)

Entitled by Kate Manne: I read Down Girl after hearing her on the Ezra Klein show (are we sensing a theme?). I loved it, though I was glad to have read it on my Kindle — it was dense and academic in a way that had me using the “look up” function quite a bit. Entitled is more accessible. Much like How to Be An Antiracist is the “how” to Stamped From the Beginning‘s “why” — Entitled does a good job showing how misogyny functions in society and the implications for all of us. In 2020 we got an up-close lesson in how much the entire society felt entitled to women’s unpaid and underpaid caretaking labor.

Uncanny Valley by Anne Weiner: If you’ve spent any significant time in or around Silicon Valley this is very much a must read. Her dissection of the culture and folkways of the tech sector is incisive.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt: I loved this book and could not put it down — until I got about 85% in. I hit a wall at that point where I was like “Wait, where on earth is this going?” I persevered and I’m glad I did. It’s a fun ride.

The Power of Habits by Charles Duhigg. More habits. This one is half self-help and half journalism. His description of the “cue-habit-reward loop” is helpful for thinking about how to build a new habit. You can see how it can be used to break a bad habit — keep the cue and the reward, replace the habit — but potentially tricky to pull off in the real world. Habits that are intrinsically tied to the reward (food or drugs, both legal and not, come to mind) may be harder to kick using this method. To be fair to Duhigg he makes no promises about its applicability in these areas. That said he does a good job offering a framework for discovering the real reward (e.g., are you eating a cookie every day because of the taste/sugar or because it’s an excuse to get up from your work and take a break to chat with coworkers?).

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari: This book was on a lot of the high-falutin “must read” books when it came out (notably those of Bill Gates and President Obama). I see why — it’s a sweeping history of human beings on earth, including the ancestors we often forget. Why are their lions, tigers and cheetahs but only one species of human? Read this book to find out. But be warned: the humans who are left don’t come off looking great.

The Joy of The Joy of Cooking

My copy of The Joy of Cooking is the 1997 version. There’s a simple reason for this: I was working at Simon & Schuster that year. There are few perks in publishing but a key one was free books. I think everyone in my family got a copy of that book for Christmas that year.

There’s a new version coming out this year. The WSJ has a wonderful piece {paywall} about it as the cover of their Off Duty section. This newest edition is overseen by John Becker, the great-grandson of Irma Rombauer, the author of the first edition.

Cookbooks are one of the rare bright spots in publishing (another is children’s books). People still buy cookbooks. This is true even while recipes remain one of the most popular offerings of the internet. (When I was at iVillage the three most popular search terms were sex, chicken and pregnancy. I’ll let you make of that what you will.) But how long will it remain true? And what will be lost when we cede every last bit of our lives to the hive mind?

Mr. Becker’s wife, Megan Scott, makes the point that Joy is for everyone not just trying to figure out what to cook, but how. “We’ve done so much research to find the right answers and get the best information we can get,” she tells WSJ. “The algorithm isn’t picking out the right answer [but] the most popular one.”

I still use my copy of Joy pretty regularly. When I’m looking for the “right” version of nearly any recipe it is usually my first stop. (My second is Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything.) As we near the end of 2019 the publication of a new Joy feels hopeful to me. There is still a place for authority and expertise. There are still right answers. We can debate what the right answer is — but if you are debating the right way to cook a turkey maybe we can start by at least considering the expertise of the guy who has roasted a lot of them using every method to arrive at the optimal one.

Investing In My Resolutions

One of my resolutions this year is to read more books. Not just read more — specifically book. I had children and acquired a smartphone around the same time roughly 10 years ago and the two combined to decimate my attention span and substantially wreck my book habit. I want to get it back.

So, with that, I’m actually investing in technology to help me, odd as that sounds. Everyone I admire who reads a lot of books points to their Kindle, along with the Kindle app on their devices, as the secret to reading more books and reading books more often.

Ordered one yesterday, should have it on Saturday. First book I’m downloading is “Winners Take All” which is one I’ve been looking forward to.

Book Review: The Collaborative Habit by Twyla Tharp

I really liked Twyla Tharp’s book The Creative Habit.  While it’s obvious why a choreographer needs to be creative, she actually makes the case in the book that anyone can be creative.  And the exercises and examples she offers can apply in a variety of situations, including business.

So I was very excited about her new book, The Collaborative Habit.  Since I work for a company that is HIGHLY collaborative it seemed that this book might offer some good insights.  The truth is that the real fun of reading Tharp’s books is the behind-the-scenes stories of her amazing life working with the most amazing people in the arts.  Balanchine, Robbins, Baryshnikov, Elvis Costello, Billy Joel, Milos Forman.  This second book is heavy on the cool stories and a bit lighter on the prescriptions for successful collaborations.

Still it offered some advice that I found really resonant:

Getting involved with your collaborator’s problems almost always distracts you from your own. That can be tempting. That can be a relief. But it usually leads to disaster.

It is so seductive to focus on other people’s issues.  (And it’s is true in every aspect of life. Isn’t it so easy to tell your friend they should dump the loser boyfriend?) I would argue that this tendency is at the heart of most intradepartmental strife. You have to resist with all your might the temptation to take on other people’s problems. Because if you could solve their problem you’d be doing it and meanwhile you’ve got your own house to clean up.

Before I start any collaboration, I list exactly what resources I’ll require to do the job and then try and find out if the institution is prepared to provide them.

This is a great little piece of advice from her chapter on collaborating with institutions.  But it’s just as true of any corporate drone trying to get something accomplished in almost any size company. If the entire organization isn’t committed and isn’t willing to commit the needed resources then you are doomed to failure.

Richard Avedon taught me what Keats called “negative capability” — a willingness to suspend judgment and see reality as another might. That’s creativity at its most openhearted.

Oh my, such GREAT advice and so hard to do.  Again, this is great advice in every aspect of life.  Empathy is so important to having great relationships.

From Milos Forman I learned that collaboration depends on very precise communication — speaking to the right person at the right time in the right way.

This last one is deceptive because it sounds easy. Ah, but if it were easy we’d all do it, right?  I think this piece has only gotten harder at most modern companies.  We have more and more and more WAYS to communicate, but it doesn’t mean we do it better.  And in non-hierarchical companies the lines of communication are often murky.  The ability to assess the whos, hows and whens of communication is a key skill to be successful where collaboration is concerned.

A good book that is well worth the money and time.